In this issue of Banter M:
A Cause For Hope – Ben Cohen argues that far from being despondent about the terrorist attacks in Paris and the general state of the world, we are living in an unprecedented era of hope.
I Joined a Cult – Chez Pazienza is giddily happy about the new lease of life he has found after joining the terrifying cult of 'Soul Cycle'.
How I Ended My Worst Enemy – Tommy Christopher describes how he became friends with his mortal enemy -- a conservative columnist who stood for everything he hates.
A Cause For Hope
by Ben Cohen
In the wake of terrible tragedies that hit close to home, it is incredibly easy to feel that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. This effect is amplified when news of disaster spreads through social media at light speed — images, video and reports happen in real time and in our increasingly interconnected world, people almost always at least know someone in the region affected.
This compounds as memes spread, posts are shared and debates rage, often creating a high degree of anxiety and a loss of hope in humanity’s prospects for the future. The world it seems, is more hateful, more violent and more divided than ever before.
Except for the fact that the exact opposite is true.
After the Paris attacks last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted the following hopeful message on his wall:
After the Paris attacks last week, we made the decision to use Safety Check for more tragic events like this going forward. We’re now working quickly to develop criteria for the new policy and determine when and how this service can be most useful.
Unfortunately, these kinds of events are all too common, so I won’t post about all of them. A loss of human life anywhere is a tragedy, and we’re committed to doing our part to help people in more of these situations.
In times like this, it’s important to remind ourselves that despite the alarming frequency of these terrible events, violence is actually at an all-time low in history and continues to decline.
Deaths from war are lower than ever, murder rates are generally dropping around the world, and — although it’s hard to believe — even terrorist attacks are declining.
Please don’t let a small minority of extremists make you pessimistic about our future.
Every member of our community spreads empathy and understanding on a daily basis. We are all connecting the world together. And if we all do our part, then one day there may no longer be attacks like this.
Zuckerberg is absolutely correct here — the world is becoming less violent by all obvious indicators. As Steve Pinker and Andrew Mack point out in Slate.com:
England, Canada, and most other industrialized countries have also seen their homicide rates fall in the past decade. Among the 88 countries with reliable data, 67 have seen a decline in the past 15 years. Though numbers for the entire world exist only for this millennium and include heroic guesstimates for countries that are data deserts, the trend appears to be downward, from 7.1 homicides per 100,000 people in 2003 to 6.2 in 2012
This also holds for developing nations, despite the often gory stories coming out of places like Mexico, Brazil and South Africa. Note Pinker and Mack:
The rate of Mexican homicide has declined in each of the past two years (including an almost 90 percent drop in Juárez from 2010 to 2012), and many other notoriously dangerous regions have experienced significant turnarounds, including Bogotá, Colombia (a fivefold decline in two decades), Medellín, Colombia (down 85 percent in two decades), São Paolo (down 70 percent in a decade), the favelas of Rio de Janeiro (an almost two-thirds reduction in four years), Russia (down 46 percent in six years), and South Africa (a halving from 1995 to 2011). Many criminologists believe that a reduction of global violence by 50 percent in the next three decades is a feasible target for the next round of Millennium Development Goals.
It is impossible to understand exactly why this is happening given the enormous complexities of human societies, but allow me to take a stab at what I believe to be the major impetus of our increasing humanity and civility towards one another.
The more you begin to look at humans as a biological species intrinsically linked to their natural environment, the more it becomes obvious that as the global population grows, pressure on resources becomes more and more intense. As we become more aware of this pressure, the speed with which we are creating technologies that make (or at least will make) the distribution of resources more efficient is increasing rapidly.
With the advent of the internet after the more basic iterations of radio, phone systems and television, human beings are more connected than ever. Information can be sent anywhere on the planet, and transactions that would have taken months or even years not so long ago now happen instantaneously. These channels of connection help nations mediate relations more efficiently, and help people share valuable knowledge with each other virtually for free.
Paul Stamets, one of the world’s leading mycologists believes that just as fungi created incredibly sophisticated mycelial networks to mediate information and resources between plant life, human beings are doing the same with the internet.
“I believe the invention of the computer Internet is an inevitable consequence of a previously proven biologically successful model,” said Stamets in a fascinating Ted Talk. “The earth invented the computer internet for its own benefit, and we, now, being the top organism on this planet, [are] trying to allocate resources in order to protect the biosphere.”
Plants communicate through mycelial networks
We are, as Stamets suggests, at the very beginning of a hyperconnected planet, and I believe that it is creating a very interesting byproduct: the emergence of a kind of human over mind, or a mass ‘awakening’ of humanity as a single organism.
This might sound a little crazy, but the evidence is becoming difficult to deny. The fact is, violence is not increasing — we are simply becoming more aware of it, and the more aware we become, the less we tolerate it. Our hyper-connectivity is making it easier and easier to mobilize against acts of oppression too: Twitter created a mass revolution in the Middle East as protests against corrupt dictators spread with incredible speed, and the Black Lives Matter movement has created a national dialogue over police brutality against African Americans.
War, institutional violence and discrimination isn’t anything new. Just look back at the black experience in America. 100 years ago, African Americans could be lynched legally without due cause and atrocities covered up without much in the way of national outrage. Now, unnecessary police killings are routinely caught on camera, and those responsible are scrutinized like never before. Of course this isn’t to diminish police brutality or racism, but it does point to the fact that we are heading in the right direction — and quite quickly.
The reactions to the attacks in Paris have been fascinating, and despite the French counterattack in Syria, the response has been incredibly muted compared to other historic tragedies. In 1938, a German Jew named Herschel Grynszpan living in Paris killed the Nazi German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in response to his parent’s expulsion from Germany and increasing acts of violence against Jews living there. The day after, the Nazis effectively criminalized all aspects of Jewish life in Germany, then authorized mass reprisals against them and their property — a terrifying ordeal known as Kristallnacht or “Night of the Broken Glass”.
There will of course be cowardly acts of violence against Muslims in France and other western countries around the world, but governments are not only protecting mosques, but actively helping Muslim refugees fleeing Syria. The most notable responses to the violence have not been calls for retribution, but astonishing statements for unity and peace. A young French father who lost his wife in the Bataclan theater attacks posted the following message on Facebook:
On Friday evening, you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not get my hate. I do not know who you are and I do not want to know, you are dead souls. If this God for whom you blindly killed cast us in his own image, each bullet in the body of my wife will have been a wound to his heart.
So no, I will not grant you the gift of hating you. You have certainly sought it but to respond to hate with anger would be to yield to the same ignorance that has made you what you are. You want me to be scared, that I look at my fellow citizens with a distrustful eye, that I sacrifice my freedom for security. You’ve lost. Same player, shoot again.
I saw her this morning. Finally, after nights and days of waiting. She was just as beautiful as when she left on Friday evening, just as beautiful as when I fell madly in love with her more than twelve years ago. Of course I am devastated by grief, I will let you have this little victory, but it will be short victory. I know that she will be with us each day and that we will find one another in the heaven of free souls to which you will never have access.
We are two, my son and I, but we are stronger than all the armies of the world. However, I do not have any more time to dedicate to you, I have to go to Melvil who is waking up from his nap. He is barely 17 months old, he is going to eat his snack like every day, then we are going to play like every day and all of his life, this little boy will affront you by being happy and free. Because no, you will not get his hate either.
The post has been shared and translated hundreds of thousands of times and stands as the defining reaction to an archaic fragment of humanity that has yet to awaken from the doldrums of tribalism, domination and intolerance.
It is important to understand that the internet and our awakening is still in its infancy. After all, we spend much of the time watching porn, sending cat videos to each other, and following vacuous celebrities on Instagram. But just as adolescents eventually become aware of a world that does not revolve around themselves, humanity may finally be starting to understand that gender, race and ethnicity really don’t mean anything at all — and that the saying “We Are One” isn’t just a New Age mumbo jumbo, but an actual biological fact.
I Joined a Cult
by Chez Pazienza
I don’t like to exercise and yet I live in Los Angeles, which often makes me feel like an outcast. L.A. is a city that seems to exist, as a whole, only to be fit. It often feels like perfection is the only acceptable standard here and even the most unattractive hipsters have figured out ways, through reverting to the look of their bearded, frontier-era forebears, to make their ugliness somehow work for them (or at the very least, to hide it). It’s kind of a miracle to behold when you think about it. But the thing to keep in mind most about living here is that even if you weren’t born with the kind of genes that made you pop out of the womb looking like Zac Efron or Scarlett Johansson, you can, at the very least, get their bodies if you’re willing to work hard enough. Unless you’ve got the money for an excellent cosmetic surgeon, you can’t much change the face you were given, but what you can do is change the rest of you. Which is why everybody here exercises — and why I, again, feel like an outcast. For most of my life my idea of exercise has been lifting a bottle of bourbon to pour myself another glass.
Just because I have an aversion to working out, though, doesn’t mean I don’t want to love it. For the past couple of years here I’ve sat at weekend brunches letting the radiant, healthy glow of men and women in spandex wash over me, knowing that they’d just come from a Pilates class or a hike up Runyon Canyon or any of the myriad other opportunities for exercise in this very big city. I’ve watched them and I’ve wanted to be like them. Even when I was in my 20s I’d crawl out of a darkened apartment at seven in the morning after a night of drug-induced bliss, see healthy people jogging past my car, which I sat in with my dark sunglasses on, and ask myself how they hell they did it — how they apparently made themselves feel really good by making themselves feel really bad for a little while. I received that jolt of pure ecstasy from, well, ecstasy — the drug — and here were folks somehow getting it from making themselves hurt and pushing their bodies really hard. I couldn’t imagine them getting the post-orgasmic payoff I was regularly getting via mine and my friends’ decision to live better through chemistry, but there was no doubt what they were doing would probably extend their lives while mine, not that I cared, would probably kill me in a couple of years.
As I’ve done in determined spurts more than a few times times in my life with varying degrees of eventual failure, when I got to L.A. a few years ago for my third go-round in this city I joined a gym. And I went — as I always had before. But it didn’t take long for me to begin slacking off, either not going at all or getting all pumped about going only to quit after maybe 20 minutes. “Fuck it, that was a good enough workout, right?” I’d say to myself. Realizing that it was getting me nowhere I actually did finally figure out what my problem was and how to solve it. Actually, my problem I already knew — I was undisciplined — but when I got to L.A. and met the woman who would become my girlfriend and then fiancée I saw how to solve it. Taryn was one of those people who took Pilates and Pop Physique and Barre classes. She was always up for a long night of having a great time, but when it came to her fitness regimen, she was serious as the heart attack I was heading toward. That was it — that was the answer: I needed to take a class, something that I had to show up for at the same time every time and which couldn’t be abandoned at any point early without looking like an idiot.
So I signed up for Crossfit, because go big or go home, right? Yeah, that shit killed me. I’m in my mid-40s and after a couple of months of every muscle and nerve in my body screaming at me to cut it the fuck out, I surrendered. With nothing else that thrilled me, I kind of went back to sitting on my couch and making tapping keys on a laptop my main form of exercise. But then something dawned on me — a word that had become a regular part of my friend and fellow ex-CNNer Jacki Schechner’s vocabulary to the point where I found it both intriguing and hilariously odd. That word was SoulCycle. It was a spin class — that much I knew. But unlike most spin classes, it was done largely in the dark by candlelight, with music blaring and instructors who were more like preachers. I think it was the dark that did it for me because I liked the idea that no one would bother watching me. This was important since, to be really honest, I never liked the idea of camaraderie in exercising; I hated the whole we’re-in-this-together vibe of Crossfit because I’m generally a rotten little misanthrope who likes to be by himself. I don’t like people I don’t know watching me struggle. Screw that. But Jacki swore by SoulCycle and the candlelight and darkness sounded like the kind of thing that would make me feel safe and a bit isolated should I want to be. I could even sit in the back row where I didn’t have anyone behind me openly mocking me (which they should).
That was a few months ago. I wound up going in for my first class and have stayed ever since, not scheduling classes occasionally but regularly — like four-times-a-week regularly. I’m friends with my instructors. I’m friends with my fellow riders. I own three SoulCycle t-shirts. I’m a goddamn evangelist to the point where everybody who knows me knows that this is how I’m staying fit. It’s like I’ve joined a cult — and some would say I have. SoulCycle has a reputation for creating fervent adherents to its culture rather than simply on-and-off participants in its classes. It’s understandable given that the institutional psychology behind the product is brilliant. Everything about SoulCycle is specific to its brand and everything pushes that brand hard, which creates a loyalty like almost nothing short of the kind Apple can boast. SoulCycle is so welcoming and everything is so bright and spartan — even the smell of the studios is a specific grapefruit scent that becomes instantly linked to your sense memory — that you want to keep coming back for more. And the program itself, a fast ride on a stationary bike punctuated by choreography and hosted by instructors who make you feel like you’re a god, no matter who you are or how you look, is addictive in all the right ways. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking a SoulCycle class and not wanting to immediately return for another and another — and I’m a lazy asshole who, remember, hates exercise.
Part of the brand loyalty for SoulCycle is the result of another bit of genius marketing that you might recognize if, say, you ever saw The Social Network. You’ll remember in that film that Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg explains how “exclusivity” is an automatic psychological draw and how providing both the illusion of it and the reality of it loops people in in droves. SoulCycle operates under the same kind of thinking. It’s expensive, no doubt. (I justify the expense by reminding myself of all the money I spent over the years on things that were horrible for me and recognizing that it’s time to spend a little on something great for me.) The format for booking rides is also shockingly competitive, no doubt designed to appeal to the type-As who can’t live without their SoulCycle fix: on each Monday at noon, the classes for that week become available for reserving. In other words, you have to be on your phone or in front of your computer at exactly noon to get the really popular classes and instructors. I personally take one of the most popular classes in Los Angeles: Hollywood’s 9:30am class on Saturday, taught by a guy named David, who I firmly believe is the human embodiment of pure inspiration.
In that class, sitting not far from me, you’ll occasionally find Jake Gyllenhaal as well as David and Victoria Beckham. Vanessa Hudgens is a regular. My fiancee and I are as well — which really is shocking when you consider that I can still be found having a couple of bourbons on a Friday night which makes me confused as to how or why I get up early the next morning. But I do, almost every Saturday because it’s just worth it. If you had told me even a year ago that I’d be talking this way, I would’ve laughed in your face — but here I am being every bit the obnoxious evangelist I would’ve mocked others for had I not been drawn in myself. Maybe what makes me feel so good about this is that it really is a community and despite the sticker shock-worthy price tag, the SoulCycle company donates a ton of money to charity and regularly hosts fundraising rides and generally works toward a better world.
A better world. Jesus, again, how in the fuck am I talking like this? I’ve rarely given a damn about the world — far from it. And yet I now have to come to terms with the — dare I say it — positive change this cult I’ve joined has been responsible for in my life. Given that I’m now connected on Facebook to several of my instructors, I wonder sometimes how the bile and anger I crank out daily for this site and through my generally negative thoughts square with the intense zeal my new friends feel about life. For the most part I’ve let them come to me and choose whether or not to friend me so I at least don’t feel like I’m forcing my self-loathing and ferocious outward antagonism into their space. But even knowing that it’s hard to look at my instructors and compare their attitudes with mine. Everybody faces their own shit and nobody’s immune to problems, but there’s little doubt these people deal with their problems better than I do. They share with others and smile through the tragedy and remind themselves that they can get through it. Even with SoulCycle, I go crawl inside a bottle and openly weep. But I’m getting better about not doing that. And maybe I owe it to the example set by these people and this place.
Dammit, how did I get like this? Me of all people. I honestly don’t know, but I like it. And besides, even if SoulCycle can’t change my mind at least it’s changing my body. And in L.A. that’s all that really matters anyway.
How I Ended My Worst Enemy
by Tommy Christopher
Have you ever met someone who just got under your skin, someone about whom you hated every single thing? For me, that person was Caleb Howe, a conservative blogger and subject of my irrational Michael Scott-versus-Toby-esque hatred. But I fixed him real good. This is the as-yet-untold story of how I did that. As always, let’s keep this between us, okay?
I got my start in journalism thanks, in part, to Cenk Uygur. It was 2007. and I was a health insurance consultant who passed the time processing policies by listening to The Young Turks on my MP3 CD player, which was how I learned that AOL was looking for some “citizen bloggers” to start a new website called “The Political Machine.” I submitted a piece of writing, and was one of about ten people selected to write for the new blog, which started up in September, 2007.
It was my first paying job, and although we were mainly supposed to be doing commentary and curation, I was bitten by the campaign reporting bug in fairly short order. Within a few months, I was cranking out a full-time slate of content on top of my dull-time job, and brazening my way into campaign events and press conferences. “AOL does news?” the campaign flacks used to answer, and I’d reply, “They do now!”
My initiative paid off big-time when I started to research a trip to the Democratic National Convention, and my AOL editor told me he’d see about getting the company to pay for it.
As a founding member of the blog and self-starting campaign reporter, I also developed about as much ego as you can muster when you’re getting paid ten bucks a post, so it was with a superior sneer that I greeted the arrival of a new crop of writers at the site in the spring of 2008. One of those writers was Caleb Howe, who had also blogged at Redstate, and to whom I took an immediate dislike.
How much did I dislike Caleb? At that time, I had just started a members-only blog to vent my more profane thoughts, and one of my first posts was entitled “Fucking Caleb Fucking Howe,” so titled because his first post for the site had enraged me. I don’t even remember what it was about now, but every syllable he published made my blood boil.
Looking back on it now, it seems clear that this was mostly a territorial thing. As the star liberal on the site, I thought I was changing the world and winning the good fight, and I thought the editors let Caleb get away with too much. Really, I just wanted to be declared the winner of The Political Machine, and then call it a day.
Instead, the AOL guys decided that they were going to pay to send two writers to each convention that year, one lefty and one wingnut, and guess who they wanted to send to Denver with me? Fucking Caleb Fucking Howe, that’s who!
I was livid. This whole thing had been my idea, and now, I was going to have to share the glory with my detestable right-wing foil? But my rage quickly turned to evil glee as I hatched a plan. AOL booked our flights and hotel rooms, but they were too late to hire a rental car, every car in Denver was reserved for that week. I, on the other hand, had reserved a car weeks before they even announced we’d be going, because I had intended to go either way.
So Caleb Howe could try his best to squeeze out some content in Denver, but I was going to run circles around him in my rental car while he blogged about eating my dust. It was going to be beautiful.
It got even better, though. As the convention approached, AOL held a series of conference calls with the writers for planning purposes, which would be the first time I’d ever “meet” Caleb outside our web page. The first time I heard him speak, I thought, “What a dork! I’m gonna run all over this pushover chump!”
He was friendly and unassuming, and didn’t really take the bait any time I tried to stir up some conflict on those calls. Jerk. I pretended to be nice back, but I was all the while relishing his imminent failure and my brilliant success. This was the Democratic convention; I had sources and contacts and “ins,” and what was he going to have? (Evil laugh)
On the last conference call, I did generously agree to give Caleb a ride to the hotel from the airport, all the better for him to see the high style I’d be riding in while he waited for taxis or took the bus or waited for Uber to be invented.
We also agreed to shoot an idiotic little skit when we met at the airport, in which we each gave each other gifts of tinfoil. I actually think that was my idea, and we did shoot it, but it has never seen the light of day. And sorry, it never will.
But it’s nice that I have that actual video of our first actual face-to-face meeting, because it reminds me of how much I still hated him when I saw his stupid Ronald Reagan-Ché Guevara t-shirt, and still hated him as he walked over to me jealously eyeballing my rented Toyota sedan.
Then, we shook hands and became instant best friends. I wasn’t happy about it, but there it was. We went to this super-expensive media reception that the DNC had rented out an entire amusement park for, and on the way out, he videotaped me hassling Operation Rescue loon Randall Terry. We covered a Westboro Baptist counter-protest. We were getting all kinds of great on-the-ground stuff, like when a bunch of protesters assaulted a Fox News crew, and when it came time to cover official events, we were constantly sneaking past security checkpoints where we weren’t supposed to go.
Meanwhile, our idiot editors wanted us to be covering the convention speeches, which any idiot could just watch on TV, so we also bonded over their idiocy. By the end of the week, we were a team, plotting our takeover of the website from a newer batch of writers.
We’ve been best friends ever since, talking on the phone almost every day, but we’ve only hung out in person a handful of times. We’ve been at CPAC at the same time on a few occasions, and met up in DC here and there, but he’s never been to my house, and I’ve never been to his.
In January of 2008, we both went to Washington, DC to cover Barack Obama’s inauguration, for which I had scored two Blue tickets (the second-highest level, as I recall). Unfortunately, we got separated that morning, so Caleb never made it in, and I wound up watching history being made with an extra ticket in my pocket. The asshole who hated Caleb without ever meeting him would have been delighted. Actually, I’m pretty sure I rubbed his face in it anyway. We became friends, but I stayed an asshole.