Tuesday, April 29, 2014

One Zinger, One Vote

This is a perfect example of why I've been reading Freddie deBoer every day for the last couple years.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Some of Sam

Shadab Zeest Hashmi interviewing Sam Hamill:

Shadab: What are some of the glaring and subtle differences between the Western tradition of poetry and the Eastern, in your experience as a translator?

Sam: This would take a book to answer properly. Chinese is rhyme-rich, while English is rhyme poor. Chinese and Japanese poets use “pillow words,” a fixed epithet that gives a double-meaning. When our Asian poet speaks of “clouds and rain,” it may be about weather, but it also may be about sex. Clouds are masculine, rain is feminine. And individual Chinese characters often contain two or three or even four distinct meanings all at once, so the translator must choose a primary single meaning in English and “dumb it down” for the western reader. Classical Chinese poetry is chanted, not simply spoken. Classical Japanese poetry is loaded with sensibility, nuance and social awareness and often makes use of “honkadori,” “shadows and echoes” of classics both Japanese and Chinese. Translation is a provisional conclusion and great poetry needs to be translated freshly for each generation.

Shadab: What can we learn from Eastern aesthetics— in particular, the Chinese tradition?

Sam: Confucian exactitude of language, Taoist-Buddhist “non-attachment,” and most of all something about great human character at its core. Rexroth called Tu Fu “the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet ever,” and I think that reflects what he saw as Tu Fu’s character. As Heraclitus says, “Our character is our fate.” I think most classical Chinese poets would concur. I could make a similar case for Basho or Saigyo in Japanese.

You know I lurve me some Sam Hamill. Interviews with him aren't exactly in abundance either, so I have to give thanks to 3QD for being the type of site to publish one of them. (Like I said before, you might want to consider supporting them if you're able; they do some great work.)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Good. Use Your Aggressive Feelings. Let the Hate Flow Through You

Tsk tsk. As is so often the case, arid, abstract principles are ultimately no match for the atavistic joy to be found in communal scorn.

A Mill for Grinding Rogues Honest

The chilling effect of insisting on real names stifles political and other controversial discussions, inhibiting people from stating their views on gun laws, feminism, terrorism, abortion, climate change and so on. When such debates are held face to face, in cafes and over dinner tables, there is little concern that, say, a future employer will learn what you said and decline to hire you (unless you have the misfortune to live in a regime with a Stasi-like network of citizen-spies), but as the internet increasingly becomes the venue of choice for such discussions, any opinion stated under your real name is trivially accessible. For anyone in a vulnerable position – people seeking a job, people whose beliefs are at odds with their neighbors or co-workers – the ability to participate in such discussions depends, effectively, on being able to do so pseudonymously.

...Online, using pseudonyms is actually more like our ordinary face-to-face experience – and it is essential for managing the impression we make. Face to face, we develop relationships in separate contexts — and the things we talk about, the jokes we make, the secrets we reveal – vary tremendously. You may share, say, your feelings about the difficulties of caring for an aging, fading parent or a special needs child with others in the same situation; you may find things funny in the company of old friends that you would never admit to thinking humorous in front of your family. You present yourself differently to your neighbor, lawyer, teacher, children, grandmother — you use different words and talk about different things. This is not a lack of integrity, but a feature of being an adaptable person in multiple social contexts, understanding the varied mores of the different situations. Pseudonyms allow us to maintain such separate contexts online.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Today's Opinion Brought to You By

Will Shetterly is correct; this is an excellent perspective on the tired old free speech debate:

The basis of the argument is that “the right to free speech means the government can’t arrest you for what you say.” In the context of capitalism, that’s an incredibly reductionist definition. If speech is supposed to be free, we must ask: who owns the means by which speech is expressed and transmitted in the modern world? Who owns the newspapers? Who owns the TV channels? Who owns Twitter? Who owns Facebook? Who owns the film production studios? Who owns the ISPs? And so on. The answer is always the same: not the government. Not the people, either. All of these things are owned by capital. All of these things are industries.

So, in a situation where public discourse takes place in privately-owned spaces, how are the handful of people who ultimately own most of the media any different from a government? Apart from the lack of any kind of system of democratic control or a pretense of accountability, that is.

...Ultimately, what this comic is selling is a strange libertarian capitalist fantasy of freedom, where freedom is defined solely as freedom from government interference, but freedom from the structures of authority produced by the accumulation of capital is never considered.

The value of the argument aside, it's a fun bonus to imagine how many of XKCD's readers would likely be mortally offended at the suggestion that they've internalized libertarian capitalist values.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

According to Her Need

Jessa Crispin:

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

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

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

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

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

Have Moyesie

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 21, 2014

I Had a Lot to Say; Opinions Were Like Kittens, I Was Giving Them Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 18, 2014

Tribe After Tribe


Of course free speech doesn’t mean you have a right to not be criticized or a right to occupy every forum. But the way in which contempt for the very term “free speech” has become one of those cultural signals that are the glue of today’s bourgie elite progressivism can and will lead to actual, no bullshit suppression of speech. A liberalism that claims that rights are only denied if tanks are rolling through the streets is a pathetic liberalism and one that stands in direct and stark contrast to the history of the principled left.

As if on cue, XKCD provides the conventional wisdom in picture form. Look, I'll just say that, as in many other instances, there's a letter of the law and a spirit of the law, and I'm pretty sure that all these disingenuous, loophole-seeking motherfuckers know the difference.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Rats With Hooves


Despite this burgeoning population, deer remain elusive creatures, and seeing one is always a bit magical, like an encounter with a creature from another age. Menaces to the environment though they may be, they are beautiful to the eye and seem to walk in a kind of enchanted air, in a world very much their own, to which we can have no access.

Ah, I used to be romantic like that. My adolescent sympathies lay with the Calvin & Hobbes cartoon. Years of nighttime driving in my old job turned me more into Louis C.K., though:

I Turn Into Water, I Wish You All Could Feel the Same

Brad Warner:

We have to have names for things in order to communicate with each other about them. If we were to call what is now called Buddhism “realism,” as Nishijima Roshi suggested would one day happen, this could be confusing. These days the word “realism” generally seems to be synonymous with “materialism.” And Buddhism isn’t materialism.

We could just make up a new word. But that has drawbacks. It’s like the people who are concerned about the grammatical necessity of using gendered pronouns in English who propose to use new words like zhe, ze or zir instead of he or she. It’s awkward and nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about.

Maybe eventually we’ll get a word that works. But not yet. So we’re stuck with “Buddhism” for now.

Stuck. As in, immobile, solid, entrenched. You know what loosens such bonds? Water, that's right. Let the waves of enlightenment wash over you and dissolve the conceptual concrete in your mind.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

It's Like a Discipline Without the Discipline of All of the Discipline

Keith Windschuttle:

Foucault's approach, moreover, was peculiarly suited to the university environment. He held that the main revolutionary struggle was not against political or economic institutions; rather the true radicals were the ones who challenged the major Western philosophies or 'systems of thought'. This was a radicalism perfectly suited to practice in the academic realm of tutorials, conferences, cafes and bars. There was no longer any need to do anything as concrete or practical as working for political parties or trade unions, going on strike, or demonstrating in the streets. Instead, followers of Foucault could spend their time reading, debating and writing their criticisms of the academic disciplines of philosophy, history, sociology, criminology and psychiatry. None of this, Foucault argued, was a less practical or inferior variety of politics. 'Theory', Foucault declared, 'does not express, translate or serve to apply practice: it is practice.'

...Despite its logical untenability, the genealogical method holds a great attraction for Foucault and his followers. In debates with their opponents, especially if the opponent is a 'positivist' or a 'piecemeal empiricist', they hold what they believe is an unassailable position by focusing on who is speaking rather than what is being said. They use the genealogical method to absolve themselves from the need to examine the content of any statement. All they see the need to do is examine the contents of its production — not 'is it true?' but 'who made the statement and for what reasons?' This is a tactic that is well-known in Marxist circles where, to refute a speaker, one simply identifies his class position and ignores what he actually says. If someone can be labeled 'bourgeois' everything this person says will simply reflect the ideology of that class.

The Foucauldian version is little different. In debate, any question about the facts of a statement is ignored and the focus is directed to the way what is said reflects the prevailing 'discursive formation' or how it is a form of knowledge that serves the power of the authorities concerned. One of the reasons for Foucault's popularity in the university environment is that he offers such tactics to his followers — tactics which should be regarded as the negation of the traditional aims of the university: the gaining of knowledge and the practice of scholarship. Foucault's influence on the type of debate so frequently found today should be a matter of great concern. Instead of talk about real issues, all we get is talk about talk. Instead of debates based on evidence and reason, all we get is a retreat to a level of abstraction where enough is assumed to have been said when one has identified the epistemological position of one's opponent.

Suddenly, it all becomes clear. You can see countless examples of his legacy in effect every day on the left side of the twitosphere, in the marriage of identitarian narcissism and obfuscatory intellectual pretension. A radicalism that has abandoned any pretensions of creating actual change in the world becomes, of course, little more than fashion. Theories and jargon become ever more convoluted, not in response to changing conditions in the real world, but order to maintain a fashionable aura of novelty. You wouldn't want to be seen wearing last year's radical feminist poststructuralism, would you?

Wow, what an informative and engrossing book. I'm kicking myself for not getting around to it sooner.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

You Know, You Know; No, You Don't, You Don't

Speaking of Andrew Sullivan and credit where due, I thought this was a very good post:

One seeks to get to a place where a conversation ends. The other seeks never to end the conversation, and, in fact, gets a little queasy when any topic is ruled out of bounds in a free society.

Maybe if we can appreciate both traditions, we can see the underlying forces behind this debate more clearly. My own instincts on the gay rights question have always been classically liberal/small-c conservative/libertarian. I think hate is an eternal part of the human condition, and that ridding oneself of it is a personal, moral duty not a collective, political imperative. I never want to live in a society in which homophobes feel obliged to shut up. I believe their freedom is indivisible from ours. Their hate only says something about them, not me. I oppose hate crime laws for those reasons. And my attachment to open debate means constantly allowing even the foulest sentiments to be expressed – the better to confront them, expose them and also truly persuade people of the wrongness of their views – rather than pressuring them into submission or silence. Others have a different vision: that such bigotry needs extra punishment by the state (hence hate-crime laws), that bigots need to be constantly shamed, and that because of the profound evil of such thoughts, social pressure should be brought to bear to silence them. More to the point, past sins have to be recanted and repented before such bigots are allowed back into the conversation.

...But liberalism, for me, is not a means to a progressive end. It is an end in itself.

It seeks to guard against groupthink and social pressure as dangerous threats to freedom of thought and of the individual. It aims to protect the rights of bigots as well as the targets of their bigotry. At any one point, that can seem grotesquely unfair. And it is. It is and was deeply unfair that, in order to enjoy some simple basic rights, we gays have had to explain ourselves to the world, listen to our very lives being debated as if we were not in the room, have our lives and loves traduced and distorted and picked over by people who treat us as pawns in a political game or an intellectual exercise. But, you know what? We had no choice if we were to move forward.

It calls to mind the old quip about how a liberal is someone who won't even take his own side in an argument. Fair enough. And one could easily object that there's no sense in remaining open-minded indefinitely; at some point, you have to accept whatever provisional conclusions you've drawn and just act. This may very well be an impossibly idealistic standard to aim for. My own commenters, among many others, have made the comparison: what if Eich had been donating money to white supremacist or neo-Nazi organizations? Would anyone be worried that he was being treated unfairly? And it's true — there is, more or less, a cultural consensus on topics like those that would brook no discussion. There would be no mitigating factors on his behalf. But that consensus didn't form as a result of each individual citizen being rationally persuaded by argument of the evils of Nazism and Jim Crow. It was, at least partially, simply imposed by people who had the power to do so and cemented into place by social pressure and groupthink. If, over time, a visceral rejection of homophobia is to join that consensus, it may very well have to be imposed by force. Perhaps a tolerance omelet will require a few broken Brendan Eichs. I'm not advocating that, I'm just acknowledging that individuals often get steamrolled by larger historical forces.

Nonetheless, I think it's vitally important that gadflies exist, even when they pester the most seemingly-worthy of causes. Take the example of progressive boycotting. In theory, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with it. People are free to be choosy about which companies they patronize. They're also free to attempt to persuade other people to act similarly. In many cases, the ostensible motivations for the boycotts are noble enough. So why do I spend so much time mocking them?

Because in practice, they're doomed to futility. For starters, they're not overwhelmingly popular to begin with. It would take a disciplined, sustained effort to win enough support to be effective, but attention spans being what they are these days, the initial outrage quickly fizzles out. Increasing support for a cause would also mean having to interact with people who are indifferent or even hostile to it, but given the well-documented tendency for people on the web to form silos and block all social media communication with others who criticize or offend them, it's more likely that the boycotters will only end up preaching to the converted. Saying "I'm boycotting Barilla pasta because their CEO only allows 'traditional' families in their ads" lacks any practical consequence, and thus is only another way of saying "I don't like people who are prejudiced against gays." Opinions are stated not to persuade anyone of anything, but to promote yourself in a shallow, narcissistic medium, to fish for praise, to burnish your status among your peers.

So what you end up with is a marginal group of perpetually aggrieved people, full of moral fervor, yet bitterly resentful over their lack of power and influence, lacking the discipline or planning to experience the satisfaction of meaningful achievement. To me, that sounds like a perfect recipe for displaced aggression. They'll settle for taking scalps if they can't accomplish anything else. I saw this dynamic in the political blogosphere all the time. I haven't read Digby's blog in years, because I got so tired of the endless pity party. Ever since Obama's election, it was nothing but complaining about how the media "villagers" were so unfair to the Democrats, how the Republicans were so much more effective in power, how poor progressive bloggers were seen as nothing but dumb dirty hippies. And predictably enough, after all this constant moaning, when an easy target presented itself, Digby was right there to serve up a few posts' worth of red meat for her commenters. Well, you know, I hated bullies way before it became a progressive cause du jour, and that doesn't change just because I might agree with the bullies in principle. Somebody needs to force people to check their consciences at times like those.

I was reading a comment somewhere (can't find it now) by a woman whose name is on the list of people who donated to Prop. 8. She said that at the time, she was a law student and was enamored of some byzantine legal reasoning that said gay marriage should only be legal if approved by a majority of the population in a vote, not as a result of a judicial ruling. In other words, she was overly impressed by her own newly-minted legal cleverness and a smug belief that she saw important nuance where duller minds didn't. She regrets it now, but she worries about the possibility of it coming back to haunt her. If she ever became the subject of one of these Two Minutes Hate sessions on social media, would anyone stop shouting long enough to give her a chance to explain herself? Would it even matter, or would the event take on a momentum of its own at that point? To me, it's a quintessential liberal principle to worry about the one innocent person who might get caught up in the rush to serve justice to nine guilty ones.

No one deliberately sets out to become a groupthinking herd animal. It happens by steps, in degrees, and if the subject is even aware of how drastically they've changed, they almost certainly think it's for the better. In my pessimistic estimation, people are always at risk of being swept away in the current of seemingly inexorable logic; in fact, I think a lot of people are just looking for an excuse to surrender themselves to it. To use Sullivan's distinction, liberalism is the necessary brake on progressivism's moral impulses. Neither one would be effective alone; they need each other.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Possessed by a Notion of How My Life Should Be

There's introspection, and then there's donning a cilice made of tweets to affect the appearance of introspection. These poor progressives. They're so desperately insecure, so afraid that they might be unwittingly oppressing someone, so unable to trust their own motivations. If only someone could come up with a metric to give them an objective way to measure their biases. Then someone could point out that obsessing over metrics is such a typical white male thing to do, and the fun could start all over again.

Monday, April 07, 2014

No Homozilla

Conor Friedersdorf:

Mozilla says, "While painful, the events of the last week show exactly why we need the web. So all of us can engage freely in the tough conversations we need to make the world better." Again, Mozilla's actions will undercut tough conversations by making fewer people willing to engage in them. If you believe that an open, robust public discourse makes the world better, as they purport to, they've made the world worse. This action is a betrayal of their values, not a reflection of them.

I thought this part was particularly funny. Not just the fact that, in practice, this "we need to have a conversation" trope is a favorite squishy saying of people who would rather do anything but have a conversation, but the idea that the web has somehow improved the quality of our conversations. This is exactly why we need the web, for the unlikely chance we might ever be able to talk like adults!

Anyway, unless you count the few times I've been called a fag for having long hair or being taciturn and introverted, I don't know what it's like to be gay, obviously. Maybe it's not for me to say how anyone should feel or act about a situation like this. Choire Sicha would seem to agree there, but Andrew Sullivan is also gay, and he vehemently disagrees with this whole episode, so I think they cancel each other out, leaving the floor to me, right? I'm pretty sure that's how this works.

Though it may be easy for me to say, I still think these are valid philosophical principles in general: Be magnanimous in victory as much as possible. Don't seek to settle scores or humiliate people for having chosen the wrong side of a fight. Be wary of acquiring a taste for ostracizing and exiling people who opposed you. When you're racking up one court victory after another — the sorts of institutional achievements that matter — you can afford to ignore some ignorant reality TV star. When public opinion is decisively swinging in your favor, you can refrain from vindictively punishing people who pose no actual threat just because you can. When you have substance, you don't need symbolism.

Is There Something Wrong With These Songs? Maybe There's Something Wrong With the Audience

Ben Jeffery:

Reynolds is not the only one to have connected the dearth of innovation in pop with its “disintensification.” In a piece for n+1 reviewing the first fifteen years of the music website Pitchfork, Richard Beck equated the immobility of contemporary independent rock with its decline into an arena of complacent, cultural-capital driven fashions—a judgment that clearly echoes Reynolds’s worries about underground music becoming a form of niche consumerism. Both arguments seem to interpret the lack of artistic evolution as a sign of impotence, specifically pop’s powerlessness to effect change on the social or political level. The belief that music could invade—and remake—all things public and private is part of the primordial myth of rock. Since at least the Sixties, new art held out the promise of a new life, and reinvention on the personal level could be revolution on the social.

...From this angle, what retromania heralds isn’t the death of pop as an area of creativity, but the demise of a certain type of (political) possibility. Genres of music that were once outlets for waves of discontented energy have been subdued and subsumed into the consumerist hegemony—rock, punk, hip-hop and the rest turned into competing leisure options rather than activities with any subversive potential. In the absence of new styles to take their place, pop petrifies as a social force.

There are too many excellent parts to excerpt them all. Through the lens of popular music, Jeffery addresses the same theme I was just talking about in a political context: what sort of cultural imagination do we have anymore? Does anyone believe in teleological progression, in radical change, or was that just the result of a peculiar, narrow window in human history that has now begun to dim and close? Popular music, like culture itself, seems content to just tweak what already exists, unable to imagine any shocking innovations. The thought of such cyclical stasis is unsettling to us, having already accustomed ourselves to the post-Enlightenment sense of being the masters of our own destiny, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be the case.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Fanning the Flames That Will Warm No One

Heywood J:

I submit that if one were of liberal sentiment and potent influence on these here internets, and one wanted to get the most bang for their ideological buck, as it were, one might choose different targets. Targets that matter, for starters. Where are the concerted hashtag efforts to push congress-critters into making corporations pay taxes; where are the #CancelAdelson or #CancelKoch campaigns, with nice laundry lists of the things those assholes own and sell (aside from, you know, people and influence) so that like-minded folks can, como se dice, boycott those motherfuckers?

No. Let's go after some techie slapdick, let's go after Stephen Colbert, let's go through yet another round of urban wailing over Ralph Nader's capital transgressions in the previous millennium. Good grief, from climate change to income inequality to poaching to overpopulation to the oppression of women and the trafficking of children to the open theft of this country's political system, there are a multitude of issues over which one can get one's panties into a death-dealing wad. Yet these other non-issues are the things they choose to get jiggy with, and over.


An activist is someone who wants to create change. Taking the desire to be an activist seriously, whether in Park or anyone else, means assessing whether they are creating that change. You can call that attitude tone policing, or mansplaining, or whatever else you want. But as long as you deploy that language as a way to protect someone from the truth of her own intentions, you are neither an ally or a friend.

My suspicion is that those who claim to stick up for Park, or other Twitter activists like her, know very well that she has no ability to dismantle the state.  My suspicion is that they know she has done nothing to halt racism. My suspicion is that their forceful rejection of questions about her efficacy is not, ultimately, a defense of her, and certainly not of her project. My suspicion is that they reject those questions because they have already assumed her political irrelevance; my suspicion is that they quietly believe the worst things people say about her. I think the current contradiction in popular attitudes toward political intentions functions, ultimately, as a kind of modesty screen, placed in well-meaning condescension around adult, passionate people, under the false presumption that they must be shielded from the harsh truth of a broken and friendless world.

I started reading Russell Jacoby's The End of Utopia last night. My goodness, what an incisive and well-written book it is. Published in 1999, it hasn't lost any of its relevance that I can see. Here's a bit from the preface:

We are increasingly asked to choose between the status quo or something worse. Other alternatives do not seem to exist. We have entered the era of acquiescence, in which we build our lives, families and careers with little expectation the future will diverge from the present.

To put this another way: A utopian spirit — a sense that the future could transcend the present — has vanished. This last statement risks immediate understanding, since utopia today connotes irrelevancies or bloodletting. Someone who believes in utopias is widely considered out to lunch or out to kill. I am using utopian in its widest, and least threatening meaning: a belief that the future could fundamentally surpass the present. I am referring to the notion that the future texture of life, work and even love might little resemble that now familiar to us. I am alluding to the idea that history contains possibilities of freedom and pleasure hardly tapped.

This belief is stone dead. Few envision the future as anything but a replica of today — sometimes better, but usually worse. Scholarly conclusions about the  fall of Soviet communism ratify gut feelings about the failure of radicalism. A new consensus has emerged: There are no alternatives. This is the wisdom of our times, an age of political exhaustion and retreat.

However long this period may last, I think he's clearly right. The examples of pseudo-radical rhetoric he examines could have been plucked from the twitosphere yesterday. Nothing's changed in a decade and a half, except that we now have a bunch of shiny tech gadgets and platforms which themselves occupy a good portion of our aimless critical analysis. There is an entire chattering class of ostensible leftists, whatever that term even means, whose energies are devoted purely to schmoozing around the scene. Of course everyone knows, even if they won't say outright, that Suey Park is just another useless fucking clown showing off her expensive cultural studies chops for viral reward; of course they're all aware that the trivial meta-dramas they engage in online are of no consequence. I think they feel in their bones what Jacoby illustrates at length: there is no more actual belief in a radical alternative to liberal capitalism, to market democracies. Even when real-world events conspire to practically give them a gift-wrapped opening, they retreat back into their comfortable niche of harmless performance. As Thomas Frank said about OWS: "It would remain captive to what Christopher Lasch criticized—way back in 1973—as the “cult of participation,” in which the experience of protesting is what protesting is all about."

Friday, April 04, 2014

Seeking No Truth, Winning Is All

He's talking about this sorry spectacle, the link to which he has already prohibited anyone from posting in his comments. Don't worry, he'll tell you everything you need to know about it. No need for you to bother seeing for yourself, since— hmm? I'm sorry, Mo, did you have something you wanted to say about Peezus's newfound respect for privacy and the workings of the legal system?


Of all the many things that make Peezus such a contemptible sack of fetid sewage, his gleeful participation in the toxic "callout culture" so beloved of social justice warriors would have to be somewhere near the top of my list. You see, there's a strain of radical thinking popular among his crowd which sees the legal system itself as a construct of the patriarchy, where the standards of evidence required for justice to be done in cases of sexual assault, harassment and rape are so onerous, so heavily weighted against the female victims, that there's no point in reporting assaults to the authorities. Their only recourse is to air their accusations via social media. Granted, one can easily conjure up a sympathetic scenario in which a genuine victim, shafted by an impersonal system, gets a little bit of deserved payback this way. Of course, if one is not a fanatical ideologue, one can also easily imagine a bunch of unbalanced, vindictive liars taking advantage of anonymity to publicly trash someone's reputation, trusting that most neutral observers will see smoke and assume fire. First, do no harm — the remedy to injustice is not to create a different type of injustice. There is no abstract, cosmic scoreboard in which all these injustices somehow cancel each other out. The fact that, if looked at from a particular perspective, "women" may have historically fared worse than "men" does not justify creating injustice for an individual man on behalf of an individual woman. People who try to sell you such ends-justify-the-means logic are not to be trusted.

Peezus himself famously used his blog last summer to accuse someone of rape, based on what a friend of a friend claimed to have happened several years ago. The only reason he's singing a different tune in this instance is because he's long since publicly committed himself to backing his tribal ally, and now, having seen the evidence for the other side displayed in public, he doesn't have the integrity or the bravery to admit that he might have jumped to conclusions for political reasons, that he might be wrong. Thus lack of thinking makes a coward of him after all.


There's something amusingly pathetic about seeing how easily vapid progressives can be swayed into tattooing a corporate sponsor's logo onto their political identity. J. Bryan Lowder has been good on this topic before, and I'll just reiterate that, aside from avoiding the indignity of acting as an unpaid mascot for any corporate entity with a marketing department savvy enough to flatter your vanity, you might want to rethink the logic of this "voting with your wallet" thing.

Les Minutes Heureuses

The hard part of drawing is to actually see the things you’re looking at. Your idea of a tree, a mountain, a person, will tend to devolve into symbol. You are constantly lured into seeing through your brain, by abstraction, rather than through your eye. But the wild, absurd, incredible fact of a thing in itself is always more than you can grasp.

Peter Watson:

Which brings us back again to that most underrated movement of the twentieth century, the philosophy of phenomenology, the idea that life is made up of les minutes heureuses. And the notion that in a world no longer illumined by God or reason, all attempts to reduce its infinite variety (the universe, experience) to concepts, ideas or essences — whether religious or scientific, whether they involve the "soul" or "nature" or "particles" or the "afterlife" — diminish the actual variety of reality which is part, and maybe the biggest part, or even the whole, of its meaning.

...What Valéry and Husserl were both trying to urge on us is a denial of the view that the particular is somehow less consequential than the general. "In giving our attention to the particular, we fear the risk of fixing ourselves upon an exception to the rule; art by its nature is existential; it is concerned with particulars, while rationalism is interested only in their relationships." Husserl, in the words of Sartre, "has given back to us the world of artists and prophets." However we approach life, however we deal with it, life will always keep changing and remain beyond the reach of total understanding. We can never formulate an "exhaustive" explanation in such a way that our quest or our responsibility is "at an end."

A Widening of the Eyes

Peter Watson:

It is in the nature of poetry to be short. If we agree with James Wood that a poem is "the most realized form of intention," then brevity becomes an important part of the point. Heaney's claims for poetry, for the government of the tongue (and other poets have made equivalent claims), become in this way also a claim for the poetic aesthetic, for the fact and promise of brevity. In this way, poetry does not become the only way to regard life, but it does become the pithiest and richest way to marry experience, language and meaning. It highlights the point that new experience, the experience of new knowledge, is, by definition, invariably brief. The knowledge stays with us, but the first encounter with — and the apprehension of — such knowledge happens immediately. Immediacy is the point of phenomenology. Immediacy equals intensity. Intensity is one of the purposes of life.

That's what I'm talking about.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Left Hand Path

Michelle Goldberg:

Call it left-wing anti-liberalism: the idea, captured by Herbert Marcuse in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” that social justice demands curbs on freedom of expression. “[I]t is possible to define the direction in which prevailing institutions, policies, opinions would have to be changed in order to improve the chance of a peace which is not identical with cold war and a little hot war, and a satisfaction of needs which does not feed on poverty, oppression, and exploitation,” he wrote. “Consequently, it is also possible to identify policies, opinions, movements which would promote this chance, and those which would do the opposite. Suppression of the regressive ones is a prerequisite for the strengthening of the progressive ones.”

Note here both the belief that correct opinions can be dispassionately identified, and the blithe confidence in the wisdom of those empowered to do the suppressing. This kind of thinking is only possible at certain moments: when liberalism seems to have failed but the right is not yet in charge. At such times, old-fashioned liberal values like free speech and robust, open debate seem like tainted adjuncts of an oppressive system, and it’s still possible for radicals to believe that the ideas suppressed as hateful won’t be their own.

...At times like this, politics contract. On the surface, the rhetoric appears more ambitious and utopian than ever—witness, for example, the apparently sincere claim by Suey Park, creator of the #CancelColbert hashtag, that Twitter activists intend to “dismantle the state.” But at the same time, activism becomes less about winning converts and changing the world and more about creating protected enclaves and policing speech.

Despite scurrilous rumors to the contrary being spread by Brian, I have not been undergoing a slow conversion to conservatism. If anything, the only shift in my worldview has been a renewed appreciation for good old-fashioned liberalism. This, then, is my basic framework for making sense of the left side of the spectrum:

Liberal: To me, it just means left of center. As you can see from the above link, it's somewhat of a Rorschach term, so I'm not going to bother trying to define it any more closely than that. It's what's left over by process of elimination once the other two groups are dismissed.

Progressive: This is what I think of as the multiculti left. Multiculti, meaning, an obsession with cosmetic diversity. The ditzy descendants of the New Left, the kind of people Christopher Hitchens memorably complained about who turned formerly weighty political issues into a concern with the perspectives of "obese Cherokee lesbians". Heavily overrepresented in the twitosphere, where their bumper-sticker sloganeering is perfectly suited for expression in the tl;dr environment of social media, these are the privilege-checking simpletons who tie themselves up in anxious knots over whether it implicates them in racism or sexism if it turns out that most of their favorite authors or songwriters are white men. They may parrot some of the more academic leftist themes, but they probably prefer the lite version featured regularly on sites like Salon, Slate, HuffPo, the Guardian and NPR. Well-meaning and mostly harmless, yet painfully shallow and incredibly annoying.

Leftist: The class-based left; also, the academic left. The former may be more classically Marxist, the latter more culturally Marxist. The former also disdains the New Left turn away from economic analysis toward identity politics, while the latter (especially as typified by Slavoj Žižek, radical academia's version of a reality TV star) is content to spend its time producing endless amounts of incomprehensible jargon and bafflegab while remaining equally baffled that global capitalism keeps blithely and monstrously blossoming like a toxic orchid despite being endlessly critiqued and deconstructed in countless academic journals. Leftists traditionally scoffed at liberal meliorism in favor of radical political solutions; I have no idea how many of them still honestly believe in the possibility of radical change for the better any more, but most seem to at least still pay lip service to it for lack of any better ideas. They vacillate between rationalizing Communism's failure and attempting to resuscitate its potential, like jargon-spewing Roombas stuck between the coffee table and the sofa.

Obviously, this isn't intended to be a rigorous, detailed taxonomy. It's just intended to make the point that for me, liberal is the default, non-ideological stance, since I consider the other two groupings to each be hopelessly moribund in their own way.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Must Wash Hands After Using the Internet


Six years ago, you see, Mr Eich donated a thousand dollars of his own savings to a campaign to ban gay marriage in California. The campaign has since failed after the amendment that it spawned was ruled unconstitutional. We are being asked, then, not to use a company’s products because of its chief executive’s private, insignificant endorsement of a lost cause.

There is no actual harm to be avoided. It would make more sense to campaign against Central American drug gangs by boycotting films that feature Charlie Sheen. This campaign, though, is symbolic: seeking to demonstrate that certain political views are unwelcome in the public sphere and that their advocates will be excluded. When the advocacy can be so trivial; that exclusion can entail attempts to provoke one’s dismissal from an unrelated job and the opinion can be one that nobody would have thought controversial as few as ten years ago it is obvious that a strange and passionate wave of feeling is upon us. Joseph Bottum may or may not be correct about the roots of progressive thought in Mainline Protestantism but it is undeniable that it is imbued with a religious ardour – and an intolerance of heretics.

As mentioned yesterday, I find Bottum's idea interesting and likely to contain at least a seed of truth. But allow me to suggest an alternative way of understanding this passion for professionally boycotting people convicted, or even suspected, of wrongthink — rather than look for religious parallels in their behavior, I'd suggest thinking of these people as mysophobes. This kind of hysterical overreaction to a relatively trivial, harmless symptom bespeaks a fear of contamination. If this man isn't quarantined, i.e. deprived of his social status and financial power, who knows how many more people he might infect?