Sunday, September 30, 2012

Aloga

Goodman and Soni:

Stoicism tells us that no happiness can be secure if it’s rooted in changeable, destructible things. Our bank accounts can grow or shrink, our careers can prosper or falter, even our loved ones can be taken from us. There is only one place the world can’t touch: our inner selves, our choice at every moment to be brave, to be reasonable, to be good.

The world might take everything from us; Stoicism tells us that we all have a fortress on the inside. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who was born a slave and crippled at a young age, wrote: “Where is the good? In the will…If anyone is unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone.”

Meh. I've mentioned before my ambivalence about Stoicism, but Peter Watson tips the scales slightly further toward disapproval for me:

During the first millenium BC, however, attitudes towards animals began to shift. The turning point appears to have come with Aristotle and the Stoics. According to the Stoics, animals are aloga, creatures without reason or belief. The Greeks reanalysed animals' psychological capacities, Aristotle concluding that tame animals are superior to wild ones. Since animals had no reason, the Stoics concluded that they were made for the use of humans, a view that was taken over by Jews and Christians and finds expression in the bible.

You May Come This Far, No Farther; Here Your Proud Waves Stop

Ah, Conor's and Freddie's posts really take me back. These days, I'm more interested in the psychological dimensions of the arguments, especially between people who largely agree on the basic facts of the case yet disagree so violently as to their interpretation.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Autumn

Autumn is like an old book:
Marred spines turn mean yellow,
staples rust red-orange.

Every stained page is stressed
by a splat of color. Rough-red,
like an old tavern,

we become hungry birds
and prepare for fall.
Shape and shadow are candied citron

as lanterns turn bitter yellow. Autumn
is a red fox, a goblet filled with dark wine,
a hot chilli pepper with smoky eyes.

Pressed leaves take in the colors
of seafood paella and saffron; these leaves
are like death, climaxing with a smile.

Autumn: Her dress is a net of mussels;
dark shelled, it covers up
summer’s weatherbeaten body.

So pull out your boots
and stand on an aged, wood floor
like an evergreen.

— Mary Hamrick

Still Want That Mantra? Still Want to Know?

Tim Lott:

But it convinced me. After spending nearly two years studying Zen, Taoism and the works of Alan Watts, I think I genuinely achieved a sort of satori — a freedom from the inner weights and contradictions of ordinary life. When a student asked Watts what enlightenment felt like, he said if felt very ordinary — but like walking slightly in the air, an inch above the ground. And that is exactly how I felt — every day.

I don’t know how long the experience lasted. Perhaps as long as a year, perhaps even longer. All that time, Watts and the Zen idea were there in my head, informing my thoughts and actions. The background noise, the static of worry and gabble that informed my old life had disappeared. My head was clear. The philosophy entirely permeated me. My life was truly more joyful than it had ever been. Nothing bothered me. I felt full of energy and optimism.

Same here. Reading Watts didn't make me feel like I had achieved some sort of esoteric understanding; it was more like realizing how many of the philosophical questions and dilemmas I was preoccupied with were actually incoherent to begin with. It was the "Aha!" moment when your mind latches onto what initially sounds like a vertiginous cacophony and recognizes a familiar melody or rhythm. I used to read about Buddhism and Taoism and wonder what enlightenment was—how would I know it if I found it? How would an enlightened person act in the world? The difference after reading Watts was that I just laughed at the very thought of such questions.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Born Against (Slight Return)

Gertrude Himmelfarb:

"A man's religion"—but also a man's irreligion, James might have said. For the varieties of irreligion reflect the same once-born/twice-born dichotomy as the varieties of religion. The "New Atheists" easily fall into the category of the once-born, being as monolithic in their devotion to science as religious fundamentalists are in their monotheism. "Neo-Atheists," on the other hand, are aware of the psychological and spiritual deficiencies of atheism and eager to import into secular society some of the enduring "goods" of traditional religions. Thus, they exhibit more of the character of the twice-born. So too, current varieties of will-to-believers are of both types. "New Age" disciples, rejecting traditional religion and aspiring to personal fulfillment and universal harmony, belong to the once-born. "Born-again" Christians, though, are of a mixed variety—twice-born in their acute recognition of sin, which prompts some to return to traditional churches with their rituals and dogmas, while others, like the once-born New-Agers, seek refuge in transitory non-dogmatic, non-ritualistic churches or mega-churches.

She's repurposing William James' famous psychological distinction between the once- and twice-born to illuminate the sociopolitical battle between religion and atheism, which is why I'm inclined to quibble with it. I mean, obviously, I would not want fundamentalist Christians crafting policy, but that's as far as it goes. Beyond the bare minimum effort required to maintain a secular state, social and political proselytizing doesn't interest me in the slightest. My favorite influences taught me better than that:

The surest way of ruining a youth is to teach him to respect those who think as he does more highly than those who think differently from him.

Ah! How reluctant I am to force my own ideas upon another! How I rejoice in any mood and secret transformation within myself which means that the ideas of another have prevailed over my own!

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.

Whatever kind of bizarre ideal one may follow, one should not demand that it be the ideal, for one therewith takes from it its privileged character. One should have it in order to distinguish oneself, not in order to level oneself.

True believers of all types, regardless of the character of their particular pet cause, would stare in dumbfounded disbelief at someone uttering such notions. Once-born, twice-born, they all derive comfort from bonding with their in-group and seeking to convert or overrun the out-group. I, on the other hand, aim to widen chasms between myself and others as much as possible and create them where they don't already exist.

Sillygism

Chocolate acts like morphine on the brain,
and chocolate acts like cocaine on the brain,
thus, pop science references to brain scans are meaningless and uninformative.

Three Pieces On the Smoke of Autumn (Excerpt)

I lean on an ash and watch the lights fall, the red ember glow, and three muskrats swim west in a fan of ripples on a sheet of river gold...
Better the blue silence and the gray west,
The autumn mist on the river,
And not any hate and not any love,
And not anything at all of the keen and the deep:
Only the peace of a dog head on a barn floor,
And the new corn shoveled in bushels
And the pumpkins brought from the corn rows,
Umber lights of the dark,
Umber lanterns of the loam dark.

Here a dog head dreams.
Not any hate, not any love.
Not anything but dreams.
Brother of dusk and umber.

— Carl Sandburg

Colored Lights Can Hypnotize, Sparkle Someone Else's Eyes

Steven Poole:

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions.

Heh. I can probably close my eyes, click on any random blogroll link, and find...let's see...voilà!

Can Science Stop Political Violence by Studying the Brain?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

It's Not Reason That Chooses to Live

Razib Khan:

For a rationalist, no practice is beyond examination and de­com­position. All are subject to critique. On this view, history, custom, and tradition hold no great weight; the past is mere prologue, not an informative precursor. This is why rationalists assume that they can model and create social arrangements, even whole societies, anew. In the rational vision, the basis of human flourishing is thin, insofar as a few principles serve as the foundations for human happiness. Because of this paucity of principles, the human mind is flexible and powerful enough to comprehend them all and refashion the basic elements so as to optimize them. In other words, a mathematics of politics is feasible.

The empiricist sees things differently. Human affairs are complex, contingent, and difficult to tease apart in their interrelationships. The empiricist is fundamentally an incrementalist, not averse to change on principle but cautious of overturning practices and customs that have served society and individuals in good stead. In many ways the empiricist may seem irrational. The utilitarians of ancient China mocked the Confucians for their devotion to the arts. After all, what use were those in the face of human misery? But today modern anthropologists and psychologists have made functional arguments for the importance of artistic expression in maintaining social cohesion and serving as focal points for collective unity. Music and dance in particular can bring people together. Confucius and his fellow travelers did not defend these practices on scientific grounds; they did not have modern science. Rather, they argued that the old ways were to be revered because they had worked since time immemorial.

This may be unthinking, but social empiricism is unthinking in the same way that natural selection is unthinking. It is an iterative process that sifts optimal solutions by trial and error and maintains previous patches along the way. It is never “perfect,” but it lives to see another day. More prosaically, it manifests in the banal behaviors we take for granted. When we wake up in the morning we brush our teeth, not because we reiterate to ourselves the reason that brushing our teeth is important but because it is part of our routine. This routine is not without ultimate reason, but that rationale has become absorbed into the fabric of communal wisdom, which now maintains it as a matter of habit.

This is along the same lines as what I was trying to get at here.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Visiting the Mountain Hermitage of a Monk at Gan-hua Monastery

He waits at dusk, bamboo walking stick in hand,
at the headwaters of Tiger Creek,
leading us on as we listen to mountain echoes,
following the water's way.

Patches of wildflowers bloom.
A solitary bird calls from the valley floor.
We sit evening zazen in the empty forest:
quiet pine winds bring the odor of autumn.

— Wang Wei (701-761)

Eels Up Inside Yuh

New Zealand Herald:

A man sought emergency treatment at hospital in Auckland this week with an eel stuck up his bottom.

The unnamed individual presented himself at the A&E department at Auckland City Hospital to explain his embarrassing problem.

It is believed the patient was sent for X-rays and a scan, which showed there was an eel lodged inside him.

"The eel was about the size of a decent sprig of asparagus and the incident is the talk of the place," a hospital source said. "Doctors and nurses have come across people with strange objects that have got stuck where they shouldn't be before, but an eel has to be a first."

You'd think so, but no. And as is often the case, these events were even foretold by visionary artists:


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Imagine a Being Like Nature

Tauriq Moosa:

I want to put an end to this argument, since I’m seeing it frequently touted and pointed to and nodded at like a mantra. Phrase it however you want: “it’s natural”, “it’s a biological urge”, or the corollary, “it’s unnatural”, “not even animals do it”, etc. There are variations - but the essential theme is to line up a (moral) claim with something called “nature”.

Heh heh. Join the club, my friend.

And What Do You Make of That Grip?

Last season, English football had a couple of high-profile incidents revolving around allegations of racism. One of those involved Liverpool striker Luis Suarez and Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, wherein Suarez was found guilty of racially abusing Evra by allegedly calling him "Negrito" during a match last fall and banned for eight subsequent games as a result. Feeling aggrieved after having steadfastly asserted his innocence, Suarez inflamed the situation by purposely avoiding Evra's hand during the pre-match team handshake before the return match in the spring. When United won that game, Evra returned the favor by going out of his way to follow Suarez as he trudged off the field and celebrating jubilantly in a circle around him. 

And so, many column inches were filled throughout the spring and summer with hashings and rehashings and rehashings of the rehashings and the shallow sort of introspection that accompanies such things as commentators and bloggers stroked their chins over The Significance Of It All. And with the release of the Hillsborough Independent Report last week preceding today's match between the two teams, much was made of the need to put such personal vendettas aside in such a highly emotional environment. I imagine both Suarez and Evra were threatened by team and league officials with everything short of death or dismemberment should they do anything to keep the controversy alive. 

So, they shook hands without incident before the game, which was being broadcast on Fox Soccer Channel, home to the most insufferably tiresome studio team I know. Would they be as eager to relinquish the goose that laid the golden gossip?
 
Suarez and Evra go through with the handshake...not a whole lot of eye contact on that handshake...but a handshake nonetheless.

I let the DVR get far enough ahead so that I could skip the halftime show. I couldn't bear seeing if they had a body-language expert standing by for further analysis.

I of the Tiger

AP:

Before his now-infamous tangle with a Bronx Zoo tiger, David Villalobos adorned his Facebook page with New Age odes to Mother Earth and affirmations like, "Be love and fearless."

Police said Saturday that Villalobos had told detectives that it was without fear that he leaped from an elevated train into the animal's den. His reason, they said, was that "he wanted to be one with the tiger."

Amazing. Millions of years of evolution, of species-wide experience forged into instinct within the unforgiving crucible of the ancestral environment, all powerless before the lure of New Age platitudes. Either that, or equally amazingly, intercessory prayer actually works.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Autumn Offering

I shall be Autumn
this Halloween,
with leaf draped skirt,
and folds of
boysenberry velvet wine
flowing to the ground.

Brown stained face,
eyes rimmed in gold,
nails dripping sunset,
a crown of twigs
to cover my head.

You may gather from me
the spring of my youth,
my summer of maturity,
and hold onto with me,
the solace of these days
of remembering
before the frost.

— Judith A. Lawrence

Friday, September 21, 2012

Commentary Gold

So, Liverpool had a Europa League game against BSC Young Boys, a Swiss team. I admit it, I snickered at the potential for double entendres as the game started. And it wasn't long, just over fourteen minutes, in fact, before commentator Brian McBride fulfilled all filthy expectations:

"Again, I think that's a good idea, because right now, everything seems to be playing in front of Young Boys, and they're comfortable enough, even though Liverpool have scored a goal...and it was a goal that really should not have happened...but, they haven't had that penetration behind, and sort of spread them out. Right now, they're able to, Young Boys are able to be compact..."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

When I Hit You, Baby, You Know I Make No Sense

David Wagner:


When activists plastered Chris Brown albums with the warning "This Man Beats Women," the Internet (rightfully) cheered. But now that John Lennon albums are also getting stickered, the online response is a lot more conflicted.

...Instead of denouncing Lennon's abusive history, an NME editor remarked that the stickers were merely "interesting" (it's an awkward story for the music publication to have to deal with on the same day they crowned Lennon their Ultimate Icon).

Sigh. Now, lest you misinterpret that sigh, let me remind you that I established my bonafides on this particular topic many moons ago. I've never raised my hand in anger to anyone but my brother (and c'mon, siblings, I mean, do they ever not deserve a good beating? You know how it is), and I have no respect for the Chris Browns of the world. But, you know, if his music moved me, I'd buy it. If I felt guilty about it, I'd make an equal-or-greater donation to a domestic abuse charity to make up for it. No, I just like that line that begins "Instead of denouncing..." Because what could be more timely or relevant than denouncing a man who's been dead for three decades? I mean, what if some fence-sitters on the whole abuse issue take our silence to imply consent? 

Wagner, you may remember, is the tosser we encountered last month displaying a similar affection for symbolic, vaguely political gestures that amount to nothing of practical worth, so I'm not surprised to find him on the case. To be fair, there is a hint of a valid point there — perhaps we can wonder why brutalizing women is a capital crime when done by a thuggish young black singer but merely a peccadillo when done by a hippie icon (though, again: timeliness, relevance). To forget about fairness for a moment, we can suggest that lack of media attention to the Brown/Rihanna saga is hardly the problem and therefore an album-stickering campaign is just more insignificant white noise in the news cycle, and we can also remind everyone that art has a way of transcending the all-too-human failings of the wretched creatures that create and consume it. Don't confuse feel-good symbolism with activism.  

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Autumn Begins

Autumn begins unnoticed. Nights slowly lengthen,
and little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder,

summer's blaze giving way. My thatch hut grows still.
At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers.

— Meng Hao-jan (689-740)

My Bandwagon, Let Me Show You It

Ron Lindsay:

Language is powerful. Language not only expresses our thoughts, it shapes them. “Balls” is in common use, and that’s precisely part of the problem. It’s embedded so much in our language that we don’t notice it, but that simply means our sexism is burrowed in deep.

Am I exaggerating the effects of using “balls” and similar gender-specific slang? I don’t think so. Quick: what do you call someone who has no balls, who is a weak-willed individual? Why, a “pussy” of course.

It's okay. As long as the ideas permeate the wider culture, that's what's important. I don't need recognition. Sniff.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

If Reason Were All

If reason were all, reason
would not exist—the will
to reason accounts for it;
it's not reason that chooses
to live; the seed doesn't swell
in its husk by reason, but loves
itself, obeys light which is
its own thought and argues the leaf
in secret; love articulates
the choice of life in fact; life
chooses life because it is
alive; what lives didn't begin dead,
nor sun's fire commence in ember.

- Wendell Berry


But towards the end, Dawkins rallied, and described how he wanted a post-religion ethics worked out without reference to tradition, authority or revelation. Uninfluenced by these things, people could get together and discuss from first principles what sort of morals were needed to ensure a good society.

This idea is of course completely impossible. It has never happened in history. It could never happen and it never will. Everyone grows up inside some tradition, under some authority and given some revelation – those are three things that every parent provides for their children, and which children will always find, even if they have to create it. When a rationalist tell his daughter not to trust authority, she believes him because he's her father and she loves him.

And if we make believe a little more, and imagine that there should ever be a community of adults all in their separate ways entirely liberated from tradition, authority and revelation, how could they possibly reason together about morality? What stories would they have in common? What language would they have?

Of course Dawkins's idea is attractive; of course we know what it means so long as we don't stop to think about it. But it is not actually true. It is an imaginary story whose truth is assumed because it seems to make morality possible. In the hard and narrow sense of myth, it is a myth just like Adam and Eve. We can play with it, and make use of it. But it is quite as "religious" as the rival stories it is meant to displace. That is inevitable. Religion is not something imposed on us by priests any more than economics is imposed on us by bankers. Both grow out of the nature of human societies.

It is an attractive idea at first glance, probably because there's usually a large, question-begging assumption accompanying it; namely, that "reason" is synonymous with our personal rationalizations. Reason is fantastic for figuring out the most effective way for you to get from point A to point B; its track record isn't quite as good when it comes to analyzing the foundation underneath points A and B or discovering why you even want to move between them to begin with.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

We Are Building a Religion, We Are Making a Brand

So, Ronald Lindsay posted his take on divisiveness in the atheist community. The few Atheism+ responses to it that I read all seemed to miss one small but important part:

Merely identifying yourself as an atheist and posting a comment on a blog doesn't make you part of the movement.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Minor Drug Offenders Fill Your Prisons, You Don't Even Flinch

Tom Hayden:

Also, whatever happens in Mexico, the voter mandate was against the drug war. The mandate of the people in Central America is against the drug war. The presidents of Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador have already told President Obama and Biden that they would not meet with the United States in another Organization of American States meeting unless there was a change in the drug policy. I’m a big supporter of President Obama. He knows the drug war is crazy. He said so when he was a state senator like me. One thing you have to do when you run for the presidency of the superpower, if you are a Democrat and you’re black and have no experience, is you have to be tough on crime and tough on defense. And you also have to be sort of beyond morality, which a lot of people on the left don’t understand. Politics is only a little about morality. Obama has done something that might seem immoral on the surface that he continues the drug war, which he already said in Illinois he didn’t believe in, and that he thought was ineffective. He’s waiting for the anti-drug war movement to show that it can make a difference before he steps forward. But now it’s become very serious because the movement has gained the support of actual governments that the United States has to do business with.

Reminded me of the article by Marc Ambinder a couple months ago:

Beyond that, since the United States isn't about to legalize or regulate the illegal narcotics markets, the best thing a president can do may be what Obama winds up doing if he gets re-elected: using the bully pulpit to draw attention to the issue.

But he won't do so before November.

Existence Supersedes Essence

Ah, finally, the end of the most hellish time of year. The mornings are turning delightfully chilly, and Freddie deBoer is back from his summer hiatus:

Is your job essential, Jake? Does the world really need articles like "A Better Way to Prepare a Mint Julep" and "Why It's Feminist to Call Your Mom a Cunt" and "Maybe Mitt Romney is Actually the Blacker Candidate" and shitty TV recaps by twee undersexed Wire-quoting pencil-dicked mawkish "post-political" Harvard-philosophy-major careerist grinders whose sole concerns are playing grabass with underage interns and worrying about whether anybody important will tweet their shitty piece comparing Sons of Anarchy to late period Walter Benjamin? Would we all suffer without those things? I mean Jesus, I think Troy Patterson can come up with yet another article proclaiming what an advanced sophisticate he is without the late night Gchat mutual fellatio sessions. We will find a way to survive without another article about how black is actually white and how the Monkees were secretly better than the Beatles and how it's actually pleasurable to pour scalding hot coffee on your balls and also too innovative innovators innovating innovatively. Your painfully unfunny sports podcasts and senior semiotics seminar paper-like hamhanded movie reviews would probably limp their wretched ways onto the Internet without you.

Now, this here is some fine ranting. There's lots of interesting topics to present and articles to read on any given day, and a lot of writers who manage to eke out a fortuitous combination of the two every once in a while, but there's very few writers whose talent and forceful perspective can pull almost any topic into their orbit and make it interesting regardless. For me, Freddie's one of them.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Everything Has Been Said Before, Nothing Left to Say Anymore

Cord Jefferson:

Not only does the study say it finds no significant issues with the DADT repeal, it also concludes that abolishing DADT has actually improved the military's ability to accomplish its objectives.

Some days, it's like the posts have already written themselves.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Lol Things Considered

So, in lieu of meaningful activism, what insignificant, slightly-race-related symbol are we pointing at and denouncing today?

NPR just wanted to ask its audience about their favorite young adult fiction. But this seemingly harmless gesture stirred up all sorts of controversy. Out of 100 books on the list, only three have non-white protagonists. Now, people are angry, or at least politely clearing their throats. Here’s the question: Who is to blame?

The Job Will Not Save You

Simon Kuper:

For most people, being a hack – doing routine work for money – is the happiest, simplest and probably even the most authentic way to live.

...The hack’s life is fairly easy. Your work just has to be good enough. You don’t have to put your soul into it and aim for perfection. You know how to do the job, you hand it in and they pay you.

...In short, if you are a hack thinking you were made for higher things, you are probably wrong. Don’t give up the day job. Perhaps your authentic self is the accountant.

That's what I'm talkin' 'bout.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Don't Try to Sell Me Your New Age Guru Troubles

I generally appreciate David's thought experiments and musings, but, uh, sometimes there's nothing you can say except facepalm, headdesk. You know, the original Pascal's Wager is generally considered a joke to anyone who thinks about it for a minute.

I Don't Know What the World May Need, But I'm Sure as Hell That It Starts With Me

I have emptied truckloads of scorn into the intersection where social media absorption, moral posturing and "the personal is political" narcissism all meet, and so I'm always cheered to discover that better minds than my own had already arrived independently at similar conclusions and voiced them more eloquently, as was the case while I finished reading Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion last night. But rather than try to excerpt all the good parts in this case, I will instead urge you to read what he has to say, starting with the section entitled "Poking Kierkegaard" on page 184 and finishing at the end of "Killing the Slacktivist In You" on page 191. Go on, now, it's good stuff. There may be a test later.

Friday, September 07, 2012

I Hate You All And Somehow You Find Me Incredibly Charming

Susan Cain:

But our online gadgets have arguably enhanced the social lives of one large swath of the population: the introvert.

Introverts are often brimming with thoughts and care deeply for their friends, family and colleagues. But even the most socially skilled introverts (of whom there are many) sometimes long for a free pass from socializing en masse or talking on the phone. This is what the Internet offers: the chance to connect — but in measured doses and from behind a screen.

When I was researching my book, QUIET, I noticed that many of the introverted academics I corresponded with were much warmer via e-mail than when we finally met in real life. The keyboard and screen allowed them to express their caring and friendly natures.

Similarly, when you’re blogging or tweeting, you don’t have to wade through small talk before you get to main point. You have time to think before you speak. You can connect, one mind with another, freed from the distractions of social cues and pleasantries — just the way readers and writers have done for centuries.

It's all true. The Internet was a godsend for freaks and geeks and autism-spectrum types who enjoy communication in its most abstract, Platonic ideal form. If you made my acquaintance in everyday life, you would probably assume, as many have, that I am either rude, mute, mentally retarded, or incredibly boring; nothing at all like the gregarious, delightful, life-of-the-party motherfucker I am here. Let idiots like Nicholas Carr flap their hands and squawk about what the Internet is doing to their brains; for those of us in question, it's been a social flowering and an intellectual renaissance, and we resent being pulled away from it to endure the quotidian idiocies of life among our neighbors. Which makes this sort of interesting:

JH: Obama is an unusual politician. There are very few people in American politics who achieve something — not to mention the Presidency —in which the following two conditions are true: one, they don’t like people. And two, they don’t like politics.

KC: Obama doesn’t like people?

JH: I don’t think he doesn’t like people. I know he doesn’t like people. He’s not an extrovert; he’s an introvert. I’ve known the guy since 1988. He’s not someone who has a wide circle of friends. He’s not a backslapper and he’s not an arm-twister. He’s a more or less solitary figure who has extraordinary communicative capacities.

...I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know what the root of that is. People have theories about it. But I know in practice he is a guy who likes to operate with a very tight circle around him, trusts very few people easily or entirely. He ran his campaign that way in 2008, he runs his White House that way, and he’s running his campaign that way in 2012. President Obama just doesn’t talk to too many people.

My default assumption is that you have to be at least a borderline sociopath to actively seek power over hundreds of millions of people to begin with, but to do it when you don't actually enjoy the job or the people you ostensibly serve? Maybe he's a masochistic sociopath.

Better Read Than Dead (V)


Steven Michels:

I was scrolling through my Amazon wish list this morning over coffee. Much to my dismay, it's 25 pages long with over 600 books, some that I listed as far back as May of 2001.

When I started it, I was in my final year of graduate school and couldn't afford food, much less the luxury of any book that didn't come with a due date. Nowadays, the only time that I really think about my wish list is when I add something to it.

My own wish list recently bore fruit, as evidenced above. That's the recently-read, the currently-reading, and the to-be-read, all together.

A Revolution Without Dancing

Andrew Brown:

If I'm right, then liberal, individualistic atheism is impossible as an organising principle of society because any doctrine that actually works to hold society together is indistinguishable from a religion. It needs its rituals and it needs its myths. A philosophy will grow around it in due course. Now perhaps you can have, at least on a small scale, a society committed to the principles of rational and tolerant disagreement and the sovereignty of reason. But what you end up with then isn't some rational Athens of the mind. It's Glastonbury.

As someone else recently noted—it slips my mind where, exactly—for people like the Atheism+ crowd, atheism naturally and logically entails progressivism. But most progressives do not see progressivism as naturally and logically entailing atheism, and any attempts to steer progressivism in that direction would likely be disruptive to the goals both groups hold in common. The argument that progressive actions are still dangerously contaminated by even the most benign presence of religious sentiment will seem like dogmatic purism to people who care more about practical results, which is why it has been suggested that you leave it out of your social justice organizing. One national rally and some encouraging poll numbers does not mean you're ready to remake the world in your image. Many progressives, if not explicitly Christian to begin with, are at least happy to portray Jesus as the original hippie and pay lip service to the importance of emulating him.

I agree that this is tendentious history, to say the least. But I can say that because I'm apolitical and somewhat misanthropic, and I can afford to be a stickler for accuracy over utility. If I were possessed of a burning desire to right some societal wrongs and raise up the downtrodden, I would have to admit that Hippie Jesus might make for a useful figurehead. A thoroughly secularized religion of the COEXIST variety may in fact be the best way of binding a society together in a useful way while leaving enough freedom for purely godless individuals to hold themselves apart philosophically and pride themselves on it.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

You Say You Want a Revolution, Well, You Know...

Razib Khan:

And as with most anti-religious ideologies Atheism+ espouses “critical thinking and skepticism.” This didn’t seem to work out too well for Objectivism, and I wish Atheism+ (or New Atheism, or whatever) would really just get off it, because there are some things that are obviously not going to be subject to critique or skepticism. If you do subject those things to critique, you’ll probably be called a “douchebag.” Atheism+, like many of the new atheist movements, seems to be attempting to generate a “thick” system of values to supplement spare anti-religious sentiment. Those values, norms, are outside of the process of critical rationalism. It’s pretty obvious if you are outside of those values, but not so obvious if you’re within those values.

Finally, going back to some of the Greek city-states, Mozi in China, and down to the early modern period with the French Revolution and the assorted Left and Right “political religions” (Marxist-Leninism and Fascism), there have been plenty of attempts to jettison what visionary great minds perceived to be “garbage.” The truth seems to be that one man’s garbage is another man’s fertilizer. Remove the fertilizer and sometimes the flowers don’t grow. Reduction and reconstitution is great in science. I’m not sure that it’s so great as a philosophy of life.

Yep. The part about Objectivism made me think of Jerome Tuccille's classic book It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand, his hilarious account of life among the libertarian movement from the mid-fifties to the early seventies. Of course, the FTB crowd would prima facie reject any underlying similarities between themselves and libertarians, but, you know, the perennial psychological themes and group dynamics Tuccille describes would look incredibly familiar to those of us who have been staring in amused amazement, or amazed amusement, at the glorious clusterfuck of atheism, New Left identity politics and intersectionality that calls itself Atheism+. I remember one part, later in the book, where he is rapidly approaching wit's end while organizing a conference:

"Lop off the fringes and keep a good, purist libertarian center. We can't accept any deviationists and we don't need any crazies. Let everybody else keep the crazies. We'll build a good, solid, quality movement."

You can't lop off the fringes, Murray. You can't drive the crazies away because everybody is crazy. If we polarize all the deviationists, there won't be anyone left in the goddamn center!

...Leave me alone, I don't want to hear about it. Now I know why Lenin needed his Cheka. That's what we need now more than anything else, a libertarian Cheka. A secret police to take care of all the goddamn deviationists.

I'm optimistic that we might see one of those yet! I mean, it took several years of the French Revolution before Robespierre got dragged to the guillotine, but Atheism+ has only existed for, what, two or three weeks?—and they're already trying to disappear Richard Dawkins for going off-message! This digital age, man—everything happens so fast, there's hardly any time to enjoy history in the making.

Titanomachy

Adam Lee:

Where do we go from here? I honestly don't know. I don't think Richard Dawkins should be blacklisted or any such thing. I do know that I'm probably less likely to buy his books or to watch his speeches than I was before, and I'm certainly less likely to recommend them to people who aren't familiar with atheism. I'd like to see him enlightened, but I think it serves little purpose to attack him. Our time would be more constructively served by finding and promoting people who are better suited to be the public face of the atheist movement.

We're not going to blacklist him, we're just going to quarantine him behind a wall of silence and speak of him, if we absolutely must, only in the past tense, like parents who tell strangers that their rebellious black sheep of a son actually died fighting nobly on a far-off battlefield. Ahahaha. It's almost like Dawkins' strict adherence to science and atheism blinded him to the oblique truth to be found in, oh, the irony, mythology. Honestly, you can't script this kind of entertainment.

You know, though, if there were one principle that you would think atheists and rationalists might be uniquely suited to defend, it would be the imperative to discuss ideas on their own merits in specific contexts, to refuse to countenance the underhandedness of ad hominem dismissals of an argument. If Dawkins is indeed a sexist dickhead, that would present a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that, unlike the conventional, irrational attitude which treats heretical opinions as contagions which will infect anyone foolish enough to engage with them, we are calm and composed enough to separate the grain from the chaff in his writings, rather than cast it all aside in the vain search for ideological purity. "Here's a good book about atheism by Richard Dawkins. Yeah, he's got some stupid opinions about feminism, but that's irrelevant in this context. Just read the arguments he makes here." What's so hard about that?

Nothing—unless you're trying to build a brand. And as any marketers and advertisers are happy to tell you, perceptions and slick PR are what matter, not truth. No doubt, the A-plussers are telling themselves that unlike every other would-be revolutionary group that has sought power and influence, they'll never compromise their principles in the process. It may be a moot point, of course—time will tell if they come out of their ideological purification rituals intact, or if they end up, like in Monty Python, as a bunch of competing Popular Fronts of atheism consisting of one or two members apiece. But if they're that eager to jettison Dawkins for inconveniencing their rebranding efforts, you can expect many more such sacrificial measures, should they actually achieve their goal of becoming a viable force in American society.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Children Having Their Fun With the Blues

My girlfriend, who retains the fetchingly innocent idea that music is something fun to enjoy, rather than an ultra-serious badge of tribal identification, likes Nickelback's music and isn't afraid to say so. While out driving over the weekend, she was grooving in her seat to the Black Keys song "Gold on the Ceiling". I smiled at the thought that possibly, at that very moment, Patrick Carney's face screwed up in a grimace of pain as he felt a discordant jangling in his hipster soul, as if a goose with Top 40 taste had just walked over his grave:

"Rock & roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world," he says, blowing cigarette smoke out the window of his rented East Village loft a few days ­before the band heads to L.A. "So they became OK with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be shit – therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world. Fuck that! Rock & roll is the music I feel the most passionately about, and I don't like to see it fucking ruined and spoon-fed down our throats in this watered-down, post-grunge crap, horrendous shit. When people start lumping us into that kind of shit, it's like, ‘Fuck you,' honestly."

I too will declare my undying love for rock 'n' roll, but, dude, duude, come on. Relax that sphincter and let's be honest—you're not presenting any sort of artistic innovation or revolutionary vision of an alternative to modern consumer capitalism. The social consciousness of rock music, such as it is, tends to cling halfheartedly to trite hippie clichés, but you guys, having licensed over 300 songs to TV shows and commercials, movies, and video games, don't even make that feeble gesture. Which is fine, of course, but I'm not sure how you justify opposing your music so violently to another band's. They sound like a typical post-grunge band, which is bad, but you guys sound like, uh, a couple of pasty Midwestern college dropouts trying mightily to sound like grizzled old black bluesmen, which is... what, oozing sincerity and authenticity?

Rhythm and melody are not deep repositories of moral significance, my man; they'll sluttishly tickle the eardrums of anyone without regard to class or taste and sidle up coquettishly to the status quo and the avant-garde alike. Take a deep breath and accept your status as just another couple of entertainers with a handful of good songs. Your Fostex 4-track will not get you into heaven.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Tellin' It On the Mountain

Speaking of prophets, here's an interview with Chris Hedges. Eh, I have to concur with a recent comment by Paul Kibble:

I find myself agreeing with Hedges on many issues from a general philosophical/political perspective, but disagree with him when it comes down to particulars. He tends to play fast and loose with alleged historical parallels and substitutes broad, high-flown rhetoric for logic. I am thus frequently put off by his more operatic pronouncements, which I think are a function of his formal training.

He does, after all, hold a degree from Harvard Divinity School as well as a B.A. in English. Perhaps that accounts for the hortatory, or rather homiletic, tone of his writing: he is not so much trying to persuade as to convert, winning souls for the Good Fight. In structure and style his articles are not closely reasoned analyses of an issue but jeremiads, in the root sense of that word: he is like an Old-Testament prophet calling an erring nation to account, demanding that it repent lest it incur eternal damnation.

Hitch 13:23

Peter McGrath:

One of the joys of atheism's outlets on the internet was that they were clever, deft, funny, tolerant and irreverent. It was certainly robust and not for the faint-hearted.

Those of us who do not wish to extend our atheism into someone else's definition of progressive politics may take rather unkindly to being described as immoral scum, useful but unsavoury body parts, and outdated contraceptive devices. In the week when American atheism made its appearance in the Economist's editorial pages, it seems to have been sowing the seeds of that most religious of events – a schism.

If only a great prophet had arisen among them...

I remember countless meetings where the idea was "one more plank." And the problem is that this is what Freud called the narcissism of the small difference. People will always try to concentrate on themselves. Well, you can go to a meeting where someone says, "The meeting doesn't stop till we discuss the question not just of Cherokee lesbians, but Cherokee lesbians who have to take an outsized garment label." It's barely an exaggeration. There will always be someone who wants it all to be about them. So what was for a moment something that was social, general, collective, educational, and a matter of solidarity can be very quickly dissolved into petty factionalism. Therefore, coalition-building is reassembling something out of fragments that needn't have been fragmented in the first place.

(cf.)

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Black Man, Trapped Again, Holds His Chains In His Hand

Cory Doctorow:

The book closes with the War on Drugs, and the worlds' governments own frank assessments of the unmitigated disaster created by Richard Nixon's idiotic decision 40 years ago. Nutt analyzes the fact that policymakers know that the War on Drugs is worse than the drugs themselves (by a long shot), but are politically incapable of doing anything about it, not least because politicians on all sides stand poised to condemn their opponents for being "soft on drugs."

It's not entirely about race, of course, but the fact still remains that the War on Drugs is far and away the most visible embodiment of institutional racism you can find, in a physical, tangible, life-destroying way. IOZ's basic point from a while ago was presented in his usual bourgeoisie-shocking way, but it is true that much-maligned libertarians like Radley Balko are doing far more useful work for the cause than so many mainstream progressives who think anti-racism efforts equate to deconstructing musical taste and complaining about irrelevant HBO series, for whom the drug war is simply the setting for cool TV shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad and the chummy blog discussion groups devoted to them.