The Long Problem

I knew his dad. Everything is wrong.

I never met Robert Aaron Long, the man who killed eight employees of Asian massage parlors in Atlanta this past week. But I knew his dad. And watching how the media has covered this over the past few days strikes me as a case study in how the media engenders terrible and unproductive conversations for profit. There are productive conversations to be had in this space, but we simply aren’t having them. We are incapable of having them, not just personally or as a culture, but the business of media itself is trapped in a diversified decentralized version of the “Cobra Effect,” where everything we do makes things worse instead of better. Which means these problems will never ever go away.

Let’s talk about the Cobra Effect, then about my connection to Robert’s dad, then what’s happening in the media, then what should be happening.

The Cobra Effect

When the British were occupying India they tried to get rid of cobras, because cobras are bad. They offered bounties for dead cobras. Locals killed cobras and got bounty money. Then the locals started breeding cobras to sell to the British, because that’s way easier than killing wild cobras. Then the British got wind of the scheme and cancelled it. Then the breeders turned the cobras loose and the number of wild cobras went up instead of down.

When the French occupied Vietnam, they offered a bounty on rats. Instead of breeding them, the Vietnamese rat catchers would sever the tails off the rats, turn the tails in for bounties, and turn the rats loose to breed more rats.

The French and British clearly never read Mark Twain. From his autobiography:

Once in Hartford the flies were so numerous for a time, and so troublesome, that Mrs. Clemens conceived the idea of paying George a bounty on all the flies he might kill. The children saw an opportunity here for the acquisition of sudden wealth. ... Any Government could have told her that the best way to increase wolves in America, rabbits in Australia, and snakes in India, is to pay a bounty on their scalps. Then every patriot goes to raising them.

The Cobra Effect happens when a centralized institution offers an incentive and the incentive leads to the exact opposite result they or we should want.

The Father of Mr. Long

I’m not going to name him here despite his name probably being googlable at this point, but I worked with the shooter’s father, herein “Dad,” for the better part of a decade at an engineering company in Atlanta. It was a diverse workplace, with plenty of women, black folks, and such. My boss was a Jehovah’s Witness and naturalized Eritrean immigrant. “Dad” worked in a different group, but we had lunch regularly.  We only ever had one employee in our 40+ member firm who expressed any outward racism, as far as I’m aware, and he was fired over it.

One time Dad approached me and wanted to take me to lunch, just he and I. I said sure. Turned out that I’d said something in an offhand way that offended his Christian sensibilities and he wanted to hash it out. I didn’t even remember saying it. It was a good, honest conversation, where I shared my Quaker background, he shared his faith, and his concerns were resolved. I never had a problem with Dad.

I never recalled Dad being racist, but I’m white and was in a different department so I don’t have the appropriate perspective. I reached out to one of the black employees from the company, a coworker whom I still maintain contact. Asked if Dad was ever racist. Here’s a portion of that conversation.

And I never met Robert, so I have no idea whether he was racist in any capacity or not. But it seems likely that at a minimum he wasn’t being raised in a racist manner. It does seem likely he was being raised in a very traditionalist Christian manner.

Does the shooter’s motive matter to the ladies he killed? No, it doesn’t. They’re dead, their families are bereft, and the damage is the same damage whether it was racism or sexual insanity or political extremism or he was shooting them to steal five bucks. It only matters to the media.

The Media

The media’s job is not to discover the truth of things. The media’s job is to farm social media for viral traffic to accumulate the most hits possible. This is how they pay their bills. They are trapped in this, and couldn’t choose to act otherwise even if they wanted to, because if they opted not to chase the outrage they’d lose market share to whoever did chase the outrage. This warped version of the “prisoner’s dilemma” is the lens through which all modern Americans formulate their opinions of the world, and leads us to the Cobra Effect.

You could see this with the Pulse Nightclub shooting. That shooter didn’t even realize he was in a gay bar. He asked the bouncers where all the women were before he started shooting. It was a raw Muslim extremist ISIS hit, but the media made it out to be about the gay community because that got more traffic. While I obviously have no first-hand knowledge, my second-hand knowledge lends me to believe they’re doing the exact same thing with this shooting, but with even deeper financial incentives.

Attacks against Asians are on the rise in the United States, and I’m sure a nonzero number of these at the beginning of 2020 were attributable to White House rhetoric. But on net this problem is highly likely to be multivariate. Within the USA, violence victimization for every racial category is dominated by perpetrators of the same racial category, with one exception. Asians.

Conservative pundits (or outright racists) might point to those historical numbers as a way to blame blacks, but my read on that table is that Asians are generally such a nonviolent bunch that some other demographic had to jump in to fill the gap. And violence is known to track with GINI coefficient, and known to be concentrated in urban centers, so it’s not surprising why the gap gets filled in this manner. Further, 2020 was violent all around. The George Floyd protests did more damage to urban businesses than a Category Two hurricane, so I’m not convinced the demographic ratios of violence changed much in 2020. We’ll have to wait and see the numbers.

But that’s not a story that gets clicks, and the media is starved for clicks post-election. CNN’s numbers are down a staggering 50%. If they can create a chain of events leading back to Trump, they get the viral traffic juice they’re missing, which goes something like this:

Long > Mass Shooting > 6 of 8 are Asians > Racism motive > Trump

This exact conversation was likely had among the editors of most starving news organizations the moment it happened, and The Cobra Effect was engaged in an industry wide, decentralized manner, while trampling not only what is likely to be the truth, but also trampling some more important conversations along the way, that we should have. Any of these other important conversations must be snowed under or rerouted to keep the chain to Trump alive. The ratings demand it.

As the conversation evolves in the next week, it will likely evolve to “yes but he frequented Asian massage parlors because he was white and wanted to dominate Asians, therefore whitecisheteropatriarchy, therefore racism, therefore Trump.” Or it will pivot to “yes but Georgia has no waiting period for gun buying, therefore gun control,” as if making a mass murderer wait a day would solve the mass murder problem. Or it will pivot to a culture war attacking Christianity, as if reading the bible is a gateway to mass murder. All of these are distractions, clickbait, ways to earn the media a few extra pennies so they can keep the lights on while making the underlying problem worse. Cobra Effect.

The Sex Trade Conversation

I live in Atlanta. We have a robust Asian community sporting many legitimate Asian spas where you can go for an amazing spa experience in classic Asian bathhouse style. We also have places that give hand jobs. Every city in the country has places that give hand jobs. Every city has come to an internal resolution, a compromise, about the sex trade, and while these compromise resolutions vary from place to place, they generally fall within a particular band which goes like this:

Spas which give hand jobs are probably safer than rampant street prostitution for all involved. Spas which give hand jobs pay taxes. Spas which give hand jobs don’t sell drugs. Spas which give hand jobs are going to pop back up elsewhere even if you spend a lot of money shutting them down. Ergo, allow your city to have a few spas that give hand jobs in certain areas of town and fight them in zoning if people don’t want them near their homes. That’s basically how it works on the ground, pretty much everywhere.

Is that the correct resolution? I don’t know. The religious element wants no hand job joints on moral grounds, in part because it leads to temptation. More on this below.  The libertarian element wants the sex trade legalized entirely. The social justice element wants the sex trade normalized while also reserving the right to demonize the men who use it.

Why are these spas predominantly Asian? Is it sex trafficking? I’m sure at least in part. But is it also that these ladies can make a lot more money here than where they come from, and send some of that money home to feed their families, build schools, and such? That’s an economic driver related to the strength of the petrodollar. Presuming they are exploited, and exploitation is bad, would sending them home lead to a worse situation? Is the Asian handjob trade fundamentally worse than the Sugar Baby trade that pervades all modern interactions on Tinder? Why aren’t these ladies allowed to immigrate and participate in the Sugar Baby trade instead? Or just find a nice man to marry? Immigration law is part of this. Do the number of hand job joints go down if we open up our vice grip on K-1 visas?

I don’t know the answers. This is a complicated conversation that generates no clicks, but a conversation we should have.

The Porn Conversation

Porn is pervasive, every child with a smartphone can get an infinite amount of it, and it is increasingly trending towards more taboo acts. Is this healthy? Does it build better or worse relationships? Do we even care about relationships? Is there anything we could do to stop it if we wanted to? Or are we as a society going to have to adjust the way we rear our kids to deal with this environment? Does porn exposure alone lead to the sorts of rare boundary cases we saw this past week, or is there more to it? Is this a multivariate problem, and could we eliminate a different variable than porn if we deem the porn to stay? How much porn is healthy and how much is unhealthy?

Then there’s the incel problem, which is rooted in the way the internet has changed dating. A hundred years ago, if a town had 100 single men and 100 single women, they pretty much paired up with what was available and made babies. Internet dating has made it easier for one man to date multiple women, and the 80/20 M:F ratios on the dating sites have concentrated the 20 into the top 5 of the 80, and it doesn’t work for anyone. The men swipe all day and the women are drinking from a firehose of undesirables. Throw polyamory into that mix. The way ancient societies handled polygamy was by flushing out the bottom men in wars, or as slaves or eunuchs, so the ratios worked out. We can’t do that, so what do we do? It’s a known fact that violent revolutions are predicted in part by the ratio of young unmarried unemployed men.

I don’t know the answers. This is a complicated conversation that generates no clicks, but a conversation we should have.

The Religion Conversation

There are religious sects, Christian, Muslim and others, which draw very distinct boundaries around allowable sexual behavior. The rules vary by sect, and are sometimes very strict. It’s an open secret (or not a secret at all) among many of the more fundamentalist sects that their members, and in many cases leaders, struggle with porn addiction, sex addiction, or both. They wage this battle daily.

What counts as sex addiction? Is it once a day, a week, a year? Is it “more than you’d like,” which may mean “any at all?” If the goal is “zero porn,” what’s the enforcement mechanism? Is it social shame, or is it group forgiveness and openness? To borrow 4chan/reddit terms, would “FapForgiveness” work better than “NoFap?” Is the struggle against sexual sin being properly weighed against the other sins? Are there areas of the Bible we can look to, such as St. Paul in Corinth, that can give the religious minded better ways to negotiate America’s apparent hard pivot towards Babylon? Was the story of Onan misinterpreted entirely?

I don’t know the answers. This is a complicated conversation that generates no clicks, but a conversation we should have.

Every Article

Every article is telling you what to think. Every article is telling you the answer. Every article is telling you to hate the dude or lady that believes a different article. Every article is farming clicks from your arguments.

Whatever the answers are, it’s clear to me that the current method of social dialog, whereby the media farms echo chambers for outrage and buys BMWs with the ad money, is not going to get us where we need to be. It distracts from the important conversations and capitalizes on the least common denominator.

It throws the cobras back into the wild.

This is the Long Problem.

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