Saturday, November 29, 2014

I Read All the Authors, I Knew the Right Slogans

I used to endorse a particular brand of politics that is prevalent at McGill and in Montreal more widely. It is a fusion of a certain kind of anti-oppressive politics and a certain kind of radical leftist politics. This particular brand of politics begins with good intentions and noble causes, but metastasizes into a nightmare. In general, the activists involved are the nicest, most conscientious people you could hope to know. But at some point, they took a wrong turn, and their devotion to social justice led them down a dark path. Having been on both sides of the glass, I think I can bring some painful but necessary truth to light.

Important disclaimer: I passionately support anti-oppressive politics in general and have only good things to say about it. My current political worldview falls under the umbrella of leftism, although not radical leftism. I’m basically a social democrat who likes co-ops and believes in universal basic income, the so-called ‘capitalist road to communism.’ I agree with a lot of what the radical left has to say, but I disagree with a lot of what it has to say. I’m deeply against Marxism-Leninism and social anarchism, but I’m sympathetic to market socialism and direct democracy. I don’t have any criticism for radical leftism in general, at least not here, not today. What I feel compelled to criticize is only one very specific political phenomenon, one particular incarnation of radical leftist, anti-oppressive politics.

There is something dark and vaguely cultish about this particular brand of politics. I’ve thought a lot about what exactly that is. I’ve pinned down four core features that make it so disturbing: dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism. I’ll go into detail about each one of these. The following is as much a confession as it is an admonishment. I will not mention a single sin that I have not been fully and damnably guilty of in my time.

Conflictual Obligations

Liberal attitudes to conflict made a second point of contrast with their conservative and socialist rivals, following that over power. For liberals, conflict was ever present. It was unceasing and ineradicable. Whatever form it took, over interests, beliefs, or ways of life, the thought was that conflict must be tamed, transformed into competition, and made fruitful in trade, experiment and argument. Too much could be made of whether liberals welcomed conflict as healthy and productive or feared it as dangerous and destructive. They did both. Conflict, for liberals, was a fact of life. Politics was about how conflict might serve useful ends and not break society apart.

Conservatives took a different view of conflict. To them society was not by nature divided. Society was at root harmonious and unified. The myth of class conflict in particular was put about by resentful agitators and disaffected intellectuals. Diversity of opinion was not the welcome result of an unending conversation among equals but the regrettable consequence of truth's failure to prevail over error. There were not many equally worthwhile paths in life to choose from but one path, the path of virtue. Conservative eyes were no worse than liberal eyes. Conservatives could see divisions in society. But to conservatives those divisions were not of society's essence. To the extent that divisions existed within society, they represented for conservatives a fall from grace, a lapse into modernity, a loss of past unity.

The socialist left's attitude to conflict was different again. It agreed with liberals that conflict in society was wide and deep, not that it was endless or inevitable. It disagreed with liberals about how many sides were involved. For liberals, conflict involved many, many sides and many, many matters. Conflict's subject matter, in a sense, was unbounded. To socialists, conflict involved only two sides, rich and poor, and one topic, material inequity. Conflict would cease, they held, once its sources in material inequity were removed. Socialists disagreed with conservatives that society was harmonious until foolishly interfered with. They faulted liberals for refusing to see where the roots of one, overarching conflict lay. Those roots lay for the socialist mind in differences of material interest among unequal classes, differences from which other conflicts, notably of faith and opinion, invariably stemmed. Remove inequity and harmony came in all life's departments. That, in crude summary, was the socialist dream of one-stroke emancipation. Although divided and denatured at present, society for the socialist left was by nature harmonious. There it agreed with conservatives, though not about structure or timing. For conservatives harmony lay in a hierarchical past, for the socialist left in a brotherly future.

Society for liberals was always in conflict. To liberals there never had been and never would be a time of harmony. The best hope was for a frame of order and stability that was flexible enough for adjustment as the forces in conflict changed. Such a frame would be "artificial" and man-made." It would be neither God-given or natural but reliant on common interests in peace, stability and prosperity. Within it, private conflicts could be bargained away leaving no one with festering regrets that might threaten common interests.

Dreaming of a Skeleton Key

Douglas Dalrymple:

If man is born in freedom, with infinite possible futures open to him, the fact of living at all will require that he is locked out, finally, from nearly all of them. Sometimes further accommodation is simply not possible. We age and grow and so lock ourselves out of the womb, out of childhood, out of our parents’ home, out of youth. We make friends and pursue lovers and so exclude ourselves from other friends and other lovers. We make any number of choices, but eventually there comes a final door for each of us. We will step through it and it will close and we will find that we have left the key inside. Eventually, then, we do step into a night (cold and black, or warm and bright with stars – who can say?) which locks us out of tomorrow morning. Dithering in the hall, however, you find that straining to hold open multiple doors at once will get you – precisely – nowhere. Like death, life only happens when you lock yourself out.

This is the third of three poetic, beautifully written paragraphs. Go read the other two.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

All Those Red Marks on Our Shoulders, Self-Back Patting, Homemade Trophies

Plexico Gingrich:

But the real key here is that “social justice warrior,” in this context, refers to browbeating, moralistic behavior, much more than any coherent or credible ideology. It is a largely American phenomenon in which those with a Puritanical disposition, but a secular viewpoint, use vague social and political stances as a platform for moralizing and witch hunting. Basically, imagine if Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell had been born into a family of coastal liberals in 1990, and you should get the idea.

There is the further implication that the SJW does nothing to help real people. “Social justice warrior” is meant in the same vein as “keyboard warrior.” It is not a precise term and it is kind of a stupid one, but that is the term we have. You can agree with the characterization or disagree, but this what people from gamergate and elsewhere have in mind when they make reference to social justice warriors.

Social justice warriors are drawn to causes involving race, gender and sexual orientation. But only some people who are drawn to those issues are SJWs. For the SJW, the appeal of these issues draws from the fact that one of the greatest stigmas one can carry in contemporary culture is to be labeled a bigot. Compare where Donald Sterling or Michael Richards wound up in the public eye to the outcomes for other celebrities who have, say, been involved in killing someone, like Matthew Broderick, Ray Lewis or Vince Neil.

By declaring themselves the authorities on these subjects, social justice warriors are able to claim the right to administer the scarlet letters associated with them: racist, sexist misogynist, homophobe and so on. This power, to declare their moral superiority over others, is what motivates them. The stereotypical SJW has little to no interest in the suffering of classes that are not linked to scarlet letters. Victims of unjust wars, for example, or the homeless, or nerds.

We can see the overlap with the hipster easily. Both types are driven by a desire to feel more enlightened, intelligent and generally superior than those around them. “I eat better food than you do, I dress better than you do, I listen to better music than you do and you are a racist who approves of rape, while I am not.” It fits together quite nicely.

Brian sends me occasional emails. Most of them are along the lines of "Gee, Scribbler, you're my all-time hero. What can I do to be more like you?" Or, "Wow, Scribbler, your post today was the best one you've ever written until the next one you write!" But along with the fawning sycophancy, he's sent me a few links to Ruthless Reviews articles, including this one, which happens to be one of the best summaries of Gamergate and the satellite issues in orbit around it that you'll ever see. It is quite long, and could probably have benefitted from some editorial pruning, but still, it's worth your time and you should check it out. One little excerpt doesn't nearly do it justice.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Some Seeds Fell Along the Path, and the Birds Came and Devoured Them

Steven Arroyo:

Accordingly, Seeds reflects a band unconcerned with challenging its listeners this time and more interested in delivering a complete collection of competent, mark-bearing songs for the sake of proudly stating the existence of TV On The Radio in 2014. This means familiar roles for all members, roles they embrace even if there’s nothing new about them.

...Seeds clearly doesn’t possess the level of obsession invested in TV On The Radio’s two hallmark LPs, Return To Cookie Mountain and Dear Science, and Adebimpe has said as much upfront.

...Each song is singular, simply composed but well finished, harboring few surprises. Any one of them could be the single.

Seeds won’t go down as an essential or even particularly consummate TV On The Radio album, but it could very well fare better than others have on the charts, something that would be an appropriate, perfectly timed reward.

All this backhanded, butt-hurty complimenting in a record review that gives them a "C" grade. Yeah, what a letdown that they merely offered a collection of great songs by anyone's standards, rather than musically reinventing the wheel in a way that would flatter the cleverness of certain listeners who truly get it, man. Pfft. Motherfucker's lost his GOT-damn mind, that's what I say. It'll be days before I finally stop listening to this record. Favorite release this year, hands down.

Ancestor Worship

Some choice bits from Peter Wood's book Diversity:

• The new perspective of diversity is not just about emphasizing groups at the expense of the whole; it is also about treating groups as having saved up a right to special privileges in proportion to how much their purported ancestors were victimized in the past. This quid-pro-quo view has become a quasi principle that aims to encompass American life. It is invoked by its advocates, for example, as a reason why the federal government should set aside a certain percentage of federal contracts for minority-owned businesses, and why the federal courts should not apply the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to racial and ethnic preferences in college admissions.

But is it more than a matter of government mandates. The diversity principle is also a belief that the portion of our individual identities that derives from our ancestry is the most important part, and a feeling that group identity is somehow more substantial and powerful than either our individuality or our common humanity.

• Diversity, in effect, enshrines certain kinds of factionalism as a universal good, just like liberty and equality. Well, no, not just like liberty and equality — better. Diversity raised to the level of counterconstitutional principle promises to free people from the pseudo-liberty of individualism and to restore to them the primacy of their group identities; and diversity raised to the summit of "critical thinking" insists that traditional notions of equality are a sham. Real equality, according to diversicrats, consists of parity among groups, and to achieve it, social goods must be measured out in ethnic quotas, purveyed by group preferences, or otherwise filtered according to the will of social factions.

• Once we allocate political rights by group identity, the assignment of group identity becomes the crucial determinant of everything else for the individual; the group gains a strong interest in ensuring the conformity of its members; the individual faces powerful pressure to conform; and the resentments only multiply.

And one section dealing with a common theme around these parts:

Diversity makes us think that, deep down, all religions say the same thing. But all religions don't say the same thing, and Islam especially dissents from the idea that its Truth is merely a local variant of the generic truth available in other flavors at other stores. To the extent that it blinds us to the kind of intellectual inquiry we need to understand these matters, diversity is not just folly; it is dangerous folly.

Religious toleration is, of course, nothing new, and if we are to understand the religion of diversity, we have to distinguish between several kinds of toleration. One form, which might be called Jeffersonian tolerance, regards all religions as more or less the same sort of mistake, and therefore equally due condescension. Tolerance of this nature may be based on deism, agnosticism, atheism, or mere indifference. It proceeds by a principle of prudence, to the effect that, as people believe many and conflicting things, the common good is best served by not making an issue out of anyone's faith.


Noel asks: Also, are you criticizing "Jeffersonian tolerance"?

No. I'm all in favor of it. I just found it amusing the way Wood openly stated what is usually the implied subtext, namely, that Jeffersonian tolerance is predicated upon treating religions as "more or less the same sort of mistake." Of course, being too open about that disdainful indifference would undermine the sort of cultural unity it was designed to promote. If anything, I would only like for more spiritual-not-religious types to appreciate the weighty significance of Jefferson's razor.

So, then, to clarify the rest of my interest in these excerpts:

I was struck by the succinct way Wood described the three lenses, if you will, through which we make sense of our identity — individuality, group identity, and common humanity. Now, as an (Isaiah) Berliner, I'm naturally predisposed to see these three perspectives as basically irreducible, and prone to being in conflict with each other. That is, none of the three can ever be the One True Perspective. Each one makes sense in the right context, or the right proportions.

Human beings being human beings, though, we tend toward Procrusteanism. When we find a concept or perspective we think is accurate, we tend to want it to be true at all times, in all situations, and so we stretch or chop the facts as needed. As an example of people who cling too tightly to individualism as an organizing concept, think of rigid, dogmatic libertarians, and the lengths to which they go to avoid acknowledging anything like a common humanity based on levels of obligation.

Likewise, diversity can be turned into an unquestionable moral virtue in and of itself and pushed to absurd lengths in contexts where it doesn't belong. Take the arts, for an obvious example.

• Stephin Merritt apparently failed to evince a properly proportional interest in music created by ethnic artists and was publicly trashed as a racist cracker.

• Lena Dunham is likewise accused of being racist for not including any ethnic characters in her TV show. (Terry Sawyer, the author of the linked article, does a good job limning the incoherent, contradictory demands even within the diversiphile camp.)

• Pitchfork magazine's readers vote for their favorite 200 albums of the last fifteen years, and diversiphiles complain that there aren't enough women on the list. This leads the intellectual featherweights at the Atlantic Wire to pop their thumbs out of their mouths long enough to muse about just how misogynist Pitchfork's readers might be.

• It is a popular cause online to talk about the VIDA count, and whine about how women aren't proportionally represented as either reviewers or reviewees in the major literary outlets, as if the right to a good shot at a successful literary career is on a par with the right to higher education. Some diversiphile writers, like Roxane Gay, even go so far as to call for quotas as a solution to this "problem". Now, one can argue, and I certainly have, that making literary criticism into yet another zero-sum battle between "white men" vs. "everyone else" is an insanely reductive and misguided obsession, that the purpose of literature and criticism is not to advance trendy social justice-y causes, and that the content of the art is what matters for the purpose of criticism, not the race and gender of the author, protagonist, or audience, but in doing so, one has to argue uphill against the facile assumption that "more diversity" is such an obvious plus that only bigots would oppose it.

This is what I mean when I say that diversity means different things in different contexts. Not every situation requires balanced ratios of gender or race. Not every disparity is a problem indicating oppression and requiring a solution. The world isn't going to be "fixed" when we get the ratios all correctly sorted.

Not only that, but there isn't even any consensus among diversiphiles as to what the ultimate goal of all this diversity is. Some think that by being exposed to people of all different races, religions and ways of life, the rough edges of our tribal natures will be sanded off, and we will better appreciate our common humanity. Others, especially SJWs, are fixated on preventing what they call "cultural appropriation", by which they mean greedy white people "stealing" ethnic cultural motifs. This amounts to rigidly defining and strictly policing the borders of what they consider to be different cultures. The fact that their rhetoric and logic is the mirror image of white separatism doesn't trouble their little pea-brains in the slightest. One Slymepitter whose opinions I generally like, a self-described right-wing black woman from New Zealand, once summed it up in a way that I actually saved for reference:

The idea of appropriation/cultural intellectual property is another one that creeps me out. People learn and adopt and remix cultural emblems and traditions because that’s the nature of how we interact and assimilate/create new paradigms. If you cut off a culture from the ability to be remixed by those outside it, then you are killing it. There is no difference from that to putting it in a museum or locking it away an a sanctuary somewhere. Cultures that you cannot adopt or enter into are endangered.

If you wanted to kill a minority culture than the best way to do so is to tell people they cannot be part of it, and it will ensure that the only culture that can be used/adopted by anyone is the majority one, which can be replicated and reused and entered-into without fear of repercussions.

They’re a movement of cultural exterminators.

And finally, I think certain conservatives do have a valid point when they scoff at the progressive fixation on diversity as being cosmetically diverse but ideologically conformist. That is, it's not too hard to find smug progressives who pride themselves on their magnanimous ability to tolerate the presence of people who look and speak differently from them while breaking out into hives upon encountering someone who substantively disagrees with them.

Somehow It Seems to Fill My Head with Ideas — Only I Don't Exactly Know What They Are!

Alex Ross:

Chronically disapproving as these thinkers were, they were not disengaged from the culture of their day. In order to dissect it, they bent over it. One great contribution that they made to the art of criticism was the idea that any object, no matter how seemingly trivial, was worth a searching glance. In the second volume of the Harvard Benjamin edition, covering the turbulent final years of the Weimar Republic, Benjamin variously analyzes Mickey Mouse (“In these films, mankind makes preparations to survive civilization”), children’s books and toys, a food fair, Charlie Chaplin, hashish, and pornography (“Just as Niagara Falls feeds power stations, in the same way the downward torrent of language into smut and vulgarity should be used as a mighty source of energy to drive the dynamo of the creative act”). You often feel a tension between the intensity of the scrutiny and the modesty of the subject, as if an electron microscope were being used to read the fine print on a contract.

...One way or another, the Frankfurt School mode of criticism—its skeptical ardor, its relentless scouring of mundane surfaces—has spread far. When online recappers expend thousands of words debating the depiction of rape on “Game of Thrones,” or when writers publish histories of sneakers or of the office cubicle, they show intense awareness of mass culture’s ability to shape society.

...These implacable voices should stay active in our minds. Their dialectic of doubt prods us to pursue connections between what troubles us and what distracts us, to see the riven world behind the seamless screen. 

Arthur Krystal:

Postmodernism—which was smart, stimulating, ridiculous, and objectionable by turn—has left us in the lurch. Having discredited the centrality of the humanistic enterprise, the postmodern ethos of inversion has forced us to acknowledge that culture and all that culture once meant is not a thing apart but simply the semiotic expression of society’s need to sustain those in power. So hierarchies had to be dismantled; and onto the leveled playing field came poets who couldn’t tell an iamb from an apple, painters who couldn’t draw an apple, and conceptual "artists" like Damien Hirst who openly and cynically promote and sell non-art. Sheer frippery for the gullible.

The not-so-wonderful irony of the postmodern program was that its theoretic rigor and forceful determination to get to the bottom of things precipitated a great falling off in cultural life. Although we can’t quite return to the "innocence" of modernism (never mind its many supple and complicated byways), we’ve also lost our appetite for locating hidden modalities in art and literature. Yet art and literature still have a place in our lives. How to explain it without resorting to the assumptive modes of criticism that the postmodernists did their best to undermine? This perceived stasis of nowhere-to-go is leading humanists back to old-fashioned methods of relying on the hard data and empirical certainty of scientific research.

If questions of art, beauty, morality, and value continue to engage us, the answers, so it’s said, must lie in our genes. Or in our frontal cortices. Or in our innate capacity for wonder, which makes us adapt better to the wonder of existence. It’s anyone’s guess. It seems only that by ceding such questions to biological and cognitive science we have made peace, at least for the moment, with the ideas that used to make intellectuals reach for their pens and sometimes their guns. It’s hard to know exactly what this concession means, yet one can’t help but reflect that by placing too much faith in the human brain, we may be relinquishing the idea that the mind might one day fathom the human condition.

I found both of these articles enthralling and thought-provoking. Exactly which thoughts they've provoked in me, though, I can't really say. They occupy that intellectual sweet spot where I feel like they're really on to something important, even if I lack the perspective from which to articulate it and the wisdom to add anything to it. I share the sentiment that postmodernism's and critical theory's insistence on ruthlessly exposing the ignoble, ideological underpinnings of "higher" culture is a form of reductionism gone too far, but I don't feel they can be summarily dismissed as regrettable intellectual detours into falsehood, either. Either way, I appreciate being forced to have to think about it. Two thumbs up, highly recommended, give both of them a read.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

U Got That Look

Andrew Sullivan:

I can’t help but wonder also if this public display of raw masculinity isn’t also a reaction to the relative decline in male power in American life and culture. As girls beat boys in school, and as women increasingly beat men in college, and as women out-pace men in vast swathes of the economy, and as old patterns of allegedly sexist male culture are policed and patrolled with ever-greater assiduity, the beard and the old-school manliness of the lumbersexual become new ways to express masculinity which cannot be denigrated or dismissed as sexist. It’s a way to reclaim manliness without running afoul of the new prophets of gender justice.

It's s strange feeling to be ambling along for however many years, just doing my unremarkable, un-self-conscious thing, only to wake up one day and discover that certain tastemakers and media outlets have suddenly pronounced it to be a thing. Complete with an ideological stance, even! I knew there was a reason I kept those flannel shirts from twenty years ago; I just thought it was because they were so soft and comfortable and made to last.

Me, I was devastated years ago by the loss of my youngest dog to lymphoma, and in my grief, I happened to let a few weeks go by without shaving. As I returned to equilibrium, I decided that I greatly preferred the way I looked with a beard and decided to keep it, and so I have done. I wish I could pretend it had a more exciting genesis than that, but at least I'll still like the way I look with it long after the politically-bearded have moved on to different fashions.

And what about that suddenly-fashionable appearance of mine? Well, according to the correspondent who recently sent me this picture from a beard site, I bear a "striking resemblance" to this guy:

Hmm. Well, the build and hairstyle are pretty much the same. My eyes are normally a little wider than that. I'm not as visibly tattooed, though, and my hair is a blend of ash-blond and light brown rather than red. And he's probably a month or two ahead of me in the beard-length department. But yeah, I could probably strike a very similar pose, so I'll accept it and be flattered by the comparison! I mean, that's one handsome dude. Why, I could possibly even go a little gay for a fine-looking fellow like that. What? I could. Just a little bit, you know.

Howard: If I don't get some action soon, I'm going gay.
Vince: What? You?
Howard: What's so funny about that?
Vince: You are the LEAST gay person I've ever met.
Howard: I COULD go gay. You've got me all wrong. I could go gay like THAT, sir!
Vince: You can't just go gay! It's not like buying a ladder!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Well, You Never Do Nothin' to Save Your Doggone Soul

John Gray:

Soylent is the ultimate fast food - but it's unclear why we feel such an intense need for more time. If you're struggling to make ends meet, juggling the demands of family and several part-time jobs, you might well dream of having an extra day in the week. But I doubt whether many who are in this position would consider giving up meals in order to work even harder than they already do, and in any case they aren't the people to whom the food replacement is being marketed. It's those that are reasonably well off, and yet think of themselves as being chronically pressured, that are being targeted.

It's worth asking how we've become as time-poor as we feel we are today. I'm old enough to remember discussions of 40 or 50 years ago about how we'd fill our days when most kinds of human labour were done by machines. Technology is largely a succession of time-saving devices. It's strange, then, that an age of unprecedented technological advance should also be one of such acute time-poverty. Are we really dreaming of living more slowly? Or could it be that many of us are secretly addicted to the fast life?

One answer to these questions can be gleaned from the writings of the 17th Century mathematician Blaise Pascal, who invented the modern theory of probability and designed the world's first urban mass transit system. In his Pensees, a series of reflections mostly devoted to religious topics, Pascal suggested that humans are driven by a need for diversion. A life that's always time-pressed might seem a recipe for unhappiness, but in fact the opposite is true. Human beings are much more miserable when they have nothing to do and plenty of time in which to do it. When we're inactive or slow down the pace at which we live, we can't help thinking of features of our lives we'd prefer to forget - above all, the fact that we're going to die. By being always on the move and never leaving ourselves without distraction, we can avoid such disturbing thoughts.

Similarly, the late-twentieth-century philosopher Alanis Morrissette questioned our ability to handle silence without thinking about our bills, our exes, our deadlines, or when we think we're going to die, wondering if we merely suffer through it while longing for the next distraction. Well, she may not have been able to carry a tune to save her life, but she at least possessed more penetrating insight into the human psyche than a naïf like Nicholas Carr, who still gets called "essential reading" for peddling the sort of story that people love to hear, namely, that it's not our fault we never wrote that novel, seized the day, sucked the marrow out of life; technology rewired our brains and took our fate out of our hands.

This becomes a convenient excuse to avoid the introspection which might reveal some unpleasant personal truths. Maybe I don't enjoy reading books and living deliberately. Maybe I don't have any deep and meaningful friendships. Maybe I actually prefer to spend my evenings watching reality TV and snacking on junk food. Maybe I just realize that professing higher aspirations is what people of a certain cultural class are expected to do, and I don't have the courage to set myself against that. Maybe I'm just not particularly smart, brave, talented or special at all, and if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?

These are the sorts of questions that will never be raised if you take people at face value when they complain about forces beyond their control preventing them from realizing their dreams. People want mutually exclusive things all the time without seeming to be aware of it.

Don't get me wrong. I wholeheartedly encourage people to spend time reading, focusing, introspecting, and all those other qualities that comprise the "contemplative literate subject".  I aim for that ideal myself. Achieving it on my terms, however, has required some tradeoffs. I've turned down a few opportunities for career advancement, which has probably reduced my esteem in the eyes of others in addition to the obvious financial downside. One reason why I've never wanted to have children (another choice with at least some social disapproval) was because of the cost involved in raising them, which would make it difficult if not impossible to resist such career opportunities. I'll buy my jeans from Goodwill for seven bucks apiece and have my $50 Kmart winter coat, which I've had for fifteen years, sewn and patched because I'd rather spend my disposable income on more books. (I'm not saying that's a hardship, just that I definitely do not cut a dashing, fashionable figure, which seems to be an important thing to many people.) And even if you do succeed in carving out enough space in your life to cherish contemplation, you may feel lonely upon discovering that almost all your peers and friends have no time or desire to join you there.

I'm fortunate in that none of this is too heavy of a price for me to pay. But I don't expect that most people can or should feel the same way. If you truly feel that your life is missing too much of the stuff that "really matters", what hard choices are you prepared to make to change that? Call me pessimistic if you must, but I do believe that there's a tragic dimension to life that needs to be confronted and accepted.

Abraham Maslow said that "It isn't normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement." In the absence of that knowledge, people at least understand what it is they're supposed to want and make impotent gestures in that direction which will, of course, do nothing to alleviate their existential aches.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Chills the Body But Not the Soul, Hallelujah

Tom Nissley:

November is the anti-April: gray and dreary, the beginning of the end of things rather than their rebirth. It’s the month you hunker down — if you don’t give up entirely.

I'm sorry; was somebody sniffling and whimpering? I couldn't quite hear it over the sound of frost crunching under my feet as I joyfully danced on warm weather's grave.

November is the feeling of weakness leaving the calendar year. Embrace it. (And P.S. — spell the word with the respect befitting such a stoic, regal time of year.)

Saturday, November 15, 2014


Chris Plante and Arielle Duhaime-Ross:

No one knows why Taylor chose to wear that shirt on television during a massive scientific mission. From what we can tell, a woman who goes by the name of Elly Prizeman on Twitter made the shirt for him, and is just as bewildered as he must be that anyone might be upset about her creation. Taylor apologized on Friday during a live ESA broadcast for wearing the shirt, stating that "the shirt I wore this week... I made a big mistake and I offended many people, and I'm very sorry about this." Still, Taylor's personal apology doesn't make up for the fact that no one at ESA saw fit to stop him from representing the Space community with clothing that demeans 50 percent of the world's population. No one asked him to take it off, because presumably they didn't think about it. It wasn't worth worrying about.

This is the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields. They see a guy like that on TV and they don't feel welcome. They see a poster of greased up women in a colleague's office and they know they aren't respected. They hear comments about "bitches" while out at a bar with fellow science students, and they decide to change majors. And those are the women who actually make it that far. Those are the few who persevered even when they were discouraged from pursuing degrees in physics, chemistry, and math throughout high school. These are the women who forged on despite the fact that they were told by elementary school classmates and the media at large that girls who like science are nerdy and unattractive. This is the climate women who dream of working at NASA or the ESA come up against, every single day. This shirt is representative of all of that, and the ESA has yet to issue a statement or apologize for that.

Emphasis mine. I swear, I'm beginning to suspect that these people are the result of an intensive, long-term breeding program designed to produce some kind of human super-terrier that can tunnel through layers of solid rock in fanatical pursuit of the faintest trace odor of offense to be taken.

As a good pluralist, I'm naturally inclined to believe that most issues admit of more than one valid interpretation. Ferzample, there's nothing inherently wrong with being the type of person who sees a shirt covered in images of sexy pinup girls and gets offended. You can offer up a number of reasons why such a person might be mistaken to see it that way, or perhaps some suggestions that life will be more pleasant and productive for them if they try to lighten up and take a less-judgmental stance, but ultimately, they're entitled to feel however they want. And even for those of us who don't go through life with a thorny stick wedged painfully in our posteriors and perpetually pursed, disapproving, lemon-sucking lips, it can of course be fairly argued that, whatever the backstory, it's at least inappropriate to wear a shirt like that on that particular occasion. It's obviously not worth being put through a show trial, but being pulled aside and told, "Hey, dude, come on, you're going to be on international television; maybe something a little less gaudy" wouldn't be an onerous imposition.

Notice, though, how a certain type of Puritanical feminist refuses to even consider the possibility that other people could have different, yet equally valid reactions to seeing Taylor's shirt. As you may have heard by now, Elly Prizeman is a close friend of Taylor's. He was the best man at her wedding. She made him the shirt as a gift, and he wore it to give her artwork a little publicity boost. Nonetheless, her opinion doesn't count, femininity notwithstanding. Any other woman shrugging her shoulders and saying, "What's the big deal?" would likewise be dismissed as irrelevant and unwelcome in the discussion. 50% of the world's population is being demeaned by that shirt! Of course, if even 50% of that 50% stood up and said, "Actually, we don't see it as a problem; you just need to chill the fuck out," their objections would be overruled even as their existence would continue to be cited as support for the Puritanical view. No woman could possibly see him wearing that shirt in conjunction with his tattoos and general demeanor and think Hey, he looks like a fun guy; no, they would see him as intimidating and threatening. They wouldn't "feel welcome". This is all stated as matter of fact, not as one perspective among many.

Notice the immediate assumption of the absolute worst-case interpretation. Generic sexual images, even campy ones, when sported or appreciated by a man, are sexist. Inherently offensive and harmful. The images of sultry, busty babes couldn't possibly be equally representative of comic book art or cheesy SFF; they can only represent filthy, degrading, aggressive animal lust, which all right-thinking people should be properly ashamed of. Any woman who sees them will take them personally and feel disrespected. Any man who enjoys them can clearly only think of women as second-class citizens, mere blow-up dolls to be used, abused, and cast aside. Nothing positive could ever be associated with them. Their very existence, especially when made public in any way, demeans all women, even the poor brainwashed ones who stubbornly cling to their ignorant opinions to the contrary.

Notice how the slippery-slope argument becomes a sheer logical plummet down the face of a cliff, as Taylor's shirt becomes an inkblot suggesting everything a woman could ever find to complain about. Well, again, they're free to find tendentious causal connections wherever they want, but the rest of us are also free to point out that they are simply projecting their own twisted, morbid obsessions onto everyone else, in the long-established tradition of fundamentalist crusaders of all kinds.

One member of the Slymepit had what I thought was a good take on it:

So a man is the best man of a woman. The woman makes him a shirt as a thank you. He wears it. Sounds like a pretty normal thing to do among normal, socially aware, empathetic people.

But since there was a woman in a sexy position on that shirt, suddenly the man is the devil, he sets back history, he's sexist, he's the reason why women are raped, etc.

And they say they're sex positive, progressive people. I've met nuns who were less of a prude. This objectification rhetoric hides pearl-clutching former fundies who get mad when they see female flesh exposed, be it real or fictional.

Also, for people who are all about "empathy", SJWs have very little social and emotional empathy of their own. They don't seem to understand the concept of being proud of your work, or of having friends, or even of humor and a relaxed attitude towards sexuality. They've lost the sense of wonder before the accomplishments of the human race.

It seems like a trivial, almost painfully obvious point to me, but apparently it needs to be said anyway: these people represent an extreme viewpoint, only one of many possible viewpoints, but for some odd reason, a lot of otherwise moderate people, as well as a lot of media outlets, seem inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt when they aggressively proceed as if theirs is the one true perspective on gender issues. Oh, for the day when this unthinking, groveling deference finally wears off...

Friday, November 14, 2014

Things I Thought I Figured Out, I Have to Learn Again

Brian comments on the previous post:

Now, in attacking the illiberalness of the SJWs, one cannot forget that the far more numerous, far more powerful right wing equivalents are even nuttier-arguably far more insane. For every "video games are sexist" there are ten "Obama and his transgendered wife are plotting to take over the United States for ISIS and impost Shariah Law by 2020!"

So...we have to maintain perspective. Because the insane right elects Congresscritters!

(I started to respond there, but I soon realized I was going to exceed the comment box character limit, and since I can't be bothered to post that often these days, I decided to go ahead and turn this into a post of its own.)

True, lunacy is a bipartisan phenomenon, though I question whether there is any meaningful way to quantify which side is "worse" or more numerous. That's a value judgment which might only reflect your own filter bubble. Certainly, there's no shortage of people on either side who deserve criticism. But a Fairness Doctrine-style approach ("I just wrote a post criticizing SJWs, so now I need to write one criticizing theocrats") has its own downside, namely a vapid centrism that values equidistance over substance. Powerless outsiders, of which I am one, can afford to speak the truth as they see it without having to worry about where it will land on someone else's multi-dimensional political chessboard. More on that in a moment.

I don't think anyone would argue against the need to maintain perspective. The argument would hinge on whether a certain perspective was relevant or not. The fact that Republicans took control of the Senate has nothing to do with the question of whether SJWs are illiberal morons who deserve to be pelted with garbage and rotten fruit until they run home crying like the overgrown toddlers they are. Calling SJWs overgrown toddlers does not directly lead to more people abandoning the Democrats and voting Republican. A perspective which insists on understanding SJWs in relation to Christian Dominionists may be like trying to derive the square root of green. The framework is all wrong.

Here's a basic truth: humans make sense of the world through narratives, not facts. Now, I don't mean that facts are completely irrelevant and we're all totally irrational. I mean that the number of facts pertaining to any given situation is, practically speaking, limitless. This is a banal truism. However, we tend to overlook it because evolution has equipped our brains with efficient pattern-seeking software that allows us to quickly and effortlessly recognize the facts which are relevant for our immediate purposes while filtering out and forgetting the rest of the irrelevant data, which never even rises to the level of our conscious attention. We could not function otherwise. We would spend so much time collecting data to make the simplest of decisions that the time to act would pass and the situation would change before we ever finished. We have no choice but to make imperfect decisions based on incomplete information. Thus, we already have an intuitive sense of what it is we're looking for when we first start to pay attention to an issue. We notice which facts are relevant to us and connect them together. That process of connecting relevant facts is what we call a narrative, and the template for forming one is far more fundamental to the way our minds work than any objective striving after truth for its own sake.

Narratives are generally very useful (or, as a bumper sticker I saw once put it, "Stereotypes are a real time-saver"). You aren't likely to go drastically wrong by sticking to one, as long as you remain flexible enough to modify it as needed. The perennial human problem, though, is that we tend to prune new facts to fit our preferred narrative, rather than the other way around. Eventually, this catches up to us, and we have to choose between the pain of looking like a complete fool by being stubbornly wrong, or the pain of having to let go of a useful framework and start making sense of the world in a different way. Judging by the evidence, a lot of people seem to find it easier to accept looking foolish.

The moral of the story in the previous post was about the inevitable failure of narratives, and how we react in the event. If you have long been favorably inclined to liberal/left perspectives on sociopolitical issues, only to be rudely shocked out of your complacency by the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of today's SJWs, how do you respond? Do you hurry to construct a new narrative that rationalizes their excesses by comparison to someone "worse"? Or do you take the opportunity to cultivate an attitude of tentative humility, a determination to think things through slowly and deliberately, a refusal to be bullied or rushed into jumping to conclusions?

It's fine to say, "These SJWs are largely a bunch of dumb postgrads with no real power. Most of them will probably settle down and outgrow their intersectionalist bullshit as they pursue careers and families. If you're concerned about political issues at all, you should be far more concerned over how elected officials and their financial backers believe and behave." That is a perfectly sensible and valid perspective to hold. However, it is not the only valid perspective, and not every issue can be coded in utilitarian terms of right vs. left politics. In the zero-sum environment of the voting booth, yes, you have no meaningful alternative to choosing the Democrat or the Republican. In the twitosphere, though, you are not being forced to choose between Anita Sarkeesian or Elliot Rodger, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is a lying demagogue. For example, if you approach Gamergate with a framework like, "Okay, who are the right-wingers and left-wingers here?", you're going to miss so many important nuances. Not every issue is a tributary feeding into the sea-level discourse of whether this ultimately benefits the left or the right. Personally, I'm not terribly invested in the fate of the political left. I agree with those who say that it is largely moribund, and I have no idea how to reinvigorate it. I only feel (provisionally) certain of the fact that no fruit worth keeping is going to grow from the roots and soil that comprise SJW-style politics, and thus I feel no obligation to tamp down my disgust for them. If the left can't ultimately offer up anything better than them, it deserves its impotence and irrelevance.

Finally, different contexts allow for different emphases. If I were politically powerful and influential, then yes, it would be important to consider all the "optics" of how my words would be taken. But I am an absolute nobody writing on a blog that no one reads. I write for no reason but my own entertainment and satisfaction. I'm solely interested in making sense of the world, not declaring my allegiance to an agenda. I can't imagine anything sadder than having that complete freedom, only to voluntarily don the chains of other people's expectations. What consequences should I be concerned about? I don't care if someone gets the wrong impression about me as a person because they can't tell what my politics are by a quick glance here. In fact, I would resent any implication that I owe it to some hypothetical reader to spell out exactly what I stand for and why. Fuck you, hypothetical reader, you lazy bastard. Do the reading and thinking to figure it out yourself. Or don't. Makes no difference to me. Bum-bum-bum-ba-bum-bum, I feel free...

Does It Feel Right, Like Penetrating Insight?

Mytheos Holt:

Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that #Gamergate’s targets in this fight are more than just corrupt game journalists. Along with their furious denunciations of the gaming press, the movement also appears to be fighting a new culture war — one against a new, radical and dangerously illiberal left which marinates in a hideous quagmire of resentment, smugness, vacuousness and contempt for free discussion. This movement prefers the vile ochlocracy of the Twitter mob (it’s no accident that Suey Park of #CancelColbert fame is on the anti-Gamergate side), celebrates the Maoist public shaming of doxxing, and seems incapable of distinguishing between a .gif and an argument. Deemed “Social Justice Warriors,” or “SJWs” by their detractors, this new left is monomaniacally obsessed with identity politics to the exclusion of almost everything else and will attack anyone and everyone who emanates even a whiff of what it perceives as racism, sexism, cissexism, or any of a number of other “-isms,” including its own allies.

And so it was that I found myself reading a very good article at Tucker Carlson's website, chuckling at the fact that, thanks to the complete moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the SJWs, I can no longer look askance at an article just because of where it was published. In truth, if we care about truth, we should never take such shortcuts to begin with, but life is short, excuses are cheap and easy, and we all make use of heuristics in order to better manage our time. Still, if you get too attached to saving time for its own sake and become too reliant on superficial signals over substance, you will find that, to borrow Emerson's words, "...a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another." I knew these people were idiots and frauds several years ago, but I also knew that to say so too often or too energetically was politically verboten. Thus does social capital make cowards of us all.

A minor quibble — neither the war nor the warriors are truly new. We have a new baby-boom generation making use of new technologies, but the bullshit theories and dogmas have been around for several decades.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Every Scene Is the Wrong Scene Whether I Sink or Socially Climb


The “pro-introvert” advice of writings like Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking risks manufacturing a class of aberrant individuals with special needs. Cain herself compares introverts to women in a patriarchal world, calling introverts “second-class citizens.” But the intent to help introverts succeed in an insane world is inevitably paralleled by advice to authorities, managers, and bosses on how to best tap the skills and insights of introverts — for the former’s use.

But the mature introvert doesn’t want to succeed in an insane world, and powerful people only want to employ, direct, and socialize with others useful to themselves.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

A Brotherhood

Last stop of the day, pulling in to fill up the gas tank. I set the pump trigger latch in place and walked around to the passenger side for something. While there, I took a moment to get my small boar-bristle brush out of the glovebox and give my beard a smoothing-down. I've been letting it grow for the last few months, so it requires a lot more grooming now.

"Feels good, don't it?"

I turned around to look over at the next pump island for the source of the voice, where I saw what appeared to be Billy Gibbons dressed in biker leather, next to his beat-up old pickup.

"I brush mine like that all the time. Love it," he said, affectionately patting the fringe of his long, grey facial mane.

"Oh, yeah," I concurred. "I wish someone had told me about these earlier. I used to use a comb, but it made it all—" I used my hands to indicate the universal sign language for wild, frizzy hair.

He winced as if he'd seen someone brandish a set of electric clippers in his direction. "Ooh, no, never a comb, no. Always gotta be a brush."

He made as if to get back in his truck before hesitating, his head still turned halfway in my direction, as if listening to some internal monologue. A moment later, he turned back and ambled over toward me.

"Now, look, young feller," he began, in a friendly-conspiratorial tone of voice, "I made myself a promise a long time ago never to get involved in another man's beardly business. You can see I've been around a good long while, and I tell you what, you never get over the pain of seeing a man you've encouraged spend years growing out his beard the way the good Lord intended, only to cut it all off because of a job or some damned woman."

He spat to punctuate his disgust before fixing me with one steely eye from under the brim of his hat. Taking the measure of me, I thought. I kept quiet and stoically bore his scrutiny, letting my beard do the talking for me. Was that the slightest crack in his stony façade, a tiny upturn in the corner of his mouth?

It was. He grinned an almost-imperceptible grin and shook his finger at me in a mock-admonishing way. "You, though...damn it all if I ain't a sentimental old fool, but the careful, dedicated way you wield that brush tells me you ain't gonna go that route."

"No, sir," I agreed. "My woman, she loves my beard the more it grows out."

He sighed, his breath the sound of so many hair clippings fluttering, unmourned, to the floor. "Be that as it may, son, in this world, there's many a cold winter wind blows through a man's life with no woman there to share it with. You treat that beard like the brother it is, because it'll be there for you when that wind's a-whistlin' somethin' fierce, no questions asked."

Pausing to make sure his words had sunk in, he reached deep into a jacket pocket and fished something out. He held out his hand, and as I took it, he clasped his other one tight around the back and held it for a moment.

"I'm trusting you'll use it wisely, son. Don't let me down."

"I won't. I promise."

I unclenched my hand and looked down.

Good stuff.

When I looked up to thank him, he was already gone.

The overall sleek shine, the way the potion enhances the blond hairs to glow like a golden fire, and the lively notes of pine, cedar and mint that aromatically dance around my face now are the only things that convince me I didn't imagine the whole thing.

Some parts of this story are truer than others.