Basic Training

Whence basic? It began as black slang meaning “trashy”, “low-class” or “contemptible”, and–in its full form, “basic bitch”–a woman who has these characteristics.

There is a hint of delusion about the basic bitch—she thinks she’s better than she is—but this is drowned out by general disdain. For my money, basic bitch isn’t much of a dis. It gets by on alliteration and a dash of misogyny without saying much more than “I don’t like you”. As insults go, it’s pretty basic.

As the term moved beyond its community of coinage, the notion of self-overestimation was amplified. This comes across in Kreayshawn’s indelible 2011 earworm, “Gucci Gucci”. The song is mostly about bad bitches—women who effortlessly occupy the top of the Great Chain of Sexily Insouciant Being—but they exist in contrast to basic bitches, who yearn to breathe that rarefied air but just don’t have what it takes. These bitches try to hide their basicness beneath name brands—Gucci, Gucci, Louie, Louie, Fendi, Fendi, Prada—but Kreayshawn sees right through it. Her contempt is not for luxury goods per se, but rather the idea that style can be purchased. She is a full-blooded aristocrat, peering down her nose at the arrivistes.

“Basic” mutated again when it moved from slang and pop music into the Zeitgeist at large. It became explicitly gendered but lost its connotation of trashiness. A basic bitch was now a middle class woman with cloyingly average tastes: Ugg boots, Sex and the City, and Pumpkin Spice lattes. Her delusion is that these tastes make her interesting, when in fact they are painfully trite.

It’s the Pumpkin Spice lattes that do it. Why, among all the flavors on offer at Starbucks, is Pumpkin Spice the one that brings a stereotype to life? A generation ago the punchline would have been simply “latte”, and it would have been directed against pretentious strivers in general instead of this one particular kind of of female striver who, hilariously, doesn’t even realize she’s striving. This detail is at once preposterously specific and immediately recognizable. It’s poetry.

Imagine explaining to the proverbial anthropologist from Mars—or just your grandmother—why “Pumpkin Spice” evokes a whole risible world. You can’t. Or actually, you can, if you’re willing to trundle out the postmodern heavy artillery, but the difficulty is an indication that we’re operating at a high symbolic altitude, playing a game in which the delight comes from picking up on specific cultural references. Kreayshawn’s aristocratic disdain is still in effect here. Basic joins other terms of contempt—inauthentic, uncool, consumerist—whose essence lies in their inscrutability. The trappings of basic bitchness cannot be inherently contemptible. They have to be pleasant enough to win aficionados. Otherwise no woman would want them, and there’d be no basic bitches to mock.

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Puerto Ricans Have Relatively Few Words for Snow

Irish has no standalone words for “yes” and “no”. To give an affirmative response to a question you repeat the verb, and to give a negative response you repeat the verb with a negation particle. Much the same situation obtains in Chinese. This may be why the Irish and Chinese are both so squirrely about answering direct questions.

French grammar divides all nouns into “masculine” and “feminine” genders, as does Arabic, which explains why the French and the Saudis have such famously similar attitudes towards sex.

Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese etc. are tonal languages–variations in vocal pitch are used to distinguish between vocabulary items. This is also true of Bantu languages. This may be a reason why the music of China and sub-Saharan Africa sounds so much alike.

Portuguese has a subjunctive mood, so the notion of hypothetical action is represented as a verb ending, woven into the very fabric of Portuguese words. Contrast this with English, which to impart the same quality of irrealis to a clause must prepend a whole other helping verb like “may” or “might”. Is it any wonder that Brazilians are so much better than Australians at reasoning about hypothetical situations?

German has a lot of harsh consonants. It employs regimented speech elements that sound like machine parts grinding away with well-engineered if somewhat forbidding precision. Italian, on the other hand, has a lot of fluid, expressive, romantic vowel sounds. This may be part of the reason why Germans are so rigid and Italians are so emotional.

Where a white American English speaker would say “He works at the post office” many black American English speakers would say “He be working at the post office”, the extraneous, unconjugated helping verb “be” adding nothing to the essential meaning. Their insistence on using more words than necessary is an indication that blacks are less intelligent than whites.

Where a white American English speaker would say “She is tall” many black American English speakers would say, “She tall”, omitting “is”, the sentence’s grammatical keystone. Their insistence on using fewer words than necessary is an indication that blacks are less intelligent than whites.

The Chinese writing system is not an alphabet in which a small set of letters is mapped to discrete speech sounds which must then be strung together like beads in order to have meaning. Chinese employs a rich vocabulary of many thousands of written characters, each one representing a fully-formed concept. A single character may express an extremely abstract idea, and its meaning may play off that of other characters in endlessly subtle ways. This writing system gives rise to a world view which is holistic rather than atomizing, which is why traditional Chinese medicine treats the human body as an organic whole instead of adopting western allopathic medicine’s approach of breaking it down into a set of specific disease symptoms that must be treated by specific drugs, and also why even second-generation Chinese-Americans are notoriously bad at math.

English has no single word for a short legless garment a woman wears about her waist while playing tennis, which is why if you say the phrase “tennis skirt” to an English speaker, they will have no idea what you are talking about.

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A Monday Kind of Love

The girl walked down St. Mark’s Place, yoga mat under her arm, sweating from the summer heat. She shouldered her way through crowds and darted across the street, dodging taxis. She took a sip from her Nalgene water bottle and contemplated which gluten-free pizza chain she’d stop at.

She turned the corner onto a quiet side street where a man sat in a plastic lawn chair. Late 50s, early 60s, lined face, and rock and roll T-shirt. As she walked past, she could feel him glaring at her. He started talking, in a normal tone of voice, but clearly meant for her to hear.

“This place used to mean something,” he growled. “Punk rock. Graffiti. Trash in the streets. It was real. Real. CBGB. Debbie Fucking Harry.” His voice trailed off into almost a sob, then she felt the laser of his contempt refocus on the back of her neck. “You weren’t there. You could never understand. You just weren’t there.”

He couldn’t see her smile, and she didn’t realize she was smiling. God bless this city, where even hostility from random old guys put a spring in your step. A blast of hot air from a subway entrance caught her square in the face, bringing out fresh beads of sweat just below her hairline. She was nineteen years old and living in New York City and the world was hers.

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Which Fastener Best Suits Your Meyers-Briggs Personality Type?

Philips flat head screw

ISTJ Drywall screw
ISFJ Lag bolt
INFJ Dowel screw
INTJ Washer head full thread rear panel screw
ISTP ¼″ Cap screw
ISFP Drywall screw (with anchor)
INFP Carriage bolt with countersunk head
INTP Hex bolt (zinc finish)
ESTP Philips head sheet metal screw
ESFP Straight head sheet metal screw
ENFP ½″ Flanged head machine screw
ENTP Copper wood screw
ESTJ Self-tapping machine screw
ESFJ Stainless steel hex bolt
ENFJ 1 ⅜″ Philips truss head gutter bolt
ENTJ  Nail
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Once They Walked Away

Those who walk away usually follow the river past low white houses beside apple orchards and into the hill country south of Omelas. The woods are full of edible plants and small game. In the summer the weather is mild. Plus Omelas is a rural town and Omelians are a practical people–a lot of carpenters, cooks, and farmers. Childhood gambols by creeks and everybody hunts deer. After a week of sleeping rough, an exile from Omelas thinks, there’s no reason I can’t build myself a cozy home out here. All I need is lumber, a hammer, a knife, some pots and pans…You might make it for a month before you start to run out of food. Maybe your first time outside in a thunderstorm–so pleasant when watched from a front porch back in town–will provoke the first true doubts. You’ll sit, filthy and exhausted, water running off your chin, and fantasize about returning, apologizing for the grandiose self-regard that masqueraded as virtue, and throwing yourself upon the mercy of your old friends and neighbors. But you know that they would have no choice but to avert their eyes and shuffle away. Failure to shun one who has walked away is at best a kind of walking away itself, and at worst a breaking of the Original Deal. Details are fuzzy, but it is clear that there would be consequences for all of Omelas. It is empathy for another person that drove you away in the first place: you can’t now go put everyone at risk. Once you walk away, there is no turning back.

Those who survive walking away from Omelas do so by finding others who have also walked away. Squatters’ camps ring the city: fire pits, vegetable gardens, and boosted tarps. As a new exile you might approach one in the morning, mist burning off the ground, heartened by the squalor–these are the people who can afford to show me kindness–but soon sense that something is not right. People evaluate you with a brief, unreadable glance, then return to whatever they were doing. Finally three men approach. They stand directly in front of you and one smiles. “Are you walking out?” he asks, the out of where being clear. You nod. “And now you’re walking in?” A glimpse around to indicate the camp.

“You couldn’t take it?” This from the biggest of the three. Maybe fifty years old. Bearded and completely bald. “You looked in the basement, saw the Child, and knew you couldn’t do it, couldn’t keep the Deal?” You want throw your arms around him and cry, but then the smiling one speaks again. “Guy’s got a big heart.” He steps closer. “Big heart.” His hand rests casually on the handle of a machete hanging off his belt. The bald one nods. “Lots of love,” he agrees. They’re standing so close now you can feel their breath on your face when they speak. Every pair of eyes in the camp is fixed on you. You feel them as prickles on your back. Who are these men

A new exile might go from camp to camp for weeks trying to walk In. Sometimes you are given food and directed to another camp a day’s hike away, only to find the reception so stony that there is nothing to do but walk away as quickly as possible. Ethnic differences that had seemed quaint back in town now became vitally important. Some people get lucky and are taken in by a distant cousin who had walked out years before. Others reach a level of exhaustion where the intimidation ceases to register, at which point they are given a job gathering firewood or digging latrines, welcomed reluctantly In, another mouth to feed. This part is hardest on young women. The young men in the camps circle, solicitous and predatory. There’s five of them and one of me. Of course it’s going to happen now. It was always only a matter of time. Then someone, you can never predict who, will step up and hiss “We’re better than that” and the moment will pass.

For those who manage to walk In after walking away from Omelas, something like a normal life eventually resumes. There is always too little food and a cold that never leaves your bones, but at some point the camp starts to feel like home. It’s only then that you start to think back on what brought you out here in the first place: the dingy basement, brown light trickling in through ground-level windows, the Child. That moment you first saw the Child, terrified, lying in its own filth, and knew that your whole life in Omelas had been a lie. Later, sitting upstairs in the living room on those dilapidated yellow chairs, the adults explained how the Child stays in the basement and we live. And when the Child dies there has to be another Child, picked at random, and don’t worry you’re already too old. You looked around the camp and knew that everyone had sat in that living room on those particular chairs, and felt–what? Not just horror, because everyone felt that. No, it was the unshakable sense that what was being done to the Child was also being done to you. Walking away was not protest, it was sheer self-preservation. But in the end even the worst horror dims and you resolve back into yourself, finding your way through what is still just your life.

In these camps there are hierarchies and rivalries, a politics that is opaque to one who has just walked Out. One of the first things that falls away is that tiresome Omelian piety about not being soldiers. Here everybody fights. With scarce resources comes stealing, punishment and retaliation, justice rough and improvised. Nobody wants violence (we’re better than that) but there are constant standoffs. Sometimes fists and clubs, the occasional shotgun. There’s also the matter of the farmers who live far south, at the edge of the camps. No one bears them ill will, exactly, but they’re not exiles, and they have stuff we need. Two exiles broke into a storage shed at the edge of a field in the middle of the night and, amazing luck, found an axe. But when they emerged from the shed the farmer was standing there, holding a lantern, his family huddled in the doorway of the house behind him. He could afford to lose the axe, but if he just turned on his heel went back inside, that would be helping an exile, wouldn’t it? The one with the axe took a step forward, face hard, ready to take a swing. Nobody wanted this, but everyone sensed that a plausible show of hostility was required, as part of the Deal.

In the evening smoke from the fire pits drifts up to a dark blue sky where it is blown northward by soft winds, back up the river. For some the camps become their life, the town fades like a dream. For others, Omelas looms ever larger in its absence. Some of them scheme about how to make a return: what kinds of contact might be permissible, how the Deal could be subverted, everyone reunited. The Happily-Ever-Afterers. Others still fantasize about commando raids to free the Child, spirit it off to the camps, where it will be shown love commensurate with the horrors it has known. This would certainly be a breach of the Original Deal with dire consequences for all of Omelians, in and out. Good, say the Bring-Down-the-Housers, let the town burn. Theirs is an elaborate eschatology that sees everything–Omelas, the Deal, the Child, exile–as inevitable necessity leading up to them, sitting in grim circles around low fires, steeling themselves for the moment when they venture out to bring it all crashing down. But they are in the minority. Because what would happen then? Would the town actually burn? Would its residents wander south, stunned and bleary-eyed, needing charity? And how do you walk outside of that?

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It’s My First Time at the Rodeo!

Is that a real cowboy?

What are the barrels for?

What does the clown do?

These seats are really comfy.

The talking cactus on the Jumbotron is cracking me up!

Mmm…fried mushrooms.

When does it start?

Oh, it’s already started.

That looks like the Albanian flag.

(Why are we whispering?)

A waiver for what?

That can’t be safe. Is that safe?

Are those guys looking at us?

It’s like I’m the only one who’s noticed the lightning.

Why does the announcers’ voice sound like it’s being played backwards?

(Those guys are definitely looking at us.)

Where did you go?

Stirrup. Which one’s the stirrup? I don’t know what a stirrup is.

What? “‘Run’?” Run?…Run!

I was expecting more cows.

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Racism: Bad

I literally agree with almost everything Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, says in this interview about the phenomenon of “white fragility”. Well-meaning people born into a privileged segment of society (for example non-blacks in America’s black/not-black dyad) enjoy advantages that they may be unaware of in a fish-don’t-feel-the-water kind of way. It is useful to remind them of this fact. In the course of doing so some white people may get their feelings hurt, and basically the way to handle this is for those white people to grow a thicker goddam skin.

All that said, I feel like there is often a kernel of disingenuity hiding in structural-racism arguments like this. It’s subtle, and I usually can’t put my finger on it. Here, though, I think I can identify the offending passage. It’s where DiAngelo proposes a more nuanced idea of racism.

For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist–we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time–that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing”.

This is saying two things at once: one true, and one that I don’t buy. The true thing–echoed elsewhere in this interview–is that social power often manifests subtly and implicitly, and can cause real damage even when no one bears any conscious ill will. The part I don’t buy is that people who concern themselves with these issues use the word “racism” in this technical we’re-all-racists sense, without any sense of moral opprobrium.

If they did, that would be a problem: bearing hostility towards an entire group of people on the basis of fear, meanness, and idiotic pseudoscience really does make you a bad person, worthy of particular scorn. It’s useful to have a nasty-sounding word like “racist” to refer to that. When I say, “My father-in-law is a racist” I mean that my father-in-law mutters darkly about welfare and street gangs, not that he is an admirable, generous guy who unwittingly enjoys the benefits of long-standing structural inequities. If we call clueless whites “racists” what do we call someone who hates black people?

DiAngelo states, literally, that “good, moral people” can be racist. If you thought you were clever and asked her, “So does that mean you are also a racist?” she would say “Why, yes” because I’m betting like me she knows that the first rule of privilege club is that you never deny being a member of privilege club. This may be an insightful account of the way power gets deployed, but it’s not what most people mean when they say “good”. I think there are two senses of “racist” in play here–the my-bigoted-father-in-law sense, and the racists-are-good-people sense. There is no clear distinction between them. Instead we drift between one or the other as suits us rhetorically, which leads to sloppy thinking and miscommunication. For example, someone posts a link to this interview on Facebook. Some white guy takes offense, insists that he’s not a racist because he really, truly has no problem with black people, and then everyone piles on and mansplains how no, racism is actually a more complicated phenomenon. This is fun the first ten times, but then it starts to feel like a waste of energy. At its most perverse, admitting that you are a racist is just a sophisticated way of signaling to everyone that you’re not a racist.

I don’t think DiAngelo is trying to be slippery here: it’s just a tricky subject. But she wants everyone to be able to talk clearly, and I’m on board with that, so here’s my proposal: racism is bad. Structural inequality is also bad. The two are intertwined, but the former requires conscious hostility while the latter implicates us all. We should keep these concepts distinct. It’s useful.

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