On crises, fears and the comforts and downfalls of absolute rights and absolute wrongs
|Karmela Padavic Callaghan||Sep 21|
Hi and thanks for subscribing to my newsletter! The breakdown: first a personal essay then some thoughts on my recent work, things I am reading, writing and listening to and finally some recipes and recipe recommendations. Feel free to skip to whatever interests you. Please do also hit reply at any time, for any purpose - these are odd times and I want to offer as much connection and support as I can. Find me on Twitter and Instagram too.
My husband and I got into an argument about Bob Woodward. Not the kind of argument where you speak as if a plum or a peach were stuck in your throat, but the kind where you gleefully, academically, accuse someone of being a Kantian or, at the other end of the spectrum, a moral relativist. The kind where you say, “this is something podcasts hosts may argue about” and carry the argument from the dinner table into the kitchen where one of you washes the dishes and the other puts away ones that are already dry. It’s the kind of argument that seems to not matter at all because you carry it out as an intellectual exercise instead of an emotional shouting match, and yet it really does.
Woodward, a journalist famous for his role in uncovering the Watergate scandal, knew that back in February the president withheld information about the coronavirus from the public. And he did not just withhold it, he lied about it too: he admitted to Woodward that he was purposefully downplaying the danger of the virus in press briefings. Woodward did not share these insights into the president’s thinking in real time, but rather only made them public in recent weeks, on the eve of his book being published and after COVID-19 has taken its toll on the nation. It may seem very cynical to claim that he is using these shocking conversations to get more publicity for something he is trying to sell, but it is certainly tempting to read the timeline that way. Some commentators and pundits defended Woodward’s choice by arguing in favor of extremely thorough fact-checking and respecting the writing and publishing process. Others have been quick to blame him for countless deaths they see as connected to the president’s lies and lack of response to the pandemic in its earliest days.
Taking a larger view, all the noise about Woodward may be an instance of many of us misplacing and misdirecting our fear and anger. Regardless of Woodward’s choices, it is the president that acted in a way that put us all in danger. Focusing on Woodward distracts us from where the power, and abuses of power, really lie. At the same time, debating Woodward’s actions highlights just how sharp and bright the lines of misconduct and bad decision making can seem in a time of overall crisis. This is where I got stuck with my husband – clearly Woodward did not do the best thing, but does that mean that what he did do was absolutely wrong? In a tense and fraught situation like our current moment, and there is no indication that bad things will stop happening anytime soon, the space between “not the best” and “absolutely wrong” seems to have shrunk. It seems to be on a path towards fully disappearing.
In so many ways, it is troublesome argue in favor of middle grounds, middle spaces and gray areas right now. Making a decision that may fall in a fraught gray area in some other context can be a matter of life and death in the context of a global pandemic. Straddling a political middle ground in an election year where it feels like all structures of order and decency have long crumbled and faded away seems less like ideological indecision and more like a hurtful apathy to others’ suffering. There is very little room for neutrality now. Doing the second best or maybe just calculatedly shooting for not the worst has become an unacceptably low standard. Moral laziness and intellectual inertia are a bad look set against the backdrop of what feels like a slow and never-ending slide towards a full-on apocalypse.
At the same time, black-and-white thinking and an us-vs-them mentality is often a foundation for oppressive organizations and it powers exactly the kind of hateful policy that many of us in the United States have felt creep into political discourse in recent years. A few years ago, I participated in an Access Network workshop designed to give us local organization leaders tools for discerning whether the hierarchies and norms we adapted have potential for becoming oppressive or exclusionary sometime down the line. This is heady stuff for organizations led by college and graduate students, but important work for anyone who may ever consider calling themselves an organizer of any sort. Part of our discussion was based on a list of characteristics of white supremacy culture sourced from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. The list includes “Either/Or Thinking” followed by “Only One Right Way” and “Perfectionism”. In the time before the pandemic, it was not too much of a stretch to argue that a lack of flexibility and an adherence to absolutism implied in all of these characteristics could truly be harmful and lead to pain and divisions within communities we were all trying to build.
Now, however, it feels like there are exceptions. It feels like it is increasingly more and more worthwhile to argue in favor of perfectionism and rigid, rigid rules. The conflict surrounding the wearing of masks is one such place. It is genuinely difficult to imagine flexibility being built into our pandemic-prevention rules if it means that even a single life will be put in any more danger than absolutely necessary. Simultaneously, there is an argument to be made about overly strict pandemic rules being a fertile ground for rule-breaking and new dangers that could have been prevented by a more flexible, harm reduction approach. Thinking of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, one that has been recorded in history in a way very much colored by us-vs-them thinking and that is still relevant in some communities but ignored by the broader public, a strict condemnation of some ways of acting does not lead to absolute overall safety. If nothing else, when everything seems forbidden, confusion, misinformation and mischief thrive. COVID-19 is in some ways more straightforward but providing people with enough information to be able to discern which risks are acceptable and could be considered a personal decision and which risks put whole communities in harm’s way and should not be tolerated is still crucial. There has to be some cheat-sheet for the risk calculus involved here or otherwise the next however many months of this pandemic life will only become more and more unbearable. They will only lead to more and more impulsive, lizard-brain-run bad decision making.
What underlies the shift to right-and-wrong absolutism in our present situation is a fear of uncertainty and a distrust of those who are unlike us. I have to be honest here and admit that in that Bob Woodward argument it was me who got called a Kantian and that it was me that wanted to say that what the famous journalist did was absolutely wrong rather than just “not quite right”. My, always more level-headed, partner was less likely to declare moral imperatives over the noise of the sink and my clattering with our cast iron pans. Election years, even in the absence of a pandemic, are always terrifying for me. As every new government seems to have a new take on immigration, electing lawmakers feels like it is extremely close to directly determining my future as an immigrant in this country. Being a queer woman on top of that definitely prevents me from feeling like laws don’t matter or imagining that what happens in the congress or the senate will never trickle down into my life. I have spent over a decade building myself, my career and a small family in this country from scratch. Since I have absolutely no say in how the life that I constructed in this way will be confined and shaped by laws, norms and regulations, any sort of an election season is a time of high uncertainty for me. And the more scared I get, the more perfectionism and purity start to matter to me. There is just a strong sense of safety in thinking that a purely right mindset is out there and can be achieved.
Echoing another conversation I often had as a student equity and inclusion advocate and an organizer, I have been speaking to more seasoned teachers than myself on how to make space for dissenting opinions in my classroom this fall. This may be naïve, but I do still at times believe that people can change their minds, and with young people I want, or maybe need, to believe this with even more conviction. One thing we lose when we let fear sort us on one or other side of a strict “right” and a strict “wrong” is a space to change and grow. Growth, in my mind, is integral to education and as educators we need to be looking for it much more than anything else. To let students, grow, we cannot make them feel like they are not allowed to feel out the edges of what is provocative. We should also not give them an incentive to double-down on an opinion just based on our negative reaction. Part of adolescence is wading through the gray area that those of us who are older, who objectively wield power over some of the younger people in our lives, tend to scoff at without realizing we could be acting in ways that are exclusionary. I remember my political views being met with condescension when I was a teenager and I still often feel like older relatives make assumptions about my lived experience in ways that lead them to think that I have nothing to stand on when I argue on point or another. It feels awful to be in such conversations. When I think back on my younger self, I see so many flawed and borderline hateful opinions that I have dropped and transformed. I am critical of that past self, but I still have empathy for the pain and indignity she felt when there was no space made for her between absolute right and absolute wrong.
Living with older family members who disagree with me on so many issues has been an exercise in finding that space too. It has been a hard one. How can someone who I know loves me support a political regime that seems to hate me? The mental gymnastics required to process these relationships are exhausting. Briefly having in-person co-workers of my age and being able to share lunch breaks with colleagues who closer aligned with my beliefs felt remarkably refreshing. I don’t think I’ve ever worked alongside so many openly queer people and while the science department I joined is quite male-dominated the only-woman-in-the-room feeling did not hit me as hard as it at times had in college and graduate school. After a day or two, getting back to my in-law’s basement at the end of each workday felt like a slightly different world. I had to remind myself that there is a danger into leaning to deeply into the young, progressive bubble that was suddenly being offered to me. The same way fear and uncertainty give us incentive to declare an absolutely evil “them” it also makes it likely that we will become complacent in the blind comfort of a potential “us”.
I started writing this letter before Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and once I learned of her death a brief spiral of sadness and rage at both elected officials vowing to replace her before the election and the universe that has taken her had me thinking that maybe I should abandon this line of reasoning altogether. The apocalyptic scenario here is so clear – a biased court in a year when the kind of election in which that court ends up deciding the rules and the winners can so easily happen – that arguing for nuance, for flexibility in where we draw ideological lines, and a critical approach to purity seemed absolutely useless. Why make spaces where you could meet someone that leans away from your “side” if the whole thing is just becoming more and more unfair, some may even say rigged? But despairing does not remedy this is any way. Nor does deciding that everyone who disagrees with you is an absolute villain. While social media offered some choice doom-scrolling in the wake of Bader Ginsburg’s passing, slowly but surely, I saw talk of action and hope in my feeds as well. Hope needs to be practiced and it needs to be exercised like a muscle. Hope needs to lead to action and that action needs to garner even more hope until we build feedback loops for making the world better. And there is no hope for such betterment in spaces where tremendously bright and rigid lines are drawn between right and wrong, where there is not space for a hopeful action to nudge someone who is not quite right towards being more so.
*A diode is a simple electronic device that only conducts current in one direction. It is one of the oldest semiconducting devices and relies on asymmetric electrical conduction: low resistance in one direction and high in the other. Diodes are used to convert alternating current (AC) which includes current components in more than one direction to direct current (DC) where there is only one current component that does not stray away from a single direction.
Ultracold now includes a paid subscriber option. All future letters will remain free, but if you want to offer small financial support for the writing that happens in this space, you can click the button below. To support me otherwise, please consider sharing this letter on social media.
ABOUT ME LATELY
LEARNING: After a week and a half of meeting other teachers, rummaging through heavy hard-covered calculus books and learning which closet in my new school houses constant velocity cars and which is for whiteboards and catapult building supplies instead, I got to spend three days co-teaching an interdisciplinary workshop over Zoom with some of my students. Instead of jumping straight back into coursework after months of school breaks and school delays, we led mixed grade groups of students in “writing and thinking” exercises that covered everything from discussions of college education in prisons to recreating a fine art masterpiece with household items. It was fairly intense, and I definitely forgot just how exhausting Zoom interactions can be. At the same time, I felt encouraged by how many students actively participated and how much camaraderie there was between teachers tasked with teaching difficult material, outside of our disciplines for many, during all the re-opening panic. Halfway through the second day of the workshop, one of the students told us that they read in the New York Times that in-person instruction will be pushed back another two weeks. We hadn’t heard that through official channels yet and our mood dampened in real time. The silver lining again was that students still stuck with the plan and completed the workshop. I was simultaneously jealous of this being an introduction to high school for some of them and really mournful of every extra moment they have to stay away from their friends and their school community. It was a good experience overall and a nice ego boost in the face of my fear of teaching students so much younger than college kids I’ve been teaching for the past seven or eight years. I am writing this the night before my, now remote, conceptual 9th grade physics class kicks off and I suspect that that will be the real learning experience when it comes to my job this fall.
On the writing front, I do have a few things in the works, but nothing I can quite shout out yet. Working with some editors for the second or third time has certainly made me very aware of how much more I know about science writing now than I did a few months ago. However, I’m mostly taking this awareness as a reminder of how much more I have to learn in the future. An exciting prospect for the coming months when so many other things might end up going wrong for me professionally.
LISTENING: One of the workshops I co-taught this past week featured readings from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. I have written about Rankine before and her interviews on On Being and Longform are an interesting and compelling listen.
A lot more King Princess who I think I am now more than a little in love with. Probably because she wore three-stripe Adidas to her Tiny Desk concert. Or the way she calls classic rock stars femme in this Fender video.
This Yugoslavian rockabilly-ish situation with the band called Davoli (the devils). Cheesy but charming.
READING: Emily Sundberg in her newsletter Feed Me writing about the fires in California, climate change and being an ethical consumer, and the role of social media in that whole mess. This paragraph resonated with me
‘I’m kind of upset by how many times I’ve been told “Recycling and reusable straws and composting and cutting those things in-between Coke cans will save the world!” but everyone left out the part that, “We’re developing land that shouldn’t be developed, and running power lines where we shouldn’t be running them, and not listening to native people about how fires should/shouldn’t be controlled, and electing people who don’t believe in global warming, and Americans need to have a serious conversation with ourselves about consumption.”’
Stacy-Marie Ishmael writing about strings we attach to our presumably good deeds in The Main Event. She writes
“I find myself wondering what to do, in the face of the wildfires and the hatred and the deaths and the steady, steady diminution of whose lives matter. I am trying to stand for something. To take responsibility. To show up. To make eye contact. To give money to the people who have been comforting the afflicted, rebuilding the broken infrastructure, advocating for the vulnerable.
Can we do this without attaching conditions? Can we do this without expecting displays of gratitude? Can you pause to reflect before you ask for a refund because the Black-owned bookstore that you’d never thought to buy before from told you all the books about racism were on backorder and by the way USPS shipping is additionally delayed.”
This infographic on using language inclusive of non-binary people.
About five pages of Gravity’s Rainbow. This is, as I am learning, not a book you can casually reach for when very tired after a long day.
WATCHING: I’ve fallen behind on chronicling all the movies we have been watching, but since I started working my schedule moved pretty early into the morning which freed our evenings a bit and plunged us into more movie time than we were averaging before. Inspired by a Hitchcock-themed episode of The Big Picture podcast we watched North by Northwest then ran with the theme of classic crime and got around Orson Welles’ The Third Man as well. After that, we reverted to our penchant for the weird and somewhat grotesque and spend one evening with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and another with David Cronneberg’s Videodrome. None of these really disappointed and though all were slightly disorienting in different ways, they kept my attention and gave me something to think about.
North by Northwest probably surprised me the most because it is a bit of a mess. It’s plot is sort of nonsensical, yet the film is aesthetically very on point and studded with such memorable performances. The Third Man was near-perfect, and every beat of it seemed both well calibrated and very necessary. Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie based on the Pynchon novel of the same name was definitely a trip but didn’t seem to take itself one hundred percent seriously which made it easier to see some if it as satire and some of it as an absurdist comedy. I couldn’t help thinking that this is what Too Old To Die Young could have been had Nicolas Winding Refn not been so committed to slow and belabored, utter seriousness. I think I am also liking Paul Thomas Anderson more and more with every movie of his we decide to watch. Finally, Videodrome was probably the film on this list that was most like what I expected it to be. The mix of body horror, sex and tech commentary was pretty much what I signed up for and though I am not sure I can vouch for the soundness of its plot, it is not hard to see how it became a cult classic in some circles. It is remarkably prescient about how we live our lives online and swapping the Internet for TV in its story would work almost terrifyingly too well.
On the TV front we finished Halt and Catch Fire and I don’t really have much more to say about it than I have in previous weeks. It ended rather abruptly, abandoning a number of half-baked storylines, and not allowing most of its characters to have anything even near a happy ending. I know that not every show has to be a feel-good show, but I think it’s equally valid to claim that not every plot twist should be rooted in deciding to make a character miserable. It’s a shame that unhappiness is mostly what I’ll remember about Halt and Catch Fire because the first two season of this series were actually quite compelling and way less emotionally tiresome.
Our next somewhat disappointing show of choice has been the second season of Umbrella Academy on Netflix. This is a show I had gripes with in its original run and I wasn’t actually all that excited to revisit it. I continue to be mildly fascinated with it, however, because it always makes me think about the limitations of adapting comic books and graphic novels to TV. There are scenes in Umbrella Academy that I can see working wonderfully as comic book pages, and visual jokes and ticks that wouldn’t bother me in that medium at all, but somehow just fall so flat in the context of a live action series. After watching successes in this arena such as Legion and HBO’s Watchmen, I guess I am just slightly problematically curious about where failures happen and why.
EATING: A cauliflower and soy curl piccata loosely based on this recipe alongside a simple spinach and tomato salad lightly dressed with red wine vinegar and olive oil. Ramen noodles with sauteed asparagus, sweet corn and chili oil paired with cold silken tofu drenched in soy sauce, maple syrup, sesame seeds and dried chilis, and some enoki mushrooms braised in soy sauce and mirin (this recipe was my inspiration and I have made it very successfully before but did not want to turn on the oven on this particular day). Spaghetti and mushrooms in a creamy sunflower seed powered sauce. Early morning carrot ginger protein smoothies. More focaccia based on my favorite recipe, one topped with thinly sliced onions and lemons and one with olives, basil and vegan parmesan. Onigiri based on Diana Yen’s recipe for Basically.