Sunday, May 22, 2016

Nothing to Do With What You Think, If You Ever Think at All (Slight Return)

Emmett Rensin:

The smug style has always existed in American liberalism, but it wasn't always so totalizing. Lionel Trilling claimed, as far back as 1950, that liberalism "is not only the dominant, but even the sole intellectual tradition," that "the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse ... do not express themselves in ideas, but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas."

Richard Hofstadter, the historian whose most famous work, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, this essay exists in some obvious reference to, advanced a similar line in writing not so well-remembered today. His then-influential history writing drips with disdain for rubes who regard themselves as victimized by economics and history, who have failed to maintain correct political attitudes.

But 60 years ago, American liberalism relied too much on the support of working people to let these ideas take too much hold. Even its elitists, its Schlesingers and Bells, were tempered by the power of the labor movement, by the role Marxism still played in even liberal politics — forces too powerful to allow non-elite concerns to entirely escape the liberal mental horizon. Walter Reuther, and Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph were still in the room, and they mattered.

Sixty years ago, the ugliest tendencies were still private, too. The smug style belonged to real elites, knowing in their cocktail parties, far from the ears of rubes. But today we have television, and the internet, and a liberalism worked out in universities and think tanks. Today, the better part of liberalism is Trillings — or those who'd like to be, at any rate — and everyone can hear them.

Rensin's essay was making the rounds last month, and if you missed it then, do read it now; it's a good one. I just recalled that section in order to take minor, gentle exception to it, because as it happens, I'm currently reading Christopher Lasch's The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, written in 1991, and he identified a fairly prominent example of the smug style as far back as 1922, when the Nation ran a collaborative, state-by-state series entitled "These United States", in which contributors strove to outdo each other in performing their scorn and contempt for the shortcomings of each state. (As Lasch tells it, Walter Lippman and H.L Mencken made this sort of attitude mainstream):

Croly's confidence in public opinion and "virtuous social actors" struck most liberals by this time as old-fashioned and unsophisticated. They were more impressed by Walter Lippman's analysis of the irrationality of public opinion and by H.L. Mencken's ridicule of democracy as the reign of the "booboisie." Mencken taught liberal intellectuals to think of themselves as a "civilized minority" and to wear unpopularity as a badge of honor... Evidently the editors of the Nation saw no contradiction between a celebration of regional diversity and a satire of local customs bound to leave the impression that the United States was populated largely by rednecks, fundamentalists, and militant adherents of the Ku Klux Klan.

...Taken as a whole, these reports conveyed an unmistakable impression of liberal intellectuals' sense of alienation from America. It was not that the country had failed to "keep faith," as Croly wrote in 1922, "with its original idea of the United States as a Promised Land." The Nation's contributors seldom invoked the "original idea" of America. Most of them wrote as if the "promise of American life" had been a swindle from the beginning. Croly's brand of social criticism implied that whatever democracy Americans managed to achieve in the future would have to rest on their achievements in the past. The authors of "These United States" assumed, on the other hand, that "breaking from the past" was the precondition of cultural and political advance. That Americans refused to make the break proved the country's backwardness and immaturity, its hatred of intellectual and artistic freedom, its fear of new ideas, its intolerance of of anything that called the old ways into question, its puritanical obsession with sexual purity, and worst of all, its suspicion of intellectuals.

...[M]ost liberals had come to identify liberalism with the cultural critique of backwardness and provincialism. Thinking of themselves as a civilized minority in a nation of Babbitts, Rotarians, and rednecks, liberals fell into a style of social criticism that had the curious effect of reinforcing complacency instead of disturbing it. The authors of "These United States" implicitly invited their readers to count themselves among the elect. The rest of America might live in darkness, but they themselves — the knowing authors and their readers — had seen the light. A perceptive commentator, Louis Siegel of Cleveland, noted in a letter to the Nation that Mencken's criticism of American life, seemingly so sweeping, lost most of its force in its very excess, since readers understood that his spleen was directed not at themselves but against everyone else. Mencken voiced the mockery and contempt for their neighbors, based on a conviction of their own superiority, that his readers also felt but hesitated to express. "Each and every American thinks himself too intelligent to be the target of Mencken's venom, admiringly endorses it as aimed at his neighbor, and takes a vicarious satisfaction in brutality his [own] humaneness inhibits." The only readers who resented Mencken's satire where those who failed to recognize his appeal to exempt themselves from his indictment of the common man.

Mencken's view of social criticism assumed that since we find fault with others more easily then we find fault with ourselves, we need to turn our neighbors into aliens before we can find fault with them. But "such easy fault-finding," as Michael Walzer has recently remarked in another context, quickly becomes self-defeating. It makes social criticism "superfluous," Walzer argues, because it does not "touch the conscience of the people to whom it is addressed" — and the "task of the social critic is precisely to touch the conscience."

Ploosa shawnje, ploosa la memshows. Progressives long ago outgrew fantasies about creating heaven on earth; now, they're content, almost eager, to see everything go to hell just so they can get the smug satisfaction of screaming "I told you so, you idiots, but you wouldn't listen!" Hell, their reaction to Trump has a barely-concealed kinky sexual vibe to it, like they would have the most mind-blowing transgressive orgasms if he were to get elected and confirm all their worst suspicions about the nation. Seriously, someone hook a group of progressives up to a libido meter and ask them to imagine Trump getting sworn in. I'll bet you a large amount of imaginary money that you'll get some interesting results.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Construe Looks Like a Lady

David Marcus:

If the LGBT editor at Think Progress can’t manage to come up with a reasonable definition of who is and is not transgendered, then how is a gym manager supposed to do it? Or a police officer responding to complaints from women? Ford’s certainty that the person in the image is not a transgender woman is laughable. The idea that he can look at someone and on that basis determine his or her gender is literally the opposite of what he has been saying for years.

The simple fact is that Ford and his allies in the fight for transgender access to bathrooms and locker rooms do not have the slightest idea who is and who is not trans. They never have. This has always been sophistry. This has always been an attempt to legitimize a delusion. This has always been an effort to pigeonhole men and women into gender stereotypes. Today, inadvertently, Ford proved it.

So, just to recap. Things that make you a man: Facial hair. Short hair. Arm hair. A man’s watch. Things that don’t make you a man: Having a penis.

There's no explaining why North Carolina restrooms, of all things, ended up being the battlefield on which this particular skirmish in the culture war is being fought. It's just one of those emergent properties of complex phenomena which no one could have chosen or predicted. The virtue signaling of progressives is of course ridiculous, as is their opponents' attempt to conjure up viscerally shocking (if highly unlikely) scenarios, like creepy male predators taking advantage of trans acceptance to kidnap and molest young girls at interstate rest stops. Nevertheless, however clownish the details may be, this is at bottom a fundamental argument over whether we share a common reality or not, and as such, it's one well worth having.

Walk Like a Man

Jackie Strawbridge:

A few years ago, politicians in Berlin made headlines for their attempts to bring gender equality to their city’s crosswalk signals. They wanted to create an “Ampelfrau,” or “traffic light woman,” a female counterpart to the iconic “Ampelmann” invented in East Germany in the 1960s. It became clear right off the bat that Ampelfrau would be laden with biases and complications that Ampelmann escapes. In her motion requesting Ampelfrau, Social Democrat District Leader Martina Matischok-Yesilcimen specified that the figure should represent a self-assured, modern-day woman, yet without any “sexist stereotypes” — meaning no ponytails or skirts, and definitely no high heels or mini skirts — according to the Local.


Sofie, Ampelfrau and other female-designed crosswalk symbols do challenge a male-centric worldview just by existing. They occupy a crucial space in our roadways, where we are required to look at them in their skirts and ponytails, reminding us that there are people besides men and perspectives besides men’s perspectives. However, they simultaneously highlight the difficulty of dismantling that worldview.


For Wade, creating female crosswalk icons — even if it requires us to use imperfect, clichéd markers of femininity — is inherently valuable because it challenges the male-centeredness of our public space.

“It would force men to see themselves in that ‘walking woman,’” she says. “That is actually a really profound thing, because it requires men to see female people as human beings, just like they are.”


So are Amersfoort, Valencia and others wasting (albeit minimal) resources on feminized crosswalk signals? Are these cities attempting to treat a symptom of sexism and hoping it will cure the disease?


So if there is a perfect feminist crossing signal design, we may have many more streets to cross before we find it.

White Man's Burden

Progressive media is best pictured as a bunch of attention-deficient, not-too-bright children batting a balloon around. Soon enough, the balloon pops, and the poor little dimwits stand there looking befuddled, and then they start to cry and wet their pants until someone blows up another balloon and floats it back into the group.

A couple years ago, we snapped a photo of one of the resident SJW writers at the A.V. Club in full tears-and-pissy-pants mode:

Despite consistently negative media attention on the topic (and negative reaction to that negative media attention), apparently two-thirds of Americans still believe that the name “Washington Redskins” isn’t disrespectful toward Native Americans. This stance, most fervently defended by people who own warehouses full of “Washington Redskins” T-shirts...

Oooh, now, that's just painfully awkward!

But for more than a decade, no one has measured what the country’s 5.4 million Native Americans think about the controversy. Their responses to The Post poll were unambiguous: Few objected to the name, and some voiced admiration.

...Even as the name-change movement gained momentum among influential people, The Post’s survey and more than two dozen subsequent interviews make clear that the effort failed to have anywhere near the same impact on Indians.

Across every demographic group, the vast majority of Native Americans say the team’s name does not offend them, including 80 percent who identify as politically liberal, 85 percent of college graduates, 90 percent of those enrolled in a tribe, 90 percent of non-football fans and 91 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 39.

Even 9 in 10 of those who have heard a great deal about the controversy say they are not bothered by the name.

What makes those attitudes more striking: The general public appears to object more strongly to the name than Indians do.

I'm sorry, Ms. Rife, you were saying something hilarious...? You were disregarding the lived experience of People of Color in order to impose your own white intellectual/moral colonial standards, just like your racist ancestors did? Surely, you're not going to violate one of the bedrock commandments of intersectionality and "appropriate" the native struggle as your own, right? Surely you're not going to condescendingly "whitesplain" to these benighted savages how they're too primitive and uneducated to understand what they should be offended by, are you?

(As of this writing, Ms. Rife's byline at the A.V. Club displays no posts commenting on this latest setback for white SJWs in their mission to take offense on behalf of all those too weak or politically ignorant to take offense for themselves. But we'll see if that changes soon.)

Those interviewed highlighted again and again other challenges to their communities that they consider much more urgent than an NFL team’s name: substandard schools, substance abuse, unemployment.

It's like some random blogger once said:

These people are pathetic truffle pigs who squeal in delighted outrage whenever they root out another trivial instance of this-ism or that-phobia; once their flickering attention span is distracted by the next pseudo-issue, they'll go right back to knowing and doing absolutely nothing about the lives of actual, living American Indians.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

But If You Go Carrying Pictures of Chairman Mao



Seriously?

I didn't notice, but Monday was the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution — did Google feel that was also worth commemorating in a doodle? I mean, that had something vaguely to do with "equality", too, didn't it? Perhaps the same SJWs who are currently praising Kochiyama as an inspirational "human rights activist" on Twitter would have likewise been inspired by the heroic example of the Red Guards.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

I Went to You, a Woman-Man, a Courageous Friend, I Thought

Janice Turner (non-paywalled version here):
I'd never thought about my gender identity before. It hadn't occurred to me that not being a "girly" girl meant I wasn't 100 per cent woman. The point, I've always believed, is to expand the categories "man" and "woman", to tear down pink and blue prisons. So a little girl can like trucks, spacemen, getting dirty and still be a girl; a boy can put on nail polish, play with dolls and be no less a boy.

...The trans cause is hailed as the latest liberation struggle. And we should defend trans men and women from discrimination and the hideous violence many have endured. But this should not stop us opposing a view of gender, spun off from the trans movement, that is as conservative as the Mad Men 1950s. Until recently Eddie Izzard was a transvestite, wearing skirts and make-up: "These aren't women's clothes," he'd say, "they're my clothes". Like Bowie, Prince and Grayson Perry, he made the category of man bigger, brighter, less confined. Now Izzard says he has "boy genetics and girl genetics". Filmed rushing into a manicurist, he gushed: "Being a transgender guy, I do like my nails."

Men, I've found, can't understand why this enrages women. Why are feminist ladies so mean to Eddie? Well, because he's no longer saying "I'm a bloke who likes pretty nails". He has declared: "Because I like pretty nails I am female." He is reducing being a woman down to make-up and sparkly shoes. By which definition, he's more woman than "gender fluid" ol' me.

...The challenge now is how to support genuine, heartfelt young trans people, while addressing an internet culture that lures teenagers, amid the maelstrom of adolescence, towards ever greater confusion. At heart the trans lobby upholds the same nonsense that underpins porn and men's mags and the Tea Party right: that men are muscly hunks and women are passive pink fem-bots. To feel you are neither doesn't make you gender fluid - or any of the other 72 crazy gender categories on Facebook - it just makes you human.

As I've said before, growing up in the '80s and imprinting on the norms of glam metal gave me a far more progressive view of gender than the current trans fashion allows. My mom still has pictures of me at four years old, wearing some of her clothes, along with wigs, makeup and nail polish. At that age, the only thought I had about it was that it was fun. As a teenager, I had long, straight hair reaching halfway down my back, and in keeping with the glam fashion in rock music at that time, I liked to wear poet's shirts, leather boots and gaudy earrings. Again, there was no existential angst involved, no sense of dueling gender identities. I wasn't a "typical" guy, but I was still unquestionably a young man, and still attracted exclusively to girls. There was never any anxiety over the possibility of being gay, and I don't think the idea of being a woman in a man's body would have even seemed coherent to me and my friends. If asked, I would have said that I was expanding the idea of what it means to be a guy. I was rebelling against the idea that you are predictably defined by your clothes or your interests.

And yet, I didn't feel constrained at all by being defined, in a very basic sense, by biology. By contrast, I know several people who seem existentially aggrieved by the existence of biological limitations and determined to overcome them, but in their rebellion, they paradoxically end up empowering those old social conventions to define them instead. Now, a woman I know who sometimes likes to wear t-shirts and cargo shorts muses that perhaps this means she's gender-fluid. An acquaintance who "identifies" as an extinct apex predator wants to be addressed by the impersonal pronoun "it". Social constructions like clothes and language are now considered to convey something essential about you, while the unexceptional fact of biology is experienced as tyrannical oppression.

According to the progressive narrative, glam metal was politically insignificant, culturally irrelevant, one particularly prominent example of why we're all better off forgetting the '80s ever happened. And yet, the attitude toward gender norms that can be found in any typical hair band video of the period — playful, irreverent, incapable of taking itself too seriously — is far healthier than the current climate of opinion. The funniest part, though, is that our reigning progressive fashion pertaining to gender is just another fad, no different than men wearing hairspray, makeup, and pink, tiger-striped spandex, and destined to look just as ridiculous in hindsight. They just don't know it yet.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Lucubratio (XX)

Timothy Garton Ash:

"On no other account do I congratulate myself more," Erasmus wrote toward the end of his life, "than on the fact that I have never attached myself to any party." It takes perseverance to keep calmly advocating an independent, liberal position — balanced, fair, respectful of complexity, more concerned to get at the truth than to be entertaining — when what Jacob Burckhardt called the terribles simplificateurs are harvesting youthful enthusiasm and collective emotion.

Now there's an ideal worth striving for and a consoling mantra in times of madness. Hear, hear.

"Erasmians" is the term that Garton Ash, echoing Ralf Dahrendorf, applies to thinkers like Isaiah Berlin, one of the two main subjects of this interesting essay. Speaking of Berlin, I have actually been planning to re-read all of his books later this summer (yes, yes, I know I said that in 2014, but it's for real this time). And just to tie it all together in a nice, serendipitous bow, Garton Ash himself was recently named, in another interesting article, as one of the "Children of Berlin" whom the world could stand to see more of.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

No Visible Means of Support and I Don't Know What You Expect

Jessa Crispin:

It is indeed important that women can be independent from men, and the social revolutions enabling that condition were necessary to the advancing cause of women’s equality. But the process of social change has not been accompanied by serious effort to replace the good in what was lost. We broke the intergenerational home into the nuclear family. We broke the nuclear family into the individual. But we have not done enough to replace the security and safety of the family with a social equivalent.

In keeping with her established pattern, Crispin starts by bemoaning the difficulties of making a living as a single freelance writer and proceeds to the inevitable conclusion that we therefore need a political/sexual/social revolution. Seems like it would be easier to just rethink your career choices. I think my favorite part is how the same woman who admits she backed out of a vegetable share rather than put in required volunteer work is eager for society at large to turn childrearing into a possibly-communal contractual arrangement separate from marriage. Pipe dreams aside, though, since when do would-be radical bohemian artists complain about not having job security, a wide social network and a living wage? I thought dying young in some fleabag European hostel or toiling in penury and obscurity was how you proved you weren't one of the wretched bourgeoisie.

And It Came to Pass

Nearly fifteen months ago, I said:

Now, anyone can make the easy joke about how, even as we speak, sites like Salon, Alternet, Vox and the like are in a race to see who can be the first to publish an article about how white privilege is being able to take for granted one's majority status in a crowded room full of emoji. I, on the other hand, prefer to stalk bigger game. I'm shielding my eyes and looking toward the horizon, anticipating the inevitable article analyzing the phenomenon of white flight from emoji use, dating back to this policy change. For that one, I think we'll need the New Republic, or maybe the Atlantic itself.

So, is this close enough to count as a validation of my prophetic powers? Yeah, I think I'll claim this one.

Friday, May 06, 2016

There Are Those Who Think That Life Has Nothing Left to Chance

We love to have an excuse to deny our own agency. We also love to buttress our bad faith with the latest soon-to-be-obsolete studies. It's been at least a couple of weeks since I last saw one. Aren't we about due?

More evidence that you’re a mindless robot with no free will

Sigh. Rather than get bogged down in the interminable, worthless debate over essence, let's turn our focus to action.

Gotama is interested in what people can do, not with what they are. The task he proposes entails distinguishing between what is to be accepted as the natural condition of life itself (the unfolding of experience) and what is to be let go of (reactivity). We may have no control over the rush of fear prompted by finding a snake under our bed, but we do have the ability to respond to the situation in a way that is not determined by that fear.

But if reactivity is an inclination, and therefore part of the experience over which you have no control, how can you exercise any choice that might make a difference? Or, more simply stated: If everything you experience arises from conditions, how can there be free will? Surely the doctrines of not-self and conditioned arising preclude the possibility of freely chosen agency and present a vision of life that plays itself out according to the blind forces of impersonal causality. These oft-stated objections come from treating the Buddha’s teaching as though it were a metaphysics concerned with illuminating the true nature of reality. As soon as we consider it a task-based ethics, however, such objections vanish. The only thing that matters is whether or not you can perform a task. When an inclination to say something cruel occurs, for example, can you resist acting on that impulse? If you can, you have succeeded. Whether your decision to withhold the barbed remark was the result of free will or not is beside the point.

— Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism

Straightforward, sensible and useful. Avoids all the arcane hairsplitting and rationalization. Which is why it will never catch on.

Intellectual Property Is Theft

"Scientifically speaking", wouldn't you know it, civilization is going to collapse and fascism will take over unless progressive economic reforms are instituted to combat inequality. Scientifically speaking! You know, in case you were skeptical of what appears to be a just-so story, and not a particularly original one at that. Speaking of which, Marx would probably have rejected copyright law on principle, but even he might have appreciated attribution here. Kind of rude to sample his original recordings and not even mention his name in the lyrics, don't you think?

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

And That's Just a Little Bit More Than the Left Will Allow

While backpacking through Eastern Europe, I stopped at a pub for a drink. On the stool next to me sat a squat, disheveled man. His strange habit of constantly fiddling with his nose, beard or shirt, as well as his grunting and snuffling, put me in mind of a groggy bear with a cocaine addiction. Before I could think better of my choice of seat, my presence apparently triggered a monologue that he had hooked up to a motion-detector.

"I told those imbeciles at Salon that I related to Robespierre and Lenin! But did they call me 'Zizek the Fanatical Jacobin', or 'Zizek the Bolshevik Monster'? No! I was 'the coolest, most influential leftist in Europe'! I've loudly proclaimed my admiration for Lenin, Stalin and Mao, but did they call me 'Zizek the Mass-Murder Apologist'? No! They just gently admonished me to 'stop clowning around'! I wrote in one of my books, 'Better the worst of Stalinism than the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state,' but do my leftist comrades call me 'Zizek the Nihilist Nightmare'? No! The Chronicle of Higher Education even dubbed me 'the Elvis of cultural theory'! They have no principles! It's all just a big fucking joke to them!"

He turned fully in my direction, his jittery gaze coming briefly to rest as if consciously noticing me for the first time, and muttered, "But you write one article or give one speech that criticizes Islam..."

(cf.)

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Welcome to Your Life. There's No Turning Back

It's rare that I'll ever have the chance to say that I strongly agree with something published by Vox, so let me grab the opportunity: yes, it's true, regular exercise alone will not help you lose weight; you have to have military discipline about your diet as well. No, it's not fair. Life is like that, your parents weren't being glib when they said that to you. Still, when you get done whining and complaining to no avail, you still have a choice to make. Like the last line of the famous Rilke poem says: you must change your life. If you go about it grudgingly, always looking for a more efficient shortcut, impatiently waiting for your torment to finally be over so that you can finally "relax" one day and indulge yourself, you'll eventually fall back into your bad habits again. Most of the effort is mental, and most people's mental energy gets wasted on arguing, bargaining, negotiating, and rationalizing with themselves. It's paradoxically easier if you act like you have no choice but to count calories and exercise regularly for the rest of your active life (and let me assure you, the benefits are worth it; fit privilege is awesome; I don't know why more people don't try it). But most people refuse to believe that, so the charade goes on:

For many of us, the most pressing question about exercise is: How little can I get away with?