Tuesday, July 04, 2017

35 Words

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

It's probably hard for us to imagine, from our modern perspective, how revolutionary these 35 words were.  When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, some monarchs still ruled by the divine right of kings, millions (including many in what would become the United States) lived in the bonds of slavery, and the pursuit of survival was the best most people could hope for.

To paraphrase Hamilton, despite all the many troubles in the world, we are incredibly lucky to be alive right now, especially here in the United States.

Yet if there's one thing I'd like us to learn from the lessons of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers, Abigail Adams would point out) it's that we must continue to fight and make sacrifices for these ideals.

Our society is far from perfect.  We have institutions that continue to deny certain people equality, life, and liberty, let alone the pursuit of happiness.  To form a more perfect union, numerous individuals have to choose the hard path of standing up for these ideals, rather than the easy path of least resistance.

Here in Silicon Valley, we've seen a week that was unprecedented in my decades of experience here, where women publicly detailed the sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior of wealthy, powerful male venture capitalists.

In the past, many of the women who were subject to this kind of behavior did what must have seemed rational and kept quiet.  Just in the past half decade, women might look at the examples of Ellen Pao, Adria Richards, and Gamergate (Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Brianna Wu), consider the harassment (including death threats) that women suffered after speaking up, and conclude that speaking up would bring hardship and not justice.

And yet, the women who came forward this week persisted.

Fortunately, these women got some measure of justice, as men like former Binary Capital partner Justin Caldbeck lost not just their reputations, but millions of dollars.  And that has encouraged more people to come forward.  While I am worried that this enthusiasm could go too far (calls for establishing a blacklist don't seem aware that most such blacklists have a pretty bad connotation), progress is still progress.

I saw another item today that speaks to the 35 words.  "Hawaii Five-0" actors Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park left the show after the two Asian-American actors refused to accept contracts that paid them 10-15% less than their Caucasian co-stars, Alex O'Loughlin and Scott Caan.  It's probably worth noting that the population of Hawaii is 26.7% Caucasian, 47.2% Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 23% mixed-race.

Being a lead actor in a television series is one of the greatest jobs in the world, and Kim and Park were likely making around $100,000 per episode, which means that they walked away from roughly $2.5 million per year to stand up for the principle of equality.  I admire their willingness to put ideals ahead of paycheck; I would have a hard time making the same decision!

One of the favorite criticisms that reactionaries level against people who speak up is that, "They're doing it for the attention."  If only that were the case.  Sadly, speaking up generally costs people money, which means that it is often "unreasonable" to stick with your principles.

But as George Bernard Shaw wrote, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

On this 4th of July, we celebrate the unreasonable men who signed the Declaration of Independence, complete with those 35 amazing words.  But we should also celebrate the unreasonable men and women who continue to strive for the ideals contained in those words, despite the cost to themselves.