Friday, April 18, 2014

Tribe After Tribe


Of course free speech doesn’t mean you have a right to not be criticized or a right to occupy every forum. But the way in which contempt for the very term “free speech” has become one of those cultural signals that are the glue of today’s bourgie elite progressivism can and will lead to actual, no bullshit suppression of speech. A liberalism that claims that rights are only denied if tanks are rolling through the streets is a pathetic liberalism and one that stands in direct and stark contrast to the history of the principled left.

As if on cue, XKCD provides the conventional wisdom in picture form. Look, I'll just say that, as in many other instances, there's a letter of the law and a spirit of the law, and I'm pretty sure that all these disingenuous, loophole-seeking motherfuckers know the difference.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Rats With Hooves


Despite this burgeoning population, deer remain elusive creatures, and seeing one is always a bit magical, like an encounter with a creature from another age. Menaces to the environment though they may be, they are beautiful to the eye and seem to walk in a kind of enchanted air, in a world very much their own, to which we can have no access.

Ah, I used to be romantic like that. My adolescent sympathies lay with the Calvin & Hobbes cartoon. Years of nighttime driving in my old job turned me more into Louis C.K., though:

I Turn Into Water, I Wish You All Could Feel The Same

Brad Warner:

We have to have names for things in order to communicate with each other about them. If we were to call what is now called Buddhism “realism,” as Nishijima Roshi suggested would one day happen, this could be confusing. These days the word “realism” generally seems to be synonymous with “materialism.” And Buddhism isn’t materialism.

We could just make up a new word. But that has drawbacks. It’s like the people who are concerned about the grammatical necessity of using gendered pronouns in English who propose to use new words like zhe, ze or zir instead of he or she. It’s awkward and nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about.

Maybe eventually we’ll get a word that works. But not yet. So we’re stuck with “Buddhism” for now.

Stuck. As in, immobile, solid, entrenched. You know what loosens such bonds? Water, that's right. Let the waves of enlightenment wash over you and dissolve the conceptual concrete in your mind.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Archaeology Of Pseudo-Radicalism

Keith Windschuttle:

Foucault's approach, moreover, was peculiarly suited to the university environment. He held that the main revolutionary struggle was not against political or economic institutions; rather the true radicals were the ones who challenged the major Western philosophies or 'systems of thought'. This was a radicalism perfectly suited to practice in the academic realm of tutorials, conferences, cafes and bars. There was no longer any need to do anything as concrete or practical as working for political parties or trade unions, going on strike, or demonstrating in the streets. Instead, followers of Foucault could spend their time reading, debating and writing their criticisms of the academic disciplines of philosophy, history, sociology, criminology and psychiatry. None of this, Foucault argued, was a less practical or inferior variety of politics. 'Theory', Foucault declared, 'does not express, translate or serve to apply practice: it is practice.'

...Despite its logical untenability, the genealogical method holds a great attraction for Foucault and his followers. In debates with their opponents, especially if the opponent is a 'positivist' or a 'piecemeal empiricist', they hold what they believe is an unassailable position by focusing on who is speaking rather than what is being said. They use the genealogical method to absolve themselves from the need to examine the content of any statement. All they see the need to do is examine the contents of its production — not 'is it true?' but 'who made the statement and for what reasons?' This is a tactic that is well-known in Marxist circles where, to refute a speaker, one simply identifies his class position and ignores what he actually says. If someone can be labeled 'bourgeois' everything this person says will simply reflect the ideology of that class.

The Foucauldian version is little different. In debate, any question about the facts of a statement is ignored and the focus is directed to the way what is said reflects the prevailing 'discursive formation' or how it is a form of knowledge that serves the power of the authorities concerned. One of the reasons for Foucault's popularity in the university environment is that he offers such tactics to his followers — tactics which should be regarded as the negation of the traditional aims of the university: the gaining of knowledge and the practice of scholarship. Foucault's influence on the type of debate so frequently found today should be a matter of great concern. Instead of talk about real issues, all we get is talk about talk. Instead of debates based on evidence and reason, all we get is a retreat to a level of abstraction where enough is assumed to have been said when one has identified the epistemological position of one's opponent.

Suddenly, it all becomes clear. You can see countless examples of his legacy in effect every day on the left side of the twitosphere, in the marriage of identitarian narcissism and obfuscatory intellectual pretension. A radicalism that has abandoned any pretensions of creating actual change in the world becomes, of course, little more than fashion. Theories and jargon become ever more convoluted, not in response to changing conditions in the real world, but order to maintain a fashionable aura of novelty. You wouldn't want to be seen wearing last year's radical feminist poststructuralism, would you?

Wow, what an informative and engrossing book. I'm kicking myself for not getting around to it sooner.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

You Know, You Know; No, You Don't, You Don't

Speaking of Andrew Sullivan and credit where due, I thought this was a very good post:

One seeks to get to a place where a conversation ends. The other seeks never to end the conversation, and, in fact, gets a little queasy when any topic is ruled out of bounds in a free society.

Maybe if we can appreciate both traditions, we can see the underlying forces behind this debate more clearly. My own instincts on the gay rights question have always been classically liberal/small-c conservative/libertarian. I think hate is an eternal part of the human condition, and that ridding oneself of it is a personal, moral duty not a collective, political imperative. I never want to live in a society in which homophobes feel obliged to shut up. I believe their freedom is indivisible from ours. Their hate only says something about them, not me. I oppose hate crime laws for those reasons. And my attachment to open debate means constantly allowing even the foulest sentiments to be expressed – the better to confront them, expose them and also truly persuade people of the wrongness of their views – rather than pressuring them into submission or silence. Others have a different vision: that such bigotry needs extra punishment by the state (hence hate-crime laws), that bigots need to be constantly shamed, and that because of the profound evil of such thoughts, social pressure should be brought to bear to silence them. More to the point, past sins have to be recanted and repented before such bigots are allowed back into the conversation.

...But liberalism, for me, is not a means to a progressive end. It is an end in itself.

It seeks to guard against groupthink and social pressure as dangerous threats to freedom of thought and of the individual. It aims to protect the rights of bigots as well as the targets of their bigotry. At any one point, that can seem grotesquely unfair. And it is. It is and was deeply unfair that, in order to enjoy some simple basic rights, we gays have had to explain ourselves to the world, listen to our very lives being debated as if we were not in the room, have our lives and loves traduced and distorted and picked over by people who treat us as pawns in a political game or an intellectual exercise. But, you know what? We had no choice if we were to move forward.

It calls to mind the old quip about how a liberal is someone who won't even take his own side in an argument. Fair enough. And one could easily object that there's no sense in remaining open-minded indefinitely; at some point, you have to accept whatever provisional conclusions you've drawn and just act. This may very well be an impossibly idealistic standard to aim for. My own commenters, among many others, have made the comparison: what if Eich had been donating money to white supremacist or neo-Nazi organizations? Would anyone be worried that he was being treated unfairly? And it's true — there is, more or less, a cultural consensus on topics like those that would brook no discussion. There would be no mitigating factors on his behalf. But that consensus didn't form as a result of each individual citizen being rationally persuaded by argument of the evils of Nazism and Jim Crow. It was, at least partially, simply imposed by people who had the power to do so and cemented into place by social pressure and groupthink. If, over time, a visceral rejection of homophobia is to join that consensus, it may very well have to be imposed by force. Perhaps a tolerance omelet will require a few broken Brendan Eichs. I'm not advocating that, I'm just acknowledging that individuals often get steamrolled by larger historical forces.

Nonetheless, I think it's vitally important that gadflies exist, even when they pester the most seemingly-worthy of causes. Take the example of progressive boycotting. In theory, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with it. People are free to be choosy about which companies they patronize. They're also free to attempt to persuade other people to act similarly. In many cases, the ostensible motivations for the boycotts are noble enough. So why do I spend so much time mocking them?

Because in practice, they're doomed to futility. For starters, they're not overwhelmingly popular to begin with. It would take a disciplined, sustained effort to win enough support to be effective, but attention spans being what they are these days, the initial outrage quickly fizzles out. Increasing support for a cause would also mean having to interact with people who are indifferent or even hostile to it, but given the well-documented tendency for people on the web to form silos and block all social media communication with others who criticize or offend them, it's more likely that the boycotters will only end up preaching to the converted. Saying "I'm boycotting Barilla pasta because their CEO only allows 'traditional' families in their ads" lacks any practical consequence, and thus is only another way of saying "I don't like people who are prejudiced against gays." Opinions are stated not to persuade anyone of anything, but to promote yourself in a shallow, narcissistic medium, to fish for praise, to burnish your status among your peers.

So what you end up with is a marginal group of perpetually aggrieved people, full of moral fervor, yet bitterly resentful over their lack of power and influence, lacking the discipline or planning to experience the satisfaction of meaningful achievement. To me, that sounds like a perfect recipe for displaced aggression. They'll settle for taking scalps if they can't accomplish anything else. I saw this dynamic in the political blogosphere all the time. I haven't read Digby's blog in years, because I got so tired of the endless pity party. Ever since Obama's election, it was nothing but complaining about how the media "villagers" were so unfair to the Democrats, how the Republicans were so much more effective in power, how poor progressive bloggers were seen as nothing but dumb dirty hippies. And predictably enough, after all this constant moaning, when an easy target presented itself, Digby was right there to serve up a few posts' worth of red meat for her commenters. Well, you know, I hated bullies way before it became a progressive cause du jour, and that doesn't change just because I might agree with the bullies in principle. Somebody needs to force people to check their consciences at times like those.

I was reading a comment somewhere (can't find it now) by a woman whose name is on the list of people who donated to Prop. 8. She said that at the time, she was a law student and was enamored of some byzantine legal reasoning that said gay marriage should only be legal if approved by a majority of the population in a vote, not as a result of a judicial ruling. In other words, she was overly impressed by her own newly-minted legal cleverness and a smug belief that she saw important nuance where duller minds didn't. She regrets it now, but she worries about the possibility of it coming back to haunt her. If she ever became the subject of one of these Two Minutes Hate sessions on social media, would anyone stop shouting long enough to give her a chance to explain herself? Would it even matter, or would the event take on a momentum of its own at that point? To me, it's a quintessential liberal principle to worry about the one innocent person who might get caught up in the rush to serve justice to nine guilty ones.

No one deliberately sets out to become a groupthinking herd animal. It happens by steps, in degrees, and if the subject is even aware of how drastically they've changed, they almost certainly think it's for the better. In my pessimistic estimation, people are always at risk of being swept away in the current of seemingly inexorable logic; in fact, I think a lot of people are just looking for an excuse to surrender themselves to it. To use Sullivan's distinction, liberalism is the necessary brake on progressivism's moral impulses. Neither one would be effective alone; they need each other.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Possessed By A Notion Of How My Life Should Be

There's introspection, and then there's donning a cilice made of tweets to affect the appearance of introspection. These poor progressives. They're so desperately insecure, so afraid that they might be unwittingly oppressing someone, so unable to trust their own motivations. If only someone could come up with a metric to give them an objective way to measure their biases. Then someone could point out that obsessing over metrics is such a typical white male thing to do, and the fun could start all over again.

Monday, April 07, 2014

No Homozilla

Conor Friedersdorf:

Mozilla says, "While painful, the events of the last week show exactly why we need the web. So all of us can engage freely in the tough conversations we need to make the world better." Again, Mozilla's actions will undercut tough conversations by making fewer people willing to engage in them. If you believe that an open, robust public discourse makes the world better, as they purport to, they've made the world worse. This action is a betrayal of their values, not a reflection of them.

I thought this part was particularly funny. Not just the fact that, in practice, this "we need to have a conversation" trope is a favorite squishy saying of people who would rather do anything but have a conversation, but the idea that the web has somehow improved the quality of our conversations. This is exactly why we need the web, for the unlikely chance we might ever be able to talk like adults!

Anyway, unless you count the few times I've been called a fag for having long hair or being taciturn and introverted, I don't know what it's like to be gay, obviously. Maybe it's not for me to say how anyone should feel or act about a situation like this. Choire Sicha would seem to agree there, but Andrew Sullivan is also gay, and he vehemently disagrees with this whole episode, so I think they cancel each other out, leaving the floor to me, right? I'm pretty sure that's how this works.

Though it may be easy for me to say, I still think these are valid philosophical principles in general: Be magnanimous in victory as much as possible. Don't seek to settle scores or humiliate people for having chosen the wrong side of a fight. Be wary of acquiring a taste for ostracizing and exiling people who opposed you. When you're racking up one court victory after another — the sorts of institutional achievements that matter — you can afford to ignore some ignorant reality TV star. When public opinion is decisively swinging in your favor, you can refrain from vindictively punishing people who pose no actual threat just because you can. When you have substance, you don't need symbolism.

Is There Something Wrong With These Songs? Maybe There's Something Wrong With The Audience

Ben Jeffery:

Reynolds is not the only one to have connected the dearth of innovation in pop with its “disintensification.” In a piece for n+1 reviewing the first fifteen years of the music website Pitchfork, Richard Beck equated the immobility of contemporary independent rock with its decline into an arena of complacent, cultural-capital driven fashions—a judgment that clearly echoes Reynolds’s worries about underground music becoming a form of niche consumerism. Both arguments seem to interpret the lack of artistic evolution as a sign of impotence, specifically pop’s powerlessness to effect change on the social or political level. The belief that music could invade—and remake—all things public and private is part of the primordial myth of rock. Since at least the Sixties, new art held out the promise of a new life, and reinvention on the personal level could be revolution on the social.

...From this angle, what retromania heralds isn’t the death of pop as an area of creativity, but the demise of a certain type of (political) possibility. Genres of music that were once outlets for waves of discontented energy have been subdued and subsumed into the consumerist hegemony—rock, punk, hip-hop and the rest turned into competing leisure options rather than activities with any subversive potential. In the absence of new styles to take their place, pop petrifies as a social force.

There are too many excellent parts to excerpt them all. Through the lens of popular music, Jeffery addresses the same theme I was just talking about in a political context: what sort of cultural imagination do we have anymore? Does anyone believe in teleological progression, in radical change, or was that just the result of a peculiar, narrow window in human history that has now begun to dim and close? Popular music, like culture itself, seems content to just tweak what already exists, unable to imagine any shocking innovations. The thought of such cyclical stasis is unsettling to us, having already accustomed ourselves to the post-Enlightenment sense of being the masters of our own destiny, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be the case.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Fanning The Flames That Will Warm No One

Heywood J:

I submit that if one were of liberal sentiment and potent influence on these here internets, and one wanted to get the most bang for their ideological buck, as it were, one might choose different targets. Targets that matter, for starters. Where are the concerted hashtag efforts to push congress-critters into making corporations pay taxes; where are the #CancelAdelson or #CancelKoch campaigns, with nice laundry lists of the things those assholes own and sell (aside from, you know, people and influence) so that like-minded folks can, como se dice, boycott those motherfuckers?

No. Let's go after some techie slapdick, let's go after Stephen Colbert, let's go through yet another round of urban wailing over Ralph Nader's capital transgressions in the previous millennium. Good grief, from climate change to income inequality to poaching to overpopulation to the oppression of women and the trafficking of children to the open theft of this country's political system, there are a multitude of issues over which one can get one's panties into a death-dealing wad. Yet these other non-issues are the things they choose to get jiggy with, and over.


An activist is someone who wants to create change. Taking the desire to be an activist seriously, whether in Park or anyone else, means assessing whether they are creating that change. You can call that attitude tone policing, or mansplaining, or whatever else you want. But as long as you deploy that language as a way to protect someone from the truth of her own intentions, you are neither an ally or a friend.

My suspicion is that those who claim to stick up for Park, or other Twitter activists like her, know very well that she has no ability to dismantle the state.  My suspicion is that they know she has done nothing to halt racism. My suspicion is that their forceful rejection of questions about her efficacy is not, ultimately, a defense of her, and certainly not of her project. My suspicion is that they reject those questions because they have already assumed her political irrelevance; my suspicion is that they quietly believe the worst things people say about her. I think the current contradiction in popular attitudes toward political intentions functions, ultimately, as a kind of modesty screen, placed in well-meaning condescension around adult, passionate people, under the false presumption that they must be shielded from the harsh truth of a broken and friendless world.

I started reading Russell Jacoby's The End of Utopia last night. My goodness, what an incisive and well-written book it is. Published in 1999, it hasn't lost any of its relevance that I can see. Here's a bit from the preface:

We are increasingly asked to choose between the status quo or something worse. Other alternatives do not seem to exist. We have entered the era of acquiescence, in which we build our lives, families and careers with little expectation the future will diverge from the present.

To put this another way: A utopian spirit — a sense that the future could transcend the present — has vanished. This last statement risks immediate understanding, since utopia today connotes irrelevancies or bloodletting. Someone who believes in utopias is widely considered out to lunch or out to kill. I am using utopian in its widest, and least threatening meaning: a belief that the future could fundamentally surpass the present. I am referring to the notion that the future texture of life, work and even love might little resemble that now familiar to us. I am alluding to the idea that history contains possibilities of freedom and pleasure hardly tapped.

This belief is stone dead. Few envision the future as anything but a replica of today — sometimes better, but usually worse. Scholarly conclusions about the  fall of Soviet communism ratify gut feelings about the failure of radicalism. A new consensus has emerged: There are no alternatives. This is the wisdom of our times, an age of political exhaustion and retreat.

However long this period may last, I think he's clearly right. The examples of pseudo-radical rhetoric he examines could have been plucked from the twitosphere yesterday. Nothing's changed in a decade and a half, except that we now have a bunch of shiny tech gadgets and platforms which themselves occupy a good portion of our aimless critical analysis. There is an entire chattering class of ostensible leftists, whatever that term even means, whose energies are devoted purely to schmoozing around the scene. Of course everyone knows, even if they won't say outright, that Suey Park is just another useless fucking clown showing off her expensive cultural studies chops for viral reward; of course they're all aware that the trivial meta-dramas they engage in online are of no consequence. I think they feel in their bones what Jacoby illustrates at length: there is no more actual belief in a radical alternative to liberal capitalism, to market democracies. Even when real-world events conspire to practically give them a gift-wrapped opening, they retreat back into their comfortable niche of harmless performance. As Thomas Frank said about OWS: "It would remain captive to what Christopher Lasch criticized—way back in 1973—as the “cult of participation,” in which the experience of protesting is what protesting is all about."