Thursday, January 30, 2014

You're Coming Off Kinda Contrived and Pretentious; You're Not Saying Anything We Haven't Heard Before

Daniel Kalder:

Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that Brodsky’s list is not really “basic” but rather a fairly arbitrary roster of cool stuff he had read and wanted to talk about. But given how few people have read all the books on his list, we may wonder if he lived in a state of perpetual loneliness and despair.

I also have a strong suspicion that a “basic” conversation with Joseph Brodsky would actually be rather, well, dull. The list implies that he was a fairly typical representative of the Russian intelligentsia – only on steroids – forever banging on about ideas and books. I knew people like that in Moscow, and found their intellectual status anxiety decidedly off-putting. A friend of mine (and Brodsky fan) spent her entire adult life in such circles, and then at age 50 found that she couldn’t take the tedium any more. She started watching Bruce Willis movies and listening to punk music.

Brodsky’s mistake, and it is a mistake, was to associate good conversation (and by extension, I’d suggest intelligence) with book learning. But just as last week I observed that many intelligent people are not wise, so it is that many well-read people are not interesting. The qualities that make for an interesting conversationalist – wit, originality, experience, verbal dexterity, storytelling ability — cannot be extracted from familiarity with a mountain of books.

One of the most entertaining conversations I ever had — well, bore witness to, technically, since he did almost all the talking — was on a sixty-mile ride in a tow truck. Man, that was one funny redneck. (It's okay; he classified himself that way. And besides, as he explained at length, those boys over in certain parts of West Virginia, they're the real hillfolk, the crazy-scary kind.)

So, no, book learning doesn't necessarily make for better conversation. I read like a man possessed, but like James Collins, I feel embarrassed sometimes to glance at books on my shelves and realize that I probably couldn't spontaneously say more than a couple sentences about their contents, let alone cite anything specific that impressed me. I do agree with what Maryanne Wolf told him, though:

“There is a difference,” she said, “between immediate recall of facts and an ability to recall a gestalt of knowledge. We can’t retrieve the specifics, but to adapt a phrase of William James’s, there is a wraith of memory. The information you get from a book is stored in networks. We have an extraordinary capacity for storage, and much more is there than you realize. It is in some way working on you even though you aren’t thinking about it.”

Did this mean that it hadn’t been a waste of time to read all those books, even if I seemingly couldn’t remember what was in them?

“It’s there,” Wolf said. “You are the sum of it all.”

It's a comforting thought, and I have experienced that — having informed opinions bubble up which I didn't even know I had. Score one for bookishness. That gestalt of knowledge is somewhat of a mystery stew, however; there's no telling what will come up in the ladle. After a lunch with the highly-educated Arthur a few years ago, I happened to write down a rough transcript of what we talked about for posterity's sake:

After a brief back-and-forth over the merits of atheism vis-à-vis agnosticism, Arthur told me that the patent on (his wife's) invention is about to be sent out, so we started talking about what he was going to do with all the money he might get. We talked about lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills, which led to him pondering the necessity of having "people" to do that sort of thing for you, to stick their fingers in a flame and use them to light the hundred-dollar bill without betraying any expression on their face. Then we discussed the potential for this device to be used to usher in the Orwellian superstate, which led us into imagining him ruling as some sort of deranged dictator, parading around in public with epaulets and medals, issuing bizarre proclamations ("Today we are having all goldfish shot!"), and forcing schools to intensively study favorite authors of his, like Wilde and Ruskin. He revealed that he has always harbored a fond desire to be able to yell, "Seize him!" at least once in his life, so we decided that one way he could practice in the meantime would be to go to the lobster tank at the grocery store and choose one ("Which one would you like, sir?" [pointing] "Seize him!"). I asked if he had been planning this for some time, and he laughed and said no, this was all just spontaneous, off the top of his head. "So, the rampaging id meets Saturday morning cartoons?" I asked. He choked on his drink with laughter and said he was envisioning some cross between Skeletor, Montgomery Burns, and Dr. Evil, noting that it is apparently a requirement that all evil tyrants learn how to say, "Eeeeeexcellent." He told me a story about some Russian scientist who foolishly stuck his head inside the door of something like a particle accelerator (?) and had a proton - one single proton - pass through his head at high speed, causing all sorts of brain damage and nearly killing him. Thus we decided that this would be the favored method of execution in the new superstate — bullets and nooses are just so 19th and 20th century. So I said, "Seize him! To the particle accelerator with him!" which made Arthur snort and spray his soda all over the booth. Finally, we agreed that we both had a long list of enemies that would be marched into the accelerator immediately.

Not one of our more highbrow (to say nothing of morally respectable) conversations, but it was all right.

In our intellectual defense, we did have a four-member Nietzsche book club one spring. Now that was some good conversation.

Suit Yourself

Peter Orsi:

It fell to famously casual Jose Mujica, the Uruguayan president, to tackle a subtler evil plaguing humankind: the business suit.

"We have to dress like English gentlemen!" exclaimed Mujica, clad in a rumpled white shirt. "That's the suit that industrialization imposed on the world!"

"Even the Japanese had to abandon their kimonos to have prestige in the world," he continued, gesturing forcefully and rapping a pen on the table to punctuate his words. "We all had to dress up like monkeys with ties."

Preach it, my brutha. This reminded me of one English gentleman who went in the opposite direction. Alan Watts used to dress "properly" throughout much of his career as a writer and speaker, but eventually came to favor, along with many others in the counterculture, looser styles of clothing like the Japanese kimono. Monica Furlong related one anecdote:

On another evening he met them for dinner at Simpson's in the Strand. He was wearing a turtle-necked shirt and sandals, and the doorman politely declined to let him in.

"You don't like my wear?" asked Watts in amusement. He went back to the Charing Cross Hotel to change, and reappeared, still wearing his sandals, but in a necktie and jacket.

"Are you happy now I look like all the other undertakers?" he asked.

It's a good thing I lack professional ambition, because I loathe formal wear. Life's too short to spend so much of it in voluntary discomfort.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

It Will Be Coming Around Again

Karl Popper:

Roughly speaking, Marx shared the belief of the progressive industrialist, of the "bourgeois" of his time: the belief in a law of progress. But this naïve historicist optimism, of Hegel and Comte, of Marx and Mill, is no less superstitious than a pessimistic historicism like that of Plato and Spengler. And it is a very bad outfit for a prophet, since it must bridle historical imagination. Indeed, it is necessary to recognize as one of the principles of any unprejudiced view of politics that everything is possible in human affairs; and more particularly that no conceivable development can be excluded on the grounds that it may violate the so-called tendency of human progress, or any other of the alleged laws of "human nature". "The fact of progress", writes H.A.L. Fisher, "is written plain and large on the page of history; but progress is not a law of nature. The ground gained by one generation may be lost by the next."

Finger-Waggers

Charles E. Moore:

Kierkegaard's strategy was to act as a corrective. He explains: "The person who is to provide the corrective must study the weak sides of the established order scrupulously and penetratingly and then one-sidedly present the opposite — with expert one-sidedness." This revelation is important to keep in mind while reading Kierkegaard. All the same he said, "a corrective made into the norm is by that very fact confusing." Therefore, one should not lift his thought up and turn it into a norm.

Similar to the via negativa, or the sculptor's school of philosophy, as I like to think of it. Chipping away at accumulated bullshit is more useful than creating a competing brand of bullshit.

Still far too wordy for Cratylus, though.

The Only People We Hate More Than the Romans Are the Fucking Judean People's Front

Michelle Goldberg:

Yet even as online feminism has proved itself a real force for change, many of the most avid digital feminists will tell you that it’s become toxic. Indeed, there’s a nascent genre of essays by people who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in it—not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists. On January 3, for example, Katherine Cross, a Puerto Rican trans woman working on a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center, wrote about how often she hesitates to publish articles or blog posts out of fear of inadvertently stepping on an ideological land mine and bringing down the wrath of the online enforcers. “I fear being cast suddenly as one of the ‘bad guys’ for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication,” she wrote.

I don't blame you if you don't spend significant time every week keeping up with this phenomenon. It's probably a sign of mental health, in fact, if you don't. But I'd recommend this article, at least, as a good capsule summary of the kind of lunacy you can easily encounter all over the twitosphere. I have a few female friends who always insisted that they didn't identify as feminists. To my embarrassment, I always tut-tutted to myself when they'd say that, arrogantly thinking that they'd just taken in too much right-wing propaganda. Thank goodness I never tried to "mansplain" to them what their proper attitudes should be, at least. Now, I can easily understand why someone who encountered this sort of thing in college (to say nothing of its ubiquitous presence online nowadays) would want to distance herself as much as possible.

I did laugh at this part:

Martin was floored. She’s long believed that it’s incumbent on feminists to be open to critique—but the response was so vitriolic, so full of bad faith and stubborn misinformation, that it felt like some sort of Maoist hazing...After all, this is hardly the first time that feminism—to say nothing of other left-wing movements—has been racked by furious contentions over ideological purity.

This sketch really is timeless, isn't it?

Nine-One-One Is a Joke in His Town

Who says a leopard can't change its spots? Peezus has finally renounced his flirtation with illiberal ideology and realized that scurrilous, politically-motivated, evidence-free accusations of criminal activity are beyond the pale:

I just got back from the campus police, where I was read my Miranda rights and recorded giving a statement, because the Geiger cranks have apparently made a formal complaint, accusing me of stealing their rags and adding a new charge, that I’d vandalized the latest edition, scribbling an “str” on the cover to change “right-to-life” to “right-to-strife”. So I also had to leave a handwriting sample.

It’s gone well past ridiculous. Singling me out as a scapegoat (I am not alone in my contempt for their awful paper), making baseless criminal accusations, wasting the time of the university police and lawyers…this is now in the territory of harassment.

I'm kidding, of course. You didn't seriously fall for that, did you? No, he's only angry because he's on the receiving end this time. I wonder, though, if this episode will at least temper his adolescent scorn for the justice system and instill a new respect for legal standards of evidence. Ha! Man, I'm a jokester tonight! No, I'll bet you a shiny quarter that when he gets off (generously assuming he isn't actually guilty; he is on record advocating that people throw copies of that paper in the trash), he'll credit his white male privilege and go right back to business as usual.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Barberian Invasions

Sean Trainor:

This may not be the story bewhiskered moderns would like to hear. It’s easy to imagine the 19th-beard and barbershop revival as an homage to a quaint, innocent fashion trend. But today’s revival presents a chance to redeem the legacy of facial hair with a more complete understanding of the men who shaped it—a better grasp of what to keep and what to cut.

As delightfully ridiculous as an article attempting to politicize facial hair is, this concluding paragraph originally (when I first read it a week ago) had a couple extra lines in it which made it even more so:

"But however troubling this history may be, it does not render today’s beards irredeemable. What we need is an honest conversation about beards and the men who shaped them—a better grasp of what to keep and what to cut."

Apparently, proclaiming the good news to bewhiskered modern heathens, that they can be reborn in the cleansing power of honest conversation, free from original, 19th-century racist sin, proved upon a moment's reflection to be a ludicrous step too far even for this author, and so this section was quietly clipped and swept away like trimmings on a hairdresser's floor. At any rate, before that happened, one anonymous commenter gave it the only response it needed:

"Dude, did you know that in the 19th century some men stopped shaving for racist reasons?"
"No, I didn't, and anyway I did not stop shaving for racists reasons."
"Oh, cool."

Honest conversation ACCOMPLISHED

Yeah, really. I thought I just liked the way it looked as opposed to the alternative. Besides, everbody knows that the real reason for having a beard is to openly proclaim that we revel in filthy lusts like stinking goats.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

I Need to Fuck the System, We All Need to Fuck the System

Jonas Kyratzes:

Marxism examines the structure of our economic system and finds that the entire thing is geared towards creating profit for one very small class of people, while completely failing to represent the interests of the majority of people – the people who actually do all the work, but own none of the results. This isn’t because the people who profit from this system are lacking in awareness of their privilege, or because they are classist. It has absolutely nothing to do with them as individual people, their social identities or minority status. A disabled black female capitalist is exactly the same as an able-bodied white male capitalist in the function they serve in the system, which is also why electing people of a different social identity has never by itself made a political difference.

...Socialism does not seek to unify people on the level of social, national or cultural identity; it is inherently internationalist and transcultural, because it operates on a completely different level. But that’s precisely why socialism is emancipatory by necessity: because to unite the working class means to unite people across the barriers of identity. The concept itself is inclusive, and cannot be realized without the inclusion of the majority of people, including people of all social identities. Nor does it exclude those who wish to see systemic change but belong to the upper classes; after all, it’s about reorienting the goals and methods of the system, not about personal moral judgement or the condemnation of people because of an accident of birth. Socialism does not posit some sort of economic equivalent of Original Sin that makes people unable to see beyond their own lives.

Regardless of whether or not I would ever identify as a Marxist, or even a socialist, this ain't nothin' but the truth. More and more, I come to suspect that identity politics is largely a cynical creation of careerists in academia who want the appearance and credibility of revolutionaries without ever taking steps that would threaten their own comfortable, even lucrative, niches. As for the earnest kids who are serving as cannon fodder out on the front lines of Twitter and Tumblr, well, I have my hypothesis about them, too, but even they seem to instinctively recognize what an unbelievably sweet deal it is to get to "change the world for the better" by acting like bossy, spoiled brats on the Internet.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Tauriq Moosa:

The main thing should be whether the performer or artist is bringing pleasure to someone’s life. If that pleasure is not harming anyone, it is bigoted and arrogant to mock that individual for enjoying it. We’re not the deciders of what is “real” or “proper” music, art, film, and so on. Shaming should cease so we can all listen and enjoy whatever we like – while recognising we are all capable of enjoying more and enjoying things in new ways. We just don’t have to.

Of course I agree that musical taste, like almost any other type of taste, is a poor signifier of the sort of personal qualities that matter. A shrill, desperate apophenia imposed upon the sound and fury of insignificance, I believe I said once. Why, I even proclaimed rhythm and melody to be empty of moral significance as well. "Do what the fuck you like!", as Ozzy Osbourne loudly encouraged us from the stage at the inaugural Ozzfest. To the casual viewer, he may have been urging us to spring from our seats and go apeshit for three-fourths of the original Black Sabbath, but I'm pretty sure he was also, on another level, making a subtle commentary on the facile divide between the supposed gravitas of certain art forms and the causal effects they supposedly engender in the listener/viewer. In fact, if I may be permitted a bit more leeway to interpret, I believe he was reminding us that you can surround yourself with signifiers of profundity like classical music and modernist literature yet still be a dolt, while the feel-good factor of listening to ear candy might help facilitate a breakthrough in your thinking or writing.

But part of the problem is with the utilitarian perspective on what constitutes the boundaries and defining character of pleasure. I'm sure most people would agree that those who listen to Nickelback are enjoying pleasure in that moment, pleasure which doesn't hurt anyone. The subsequent judgment and argument hinges on what that supposedly entails, though. The Nickelbackian subject doesn't exist in a vacuum. He (and I assume this is one of those cases in which the generic male pronoun will not only be acceptable, but positively insisted upon) is embedded in an existing culture. He is an actor in the world. And how does he act? Well, there's where all the fun begins, as the artistic license to connect dots which may or may not exist is limited only by one's imagination. If we were to poll any number of music/pop-culture sites for their portrayals of the typical rawk fan, I think we could feel safe in expecting a common image to coalesce: one of an aggressive, beer-swilling, womanizing dudebro. Sure, maybe he's doing no harm as he drums on his steering wheel and hollers along with the lyrics to "Something In Your Mouth", but what's he thinking about as he does it, huh? And how is he going to behave later on at the club as a result? Can we trust people like him to draw the correct conclusions without supervision? This is the stuff of which a million A.V. Club flamewars are made.

In fact, Tauriq is doing a little question-begging here (in the proper sense of the term, not the bastardized popular-usage sense). He takes it as a given that pop music is value-neutral, just a harmless collection of melodies, rhythms, fluffy lyrics and fashion trends, and thus wonders why people can't just get along and live and let live. Because the issue of pop music's supposed value-neutrality is precisely the point of contention here, that's why. Ferzample: let's say I announce myself as a fan of Skrewdriver and Prussian Blue. You would rightly claim that that says something extremely significant about me. Now, you might argue that groups like those are more overt propaganda than art or entertainment. Still, the point is to establish the principle that somewhere between them and Justin Bieber, there's a vague line demarcating political significance from personal preference. People simply don't agree where that line should be drawn. You're not going to convince them to stop arguing by talking as if the line doesn't exist.

Even if you accept that Nickelback is just a generic rawk band and not really worth the energy it takes to hate them, well, you have to consider that pop-culture snobbery is a tributary feeding into deeper-running rivers that have existed for quite a while. Romanticism gave us the ideal of violently passionate thrill-seeking, living on the edge, sacrificing one's health, sanity and life itself for artistic purity and innovation, which by definition entailed utter scorn for the safe, predictable, traditional and typical. Then you have the politicized critiques of elite leftist intellectuals over the last century or so, where pop culture was either seen as a narcotic, keeping the masses stupefied and unable to heed the true calling of radical emancipatory politics, or an mindless expression of the moronic, conformist status quo, which was naturally conservative if not reactionary. To many people, "harmless entertainment" is highly suspect itself.

Moreover, as Freddie says, you have to keep in mind how much of this is an Internet phenomenon, where the mostly-text-based environment means that people have to explicitly spell out their character in the absence of the nonverbal cues we normally use. Using words, it's not easy to describe your essential sense of self in a way that you will feel does you justice. It's very easy to present a top-ten list of your likes and dislikes, though, and to use those as vehicles for concepts they were never designed to carry. I have no idea how to give you a written facsimile of what it is to know me in the context of daily life. I do know how to clearly tell you that I hate the fuck out of that goddamned band, you know, the one with that awful song, and man, what kind of asshole would actually choose to listen to that?

And thus it's only a couple short steps to arguing that it's your moral duty to shame people out of liking entertainment that will supposedly set them on the path to a lifetime of abusive relationships, or condemning a singer's moral character based on confirmation bias psychoanalysis of a few quotes and lyrics. Granted, Marcotte's idiocy is legendary and more tenacious than that of your average Internet pop-culture snob, but the sentiment is common. Some of the people Tauriq is talking about are simply being mean for the fun of it, but the true believers are certain that they can see the structural elements behind supposedly innocuous differences in taste, the broad, underlying patterns which determine the particular, individual scenario down to the details. What do tolerance and politeness matter when there are souls to save?

Ideology aside, there's also the basic fact that, for social animals, there is no clear distinction between individual and group identity. The individual is mostly a legal fiction (one I approve of!), whereas the imperative to maintain group cohesion is deeply ingrained. Sociopolitical hygiene requires constant monitoring for outbreaks of idiosyncratic behavior which could be threatening to the group's stability. Pace Sly and the Family Stone, it makes all the difference in the world for everyday people which group you're in. I suppose it's possible you may convince people that music is an empty signifier, that judging people for their taste is like an autoimmune disorder — an overreaction to harmless allergens. But there will always be something else to replace it. I mean, I'm down with Tauriq's message, but I'm a misanthropic hermit; you're not going to build a functioning society around people like me.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Signal Fade

FdB:

But for all that there is another, more honest way in which old-school blogging has become actually egalitarian, grimy and uncool in the way real egalitarianism is. I like blogging now because whatever vestigial coolness it once had was gone. So now it really is what it was once sold as: just a repository of words. And there is a real, quiet, unsexy kind of egalitarianism in just words, a very basic fairness that doesn’t function as a social mechanism even in an online space where everything is some message about who you’re with. I’ve written a few times for Medium, and somebody said to me, conspiratorially, at a party, “You know, Medium’s very uncool.” And I just had no idea! God, the freedom! Joy for me is living outside of signalling.

Likewise, until this morning, I had absolutely no idea that Line 6 amps were regarded as "the butt of gear jokes" by people who care about such things. But one commenter assures us that they are "one of THE most hated amps amongst the respected audiophile and musician community." Not just any audiophile and musician community; the respected one!

The last guy I worked on music with introduced me to Line 6 equipment. He worked as a manager of a music store, so he got to experiment with anything he wanted, and that was what he favored. I was instantly sold on their guitar pod, and being just a simple fellow who knows what he likes, I never saw any reason to keep up with the latest gear after that. Like so many good Germans, though, I was apparently allowing my blissful ignorance to provide cover for heinous crimes against audio.

As for blogging, barely a week has gone by over the last several years without seeing another epitaph for it. Even that pose has gotten old, though, so now we learn that the real "fascinating and challenging" writing is happening on a bunch of platforms I hadn't even heard of, with the Ouroboros apparently ready to start devouring Twitter now. Ah, well, I suppose being fashionable is its own punishment — what more could you wish on people like that than to be perpetually dissatisfied, always afraid of missing out or being left behind? Me, I'm content being a Brian Wilson "In My Room" sort of man-child, spending my time on the fringe, shielded by others' dismissive contempt.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Transparent Eyeball

Adam Gurri:

An optimist might be tempted to predict that increasing awareness of the cognitive biases literature would cause a proportional increase in humility. After all, the basic message of the literature is that we are systematically flawed in our perceptions of the world and in particular of other people, as well as ourselves. Of course, humility is not the reaction that the literature would actually predict—and indeed, what we see instead is simply a proportional increase in pundits arguing that people who disagree with them are blinded by biases. 

Yes, indeed, it's enough to make a fellow get all Schopenhauerian about it — there's no such thing as objectivity! There's only the puppetmaster, the omnipresent, ravenous Will which animates us all! But Jonathan Rauch also had some relevant advice to keep us from despair:

People often perform experiments and dive into research, not with wide-open minds, but because they want to vindicate their prejudices, or to "get that bastard." And, within reason, that's fine. It is important to see that the game of science allows you to feel sure you have the right answer — as long as you play by the rules, submitting yourself to criticism and staying in the game even when it goes against you. If you do that, you can be as dogmatic as you like, but the system will be undogmatic. A science writer I know once said of a famous biologist, "He's as dogmatic as they come, but he also knows the rules of the game as well as anyone." As long as that biologist sticks to the rules — claiming no final say, no personal authority — his pigheadedness serves society by making his opponents work harder, although he risks being isolated and passed by in the end.

The genius of liberal science lies not in doing away with dogma and prejudice, it lies in channeling dogma and prejudice — making them socially productive by pitting dogma against dogma and prejudice against prejudice. Science remains unbiased even though scientists are not... Biases and prejudices make us human and give sparkle to our minds. What is to be condemned is not bias but unchecked bias. The point of liberal science is not to be unprejudiced (which is impossible); the point is to recognize that your own bias might be wrong and to submit it to public checking by people who believe differently.

...For not only is wiping out bias and hate impossible in principle, in practice eliminating prejudice through central authority means eliminating all but one prejudice — that of whoever is most politically powerful.

Editorial note: that's the funny thing about Emerson's image of a transparent eyeball which sees all. In actuality, it would be blind. Perhaps there's a lesson there — an unbiased God's-eye view, rather than making us omniscient, would leave us unable to relate to a human perspective anymore, negating any advantage we hoped to use it for. We have no choice but to rely on each other in all our stunning fallibility.

Nullius In Verba

Jonathan Rauch:

"You're not black, or gay, or Hispanic, or whatever; you wouldn't understand." Only outsiders, only the oppressed, can understand the hurt, so only they can really comprehend the need for restrictions on debate. White males have no standing to protest controls, because they haven't felt the pain.

That argument deserves a special place in the hall of shame. For one thing, it assumes that only members of certified minority groups know what pain is like. Much worse, though: the "only-minorities-can-understand" argument is anti-intellectualism at its most rancid. It is the age-old tribalist notion that, as Popper put it, "we think with our blood," "with our national heritage," or "with our class." White supremacists will always say that blacks shouldn't be in charge because they "can't understand" (they're too stupid), anti-Semites will say the same about Jews (too corrupt), and now, shamefully, some American minority activists are saying something similar about "in-groups" (too pampered, too blind). They are denying the very possibility of liberal science, whose premise is that knowledge is available to everyone and comes through public inquiry and criticism, not from the color of your skin or your ethnic heritage or your social class. Accept their credo, and you have a race war or a class war where liberal inquiry once was.

One of liberal science's great social advances was to reject the idea that races or tribes have perspectives. Within any racial or ethnic group you care to name, perspectives are much more different than alike. Knowing a man's color or descent tells you nothing whatever about his "perspective"; nor does it make him a bit more or less credible as a player in the game of science. No personal authority is allowed — nor any racial authority. To insist, then, on including people of various races as representatives of their "racial perspective" or "ethnic viewpoint" is to flirt with the irrationalism of Nazi science, and its distinctions between "Jewish" and "Aryan" science.

It is also to give power to ambitious and often dangerously illiberal people. Gays and blacks or women or whoever are no more in universal agreement than anyone else. When activists insist on introducing the "gay perspective" or the "black perspective" or the "women's perspective" into a curriculum or a discussion, they really mean introducing the activists' own particular opinions. Those minority activists want power and seek it by claiming to speak for a race or a gender or an ethnicity. Accept their premises, and knowledge comes in colors. Public criticism across lines of race or blood becomes difficult or impossible.

This book was written in 1992. Almost a quarter-century later, you can't stroll around the twitosphere without being jostled every few minutes by some dipshit college kid hollering about privilege and trying to stuff a pamphlet in your hand. Ah, ploosa shawnje.

To clarify, when he uses the term "liberal science", he's referring mainly to two principles. One, no one gets the final say: you may claim that a statement is established as knowledge only if it can be debunked in principle, and only insofar as it withstands attempts to debunk it. And two, no one has personal authority: you may claim that a statement has been established as knowledge only insofar as the method used to check it gives the same result regardless of the identity of the checker, and regardless of the source of the statement. These principles apply just as much in everyday life as in the laboratory. To this, he contrasts the principle of fundamentalism, which he basically defines as those who know the truth should decide who is right, a principle first established by good ol' Plato. "If you believe that truth is obvious, then it is obvious who should settle differences of opinion: those who know the truth. This is the fundamentalist way: rule by the right-thinking, exclusion and (if necessary) elimination of the wrong-thinking." Later, he adds that another characteristic is the inability to entertain the notion that you might be wrong.

I'd excerpt the whole book if I could (it's only 160 or so pages; shouldn't take you that long to read). I chose this particular passage because of the way it illuminated something you still see today — the "minority activists" he mentions in the last paragraph are often the same species of privileged white folks they spend most of their time railing against. Like religious fundamentalists, they perfunctorily acknowledge their own status as sinners but claim to have been saved by the truth nonetheless, before proceeding to lecture the heretics all the more vociferously. When challenged, it becomes obvious that they still feel entitled to set themselves up in positions of power, where they have the final say in granting recognition and validation. Minority viewpoints are only valid insofar as they harmonize with that of the privileged whites in question. You have to grudgingly admire the slick maneuvering; it's almost like if members of the Tsar's inner circle had managed to reinvent themselves as Bolshevik leaders.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

So I Made My Proclamation to Control My Masturbation

Tasmin McMahon:

But the kind of definitive research that could explain what happens to the brain while watching porn simply hasn’t been done, says Dr. Richard Krueger, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University’s college of physicians and surgeons. Kruger helped revise the sexual disorders section of the latest edition of the psychiatric bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which doesn’t include sex or porn addiction due to lack of academic evidence that they exist. “The whole notion of what goes on in someone’s brain when they’re sexually excited is just starting to be evaluated,” he says.

He has little doubt porn addiction is real and will eventually garner enough attention to be recognized as a mental illness. But he’s skeptical it has the kind of universal neurological effects that some suggest. Other behaviours such as drinking alcohol or gambling are addictive to only a small minority of the people who engage in them—between one and 10 per cent, Krueger says. “I would argue for the same sort of hit rate with exposure to Internet pornography, that most people would do it and it won’t become a problem.”

It was inevitable that our longstanding hangups about sexuality would merge with our contemporary obsession, bordering on moral panic, over the modern world "rewiring" our brains. Thankfully, the above excerpt was included for balance. It's especially funny to hear the stress on how secular, liberal, and atheist many of the NoFap adherents are, even as they share their conversion stories about how giving up masturbation solved, with one stroke (no pun intended), all their relationship, professional, and motivational problems. That's nice, fellows, but like James Wolcott said once, the real test will come once the novelty has worn off.

Resigned to the Hands of Fate, We Await Her Impending Beck and Call

John Michael Greer:

I think, though, that what drives people to insist that there's got to be limitless energy resources because we want them so badly is a belief system so deeply ingrained in today's society, and so completely taken on faith, that we might as well call it a religion.

That belief system is faith in progress. Most people in the industrial world believe in progress the way that peasants in the Middle Ages believed in the wonder-working bones of the local saint. It's an unquestioned truism in contemporary culture that newer technologies are by definition better than older ones, that old beliefs are disproved by the mere passage of time, and that the future ahead of us will inevitably be like the present, but even more so. For all practical purposes, belief in progress is the established religion of the modern world, with its own mythology -- think of all the stories you got in school about brilliant thinkers single-handedly overturning the superstitious nonsense of the past -- and its own lab-coated priesthood.

Most people these days literally can't think outside the box of progress. That's why the only alternative to the endless continuation of business as usual that has any kind of public presence these days is apocalypse -- some sudden catastrophe gaudy enough to overwhelm the otherwise unstoppable force of progress. The faith in apocalypse is simply the flipside of the faith in progress -- instead of a bigger, better, brighter future, we get a bigger, better, brighter cataclysm. Suggest that the future ahead of us might not be either of those hackneyed stereotypes, and you can count on hearing the echoing bang of minds slamming shut.

Not so sure about all the pagan/occult trappings, but I can certainly agree with the above, at least. Hmm? Did you want to add something, Ronald Wright?

We in the lucky countries of the West now regard our two-century bubble of freedom and affluence as normal and inevitable; it has even been called the "end" of history, in both a temporal and technological sense. Yet this new order is an anomaly: the opposite of what usually happens as civilizations grow. Our age was bankrolled by the seizing of half a planet, extended by taking over most of the remaining half, and has been sustained by spending down new forms of natural capital, especially fossil fuels. In the New World, the West hit the biggest bonanza of all time. And there won't be another like it — not unless we find the civilized Martians of H.G. Wells, complete with vulnerability to our germs that undid them in his War of the Worlds.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Quietus Interruptus

Adam Plunkett:

There are any number of clear cases in which someone shouldn’t kill herself—and on the other hand many cases in which the barrier is more porous, such as with “end-of-life management.” Hecht makes it clear that she isn’t writing about the quadriplegic centenarians who live with constant  pain. Quoting Rousseau, Hecht asks, “Have you not learned that you could not take a step on earth without finding some duty to fulfill, and that every man is useful to humanity, by the very fact that he exists?” What about the people who’ll never move again, or the people not only useless to society in general but a serious drain on its resources? Hecht tells us again and again that “it is the nature of existence that ... happiness will return,” that “even depression is not permanent,” that “there is always hope for a better life in the future,” but what if there actually isn’t? These cases may be the exception, but isn’t it the nature of the suicidal mindset to think of her pain as exceptional, to think that her suffering outweighs the harm she’d do to others by killing herself? What could we say to her? How could we save her? Hecht’s muddled logic has not taught us philosophy, and, worse, it gives her readers the false impression that the problems are easy. They are anything but.

There was this big, thick tree in the middle of a curve on the road, just a couple miles from where I lived as a kid. I remember my mom telling me about an incident where some guy, after getting dumped by his girlfriend, told her, "This is the last time you'll see me alive," whereupon he drove down the road and accelerated into that tree. My mom grimaced and shook her head as she bemoaned why anyone would do something so stupid. Can't they see that no relationship is worth that? Having, on many occasions both harrowing and trivial, coldly contemplated under which circumstances I would consider ending my own life, I didn't feel fit to judge. True, we do severely underestimate our ability to adapt to changes we would never willingly choose to endure. That guy would almost certainly have gotten over her and probably even found a new girlfriend soon enough. But maybe it wasn't about his present or future happiness. Maybe he just wanted to hurt her worse than she'd hurt him — ♫ I want this blow to scar your eyes, I want this pain to go away♫ Maybe it was a frenzied, desperate attempt to regain control over his destabilized life by, paradoxically, ending it. Or maybe no amount of rational thought would have overcome the influence of his particular upbringing combined with the chemical surge of stress and fear coursing through his brain at that moment. As with anything, there's no counting the variables that went into producing that scenario, and no god's-eye perspective from which we could manipulate them. As much as I generally appreciate Hecht's output, I suspect a book of secular exhortations against suicide is, like my mother's rational certainty, just another way we attempt to cast a charm over fate, an amulet made of words, a hopeful talisman against the omnipresent darkness.

The Improvers of Mankind

Emrys Westacott:

Here we come up against an embarrassing paradox lying at the heart of so much literary criticism. According to the most common species of critical analysis, a major part of the significance and value of much great literature is moral; the works communicate moral insights, moral truths, and moral warnings. But if this were correct, one would expect those who read most–that is, professors of literature, high school English teachers, editors, publishers and authors—to exhibit at least some of the supposed benefits that extensive engagement with literary texts is supposed to bring. But who would ever suggest that this is the case? Are the people who have swallowed shelves loaded with Milton, Goethe, Austen, Tolstoy, James, Shaw, Proust, Kafka, Marquez, Solomon, and the rest typically kinder or more trustworthy than people who are unversed in literature?  Do they tend to be more insightful about people and relationships? Are they less prone to self-deception? Do they make better parents or partners? Are they typically less self-centered or selfish? On the nation's campuses, are English departments little oases of moral sensitivity and self-awareness? My experience has been that there is zero connection between how much a person has read, or how able they are to offer clever insights into literary texts, and their exhibiting any sort of enhanced moral awareness or commitment. The argument here is admittedly crude, but it still needs to be met. Anyone who thinks good literature is morally beneficial needs to persuade us that there is a causal connection between certain habits of reading and certain kinds of virtue.

...There is, in fact, a rather simple explanation of why no such causal connection exists. Most of us, most of the time, read literature for the same reason that we listen to music, watch films, visit art galleries, and so on: not for edification but for entertainment. This does not imply that we are shallow philistines compared to higher-browed aesthetes; the enjoyment we derive does not have to be simpleminded, thoughtless, or superficial. This is a crucial point. We can take pleasure in all sorts of things: in vivid sensations, aroused emotions, intellectual challenges, virtuosity, accuracy of representation, being surprised, being shocked, sheer beauty, subtlety, power, irony, wit, the capturing of a mood or feeling, cognitive insight, learning, enlightenment, moral deliberation and metaphysical reflection. But the value of the experience, and our motive for opening ourselves to it, lies overwhelmingly in the pleasure we experience rather than in any self-improvement we supposedly derive.

The first paragraph is important, because barely a week goes by without someone offering us a bite-sized, chocolate-coated, frosted sugar snack of an empty-calorie news morsel purporting to show that reading books justifies your narcissistic self-esteem (thankfully, there are usually fresh fruits and vegetables available as well). Lawd knows I've made the same point a few times myself. But I think the second paragraph brings up another point which deserves more recognition (one I may likewise have expounded upon). Westacott is right that we have a lingering sense of guilt over activities which are "merely" fun, amusing or enjoyable, and Lawd also knows I'm getting awfully tired of my inner sanctum of books and music being disturbed by people barging in, desperately looking for a place to escape the baleful glowering of John Calvin's ghost. If you truly have anything profound to offer, it will express itself whether you listen to synthpop or chamber music, whether you read modernist fiction or detective novels. Stop looking to surround yourself with signifiers of profundity and just embody it.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

All I Know Is That I Don't Understand; Am I a Boy, Girl, Woman or Man?

Laura Jane Grace:

MARTIN: Laura, these feelings that you were in the wrong body started a long time ago, when you were very young, right?

GRACE: My earliest memories are of dysphoria.

MARTIN: How did it take shape for you then?

GRACE: I vividly remember — I was probably about four years old, lived in Texas at the time — and there was a live Madonna concert being broadcast on TV. And I just remember feeling self-recognition: "That's me," you know? "That's me, and that's what I want to do." And, at the same time, realizing that there was a misalignment between recognizing yourself in someone and realizing, "But I'm a little boy." I don't think I ever heard the word "transgender" until I was way in my teens; the concept had never even dawned on me. But immediately, when you have those feelings, you feel shame. I'm not sure if I was taught that, necessarily, but it was an immediate thing: wanting to play with Barbie dolls when you're young, and knowing that your dad wants you to play with G.I. Joes. It was something that was immediately internalized.

I've always wondered about that "born in the wrong body" concept — is it just an clumsy metaphor, or do people truly believe it? This article by Robert Sapolsky adds a twist to the materialist perspective that "you" are indistinguishable from "your body":

In the 1990s, scientists began to compare these sexually dimorphic regions in the brains of transsexuals and the rest of humanity. Early work in this area required the examination of brains postmortem; recent studies use images of the living brain.

The results show that when individuals of Sex A—despite having the chromosomes, gonads and sex hormones of that sex—insist that they're really Sex B, the gender-affected parts of the brain typically more closely resemble what's usually seen with Sex B.

Consider an obscure brain region called the forceps minor (part of the corpus callosum, a mass of fibers that connect the brain's two hemispheres). On average, among nontranssexuals, the forceps minor of males contains parallel nerve fibers of higher density than in females. But the density in female-to-male transsexuals is equivalent to that in typical males.

As another example, the hypothalamus, a hormone-producing part of the brain, is activated in nontranssexual men by the scent of estrogen, but in women—and male-to-female transsexuals—by the scent of androgens, male-associated hormones.

Okay, but I still wonder, though — what does it mean to "feel" like a woman due to those brain differences? Does it result in a phantom-limb sort of sensation, where the brain discerns the presence of body parts that aren't actually there? Does it imply some sort of essential "feminine" way of experiencing the world? What would that be like, then? In Grace's anecdote, assuming it can be taken at face value, four years old would seem to be a little young to have already been indoctrinated with traditional notions of gender. What about Madonna would have triggered a feeling of recognition and identification, as opposed to any of the other women she would have already encountered? The part about favoring Barbies as opposed to G.I. Joes, as well as Grace's post-announcement choice to present herself in typically feminine ways (makeup, hair, clothing), presumably to make the "outer" match the "inner", seems to hint that such things aren't quite as socially constructed as a rival gender-studies perspective would claim.

As a lesbian friend said to me recently with a touch of weariness, "Trans is the new gay." Meaning, there's a lot more heat than light surrounding the subject right now, so it's probably best to step aside and just observe as the essentialists, social constructionists, progressives and conservatives all fight it out over what it all means.

Hapathy

Whitney Collins:

But this job was different from any I’d seen before. We wore jeans. We piped in Hall & Oates. We told a lot of jokes while cranking out a lot of assignments. The designers weren’t aggrieved by the concept of labor. Rather, they wore sneakers and Walkmans, they drove crappy little Hondas that rattled with old cans of Tab, and they all talked of things—were defined by things—other than the work before them. Music and friends, hiking and television, babies and dogs and tacos. I remember thinking: now this is what work should be like: something you don’t loathe or love, but like well enough.

Gen X had witnessed what its parents had done in the name of Mercedes or making ends meet (depending on economic class), and we pledged to set our sights on careers that we weren’t beholden to. We wanted jobs that helped us to live but weren’t life itself.

...So now, here we Gen Xers are, more or less in our 40s, with neither fame nor fortune, just the freedom that comes with what we do being quite different from who we are.

“Hey, Joe. How’s work?”

“Doesn’t suck.”

“That’s great.”

...Is “hapathy” a word? I don’t know. I just think the overarching theme for Gen Xers is one of happy apathy. The whole Buddhist approach to living teaches non-attachment, in that “attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering.”

Well, Generation X sure got its Zen on by watching marriages dissolve, the Berlin Wall fall, the stock market crash, a president get shot, the Space Shuttle explode, and Fonzie jump the shark. We grew up accepting that nothing was permanent—not the economy, not the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, not even the lead singer for Van Halen. To top it all off, all of our music has been ripped apart and remixed. All of our movies remade. Even Twinkies had to be resuscitated and I hear they taste different now. Because of this, we’ve learned not to get too attached. And because of this, we’re content.

Finally, some generational analysis I actually have use for.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

To Call for Hands of Above to Lean On Wouldn't be Good Enough for Me, No

Jerry Coyne:

The most common critique leveled at New Atheists is that we attack only puerile, fundamentalist forms of religion, and never engage with the “best” arguments of the faithful: those adumbrated by Sophisticated Theologians™. Never mind that most believers accept a view of God far more anthropomorphic than a simple “ground of being” or a deistic entity that made the world and then refused to engage with it further. If you want data to support this, at least for U.S. Christians, go here. Polls consistently show that around 70-80% of Americans believe in the existence of Heaven, Hell, Satan, and angels. And let’s not even discuss whether the majority of Muslims think of Allah as a “ground of being” rather than as a disembodied ruler who tells them how to behave. Anyone who claims that regular monotheists view God like Karen Armstrong’s Apophatic Entity or Tillich’s Ground of Being simply hasn’t gotten out enough.

Wow, this takes me back. Less than four years ago! Amazing how perspectives change in such a short time.

I do think this is a worthwhile point to hammer on, though — atheists, hell; why don't common believers come in for similar criticism from the bafflegabbers for perpetuating such crude caricatures of faith? I don't even mean reactionary fundamentalists; I mean, why don't they ever condescendingly lecture benevolent, good-deed-doing Christians on how they really can't claim to have had any meaningful experience of God until they've read this or that author or contemplated this or that concept? That's a rhetorical question, of course, but illuminating all the same.

Futilitarian

John Gray:

It's fair to say that Greene has no real comprehension of the depth of the difficulties facing utilitarian theory. Struggling with the concept of happiness, he ends up by defining it as any kind of positive experience. But what counts as positive for human beings depends to a considerable extent on the different ways in which they understand and live the good life. Greene might reply that such understandings are merely tribal. But it's unclear what counts as a "tribal morality". Is it the morality of a particular group, or are all moralities apart from utilitarianism tribal?

It can't be the fact that utilitarianism claims to include everyone that elevates it above tribalism, since universal religions and ideologies such as liberalism and Marxism do the same. What's special about utilitarianism is its claim to look at all these moralities from a vantage point outside any particular idea of the good. But why adopt this impossibly abstract perspective? It's true that people can be drawn into conflict by living according to divergent moral ideals, but these ideals give shape and meaning to their lives. Why should anyone renounce their way of life for the sake of a highly disputable theory about what might be rational in a hypothetical situation that might not be even be imaginable?

Haha, yeah. I'm just now starting on Moral Tribes. Like Kenan Malik, I figured this might be a book worth arguing with, but the reviews I've read of it don't raise my expectations any higher than that. Fortunately, my library had it, so at least I won't have to pay to be disappointed. As always, support your local library, folks.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Go-Between of Worlds


A hermit does not threaten human society, of which he is at most the living critique.

The vagabond steals and scrounges. The rebel-of-the-moment declaims on TV. The anarchist dreams of destroying the society in which he conceals himself. Today's hacker plots the collapse of virtual citadels in his bedroom. The anarchist tinkers with his bombs in saloons, while the hacker arms his programs at his computer, but both need the society they deplore and target for its destruction — which is their raison d'être.

The hermit stays off to one side in polite refusal, like a guest who, with a gentle gesture, declines the proffered dish. If society disappeared, the hermit would go on living as a hermit. Those in revolt against society, however, would find themselves technically out of work. The hermit does not oppose, but espouses a way of life. He seeks not to denounce a lie, but to find a truth. He is physically inoffensive and is tolerated as if he belonged to an intermediate order, a caste halfway between barbarians and civilized people. The chivalrous hero of the twelfth-century epic poem Yvain, the Knight with the Lion, driven mad by the loss of his lady love, wanders naked in a forest until he is taken in and cared for by a hermit, who restores his reason and leads him back to civilization. The hermit: a passeur, a go-between of worlds.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

No, Socrates, No


The results of the study: introspection is not reliable. When we soul-search, we contrive the findings.

The belief that reflection leads to truth or accuracy is called the introspection illusion. This is more than sophistry. Because we are so confident of our beliefs, we experience three reactions when someone fails to share our views. Response 1: Assumption of ignorance. The other party clearly lacks the necessary information. If he knew what you knew, he would be of the same opinion. Reaction 2: Assumption of idiocy. The other person has the necessary information, but his mind is underdeveloped. He cannot draw the obvious conclusions. In other words, he's a moron. Response 3: Assumption of malice. Your counterpart has the necessary information — he even understands the debate — but he is deliberately confrontational. He has evil intentions. This is how many religious leaders and followers treat disbelievers: if they don't agree, they must be servants of the devil!

In conclusion: nothing is more convincing than your own beliefs. We believe that introspection unearths genuine self-knowledge. Unfortunately, introspection is, in large part, fabrication posing two dangers: first, the introspection illusion creates inaccurate predictions of future mental states. Trust your internal observations too much and for too long, and you might be in for a very rude awakening. Second, we believe that our introspections are more reliable than those of others, which creates an illusion of superiority. Remedy: be all the more critical with yourself. Regard your internal observations with the same scepticism as claims from some random person. Become your own toughest critic.

Via Negativa


The Pope asked Michelangelo: 'Tell me the secret of your genius. How have you created the statue of David, the masterpiece of all masterpieces?' Michelangelo's answer: 'It's simple. I removed everything that is not David.'

Let's be honest. We don't know for sure what makes us successful. We can't pinpoint exactly what makes us happy. But we know with certainty what destroys success or happiness. This realisation, as simple as it is, is fundamental: Negative knowledge (what not to do) is much more potent than positive knowledge (what to do).

Thinking more clearly and acting more shrewdly means adopting Michelangelo's method: don't focus on David. Instead, focus on everything that is not David and chisel it away. In our case: eliminate all errors and better thinking will follow.

The Greeks, Romans and medieval thinkers had a term for this approach: via negativa. Literally the negative path, the path of renunciation, of exclusion, of reduction. Theologians were the first to tread the via negativa: we cannot say what God is, we can only say what God is not. Applied to the present day: we cannot say what brings us success. We can pin down only what blocks or obliterates success. Eliminate the downside, the thinking errors, and the upside will take care of itself. This is all we need to know.

News You Can Lose


We are incredibly well informed yet we know incredibly little. Why? Because two centuries ago, we invented a toxic form of knowledge called 'news'. News is to the mind what sugar is to the body: appetising, easy to digest — and highly destructive in the long run.

...In the past twelve months, you have probably consumed about 10,000 news snippets — perhaps as many as thirty per day. Be very honest: name one of them, just one, that helped you make a better decision — for your life, your career or your business —compared with not having this piece of news.

...I would predict that turning your back on news will benefit you as much as purging any of the other ninety-eight flaws we have covered in this book. Kick the habit — completely. Instead, read long background articles and books. Yes, nothing beats books for understanding the world.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Devils Citing Scripture

David Dennis:

To understand how Nazis employed culture to define and promote their broadest ambitions, I looked to German mass media, in particular the main Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, whose cultural pages I examined for the years 1920 to 1945. While the Nazi co-optation of many great figures in the Western intellectual tradition during these eventful years proves revealing, one need look no further than the party’s claim on Friedrich Nietzsche to see how culture became entwined in the discourse of politics and war in the pages of Hitler’s foremost propaganda outlet.

Fitting Nietzsche’s ideas into a single worldview was no simple matter, but this was precisely the mission of the Völkischer Beobachter’s editors and writers: to make even complex ideas such as Nietzsche’s appear to coordinate with the main tenets of Nazism. Looking into the shifting terms with which the daily newspaper presented Nietzsche helps us toward understanding how the Nazi party attempted to place his biography and writings—along with the tradition of Kultur as a whole—at the service of the Nazi outlook.

Rationalization is truly an amazing thing.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

And I am Fascinated by the Spiritual Man, I'm Humbled by His Humble Nature

Steven Barrie-Anthony:

Smart politicians and media observers will pay attention to this trend. There is the potential for spiritual voters to exert major influence this year and in 2016.

...This is not an impassable dilemma. With a third of young adults checking the “no religion” box, we can’t afford to let it be. For politicians, it may be a major opportunity, and for more than empty posturing. If the social project for spiritual people is to identify forms of community and civic participation with which they feel at home, then politicians have the opportunity to be partners from the inside, to help to shape these community and civic forms.

This includes, first and foremost, strategies of listening—polling, interviewing, researching—to understand not just how spiritual people vote but also the ways in which their relationships with the sacred open out into their civil involvements and political decisions. (Journalists and scholars need to become better listeners, too.)

Your mission — should you choose to accept it — is to lavish attention on these SNRs, make them aware of their heightened importance, and get them to open up and talk about themselves. Good luck — you're going to need it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Bastard-Coated Bastards with Bastard Filling

Peter Singer:

If there is any “ambiguity” about Stalin’s moral record, it may be because communism strikes a chord with some of our nobler impulses, seeking equality for all and an end to poverty. No such universal aspiration can be found in Nazism, which, even on its face, was not concerned about what was good for all, but about what was good for one supposed racial group, and which was clearly motivated by hatred and contempt for other ethnic groups.

But communism under Stalin was the opposite of egalitarian, for it gave absolute power to a few, and denied all rights to the many. Those who defend Stalin’s reputation credit him with lifting millions out of poverty; but millions could have been lifted out of poverty without murdering and incarcerating millions more.

Making conversation during a road trip recently, my dad asked me why Hitler was seen as more of a symbol of absolute evil than comparable people like Stalin. It's a pop-culture thought experiment, of course, not a serious historical question up for objective analysis. You either share the vague impression behind the premise or you don't. As for me, I do — I think there's clearly still a large remnant of revolutionary chic among the young and stupid (to say nothing of the cynical and stupid in academia), and I'm certain that a mainstream webzine for progressive airheads like Salon would never run a gushing interview with a celebrity charlatan-intellectual who even hinted at an affinity for Nazi leaders, let alone boasted of one. Anyway, anecdotal observations aside, my answer was that, one, Hitler lost, and it's true what they say about the authors of history books. Had he won and presided over a relatively stable German empire across Eurasia, maybe we'd have a more nuanced view of him. After all, in the early part of the 20th century, race-based pseudoscience and Social Darwinism were hardly the exclusive property of the political right; many prominent progressives were also supporters of eugenics. And Hitler was famously inspired by the eugenics movement in the U.S. (as well as the thoroughness with which it wiped out its indigenous population). If you want to be slightly cynical about it, you could say that condemning Nazism as irredeemably, indisputably rotten from the start due to its racial obsession is probably a way of coping with our own cultural guilt via projection.

Secondly, I said, riffing off of Isaiah Berlin, ever since the Enlightenment, there's been a strong belief among progressive intellectuals that human society can be comprehended and controlled by means of the same sort of scientific rationality that made such stunning advances in taming the natural world. Surely there must be a Newton of social science who can formulate the simple, clear laws by which we can reorder society and put an end to injustice and unfairness! As you can easily enough find, a significant number of people still go through incredible contortions to make Marx fit the bill, but aside from those true believers, everyone else is still waiting in vain for such a savior. There seems to be a stubborn reluctance to accept that a theory that looks so good on paper could keep going wrong when implemented in reality. Many intellectuals still harbor a No True Scotsman-like belief that maybe just maybe if we gave it one more try, we could somehow fix the bug — not a feature, damn it! — the bug that, from the Jacobins to the DPRK, keeps producing similar results.

The comments to the article are pretty much as expected; one eyebrow-raising bit is Singer replying to a comment wondering why he didn't include Mao in this comparison by saying that most of Mao's victims were killed by his "egotistical and economic lunacy" rather than a deliberate campaign of annihilation. I have to admit that's a fine distinction I wouldn't have made myself; perhaps Mao is simply history's worst manslaughterer, then? At any rate, there's also the usual counter-charges that colonialism and capitalism are just as bloody-handed and therefore unfit to judge. Possibly so, but again, the Enlightenment-derived ideologies were supposed to be the moral, humane improvement upon the status quo, so forgive me for not being impressed by a measly tu quoque defense. I can resignedly accept the reasoning that liberal democracies, whatever their histories, are the best we can do in an imperfect world; I'm much more disturbed by the lingering faith in radical ideology, the willingness of so many to be impressed by empty rhetoric, to believe that this time, utopia is surely just up ahead, right around the next mountain of corpses.

Of course, this is all just a parlor game. Powerful people are all dangerous, rotten bastards, regardless of the motivations and rationalizations. I think we can agree on that much.

You Don't Know My Life

Freddie deBoer:

The sad thing is that Munroe has brought up, in this comic, a topic that is very important to me: the sad tendency of people to be so threatened by the possibility of judgment, they seek to deny even the implied judgment of alternate behaviors. The internet is a set of communicative technologies that have the capacity to reveal the full flower of human diversity to us, but which are very often used in the service of conformity. That’s why “You’re Doing It Wrong” is an internet trope, because the very thought of different people behaving in different ways came to be seen as threatening. In a cultural age dominated by insecurity, to see other people living lives that are different than our own is to invite the possibility that ours could be perceived as less worthy. So preemption becomes essential; the behavior of others becomes not different but wrong, even ridiculous. That’s how you end up with an online world filled with essays about how, say, your choice of coffee grinder reveals your character.

Anticipated reproach, you mean? The social web has certainly brought about a "revillaging" effect, familiar to those of us who lament, like Michael Corleone, that just when we thought we'd escaped the stultifying conformity of small-town life, they pulled us back in. But this is hardly a new phenomenon; it's as old as homo sapiens itself. We've always been insecure social animals with a strong drive to monitor and regulate the behavior of our fellows. That's our default state.

Ask any introvert — we've had to wearily navigate the intricacies of other people's insecurities all our lives. "Thanks, but I really just want to go home and read some more of my book" is never going to be accepted as a valid, non-rude excuse to opt out of an invitation. People with conventional, mainstream preferences and habits will always take it as a snub when someone declines to join them, no matter how politely or apologetically. You don't want to come over/go out together? What's wrong with me? Don't you like me? You think you're better than me or something?

It's been my experience that the sort of cosmopolitan self-assuredness, if you want to call it that, necessary to not feel implicitly judged when confronted with people who think and act differently is something people have to grow into, and many never do. Perhaps we can get all Hegelian about it and suggest that there's a sort of dialectical process to it: first, you're a typical herd animal; then, you join some sort of subculture out of rebellion, only to find that such groups tend to ultimately be even more conformist than the culture they're rebelling against; and then, finally, you just learn to enjoy what you like and quit worrying about what everyone else says and does.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

It's Even Worse Than It Appears, But It's All Right

Alan Weisman:

The notion of husbanding the human race as though we were game or livestock horrifies on multiple levels — moral, religious, and philosophical, not to mention legal. To suggest applying principles of wildlife management to our own species conjures abominations such as humans being culled like deer. Although we famously aren't good at remembering history, attempts at thinning our ranks — otherwise known as genocide — are among our most indelible historical memories.

Yet although we strive for the heavens, as Pascal noted, we are still mammals who, like all other earthly creatures, require food and water — resources that we are now outstripping. Our seafood is down to dregs scraped from the ocean floor; our soils on chemical life support; our rivers fouled and drained. We squeeze and shatter rocks, mine frigid seas, and split atoms in risky places because easily harvested fuels are nearly gone. Like Kaibab deer, every species in the history of biology that outgrows its resource base suffers a population crash — a crash sometimes fatal to the entire species. In a world now stretched to the brink, today we all live in a parkland, not a boundless wilderness. To survive and continue the legacy of our species, we must adjust accordingly.

Inevitably — and, we must hope, humanely and nonviolently — that means gradually bringing our numbers down. The alternative is letting nature — the new nature we've inadvertently created in our own image — do that for us.

It's a fascinating and frightening book; thank goodness the only kids I've ever wanted to have are the canine kind. Still, after reading this, I think I'll go get a second vasectomy just to be safe. Yeah, go ahead, doc, tie everything off even tighter, please.

The only criticism I have is that he doesn't call for a reconsideration of the ethics of cannibalism, but I bet we'll get there sometime this century.

Blue Winter

Winter uses all the blues there are.
One shade of blue for water, one for ice,
Another blue for shadows over snow.
The clear or cloudy sky uses blue twice-
Both different blues. And hills row after row
Are colored blue according to how far.
You know the bluejay’s double-blur device
Shows best when there are no green leaves to show.
And Sirius is a winterbluegreen star.

— Robert Francis

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Branches of Evil

Karl Popper:

It is the sweep of Utopianism, its attempt to deal with society as a whole, leaving no stone unturned. It is the conviction that one has to go to the very root of the social evil, that nothing short of a complete eradication of the offending social system will do if we wish to "bring any decency into the world" (as Du Gard says). It is, in short, its uncompromising radicalism...Both Plato and Marx are dreaming of the apocalyptic revolution which will radically transfigure the whole social world.

This sweep, this extreme radicalism of the Platonic approach (and of the Marxian as well) is, I believe, connected with its aestheticism, i.e. with the desire to build a world which is not only a little better and more rational than ours, but which is free from all ugliness: not a crazy quilt, and old garment badly patched, but an entirely new gown, a really beautiful new world. This aestheticism is a very understandable attitude; in fact, I believe most of us suffer a little from such dreams of perfection. But this aesthetic enthusiasm becomes valuable only if it is bridled by reason, by a feeling of responsibility, and by a humanitarian urge to help. Otherwise it is a dangerous enthusiasm, liable to develop into a form of neurosis and hysteria.

Thoreau famously lamented that there were a thousand people hacking at the branches of evil for every one striking at the root, and in this, as in so many other instances, he showed a talent for crafting vivid metaphors which disguised mistaken ideas. Our minds are pattern-seeking machines, and they love simplicity and clarity. The idea that there is such a thing as a "root" of evil is almost irresistibly perfect. But to continue with the gardening imagery, the best we can ever hope to do is prune the branches. Social ills are rarely cooperative enough to have one simple cause for us to target. Luckily, though, we have the Internet now, where those "dangerous enthusiasms" tend to get safely channeled into ranting like an adolescent who just discovered that his parents weren't kidding when they told him that life is unfair.

Where's Your Crown, King Nothing?

Karl Popper:

I think we must face the fact that behind the sovereignty of the philosopher king stands the quest for power. The beautiful portrait of the sovereign is a self-portrait. When we have recovered from the shock of this finding, we may look anew at the awe-inspiring portrait; and if we can fortify ourselves with a small dose of Socrates' irony then we may cease to find it so terrifying. We may begin to discern its human, indeed, its only too human features. We may even begin to feel a little sorry for Plato, who had to be satisfied with establishing the first professorship, instead of the first kingship, of philosophy; who could never realize his dream, the kingly Idea which he had formed after his own image.

...What a monument of human smallness is this idea of the philosopher king. What a contrast between it and the simplicity and humaneness of Socrates, who warned the statesman against the danger of being dazzled by his own power, excellence, and wisdom, and who tried to teach him what matters most — that we are all frail human beings. What a decline from this world of irony and reason and truthfulness down to Plato's kingdom of the sage whose magical powers raise him high above ordinary men; although not quite high enough to forgo the use of lies, or to neglect the sorry trade of every shaman — the selling of spells, of breeding spells, in exchange for power over his fellow-men.

I've opined many times here on the exact degree of Plato's philosophical shitfulness, but not having read his Republic, I was unaware of the degree to which he was quite the proto-totalitarian bastard as well. Popper has set me straight on that matter.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Femenstein's Monster

Kyria Abrahams:

Jezebel plays upon the worst female stereotype: that of the gossipy, shrill, cliquish, therapy-tethered, cast of Girls-style spoiled brat. Jezebel writers act the way misogynistic men mistakenly believe all women act, with a stick up their ass and their nose in an iPhone. This website, and sites like them, have single-handedly set back badass chicks faster than Sleater Kinney in a tractor beam.

...Jezebel is a gossip rag run by snarling, hypocritical shrews. They do not care about women, they care about themselves. So why are we paying attention to them? Why are we sharing their links? 

Why does NPR commend Jezebel for “jolly feminist cultural commentary”? Why is Lindy West winning awards for Women’s Media while simultaneously acting as the self-appointed thought police for standup comedy? Is this kind of tabloid feminism that young women should aspire to?

...Jezebel writers, what do you do for the world? Do you offer positive things? Do you write, draw, sing, run, dance? Since you are feminists, do you take advantage of anything that feminism has actually given women the freedom to do? Or do you just sit around pointing fingers and drumming up outrage for impressionable college girls?

You call yourselves feminists but you’re just feminine. You’re everything cliched and stereotypical about women the rest of us have worked so hard to get out from under. If Jezebel’s brand of feminism were a corporeal woman, she would be pulling on her chewing gum and driving daddy’s car too slowly in the passing lane, her right blinker permanently on, as she drives on and on and on, oblivious to the accidents taking place behind her.

She's absolutely right. Nonetheless, you can safely bet that she will still be dismissed as either a gender traitor trying to flatter misogynist men for her own gain, or a misguided naïf who has unfortunately internalized society's institutionalized misogyny, thus further proving the insidious reach and power of patriarchy, which conveniently enough, you can help combat by clicking on another Jezebel article. Funny how that works.

And since there can never be such a thing as too much scorn for the putrid whores that comprise Gawker Media, this blistering attack on another outpost of the empire is worth reading as well.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Look at Those Around You, Find Your Better Way

Greg Lukianoff:

Infotopia, however, also emphasizes something that might seem to be bad news for free speech advocates: much research shows that group deliberation (that is, discussion of topics among groups) often does not do a very good job of making opinions better or more accurate. Group deliberation sometimes amplifies a particularly vocal member's incorrect opinions, and it often results in group polarization. Several famous studies have shown that when you bring together like-minded people and have them discuss a topic, they tend to become even more extreme in their opinions. It has been demonstrated that when a group of mixed viewpoints is broken into liberal and conservative groups that are then left to talk among themselves, the liberals emerge decidedly more liberal, and the same happens to conservatives, even when the individuals in the larger group had initially been much closer to agreement on the issues discussed.

...When groups start to grow cohesive, they often discourage and even silence dissenting voices or ones with contrary, but potentially important, information. The result is what another social scientist, Irving Janis, famously dubbed "groupthink", which is lethal to good decision making since it blinds us to holes in our logic, or to potential bad consequences of our decisions...Groupthink can result from forces as subtle as social pressure, an emphasis on group cohesion, the perception of someone's status, or even who speaks first. The techniques that Sunstein recommends to reduce or eliminate these effects are precisely the remedies to uncritical certainty. They include appointing a devil's advocate with the explicit role of taking the other side of any position, breaking up a group into opposing teams, and stressing critical thinking as a goal of greater importance than group cohesion.

My staunchly conservative father told me last month that he would vote for Elizabeth Warren if she were to run for President. I thought I must have misheard him, but no, he was serious. I'm not sure what the tipping point may have been, but apparently even he feels that some serious reform is necessary, partisan sympathies be damned.

There's been plenty of studies in recent years bemoaning the fact that the web, contrary to those rosy early prognostications, has turned out to make it easier than ever for people to seclude themselves in echo chambers where they never have to suffer a discouraging word against any of their cherished beliefs, and they never have to encounter a dangerous outsider except in the safe form of caricature. I don't remember where it was, but just the other day, in fact, I read about another such study claiming that higher levels of education correlated strongly with ideological conformity in one's social circle. Perhaps that's a phenomenon related to what Noam Chomsky has long said about the self-indoctrination abilities of intellectuals — basically, that education and smarts often only make people more skilled at tortured rationalization, whereas the vulgar, unwashed masses are too unsophisticated to know that it's gauche to loudly address bullshit by its proper name.

Formerly, I would have considered opinions like my dad's (or like those of that friend of mine) less interesting because of their apparent inconsistency. That is, in my more overtly rationalistic days, I thought it was self-evident that certain sociopolitical premises led inexorably toward certain conclusions. People who didn't seem to make enough effort to round off the illogical edges of their ideologies, well, what could you do with them? A single, irregular data point was useless for broader analysis. I wanted to think about median characteristics, not outliers. And so I found myself reading blogs that were more or less interchangeable in their opinions and choices of topics, where anyone who bothered to chime in to the conversation already agreed with the dominant point of view, thus reinforcing the subliminal perception that "everybody" thought this way.

I know how to paint in broad strokes if I want to. Now, I'm more interested in going back over things with an eye for seemingly insignificant details, wondering what I might have missed in my desire for intellectual cohesion and symmetry.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Stealing Back Mystery

Tom Valcanis interviewing a Nameless Ghoul:

When you guys are out on stage doing your black ritual thing, we could imagine Steve Buscemi under those cloaks if we so desired. But is that the point? The man underneath makes no difference?

We'd like to think so. [pauses for thought] We know that there are a lot of things that we set out early on for this band. Now, five years later, these goals feel very naive and unrealistic. We never considered the concept of Ghost. It's kind of paradoxical when we're trying to be a successful band and trying to remain anonymous. The idea was to have the experience be as intense as possible for people watching. The anonymity thing was just a bonus.

Black metal for instance has a discount store theatre to it, with costumes and stage names and what have you. You guys take the Alice Cooper shocking-apron-wearing-mothers-into-fainting thing beyond the limit. Where does the theatre come from in your musical upbringing?

Ghost derives from a very fanboy point of view. It's a combination of all those big dinosaur rock phenomenons. It comes from a profound fascination with underground death and black metal. Thrash metal, too. The darker elements of Ghost comes from the early ‘90s black metal scene. We picked up a lot of those aesthetics. I was brought up in that underground. The clandestine aspect comes from bands like Mayhem or Sarcophago or say, Devil Doll.

Is that what Ghost is all about? Stealing back mystery from the Internet?

I think so. All of those pre-internet elements coloured a lot of my thinking. Back then you couldn't find anything about these bands. You may have seen four pictures of them. You knew very little about them. That experience and that background is how I want people to regard Ghost. We don't want Ghost to be obvious.

I love that about them, the theatricality and the mysteriousness (and it's always heartening to see artists who scorn the idea of compulsive attention-seeking and living on permanent display). I only wish their music didn't seem merely average to me. Maybe they'll grow on me if I try hard enough.

Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I don't have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don't believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don't even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don't know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.

I'm also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can't guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not.

Having mocked him before over his XKCD-style agnosticism, I have to give credit where due. It's nice to see someone thinking out loud, accepting uncertainty, and revisiting convictions.

I have a very vivid memory of a similar, well, conversion, if you want to call it that. Memorial Day, 1996. I had recently finished reading a book about World War 2; I'm mostly but not absolutely sure it was Alan Bullock's Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. Whatever the case, the sheer immensity of the horror and suffering across Europe as described in the book had deeply impressed itself on me, enough so that I entered into a period of, if not genuine depression, certainly existential malaise. I had never been a religious believer, but I had grown up surrounded by enough of the typical spiritual-not-religious worldview to have unthinkingly accepted some sort of vague "purpose" to it all, some "higher truth", some way in which it all came out in the wash eventually. Soundgarden's Down On The Upside had just been released days earlier, and I recall listening to the song "Applebite" on repeat for hours that morning, morbidly transfixed by the line "Grow and decay, grow and decay/it's only forever." The photo on the cover of the New York Times that morning was a black-and-white shot of two young blond girls in front of their home waving an American flag, which, along with the song, served as some sort of meditative anchor for all my brooding, nihilistic thoughts about the impossibility of any sort of cosmic meaning or justice in a universe that could passively observe the worst of what humans were capable of.

There was no epiphany that brought an end to it; over the next few years, I just eventually regained my psychological equilibrium, grew into the truth of that realization and wore it comfortably. My ability to believe in any sort of benevolent big scheme of things had been traumatized. I would eventually get to a point where I could relinquish it willingly, rather than feeling like it had been brutally stripped from me. I had to clearly see the utter lack of need for spiritual or religious beliefs, rather than have them argued or beaten out of me. For me, that came about through reading Alan Watts, but that's a whole 'nother story.