Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cast and Crew

In the seasonal spirit of gratitude, I would like to take a moment to express my appreciation for Brian, Shanna and Noel, the Three Amígos Stooges Wise Persons regular inhabitants of the peanut gallery, as well as the small contingent of lurkers and anonymice. I take pity upon your bewildering lack of discernment and good taste in reading material, but be that as it may, I'm humbled and glad for the fact that you willingly choose to spend so much time reading my fulminations and manifestos instead of being good little worker drones for The Man.

Now, if only you could stop putting your shoes on the furniture and leaving crumbs all over the floor. Friggin' barbarians...

Saturday, November 27, 2010


"Hitchens Beats Blair in Religion Debate." Well, I guess that settles that! Let's get God's tombstone ready! Oh, wait, what? You say Hitchens himself was "sorely defeated" by "the most fearsome and effective" (or is that "interesting but stupid"?) William Lane Craig? And Richard Dawkins is rude? Is that a point for God or for Jesus? Who's keeping score?

I said before that two years of debate class, along with philosophy, made school worthwhile for me. Arguments can certainly be fun and informative. But I swear by the severed schlong of Osiris, I don't understand why cheerleaders for either side put so much stock in these debates. We've all seen examples of clever sophists getting the rhetorical better of someone who doesn't excel at having to think on their feet, and while I don't agree with the old saw about not being able to reason someone out of a position they didn't reason their way into in the first place, it is true that most believers, even if backed into a logical corner, will toss the old "gut faith" smoke grenade and make their getaway.

I went through a very brief phase of reading these sorts of pro-and-con arguments over God's existence, but the sudden onset of narcolepsy put an end to that. Not to mention my conviction that in the absence of any sort of immortal soul, the Big Fella's existence or lack thereof is rendered irrelevant.

Bought, Ensouled

“When you leave a product on the shelf, your body and soul start reclaiming itself,” says Talen. “Consumerism is never surprising. It is predicable." His alternative call to arms? "Be imaginative.”

I'm all in favor of Buy Nothing Day. I celebrate it a couple hundred times a year, in fact. But I couldn't help but laugh at the ironic, epigrammatic beauty of that statement. You know what's really predicable (sic)? Romantic philippics about the "soul"-deadening effects of consumerism, as opposed to the lasting happiness of a life grounded in, uh, "natural" desires and artisanal crafts. Look, Rousseau, people were bored, unfulfilled, unimaginative and miserable long before the modern-day Satanic mills of big-box department stores, and conversely, there are people who manage to happily partake of this consumerist cornucopia without suffering an existential crash, because they were never high on utopian fantasies to begin with. All things in moderation, you know?

I note that he, like so many of his comrades, frames it as a choice between the undifferentiated mass-mind (bor-ring!) and the unique snowflake status of the true artiste (oui, oui!) Again, I suggest that people like the Right Reverend Billy might want to consider the thesis of Heath and Potter, that the real engine driving modern consumerism is the urge to distinguish oneself as an individual.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

If there's anything more sublime than autumn in the mountains, I haven't experienced it yet.

On the road, as usual, when I decided to stop and meditate on the stark beauty of a view from a mountaintop. I sat with my back to a pine tree and thought about Li Po's poem, "Zazen on Ching-t'ing Mountain":

The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and I,
Until only the mountain remains.

No, Atropos, No

Michael Schaub and Matt Zoller Seitz bring up one of the lesser-acknowledged aspects of the holidays, the opportunity to reflect on those who aren't around to share them with us this time.

It's something that's been on my mind constantly anyway. A year ago today, my oldest dog died after several months of suffering with cancer. He had been preceded less than two months earlier by my youngest, also from cancer.

I make no attempt to hide the fact that I'm one of those people who mostly prefer the company of my dogs to that of other people. I've been around dogs my entire life. I've done volunteer work at veterinary clinics, animal shelters and rescue organizations. My dogs are my family and my best friends. This one in particular went nearly everywhere with me, from the time he was nine weeks old until he died a month shy of his fourteenth birthday. He always amusingly held himself aloof from the others as if he thought of himself as more human than canine, preferring to sit quietly and patiently next to me, whatever I was doing, rather than with the rest of the pack. I doubt I'll ever meet another one quite like him.

It's something about the passage of a year that brings home the finality of it to me. You can't help but think, after the loss of a loved one, about every significant experience and how they're not there to share it with you, but something about this particular measurement of time brings it around full circle for me. Something about having passed all the milestones of a calendar year without his company makes me feel deep down in my bones that he really is gone and never coming back.

I still think and dream about them constantly, especially as another one enters her final days, struggling with degenerative myelopathy. I wish I had something eloquent to say in honor of them, but I still find it too hard to focus long enough to corral my thoughts. Luckily, Chris Clarke already wrote one of the most beautiful passages I've ever read, one that I could never improve on anyway:

There will be years and years, each small forgetting a betrayal, each small betrayal a comfort, each small comfort another death. There is no lesson here, no lesson. Narcissus sought himself reflected in the world and found only death. Plums will bloom until there are no more plums. I will join him diffused into the soil, our component atoms intermingled one day soon, a dog and a man who walked together for a time, a brief spark of sweetness in an aching world.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Where at Least I Know I'm Free

You see this in pretty much every single article about Communist/authoritarian states:

DiCaprio then called himself half-Russian, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.

No matter how servile and superficial our political reporting is, hey, at least we're not officially state-run! We put our leashes on all by ourselves!

Putin has carefully cultivated a tough-guy image throughout his political career, using strong language in speeches and practicing judo and even co-piloting a fighter jet in front of the television cameras.

His latest stunt came earlier this month, when Putin burned rubber on a racing circuit in a Formula One car.

Seriously! Who could ever be bamboozled by such an obvious act?

I have a nice, shiny quarter here for anyone who can find me one example of the New York Times, Washington Post, or any of the "respectable" news channels using this sort of openly mocking, skeptical tone while George W. was still in office.

Write Away

Larry Magid:

But my big question is whether Zuckerberg is right when he supposes that young people are likely to permanently adapt to alternatives to traditional email. While it's true that kids are developing some new habits that will last a lifetime, it has always been the case that some teen habits change as they get older, especially as they enter the work force.

Fact is, many businesses run on email today and though things will change over time, I don't see instant messaging, text messaging, Facebook messaging or any other technology threatening email anytime soon.

Sigh. Does this count as a Pyrrhic victory? I mean, I shook my head in bemusement when I read the press accompanying Zuckerberg's announcement and saw him claiming that high-school kids make him feel old when they tell him that they don't use email anymore because it's too slow. Well, fuck those little ADHD bastards anyway. I hope it turns out that their goddamned phones are slowly giving them all thumb cancer too! But if the best people can offer up in email's defense is that it's more efficient for business, well, talk about damning with faint praise. Doesn't anyone use it for actual letters anymore? For, dare I say, the art of writing? As a labor of love?

Which brings me to this excellent essay by Bill Morris:

This doesn’t mean Estleman and I are Luddites or cheesy romantics. It’s both simpler and more complicated than that. It means we don’t believe that faster is necessarily better, and we’re distrustful of a bill of goods that our gadget-drunk culture has swallowed whole, the illusion that technology has some magical power to improve our lives. Estleman and I are essentially conservative animals who distrust the notion, so prevalent today, that all things can be improved with the right technology, the right information, the right management, the right laws. While mankind strives to improve itself to death, some of us want no part of it.

...One could argue that writing is writing – it’s all communication – whether it’s scratches on a cave wall, glyphs in stone, ink on papyrus, pencil on paper, typed characters on bond stationery, or digits in the ether. I disagree. In writing and reading, no less than in art, the medium of creation and consumption is critical to a work’s effect. That’s not to say that writing longhand is better than writing on a typewriter, or that writing on a typewriter is better than writing on a laptop; rather, it’s to say that each of these acts is different from the others and will yield different types of prose.

...Similarly, tapping out an e-mail and hitting the Send key (or texting with your opposable thumbs) produces a different effect from composing a letter, revising it, putting it in an envelope and mailing it to someone. And opening that envelope and reading that letter is a different experience from reading an e-mail or a text message. It simply is. It’s more tactile, more suspenseful, more personal – and more likely leave a lasting impression. When writing an e-mail, I find I write much faster and with less thought and feeling than when I write a letter.

Preach it, my brutha. Of course, I disagree that email is an inferior medium for writing letters, as I've already said in detail. One point I will keep hammering on until everyone cries, begs and pleads for me to give it a rest already, though, is that the gadgets themselves are not causing us to be more hurried and careless in our correspondence; they're just symptoms of our work-obsessive culture that recycles every second of free time into an opportunity to get more work done. You can draw the line almost anywhere you choose. He and his friend stick to typewriters and envelopes; I happily use email and hyperlinks but refuse to have anything to do with social networking sites. I'm sure there are some who would argue that even those can be used intelligently, but even so, that's just a bridge too far for me. Doesn't really matter. The important thing is that people find a way to set aside the time and energy - assuming they have the desire - to make communication with their friends and loved ones something worth reading. Technology makes it easier for people to be lazy, true, but maybe the fact that we're so eager to blame gadgetry for cheapening our relationships is indicative of a refusal to consider something more unsettling -- maybe a number of our friends just don't care enough to make us a priority, and vice versa.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Weard Beirds

Paula Marantz Cohen:

I have never known my husband without his beard, a fact that disturbed me in the early years of our relationship. What was he hiding: a weak chin, a saber scar, a slothful nature, a psychological need for a barrier between himself and the world?

...My son, at 25, sports something that alternates between a five o’clock shadow and a two-day stubble. I personally am not crazy about this; it looks as though he has forgotten to shave. But I suppose this is the point — the look is an affectation of forgetting to shave, not a real forgetting. As I think more about it, the shadow/stubble carries interesting resonance. Unlike my husband’s clipped boxed beard with its sense of modesty and stability, my son’s quasi-beardedness is more whimsical, more a self-proclaimed mask. It also announces its transitory state unequivocably: No sooner is it achieved than it is erased in order to be begun again. This seems emblematic of our current Internet culture which is ephemeral and continually in need of updating. My son’s quasi-beardedness may also reflect a slowing of the progress from childhood to maturity, what sociologists, referring to the years between 20 and 30, have dubbed “emerging adulthood.”

Ahem. You know, I'm all for indulging in fanciful, quasi-poetic digressions about ordinary topics, but if I may, a prosaic explanation: perhaps, like myself, some men grow beards (to whatever degree) because they like the way they look with them. Maybe they simply have no fucks to give when it comes to fashion and the chattering imbeciles who pay attention to it. Could be that they spend enough time outdoors in cold weather that every little bit of extra insulation helps.

All valid reasons, and ones I personally endorse. I would add that sporting a beard also associates one with a sort of bohemian-poet-musician archetype, which suits me fine, and when paired with my favorite style of hat, the Fidel cap, it adds a bit of revolutionary panache to my proclamations of being a Grouchomarxist.


Yeah, I'm going to say that this looks rife with potential for unintended consequences:

Soldiers haunted by scenes of war and victims scarred by violence may wish they could wipe the memories from their minds. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University say that may someday be possible.

A commercial drug remains far off — and its use would be subject to many ethical and practical questions. But scientists have laid a foundation with their discovery that proteins can be removed from the brain's fear center to erase memories forever.

"When a traumatic event occurs, it creates a fearful memory that can last a lifetime and have a debilitating effect on a person's life," says Richard L. Huganir, professor and chair of neuroscience in the Hopkins School of Medicine.

..."Erasing a memory and then everything bad built on that is an amazing idea, and I can see all sorts of potential," she said. "But completely deleting a memory, assuming it's one memory, is a little scary. How do you remove a memory without removing a whole part of someone's life, and is it best to do that, considering that people grow and learn from their experiences."

...Wolpe could see only limited uses for erasing a memory for now, such as for those suffering after a rape or single terrifying event.

"Certainly, there may be appropriate applications," he said. "But human identity is tied into memory. It creates our distinctive personalities. It's a troublesome idea to begin to be able to manipulate that, even if for the best of motives."

I don't dismiss this lightly, let me add. My mom thought I had total recall as a toddler (I don't), and I've had others suggest that I have a memory often found among people with some of the mild autism-spectrum characteristics (which seems plausible from what I've learned since then). I've actually long been in the habit of pretending to forget things occasionally, or downplaying how easily I can remember odd details even after long periods of time, because I've found that it tends to freak people out. Probably because they assume that only an obsessed stalker could possibly remember that much.

So I'm very well aware that there are a number of things that would probably increase my overall happiness were they to be surgically removed from my memory, but still, I'd never choose that option, especially in light of the theme we were just discussing.

Pics or It Didn't Happen!

Thanks to Arthur for passing this story along to me:

Popular TV personality Bill Nye collapsed onstage Tuesday night in front of hundreds of audience members during a presentation at USC, campus officials said.

...Tristan Camacho, a USC senior who attended the lecture, said Nye was walking toward the podium when he collapsed mid-sentence. "Then after about 10 seconds, he popped back up with much gusto and asked everybody how long he was out for and went on with a story about how a similar thing happened to him that morning."

Nye appeared determined to finish his presentation, but began slurring his words and stumbled against his laptop, Camacho said. At first, Nye refused the offer of a chair and continued taking sips from a water bottle. Camacho said Nye was eventually removed from the stage.

"Nobody went to his aid at the very beginning when he first collapsed -- that just perplexed me beyond reason," USC senior Alastair Fairbanks said. "Instead, I saw students texting and updating their Twitter statuses. It was just all a very bizarre evening."

Oh, well done, Bill! Obviously he has no talent for self-promotion, or he could have been immortalized in the realm of cultural legend. If only he had had the forethought to go ahead and die, he could have been the new Kitty Genovese for a modern generation of solipsist retards.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hands All Over

Hands all over the Eastern border
You know what?
I think we're falling from composure

Hands all over Western culture
Ruffling feathers
Turning eagles into vultures

- Soundgarden

So, it appears the irresistible force of Americans' desire for a sterile, antiseptic security state to keep them vacuum-sealed and safe from the slightest threat of harm from evildoers has run headlong into the immovable object of our longstanding Puritanical hangups about nudity and genitalia. This promises to be quite entertaining.

Presidents claiming sweeping new powers to detain and/or execute anyone accused of terrorism without supplying evidence or providing a trial? Yawn, skritch skritch, pass the remote. Security guards making sure I don't have a bomb stuffed down my urethra, giggling at pictures of my microphallus and man-boobs? Git mah musket, Martha, it's revolution time!

Ah, well, "Don't touch my junk!" doesn't quite rouse the liberty-loving soul in the same way as classics like "Give me liberty or give me death!", but you go to war against the police state with the slogans you have, not the ones you wish you had.


Delving into a language is always partly about exploring a new emotional terrain and figuring out how new notions go with a new set of words. According to linguist Steven Pinker, this is the essence of language: "People do not think in English or Chinese or Apache," he writes in his book The Language Instinct, "they think in a language of thought." Pinker says this is sometimes called "mentalese," and it isn't the same as what we speak. Instead, we translate our thoughts into words, which is why many foreign words are so hard to translate: You need to understand the ideas behind them.

Words in other languages are like icebergs: The basic meaning is visible above the surface, but we can only guess at the shape of the vast chambers of meaning below. And every language has particularly hard-to-translate terms, such as the Portuguese saudade, or "the feeling of missing someone or something that is gone," or the Japanese ichigo-ichie, meaning "the practice of treasuring each moment and trying to make it perfect." Linguists refer to the distance between these words and their rough translations as a lacuna, which comes from the Latin word for "pool" or "lake." There's a space we need to swim across to reach the other side.

I admit it; I totally geek out to read about stuff like this. (And yūgen is another Japanese word that I've always found fascinating.) I remember the foudroyant understanding as a teenager when it finally dawned on me that learning a new language wasn't a matter of simply making a like-for-like exchange of words from one language to another. The helpful question wasn't "How do you say such-and-such in Spanish?" but rather more like, "What phrase would I use if I wanted to express such-and-such a thought, feeling or experience?" It's so fascinating to consider how different cultures have different degrees and shades of experience that they consider noteworthy, ones that we might ignore altogether. I really need to find some more good reading material on this subject.

On a different note, I've always been amused by those who believe in some form of telepathy, mind-reading, ESP, what have you, for this same reason. They act as if people's thoughts take the form of linear text scrolling across a screen in more or less complete sentences, and "reading your mind" is simply a matter of being able to somehow tune in to your mental screen and follow along.

Chalmers Johnson

He was 79.

The rape of a 12 year-old girl by three American servicemen in Okinawa, Japan in September 1995 and the statement by a US military commander that they should have just picked up a prostitute became the pivot moving Johnson who had once been a supporter of the Vietnam War and railed against UC Berkeley's anti-Vietnam protesters into a powerful critic of US foreign policy and US empire.

Johnson argued that there was no logic that existed any longer for the US to maintain a global network of bases and to continue the occupation of other countries like Japan. Johnson noted that there were over 39 US military installations on Okinawa alone. The military industrial complex that Eisenhower had warned against had become a fixed reality in Johnson's mind and essays after the Cold War ended.

In four powerful books, all written not in the corridors of power in New York or Washington -- but in his small home office at Cardiff-by-the-Sea in California, Johnson became one of the most successful chroniclers and critics of America's foreign policy designs around the world.

Before 9/11, Johnson wrote the book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. After the terrorist attacks in 2001 in New York and Washington, Blowback became the hottest book in the market. The publishers could not keep up with demand and it became the most difficult to get, most wanted book among those in national security topics.

He then wrote Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, and most recently Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope. Johnson, who used to be a net assessments adviser to the CIA's Allen Dulles, had become such a critic of Washington and the national security establishment that this hard-right conservative had become adopted as one of the political left's greatest icons.

Johnson measured himself to some degree against the likes of Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal -- but in my mind, Johnson was the more serious, the most empirical, the most informed about the nooks and crannies of every political position as he had journeyed the length of the spectrum.

...Many of Johnson's followers and Chal himself think that American democracy is lost, that the republic has been destroyed by an embrace of empire and that the American public is unaware and unconscious of the fix.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Religion of Comfortableness

Phil Oliver:

The trouble with J.S. Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and western liberalism generally, for him, were their progressive, optimistic interest in maximizing happiness (though he announced his own “formula for happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal”) and pleasure and minimizing difficulty and pain.

To be more specific, what Nietzsche really had a problem with was the idea that pleasure and pain were clearly mutually exclusive. Alain de Botton wrote a nice passage explaining his antipathy toward utilitarianism:

Yet traces of his horticultural enthusiasm survived in his philosophy, for in certain passages, he proposed that we should look at our difficulties like gardeners. At their roots, plants can be odd and unpleasant, but a person with knowledge and faith in their potential will lead them to bear beautiful flowers and fruit — just as, in life, at root level, there may be difficult emotions and situations which can nevertheless result, through careful cultivation, in the greatest achievements and joys.

One can dispose of one's drives like a gardener and, though few know it, cultivate the shoots of anger, pity, curiosity, vanity as productively and profitably as a beautiful fruit tree on a trellis.

But most of us fail to recognize the debt we owe to these shoots of difficulty. We are liable to think that anxiety and envy have nothing legitimate to teach us and so remove them like emotional weeds. We believe, as Nietzsche put it, that 'the higher is not allowed to grow out of the lower, is not allowed to have grown at all...everything first-rate must be causa sui (the cause of itself).'

Yet 'good and honored things' were, Nietzsche stressed, 'artfully related, knotted and crocheted to...wicked, apparently antithetical things'. 'Love and hate, gratitude and revenge, good nature and anger...belong together,' which does not mean that they have to be expressed together, but that a positive may be the result of a negative successfully gardened. Therefore:

The emotions of hatred, envy, covetousness and lust for domination [are] life-conditioning emotions...which must fundamentally and essentially be present in the total economy of life.

To cut out every negative root would simultaneously mean choking off positive elements that might arise from it further up the stem of the plant. We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them.

He thought Mill, Bentham, et. al. had a simplistic, facile conception of pain and pleasure that didn't take account of the way the boundaries between the two are always in flux, and that in some cases, it wasn't for anyone else to judge what constituted unbearable suffering for another.

When people try to benefit someone in distress, the intellectual frivolity with which those moved by pity assume the role of fate is for the most part outrageous; one simply knows nothing of the whole inner sequence and intricacies that are distress for me or for you. The whole economy of my soul and the balance effected by "distress", the way new springs and needs break open, the way in which old wounds are healing, the way whole periods of the past are shed – all such things that may be involved in distress are of no concern to our dear pitying friends; they wish to help and have no thought of the personal necessity of distress, although terrors, deprivations, impoverishments, midnights, adventures, risks and blunders are as necessary for me and for you as are their opposites. It never occurs to them that, to put it mystically, the path to one's own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one's own hell. No, the "religion of pity" (or "the heart") commands them to help, and they believe that they have helped most when they have helped most quickly.

If you, who adhere to this religion, have the same attitude towards yourself that you have toward your fellow men; if you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you for even an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that besides your religion of pity you also harbor another religion in your heart that is perhaps the mother of the religion of pity: the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable and benevolent people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together, or, in your case, remain small together.

Of course, a lot of people are accepting of the idea that pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin, and that it's impossible to have one without the other. After all, Nietzsche's own maxim that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" has actually become a worn-out cliché in our time. A different twist that I see a lot, one that I think needs addressing, is the rationalization technique in which one tries to retroactively define negative experiences as positive ones, blessings in disguise. Sometimes you hear people say that some horrible experience was "actually the best thing that ever happened to me!" Well, no. If we're going to turn negatives into positives, the negatives have to be allowed to remain negatives. That's where their power derives from, so to speak. Claiming that everything is good in one form or another is like saying that "everything is up". It makes the term meaningless. Plus, it's just semantics. You can't define or rationalize away the immediate experience of pain or fear, something no one enjoys at the time. You just have to accept the inevitability of it and cultivate techniques for getting through it without coming to pieces; the benefits come later. There's no contradiction in being glad for a useful lesson derived the hard way while also admitting that you would never willingly choose to experience such a thing again.

You're Not a Whore If It's for Charity

For the past several years, Asylum and other men's media organizations have taken the Movember challenge by growing a mustache for the month of November to raise awareness and funds for cancers that affect men. This year, concerned about the role of women in this illustrious holiday, we (in cooperation with the American Mustache Institute) decided to launch Have Sex With a Guy With a Mustache Day. This is a day on which women can support the cause by making love to a man with a glorious, wooly mustache.

Yeah, well, I rock the full facial hair all year long, unlike these trendhoppers with their temporary taint-ticklers, so I guess that makes me more cancer-aware than all y'all. I'm available for the rest of the day, ladies! Unless you want cancer to win!

A God-Eat-God World

A self-identified “Christian atheist,” Zizek wants to de-sanctify God but not kill him entirely. There are two main problems with a totally godless world. First, as the murderous regimes of modern history have proven, the absence of divine authority creates a power vacuum that is easily exploited. Second, when we lose the feeling that God is watching over our shoulder, we don’t gain freedom. Rather, God’s presence is replaced in our psyche by an even more powerful anxiety. “If there is no God, then everything is prohibited,” Zizek said, quoting Lacan. The committed multiculturalist is cursed to live in fear of violating someone else’s rules.

I've been staring at this paragraph for some time now, waiting for it to stop goofing around and start making sense, but it looks like this is all I'm going to get. So, then.

1. There is never going to be a "totally godless world".

1b. The murderous regimes of modern history simply replaced "God" with "the State" or "the dictatorship of the proletariat" or "the Völk" (and for the record, Hitler's personal relationship with Christianity was ambiguous and contradictory, but the Nazis on the whole were by no means implacably hostile to religion.) The worship of abstract concepts remained the same.

2. A traditional belief in or acceptance of "divine authority" has hardly been a bulwark against the depravity of kings, emperors, prime ministers, presidents and other tyrants, to put it ever-so-mildly, and worldly rulers with the same human, all-too-human goals have been cynically appealing to it ever since Constantine himself. Many of them, if possessed of the same technology and infrastructure as 20th-century monsters, would have been happy to rack up similar body counts while paying lip service to whatever metaphysical beliefs were in fashion at the time.

3. What the fuck? Seriously, just...what the fuck? The fear of being insensitive to other cultural preferences is more psychologically damaging than that of trying to please an inscrutable, psychotic deity while condemning and suppressing all the thoughts and feelings that most essentially comprise your humanity? Seriously, is that what he's saying? Show your work here, please.

Nero's Fiddle

I was just musing last week about what we were going to do when fossil fuels ran out. You know, I would have been perfectly content for the question to remain in the realm of idle speculation a while longer:

The world will run out of oil around 100 years before replacement energy sources are available if oil use and development of new fuels continue at the current pace, a US study warns.

In the study, researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC-Davis) used the current share prices of oil companies and alternative energy companies to predict when replacement fuels will be ready to fill the gap left when oil runs dry.

And the findings weren't very good for the oil-hungry world.

If the world's oil reserves were the 1.332 trillion barrels they were estimated to be in 2008 and oil consumption was some 85.22 million barrels a day and growing at 1.3 percent a year, oil would be depleted by 2041, says the study published online last week in Environmental Science and Technology.

Wow, 2041 as a depletion date? Of course, oil will be prohibitively expensive well before then. But I read the comments to the story, and apparently there are all sorts of new technologies and magic gadgets that will save us, so I'm not concerned. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to drive the sixty yards down my driveway to check the mail. Who has time to walk that far?

Emperor U.S.A. (The Naked Truth)

The first former Guantanamo Bay detainee to be tried in federal criminal court was found guilty on a single conspiracy charge Wednesday but cleared on 284 other counts. The outcome, a surprise, seriously undermines - and could doom - the Obama administration's plans to put other Guantanamo detainees on trial in U.S. civilian courts.

...The administration did not want to rely exclusively on the military commissions that the George W. Bush administration had made a centerpiece of its detention policy. President Obama's strategy, however, has run into fierce, cross-party opposition in Congress and New York, in part because of concerns that it would be harder to win convictions in civilian court.

...But the verdict was still a blow to administration officials, who were quietly confident that Ghailani would be found guilty on all charges. For some, a conviction on only one count amounted to a close call. Had he been cleared of all charges, the administration would probably have been forced to take Ghailani back into military custody rather than see him released.

..."One of 285 counts is not exactly a track record for a prosecution team to be proud of," said Kirk Lippold, former commander of the USS Cole, which was attacked by al-Qaeda in 2000. "I think the administration is now in a position where they have to get serious about using military commissions. This case sends a clear and unmistakable signal about using civilian courts: It didn't work."

So, in other words, if we can't be guaranteed a guilty verdict in advance, we're not even going to bother with the pretense of a show trial. If we don't actually have enough fucking evidence to convict someone under this "rule of law" that makes us so much more special than our enemies, we'll just keep you in jail anyway until we can get the result we want through a kangaroo court.

What a nation of fucking cowards.

America's Shiniest Objects

I swear by the shit-encrusted Birkenstocks of Christ, how many fucking hostages do I have to take to get the idiots of the progressive blogosphere (but I repeat myself) to drop their "all Palin, all the time" fixation? With only limited time online yesterday, I skimmed through the usual sites, and I must have seen five or six in a row all talking about whatever stupid thing she and her offspring said or did this time. Look, morons -- she's not going to hold office again. If she even bothers running for president, it'll be purely to boost her Q score, get more eyeballs on whatever reality show she's on at that time, or move more copies of her latest pop-up/coloring book. Otherwise, she's perfectly content to keep milking her Oprah-meets-Larry the Cable Guy shtick for as long as people are willing to, ahem, pay attention to it. So by all means, keep doing your part. Yes, yes, she says lots of stupid things! And other idiots like to hoot and holler and clap when she does it! (And yet more idiots like to gawk and rubberneck at the whole spectacle!) How is this still fascinating to anyone?

Aren't these the same people who complain endlessly about the vapidity of cable news and the endless trivialities it focuses on?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Adam of Blogging

Nietzsche was very fond of him. Alain de Botton devoted an interesting chapter of The Consolations of Philosophy to him. I've had the Essays in the stack of books to read for a while now. And Sarah Bakewell has written what looks to be an interesting book about him:

These days, the Montaignean willingness to follow thoughts where they lead, and to look for communication and reflections between people, emerges in Anglophone writers from Joan Didion to Jonathan Franzen, from Annie Dillard to David Sedaris. And it flourishes most of all online, where writers reflect on their experience with more brio and experimentalism than ever before.

Bloggers might be surprised to hear that they are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago. Montaigne, in turn, might not have expected to be remembered so long, least of all in the English language—yet he always believed that such understanding between remote eras and cultures was possible. “Each man bears the entire form of the human condition,” he said. We are united in the very fact of our diversity, and “this great world is the mirror in which we must look at ourselves to recognize ourselves from the proper angle.” His book is such a world, and when we look into it there is no end to the strangeness and familiarity we might see.

Monday, November 15, 2010

For the Sake of Argument

Andrew Anthony:

Nonetheless, Hitchens mentions a "narrow but quite deep difference" between himself and Dawkins. Unlike the evangelical biologist, he has no wish to convert everyone in the world to his point of view, even if it were possible. In other words, he savours the counterargument. Like John Stuart Mill, he is aware of the empty end of achieved objectives. The true satisfaction lies in the means. Although Hitchens is often seen as a provocateur or a contrarian, and both are indeed aspects of his character, at heart he's incurably in love with the dialectic.

Right on. Let me quote this Nietzschean aphorism again:

Even if we were mad enough to consider all our opinions true, we should still not want them alone to exist: I cannot see why it should be desirable that truth alone should rule and be omnipotent; it is enough for me that it should possess great power. But it must be able to struggle and have great opponents, and one must be able to find relief from it from time to time in untruth – otherwise, it will become boring, powerless and tasteless to us, and make us the same.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I Take Pride as the King of Illiterature

From my experience, three demographic groups seek out my services: the English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid.

For the last, colleges are a perfect launching ground—they are built to reward the rich and to forgive them their laziness. Let's be honest: The successful among us are not always the best and the brightest, and certainly not the most ethical. My favorite customers are those with an unlimited supply of money and no shortage of instructions on how they would like to see their work executed. While the deficient student will generally not know how to ask for what he wants until he doesn't get it, the lazy rich student will know exactly what he wants. He is poised for a life of paying others and telling them what to do. Indeed, he is acquiring all the skills he needs to stay on top.

...I don't need much sleep, and when I get cranking, I can churn out four or five pages an hour. First I lay out the sections of an assignment—introduction, problem statement, methodology, literature review, findings, conclusion—whatever the instructions call for. Then I start Googling.

I haven't been to a library once since I started doing this job. Amazon is quite generous about free samples. If I can find a single page from a particular text, I can cobble that into a report, deducing what I don't know from customer reviews and publisher blurbs. Google Scholar is a great source for material, providing the abstract of nearly any journal article. And of course, there's Wikipedia, which is often my first stop when dealing with unfamiliar subjects. Naturally one must verify such material elsewhere, but I've taken hundreds of crash courses this way.

After I've gathered my sources, I pull out usable quotes, cite them, and distribute them among the sections of the assignment. Over the years, I've refined ways of stretching papers. I can write a four-word sentence in 40 words. Just give me one phrase of quotable text, and I'll produce two pages of ponderous explanation. I can say in 10 pages what most normal people could say in a paragraph.

It's like the job I've been training for my entire blogging career!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Study In Contrasts

I just thought it was so funny to see both these stories on the same day.


When asked about his own possibilities of winning the Ballon d'Or, Xavi told FIFA's official website: "I'll repeat what I've been telling everybody: I hope that a Spanish player wins it and if not, I hope it goes to my friend Leo Messi.

"He's indisputably the best player in the world, and he's going to win the Ballon d'Or several more times. But in World Cup years the tournament is a big factor, and Andres (Iniesta) and I won it, while La Albiceleste didn't hit the heights expected of them."

...Xavi, meanwhile, also admitted he might not be as effective in a team like Real Madrid as he is for Barca and Spain.

"Let me say one thing: I depend on my team-mates. My football and my passing would be worthless without my team's help. That's something which is very clear to me," he said.

"Sometimes I start thinking and I look at Madrid for example, who have truly great players, but I'd struggle with them. They play through the middle and I need players who open the play down the flanks, who make diagonal runs, who leave space for me in the centre and who never stop moving."

The strike marked Nani's seventh of the season and fourth in four matches, and the controversy sparked by the goal has not deterred the 23-year-old from singing his own praises.

"As a player, I think I'm close to being as complete as I can be," said Nani. "Now I can say I'm one of the top players in the world.

"I play for the best club in the world and my role in the team is as a decisive player, scoring goals or setting up and so the team can win."

So, to recap: Xavi, one of the indisputably greatest midfield generals in the world, the architect of Spain's World Cup victory this past summer, gets nominated for an annual award given to recognize the most outstanding individual achievement in world football, and spends his time praising a club teammate who he feels is more deserving of it, before going on to stress how he's only as good as the rest of his team and the system they play with. Nani, an undeniably talented player who has yet to achieve a starring leadership role at Manchester United or at the perennially underachieving Portugal, though one who is known as a top rival to his fellow Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo when it comes to cynical diving and theatrical playacting, scores a cheap goal in a recent game thanks to a referee's blatant error and goes on to proclaim himself one of the top players in the world. You just gotta laugh.

I Don't Really Care What Gentlemen Prefer

Inside every Swedish-Australian supervillain is an American trying to get out, apparently:

"I disagree with what he did. I think it's un-American," said McCain, acknowledging that Assange is not an American. (She went on, however, to characterize Assange inaccurately as a "creepy rogue Swedish guy"-- Assange is from Australia but had applied for and was denied residency in Sweden, where he was accused of sexually assaulting two women.) "He looks like a James Bond villain. He harbors a lot of ill will toward America. To me he's a villain."

A creepy rogue Swedish guy! She's brilliant, isn't she? (I wonder if she has this map on her wall?)

I totally love the blithe assumption that people who are not American citizens, people whose, uh, rational self-interest (which I thought conservatives approved of) might lead them to stand for ideas and policies that do not necessarily dovetail with ours, are nonetheless obligated to take orders from us or be accused of un-American activities. Isn't there some special House committee we could haul him in front of?

Mecagum Deu

Even now, a decade later, you hardly have to expend any effort to find yet another right-wing blog trumpeting the perils of impending dhimmitude, warning us all to wake up and take appropriate measures BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE. Even now, you still have people shrieking in fear over anything even vaguely crescent-shaped, and you can marvel at the spectacle of godforsaken states feeling the need to ban the nonexistent threat of sharia law.

So, then, to revisit a point I made recently, I really have to wonder why our Islamophobic patriots don't spend more time focusing on one of the things that truly makes America worthy of all the praise we can muster: the fact that we're free to blaspheme our sacrilegious asses off.

Actually, wait -- no. No, I don't wonder about that at all.

(Image via.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine

I still impatiently roll my eyes at Joe Bageant's overgeneralized prose and romantic fancies, but I do agree with him and his Italian acquaintance here:

“What do you believe allowed such abuse and calamity?” I ask.

An intense young woman leans across the table, all black hair and red lips, making an old man moan and sigh inwardly.

“Fossil fuels, of course,” she says. “An unnatural supply of energy. But once that is gone, we're going to have to go back to a whole different way of doing everything. Everything.”

“Spot on,” I agree. At that moment she could have gotten me to agree that the earth is flat.

But the truth is that each gallon of fossil fuel contains the energy of 40 man-hours. And that has played hell with the ecology of human work, thanks mostly to the money economy. For instance, a simple loaf of bread, starting with the fossil fuels used to grow the wheat, transport, mill, bake, create the packaging materials and packaging, advertise and distribute it, uses the energy of two men working for two weeks. Yet this waste and vast inefficiency is invisible to us because we see it only in terms of money, jobs and commerce. Cheap oil allowed industrial humans to increasingly live on environmental credit for over a century. Now the bill is due and no amount of money can pay it. The calorie, pure heat expenditure as energy, is the only currency in which Mother Nature trades. Period.

...If there can be a solution at this late stage, and most thinking people seriously doubt there can be a “solution” in the way we have always thought of solutions, it begins with powering down everything we consider to be the economy and our survival. That and population reduction, which nobody wants to discuss in actionable terms.

Almost all other issues pale in significance when you stop to think about it -- what are we going to do when we exhaust our cheap energy supplies? It's not as if we can just make an even trade of solar, wind, and hydroelectric power for oil, coal and gas, especially if there's somewhere around nine or ten billion people on Earth within the next century.

The difference is, unlike so many others, I don't gleefully anticipate the end of our fossil-fueled civilization, as if we're going to "return" to an authentic way of life that was stolen from us, and we're all going to sit around in leisure, having stimulating, philosophical conversations with ideal friends and lovers. One of the things I came away with after reading Bill Bryson's latest book was a strong sense of just how uncomfortable and dreary a lot of human existence was before the last century or so. It's something we all know, of course, but it was brought home to me really vividly in this case. I daresay a large percentage of people who pine for a pre-industrial way of life are allowing their familiarity to breed contempt -- it's easy to romanticize a simple life in "harmony with nature" when you know full well you can always go back to hot showers, soft beds and comfortable clothes whenever you feel like it.

I would never minimize the miseries of industrialism or its environmental consequences, but at the same time, I can't help the urge to walk widdershins around what often strikes me as the smug moralizing and vindictive delight accompanying proclamations of environmental reckoning, the epicaricacy in the visions of humanity finally paying a steep price for its hubris. True, we may have catastrophically overreached, but some part of me takes an insolent pride in being part of a species that was even capable of doing so. There is no moral lesson to all this. Virtue will not save us either. We might return to a sustainable way of life for thousands of years, only to be wiped out by a convergence of disease, famine and a gigantic asteroid. Given that, I'm glad I was alive during the short window in time that may turn out to be the pinnacle of human existence.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mentis Fugit


People spend 46.9% of their waking lives thinking about something other than what they're actually doing. It's a terribly inefficient use of one's mind and, worse, it actually seems to make people unhappy.

Letting your mind wander might seem like a bad thing, but really it's just the natural byproduct of being capable of abstract thought. Humans are capable of thinking about things that have happened, things that might happen, and things that may never happen at all. (As a science fiction blog, we rather encourage doing that last part.) Sure, letting your mind wander is a good recipe for goofing off, but it's also a necessary part of contemplation and reflection.

I've quoted this from Auden several times before, but it just sums it up so perfectly:

With envy, terror, rage, regret,
We anticipate or remember but never are.

But yeah, I think there's maybe a little more nuance to this. As many have said, especially Buddhists, the future and the past are mere abstractions. We only actually exist in "now". Alan Watts used the image of a ship's prow to symbolize this -- we only ever exist right there, at the prow, as it cuts through the water, and the past flows behind us in our wake.

If you spend every present moment wishing you were somewhere else, you're going to feel perpetually dissatisfied, since the pleasures you're so eagerly anticipating will seem boring once they become actualized, and you'll already be looking forward to the next one. It'll never feel like you've actually experienced anything fully. You've become attached to the wanting, not the having.

But on the other hand, meditation is, in many ways, a form of purposely letting your mind wander, tiring itself out. Personally, I do my meditating while listening to music, and I find it revitalizing, not distracting. It's like a mental equivalent of a good workout. Sometimes I do it while performing simple tasks that don't require my undivided attention, like washing dishes or cutting grass, and it seems to me that somehow, the repetitive physical activity keeps me grounded, even though my mind may be on various other things. I'm not sure how to explain that exactly.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Workin' for the Man Every Night and Day

"My blog, my blog, why hast thou forsaken me?" Don't worry, loyal minions, I haven't. I've just been on the road more than usual, working like a pack mule. Plus, I just haven't seen much inspiring enough to write about when I do have time to make the rounds.

I gotta tell you, I start jonesing to sit down and write after just a short absence. I feel listless and mentally lethargic if I go more than a couple days without at least being able to make a post out of a bad pun. I really do enjoy this here blogging thing. Funny, considering that I never wrote much at all before starting this.

Anyway, with any luck, the Internet will be full of stimulating stuff tomorrow.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Half Baked

Josh Marshall:

More generally though, I just don't know if I think marijuana should be legalized at all. Maybe it's that I'm getting into my 40s. And maybe I'm a hypocrite. I of course know people who smoke grass. And I don't have any problem with it. Decriminalized? Yes, I think probably so. But that's not the same as legalization. It's very different actually. And let me be clear that I think our drug laws are catastrophic. They create endemic violence first in our major cities and now along the borders and it's led to generations of Americans rotting in prison. The whole war on drugs is an unmitigated disaster. And the fact that people can't use marijuana for clear medical reasons is crazy. But do I think it should be like alcohol? Anyone over 18 or 21 can buy it?

What timing! He says this during the same week that this story came out.

Researchers analyzed how addictive a drug is and how it harms the human body, in addition to other criteria like environmental damage caused by the drug, its role in breaking up families and its economic costs, such as health care, social services, and prison.

Heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamine, or crystal meth, were the most lethal to individuals. When considering their wider social effects, alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine were the deadliest. But overall, alcohol outranked all other substances, followed by heroin and crack cocaine. Marijuana, ecstasy and LSD scored far lower.

Anyway, back to Pops and his incoherent rambling:

I remember, many years ago, talking to my father about the idea of legalization. And bear in mind, my Dad, God bless him, smoked a decent amount of grass in his day, said he didn't like the idea. One reason is that he was already a bit older by that time. But he had this very contradictory and hard to rationalize position which was that he was fine with people smoking pot but keeping it at least nominally illegal kept public usage in some check. Again, how to rationalize that in traditional civic terms? Not really sure. But frankly, I think I kind of agree.

For what it's worth, of course I've smoked pot. But for purely personal reasons I haven't in more than twenty years.

Good for me, but not for thee. It's fine for middle-class white guys to use while they're young, as long as they're discreet about it. After all, if they get busted for it, the worst that's likely to happen is a fine, or maybe some probation. As for everyone else, well...

Maybe Josh should just stick to the old "Why do you think they call it dope?" gambit -- see, kids? Smoking pot will make you stupid!

Your Neighbor as Yourself

It seems to me that a Buddhist perspective on identity would help resolve a lot of the apparent conflicts Judith Lichtenberg discusses here:

Still, doubting altruism is easy, even when it seems at first glance to be apparent. It’s undeniable that people sometimes act in a way that benefits others, but it may seem that they always get something in return — at the very least, the satisfaction of having their desire to help fulfilled. Students in introductory philosophy courses torture their professors with this reasoning. And its logic can seem inexorable.

The defect of reciprocal altruism is clear. If a person acts to benefit another in the expectation that the favor will be returned, the natural response is: “That’s not altruism!” Pure altruism, we think, requires a person to sacrifice for another without consideration of personal gain. Doing good for another person because something’s in it for the do-er is the very opposite of what we have in mind.

A question: Why? Another one: Sez who? An acerbic response: Maybe the desire for purity is the entire problem here.

No, seriously -- why is it a problem to consider that there's always at least a subtle amount of self-interest factoring in to every decision we make? How does that somehow taint the beneficent effects of our actions? I mean, if I were a pure egoist, I would absolutely love for everyone around me to have been thoroughly inculcated with the idea that they should act to please and benefit others with no thought of reciprocation. If I wanted to create a docile group of pushovers, doormats and slaves, I think I'd find it quite useful to preach the virtues of extreme humility. There can indeed be too much of a good thing (as she admits later on, to be fair).

The point is rather that the kind of altruism we ought to encourage, and probably the only kind with staying power, is satisfying to those who practice it. Studies of rescuers show that they don’t believe their behavior is extraordinary; they feel they must do what they do, because it’s just part of who they are. The same holds for more common, less newsworthy acts — working in soup kitchens, taking pets to people in nursing homes, helping strangers find their way, being neighborly. People who act in these ways believe that they ought to help others, but they also want to help, because doing so affirms who they are and want to be and the kind of world they want to exist. As Prof. Neera Badhwar has argued, their identity is tied up with their values, thus tying self-interest and altruism together.

But phrasing it like that - "I want to help others because it's part of who I am, and it's the sort of world I want to live in where my values are embodied" - seems to reinforce the same "empty, unfalsifiable" egoism she wants to undermine, funny enough. To bring it back around to what I said to begin, perhaps a better way to encourage the healthy variety of altruism would be to focus on the lack of any essential separation between self and other. From that perspective, there is no more "I" or "you", only right action.

Everybody's Someone Else's Nigger

You know, when taking the moral high ground against expressions of racial or cultural stereotyping, one would probably find oneself on more firm footing, wouldn't one, if one could refrain from using terms like lawn jockey and house nigger liberal to refer to a black man who has the temerity to hold political opinions different from the ones white liberals have deemed appropriate for him to hold in accordance with the voting bloc they've assigned him to. As the yutes of today like to put it, I'm just sayin'. And let me hasten to add that I'm not calling anyone a racist or bigot here; I prefer the phrase "people of colorful language".

But then again, I'm not a formally trained logician or rhetorician, so it's entirely possible that some linguistic alchemist has found a way to combine irony with tu quoque reasoning to form a sort of weaponized super-snark that's beyond my comprehension.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Quot Libros, Quam Breve Tempus

"I cannot live without books."

- Thomas Jefferson

Despite having recently resolved to no longer recognize such cultural constructs as the heliocentric "calendar", "linear time", European "numerals" and the Hindu-Arabic "numeration system", or "denial of impending middle age", it nonetheless came to pass that sometime over the last week or so, I successfully completed yet another 365¼-day course of maintaining an uninterrupted heartbeat while managing to draw breath at more or less consistent intervals, a feat which our culture deems worthy of celebration and reward. That, in addition to a recent trip to the Green Valley Book Fair, has directly led to the accumulation of goods you see above. That is the current "To Read" stack, possibly a Sisyphean task, but one I accept with cheerful aplomb.

"Book addict." "No-life-having loser." "NERRRRRD!" These and other terms are sometimes thoughtlessly bandied about in response to such treasure hoards. But I look at it differently: this gives me something to live for when times get rough!

And in addition to the Socrates book I mentioned recently, I see another addition to the stack coming next spring. Bring it on, I say, bring it on.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

As You Like It

I have to admit to getting just a bit verklempt while reading this:

Then as we got closer to the actual day, he stared to hem and haw about it. After some discussion it comes out that he is afraid people will laugh at him. I pointed out that some people will because it is a cute and clever costume. He insists their laughter would be of the ‘making fun’ kind. I blow it off. Seriously, who would make fun of a child in costume?

...If you think that me allowing my son to be a female character for Halloween is somehow going to ‘make’ him gay then you are an idiot. Firstly, what a ridiculous concept. Secondly, if my son is gay, OK. I will love him no less. Thirdly, I am not worried that your son will grow up to be an actual ninja so back off.

...I hate that my son had to learn this lesson while standing in front of allegedly Christian women. I hate that those women thought those thoughts, and worse felt comfortable saying them out loud. I hate that ‘pink’ is still called a girl color and that my baby has to be so brave if he wants to be Daphne for Halloween.

I had totally forgotten about it, but this reminded me that my mom still has pictures somewhere of me dressing up in some of her clothes when I was probably four or five -- hats, wigs, jewelery, coats, shawls, heels, you name it. I painted my nails more than a few times, and I used to play around with the rest of her makeup too. You know why? Because it was fun. Men's and boy's clothes are frequently just boring as hell. Nowadays I'm too lazy to dress for anything but comfort, but I can still harbor an sneaking admiration for dandyism, foppishness and general sartorial creativity.

Anyway, I'm grateful that I was never made to feel like there was anything wrong with it, even when I went through my gender-bending rock musician phase in my teens. Thanks, mom.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Man Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

So, Barack Obama was in the general vicinity last week. Being in such close proximity to Evil Incarnate stirred many of my fellows and relations to rhapsodize 'bout revolution. The topic du jour was assassination. "Why weren't you there with your hunting rifle, man?" "Shit, I thought you were gonna take care of it!" "Hey, what do Dallas, Memphis and Charlottesville all have in common? Change you can believe in! Haw haw!"

(Don't let the reference to Memphis fool you. This has nothing whatsoever to do with race, you know. It's just legitimate anger over taxes and bailouts, that's all.)

In and of itself, this doesn't bother me overmuch. I'm all for showing contempt for politicians as a general rule, and empty braggadocio from yahoos about gettin' all Patrick Henry wit' it up in this bitch rah cheer is just that. Still, I've been listening to this shit all my adult life. It's wearying to go day after day, listening to idiots turn petty disagreements over policy, or plus-or-minus three percentage points in marginal tax rates into staging grounds for apoca-fucking-lyptic, arma-goddamn-geddon, good vs. evil, winner-take-all fights to the death. It just never fucking ends. The perpetual outrage machine never sleeps. I'm so goddamned sick of being around people who turn absolutely everything into a political argument, who treat politics as a blood sport.

Which is why, even though I can't disagree with much of anything Chris Hedges says here, I find myself unable to feel too angry at Jon Stewart. Of course, many people, including myself on occasion, have criticized him for his false equivalencies. In general, it is intensely annoying when people always look to split the difference in an argument, regardless of the actual merits of either side, by assuming that both parties must be equally wrong. But then again, Stewart has never claimed to be anything other than a centrist. Much of the criticism of the Rally to Restore Sanity over the last few days has been tinged with a sense of betrayal, as if he owed it to us to single out the right wing for more criticism, as if he and Colbert should have revealed themselves to be the reincarnations of Eugene Debs and Big Bill Haywood. But finding fault with both sides is pretty much the definition of a centrist; if he came out staunchly in favor of the left, well, I guess he'd be a leftist. But he's not, so I don't see any point in criticizing him for that. And as a rule, court jesters probably don't make good kings, so I'm not sure why people act like they want him to step up and lead us anyway.

And even given the limitations of working within the conventional wisdom, he still manages to do a fair job of presenting perspectives that the serious media doesn't touch. A couple years ago, his show was more critical of Israel's aggression than you are likely to ever see anywhere else in American media, and then he pissed a lot of the fanatically pro-Israel people off by interviewing Mustafa Barghouti and Anna Baltzer together, which isn't trivial either.

So I guess I just tend to see the glass as half-full when it comes to Stewart. I'm pleasantly surprised at how well he does with his material, despite not being all that radical. And while it seems absurd to any objective onlooker to portray the emaciated, feeble, withered excuse for an American left as anything akin to the radical movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, let alone the mirror image of the teabaggers, I don't mind being used as a rhetorical foil if his words make people like my acquaintances stop, take a deep breath, and calm the fuck down.