Lies

This open letter from a widow whose husband recently killed himself hits close to home. (If you can’t get past the paywall, I’m also attaching it as a PDF here.) He was an attorney, and that’s what I’m trying to become right now. The letter is titled “Big Law Killed My Husband,” and I’m expecting to work in Big Law for a while after law school. She says that he lacked “self-compassion,” and I’ve found that the same is true of me.

What struck me most about the letter, though, is the part about why she thinks he did it: “Simply put, he would rather die than live with the consequences of people thinking he was a failure.”

This man believed, first, that failure was worse than death. And second, that the only way to avoid failure was to die. Both of these are lies from hell.

I can tell that I’m wired similarly to the way this man was. I am predisposed to believe these same lies that he believed. I pray that God won’t let me.

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Trust

We think of trust (and faith) as cognitive states: to trust someone is to believe that they won’t let you down. It’s hard to force yourself to believe something that you don’t believe. And yet we’re supposed to trust God? How do I make myself do that?

But we misunderstand trust if we think of it as akin to belief. It’s more than that. Trust is something we do with our bodies and our wills, not just with our minds. And because of that, we can trust someone even when we don’t really believe that they are trustworthy. We do so by relying on them, by putting ourselves in their hands. You don’t need to be confident that someone will be faithful with what you have entrusted to them; you just need to do it.

So faith and trust are not states of mind. They are practices. And the result of that practice, provided that our trust is well-placed, is a sense of greater security and confidence in the person we have trusted. There will, of course, always be room for doubt to creep in, but the practice of trust does not require us to be free from doubt. And our past experiences give us good reasons to persist in trusting in spite of our doubts.

Given that trust is a practice and not a cognitive state, how do I trust God? With people, trust feels more concrete. I can ask a professor to write a letter of recommendation for me, for example. But with God, asking for things feels different. There are some things you don’t ask God for (like letters of recommendation) and other things you would only ask God for (like good health, world peace, etc.). Plus, when you ask God for something, it’s not like he (ordinarily) responds and tells you that he’ll do it for you. We have this understanding that God knows even better than we do what we actually need, and for that reason he might not always give us what we ask for.

For that reason, I think that trusting God is largely about focusing on the big picture, rather than on the details. God has told us how the story ends: we are to be made perfect as his Sons, heirs of his eternal kingdom, so that we can love him and take joy in him forever. But what about everything before that? What about the things I’m doing right now? God never promised that I would get into my dream school or get my dream job. He never promised that I would find a wife and start a family with her. He never promised that I’d be free from disease, or that I wouldn’t struggle with anxiety or depression.

From my perspective, all of these things are supremely important. And the fact that God has not guaranteed any of them to me is sometimes scary. But I remember what God has guaranteed me: the resurrection of the body and eternal life. Salvation. Doesn’t that outweigh all of these other goods that I care about so much?

Trusting God isn’t about believing that he will give us everything we want. It’s about accepting his guarantee and affirming that it is enough for us. Being saved from sin and death is enough. Being made an heir of God’s Kingdom is enough. Being made holy is enough.

Which brings us back to the question of how we can practice this kind of trust. You can’t just force yourself to believe that God’s Kingdom is better than landing the perfect job. But there are things that we do that can help us to see the world differently, practices that focus us on God’s plan instead of on ours. One of those practices is Sabbath. Taking time to rest instead of working requires us to trust that God will provide for our needs. To rest in such a way is to affirm that God is in control, and that the goodness of our existence does not depend on what we do or accomplish.

Another such practice is generosity. Choosing to spend our scarce time, energy, and resources on other human beings is an affirmation of human value. When God created us, he found us “very good.” Sin distorts the picture, making us feel like we need to earn our worth. But when you treat others as image-bearers, you affirm the inherent worth of all persons, including yourself.

I pray that God would grant me greater faith in him through these practices and others. That he would open my eyes to see all the good things he has created. That he would make me free to enjoy them instead of striving after other goods. And most of all, that he would remind me at all times of the sufficiency of his grace for me and for all the universe.

Rest and Procrastination

One of my problems is that I can’t easily tell the difference between rest and procrastination. Yesterday I wanted to get work done on an assignment, but I did not. I was tired and really did not feel like working on it. At the end of the day I felt somewhat disappointed in myself. My will was too weak to overcome the desire to be idle.

Fortunately for me, I have a fiancee who is wiser than I am. She interpreted things differently. According to her, I was tired, and I needed to rest. It’s not that my will was overcome by laziness; it’s that I was just too tired to get anything done anyway, and the best thing for me to do was to take a break.

I tend to mischaracterize rest as procrastination. I assume that, with enough will power, I can do anything that I set my mind to. But I have limitations besides a lack of will power. I have limited physical energy, emotional energy, and creativity. And if those limitations are stopping me from getting things done, then trying to force it is unlikely to help. Stepping back and letting myself recharge is all I can do.

I’m sure it’s possible to go the other way, too. People might think that they’re just resting when, in reality, they’re putting things off because they don’t feel like working. It’s not always easy to draw the line between rest, which is absolutely necessary, and procrastination, which is best avoided. In fact, where the line should be drawn probably varies significantly among different persons and different circumstances.

So it requires wisdom to tell the difference. And it also often requires an outside perspective. One of the reasons we can’t do life without the help of others is because we often fail to see what’s really going on. I interpreted my lack of progress on the assignment as a sign of laziness or weakness of will. But there were other interpretations available that I could not see without help.

I am blessed to have people in my life who show me grace even when I am not disposed to receive it. Hopefully I start to internalize that grace and stop viewing myself in a harsher light than is helpful.

Why I’m in Law School

I used to think that law school was just for learning law; that’s all I really wanted out of it. And now, a couple months in, I’ve learned some law.  But I’ve also gotten some things that I didn’t bargain for. In particular, I’ve gotten a great deal of stress about grades and my future. And I’ve gotten this overwhelming feeling that my performance in school is what ultimately defines me as a person.

Obviously, I don’t like these things. I’ve prayed to God to take them away from me, and I still do. But whereas before I viewed them as entirely incidental to my law school experience, I’m starting to see them as an integral part of it. And that’s because, for me, law school isn’t just for learning law. It’s also about becoming a more devoted servant of Christ. God is using law school to bring my sinful tendencies out where I can see them and repent from them.

It’s hard not to view this as a nuisance, at best, and a curse, at worst. I want to pursue my studies unencumbered by these feelings of stress and inadequacy, so that I can do my very best. Repenting from idolatry is hard, and so is law school. Why do two such difficult things at the same time? Wouldn’t it be better to space them out? Sort of like how you might avoid taking multiple notoriously challenging courses during the same term.

Of course, in law school we take an absurd number of credits during the first term. There’s no time to warm up. You just get thrown into the deep end. At Harvard, we take 18 credits during the first term. But during your second and third years, you only need to average 12 credits per term to graduate. It’s quite imbalanced. But I think that’s by design. The shock has some sort of pedagogical function. And 1Ls that make it through the first term come out stronger than they were at the start.

Similarly, God is not going to wait until the easy times of our lives to teach us the things we need to learn. And he certainly does not let us hold onto our idols just a little longer, until a time that’s more convenient for us. I need to stop worshiping the idols of academic excellence and professional achievement and be a fully devoted servant of God. And the best time to repent from my idolatry is now.

What I said at the beginning of this post isn’t actually accurate. I don’t just want to learn law. I want to get excellent grades and graduate near the top of my class. I want to get one of the most competitive and prestigious jobs available. I want credentials that show people that I am important and brilliant and talented. And there is a part of me that wants those things to the exclusion of everything else, a part of me that worships them.

God is killing that part of me. Slowly, painfully putting it to death.

I don’t want to be captured by the pursuit of vain honors. I want to worship, honor, and serve God. He is using my law school experience to show me all the ways in which I foolishly choose vain honors over him. He is showing me the extent of my sinfulness in a way that I couldn’t see before. And by doing that, he is helping me to become more righteous and more faithful.

If law school makes me a more faithful servant of God, then it will be worth it, even if I don’t get the grades or the job that I want. Grades, jobs, honors—they are vapors, and pursuing them is striving after the wind. But God endures forever.

Confidence in the Flesh

I’m back in school now. And now that I’m back in school, I’ve found that two of my more destructive tendencies have come to the fore again. First, I constantly seek to prove to myself that I’m better than others, and I take pride in myself when I think I’ve succeeded. Second, I worry constantly that I’m not as great as I think I am. These are two sides of the same coin. When your sense of self-worth comes from your perceived superiority to others, you will feel insecure. Because at some point, someone will be better than you.

I have been learning how to fight these tendencies for my entire life. As early as elementary school, I evaluated myself on the basis of my abilities relative to my peers. And whenever I felt that I came up short, I felt awful about myself. Even if it was something I didn’t particularly care about. In third grade, we had to draw a map of the world from memory. One of my classmates, Zhong, did a great job (although he did forget to draw Australia). I can’t remember how mine turned out, but I do remember being upset with myself to the point of crying because his was so much better. Why was I so bothered? Drawing wasn’t even “my thing.”

Over time, my expectations of myself became somewhat more reasonable. I didn’t have to be the best at everything, just my things, i.e. academics. I didn’t need to be the most talented when it came to art or athletics, but I did need to get the best grades. And, for the most part, I could. And I did. And because I did, I’ve been able to preserve this unhealthy way of thinking about myself and my worth. I have “proven” to myself that I can rely on my abilities and achievements to give me value.

But I know that I can’t rely on my abilities and achievements to give me value. I know that’s not where value fundamentally comes from. And I know this because I don’t value other people in my life solely for their abilities and achievements; I value them because of who they are.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what Paul wrote in Philippians 3:

1Finally, my brothers,a rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

2Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of Godb and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law,c blameless. 7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

The word translated “rubbish” in the ESV is σκύβαλον, which basically means animal excrement. The connotation is of utter worthlessness, and even of disgust. Paul looks at his fleshly advantages and assigns them the same value as excrement in comparison to the value of knowing God.

I am a Christian, and I know that God has adopted me as his son, making me an heir to his eternal kingdom. In comparison to that, what are my grades? What is this degree I’m getting? It’s all “rubbish.”

But I have this constant worry that I won’t get the grades I want, or that my degree won’t be conferred with the kind of honors that I hope for, or that I won’t get a sufficiently prestigious job. I tear myself apart over things which are ultimately trivial, because I have convinced myself that they are important. Or perhaps I have managed to convince myself that I can trust myself more than I can trust God. Either way, I have made myself into a fool by putting my confidence in the flesh.

I pray, as I have for years, that God will give me the ability to trust in him instead of in myself, that he will take away my pride. I don’t want to put my confidence in the flesh. It’s exhausting and miserable. I feel as if I’m constantly in this precarious position where my entire sense of self depends on how I do on the next assignment I turn in. And I don’t want to feel like that. As I always have, I need to be delivered from my own pride.

Week 1 of Law School is Over

I have finished my first week of law school. Technically, I guess you could say that this first week of classes was really my second week of law school, because the week before class started we had orientation.

So far I’m having a good time. Orientation was way too much for me, but I coped by not going to some of the events. Moving in has been somewhat of a hassle, but I’d say that my apartment is basically livable now that I have a table, a futon, a shelf, and a bed. Classes have been fun. I’ve enjoyed the reading, the amount of which has been reasonable, and the content of which has been appropriately challenging.

Here’s a day-by-day breakdown of how I’ve spent my time so far:

Tuesday, August 28

Drive up to Massachusetts with my parents. We stay with my Aunt at her house.

Wednesday, August 29

First day of orientation at HLS. I check in pretty early. There is breakfast. I eat a frittata. After eating, I have to wait an uncomfortably long time before the actual programming starts. Hanging out with 560 people I have never met is tough. I want to get to the part where the activities are planned and I don’t need to figure out what to do with myself in a room full of strangers.

After about an hour, I go to my Section 2 (the first-year class at HLS is divided into 7 sections of about 80 students each) classroom and there are introductions. Our BSAs tell us what BSAs are (the Board of Student Advisors consists of upper-level J.D. students who serve as guides for first-years in general, while also acting as Teaching Assistants for our Legal Research & Writing course). Eventually we all file out of the room and the building and go to hear Dean John Manning speak in Sanders Theatre (which is utterly beautiful).

Dean Manning says that law school is not like being chased by a bear. He also instructs us not to compare our insides to other people’s outsides and assures us that everyone is nervous when they start at HLS, but that the feeling will go away as we discover that we do, in fact, belong here. The speech was funny and memorable.

After this, we walk back to Wasserstein Hall, where most of our orientation programming was. Susan Davies (my professor for Legislation and Regulation) and David Singleton give talks about what it means to be a student here at HLS. Professor Davies focuses on how we don’t need to compete with each other, because we’re already “at the top of the heap.” Mr. Singleton admonishes us not to “write people off,” especially with respect to politics. (The theme of treating others charitably even if you disagree with their politics was persistent throughout orientation, which I thought was great.)

We meet our Faculty Leader, Prof. Jim Greiner. He sorts us randomly into groups and has each group come up with a Harry Potter-themed name (he loves Harry Potter). Then he makes us build towers out of index cards. I certainly did not expect law school orientation to include tower-building, but it did.

We round out the day with a group photo and dinner. I sit with Prof. Greiner for part of it, but don’t have a lot to say. When I get back to my Aunt’s house I am exhausted.

Thursday, August 30

We start with breakfast. It’s not as good as yesterday’s.

We’re in our section classroom. A woman comes in and introduces herself. It becomes clear that this is going to be a kind of “social justice” training. But there’s no sense of ideological indoctrination here. No claims like “all white people are racist.” Instead, we focus on how our brains unavoidably rely on implicit biases to function (i.e. we have to “fill in the blanks” when information is incomplete). The woman encourages each of us to consider what our own blindspots might be and how they might affect others, and to assume the best about others when their actions negatively affect us.

Then, more time with our Faculty Leader, Prof. Greiner. We discuss a case that he had us read beforehand, called Lassiter v. Department of Social Services.

Suddenly, Justice Kagan is here, speaking with the Dean. I don’t make it into the main room where the event is taking place. Instead I’m stuck in an overflow room watching via projector. But that’s okay.

I leave campus after this rather than doing the fun thing that’s on the schedule, because I’m tired, and then I go to the beach with my family. There are huge seagulls that no longer fear humans and have no qualms about stealing your food right out from under your nose. We eat delicious ice cream.

Friday, August 31

Friday starts with breakfast. Once again, there are frittatas, and I eat one. Then there’s a long panel about all the resources available to students at HLS. It’s good to know there are people looking out for us.

Then comes the highlight of orientation, “TALK,” hosted by HLS Student Government. Three current students give “The Moth”-style talks about their lives. One person speaks about growing up poor in Hawai’i, as well as about being transgender. Another details his childhood as a cult member, and how he eventually left. A third talks about helping to write the Harvard Law School Parody, a yearly musical that makes fun of the law school. I especially enjoy the story about the cult.

After TALK, we go to lunch with our BSAs. Mine is named Gabi. We go to a Japanese restaurant and I have ramen. A classmate of mine talks in detail about his work as a film producer, which is very interesting. After lunch, we have more time with Prof. Greiner.

At some point during the day, I’m informed that my apartment is ready. So my parents drive into Cambridge to pick me up and move all my belongings into the apartment. In order to do this, I skip the LAWn Party, but that’s okay. I am very tired.

After moving things from the car to the apartment, we go back to my Aunt’s house for dinner. Two of my cousins are there, along with my cousin’s wife and two children. The kids are very cute, and we have a lot of fun with them. Later at night we go to pick up Michelle at South Station. She is coming in on a bus.

Saturday, September 1

Today is the day that our lease starts. Fortunately, we moved things into the apartment already. But we had stuff delivered to my Aunt that also need to be moved. We load up the car with boxed furniture.

In our new neighborhood, Allston, almost everyone’s lease starts on September 1, as there are lots of students. Everyone moves on September 1. People often leave things they don’t want on the street for people to take (for this reason, September 1 is referred to as “Allston Christmas”). Despite the craziness, we are able to stop the car long enough to unload before my mom and Michelle drive off to buy things for the apartment. My dad and I build furniture.

Eventually, my mom and Michelle come back. We clean the apartment (because for some reason it hadn’t been cleaned before). When it gets later, we head back to my Aunt’s house so we can go get some dinner. We take my Aunt and Uncle out for Sichuan food.

Sunday, September 2

We do not go to church today. We don’t know where to go, and even if we did, we have a lot to do. My parents drop me and Michelle off at the apartment before starting their journey back to Virginia. The apartment is still in need of serious cleaning before it’s ready for me to spend the night there. So we do that.

Michelle and I clean and clean. Eventually, it’s time for Michelle to leave, too. She gets a Lyft to South Station so she can catch her bus back to New York.

Monday, September 3

Today is labor day. I need to read for class on Tuesday. But besides that, I have very little to do. I speak to my brother for the first time in months, as he has been out of the country and very busy. The Xfinity guy comes in the afternoon and now I have WiFi.

Tuesday, September 4

Law school is actually happening! And it’s happening right away. My first class starts at 8:10 a.m. It is Criminal Law, with Prof. Ronald Sullivan. I have a good impression.

In between classes, I 1) pay for my MBTA semester pass (I got a student discount through the school), 2) go to the Copy Center to pick up course materials, and 3) cancel my Planet Fitness membership (the day before, I transferred my membership from my old location in Brooklyn to one in Cambridge just so I could cancel it). I don’t eat lunch, but I’m not hungry for it anyway.

Civil Procedure is with Prof. Greiner. It’s also an interesting class. I like learning about procedural things that most people find overly technical and boring, so this class will likely be a good fit for me. We discuss how the Court has interpreted 18 U.S.C. §1331 to confer jurisdiction in a far narrower set of cases than Article III of the U.S. Constitution, even though they use the same language to describe the jurisdiction being conferred.

After class I check my email and discover that I now have a locker. I put things inside. Then I go home and call the electric company to set up our account for billing. I have to read for Civil Procedure the next morning and Contracts the following afternoon. I eat something simple that my mom bought for me.

Wednesday, September 5

The day before, I was notified via email that I am having dinner with Dean Manning on Wednesday, and also that I am to dress business casual for this dinner. So on Wednesday I dress business casual. I also bring all of my books to school so that I can keep them in my locker, as I expect to do most of my studying at school.

I take the bus to school. Before going to campus, I stop by the Harvard Square subway station and buy a month-long bus pass, as I won’t receive my student bus pass until the end of September. Then I stop by my locker, leaving the books I don’t need and taking the ones I do. Afterwards, I go to a coffee shop where some people with a Christian organization are having a casual meet-and-greet thing. It is very hot and I am sweaty, so I drink an iced tea. Then I go to class.

Today I have an extra Civil Procedure class because we are doing extra classes in order to make up for future classes that will probably be cancelled. We talk about diversity jurisdiction and how the Court has interpreted 28 U.S.C. §1332 to confer jurisdiction only when there is complete diversity between parties.

I don’t eat lunch.

I have Contracts class. We discuss why contracts should be enforced at all and in particular cases.

There’s a lot of time in between the end of Contracts and dinner with Dean Manning. I go to the library and figure out how to print things. I also prepare for my classes on Thursday.

Dinner with Dean Manning is fun. Once again, he gives a good speech, telling us about the dark side of the history of Harvard Law School. Prof. Sullivan admonishes us to do justice. Food is good. The classmates sitting at my table are excited to hear that I’m engaged, and I’m excited to tell them about it.

Thursday, September 6

Today I leave the apartment later, because my classes don’t begin until 9:30 a.m. Traffic is worse, and the bus ride is less pleasant, than the previous days.

Legislation and Regulation with Professor Davies is fun. She has a lot of energy and speaks quickly. We discuss different approaches to statutory construction and begin discussing Yates v. U.S., in which the Supreme Court determined that a fish is not a tangible object. After Leg Reg, I have Contracts again. And after Contracts, I have Legal Research and Writing.

And after that, there’s an event put on by the Office of Public Interest Advising. Jason Wu, an HLS alumnus and director of GLAD, speaks to us about being a public interest lawyer. He tells his story of transitioning out of Biglaw, his parents’ subsequently disowning him, and his eventual reconciliation with them. Dean Manning also offers some remarks. And Judge Barron, who used to be a professor at HLS, tells us why all the reasons we might not go into public interest work are perhaps not as compelling as we might think.

Then there’s a big party. I go to it, but very quickly wish I hadn’t. I get a free drink, though, and I stay until I’ve finished the drink. Then I go to the library to print and scan some documents for financial aid. Then I go home.

Friday, September 7

It’s the last day of my first week of class. All I have is Leg Reg. We discuss Yates (the one where the fish isn’t a tangible object) and then TVA v. Hill (in which the Supreme Court decides that the Endangered Species Act means what it says, even when following it will have serious financial consequences). I go home pretty much right after class.

My mattress has arrived. (Up until this point I have been sleeping on an air mattress.) I manage to get it into my apartment and unpack it. It expands on my bed frame. I do some reading and stuff.

Later in the evening I go back to school for the Harvard Law School Christian Fellowship’s first meeting of the year. Professor Okediji speaks about the history of the fellowship. Larry Wee, a partner at Paul, Weiss, admonishes us not to be glued to our phone screens, to support one another, and to remember that if Christ is for us, no one can be against us (not even our CivPro professors).

After the meeting I go home and talk to Michelle. It has been a long week.

Saturday, September 8

I make coffee and eat some breakfast. Last night, our side table arrived. I build it while also doing laundry at the laundromat around the corner. I write a blog post about the past ten days.

Transitions

It’s axiomatic that transition results in loss. When change happens, you gain the new and lose the old. I’m staring down a number of huge changes. This is my last week at my first ever full-time job. Next week, I’ll move to a new city to start law school. And to top it all off, I’m getting married at the end of the year.

I’m happy about these changes. I’m happy about where my life is going. But I haven’t given myself much time to think about what I’m giving up. I knew that I would miss New York and all my friends here, of course. I knew that I would miss my church, which was instrumental in my recovery from depression. But there are other losses that I hadn’t even considered, losses that it has only now occurred to me that I have to mourn.

My brother Donovan just finished an internship with MK2MK, an organization with which I’ve worked in the past. In fact, I did the very same internship program as him four years ago. I love MK2MK. But I’m not sure what opportunities I’ll have to be involved with it going forward. Seeing some pictures from Donovan’s internship has made me nostalgic. Four years ago, I thought I wanted to work for MK2MK full-time, mentoring young Christians and traveling around the world. Eighteen year old me would not have guessed that, after graduating college, I would work for two years in a bland office job before heading off to law school.

For a while, my involvement with MK2MK defined me. After my internship, it took months before I felt like I could be at home anywhere else. In fact, the depression that characterized my second year of college was largely a result of feeling like I could not belong anywhere except with this group, which I had come to view as my tribe. I still count people from MK2MK among my closest friends, but it is no longer part of my life in the way that it once was, and it probably never will be.

In my third year of college, The King’s College became my new home. While I had made close friendships during my first two years, I didn’t get that sense of belonging that I so craved until I was preparing to graduate. In the two years since graduating, I continued to consider King’s as my community. I maintained good relationships with professors and a handful of current students, and most of the friends I see regularly are King’s alumni.

With the arrival of each new freshman class, however, it’s become clearer to me that King’s is not really my community anymore. When I graduated, I thought that I would stay involved with the school in such a way that I would barely notice the difference between being a student and being an alumnus. I thought I would get to know all the freshmen and help to shepherd them through their first year at King’s. Somewhat unsurprisingly, that didn’t happen. I am, in fact, an alumnus, not a student. My relationship with the college has therefore had to change.

For whatever reason, I feel as if I am just now really leaving MK2MK and King’s behind. I’m not totally sure why this is. Perhaps it’s because this is my first major transition since moving to New York City to start college five years ago, and it’s causing me to take stock of the past five years. Or maybe it’s because I’m committing myself to a career path that, while relatively flexible, is radically different from what I expected as an intern/student. I don’t know why I’m feeling this sense of loss now when the actual loss seems to be so far in the past. But I am.

In any case, I know what I’m giving up, and I know what I’m getting in return (at least, I think I do). And I’m content with the trade-off.

Bad Nationalism

I wrote an article for Arc Digital about white nationalism.

The gist of the article is that “white” people are not and cannot be a nation, because they do not have the right sorts of things in common. We think of white people as a group solely because of their roughly similar skin color, and not because they actually share any meaningful characteristics.

You can potentially get around this by saying that, by “white” people/culture, the white nationalists are referring to something more specific, like the culture of the antebellum South. Perhaps “Southern whites” constitute a nation by virtue of their shared commitment to preserving antebellum southern values, including chivalry, their particular form of the Christian religion, and white supremacy. This more specific grouping might constitute a nation in some sense, as they do share the right sorts of cultural and religious commitments.

So then the question becomes, not whether a group of people constitute a nation, but whether their nation ought to exist. And it should be easy to see that the nation described above ought not to exist, as one of its core commitments is white supremacy.

Nationalism is supposed to be a shield for a people to protect itself and its culture from harm. That’s why Israel exists: to protect Jews and Jewish culture from harm. Likewise, America exists to secure the liberties of Americans and to preserve our core ideals. This is right and good. We should encourage it.

But some cultures (and by extension some nations) are predicated upon vicious evils. Such is the case with white nationalist movements. They want a white supremacist nation, because their “culture” is white supremacy. If this were not the case, then white nationalists would be content to live in a racially diverse society as long as white people are treated justly. “White culture” is only under attack if you define “white culture” as white supremacy.

My focus in the Arc Digital piece is on what “nationhood” means. But it might be more useful to develop an account of what distinguishes good nations from bad nations. To put it shortly, bad nations are predicated on the oppression of those who do not belong to the nation.

When Good People Hold Abhorrent Views

First this happened:

Then this:

Duplass might have made an error in saying that Ben Shapiro is a good person for left-leaning folks to follow. He should probably have started with some less provocative commentators, preferably ones who haven’t built a career on triggering snowflakes and drinking leftist tears. That said, Ben Shapiro has a lot to say that’s worth listening to. He also says a lot of stuff that’s wrong, even abhorrent, but that doesn’t mean he’s not worth engaging.

The attacks on Duplass following his endorsement of Shapiro were based mostly on overblown claims that Shapiro is unashamedly hateful. Shapiro is not hateful. He is a provocateur, which is generally not a particularly helpful thing to be (at least insofar as you’re interested in “reaching across the aisle”). He has also said extremely insensitive things, which he (to my knowledge) has not apologized for. These (and others) are valid reasons to criticize Shapiro as a pundit. But when left-leaning people flip out at the suggestion that Shapiro might be a decent person who is worth listening to on at least some points, they reinforce the increasingly popular perception that the left writ large cannot abide any departures from leftist orthodoxy whatsoever. It is this perception that fuels Shapiro’s career as a pundit.

Much more useful is the approach of Eric Weinstein, below:

I’m not sure how willing Shapiro actually is to “cross the aisle.” Perhaps there are some clips out there of him entertaining the possibility that socialized medicine doesn’t entail enslaving doctors. Or maybe he, at some point, expressed openness to the possibility that black people are more likely than white people to be mistreated by the police. I don’t know. But Weinstein actually knows Shapiro, so there’s probably at least something to his claim in this tweet.

What I appreciate most about Weinstein’s tweets is that they show how you can criticize someone without denouncing him. There is an important difference between criticism and denunciation. Criticism is directed at a person’s ideas, arguments, behavior, etc., while denunciation is directed at the person himself. There just aren’t many situations in which denunciation serves the common good. People denounce primarily because it helps them to demonstrate their ideological steadfastness and moral purity to sympathetic onlookers, not because it actually advances their ideology by persuading the undecided. Whereas criticism can encourage a person to refine his ideas or change his behavior, denunciation encourages people to double down on whatever it is they got denounced for in the first place.

An example of this going the other way: advocates for abortion rights hold beliefs about the unborn that I find positively repulsive. I believe that there are compelling reasons to regard unborn persons as persons and to respect their right to live, and that a refusal to acknowledge the personhood of the unborn for the sake of convenience is just as morally evil as denying the personhood of any other class of persons for the sake of convenience. But denouncing people who are in serious error about the evil of abortion does nothing except demonstrate the purity of my commitment to the pro-life cause. If I actually want to persuade people that abortion is evil, I need to engage them, not denounce them.

The fact is that decent people believe and do abhorrent things. This is the norm, and it always has been. If you want to get rid of abhorrent beliefs and prevent people from committing abhorrent acts, then you can’t settle for denunciation. You have to do what Weinstein is doing and make a good-faith effort to persuade people that their ideas and actions are wrong. Of course, some people know perfectly well that what they’re doing is wrong. Right knowledge does not lead to right action. But even in such cases, a virtuous friend is more likely to correct that person’s behavior than mass denunciation from strangers on Twitter.

Sometimes I like hearing Ben Shapiro’s takes on current events. He’s smart, and he can articulate conservative ideas pretty well. But the “own the libs” persona he has cultivated, plus his bad takes and insensitivity on issues like race and gender dysphoria, makes him really hard to listen to, at times. If Weinstein’s criticism is effective in improving some of Shapiro’s ideas (and making him less of a flamethrower), then we all win.