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Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Crazy People Aren’t Real

A quote from the story “Jumpers” by Ted Friend, about Golden Gate Bridge suicides:

“Kevin Briggs, a friendly, sandy-haired motorcycle patrolman, has a knack for spotting jumpers and talking them back from the edge; he has coaxed in more than two hundred potential jumpers without losing one over the side. He won the Highway Patrol’s Marin County Uniformed Employee of the Year Award last year. Briggs told me that he starts talking to a potential jumper by asking, ‘How are you feeling today?’ Then, ‘What’s your plan for tomorrow?’ If the person doesn’t have a plan, Briggs says, ‘Well, let’s make one. If it doesn’t work out, you can always come back here later.'”

I cried when I read that passage. Later in the essay, Friend reports:

“Kevin Briggs, the empathic patrolman, was surprised to learn, when he and some colleagues had a week’s training with a psychiatrist earlier this year, that suicidal people ‘are real people—not crazy people but real people suffering from depression.'”

The implied dichotomy is crazy people versus real people. So… I’m not a real person? Or maybe he means that paranoid schizophrenics, “raving” homeless people, aren’t real. If you’re too crazy you don’t qualify as “normal” so you’re hardly a person at all, right? This is Briggs’ insight after mental health training.

I can’t believe this ludicrous world. Whenever it starts to seem okay, I read something like this.

All the troubles lie on his shoulder
Photo by Rana Ossama.

You’re Not Tech Scum; That Was Mean

After I published the “r u tech scum” article, my cousin Peter Downs commented on Facebook:

“I think both you and Robles have some strong points but I also think the way you talk about programmers is unnecessarily demeaning and overall harmful to your argument. Labeling all the programmers as ‘tech boys’ or ‘sans personality’ is a pretty great way to ensure that they don’t listen to your arguments.”

Peter has a good point. (We’ve actually had a version of this discussion before; I probably should have learned my lesson then.) He’s right that using intentionally divisive terms like “tech scum” is shitty, and I shouldn’t have done that, even for the sake of an intriguing headline. As for the “sans personalities” quip, that was inspired by OkCupid dates I’ve been on with startup guys—but it was still definitely unfair.

evict google : sidewalk graffiti, san francisco (2014)
funeral march -- signs of gentrification : mural, the mission, san francisco (2013)

Photos by torbakhopper, 1 & 2.

At this juncture, Broke-Ass Stuart needs to be quoted:

“I […] agree that the culture of the tech community seems to be one that is tone deaf to the [role] it has played in San Francisco’s gentrification, [but] the tech workers aren’t necessarily to blame for the city’s change. Yes, they are the ones moving into spaces previously inhabited by lower wage peoples. And yes, the unexamined sense of entitlement that seems to be part of it is frustrating to say the least […] but still, they aren’t the real bad guys.

The real villains in the San Francisco housing crisis are the real estate developers and realtors who are making obscene amounts of money off people’s sorrow. And of course the politicians who are in their pockets.” [Bold added; links in original.]

Basically, yeah. I do want to add something Ryan Holiday wrote about #GamerGate, which applies here if you mentally tweak it a bit:

“Just because you don’t personally condone the threats and attacks doesn’t mean your group isn’t responsible. In fact, one of the basic tenets of our legal system is essentially ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ when it comes to gangs, groups and conspiracies. This is especially true, I said, ‘with movements with vague, amorphous goals and little centralized leadership. It makes it hard (or rather easy) to say the good stuff is us, the bad stuff is not us. Conversely, it allows opponents to paint you as the opposite. It also creates an environment in which a lot of people are riled up and members who are loosely associated can do things that reflect poorly on everyone else.'” [Bold added; link in original.]

Here’s my point: there are things about tech/startup culture that suck—click the links in the Broke-Ass Stuart quote and Google “women in tech” for examples—and everyone who benefits from startup-driven displacement, racism, and misogyny bears responsibility to disavow what is done in their name.

Peter has done that, the disavowing, so he’s justified in being annoyed when I describe techies in a one-dimensional, derisive way. It’s important to acknowledge that a lot of people who work in tech are awesome and doing the best that they can like we all are, as we stumble through an economic/political system that makes it hard to move without stepping on someone else.

I will try not to be so reductive in the future, and I hope Peter will call me out again when I inevitably mess up. Hooray for discourse!

r u tech scum? what’s ur rent

Update: I added a follow-up post ameliorating/apologizing for some of this.

Gentrification is ever the hot topic. People have plenty to say about the slow, inexorable process that transforms cities, arguably destroying them. Tons of new residents pay much higher rent and are surrounded by new businesses—not the shops that were there before. Not the shops that previously persisted for decades. So of course you end up with a new city. What else could possibly result?

The Silicon Valley renaissance of tech startups has filled San Francisco with a new wave of upper-class workers. Most of them are white or Asian. They can pay thousands of dollars monthly for a cute place in the Mission, or maybe a cute palace in the Mission. The market’s inscrutable wisdom has responded. No; that’s an obfuscation. The developers, in their highly scrutable desire to get as rich as fucking possible, have responded. Tim Redmond writes on 48hills, “When you put new market-rate housing in a vulnerable, low-income community you threaten the fabric of that community. Luxury housing isn’t compatible with community-based small businesses, nonprofits and low-cost restaurants that cater to a working-class clientele.” I’m tempted to revert to my middle-school self and say, “Duh.” It seems self-evident.

Tony Robles, a native San Franciscan of color, mourns that his city “has rolled out the red carpet for tech priests and priestesses, but that carpet is stained with the blood of eviction and removal; it is stained with the shoeprints of arrogance and a lack of grace”. Robles predicts that gentrification will kill San Francisco, obliterate what makes it great. What made it great. As more tech moguls move in, more “blood of eviction” is wrung from the places where lower-income residents used to be, well, residents.

the city is dying

In case anyone can’t read the image: “Make no mistake, the city is dying. It may look alive on the surface with cranes and buildings stabbing into the skyline, but it is a wrinkled postcard with a facelift, a world class city reduced to an app.” Quote from “The culture of deletion” by Tony Robles, published on 48hills. Original background photo by Michelle O’Riordan.

Here is the irony: Gentrification is spurred by upper- and middle-class workers’ desire to live in a cool city. I can understand why people want to live in San Francisco or Oakland, as opposed to Palo Alto, the world’s most shockingly dull college town. I don’t fault anyone for that. Unfortunately, when the city is filled with tech workers, sans personalities, and the rent skyrockets, the people who made the city cool in the first place can’t afford to live there. Everyone flees to Oakland, and then the same thing happens again. Maybe El Cerrito is next.

Mohsin Hamid writes for The New York Times Magazine, “There is magic in a mongrelized society. To live among those who are unlike us gives us permission to admit that we ourselves may be unlike what is expected”. Hamid continues to explain that when everyone around us looks the same, we feel that we must preserve homogeneity. More dangerously, when someone becomes brave enough to disrupt the crowd of beige, to be or behave differently, they are persecuted. I think Hamid’s phrasing is perfect. “There is magic in a mongrelized society.”

Without affordable housing, San Francisco runs the risk of becoming a pure-bred society. Aside from the people who sleep on the streets, everybody interesting will live elsewhere. And then the agents of gentrification will wonder, “Why did we move here, anyway?”

A lot of this has to do with the concept of “deserving”. Who deserves to live in San Francisco? Just tech workers? Just the people who grew up there? Just lower-income people? Who does the city belong to? Presumably the city belongs to the people who comprise it at a given point in history. Meaning that soon the city will belong to startup culture.

I think the most dangerous attitude is that only people who can afford astronomical rent “deserve” to live in San Francisco. As always, we sacrifice the best parts of our humanness when we insist that basic rights have to be earned. As a society, as a country, we’ve decided that certain precursors to safety belong to everyone. For instance, food and shelter are essential. If a person can’t work, or works but doesn’t make enough money, the state theoretically furnishes them with food and shelter.

And yet, as Brian Dean writes, “Poverty is still widely viewed as a moral failure of the individual, unless the self-flagellation of uninterrupted hard work is on display.” When economic policy expert Robert Reich explains why we need to transform our culture around the concept of work, of labor, of job, he asserts that “the biggest economic challenge we face isn’t using people more efficiently. It’s allocating work and the gains from work more decently.” [Bold added.]

Rohin Guha explains in “A Nation of Others”, essaying on the fear that comes with belonging to a marginalized race, “We’re all just bags of meat and bones and we all have only the lives we are afforded.” Perhaps Guha should have said, “We all have only the lives we can afford.”

I’m starting to diverge from my original topic, but the “erratic Marxist” Yanis Varoufakis is worth quoting at length:

“The problem with capitalism is not that it is unfair but that it is irrational, as it habitually condemns whole generations to deprivation and unemployment and even turns capitalists into angst-ridden automata, living in permanent fear that unless they commodify their fellow humans fully so as to serve capital accumulation more efficiently, they will cease to be capitalists. So, if capitalism appears unjust this is because it enslaves everyone; it wastes human and natural resources; the same production line that pumps out remarkable gizmos and untold wealth, also produces deep unhappiness and crises.”

Pit Bull Apologism

beautiful pit bull with glowing eyes -- photo by Douglas McCoy
Photo by Douglas McCoy.

I like pit bulls. I know that I’m supposed to think they’re scary and awful, and honestly some pit bulls are scary and awful. My boyfriend lives in Oakland and I live in a similarly “sketchy” city, so I walk past a lot of angry, musclebound dogs barking furiously behind chain-link fences.

One of my friends in high school had three pit bulls, barely trained, and I endured excessive face-licking from her favorite because I was frightened to stand up to Peanut, a holy terror of a terrier. (Pit bulls are terriers. Is that classification common knowledge?) Peanut smelled bad and he was stronger than me and he was aggressive when he didn’t get his way.

But here’s the important thing: that wasn’t Peanut’s fault. That was my friend’s fault, and her parents’ fault, for not teaching him appropriate discipline. Some dogs are naturally boisterous and their enthusiasm can’t be totally suppressed, but they can be trained not to terrify guests. You can’t beat a dog into submission and you should never try, but you can firmly teach a dog that you are the authority. They must learn to rely on you when they feel threatened. Dogs need firm guidance, like little kids.

I mean, it’s not foolproof. I’ve never heard of anyone who could get their dog not to bark at the door.

Part of the problem with pit bulls is that people expect to give them the same level of training you would give to a small, ineffectual dog, and have that be enough. A spaniel or a Chihuahua doesn’t require the same level of discipline that a pit bull does, because a Chihuahua would have to work really hard to kill someone. On the other hand, a pit bull is a physically formidable animal. They were bred for dog-fighting, a despicable practice that unfortunately still goes on in secret. The ASPCA’s “Position Statement on Pit Bulls” is worth quoting at length:

“Today’s pit bull is a descendant of the original English bull-baiting dog—a dog that was bred to bite and hold bulls, bears and other large animals around the face and head. When baiting large animals was outlawed in the 1800s, people turned instead to fighting their dogs against each other. These larger, slower bull-baiting dogs were crossed with smaller, quicker terriers to produce a more agile and athletic dog for fighting other dogs.

Some pit bulls were selected and bred for their fighting ability. That means that they may be more likely than other breeds to fight with dogs. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be around other dogs or that they’re unpredictably aggressive. Other pit bulls were specifically bred for work and companionship. These dogs have long been popular family pets, noted for their gentleness, affection and loyalty. And even those pit bulls bred to fight other animals were not prone to aggressiveness toward people. Dogs used for fighting needed to be routinely handled by people; therefore aggression toward people was not tolerated. Any dog that behaved aggressively toward a person was culled, or killed, to avoid passing on such an undesirable trait. […]

It is likely that that the vast majority of pit bull type dogs in our communities today are the result of random breeding—two dogs being mated without regard to the behavioral traits being passed on to their offspring. The result of random breeding is a population of dogs with a wide range of behavioral predispositions. For this reason it is important to evaluate and treat each dog, no matter its breed, as an individual.”

Leaving temperament aside, pit bulls were bred to fuck up other creatures, so they’re better at doing it. Pit bulls are more physiologically capable; they have bone-breaking jaws. Many dogs of various breeds attack humans and other pets, but pit bulls and similarly stigmatized breeds manage to do significant damage.

Furthermore, pit bulls have a self-perpetuating reputation. People who want aggressive dogs—like drug dealers; seriously, it’s not just a stereotype—opt for pit bulls, and then encourage them to be aggressive. Or they leave the dogs out in the yard all day, where they’re bored and poorly socialized. Those are the dogs that bark at me when I walk from the train station to Alex’s house.

Lastly, the media exacerbates all of this with sensationalist, selective coverage. “Pit Bull Maims Baby” is a much more exciting and controversial headline than “Small Fluffy Dog Bites Child; Band-Aid Needed”.

So that’s my take on pit bulls. When they’re treated well and trained properly, they are sweet animals and I love ‘em. When they’re not, I steer clear but I blame the owners.

baby pit bull puppy -- photo by Beverly
Photo by Beverly.

Too Much Caffeine LOL (Once Again)

I used to worry about seizing the zeitgeist. Okay, I still worry about it: I need to write relevant things that people want to read. But it’s not hard. A couple of quotes from Heaping Torso got a bunch of reblogs on Tumblr so I’m probably pretty good, right? I don’t need to check for trending hashtags or survey the tastemakers, those nebulous powerful nobodies, in order to make art. I just have to work on things that interest me, and hope I’m naturally cool enough for other people to be interested too. I’m anxious to push to the front of the pack but it’s better to be on the side investigating something that most people haven’t touched. God, I’m gonna have a fucking panic attack. I can’t do that. I can’t be original.

Sometimes I consider moving to some irrelevant small town in Central Valley and being the beginning of an art scene, paying cheap rent and living through the glory days that my heroes talk about. San Francisco before the AIDS crisis and the tech boom. (Hopefully the cultural shortcut conveys what I mean.) I want to create a ground floor for myself to get in on. My dream is that twenty years from now I’ll be mentoring new versions of myself in a town whose name we don’t know yet.

I mentioned this fantasy to my cousin and he warned me not to dismiss what’s already in these small towns. They’re not San Francisco or Oakland, places with exciting histories and mainstream recognition, but they’re not nothing. Fair criticism; he was right to contradict me. You can’t go into a place expecting to be better than everyone else and have them embrace you; pride goeth before a fall.

But I don’t think I’m entirely wrong. Have you been to these rural towns? There’s nothing there. Fucking nothing. No bookstores, no cafes, not even churches. It’s full of Americana to romanticize, grazing horses and old rusty cars in every yard, but there’s a reason why everyone moves to cities instead of the other way around.

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