A Tenement Apartment for Ideas

When I Was a Conservative

In 1992, Bill Clinton ran against George H. W. Bush during the presidential election. I was six at the time and had only been a US resident for half of those years. It would be many more birthdays before I or anyone else in my family, other than my US-born sister, would become citizens. Suffice it to say, I had little understanding or concern for what was going on, except as it applied to the Democratic allegiance of my teacher at the time. Authority figures are important in Chinese culture, and teachers rank high on the list of early-life authorities. I remember she had a Harry Truman bobblehead paper weight on her desk engraved with his famous quote, "The buck stops here." I had no idea what the quote meant, but as a six-year-old immigrant, it was more the oversized bobbling head than the political platitude that won my interest.

I was living in Hoboken, NJ at the time, a pretty left leaning city. The atmosphere of the area favored Clinton, and I think it must’ve subtlety influenced my own sense of how things were meant to be when he eventually declared victory over the Republican incumbent. A six-year-old immigrant doesn’t give two shits about reading lips or new taxes, but I can guarantee they will give anything to feel like they fit in.

Four years later, Bill Clinton ran for reelection against Bob Dole. It was 1996, and my family had moved to Montville, NJ, a predominantly conservative township. I was ten and relatively new in town. Though still too young to understand policies or platforms, I was much more aware of the social tensions that politics tend to muster out of people. This time around, the affair felt more ubiquitous, like everyone had an opinion. Most importantly, I was keenly aware of the support Bob Dole was receiving from my peers, particularly my neighborhood friends and the "cool kids" whom I envied for their access to legitimate AOL accounts (oddly enough, these same "cool kids" would eventually become my first introduction to Jay-Z and DMX, not the kind of music I imagine Bob Dole would approve for tweens). I remember their support for the Republican challenger felt very threatening to me because it directly conflicted with the happy memories of Clinton’s first victory that unintentionally became part of my childhood. I didn’t understand any of the talking points, but Clinton had been the president for the majority of my life in America, and the world seemed fine to me. I remember the long albeit furtive sigh of relief I enjoyed when Clinton again clinched that election.

Years later, I revisited those strange memories where politics managed to briefly sneak its way into the formative experiences of my childhood, awkwardly nestled alongside memories of prank phone calls and anxious nights of praying for snow because I hadn’t finished a book report, and I became aware of a shameful realization that has strongly influenced my political thinking ever since.

In 1996, when I secretly rooted for Clinton, it wasn’t because I was a liberal, a Democrat, or a progressive. In fact, it was the very opposite sentiments which ironically drove me to favor the liberal candidate. I was being fundamentally conservative. Without policies or platforms to guide my judgment, I was relying solely on past experiences and a fear of change. For me, Bill Clinton had come to represent a good, stable constant in the political arena. The only reason I didn’t want Bob Dole to win was because I didn’t want the familiarity of Bill Clinton to be taken away from my world. It had nothing to do with policy, beliefs, platforms, or reason. It had everything to do with maintaining the setting I had gotten comfortable telling my story against. Clinton was simply the way things were. This, I realize now, is the very essence of conservatism. You can look it up on Wikipedia if you’d like a deeper analysis. What I’ve come to realize through those childhood memories is that Conservatism isn’t defined by the policies or parties you support, but rather the other way around. Conservatism is a basic desire to hold onto the familiar and traditional. And sure, political parties, ideologies, and platforms have arisen from that primal desire, institutional symptoms we now carelessly label conservative, but the truth is that Conservatism doesn’t belong to one party. It is a reliance and preference, regardless of practical benefits, for the way things have always been, and in that way, it can afflict Democrats and Republicans alike.

I often think back on the fear I felt during the 1996 election, that somehow the world could only change for the worst if things didn’t play out along the track I’d grown accustomed to riding. That simply because Clinton was the president, he deserved to stay the president. I still enjoy marveling at the irony of my naivety. But these days I also wonder, if I hadn’t been confronted by that serendipitous dissonance between established party politics and fundamental philosophical underpinnings, would I still be clinging to candidates because they felt like the comfortable positions to support? Would I just be using policies, parties, and platforms to justify what is fundamentally nothing more than a desire to maintain my own sense of continuity? And how many people out there have still never had to confront the possibility that the reason they lean left or right has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with keeping their inner child reassured that the world will never change in ways they don’t understand?

Mike LinComment
Fin's Imaginary Friend, 2

I once asked Fin if he knew what an actress does. He told me he understood what they did, but not why they did what they did.

Why do people lie about who they are?

I told him it wasn't lying, because everyone knows that an actress isn't the person she's pretending to be.

But then why do they pretend at all?

I told him because people like to be told stories, and actresses help tell stories.

But how can anyone believe the stories if they know it's a lie?

I told him people can trick themselves into believing something is real for a little while even if it isn't, at least until the story is over.

How can someone trick themselves into believing the sky is green or that two plus two is five?

I told him people can feel like something is real even if they know that it isn’t, that feeling something isn’t the same as knowing something.

He scratched at the bridge of his nose and paused.

Is that something you can learn?

I told him I didn’t know.

Years ago, I had betrayed the only woman I'd ever loved. On that night, I remember waking to a familiar face framed in a familiar scene, but neither thing familiar with each other. My accomplice was another actress I'd met while an extra in some paycheck production we’d both landed. My stirring caused her eyes to open. The room was cast in dim aquatic luminance. We stared at each other in muffled silence until I opened my mouth and said, You are not a bad person. She didn’t respond. I waited, but still no reply. My mind fretted. I wanted to hear some reciprocal edification against my own sobering guilt. But it didn’t come. She wouldn’t even accept her own absolution. A steadily massing mob of revolutionaries had gathered inside me, growing louder with their bullhorns and their crescendo of effervescent chanting that buzzed like white noise.

When we fall in love with someone, I wondered, do they become part of us? And does that union demand that they share in our own private unhappiness? If you hate your own life, do you inevitably hate the people who’ve unwittingly stumbled into it? Are they just collateral damage, or are they now essential to your own demise? If love binds two lives as one, then surely a rotting foundation in one necessarily leads to the collapse of both. Had it been selfishness or some cathartic wildfire, clearing away everything that should have never been?

Did she decline to respond because she knew neither of us truly deserved to survive this? Did she already know the necessity of letting revolutions cleanse the world of stubborn machinations, that apologizing for ourselves accounted for nothing from people who were so irredeemably broken, that some things are better torn down than fixed, that sometimes the most penitent act isn’t to change but to let yourself be destroyed? I turned to look again and found only a quieted face, her eyelids drawn shut, her sharp jaw pressing folds into the pillow. If this was the immutable path of history, perhaps the only thing left to do was to let it happen. I rested my eyes on her until the peripheral void soaked through her details and there was nothing left to see.

How do you know if you love somebody?

Fin had asked me this after overhearing his parents talking one night. I tried to explain to him the complexity of his question, how the concept of love was particularly resistant to definition. I told him it was a bit different for everybody. He asked me what it meant for me. I struggled with whether to honestly engage him. Could he ever really understand what I would have to say?

You know when you find something you like a lot, how it feels even better when someone else can enjoy it with you? Like how you enjoy eating ice cream. If you eat ice cream alone, it’s still good, but if you’re eating ice cream, and I’m eating ice cream, and we both like it a lot, then we can talk about how good ice cream is, and it feels even better to share how much we both like ice cream with each other. Love is like wanting that feeling with someone all the time.

But what if I don’t like the same things as someone? Does that mean I can't love them?

Well, it’s not just about liking things together. Sometimes, it’s also when you don’t like things together. Actually, it's not even just that. It's not just about agreeing. It's about feeling something together. I know that’s confusing, but I guess it’s just when you can share a feeling with somebody, no matter what that feeling is, and they understand it, and because you both share it, it feels better, whether it's a good feeling or a bad feeling.

But how do you know if someone feels the same thing as you? You can't just read their minds.

Well, I guess that's why it's important that when you love somebody, or you think you love somebody, that you listen to them. If you just talk all the time, but you don't listen, you can't really know if the person you're talking to really understands you, because you never listen to hear if what they say makes sense to you. Even though it feels good to say what you feel inside and let it out, it never feels completely right, because you don't know if anyone else really understands you. But if you listen and hear something someone else says that feels like something you already feel inside, then you don't have to say anything, because you already know that they understand.

But what if they're just acting? How do you know they're not lying? How do you know they feel what you feel? What if they're just saying it, but they don't feel it at all? Or what if they think they feel what you feel, but it's different, only they don't know it's different? They think it's the same, so they talk about it like it's the same, but it's not. How can you be sure?

I didn't know how to answer him. Of course none of us can be sure. None of us can know exactly what someone else is thinking or feeling. The only thing we can do is listen to what they have to say and find the things that sound familiar to us. And I guess the rest is just hope. The rest is just tricking ourselves into believing it's real, at least until the show is over. Is that all love is? I couldn't say that to him—especially not him. What kind of answer would that have been? How could he possibly process that? All I could reply with was that I didn't know. I didn't know what it took to be sure of something like that. I told him I was sorry.

He was quiet for a bit. He stared blankly. His weight shifted gently back and forth on the bed as his small frame puffed and shrank with the ebb and flow of his breath. After a while, he turned to me with a look of determination and said flatly that he hoped I would stick around long enough for us to figure it out, figure out how we could be sure. We could keep talking and listening and sharing, and we would keep testing to see what it took to be certain. He asked if I would stick around to help him figure it out.

Okay, I said, Let's figure it out.

Mike LinComment
Fin's Imaginary Friend, 1

How long does it take to really know somebody? 

When you learn a new language, you only learn the rules, the spellings, the usages. But you don’t really learn the meanings. Not at first. You think you know what the words mean, but you don’t because you’ve never needed to say anything with those words. You’ve never had to beg for help with those words, to expel your frustration with those words, to admit some primal love that realigns your every thought with those words.

When I first came to know Fin, the people around him would relay their sympathies like long overdue confessions. They would inform me of his condition, that it was so severe even his own imagination struggled to empathize with his thoughts at times. But beyond what everyone thought of or said about him, about his miswired mind, firing off all the wrong thoughts to think, I discovered a real person who asked real questions and pondered real thoughts, more real than anything most of us have ever asked ourselves. And for that reason, it must have seemed often like he was speaking in a completely foreign language. 

On the very first day we met, he didn’t seem to question my presence at all. He asked me plenty of questions, but none of them about why I was there or where I’d come from. He didn’t even ask me who I was. It was as if he just accepted that I would be part of his life from then on and skipped past all the bullshit.

He asked me if I was afraid of being alone.

I wasn't sure if he’d meant socially or physically, so I asked. He asked if there was a difference.

Fin liked to play a game where he’d point out some random object and we'd speculate as to how it came to be. Like the lamp on his desk. We’d wonder if the aluminum came from some mine in the DRC or if it was pressed by some large machine in China. Despite his utter indifference for my own origins, he was fascinated—or perhaps obsessed—with the story of how things come into being.

One day, Fin had been picked up from school by his parents for throwing his desk over and screaming in class. They said he wouldn’t explain why it had happened. The teacher claimed there had been no provocation. The other students were in fact being very nice to him, just making polite conversation.

I asked Fin for the truth. I hadn't known him terribly long, but just like strangers on an airplane, that distance between us made it easier for him to tell me the truth about things he couldn’t tell other people. I think maybe because like him, I didn't really belong in the world in which he resided. I was just as much a stranger as he was. Who was I to judge? Who would I even bother to tell?

Surely, one of the other students must have said or done something, pushed him in some way. But when I asked, he told me that none of them had done anything wrong. That it wasn’t their fault. I asked him to tell me the whole story.

It turns out, some of the kids were playing a new game on one of their smartphones. One of them asked if Fin wanted to try. He got a high score on his very first attempt, which impressed a lot of the other kids. They started to talk to him and ask him questions. I asked him what kind of questions. He said the nice kind. And when I asked him what happened next, he said, Nothing.

Nothing else happened. I didn’t understand. Something else had to have happened, but he said that was it. I asked him why he threw his desk over and screamed at them. He looked at me and asked what he should have done. I told him I didn’t know, but he shouldn’t have thrown the desk over. He said he didn’t want to talk to them anymore and asked me what I do when I don’t want to talk to a nice person anymore. I told him I just say I don't want to talk anymore. He asked if that was true.

Was it true? Have I ever told anyone I didn’t want to talk to them anymore? Has anyone ever just told a perfectly nice person they just didn’t want to talk anymore? I mean, I’ve made plenty of excuses. I've lied about places I had to be, told people I had to use the restroom. But I’ve never told somebody I just wanted to stop talking to them. Why? I’ve felt it plenty of times. I can't even count the number of dull, pointless conversations I've been caught in. But I’ve never told anyone I just wanted to stop talking. Why? Because it’s not how normal people act? But Fin wasn’t normal.

I asked him if that's how he really felt, why didn’t he just tell them that? Never mind what I would do.

He said because they wouldn't understand.

Understand what?

That it wasn't their fault.


Mike LinComment
Lawyering Up: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Inspired by a particularly ripped-from-the-headlines episode of The Good Wife (if you haven't watched this show, shame on you. Are you also against universal suffrage?) which made compelling arguments both for and against the recently controversial provisions of Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, I did a bit of research to better wrap my head around and expand on one notable argument the show made.

Far from being the most sound or reliable legal argument against the RFRA, I found it profoundly exciting for its radical implications. Rather than quoting the episode script verbatim or posting video clips like some transparent Huffington Post article (seriously, stop being so basic and just watch the show), I'll summarize the argument. Put simply, if a baker wishes to refrain from providing cakes for gay weddings, would she be willing to provide cakes for weddings of previously divorced couples? Since the Bible condemns both divorce and homosexuality, it would seem that anyone claiming objections to one should rightfully object to the other.

This isn't a new argument. A cursory examination of any comment thread or forum board debating the issue predictably contains some variation of this argument, typically interchanging the analog to gay marriage for any of the many archaic and ignored stances in the Bible (popular options are rape, slavery, chastity, and mixed fabrics in clothing). The interesting thing about this is how such a commonly used internet argument might be applied meaningfully to judicial considerations, and even more interestingly, how it relates the causes of gay rights and atheism. It's not a coincidence that this argument, while commonly found in debates over gay marriage, also tends to flow quite effortlessly in response to almost any religiously involved argument. After all, the Bible is full of some rather jarring content.

The real question here is whether such an argument could really hold weight in legal proceedings, and if so, why haven't they been used yet? From my readings of one very helpful article coming out of UPenn, "Veganism and Sincerely Held 'Religious' Beliefs in the Workplace: No Protection without Definition" by Donna D. Page (you should also read this because it's interesting, but only after you watch The Good Wife), defining religion has been a contentious legal endeavor in the US for a long time, with the Supreme Court contradicting and revising its own interpretations on multiple occasions. Lower courts have also attempted to define the term with their own novel tests in reaction to the unclear guidance from the higher courts. This is an understandable confusion as no contemplative mind would find the task of defining exactly what constitutes a religion to be easy. The issue cuts a path through semantics and intentions and applies to a broad sample of legal cases.

As it currently stands, one seemingly important test is ascertaining the strength and consistency of one's beliefs. This makes sense as it stems from United States v. Seeger and subsequent cases regarding conscientious objectors where the importance of preventing insincere and self-serving excuses from inclusion under religious protection is obvious. But the question before us now is whether a contemporary religiously motivated individual who objects to servicing gays can rightfully expect religious protections if they only selectively choose which beliefs and provisions of their religion to act on. Would it not be inconsistent practice to claim an objection to homosexuality while wearing a blouse made of wool and cotton? And if we accept that certain individuals might still believe in all the teachings of their religion but simply fail to observe all those teachings in practice, doesn't that place the individual dangerously close to the verge of failing meaningful and substantial commitment to their "religion"? After all, I can claim any number of made up "religious" beliefs to exempt me from taxes, but if the courts see a blatant pattern of behavior flying directly in the face of those beliefs, am I likely to win a right to any exemptions? Probably not.

But the deeper implications of the argument might be far more damaging than just the hard pill conservative bakers nationwide would be forced to swallow. If we are to question the very validity of religious belief based upon consistent and meaningful adherence to doctrines, who among us would truly be capable of claiming any religious protection at all? Who among us in the modern financial credit market of America doesn't collect interest from some bank account or stock portfolio? Who among us hasn't indulged in carnal knowledge with a high school beau whose parents were away on vacation? These may seem simply like prescriptive behavioral doctrines that do not fully define a religious belief, but even if we are to allow that every religion dictates the foundation of its own belief system, Christianity has so often made explicit reference to the Bible as the instrumental guide to knowing and understanding the principles of the religion that it would be impossible not to judge the merits of a proclaimed Christian by their adherence to the prescriptions of the Bible. If the Bible is the word of God and God is the Supreme Being with whom our relationship defines religious status in the court of law, then how can we not consider adherence to the behavioral prescriptions of the Bible to be the very litmus test of true religious status?

And yet doing so would utterly cripple the very notion of religious protections as judicial interpretation of the Bible, or any other holy text for that matter, seems like a task logically incongruent with the very notion of religious protection. Letting the government decide how to interpret a religion in order to determine which religions warrant protection from itself is like allowing Congress to decide how much Congress should get paid—err—letting a pedophile decide the age of consent. But that's exactly the issue the RFRA is forcing us to confront. By bringing issues of religious rights to the courts, we are asking the courts to help define religions, and by asking the courts to define religions, we are asking them to infringe upon religious rights. The problem is ever more complicated by the fact that an argument of the kind mentioned earlier is essentially a thinly veiled critique of the entire Christian belief system. It is not simply an anti-anti-homosexual argument. It is an anti-Bible argument. It attempts to undercut the very foundation of the religion, bringing into question infinitely more perplexing issues regarding religion itself and a discussion of the merits of atheism, which considering the controversy already stirred by gay rights alone, may simply be too much for the American public to handle without the threat of civil war.

It's clear that defining religion is a task heretofore still incomplete, and I am skeptical as to whether it can ever truly be completed. Bearing in mind the philosophical complexity of something like religions and beliefs, it seems perhaps that defining such things presupposes our understanding of far more vexing existential mysteries altogether. And yet here we are now, forced to make those decisions with incomplete knowledge for the sake of pragmatic social order. But then again, isn't that ultimately what all human civilization boils down to?

Mike LinComment

"...why would someone want to make more people when it all just leads up to sitting in an expensive midtown restaurant on an overcast Tuesday trying to eat a poached egg that's gone cold under hollandaise congealed like pale yellow blood, talking about whether anything is okay."

— Catherine Lacey

Daaamn, girl.

Mike LinComment
Catching On

When the consumers catch on to our tricks, we're in trouble. When the clients catch on, we're fucked.

Mike LinComment
Your Friend, Advertising

Advertising is like that ridiculous asshole "friend" you had who talked you into doing some really dumb shit. The one with the questionable morals and the reckless lack of consideration for others. The one you tell people about in disgrace, but not without mentioning how the two of you don't hang out anymore—your choice, of course. And when you tell them the stories of your ill-advised ventures, adventures, and misadventures, everybody laughs and groans out long, incredulous, "Nooooos" and "Seriouslys." And you look back and cringe at the litter of mistakes you've made while you were with your "friend" Advertising, and how every memory sticks out so poignantly like a road sign on a desert highway—ugly as sin, but invaluable against the duotone monotony. Like the memory of your roadtrip could not have been any other way. That asshole friend of yours. What ever happened to him?

Mike LinComment

The morning F train was crowded, and the familiar ticking anxiety of finding some anchor point came soon after shuffling between the doors. I settled in a small space near the entrance where I interjected my arm under that of a tall, bulky man's, grabbing a crowded pole which he'd all but staked with claim posts, like an asshole.
          The train lurched forward, and after the initial jolt, I attempted, unsuccessfully, to maneuver some room to resume reading. Hindered by the sardine-like conditions, I resigned myself to people watching. The car was quiet, save for the rhythmic hum-and-drum of the tracks, until a man behind me cut in, noting aloud his love for being tall. I turned slightly and stole a glancing peek at him; tall indeed, and looking to be in his late twenties. He casually braced himself against the ceiling with a hand. His comment was directed toward a young woman standing beside him, more average in height, seemingly around the same age, and whose only feature I could make out was the wavy, mid-back length espresso hair facing toward me.
          "How tall are you?" she asked.
          "Six-two," he replied eagerly.
          Their conversation ebbed in-and-out of my attention. There was a familiar air to it but tempered by the reservations of new acquaintances. They offered their benign opinions, wry ostentations, playful ripostes; feeling out the others' boundaries.
          Somehow, the banter had snaked its way to an imitative jingle of Drake's "Hold On, We're Going Home."
          "I've got my eyes on you," he sang, leaving open the next line for the girl.
          Here, the conversation took an odd turn when she coyly brought up an esoteric anecdote, cautious to avoid going into too much detail. She referred to it half-seriously as a "movement" her friends had all recently participated in.
          "I think I mentioned it to you before."
          "What is that again?"
          She was shy about answering, admitting some puritanical reservation.
          "I feel weird talking about it with all these people around."—though she'd been the one to bring up the subject. The man leaned down to her, and she whispered an explanation into his ear.          
          "Oh yeah! That. I remember you telling me about that. Did you get one too?" he asked.
          "No, but Michelle bought one for me. She says you aren't 'sexually liberated' unless you have one,'" the girl explained, mocking her friend's non-ironic stance. It was clear at this point that she was talking about buying vibrators with her friends, which gave her roundabout admission of owning one a desperately faux prudish tact. She was performing a balancing act of flirtation, avoiding on the one side the fastidious virgin and on the other the prodigious slut, presenting a tepid medium to her new friend until his endorsement could lend one side validity—sexually liberated...        
          The topic shifted after that, both parties growing conscious of how obvious the secret had become. A few more banalities were exchanged before we arrived at the man's stop, one station ahead of mine. He leaned in and hugged the girl.
          "I'll see you later."
          "See ya," he replied before turning to follow the stream of other passengers debarking at Bryant Park.
          When the train started again, the girl had relocated herself against the doors, fading back into the quiet, keep-it-to-yourself atmosphere that filled the car. The transition back to anonymity must have felt slow going as the lingering attention settled on her stark shift in demeanor, for the doors had barely closed before her phone was out and drawing her attention into its blissfully hazy glow—signal be damned.
          At the next stop, I followed the crowd out with the girl only a few passengers behind, though far enough that I quickly lost sight of her in the migration from the platform. As I trudged routinely up the steps, I rehearsed the flirtatious episode in my mind, turning over the awkward conclusion that I couldn't quite shake.
          Drake be the type of dude that'll remind a girl about getting a vibrator.

Mike LinComment

As the box truck gracelessly hunkered around the bend onto the cross street, I saw through the passenger side window a wiry black man languidly supporting the weight of his head on the base of his palm with the rest of his fingers curled into a loose, retracted fist. His gaunt cheeks were framed by an attenuating jaw which gave his head the anemic shape of a light bulb. I glanced inside the cabin while waiting on the corner with the other pedestrians and caught his eyes in a brief moment of surprise, as if he were shocked to discover he was no longer invisible.

Mike LinComment