Re: Survival Bias (Or: Can you be ‘woke’ and have hope?)


Dear Rebecca:

You’re right. 

You’re right that “finding solace in history is a temptation that, ultimately, I think, is a privilege of survivors.” You’re right that “when we say ‘We survived worse,’ we’re engaging in survival bias.” You’re right about every awful example you use to back up that statement.

And I’m a little bit torn on how to respond.

Because I think hope is important. Because I don’t know how to fight for justice — as opposed to burrow in my bed — without at least a sliver of it. Because the alternative is despair, and despair robs us of our power.

On the other hand, I found this moment oddly embarrassing this week:

“You’ve had a hard time in some interviews expressing a sense of hope in this country,” Colbert said toward the end of the interview. “Do you have any hope tonight for the people out there, about how we could be a better country, we could have better race relations, we could have better politics?”

“No,” Coates said, to scattered laughter. “But I’m not the person you should go to for that. You should go to your pastor. Your pastor provides you hope. Your friends provide you hope.”

“I’m not asking you to make shit up,” Colbert interjected. “I’m asking if you personally see any evidence for change in America.”

“But I would have to make shit up to actually answer that question in a satisfying way,” Coates explained.

Colbert took a second to sigh, in frustration or in sadness. “I hope you’re wrong,” he said.

It was definitely a tone deaf moment on Colbert’s part – having all the appearance of a white guy seeking collective absolution from a smart black guy for all the bad things that have happened and are happening in this country. Yuck.

So maybe I’m every bit as tone deaf in finding solace in humanity’s collective ability to overcome the especially reactionary moments of our recent history.

But let me be clear:

I don’t think that victories are won without sacrifice. I think that too often, the people who make the sacrifice never get to see evidence that their pains bore any kind of positive fruit.

I don’t think we should treat our history as an ever-uplifting march toward progress.

I’m not sure the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. I think our history – humanity’s history – is often one calamitous injustice after another.

I live on land effectively stolen from Native Americans. I wear clothes made by underpaid people. I drive a car that pollutes the air and contributes to climate processes that will take their heaviest toll on the people who can least afford it. All of this is horrible. There have been times in my life when I thought that knowledge could effectively paralyze me.

Is it unjust to leap from that knowledge to hope? Is it wrong to jump from a realization of your complicity in injustice to solace?

Maybe. Probably.

But I do think being alive means being complicit to some degree; it is not a condition we can shake through all the being “woke” in the world. Maybe we can minimize it. For me: The best I can do is to go through the world understanding that the world is broken, that I benefit from that brokenness, that I’m sometimes blind to all the ways that’s true … but also to hope that maybe, just maybe, things can get a little better and maybe, just maybe, I can have a small hand in that.

Collectively, politically, we have a related problem: Part of the Trumpian backlash is that there’s a whole lot of people out there who do not want to hear about their complicity, who rebel against the notion, and who will never, ever ally themselves with folks who tell them about it. Unfair? But politically, folks on the left have a reputation for being grim, joyless know-it-alls. It is difficult to hector humans into progress; some folks need to be inspired. I’m not sure we’re always great at that, because – for all the reasons you mention – it’s hard to be honest and inspirational when there’s so much crappy stuff happening in the world.

It’s possible that the more we embrace our righteousness, the more difficult we make it to achieve even a rough approximation of justice. Life is full of such paradoxes, of messy-ness.

So you’re right. It’s not fair to take solace from history. But I must, even if that solace is tempered, haunted by history’s ghosts. Otherwise, despair wins. And that makes justice that much more difficult to achieve.

Trying to be better than I am,


Survival Bias in the Time of Trumpism

Dear Joel,

I’m glad you are finding some solace in Rick Perlstein’s new history of American conservatism. I’ve argued before that Perlstein’s surprise at how nasty Trumpism is raises suspicions that he doesn’t pay much attention to those of us who have been concerned for years about the Republican party’s hate. Still, I’d love to see more historians come to terms with the ways that racism, in particular, has informed conservative politics for ages.

I appreciate the impulse to find some assurance in history. We’ve been through worse. We’ve done this before. The nativism and racism and selfishness at the heart of Trumpism isn’t new. As stirring as it might feel to say This isn’t America. We’re better than this, Trumpism isn’t an anomaly but part of a historical pattern. As history shows us, this is exactly America. We’re a nation founded on slavery and indigenous “removal,” through murderous violence and genocide, by guns and smallpox and now drones and nuclear warheads. We were a colony, and we are a colonizer. Puerto Rico shows us that we’re post-colonial like Barack Obama showed us that we were post-racial. That is, we’re not. Many white Americans, including those in government, are rooting for Puerto Ricans to die so that rich whites have a new, warm place to retire cheaply.

It can feel wrenching that we’ve not come any farther, but, then again, why should we have? Our political system was designed to move slowly, and the winners in our system have been practicing this for half a millennium now. They’re pretty good at it.

And I like looking at historical patterns (and sociological trends) for assurance. There is a relief in being in, on average, average. I’m like most Americans in lots of ways: disgusted by Trump, supportive of a wide range of policies to reduce gun violence, a believer in climate change.  It’s nice knowing I’m not alone. Social media hasn’t so much been a bubble for me as a connection to others who think that open carry, partisan gerrymandering, and the Jones Act are anti-democratic. Facebook lets me rest, for a moment, knowing that I’m not alone, and that keeps me calling my members of Congress to let them know that we’re out here, wanting better governance.

But finding solace in history is a temptation that, ultimately, I think, is a privilege of survivors. And we should resist it.

When we say “We survived worse,” we’re engaging in survival bias. Columbus’ arrival to the New World brought with it death for many people, from the indigenous people who quickly succumbed to new diseases to the enslaved Africans, 40% of whom died on route between Africa and their planned destination. Historians disagree as to how many people were here—hundreds of nations, surely, and perhaps as many as 12 million people—but we know that many didn’t survive. During the Civil War, 750,000 soldiers died due to Southern defense of slavery. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, Louis Allen, Willie Brewster, James Early Chaney, Johnnie Mae Chappell, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Henry Hezekiah Dee, Cpl. Roman Duckworth, Jr., Medgar Evers, Rev. Willie Edwards, Jr., Andrew Goodman, Paul Guihard, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Rev. Bruce Klunder, George Lee, Herbert Lee, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Charles Eddie Moore, Oneal Moore, William Lewis Moore, Mack Charles Parker, Lt. Col Lemuel Penn, Rev. James Reeb, John Earl Reese, Michael Henry Schwerner, Lamar Smith, Emmett Till, Virgil Lamar Ware, Samuel Leamon Younge, Jr., Martin Luther King, Jr., and thousands of others didn’t survive Jim Crow or the fight for Civil Rights. In the 1980s, AIDS was an epidemic for gay men; many of them died. Every day, nearly three American women don’t survive domestic violence; very often, their children are killed with them, as just happened in your town. On Monday, 59 people didn’t survive our nation’s armed crisis of white masculinity.


Above, a stained glass window from Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where four African American girls were killed in a 1963 bombing. The people of Wales provided the church with this window, designed by Jeff Petts, during the renovation. It’s central image is a Black Christ, crucified. The words say “You do it to me”–an invocation of Matthew 25:45, when Jesus tells that whoever feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, offers hospitality to the homeless, cares for the ill, visits the imprisoned, or provides drink for the thirty. But we also hear in the words Jesus’ rejection of those who fails to care for the vulnerable–those who leave the poor hungry, cold, sick, lonely, and thirsty. Neglect and rejection are actions we do, too. 

And those are the wounds we self-inflict. Abroad, even more people don’t survive our mistakes. As terrible as Trump is, it’s possible we’ll escape his presidency without the hundreds of thousands dead that George W. Bush is responsible for.

Can we learn from history? Of course. And I think that America is strong; indeed, some parts of our system (like the electoral college) are too resilient. Though we will be damaged for a long time, our nation will likely survive this. Perhaps we will hit an anti-democratic low that inspires true patriots to fight for the right of each person to be represented fairly in government. Two recent elections in which the popular winner lost the presidency, Russian interference, voter suppression, the vast power of big money donors, and the Trump children’s bribing their way out of federal charges hasn’t brought it yet, but maybe. Maybe it will even come from the right, led by people like Evan McMillan. Hell, maybe Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

More practically, I think things will get better through sheer demographic attrition. While, as the alt-right shows us, there are terrible people of every generation, the sheer size of the Baby Boom cohort amplifies how “deplorable” many of them are. Literally, their political (and economic and environmental) choices are killing us.

Many people aren’t surviving. The less powerful die as the rest of us wait for history to pass. We shouldn’t get comfortable with that.


Can compassion for Tim Murphy help us feel compassion for women?

Dear Joel,

In an otherwise terrible week, a ray of good news: U.S. Representative Tim Murphy, a Republican of Pennsylvania, thought he might have gotten his mistress pregnant and pressured her to have an abortion. Murphy, a social conservative with high ratings from pro-life and “family values” groups, kept pushing for anti-abortion laws just days after pressuring his mistress to get one.

Now, don’t think I’m crass. I’m not calling this “good news” because I enjoy watching hypocritical social conservatives get exposed. I’m calling it “good news” because it makes the value of abortion very clear.

Murphy is the archetypical pro-life villain: a man who wants to escape the consequences of his sexual immorality through a coerced abortion. Murphy and his mistress have every privilege that makes pregnancy preventable: money, education, access to reliable birth control. And still, he couldn’t control his sexual appetites, couldn’t stay faithful to his wife, couldn’t be bothered with contraception, couldn’t take on the responsibility of an unwanted pregnancy or child. And here is what the villain in the pro-life story would have done,  had Shannon Edwards, thirty years his junior and a work colleague, been pregnant: he pays for the abortion, dumps her, and threatens to ruin her life if she speaks up. It’s very easy to imagine Murphy doing just that.

All this despite, the moral influence of Murphy’s education in a private Catholic college and university and of St. Thomas More Catholic Church, where he and his wife attend services. Murphy has been taught that life begins at conception, and he is well-versed in pro-life rhetoric and scientific claims about fetal development. He knows that sex can lead to pregnancy. (It’s kinda key in Catholicism.) He knows that by the time a woman knows she’s pregnant, the fetus she is carrying has a beating heart, and he knows that abortion stops that heart from beating. (It’s kinda key in the pro-life movement.)

Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 11.19.31 AM.png

Above, a tweet from Rep. Tim Murphy includes a photo a”Precious Feet” pin, a lapel pin representing a fetus’ feet at 10 weeks of gestation. Can a person believe that abortion kills children and still think its acceptable in order to protect himself? Representative Tim Murphy apparently thinks so. 

But he was willing to do that to save his own sorry hide.

And still, yesterday, he voted to ban abortion after a fetus is 20 weeks of age except in cases when a pregnant woman is a victim of rape or incest or when her life is in danger. To be clear: the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act is not about fetal pain. Our best science says that fetuses don’t feel pain until well after 20 weeks of pregnancy.  It is about limiting the ability of women to get an abortion. On one end, we have a rash of laws–new waiting periods that require multiple trips to far off clinics, for example–that increase the cost of getting an earlier abortion. On the other, the House is trying to make it impossible to get abortions in the second half of pregnancy. Between week 6 of pregnancy (when many women are figuring out that they are pregnant) and week 20, there are just 14 weeks to decide that you want an abortion, raise the money, find a physician you trust to do it, and get it done.

And 20 weeks isn’t a random number. It’s when women are receiving the results of the prenatal tests that indicate whether a fetus has a high likelihood of a fetal abnormality or a chromosomal disorder.  This ban is about reducing abortion without providing women or families any real help in addressing unwanted pregnancies or rearing a child with significant health needs. Like almost all pro-life legislation, it does nothing to lower the need for abortion or care for families.

I suppose Murphy has asked Jesus for forgiveness for his intention of murdering his (nonexistent) unborn child and is good with God now, though I hope his priest denies him communion this Sunday and that there is a host of reporters sitting in the pews to witness it. Perhaps he can even justify his anti-abortion vote by saying that he personally knows how easy it is to be tempted by a wrong choice and that the government has the responsibility to help women not make it.

Instead of shaming women, though, Murphy might reach out to us: Many of us know what it’s like to face an unwanted pregnancy. Half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned, so a lot of women have likely felt the panic, or at least something like it, that Murphy felt. Even those of us who have “chosen life” have had moments of despair thinking about what we are giving up when we have children. We wonder, as perhaps Murphy did, how we were going to survive it.

If we can be compassionate to Murphy, who is a hypocritical scumbag and still has the right to pressure his girlfriend to terminate a pregnancy, then we can be compassionate to other pregnant people. We’ve created an America that makes unplanned pregnancy a terrible burden. It’s rational to want to end pregnancies that will result in babies that ruin our lives. If the rich and powerful feel that way, of course the poor and vulnerable, who cannot absorb the cost of a child like Murphy could, will. Rather than making life harder for these people, we should be doing what we know reduces abortion: prevent pregnancy and attack poverty. 


For a little perspective: Read

Dear Rebecca:

Everything feels shitty this week, right? Like we’re at the end of the world and nothing will ever be good again?

It especially feels that way, I suspect, if you marinate — as I do too much — in the tidal waves of political rage that define much of Twitter and Facebook. But I have a solution to this: Read. It can help one regain perspective.

I’ve been reading Rick Perlstein’s “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus,” which is turning out to be handy as a guide to the roots of our modern politics, but also to realize that while history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, it very often does rhyme.

There’s the apocalyptic rhetoric:

Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 8.23.45 AM.png
The “deplorables” have always resented the elites: Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 8.25.37 AM

Conservative leaders tend to resent compromise or negotiation of any sort:

Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 8.27.22 AM.png

And Americans are always arming the shit out of themselves to ward off tyranny, with the side effect of terrorizing the rest of us.

There’s more — and hey, I’m only a quarter of the way through the book — and while it’s all kind of terrifying, it’s also weirdly comforting: There’s little that’s new in our troubles. Mostly we survived. Which means we can do it again.

Reading might not save us. But at least we’ll die with a head full of facts and stories.

Literarily, Joel

The destructiveness of Trumpian immigration enforcement


Dear Rebecca:

I’m so glad that Kishwer Vikaas shared her experience with us of being a DACA attorney and how that effort is rooted in her faith. I’ve got some additional immigration thoughts today, myself.

The folks at Splinter did an open-records request of President Trump’s Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) hotline and found some ugly stuff: “Internal logs of calls to VOICE obtained by Splinter show that hundreds of Americans seized on the hotline to lodge secret accusations against acquaintances, neighbors, or even their own family members, often to advance petty personal grievances.”

Here are the kind of reports VOICE is getting:

Caller requested to report her mother-in law and sister-in law. Caller stated these individuals came to the U.S. as tourists and stayed in the U.S. in order to get legal status.

Caller stated the undocumented individual is destroying her family and is committing adultery.

Caller requested to report his ex wife that is undocumented as an overstayed on her visa.

Caller requested to report the illegal alien because the illegal alien will not let her see [her] granddaughter.

It gets worse. Splinter reports “there are also multiple calls from people hoping to turn ICE enforcement against the people who have accused them of domestic violence.” It would appear the hotline, then, is being used by abusers to rid themselves of battered women who stood up for themselves.

A few months ago, I asked if some kinds of immigration enforcement were more criminal, in a sense, than illegal immigration itself. “A key feature of any crime worthy of the name, it seems to me, is that the act of committing it is clearly and negatively disruptive, either to an individual life — a person may be injured, killed, deprived of property or merely their sense of well-being — or to the community at large.”

Governance under Donald Trump is more destructive than the ills it tries to solve. Not a surprise, but breathtaking to see it in action.

In anger,

DACA, Jesus, and family: A letter

A DACA demonstration, by Bread for the World.

Dear Family,

Greetings to my dear ones across the world. Some of you are in Pakistan. Some in Canada. Many of you are scattered across the United States—Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, Michigan, Kansas, California, etc. I am writing to all of you to tell you a little about myself. I know we see each other at weddings or funerals every few years. We hug and we take photos for Facebook (so we can show off our saris). But I am starting to realize we do not really know each other.

Let me explain.

As you know, I am an immigration attorney. But the work I do is public interest law — I serve low-income families, the vulnerable. Part of the reason I do this work is because of the religious tradition I inherited from you. I am proud to be descended from generations of Pakistani Christians who took me to church every Sunday and made me memorize chapters and chapters of the Bible. It shaped who I am. My values.

You taught me how to love. Empathize. How to be kind. Serve others. And now here I am, working with undocumented immigrants during a time when they are being vilified by our own president.

Soon, the government will stop accepting renewal applications for DACA aka Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA helped almost 800,000 young men and women who came here as children get protection from deportation. DACA helped them to work legally and achieve their dreams of going to college, owing a home, starting a family.

Fam, I wish you could come and follow me around for a day. For the last few weeks, young people have sat across from me and cried as they talk about the fear they feel. They’ve shown me their grades, pictures of their toddlers and talked about graduate schools plans they are afraid to pursue. And now they’re left waiting. Wondering. Afraid.

When I see them, I see my parents, uncles and aunts when they immigrated to the States. I see you.

This is wrong. This isn’t the Christianity you taught me. You taught me Christianity is beyond all borders and nations. You taught me “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” You taught me to treat everyone like an angel. You would say, “What would Jesus do?” You made me sing, “Jesus loves the little children/All the children of the world.” Does he though? Do you?

Do you know anyone with DACA? Odds are you do. You just don’t know you do. I am very thankful to know people like my former coworker and friend Rossmeri Ramirez. She has DACA and is speaking out about it. But we need others to speak out and support immigrants. We need you. I need you.

Family, we are scattered across the globe. We are the same. We eat the same food, flavor our basmati rice with the same mango pickle. We like the same clothes, we wear the same gold jewelry. We go to the same churches. But politically, we are very, very different.

Can you tell I am angry? I apologize. But I am angry. You shaped me into the person I am. You are proud of me. You believe in service and missions. And yet your politics is hurting the very people I am working to protect. This isn’t the Christianity I want to know. Can you explain it to me?


Kishwer Vikaas is an immigration attorney living in Sacramento, California. She grew up attending Mennonite church and school in Lancaster County, Philadelphia and South Jersey. She used to write about South Asian pop culture for Sepia Mutiny, MTVDesi, The Aerogram, etc. but has since retired. You can find her on Twitter @phillygrrl.

Thoughts and prayers for Las Vegas

Dear Rebecca:

When a horrific event happens, as happened in Las Vegas overnight, I’m torn between competing impulses:

• To cry for justice.
• To shut up.

The two impulses aren’t necessarily contradictory. One can hope for justice and still have a sense that the loss of live deserves a little reverence, a little silent contemplation, a little bit of awe for the horror we humans can visit upon one another.

We’re really good, as a society, at arguing about what’s right, but we’re really shitty at taking the moment for silence. This is understandable: To take that moment feels like conceding important rhetorical ground to people we don’t really believe have our best interests at heart.

I think it’s still important anyway.

So here’s the prayer I composed around the time of the Orlando massacre. It continues to be useful, unfortunately.

Lord, forgive me.

Lord, forgive me my need to make a point right away when tragedy happens instead of taking a moment to lament and grieve.

Lord, forgive me my refusal to see the fears that other people have and to understand how those fears shape their responses to each other, and to the tragedies of the day.

Lord, forgive me for failing to discern evil where it exists, and for inferring evil from mere disagreement.

Lord, forgive me for the anger that springs up in my heart when people refuse to give me and my friends the benefit of the doubt.

Lord, forgive me my failure to give the benefit of the doubt.

Lord, forgive me for any action that compounds the evil of an evil act.

Lord, guide me to help create peace and diminish injustice where evil is done.

Lord, forgive me my refusal to shut the hell up.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

Lord: Comfort and bless the families of those who suffer tonight.


I will come girded for battle tomorrow. Today, I mourn.