Friday, August 26, 2016

Putting the Cold In Cold Dead Hands

I mean, I get it. Really, I do. It's tough to be a progressive. Always trying to find some new angle, some novel way to put yourself in the moral vanguard. It has to be exhausting, running around like Mencken's definition of a Puritan, telling everybody that they're doing everything wrong (and for shameful reasons to boot). And as fewer and fewer people bother to take you seriously, you start becoming desperate, trying to find a previously-overlooked source of sinfulness that will make them pay attention again.

And so here we are. While I'm sure that, like most of their pathetic outbursts, it's best to just ignore this, I have to admit that I don't consider this sort of outright blasphemy against my lord and savior to be amusing. I suddenly have a strong urge to join the NRA, buy an AR-15, and take a selfie in front of my AC unit, daring them to come and take both. Some arguments just deserve nothing but trolling in response.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Justice, Just Us

Fred Baumann:

Three cognate tendencies have arisen in the United States to combat Locke-fed milk-and-water liberalism in the name of true justice. First, as mentioned, is the Marxist strain. Marx, acutely aware of the injustices that any ruling class commits, wished to dissolve politics altogether by means of a salvific proletariat, which would usher in a change in human consciousness that approached what he called “species being.” The state would wither away and administration would thus be apolitical and innocent.

Second, American “pragmatism” and “progressivism,” thrilled by the potential of science to rationalize human life, attacked the outmoded limitations on the state that liberal constitutionalism presented. Rule by experts was to replace the clumsy Madisonian system of rival factions and governmental branches balancing themselves out. The ruling class wasn’t a problem because it would merely transmit the findings of science, and, less charitably, because it would be composed of the pragmatists and progressives themselves.

But, third, when hope for the proletariat had faded (as it had even for Lenin, who thought the proletariat capable of nothing better than “trade union consciousness”), and when the luster of scientific planning had also been dimmed through experience of its failings, rescue came from the France of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty in the form of what Allan Bloom called “Left Nietzscheanism.” It was Left in being radically egalitarian and Nietzschean in being irrationalist. This combination, oddly, was reassuring, because it meant one could rule from “commitment”—which is to say, out of good moral intentions rather than actual knowledge (which was anyway impossible).

It's a long article, but well worth the time. Make it count, because you only get one free article per month at that site.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Don't Wanna Be Like Freddie Now

When I first discovered Freddie deBoer's blog several years ago, it was revelatory for me. Not only was he an excellent writer, his criticism of the social media left managed to thread the needle perfectly — it was constructively critical without becoming reflexively contrarian. It reminded me of Jacob Bacharach in his IOZ persona, except that IOZ always seemed too in love with his own cleverness and too relentlessly ironic; Freddie, at least, wasn't afraid to earnestly stand for something. I respect him for that, even if the things he earnestly stood for seemed increasingly cringeworthy to me.

Therein lay the problem — Freddie was invaluable for pointing out how online progressives practiced politics the same way they maneuvered through the social hierarchies of the high school cafeterias they had only recently left behind. Once you had seen the ubiquitous virtue signaling from his perspective, it was impossible to un-see it, and impossible to take any of these people seriously again. But how many times does this need to be pointed out? At some point, the question has to come up: are you constantly criticizing these people because you think that social media can seriously become a force for 21st-century socialism in America if only they would quit clowning around? Then I don't think you clearly understand the nature of social media. Are you just criticizing them because it gives you a more exclusive niche from which to play the same signaling game? Then you're just as bad as they are. Or do you honestly think there's a silent majority of "true" socialist lurkers who are inspired by your example to do things correctly? Then I fear you're deluded.

Most importantly, if you honestly think that incoherent socialism and legally-sanctioned polygamy are good ideas, I can't take you seriously either. In fact, if that's the sort of thing you want people to come together to work for, I'm perfectly happy for them to keep being pathetic and ineffectual while seeking status on social media. Power to the hashtags, baby.

Now he's apparently done with his blog. I haven't read him regularly for over a year, but I appreciate him in retrospect for the inadvertent way he helped me to a greater level of self-understanding, though he would probably be dismayed to think that he had played a significant role in turning someone away from radicalism. He convinced me that something was truly, deeply wrong with the left, and I spent years trying to understand what that was, only to conclude that he had severely underestimated the problem, and that the social media/justice left was actually a predictable feature, not a bug; the entire radical left project was diseased at the roots, incapable of being saved. Nevertheless, I have both intensely agreed and intensely disagreed with him, and it's rare to find that, in my experience. It's sad to see one more regular blogger give up and pack it in, and I wish him well.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Power of the Purse

Tom Scocca:

If you want to write stories that might anger a billionaire, you need to work for another billionaire yourself, or for a billion-dollar corporation. The law will not protect you. There is no freedom in this world but power and money.

Anyone who is interested can find plenty of articles arguing over the potential ramifications of this ruling. Suffice it to say, I am yet to be convinced that this is the catastrophic disaster for free speech and a free press that Gawker and its defenders would have you believe, and that's not just because I've loathed that scumbag media empire and its guttertrash army of tabloid hacks for years. At any rate, whatever, good riddance, I wouldn't have murdered them myself, but this is still an obituary I will read with immense satisfaction. I only make note of this because I got an unexpected, ironic laugh as I read the above excerpt. As I said once in reference to culture-war boycotting, the social media progressive's favorite sport:

As other critics have noted, this tendency to let the market referee our moral disputes is pure neoliberal logic, which you would think the left would be wary of endorsing. You would expect them to object to a standard where the people willing to throw their money around most aggressively should get to set the terms of debate and the moral agenda. After all, aren't we constantly being told that the rich are all right-wingers with more money than the rest of us put together?

I'm too lazy to look for all the other times I made similar points about how, if free speech is going to be made practically exclusive to those rich enough to be able to withstand the vindictive economic embargo imposed on them for exercising it, we shouldn't be surprised at the predictable results. Nevertheless, it was all fun and games when we were "merely" trying to bankrupt this or that business over some offensive faux pas, or getting a guy fired for having donated his own money years ago to support a perfectly legal ballot initiative. It's like Stalin said, when one guy with a billion dollars spends his money in support of his values, it's a tragedy, but when millions of self-righteous progressives band together and threaten to withhold money they never intended to actually spend in hopes of putting an offensive company out of business, it's social justice. (That's not verbatim, of course, but it's pretty much the spirit of it.)

You know how everybody says, "I'm not one to say 'I told you so'?" Well, I am the one to say it. You made your hell, now burn in it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Divisions You Create

Your kind, it keeps on cutting
Divisions you create
Now it's all exploding
Soon nothing left to break


Livia Gershon:

In 1960, 94 percent of U.S. college students were white. By 1991, that had fallen to 80 percent. Women became a majority among students and also gained more representation within faculties. With these demographic changes came demands that white male professors, administrators, and students listen to points of view they had not had to consider before.

...Today, as the country continues to become less white and women and minorities gain access to more positions of power, maybe it stands to reason that the movement against political correctness has moved from academia into just about every part of public life.

A quick trip to Google will confirm that "divisive" and "polarizing" are terms frequently applied to Donald Trump. But I'm pretty sure everyone actually agrees that he's an asshole; his fans just happen to love that about him.

This, on the other hand... I mean, JSTOR Daily is basically a Reader's Digest of academic journals in blog form. Gershon's brief post about the historical usage of the term "political correctness" is written in anodyne language. And yet, I'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of divisive, polarizing rhetoric.

To summarize her summary in my own words: critics of political correctness are just bitter, resentful white men who feel threatened by the gradual loss of their power and privilege. Yes, it turns out that people who dogmatically insist that race and gender explain everything about culture and politics also insist that it explains any criticism directed toward them. Anyone who argues otherwise becomes ipso facto an angry white male conservative (those who insist, inconveniently, on being critical without being white, male, or conservative are, of course, just fellow travelers suffering from false consciousness, mindless puppets dancing on the strings of their white male controllers). Any self-identified liberal who refuses to toe the party line will be treated as a conservative for all intents and purposes until they wearily give in and accept the label.

It's hard to imagine a more self-defeating tactic. It's a perfectly closed circle of logic which guarantees that once all the heretics have been expunged, the true believers will turn on each other in the inevitable purification rituals. Nothing worth keeping will ever grow from this poisoned soil, and yet, too many liberals continue to make excuses for it out of the fear of looking conservative. As Trump would say: Sad!

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

When Two Zen Masters Meet Each Other on the Street, They Need No Introduction

I'm currently re-reading all of Alan Watts' books, so it was especially interesting to discover that Bruce Lee was also a devotee of him. The only biography of Lee that I've read is Bruce Thomas' Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit, and a glance through the index reveals no mentions of Watts throughout the book. I suppose I'll have to get a copy of John Little's book as well.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Hearing Only What You Want to Hear and Knowing Only What You've Heard

Evgeny Morozov once dismissed a book by Jeff Jarvis with the acerbic one-liner, "This is a book that should have stayed a tweet." Neil deGrasse Tyson hasn't written a book, merely a Facebook post, but still, the same principle applies; he should have just left things well enough alone.

What I find most interesting is that Tyson helpfully links to several critical articles written in response to his original tweet, from which he apparently learned nothing. Like Mr. Magoo blithely traipsing across the yawning chasm of the is/ought divide, he somehow manages to arrive at the proposition — offered, as far as I can tell, in all seriousness — that in his utopian state of Rationalia, we might create an "Office of Morality" (because "Ministry of Truth" was apparently already trademarked) where moral codes can be debated and settled. Perhaps these new morals can be enforced by an equally-innocuous-sounding agency, like, say, the Committee of Public Safety, or some such. Had Tyson bothered to study the, uh, evidence accumulated thus far, he might have realized that Brian Carnell's vision of the glorious future much more closely resembles what we've learned from empirical observation.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

I Feel Summer Creepin' In and I'm Tired of This Town Again

Inspiration is hard to come by lately. That seems to be the case every summer. This year, especially, it seems that everybody is babbling about either the election or terrorism, and I have nothing interesting to say about either. I'm mulling over the thought of taking a moderate break from the web altogether to work on recording music like I did last year. We'll see. Perhaps I'll just continue to spend most of my free time hiking, swimming, reading, and playing video games for a few weeks until things become interesting again. Either way, here are a few good things I've read recently that you may enjoy:

Robert Herritt, "Hard to Believe". This one really resonated with me. I find it very unsettling to consider just how little I really know about any given topic, not to mention how much of what I think I know depends on being willing to trust this or that source of authority.

John Gray (the British philosopher, not the Mars and Venus self-help guy) has always been one of my favorite authors, and his reviews of other books are equally worth reading.

Speaking of books worth reading, I might be interested in this one.

John McWhorter on the empty platitude of having "a national conversation" about race. (The site informed me that I got free 24-hour access to a "premium" article, so if you run into a paywall, try clicking through his Twitter feed, as I did.)

Everyday Feminism is an excellent parody site. Or, at least, your enjoyment will be maximized by reading it in that spirit. "Whew!" you can say after closing the tab. "Thank goodness it was all just a hilarious joke and no one takes that stuff seriously! Right? Right?"

John Banville, "Let It Go"

James Ceaser, "Behind Enemy Lines" (Previously)

Friday, July 22, 2016

Quest for Solutions? You Ain't Gonna Get One Here

Daniel Oppenheimer:

On a gut level I care a lot more about my friends and family than I do about the masses. I view with skepticism people who want to preach to me, from on their high horse, what I should be thinking and doing in the name of justice. I see our political system as being, on balance, one of the more half-decent ones that history has produced, and I’m somewhat horrified by radicals who think that its very real and deep flaws and sins justify tearing it all down. I think human societies, like human beings, are flawed, imperfect, frail things, and as such deserve both idealistic prods to be better than they are and some measure of tolerance and compassion for the many ways in which they’ll inevitably fail.

These are all perspectives that fit comfortably under the rubric of “conservative.” Yet my overt politics are democratic socialist.

At the most conscious, explicit level I would like for the U.S. to move (democratically, with moral urgency but not haste) in the direction of those lovely Scandinavian countries, or at least my fantasy of them, where a vibrant market economy co-exists with high taxes, a generous welfare state, strong unions, tough but well-engineered regulations, appropriate urgency about climate change, egalitarian views about sexuality and gender, and a general aversion to war and imperialism.

As a young man, I used to enjoy reading hair-splitting discussions of atheism and theology. Having long since become bored with all that, I now enjoy reading attempts by other questioning folks to pin down some sort of ontology of political identity. Perhaps we can start identifying as politically queer, or politically trans, even? Poli-fluid? Stop oppressing me with your political binary! Anyway, this is the first of what will apparently be a multi-part dialogue between Oppenheimer and a couple other people, so I don't want to read too much into what must, of necessity, be very general and broad statements, but a few things do jump out at me right away.

Here, he presents his situation as a standoff between his conservative heart and his democratic socialist head. The problem, as I see it, is that this particular formulation is one big ol' begged question. I would suggest that "even conservatives" are in favor of "appropriate" urgency about climate change, "a general aversion" to war and imperialism, and other noble-sounding ideals. The question is not about whether we all, right and left, would like to see a world full of Good Things; the question is whether these things are obtainable at a reasonable cost. Contrary to many progressive polemics, conservatism is not inherently opposed to change no matter what. Even Edmund Burke allowed that societies had to be flexible enough to adapt to new circumstances. The tendency of conservatism to err on the side of caution and inertia is not the first step on a slippery slope to the social vision of Joseph de Maistre. Progressives may not dream of an actual utopia in which all problems have been eliminated, but they do seem credulous toward the possibility of optimizing our way toward a perfect balance between liberty and security, individuality and equality, and other competing goods which may very well be incapable of occupying the same social space at the same time. Conservatives, in contrast, are more likely to insist that life is nothing but trade-offs, each unsatisfactory in its own way, and to rest resignedly with the assumption that not all social ills can be cured through policy solutions.

The optimism bias, also known as the valence effect, describes the common tendency of idealists to imagine the best-case scenario resulting from their actions. The fallacy sneaks in with the next step, which is to assume that the best-case scenario is also the most likely result. What you should do, instead, is try to imagine alternatives. What happens if your actions fall short of their goals and result in unintended consequences? What sort of backup plan do you have? How do you calculate whether the possibility of failure outweighs the urge to act? A conservative might ask Oppenheimer: what happens if an increasingly-powerful welfare state becomes invasive and oppressive, and how would a citizenry which had allowed its civic spirit to atrophy find the resources to resist it? What happens when the unions become corrupt and obstructionist? What happens if taxes and regulations become detrimental to the economy? What happens if platitudes about egalitarianism turn into Harrison Bergeron-style schemes of Procrustean leveling? These sorts of questions don't have a priori answers, which is why we shouldn't be cavalier about making significant changes.

But speaking of the progressive fascination with the supposedly-greener grass elsewhere, another problem presents itself. As I wrote elsewhere, those who would like to see the U.S. transform into a Scandinavian social democracy have to consider the implications of the fact that a numerically small, ethnically homogenous population seems to be a requirement for such a system to work. How would it translate to a nation of 320 million, bitterly riven by separatist identity politics? The obvious suggestion would be a civic creed that transcends ethnicity. Unfortunately, the only thing currently less popular among the American left than white male privilege is the idea that there was ever anything noble or worthwhile about the founding myth of America as a land of freedom and opportunity. So, if social democracy is unlikely to germinate organically from a deeply-felt common American identity, it seems that the left would have to settle for imposing it in the Saint-Simonian fashion. Hopefully, one doesn't have to be a doctrinaire conservative to look at that and say no, thanks.

This 21st century American left, which I suspect is on the rise, and will wield more influence over the next few decades than it has in the past few decades, is one I feel comfortable supporting. I think it’s a far better bet, in terms of humanizing and stabilizing American society, than the right, and felt that way even before the right attached itself to Donald Trump, who truly scares the bejesus out of my conservative self. I can imagine a future in which the left becomes powerful enough, and indulges its worst instincts enough, that I’d turn against it, but to my eyes that isn’t now. As we go forward I’ll just have to do my best to remain flexible enough in my thinking, and secure enough in myself, that I can ally with the right side, whatever that side is.

Well, fair enough, that's all anyone can really ask. Other writers whom I respect have surveyed the scene and come to the opposite conclusion. Intelligent people can amicably disagree. However, I think it may well be too early to predict exactly what Trump's effect on the right will be, especially if he loses, as seems likely. The right is hardly unified right now. A best-case — but not necessarily most likely! — scenario might lead to a more mainstream conservative party no longer primarily beholden to the religious right or the neoconservatives. And in addition, I see nothing to reassure me that the left won't continue its post-Marxist withdrawal by continuing further down the dead-end road of grievance-mongering and identitarian fragmentation while making reflexive gestures in the direction of revolutionary salvation; if anything, Trump's likely defeat will only lead to more hubristic excess. I agree with the widespread perception that progressives are primarily concerned with their image as "the good people", happy to consider themselves members of a new cognitive elite, superior to the reactionary masses. I'm even sympathetic to the idea of writers like Joseph Bottum that this tendency is largely displaced religious yearning, a lingering desire among the mostly-godless to sort the world into the saved and the damned.

All of which is to say, I remain agnostic and noncommittal. But I'm looking forward to the rest of the exchange.

I Got an Open Mind So Whyntcha All Get Inside?

Farhad Manjoo:

Though Silicon Valley has well-known problems with diversity in its work force, people here pride themselves on a kind of militant open-mindedness. It is the kind of place that will severely punish any deviations from accepted schools of thought...


[T]he novel explicitly shows people learning Doublethink and newspeak due to peer pressure and a desire to "fit in", or gain status within the Party — to be seen as a loyal Party Member. In the novel, for someone to even recognize – let alone mention – any contradiction within the context of the Party line was akin to blasphemy, and could subject that someone to possible disciplinary action and to the instant social disapproval of fellow Party Members.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Lucubratio (XXI)

Brad Warner:

To take an example related to animal intelligence, I can recall a moment around 15 years ago when I was sitting on a park bench in Tokyo eating my lunch. I was watching some crows strutting around the park looking for food. Suddenly I noticed that the very same intelligence that looked at the world through my eyes also looked at the world through the eyes of those crows.

It’s very difficult to write a good, watertight, rational kind of explanation for why I knew this to be true. It’s so unlike the way most human beings have been learning things about the world for the past few thousand years that it sounds kind of dopey. It even sounds dopey to me and I know it to be true.

...Intelligence isn’t a function of the brain. It isn’t contained there. The complexity of a creature’s brain doesn’t determine its intelligence.

Frans de Waal:

Griffin was at least three decades my senior and had impressive knowledge, offering the Latin name of the birds and describing details of their incubation period. At the workshop, he presented his view on consciousness: that it has to be part and parcel of all cognitive processes, including those of animals. My own position is slightly different in that I prefer not to make any firm statements about something as poorly defined as consciousness. No one seems to know what it is. But for the same reason, I hasten to add, I'd never deny it to any species. For all I know, a frog may be conscious. Griffin took a more positive stance, saying that since intentional, intelligent actions are observable in many animals, and since in our own species they go together with awareness, it is reasonable to assume similar mental states in other species.

That such a highly respected and accomplished scientist made this claim had a hugely liberating effect. Even though Griffin was slammed for making statements that he could not back up with data, many critics missed the point, which was that the assumption that animals are "dumb," in the sense that they lack conscious minds, is only that: an assumption. It is far more logical to assume continuity in every domain, Griffin said, echoing Charles Darwin's well-known observation that the mental difference between humans and other animals is one of degree rather than kind.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Sigh of the Oppressed Creature

There are many things to laugh at in this Marxist rant about the counter-revolutionary wrongthink of Pokemon Go, but after some tough deliberation, I think this has to be my favorite part:

The map of your neighborhood you see when you play the game is a GPS map, something originally designed to help steer guided missiles.

It's just!... so gratuitous, so out of the blue! I mean, you expect to see theoretical jargon, you expect to see references to Marx and Heidegger, and you expect, oh my Lord do you expect to see the writer fuming about the way in which the bovine masses prefer their false consciousness and commodity fetishism to their revolutionary potential, but nothing so perfectly paints a picture in words of the futile pounding of tiny, ineffectual fists as this little aside. It's like he had a sudden attack of self-awareness, realized the absurdity of being forced to labor in the clickbait factory while holding onto a faint hope of salvation through a discredited religion, and made one last, desperate attempt, through some kind of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-logic, to halfheartedly fling some shit against the walls of the system in the hope that something finally sticks. Yeah, man, I was ready to write you off as just another doctrinaire leftist with all that talk about changing the experience of reality from alienation to liberation, but that point about GPS, man, that really made me think, you know?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

One Thing Leads to Another

♫ You see dimensions in two
State your case with black or white 

Thirty years ago, moral panic profiteers like McIntosh and his vice squad partner Sarkeesian would have been leading the charge against subliminal messages on heavy metal records, or the epidemic of Satanic child abuse in day care centers. One day soon, we'll be able to look back and laugh at the thought that anyone took these frauds seriously. The bad news is, that will just mean that we've found a new moral panic to fixate upon. People don't "progress"; they just trade an older-model hysterical delusion in for a newer one. And so it goes.