Tuesday, April 22, 2014

According To Her Need

Jessa Crispin:

Everyone should be reading Capital in the 21st Century. Especially if you are broke and working hard just to stay afloat and your self-esteem gets caught up in it, you wonder, why can't I just afford to live in a city that I like, what is wrong with me, why am I failing at being a person? Explanation here.

That's weird — Crispin, who normally has nothing but scorn for the platitudinous advice genre, seems to be using a weighty book about economics to shield the self-help book she's apparently got tucked within its pages. Erotic intensity, indeed:

Piketty's terror at rising inequality is an important data point for the reader. It has perhaps influenced his judgment and his tendentious reading of his own evidence. It could also explain why the book has been greeted with such erotic intensity: It meets the need for a work of deep research and scholarly respectability which affirms that inequality, as Cassidy remarked, is "a defining issue of our era."

Maybe. But nobody should think it's the only issue. For Piketty, it is. Aside from its other flaws, "Capital in the 21st Century" invites readers to believe not just that inequality is important but that nothing else matters.

While we're on the topic, this related article in the Nation is also worth reading.

Have Moyesie

Sid Lowe, in an article on Atlético Madrid manager Diego Simeone, Atlético’s upcoming Champions League game against Chelsea, and former Atlético and current Chelsea striker Fernando Torres:

But the coach would not be drawn on whether the Manchester United job would interest him. “With all due respect, and I appreciate that it is important to you, this is a really big game tomorrow night and I don’t want to think about anything that’s not my team, my players, or Chelsea,” he said.

Paul Wilson, in an article on Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini and City's victory over West Bromwich Albion, during which David Silva picked up a potentially serious ankle injury:

Inevitably Pellegrini was asked what he thought about the David Moyes situation but was unwilling to comment. “I cannot talk about rumours,” was his curt reply.

In other news, temperatures in the region over the next few days are expected to be cool, in the upper 50s, with clouds and showers, but the meteorologist adamantly refused to offer any speculation as to who should replace Moyes if, as seems likely, his sacking is imminent.

Monday, April 21, 2014

I Had A Lot To Say; Opinions Were Like Kittens, I Was Giving Them Away

I am probably going to start posting less frequently from now on.

Now, now! I can hear you starting to hyperventilate from here. No need to assume the worst. Allow me to explain:

TIME. I have three jobs — a "day job" and two of my own self-employed, working-mostly-from-home side jobs. There's at least several days a month where I work something like a typical shift from nine-ish till four-ish, then come home, eat a quick meal, and put in another few hours on one of the other jobs until bedtime. I'm not complaining — I pretty much enjoy my work, it pays the bills, and it absolutely beats climbing on roofs in the blazing July sun or inching on my belly through a filthy crawl space, as I had to do a few years ago. But even an antisocial bore like me has other things to do sometimes, and a couple hours before bed isn't always enough time to scour the web looking for things to write about.

Speaking of other things to do, I want to start devoting more time to my first love, music. Long before I ever considered trying to capture my thoughts in prose, I was writing and recording songs. Rheumatoid arthritis put that facet of my artistic expression on indefinite hiatus, and momentum, once lost, is hard to generate again. But now, personal technology being what it is these days, I no longer have to be content with my old, lo-fi, basement 4-track recordings. A friend of mine with a home studio and extensive recording experience has offered to help me if I need it, so I'm going to go through my old songs, rewrite some of them, and attempt to record final versions I can proudly listen to for the rest of my life.

INSPIRATION. One thing I've noticed, when forced to go several days without much web browsing, is how difficult it is to get back into the swing of it. Some of it is information overload — there's just too much stuff competing for attention, most of it ephemeral and worthless. For an introvert like me, it's very similar to the real-life feeling of walking into a frenetic environment full of frivolous chatter. It takes a while to get used to it, and the temptation is always to get quickly irritated and walk off in a huff. Rolf Dobelli was correct — I've read books written twenty years ago that still provide more knowledge, context and perspective than anything I'm likely to encounter on the web. (And lord knows I've still got a two-foot tower of books waiting to be read.)

Over the last few years, I've been averaging slightly over a post per day. I found it useful to aim for that standard, because I could easily have been the sort of person to endlessly nitpick over a post otherwise. The relaxed, informal medium of blogging is good for countering that tendency — get the idea down with a minimum of fuss, publish and move on. You can always return to the topic again later if you think of anything else to add. But I think I've gotten all the benefits I can from that approach by now. And in all honesty, I'm not possessed of much depth or breadth to my knowledge. I have a pretty limited bailiwick, and I've covered just about everything within it, sometimes repeatedly. (See here, ferzample. What can I possibly add to what I've already said?) I've never wanted to write crap just to fill space, and I've never wanted to repeat myself just because it's what I, or others, have come to expect. I'm not trying to create a personal brand here, or supply people with predictable entertainment. Calling myself an official "writer" would seem absurdly pretentious and overly serious, though, and calling this blog a journey of my personal growth and development would be nauseatingly sappy and New Age workshop-y, so I guess I'll repeat what I said before: if anything, I'm aiming to emulate the informal, irreverent spirit of Montaigne's Essays, while possibly becoming better as both a writer and thinker. I enjoy those things for their own sake, with no thought of recognition or reward. Now, though, I think I'd prefer to spend days, or even weeks, collecting my thoughts and writing them down, as opposed to hours. William Deresiewicz was also correct — eventually, you need to allow time for your reservoir to refill if there's going to be any depth to your thought. (Coincidentally, that's the topic of another book I'll be reading soon.)

With all that said, let me reiterate: I'm probably going to be posting less frequently. I'm not quitting, and I don't ever intend to. I truly love the amateur writing I do here. I just think the pace of my output will noticeably decrease, and thought it would only be polite to let you know in advance. I would not be at all surprised, though, if the Fates or some mischievous trickster deity arranged for me to look incredibly foolish in saying this by dropping a bunch of irresistible material on me at various times — indeed, I almost expect it. There may be bursts of activity punctuating fallow periods. And, who knows, if things continue to go according to plan, I may very well find myself with enough free time to make all this time-budgeting moot. So, we'll see, but that's how it's shaping up at the moment.

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.