to karen (2), or: “small fires”

A small fire is hard to see but it’s easy to put out; a large fire is easy to see but very difficult to put out.

– Dr. Mike Ryan, on COVID-19

When I began writing “to karen (1),” I was already personally clear that “Karen,”
while a problem, is not The Problem.

I’d begun to identify The Problem for myself, but did not yet have words
to begin describing it.

I don’t yet have great words, but you know what?

It’s by writing that I find those words, and also

build them into muscle memory.

Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb has guided how I assess the problem of “Karen.” For me, having read Taleb, karening involved what I described as “a transference of skin in the game.”

“To karen,” I decided, means to “take acts that decrease one’s anxiety—to increase one’s subjective sense of well being—by transferring (or attempting to transfer) objective risks and costs to someone else.”

Having read Taleb, the problem with this definition was almost immediately clear to me: The woman-on-the-street engaged in karening has a very limited reach. The individuals with whom she comes in touch may be imperiled by her urgent need to reduce her anxiety at someone else’s expense, but …

From a societal perspective, any individual “Karen” causes qualitatively large but quantitatively small harm.

The much greater danger to life and liberty wouldn’t be one Karen-in-the-park, but people enabled to sacrifice numerous lives and livelihoods all at once:

People who could put not only one or two people’s skin in the game,

but put in thousands, or millions, all at once.

While wrapping up “to karen (1),” I tried finding the Taleb passages I sought in his Skin in the Game.

Frustratingly, I couldn’t find them. Had I failed to highlight the most important passages? Would I have to read the whole book again just to begin finding the words right now?

This morning, I remembered: I hadn’t first found the idea of concealed risk transference in Skin in the Game. I’d found it in Antifragile. In Antifragile, Taleb didn’t describe it as “transfer of skin in the game.”

He described it as “transfer of fragility.”

One individual in one park can transfer small degrees of fragility to small numbers of people.

It takes a politician, or a banker, or a powerful lawyer, or (worse still) all of these people in conjunction to get all the upside from a transaction, while quietly transferring the risks—the transactions’ possible downsides, or fragility—to masses of non-consenting individuals …

and to, over and over again, get away with it.

If “Karen” wasn’t the right name for the real problem, though, what was the right name?

At first, I was tempted to answer “Musk.” In early March, Musk tweeted, “[T]the coronavirus panic is dumb.” Taleb subsequently replied, “Saying the coronavirus panic is dumb is dumb.”

An individual Karen can hurt a relatively small number of people by choosing not to wear a mask. A billionaire with almost 37 million followers on Twitter, on the other hand, can influence behaviors of many people in ways that ripple out with quantitative and qualitative harm it’s impossible to measure—and that’s even apart from the harms they’re able to inflict directly on the individual humans working for their companies.

Billionaire wealth has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic; see, for example, this late June Forbes article: “U.S. Billionaire Wealth Surged Since the Start of the Pandemic.” Note also that Musk, whose company Tesla fired workers for “abandoning” their jobs by refusing to perform work in person during a pandemic, doesn’t appear on the top-five list of billionaires winning dollars while many lose lives during a pandemic.

So: Would that make democracy-destabilizing Facebooks’s Zuckerberg, with wealth increased $25.3 billion in two months, The Top Karen? Or would that make Amazon’s Bezos, with highest-of-all wealth as Amazon and Whole Foods workers struggle to survive and are fired while attempting to unionize Head Honcho Karen?

More importantly, was the problem really in any one individual … or systems built to enable silent, massive transfer of fragility?

As it happens, Musk (inadvertently, with help from an intrepid journalist) helped me answer this question for myself.

Early in July, journalist Ken Klippenstein asked his followers to tweet pictures of Musk with someone I couldn’t identify. With a little searching, I discovered that someone was “socialite” Ghislaine Maxwell, about whom I’d never before heard.

No one following the Jeffrey Epstein case, in any degree, would have shared my confusion. Ghislaine was (allegedly) serial pedophile Epstein’s … something/many things unsavory. Please research this yourself for a sense of what this entails.

I read a bit on Ghislaine, and on Epstein.

The more I read, the more I became crystal clear: “Karen” really is a problem, but not The Problem. Karen is the problem it’s easiest for us to see and attack,

which does not make her the problem most critical, for the most people, to solve. Quickly.

One of the formative (traumatic) experiences of my life was testifying, as a child, feet away from a pedophile.

It was thinking of him that I wrote my January 2015 post “Forget Phylicia. Remember my mom.” It was thinking of Harvey Weinstein, and how he was enabled to assault and destroy thanks to powerful individuals cooperating to protect him, that I reposted it.

In my 2015 post, I wrote:

When I see women coming forward months or years after an alleged assault, I don’t usually think, “What’s in it for you?”

I think, “I wish you the best in the days ahead, because the days ahead are going to be exhausting and terrifying.” That was so for me and mine even when the man we faced wasn’t powerful and nationally beloved for the roles he played.

My mom was torn apart in a quiet, musty Oregon courtroom far from the merciless eyes of a public that wants to believe the people it loves are infallible. For, indeed, if even the man with the widest grin and the merriest laugh could drug women and assault them, what would that say about the world? What would that say about the men in their neighborhoods and, worse, in their own homes?

My mom—my family—had the misfortune of meeting one lone predator with one wealthy mom.

Wealth was one buffer for one predator, but not, I’ve recently seen, the only one:

Far more damaging than wealth alone is the protection afforded by others

with extraordinary wealth.

Is The Problem in one person? No.

Is the problem in systems of power and influence that enable many wealthy, powerful people can collude to ensure that no one among them suffers dire consequence? Yes. (For more on this, please see Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some.)

To karen is to risk individual lives, one at a time, which is horrifying individually but not the most horrifying thing systemically;

to epstein is to shatter hundreds to thousands of lives, whether via direct touching or indirect harassment to deter legal action, all with a lot of critical help from your very powerful, very persuasive friends.

To karen is to act individually in ways that hurt a life or two, which is horrible and must be stopped;

to epstein, to work in conjunction with many to ensure that existing power never fails,

no matter how many non-powerful people are hurt while those most powerful uphold their personally precious systems of power,

which is breathtakingly horrible and must. be. stopped.

so that many, many more might live in peace.

A small fire is hard to see but it’s easy to put out; a large fire is easy to see but very difficult to put out.

2 thoughts on “to karen (2), or: “small fires”

  1. 1. This post is, obviously, all about processes, not definitive answers. Thanks to my fondness for Neil Postman, I’m becoming ever less tied to perpetual solutions and ever more keenly aware that … just when you think you understand something, it changes. So: focus on ongoing processes of witnessing and contemplation, not individual “solutions,” FTW.

    2. Perhaps it’d be better for the big-fire verb to be “j.epstein,” or “jepstein.” There are many, many lovely Epsteins who ought not suffer, even the tiniest bit, on behalf of one specific Epstein.


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