Saturday, November 30, 2013

Winter's Offerings

Crispy chimes of Autumn, spread out upon natures floor.
The falling greens of spring and summer, now taking on a brown-like decor.
Bare bodies stand naked, their bones clanging in the wind.
Hoping to soon be reclothed, by winter's cool new offerings.

— Robert M. Hensel

All Idealism is Mendaciousness Before the Necessary

Ken Dryden:

"Would I do it all over again?" It is a cruel question for anyone. To answer "no" is to deny all we've done and all we are and those who are most important in our life, who have loved us, helped us, believed in us. "No" also means that the one chance we get in life we've wasted. If the possible answers to Dorsett's question are "yes" or "no," the answer, proudly, defiantly, protectively, must be "yes." And if it is "yes," the last defense for football leaders, after ignorance and nonchalance, after denial, after inconsequential change, becomes choice. Players have a choice, and it's theirs and theirs alone to make. Who, after all, has the right to stand in the way of that? But what is the choice offered, and who frames it?

...Offer Dorsett's grandson a real choice, so that at age 59 if he asks himself the question his grandfather asked, "Would I do it all over again?" he can answer "Yes," and not have everyone who hears him cringe and feel sad.

If it is a cruel question — and others would certainly agree — it's because life will always contain tragic choices, regardless of human inventiveness.

So I Take a Deep Breath and Count to Ten, Ain't Gonna Let It Get Under My Skin

Having been plenty critical of the shortcomings of Stoicism, I will say that Robert Wringham does a fine job here of emphasizing its virtues.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

At the Risk of Sounding Crass I Would Like to Mention That I am Well Aware of Your Wack Intentions

Felix Salmon:

Instead, however, GoldieBlox did exactly what you’d expect an entitled and well-lawyered Silicon Valley startup to do, which is pick a fight. It’s the way of the Valley — you can’t be winning unless some household-name dinosaur is losing. (The Beasties are actually the second big name to find themselves in the GoldieBlox crosshairs; the first was Toys R Us.) The real target of the GoldieBlox lawsuit, I’m quite sure, is not the Beastie Boys. Instead, it’s the set of investors who are currently being pitched to put money into a fast-growing, Stanford-incubated, web-native, viral, aggressive, disruptive company with massive room for future growth — a company which isn’t afraid to pick fights with any big name you care to mention.

Just when I think I've become jaded, something like this comes along to make me marvel at some people's capacity for cynical manipulation. Gotta hand it to them, they had a plan and they executed it perfectly. If this had been the work of a true believer, it would have been merely laughable — really, like it's somehow subversive and challenging to put a stereotypically "girly" gloss on children's construction toys? And who honestly thinks that playing with pastel Tinkertoys will directly lead to more girls involved in STEM fields later on? Does your career have anything to do with the sorts of games and toys you played with as a kid? But of course, such superficial rah-rah-empowerment platitudes have an enormous, receptive audience in the twitosphere, and those fucking morons reacted exactly as GoldieBlox anticipated they would.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

All the Tastemakers Drinking from the Same Glass

Brian passes this along:

(3)  Why do we do this?

My wild guess: we suffer from a lack of seriousness, so that our opinions on important issues becomes matters of tribal identity and entertainment. In fact the tribal beliefs — including the exaggerations and lies — function as group markers. Much as did the dietary laws of the ancient Israelites.

In our nation of increasingly atomized individuals — without the clan, community, and corporate loyalties that for so long defined Americans — these provide new allegiances for the New America. Best of all, they’re free of any cost. Strongly held identities, dedicated to saving the nation or even the world, with no obligations for personal action.

These are unlike the allegiances that built America. Abolitionists, suffragettes, unionists, civil rights activists — all of these were tied to reality, which limited their fantasy football-like disregard for reality.

Can't really argue with that. Freddie deBoer writes about this theme often, as he did in this essay:

Contemporary strivers lack the tools with which people in the past have differentiated themselves from their peers: They live in a post-virtue, post-religion, post-aristocracy age. They lack the skills or inspiration to create something of genuine worth. They have been conditioned to find all but the most conventional and compromised politics worthy of contempt. They are denied even the cold comfort of identification with career, as they cope with the deadening tedium and meaninglessness of work by calling attention to it over and over again, as if acknowledging it somehow elevates them above it.

Into this vacuum comes a relief that is profoundly rational in context—the self as consumer and critic. Given the emptiness of the material conditions of their lives, the formerly manic competitors must come to invest the cultural goods they consume with great meaning. Meaning must be made somewhere; no one will countenance standing for nothing. So the poor proxy of media and cultural consumption comes to define the individual. In many ways, cultural products such as movies, music, clothes, and media are the perfect vehicle for the endless division of people into strata of knowingness, savvy, and cultural value.

Freddie, of course, is writing more specifically about status competition over consumer taste in this instance. But Fabius is writing about how even our opinions on "serious" sociopolitical issues become game tokens to redeem toward the same kind of empty entertainment. Political identity becomes just another means of social sorting in the high-school cafeteria environment of the twitosphere. For a perfect example, take this post that I saw on the Slymepit a few months ago:

I don't watch any of that celebrity crap either, but I do loathe the fact that we in America (and probably elsewhere as well) are so obsessed with celebrity culture. People like the Kardashians are famous for... what, exactly? Artistic achievement? Nope. Corporate leadership? Nope. Acting ability? Nope. Political acumen? Nope. Anything at all? Nope. They're famous for absolutely fucking nothing.

I don't watch sports either. Fucking bread and circuses. Yay, I barely make enough at work to feed my family and the NSA spies on my phone calls, emails, internet surfing and text messages, but who cares about all that. I'm all upset because my favorite athlete got traded to another team.

As a matter of fact I haven't watched broadcast or cable TV of any kind in over two years. Netflix and my movie and documentary collections are more than enough for me. When I hear the people at work excitedly discussing whatever the fuck the latest episode of "Housewives of Fill in the Blank" or "Swamp People" was about, I just inwardly roll my eyes and try not to tell them they're PART OF THE PROBLEM!!!  :lol:

Reminds me of that joke: How can you tell if someone doesn't watch TV? Oh, don't worry, they'll tell you. But that part is just generic anti-mainstream snobbery. The second paragraph is what I found interesting. Leave aside the obvious fact that plenty of people manage to pay attention to sports, entertainment and other hobbies while managing to stay au courant on world news. Answer honestly: what difference have the NSA revelations made in your life? Have you changed your browsing habits as a result? Your purchasing habits? Are you going to vote differently? Have you done anything whatsoever of a political nature, even something as weak as signing a petition or writing a letter to your Congressman? Or have you, like most of us, shrugged at the confirmation of what you assumed they were doing all along? Isn't this just one more bit of depressing news to add to the rest of the pile? How has knowing about this benefitted you at all? What kind of ridiculous, petty pride is there to be taken in such a distinction? We're all helplessly constricted in the coils of the State, but hey, at least I saw it coming!

All such snobbery reduces to empty signaling. "Hey, I'm one of you, the cool people. I'm definitely not like those wrong-thinking morons over there." A bunch of insignificant lightning bugs flashing their little green asses at one another. It doesn't matter whether the flashes are in reference to brand loyalties or sociopolitical differences; the medium itself, the social web, makes them equally trivial. That's one of the things I find so strange about the twitosphere — you might see a blogger one day acting out an anguished performance over the latest gun massacre. Then they'll post a link to something like Patton Oswalt's tweets on the massacre, as if his nerd-cred means he's going to have something profound to say about it. And within a couple days, they'll be back to posting pictures of a handmade Boba Fett oven mitt — "OMG. Coolest. Thing. Ever!" Serious topics and silly trifles are all presented in the same deracinated context, rendering them all slightly surreal, detached from the real world. It's all disposable, everything's always becoming old news.

The funniest thing about the above excerpt is that it comes from someone who's been a registered member of the forum since its inception, a regular with over 3400 posts to his name. It seems safe to say that he's found plenty of frivolous things to do with his time rather than wallow in useless angst about the Orwellian super-state. I mean, look, some people like watching Kim Kardashian's ass. Some people like laughing at lolcats. Some people like watching basketball games. Some people like trawling the blogosphere, looking for confirmation of their biases toward Republicans, Christians, southerners, whatever. Some people like engaging in endless Twitter spats that contribute nothing whatsoever to anyone's edification. And some people like making funny Photoshops of various morons in the online atheist environment. It's all entertainment. What Thomas Frank was just saying about journalism is even more true with regards to the twitosphere — sound and fury, signifying nothing, just another comfortable niche for people to waste time in. All these people could be doing something more "important" with their time and energy. But though the Kardashian-keeper-uppers may be vapid and boring, at least they don't take themselves as seriously as those who prefer their entertainment with a coating of faux-gravitas.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Kings's Pawn to B3, Checkmate

This wouldn't be very interesting if computers, with their ability to calculate millions of moves per second, were just correcting human blunders. But they are doing much more than that. When engines suggest surprising moves, or arrangements of pieces that look "ugly" to human sensibilities, they are often seeing more deeply into the game than their users. They are not perfect; sometimes long-term strategy still eludes them. But players have learned from computers that some kinds of chess positions are playable, or even advantageous, even though they might violate general principles. Having seen how machines go about attacking and especially defending, humans have become emboldened to try the same ideas.

I love that about playing against computers. Often, I'll play a game by just asking for and following every hint the computer gives me to see if I can anticipate the strategy.

And I suppose I might as well make this post a one-stop-shop for chess-related articles:

In the months leading up to the tournament, Mr. Paulson talked the ear off any Indian advertising buyer or media executive who would meet with him. Chess, he told them, is a chance to pair with a brand associated with strategy, intellect, creativity and winning. And, with Mr. Carlsen’s ascension, sex appeal.

The thing is, although people are listening to Mr. Paulson — and it’s hard not to — they aren’t yet doing much buying. In fact, he turned to India in part because his initial efforts in Europe to gain corporate sponsorship didn’t take. He faces many obstacles, like a governing chess body widely considered to be strange (putting it kindly), some top chess players who think that his efforts to popularize the sport are lowbrow, and the fact that he is promoting slow-motion entertainment in a world of short attention spans.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

I'll Look at You, You'll Look at Me, We'll Cry a Lot, This'll be What We Said: Look Where All This Talking Got Us, Baby

Two things need to be said about this tsunami of sad. First, that the vast size of it, when compared to the effect that it has had—close to nothing—should perhaps call into question the utility of journalism and argument and maybe even prose itself. The gradual Appalachification of much of the United States has been a well-known phenomenon for 20 years now; it is not difficult to understand why and how it happened; and yet the ship of state sails serenely on in the same political direction as though nothing had changed. We like to remember the muckraking era because of the amazing real-world transformations journalism was able to bring; our grandchildren will remember our era because of the big futile naught accomplished by our prose.

...Why has Packer written such a heavy-handed homage? Maybe because our period is similar to the ’30s. Maybe because elegy and lyric, written without hope for a political rescue, are the appropriate means to describe the disintegration of middle-class America. After all, how many more books screaming about some Great Disaster being worked on the American Dream do we need? What kind of chart can an author or a blogger or a columnist present that would make the slightest bit of difference anymore? The truth is that journalism is almost completely irrelevant. And so maybe only art matters.

No Invited Guests

Maria Bustillos:

One kind of writer, at least, is immune to the lure of fame: the anonymous writer. No name, no literary glory. What would possess someone to go to all the trouble of writing a book and then take no credit for having done so? What compulsion drives this strangest of artists?

Anonymous is more than a pseudonym. It is a stark declaration of intent: a wall explicitly thrown up, not only between writer and reader, but between the writer’s work and his life. His book is one thing and his “real” life another, and the latter is entirely off limits, not only to you, the reader, but presumably to almost everybody. Sometimes he has written about something too intimate, too scary, too real, for him to bear public scrutiny. Once the connection is known, what he has written will mark his ordinary life ineradicably.

"You're the quietest person around, aren'tcha?" said a woman I've worked with for the last couple years.

"Yep," I agreed, as I continued walking past her.

"Do you ever talk?" she asked.

"Not if I can help it," I responded over my shoulder.

"Well, I guess you keep out of trouble that way, at least," she added.

"Yep." Out the door and gone.

I recently heard through the grapevine about a family member lamenting my taciturn nature — "He's just so unknowable!"

It amuses me at times to imagine pointing such people here and seeing their reactions. Would they be impressed? Intrigued? Bewildered? Disappointed? I smile at the thought and return to my nondescript life, planning the outline of the next post in my head.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sin of Omission

Red-cheeked, I have to admit that I went through my own phase of American Indian obsession as an adolescent, born out of, yes, noble savage romanticism. Oh, I was ridiculous. Bone jewelry. Long hair dyed raven-black. Books on everything from Indian languages, at the respectable end of the spectrum, to money-grubbing pseudo-mysticism written by pale people of dubious ancestry with names like Samuel Squatting Bear on the other. To be fair to myself, I outgrew it because even then, I was aware that such interests were widely seen as clichés. So I kept my eyes and ears open and eventually ended up paying more attention to the American Indian Movement than dreamcatchers and handcrafted medicine pouches. There's no real moral to that story, though — you generally just come away subdued and depressed by the immensity of the hopelessness. I certainly realized in a hurry that I was not made of stern enough stuff for devoted activism. (I did meet Dennis Banks once, which was cool.) No, I just mention it to lay my cards on the table, to stress that I have more than a passing interest in the topic.

You've probably heard that the twitosphere is in the midst of another frenzied point-and-denounce episode, this time over the Alabama high school which mixed a reference to the Trail of Tears in with the usual pre-game trash-talking. "What? Too soon?" Yes, I'm afraid so. Bad taste indeed. Give it a few hundred years. By then, it should all be good, clean fun, just like how you don't see any groups of indigenous Orcadian descendants today claiming to be triggered by the existence of a football team named in honor of the vicious, colonialist Norsemen who raped and pillaged the villages of their ancestors. You know what, I think I might just do that to entertain myself. Look for me crusading on behalf of the memory of my people on Twitter in the upcoming days! #IndigenousOrkneyNeverForget

But I digress. So, yeah, there are already a thousand unimaginative bloggers telling you what you already know like they think you're a fucking moron or something — teenagers are impulsive and often stupid, racism is a Bad Thing, and hey, since this is not the first but the second American Indian issue to seize the public's imagination in recent months (up from the usual number of "zero"), maybe we can have us one of them Teachable Moments. Oh, for the love of the Great Spirit, go jackhammer-fuck yourselves, you tedious bastards. Stating the bleeding obvious bores the fuck out of me. Instead, I will just point out that these kids likely thought the play on words was more clever than offensive because as far as they're concerned, American Indians only exist as abstractions, barely more than an artifact of this nation's collective mythology. I mean, how many do you know? How many reservations have you visited? How many popular movies, books and cable docudramas have been devoted to the reality of Indian life today as opposed to rehashing Dances With Wolves-territory? Hell, for all the link-aggregator-type sites I read each day, Metafilter provided the only instance in my recent memory of a link to a story about the grim reality of reservation life. It's not exactly what they would call a trending topic.

Which brings us back to that other issue. And honestly, the only really interesting thing about all of this is the delightful coincidence of seeing the crusaders for changing the Redskins' name simultaneously treating natives as equally abstract symbols.

Exhibit A: the article I linked to last month. This was so unbelievably "meta", it just floored me. A bunch of white jerkoffs talking about their feelings about a satirical newspaper's take on an abstract logo from the sports/entertainment world. "No Native Americans were affected, adversely or otherwise, during the making of this navel-gazing episode." Except in the most generic, superficial way, they don't care about the minorities on whose behalf they are so generously offended, any more than they deeply care about the few dozen other things they tweeted about that day. The most "problematic" aspect of this, to use that beloved buzzword of the social justards, is the fact that it impinged upon their ability to enjoy their entertainment with a clear conscience. As is so often the case, this was just another opportunity for typical guilt-ridden, Internet-savvy progressives, like modern-day Victorians, to project their neuroses and obsessions onto the backdrop of the wider world. These people are pathetic truffle pigs who squeal in delighted outrage whenever they root out another trivial instance of this-ism or that-phobia; once their flickering attention span is distracted by the next pseudo-issue, they'll go right back to knowing and doing absolutely nothing about the lives of actual, living American Indians.

Don't get me wrong — sure, the name is embarrassingly outdated, go ahead and change it, whatever. It very well could happen at some point, but likely not until after Daniel Snyder comes to an agreement with the NFL for tens of millions in compensation over the inconvenience of having to completely overhaul his franchise and rebrand it. Money talks, cheap outrage walks. I'm not sure how paying a rich guy tons of additional money in exchange for a feel-good victory would advance social justice, but sure, fine, should that be the case, give yourselves a congratulatory handjob and settle back for some guilt-free fun. Until the whole brain-injury issue starts to gain serious traction...

Friday, November 22, 2013

And Whoever Wanted to Sleep Well Still Talked of Good and Evil Before Going to Sleep

The great Princeton philosopher Michael Walzer, borrowing from Jean-Paul Sartre, describes the feeling of having dirty hands in politics as the guilty conscience that political actors must live with when they authorize acts that public necessity requires but private morality rejects. “Here is the moral politician,” Walzer says: “it is by his dirty hands that we know him.” Walzer thinks that we want our politicians to be suffering servants, lying awake at night, wrestling with the conflict between private morality and the public good.

Machiavelli simply didn’t believe that politicians should be bothered about their dirty hands. He didn’t believe they deserve praise for moral scruple or the pangs of conscience. He would have agreed with The Sopranos: sometimes you do what you have to do. But The Prince would hardly have survived this long if it was nothing more than an apologia for gangsters. With gangsters, gratuitous cruelty is often efficient, while in politics, Machiavelli clearly understood, it is worse than a crime. It is a mistake. Ragion di stato ought to discipline each politician’s descent into morally questionable realms. A leader guided by public necessity is less likely to be cruel and vicious than one guided by religious moralizing. Machiavelli’s ethics, it should be said, were scathingly indifferent to Christian principle, and for good reason. After all, someone who believes he has God on his side is capable of anything.

...What he refuses to praise is people who value their conscience and their soul more than the interests of the state. What he will not pardon is public displays of indecision. We should not choose leaders who agonize, worrying about the moral hazards of the power they exercise in the people’s name. We should choose leaders who sleep soundly after taking ultimate risks with their own virtue. They are doing what must be done.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

We Can Act If We Want To. If We Don't, Nobody Will. And You Can Act Real Rude, and Totally Removed, and I Can Act Like an Imbecile

Jacob Bacharach:

You see, the point of shouting Ray Kelly off the dais isn’t to get rid of “stop-and-frisk,” which these students are sophisticated enough to understand as merely symptomatic of greater injustices and inequalities in American life. No, the point is to get rid of Ray Kelly, to make the point that he has nothing to say that’s deserving of public consumption, that he is a wicked fellow who ought to be drummed from public life, his opinions, like those of most of us, to be shared grumpily over beers with no one to listen but the other cranks and kooks drinking in the middle of the day. The point is to shame Brown University—admittedly, a difficult task, since the university in the form of its administration is, as noted, shameless—for inviting the weasely little fascist onto the stage in the first place.

The post would be otherwise forgettable were it not for the fact that Freddie deBoer shows up in the first comment to challenge the complacency of such would-be radicals. Jacob — in keeping with his "Great Refusal" ethos, borrowed directly from pseudo-philosopher Herbert Marcuse, consisting of gestures of futile defiance rooted in impractical moralism, where the impracticality is the entire point, indeed, a badge of honor — cheers the students for refusing to respect the bourgeois liberal aversion to unruly mobs shouting down public speakers. Freddie points out that such actions barely qualify as Pyrrhic victories, that they demonstrate impotence rather than power, and that much of what passes for leftism now is in fact a pathetic acquiescence to that reality — they've settled for taking pride in "winning" such meaningless skirmishes on campuses and in the twitosphere, winning like Charlie Sheen. Freddie is saying, essentially, that it shouldn't be good enough to be satisfied with such a smug, nihilistic response to injustice. At Jacob's former blog, this would have probably gotten Freddie mocked for being one of those naïve shmucks with lingering faith in the system who want to be told what to do to achieve this or that goal. Now, though, Jacob simply responds by saying "I think we agree." Eh? No, I'm not sure you do.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Spell Before Winter

After the red leaf and the gold have gone,
Brought down by the wind, then by hammering rain
Bruised and discolored, when October’s flame
Goes blue to guttering in the cusp, this land
Sinks deeper into silence, darker into shade.
There is a knowledge in the look of things,
The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.

Now I can see certain simplicities
In the darkening rust and tarnish of the time,
And say over the certain simplicities,
The running water and the standing stone,
The yellow haze of the willow and the black
Smoke of the elm, the silver, silent light
Where suddenly, readying toward nightfall,
The sumac’s candelabrum darkly flames.
And I speak to you now with the land’s voice,
It is the cold, wild land that says to you
A knowledge glimmers in the sleep of things:
The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.

— Howard Nemerov

Living the Dream in the Dead Heart of the Control Machine

Voltaire implored his contemporaries to eschew their deference to the past; perhaps it is time historians and theorists of the Enlightenment do the same. Pagden thinks the cosmopolitan Enlightenment that he has identified is so important that he has unquestioningly adopted its secular worldview, which sees global history marching in one direction, towards a future that was imagined in Europe over 200 years ago. In making his Enlightenment about sympathetic cosmopolitanism, he believes he has successfully broken free from the interminable debate about the legacy of the Age of Reason, in which the charges laid against the philosophes include technocratic scientism and the atomisation of society. But one doesn’t have to be a postmodernist, nor a postcolonial activist, to take exception to Pagden’s European triumphalism.

...While globalisation has encouraged historians to explore the spatial scope of Enlightenment ideas, another 21st century concern of planetary significance—the threat of climate change and global warming—has sent scholars in another fruitful direction. As the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has noted, the Enlightenment coincided with the period in which human beings switched from wood and other renewable fuels to the large-scale use of fossil fuels; the origins of ideological and material modernity, in other words, coincided with humankind becoming capable of causing lasting change to the planet. As Chakrabarty puts it, “the mansion of modern freedom stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.” The not entirely unrealistic possibility that mankind might not in the future exist on this planet, that there might be a world without us, therefore calls into question the notions of freedom and of civilisation progressing endlessly into the future which began in the 18th century, along with mankind’s first significant intervention into its planetary environment.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Lucubratio (XVIII)

I guess it had to happen eventually. The social media cause célèbre of political dilettantes meets the favorite philosopher of the same. The expected profundity ensues.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Saturday Shuffle

  1. Circus of Power -- Circles
  2. Wye Oak -- The Alter
  3. The Beautiful -- Together
  4. Parralox -- Factory Friends
  5. The Golden Filter -- Look Me In the Eye
  6. Rob Crow -- Chucked
  7. Helen Marnie -- We Are the Sea
  8. Nobody -- Our Last Dance
  9. Diary of Dreams -- Traumtänzer
  10. Goon Moon -- Apartment 31
  11. Systems Officer -- Oui
  12. Cinderella -- Coming Home
  13. The Fratellis -- Jesus Stole My Baby
  14. Eels -- Jungle Telegraph
  15. Galactic Cowboys -- About Mrs. Leslie
  16. KMFDM -- Panzerfaust
  17. pre)Thing -- Can't Stop (22nd Century Lifestyle)
  18. Faith No More -- She Loves Me Not
  19. Marsheaux -- Radial Emotion
  20. Elbow -- Every Bit the Little Girl

Contrary Winds

Another one of Hoffer's reflections:

Francis Bacon: "Does any man doubt that if there were taken out of men's minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor, shrunken things, full of melancholy and indispositions, and unpleasing to themselves?"

Hoffer: Can souls be purified? To Milton, "Good and evil we know in the world grow up together almost inseparably, and the knowledge of the good is so interwoven with the knowledge of evil that the two cannot be sorted apart."

Montaigne saw "our being so cemented by sickly qualities that whoever should divest men of them would destroy the fundamental condition of human life." Renan feared that we can get rid of the bad only at the sacrifice of what is excellent, remarkable and extraordinary.

Bizet believed that a purified soul cannot make music. Frederick Meinecke was so disconcerted by the dark and impure origins of great cultural values that it seemed to him as if "God needed the devil to realzie himself." The protagonists of reason, who set out to cleanse minds of the irrational, released demoniac forces beyond the control of reason.

Pascal, a scientist who saw it as his religious duty to study man, was staggered by the contrast between the simplicity of things and the fantastic complexity of man. He discovered that we do not remain virtuous by our own power, but by the counterpoise of two opposite vices: we remain standing as between two contrary winds. Take away one of these vices and we fall into the other. To Pascal, cleansing souls was, indeed, a risky undertaking.

Live the Lives of Witches

Eric Hoffer used to collect quotations from his reading on 3x5 index cards, often adding his own responses (not unlike what I do here). Tom Bethell's book about him recounts a number of these, including one on a topic I've recently been banging on about:

George Steiner: "We have no proof that a tradition of literary studies makes a man more humane. What is worse — a certain body of evidence points the other way. When barbarism came to twentieth century Europe the arts faculties in more than one university offered very little moral reistance. In a disturbing number of cases the literary imagination gave servile and ecstatic welcome to political bestiality."

Hoffer: The creative individual is more uniquely human than the noncreative but not more uniquely humane. Malice is as uniquely human as compassion. Where the creative live together they live the lives of witches.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Faith Collapsing

Geoff Shullenberger:

According to two recent books, many people today believe in the Internet the way that the denizens of the Age of Faith believed in God, or that many on the left once believed in Marxism: as the exclusive source of universal personal and political salvation and the basic organizing principle of history. Varieties of this twenty-first century faith can be found in the most disparate places. While the geek elite of Silicon Valley are its natural constituency, other converts include young Egyptians who took part in the 2011 uprising, free-market libertarians, members of the Obama administration, “hacktivists,” open government activists, and a growing tribe of calorie-counting “self-trackers.”

And according to some prophet in the wilderness, the signs are already there of people losing faith in this newest quasi-religion.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

More an Artist Than a Philosopher

Timothy Ryback:

When Riefenstahl asked Hitler what he liked to read, he allegedly replied, "Schopenhauer."

"Not Nietzsche?" Riefenstahl asked.

"No, I can't really do much with Nietzsche," Riefenstahl recalls Hitler telling her. "He is more an artist than a philosopher; he doesn't have the crystal-clear understanding of Schopenhauer. Of course, I value Nietzsche as a genius. He writes possibly the most beautiful language that German literature has to offer us today, but he is not my guide."

Huh. Well, I have to agree with Hitler there. (There's a sentence one never expects to write, but intellectual integrity is a demanding mistress, leading one into all sorts of unforeseen circumstances.) Anyway, just thought I'd make note of that as an addendum.

Friday, November 08, 2013


It is an old drama
this disappearance of the leaves,
this seeming death
of the landscape.
In a later scene,
or earlier,
the trees like gnarled magicians
produce handkerchiefs
of leaves
out of empty branches.

And we watch.
We are like children
at this spectacle
of leaves,
as if one day we too
will open the wooden doors
of our coffins
and come out smiling
and bowing
all over again.

— Linda Pastan

Thursday, November 07, 2013

How Oft Would Vice and Virtue Places Change!

Lee Siegel kicks the remaining shit out of the trendy idea that fiction-reading correlates neatly with conventional standards of moral character:

Perhaps it is appropriate, in our moment of ardent quantifying—page views, neurobiological aperçus, the mining of personal data, the mysteries of monetization and algorithms—that fiction, too, should find its justification by providing a measurably useful social quality such as empathy. Yet while the McGuffey Readers and their descendants used literature to try to inculcate young people with religious and civic morality, the claim that literary fiction strengthens empathy is a whole different kettle of fish.

Though empathy has become something like the celebrity trait of emotional intelligence, it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the sensitivity and gentleness popularly attributed to it. Some of the most empathetic people you will ever meet are businesspeople and lawyers. They can grasp another person’s feelings in an instant, act on them, and clinch a deal or win a trial. The result may well leave the person on the other side feeling anguished or defeated. Conversely, we have all known bookish, introverted people who are not good at puzzling out other people, or, if they are, lack the ability to act on what they have grasped about the other person.

To enter a wholly different realm, empathy characterizes certain sadists. Discerning the most refined degrees of discomfort and pain in another person is the fulcrum of the sadist’s pleasure. The empathetic gift can lead to generosity, charity, and self-sacrifice. It can also enable someone to manipulate another person with great subtlety and finesse.

Writer's Crock

Paul Ford:

That’s the genius of Twitter. All of this scaffolding has emerged around a very basic human impulse. A tweet is the manifestation of the human desire to communicate with many other humans at once—to exercise some influence, to inform, amuse, or outrage. Of course, people have been informing, amusing, and outraging each other forever. It’s been said that Twitter is more of a discovery than an invention. What did it discover to make its insane growth possible?

First, Twitter discovered that blogging is hard. At the time of its birth in 2006, many people in traditional media mistakenly thought that blogging was too easy, and would lead to a profligacy of voices and perhaps even the downfall of polite society. But creating and maintaining an old-fashioned blog took time, effort, and an audience. Twitter democratized blogging by redefining it—the term “microblogging service” is today as meaningless as “microcomputer,” but that’s what Twitter was. It gave millions of people voices they might not have known they possessed—and now is in position to sell a place among those voices to advertisers.

Ahahahaha. Thinking is hard. Complete sentences are hard. Brain all hurty! I know, I know, he's just speaking the truth — we live in a time when people find it too laborious to check their email, let alone read carefully, contemplate at length, and compose a worthwhile response. I just find it hilarious, especially so soon after reading Anne Trubek's attempt to talk Twitter up as a dazzling new literary genre in its own right. Now, here's Ford to confirm that, nope, Twitter is anti-writing, writing for people who find actual writing too challenging, the Saturday-morning youth soccer league of writing, where simply being able to stand upright while maintaining a pulse means you'll be assigned to a team and get to have juice and snacks afterward, even if you spend the whole game picking your nose and chasing butterflies. And to top it off, as Ryan Tate notes, most people who aren't underemployed tech-savvy Internet junkies couldn't be arsed to care about it at all:

But it’s not just that Twitter is small and unprofitable. The truth is that few people here in the States actually use the thing. The social network remains a niche product, beloved by journalists, celebrities, and a hard core of miscellaneous obsessive users — but few others.

Anyway, sorry to sound like everyone's dad ever, but yes, it's true, most things worth having and doing require time and effort. Reality's kind of elitist like that.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Que Sais-Je?

Adam Gurri:

I’ve been told, by people familiar with this literature, that surely the situation isn’t so dire—we can think for ourselves. But it’s not clear to me what this even means—in practice “thinking for yourself” seems to involve reading what a lot of other people think. In short, at best you are adding a few more voices to the pantheon, but your system 2 is still basically at the mercy of the suggestions from system 1. You are, perhaps, adding more perspectives from which a suggestion might originate, and maybe there’s even some benefit to that—people like Nate Silver make a version of that argument. But it still doesn’t sound like “thinking for yourself”; rather, it sounds like trying to be choosy about who it is exactly you’re allowing to think for you.

No lesson here, no big takeaway. Except perhaps the simple reminder that we are all quite bad at this; whether or not we believe ourselves to be the nudgers rather than the nudged, or meta-rational rather than simply muddling through with the rest of us. The biggest takeaway, really, is that we could all use a lot more humility. But for those of us with the “someone is wrong on the Internet” bug, that is a hard lesson to learn, and harder still to stick to.

I feel stupider for having read this. In this context, though, that's not an insult! Seriously, though, I often do feel like wisdom is less about "learning", in the sense of acquiring more information, than about continuing to shake off what doesn't belong to me.

Right for the Wrong Reasons

Speaking of moral tribes, Walter Laquer:

False optimism, then, can explain the Deutscher-Carr syndrome only in part, and their enduring reputation in some circles not at all. Similarly unhelpful are explanations that appeal to the perfectly natural reluctance of authors to admit mistakes—another hardwired tendency. In the end, the most crucial factor may be just this: being in tune with the right crowd.

As the leftist French journalist Jean Daniel once put it: better to be wrong with Jean-Paul Sartre than right with Raymond Aron. Sartre might have been consistently wrong in his political judgment and his intellectual opponent Aron almost always right. But Sartre, like Deutscher, was pro-Soviet during the cold war while Aron, like Isaiah Berlin, was pro-American (and also, like Berlin, pro-Israel). And that settled the matter.

This is how reputations quite often develop in the world of ideas, and how they endure—an interesting issue itself, and certainly one in need of further investigation.

Drinking Beer in the Lowlands

The book is framed as the search for a solution to a global problem that cannot be solved by the kinds of moral standards that command intuitive assent and work well within particular communities. Greene calls this problem the “tragedy of commonsense morality.” In a nutshell, it is the tragedy that moralities that help members of particular communities to cooperate peacefully do not foster a comparable harmony among members of different communities.

Morality evolved to enable cooperation, but this conclusion comes with an important caveat. Biologically speaking, humans were designed for cooperation, but only with some people. Our moral brains evolved for cooperation within groups, and perhaps only within the context of personal relationships. Our moral brains did not evolve for cooperation between groups (at least not all groups).

...To solve this problem Greene thinks we need what he calls a “metamorality,” based on a common currency of value that all human beings can acknowledge, even if it conflicts with some of the promptings of the intuitive moralities of common sense. Like others who have based their doubts about commonsense morality on diagnoses of its evolutionary pedigree, Greene thinks that this higher-level moral outlook is to be found in utilitarianism, which he proposes to re-name “deep pragmatism” (lots of luck). Utilitarianism, as propounded by Bentham and Mill, is the principle that we should aim to maximize happiness impartially, and it conflicts with the instinctive commonsense morality of individual rights, and special heightened obligations to those to whom one is related by blood or community. Those intuitive values have their uses as rough guides to action in many ordinary circumstances, but they cannot, in Greene’s view, provide the basis for universally valid standards of conduct.

No, they can't. But so what? Why should we feel obligated to seek a "universally valid standard" of conduct anyway? Why should the abstract category of species membership trump other considerations, not least of which Dunbar's number? What's wrong with a fatalist acceptance of a certain, irreducible amount of tragedy in the human condition? And thus we're back to metaphysics after all, where your answers, whatever they may be, are a product of those intuitive gut feelings, not a product of objective reason from a God's-eye perspective.

Alain de Botton, before he devoted himself full-time to his new, self-appointed position as secular existential shepherd to lost souls, offered a concise, illuminating summary of one particular philosopher's objection to utilitarianism:

Nietzsche's antipathy to alcohol explains simultaneously his antipathy to what had been the dominant British school of moral philosophy: Utilitarianism, and its greatest proponent, John Stuart Mill. The Utilitarians had argued that in a world beset by moral ambiguities, the way to judge whether an action was right or wrong was to measure the amount of pleasure and pain it gave rise to. The thought of Utilitarianism, and even the nation from which it had sprung, enraged Nietzsche:

European vulgarity, the plebianism of modern ideas [is the work and invention of] England. Man does not strive for happiness; only the English do that.

He was, of course, also striving for happiness; he simply believed that it could not be attained as painlessly as the Utilitarians appeared to be suggesting:

All these modes of thought which assess the value of things according to pleasure and pain, that is to say according to attendant and secondary phenomena, are foreground modes of thought and naïveties which anyone conscious of creative powers and an artist's conscience will look down on with derision.

An artist's conscience because artistic creation offers a most explicit example of an activity which may deliver immense fulfillment but always demands immense suffering. Had Stendahl assessed the value of his art according to the 'pleasure' and 'pain' it had at once brought him, there would have been no advance from L'Homme qui craint d'être gouverné to the summit of his powers. Instead of drinking beer in the lowlands, Nietzsche asked us to accept the pain of the climb.

(Also, previously)

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Thought I Made a Stand; Only Made a Scene

Amy Alkon:

Of course I deplore mistreatment or harassment of anybody by the opposite sex, especially when that involves the coercion inherent in a power imbalance; but this isn't what happened with Wilcox and Switek. The episode appears to depict only two people attracted to each other, with one of them married. Svan mistakenly damaged three lives just to make her point that "women can harass, too." Lord knows what kind of shape Switek's marriage is in. Svan has apologized, but the damage was done. This is what happens in a rush to judgment--a frenzied "witch hunt" to root out all vestiges of perceived sexism. And it has gone too far.

...The piling-on of the atheist bloggers, particularly at Freethought Blogs, has been hurtful to these women, which is bad. But I hope it's also been hurtful to Freethought Blogs, which are increasingly turning into the Sex Police. The Freethought-Blog version of feminism seems to be mostly about slut-shaming and defaming anyone who doesn't do exactly what those self-proclaimed Arbiters of Purity deem acceptable behavior. That's hardly freethinking!

Sex police? Well, like their illustrious predecessors in moral-panic-mongering, the Victorians, they do seem to have some prurient fixations, but really, give them their due, their neurotic obsessions range much further than the merely carnal! I think Joe Rogan had it more generally correct when he recently, with a bracing disdain for euphemistic language, described Peezus and the gang as "social retards" (about an hour-eighteen in, for those who care to watch). Everyday interactions, to say nothing of sexual ones, are inherently full of ambiguities, non-vocal signals, and intuitive understanding. These awkward, hapless misfits, in keeping with their other tendencies toward black and white moralizing, would like to codify and legislate such uncertainties out of existence. The revenge of the Assburgers.

But anyway, yes, this particular episode was indeed rich in epicaricacy. It really whetted my appetite for when one of their call-out crusades finally blows up in their faces.

Monday, November 04, 2013

It's Hard Out Here for a Shrimp

Anne Trubek:

Jonathan Franzen, in his latest screed against social media, takes on the pitfalls of this new expectation of writers. Referring to one very active author on Twitter, he argues that now, "literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion." There is some truth to the claim that authors are pressured to tweet. But when he then disparages "yakkers and tweeters and braggers" as shallow, he leaves writers with no way out. We are both forced to Tweet and labeled superficial for so doing. The only way one can opt out is to be very rich and famous already, too big for publishers to pressure us to help sell more copies. As my friends and I joke (on Twitter), "Only Franzen has the luxury of not being on Twitter."

I was going to make a comment about how common this particular whine is, but I scrolled down to the first comment and saw that a familiar name done showed up and pretty much said it already, so I'll say this instead: There are millions, literally millions, of people out there who did very well in English class and could probably write a halfway-decent story if they put their mind to it. Many of them will put their mind to it, at least for a little while. What I'm saying is, Jonathan Franzen's insouciant opinions about your silly hobbies aren't what's preventing you from making a middle-class lifestyle out of your writing ability, it's just a matter of supply and demand. Who knows, maybe if you weren't wasting so much time fucking around on Twitter (or whining about Franzen), you might write something that people would actually want to pay for! Probably not, but we can still hope.

Anyway, as I was writing this, I kept thinking: where do I know her from? I mean, this was sho nuff a stupid article, but there was still this miasma of "daft ditz" hanging around her name that couldn't be attributed solely to that; I must have seen something else she wrote that impressed me with its stupidity...ah, yes, that was it. Wow. On second thought, maybe Twitter is the ideal environment for such people. Maybe some delicate intellects need a sort of cerebral asylum, where they can play with harmless ideas in a safe, supervised setting.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Verily, Verily, I Say Unto Thee

In all these years, how is it that none of you ever informed me of the Public Domain Review? Well, luckily for you, I'm not so selfish, and so here I am giving it my heartiest recommendation, urging you to spend some time checking it out. The articles are immediately interesting, yet still novel; intelligent, but not overly esoteric. I barely knew what to click on first, it's such a smorgasbord of delights. Seriously, I just kept scrolling up and down the page, paralyzed for choice.

Speaking of such websites, I recently signed up as a subscriber for a mere five bucks a month to the always-excellent 3 Quarks Daily, which joins The Browser ($12/year) among sites I'm willing to support financially. Allow me to suggest that you consider doing the same if you're able, but if not, you should still read them regardless. And if you know of any other sites along the same lines as these, do let me know.

T-shirt Christ

John Sweeney:

I covered the revolutions of 1989 in Prague and Bucharest, and have spent time reflecting on the hollow promises and grim tyranny of the communist nightmare endured by so many. This book evokes the counterargument beautifully: back in the early 1960s, bliss was it in that dawn, etc. There is no doubt that the bliss grew cankerous, yet one cannot read of Che's death and Ciro Bustos's gloom at the news without a sense that something remarkable had been snuffed out.

Oh, please. Sic semper utopianism. Even at my most romantic/anarchistic, I never was a member of the cult of Che, never wore the t-shirt. My first reading about him was an anarchist pamphlet, mainly making use of quotes from Jon Lee Anderson's sympathetic biography, and that was enough to make him unappealing to me.

I remember one paragraph that stood out for me: "Che reflected his environment but did not transcend it. He was a mirror image of the Peronism, romanticism, machismo and xenophobia so prevalent in 1950s Argentina. His sympathy for Stalinism was something shared by most intellectuals of the time. Even his bohemianism fit the common pattern for well-read upper class youth. The truly Great Man or Great Woman transcends his or her era and social environmental influences, breaking the time-worn habits and giving rise to a new set of ideas. Che, stripped of his immense courage and fanatical zeal, was therefore essentially an average man."

Friday, November 01, 2013

By the Retard's Toes!

Oh, okay. More Mohr:

The civilizing process was thus co-opted by the middle class as a way of differentiating themselves from the lower classes. They asserted their "civility" through language — the euphemisms they chose drew attention to an extreme delicacy that shrank from anything even pointing vaguely in the direction of taboo, marking them off from the lower classes, who, it was thought, still called a spade a spade, a water closet a shithouse.

...Like many of our most prescriptive points of grammar, modern attitudes toward swearing and social class are the legacy of Victorian social climbers who were afraid to look working-class.

...With the development of feminism, many swearwords have become more equal-opportunity, not less. Bitch can now be applied to men and women, as can cunt. In the nineteenth century shit as a noun was reserved exclusively for men — the West Somerset Word-book defines it as "a term of contempt, applied to men only." Now, women can work, vote, own their own property, and be called a shit.

...Most of our obscene words, in contrast, as we've seen, can be used nonliterally. It is possible that as epithets become stronger obscenities, they will likewise begin to lose their referential function. Perhaps one day nigger and paki, like fuck, will be able simply to express strong emotion, negative or positive, without calling to mind their denotative meanings. One day, perhaps, they may even be plugged into the damn you formula that gave us fuck you, producing the even less-comprehensible nigger you. For hundreds of years, though, English had swearing that did not need the grammatical flexibility of verbs. Perhaps, then, epithets could be used as were oaths such as by God's bones. In the twenty-second century maybe we'll be swearing by the retard's toes.

Argumentum Ad Consequentiam

If you decide to read this editorial attacking Jared Diamond's work from a Marxist perspective, you might want to learn from my mistake and just revisit the classic SMBC cartoon first. (For best results, switch the words "false" and "true", with "P" standing for "environmental determinism".)