Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Best Which Has Been Thought and Said

While I wait for this spell of literary laryngitis to resolve itself, I decided to go back through the archives and pick a few dozen of my favorites for a "greatest hits" retrospective.

You're the Sounds I Never Heard Before, Off the Map Where the Wild Things Grow, Another World Outside My Door

We Came from the Breeze

Alphabet Soup

He Don't Lie, He Don't Lie, He Don't Lie — Montaigne

As Below, So Above

Innocence, In a Sense

Cliques Nix Politics

The Play Is Always Going On, and the Play's the Thing

Children Having Their Fun With the Blues

A Hundred Roots Silently Drinking

The Recline of Western Civilization (Slight Return)

Clouds In My Coffee

In the Shadow of Reason

Speak to Me In a Language I Can Hear

Devil Take the Hindmost

Santutthi Paramam Dhanam

Fill Your Heroes

Death Rehearsal

The Good That I Would, I Do Not

Irritable Vowel Syndrome

Bros Before Prose

Nowhere You Are

Cosmetic Palette

Not Wise, but Otherwise

What's It All About When You Sort It Out?

A Brotherhood

What Fresh Hell Is This?

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Who's Žižoomin' Who?

Textual Harrassment

When I Said I Understood, I Only Knew Where to Stand

Dream Dream, Filling Up an Idle Hour

So I Shut It All Off, I'm a Happy Idiot

Sui Generic (Slight Return)

If You Sweep Up This Mess I've Created, Nothing's Left to Show I Existed

A Dog and a Man Who Walked Together for a Time

The Word Made Grilled Flesh

Empty Free Unplugged

I Am No Better, and Neither Are You

A Philosopher for Everyone and No One

Sciapods, Blemmyes, and Panotii, Oh My!

There Goes the Neighborhood

And If My Interest Is Waning, I Can't Fake It

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Ghosts of Who We Used to Be, I'm Just Tryin' to Find My Way

Joshua Rothman:

Often, after a way of talking has obviously outlived its usefulness, a period of inarticulateness ensues; it’s not yet clear how we should talk going forward. 

So there I was, reading this review of J.D. Vance's much-talked-about book, Hillbilly Elegy, wondering when I might finally find something that inspired me to write, when these words separated themselves from their context and leapt off the page to slap my cheek.

Yesterday marked eleven years since I started this blog. (I didn't start writing regularly for a few more, but still.) A lot changes over a decade-plus, especially if you're still fairly young at the start. The cumulative effect of all that change is that I find myself wondering if this particular "way of talking" has outlived its usefulness. I have certainly felt inarticulate lately, plagued by a strange sense of not knowing what to say about this, that or the other — or, perhaps, simply not feeling the need to bother saying it. It's not depression, or exhaustion, or anything like that. I don't even think of it as "writer's block" — I have plenty of things I could say, I just don't feel like saying them here, in this context. They don't seem to measure up to some inscrutable standard I've somehow set for myself. I'm not sure what that's about.

I've felt like this before, and that, too passed. Maybe this will as well. But like the Ship of Theseus, I suspect that enough tiny details have slowly changed over time to make this a different situation. Much of what I thought and was willing to say in print a decade ago seems callow and superficial to me now, but I haven't yet come up with a positive replacement for it. "I've changed my mind so much I can't even trust it/My mind changed me so much I can't even trust myself", said Issac Brock. Is time and patience the only cure? Or should I change scenery and start posting exclusively at my other sites, laying this one to rest like putting away childish things?

I don't know, but at least writing it down seems like an improvement.

Monday, September 05, 2016

She's So Heavy

Lena Dunham:

Despite my moments of bravado, I struggle at industry events (and in life) with the sense that I don't rep a certain standard of beauty and so when I show up to the Met Ball surrounded by models and swan-like actresses it's hard not to feel like a sack of flaming garbage. This felt especially intense with a handsome athlete as my dinner companion and a bunch of women I was sure he'd rather be seated with. But I went ahead and projected these insecurities and made totally narcissistic assumptions about what he was thinking, then presented those assumptions as facts. 

Projected insecurities and narcissistic assumptions! I'd like to think that this brief glimpse of undiluted self-awareness will have a lasting effect on her, but I doubt it. Lena, dear, as long as we're being honest and confessional here, you've never been fooling anyone but yourself. No amount of inspirational rhetoric about body positivity, no number of photos taken of you sitting naked on the toilet stuffing your face with cake, will ever change the fact that this has always been a sad, pathetic attempt to beat your critics to the punch by "owning" your weaknesses. Aggressively flaunting your insecurities doesn't make them go away; it just becomes a new role for you to get trapped in.

That's the weird thing about Generation Safe Space — for whatever reason, the pendulum has swung back into learned helplessness. There are countless people who are fat and unattractive but manage to accept it and get on with their lives. People like Dunham, or Lindy West, are especially tiresome because they clearly desperately want to be among the beautiful people, but rather than put in the effort necessary to achieve it, they try to pre-empt the possibility of failure by refusing to play, claiming the game is rigged, and like so many people who have sat through media studies classes, they think that there are no such things as innate preferences that can't be re-engineered through advertising and lecturing. Honestly, diet and exercise, however tough it can be, is still much easier than wasting that time and energy on endless rationalizations. Changing your own habits is much more likely to succeed than subjecting society to a propaganda barrage in the hope of making obese homeliness the new beauty standard. And, you know, most people, even the beautiful ones, still have fears and insecurities. They just refuse to allow their lives to be defined by them. Whatever happened to simply refusing to give a shit about the opinions of superficial people who judge you on appearance?

Thursday, September 01, 2016

The Tide Is High but We're Holding On

Razib Khan:

When Dreger pointed approvingly on Twitter to University of Chicago’s statement on “safe spaces,” I told her that most of my liberal Twitter follows were enthusiastically sharing this piece, UChicago’s anti-safe spaces letter isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about power. The piece makes some coherent points, but mostly it is self-congratulatory intellectual masturbation. At a certain point the cultural Left no longer made any pretense to being liberal, and transformed themselves into “progressives.” They have taken Marcuse’s thesis in Repressive Tolerance to heart.

Though I hope that Dreger and her fellow travelers succeed in rolling back the clock, I suspect that the battle here is lost. She points out, correctly, that the total politicization of academia will destroy its existence as a producer of truth in any independent and objective manner. More concretely, she suggests it is likely that conservatives will simply start to defund and direct higher education even more stridently than they do now, because they will correctly see higher education as purely a tool toward the politics of their antagonists. I happen to be a conservative, and one who is pessimistic about the persistence of a public liberal space for ideas that offend. If progressives give up on liberalism of ideas, and it seems that many are (the most famous defenders of the old ideals are people from earlier generations, such as Nadine Strossen and Wendy Kaminer, with Dreger being a young example), I can’t see those of us in the broadly libertarian wing of conservatism making the last stand alone.

Honestly, I don’t want any of my children learning “liberal arts” from the high priests of the post-colonial cult. In the near future the last resistance on the Left to the ascendency of identity politics will probably be extinguished, as the old guard retires and dies naturally. The battle will be lost. Conservatives who value learning, and intellectual discourse, need to regroup. Currently there is a populist mood in conservatism that has been cresting for a generation. But the wave of identity politics is likely to swallow the campus Left with its intellectual nihilism. Instead of expanding outward it is almost certain that academia will start cannibalizing itself in internecine conflict when all the old enemies have been vanquished.

During my romantic youth, I read the autobiography of Russell Means, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement. As an ethnic liberation movement sticking it to The White Man, AIM was, of course, beloved by left-wing radicals. Means, though, was interesting, and not just because he eventually ended up running for President on the Libertarian party ticket a couple times (once as Larry Flynt's running mate). I recall him talking about how, when he finally served a couple years in federal prison, he made an effort to read Marx at the urging of fellow radicals, only to conclude that Marx's view of the environment was just as acquisitive and destructive as any capitalist's. In the mid-'80s, he burned all the bridges to his left by supporting MISURASATA, a rebellious coalition of Nicaraguan Indians, against the Sandinistas. As he tells it, the Indian regions under Somoza had been self-sufficient and largely self-governing, but the Sandinistas were determined to impose forced integration and relocation upon them, using all the tools of traditional colonialism. When he tried to spread the word about the movement, he found that he was effectively blacklisted from the same universities that had happily supported him just a few years earlier — until the Unification Church, the infamous Moonies, stepped in to give him a platform for a speaking tour. This choice of bedfellows, combined with his political heresy, cemented his former allies' opinions of him. He never supported the Contras, or the Moonies, for that matter, but the mere fact of his association with groups like that, however strategically self-serving, was enough to pronounce him guilty.

So, yes, Alice Dreger. I read her book last year and liked it. I see from Razib's post that she recently delivered the FIRE 2016 keynote address, which I'm sure has likewise cemented hostile opinions about her. Like many others, she seems to hold faith in some Platonic ideal of "liberalism" different from the way liberalism is actually practiced today; like Razib, I am impressed by her tenacity, but suspect she's fighting a losing battle. The first article I read about her quoted her as being "uncomfortable" with the fact that she was attracting more conservative followers on Twitter, and last fall, she was still trying to distance herself from the dreaded c-word, for all the good that will do. I'm not saying she, or anyone else, should just give in and identify with the term; I'm saying that there is no point in hoping that you will be granted an exemption from slander due to your impeccable integrity. If you cross the party line, you'll be treated just as uncharitably as any other caricature. As long as you fear excommunication, it's a weakness, and people will sense that and exploit it.

I love the ideal, the fantasy, of academia. Easy to do, of course, from the naive perspective of a bookworm with a mere high-school diploma and a Whitman's Sampler of community college classes to his credit. But a life devoted to reading, researching and writing while cloistered away in a library still tickles my fancy. It may simply be that a clownish curmudgeon like Morris Berman had the right idea after all — those who value such ideals will have to find a way to practice and preserve them without institutional support, without recognition, until one day, hopefully, when the intellectual climate changes for the better.

Your Menstruating Heart, It Ain't Bleedin' Enough for Two

Well worth a read: "The Politics of Kindness in 2016", by Brandon Ambrosino. Equally worth reading are two articles cited, but not linked, in his piece: "The Case Against Liberal Compassion", by William Voegeli, and "Virtue Signaling: Why Political Debates on the Internet Are So Often Pointless", by Dan Sanchez.

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

Prong

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)