Friday, February 28, 2014

Hicks Cliques

Rob Lyons:

Wednesday marked the twentieth anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks. More than just about any other comedian, Hicks retains a cult – even cultish – following, as the quote above from a Guardian reader testifies. The trouble was that far from being a purveyor of The Truth (whatever the hell that is), Hicks was preaching to the prejudices of his audience, delivering sarcastic commonplaces while being, for the most part, resolutely unfunny.

Of course, humour really is a matter of taste. What one person thinks is hilarious may leave another person cold. (The continued popularity of Miranda Hart is a case in point, in my humble opinion.) Yet as one commentator has noted, fans of Hicks tend not to mention how funny he was. They like to talk about how he cut through the ‘bullshit’ to tell it how it was, barely bothering with humour. That’s because he was, for the most part, a ranting barroom bore.

His acts were just one angry lecture about the stupidity of just about everything: Christians, rednecks, corporations, single mothers, Republicans.

Bill Hicks was God. As in, a gratuitously belligerent asshole whose tantrums have been set down as Scripture by his fanatical followers.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Measurement of All Things

Evgeny Morozov:

In his idiosyncratic way, Nietzsche offered a piercing critique of information reductionism, the naïve belief so popular with the Silicon Valley crowd that more information is always better. That one can collect and muster more measurements of a given phenomenon, Nietzsche reasoned, does not imply progress, for there may be other, better ways of talking about that phenomenon that do not easily lend themselves to quantitative measurements.

...Most perceptively, Nietzsche understood that quantifiable information might be nothing but low-hanging fruit that is easy to pick but often thwarts more ambitious, more sustained efforts at understanding.

...Attempts at quantification are quite often attempts at simplification — and simplification is anything but apolitical, especially when competing interpretations of a problem are discarded in favor of something measurable and manageable.

As if on cue, it's apparently that time of year again. And that's the lesson poor Lynn Shepherd needs to learn: universalize, don't personalize. Express your jealous grievances in the impersonal, neutral idiom of quantification. People who obsess over the VIDA count are effectively saying that women, as a group, aren't getting enough of the literary spotlight, so men, as a group, should step aside or be nudged aside by the gatekeepers at prominent literary outlets. Shepherd, though, made it personal, saying that she was going to get less attention because of people like J.K Rowling infringing on "her" turf, so Rowling should fuck off back to "children's fiction". Mmm, mmm, mmm. See the difference? Same sentiment, but the latter just sounds catty and nasty. Gotta learn to finesse that P.R.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Call Baiting

Steve Heisler:

"[The Jerky Boys] are perennially hilarious," reasons MacFarlane. "They don't sound like they were recorded years ago. It's not even really about the shock value, you want to hear what they're going to say next. Brennan could release another album of those calls and people would still eat them up."

Meh. Innovators are due a certain respect, but I never found the Jerky Boys all that funny. Prank calls with soundboards, though, develop the surreal aspect of the joke to its full potential. Having a limited number of preprogrammed responses to use leads to more bizarre non-sequiturs, which only increases the victim's frustration and adds to the chaotic absurdity. It's especially funny to hear an unwitting victim furiously arguing with a recording of hizzorher own voice.

After Some Kind of Fountain of Truth

Joanna Williams:

With the recent death of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, it is time to assess the impact of cultural studies on higher education. The Australian academic Toby Miller, a leading light in cultural studies, argues his subject has had a profound impact ‘on a host of disciplines’ and that it ‘accretes various tendencies that are splintering the human sciences: Marxism, feminism, queer theory, and the postcolonial.’

...Furthermore, cultural studies was built on the assumption that all content is political, that knowledge is reducible, as Michael Young describes it in Bringing Knowledge Back In, to the experiences of knowers and ultimately to an ideological expression of power relations. As such, Hall reportedly ‘half-joked’ to friends that ‘his cultural studies project was politics by other means’.

Toby Miller describes this commitment to exposing power structures for ‘progressive social change’ as being ‘animated by a desire to reveal and transform those who control the means of communication and culture’. This belies any pretence to truth or objectivity, values previously fundamental to the academic enterprise. Instead, as Young says of the sociology of education in the 1960s and 1970s, the truth was known in advance, it lay in the link between power and knowledge, and the aim of academics was to show how this truth manifested itself. Hall claimed his aim was ‘to take the whole system of knowledge itself [and] attempt to put it at the service of some other project’. Certainly it is the case that a suspicion of truth claims and an assumption that knowledge is political is now endemic throughout humanities and social-science departments.

This was a very interesting and useful article in my autodidactic quest to figure out how all these progressivist nesting dolls fit together. Now, if only someone could put it all in a flow chart to make it even easier...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Death Rehearsal


I saw my old car off to the scrapyard after it finally died last week. That mileage is all on the original engine. Allow me to get all old-folksy for a moment and aver that they don't make 'em like that any more, no sir.

There's a lot of things I won't miss about it. As you can imagine, a car that's traveled that much isn't the most comfortable ride anymore. I hate bucket seats as a rule, especially since it takes more effort to haul my rheumatic joints up and out of them. Stickshifts are just an unnecessary pain in the ass. Cars in general never seem to have enough room to suit me, and I'm a pretty average-sized fellow, not particularly tall or wide. The rear windows wouldn't go up all the way, leaving about a half-inch open. The automatic window motors would have cost over $200 apiece, though, whereas a strip of black duct tape across the opening only cost a couple dollars — easy choice. The glovebox latch had first broken loose, then mysteriously vanished, so it was held slightly ajar with a velcro strip. The AC stopped working a long time ago and would have needed to be completely replaced to bring it up to current standards anyway, but I never wanted to go to that much expense — getting from point A to B has always been my main concern. Still, the fan only blew hot air no matter how far the dial was turned toward the blue. A dark-colored car with hot air leaking out of the vents on an August day in the South — it was like riding around in a four-wheeled toaster.

Perhaps I'm just inclined to be a little bit mournful today anyway, but despite those gripes, I did feel genuinely sad to see it go. I've heard it said in many ways, and I agree, that significant changes in life make us a bit uneasy because they remind us of the inevitability of the most significant change of all. However easy it will be to replace my means of transportation as opposed to a loved one, there's still a noticeable hole in my routine. Another chapter, however banal, has been brought to a close. Watching it rise onto the back of the tow truck was like plucking a string on a web, sending vibrations through all sorts of dormant memories — the places it had been, the passengers it had carried, and all the myriad associations attached to each. No, I won't really miss the car, but I will take a moment to rue the separation.

Monday, February 24, 2014

And the Fetish Ran Away With the Spoons

Jason Walsh:

So-called spoonies are people who identify as suffering from chronic fatigue as a result of illness. I’m sorry that sentence is so artless, but that is really what this is about: identifying. Of course this all happens on Facebook, Tumblr and, most of all, Twitter.

The term originates in a blog post by lupus sufferer Christine Miserandino, where she wrote of how she, sat in a café, explained her finite energy to a friend using cutlery from the surrounding tables: with each spoon representing a finite amount of energy, one taken away for a simple task, such as washing or dressing, that would scarcely be a burden to a well person. This is called “spoon theory”. Really.

...The construction of apparently positive identities around illnesses, which are after all malfunctions, is very dangerous road to travel down. There is no moral judgement to be passed on a person suffering an illness. No chronically ill person should be mocked or mistreated for being sick; no disabled person should be treated as a lesser being; no elderly person should be dismissed. But to define oneself by an illness is to transform oneself from a subject into an object. A person defined by something that happened to them, rather than by what they do, is a person who has lost their agency.

When I first heard of this, I kept asking for it to be explained again to me, sure I must have been missing something. Eventually I realized that the main reason for its invocation was not to clarify any nuance but to serve as in-group code. Identity reinforcement. I refuse to dignify it with the name "theory", though. It's a metaphor, damn it, and not a particularly profound one at that; nothing more, nothing less.

And maybe it's the Nietzschean in me, but I do find it repugnant to define oneself through negativity like that.

The Noise of the Gravediggers Who Are Burying God

Adam Gopnik:

A history of modern atheism—what did Voltaire say to Diderot? what did Comte mean to Mill? who was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, anyway?—would be nice to have. The British popular historian Peter Watson’s “The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God” (Simon & Schuster) could have been that book, but it isn’t. Beginning with Nietzsche’s 1882 pronouncement that the big guy had passed and man was now out on the “open sea” of uncertainty, the book is instead an omnium-gatherum of the life and work of every modern artist or philosopher who was unsettled or provoked by the possible nonexistence of God. Watson leads us on a breakneck trip through it all—Bloomsbury and Bernard Shaw, Dostoyevsky and German Expressionism, Sigmund Freud and Pablo Picasso. 

Peter Watson has a new book out oh boy oh boy oh boy! What a glorious surprise! I don't care if the review is lukewarm, I've already ordered it.

The rest of the article is interesting in its own right, but still, the takeaway here is Peter Watson has a new book out oh boy oh boy oh boy!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

What's It All About When You Sort It Out?

Kevin Dettmar:

But passion alone, divorced from the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis, is empty, even dangerous. When we simply “feel” a poem, carried away by the sound of words, rather than actually reading it, we’re rather likely to get it wrong. We see Mr. Keating, in fact, making just this kind of mistake during one of his stirring orations to the boys of Welton. In a hackneyed speech about resisting conformity that he seems to have delivered many times before, Keating invokes that oft-invoked but rarely understood chestnut, “The Road Not Taken”: “Robert Frost said, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood and I / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.’”

Wha—? Has Keating actually read the poem from which he so blithely samples? For Robert Frost said no such thing: a character in his poem says it. And we’re meant to learn, over the course of that poem, that he’s wrong—that he’s both congratulating and kidding himself. He chooses his road ostensibly because “it was grassy and wanted wear”; but this description is contradicted in the very next lines—“Though as for that, the passing there / Had worn them really about the same,” and—more incredibly still—“both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” He wants to claim to have taken the exceptional road, if not the spiritual high road; but he knows on some level that it’s a hollow boast.

Keating hasn’t actually read “The Road Not Taken” in any meaningful sense; rather, he’s adopted it, adapted it, made it his own—made it say what he wants it to say. His use of those closing lines, wrenched from their context, isn’t just wrong—it’s completely wrong, and Keating uses them to point a moral entirely different from that of Frost’s poem. (In a like manner, how often has Frost’s “The Mending Wall” been quoted out of context in debates about immigration reform? “Good fences make good neighbors,” indeed.)

So this dude really hates the movie Dead Poets Society. Some of his complaints seem rather uncharitable, but stewing over a movie for a quarter-century can curdle a fellow's spirit, I suppose. At any rate, I can see one of his points. If I read a poem that grabs me, even if only a certain section of it, I consider it, well, almost a courtesy to find out what the author intended to convey. I've long thought that it was a shady dodge when, say, lyricists are deliberately ambiguous about a song's meaning, saying that it's more important what the listener makes of it. Goddammit, I already know what I think; that's not interesting to me at all. I want to know what you were thinking when that came out, I want to be possibly surprised with a different perspective. You were the master craftsman who created that phrase, so I feel like I owe it to you to take a moment and try to inhabit your worldview. This has been a constant theme in my criticism of the SNR phenomenon — look to occasionally challenge what you think; don't just reinforce it. Whether you're reading a book or studying an exotic belief, don't just look for the parts that echo what you already think.

But this pedantic table-pounding over how wrong, completely wrong it is to take a phrase out of context and thereby change the implications of it, well, isn't that just another form of linguistic prescriptivism? Is that essentially any different than grammar and vocabulary snobs pursing their lips and clenching their buttocks every time popular usage plucks a word away from its roots and pins it upon a lapel? Not to get all postmodernist up in here, but isn't language and meaning a bit more unstable and free-flowing than that? Granted, it can be annoying to hear a bastardization of meaning due to lack of effort and attention (as a Nietzsche fan, I know this all too well), but on the bright side, doesn't that just open up an opportunity for a scholar to present an in-depth, soon-to-be-viral article about how "Everything You Think You Know About Whitman And Frost Is Wrong"? And isn't that spark of passion for the way words can move you the necessary precursor to caring enough to study poems and literature more in-depth?

Besides, the movie, as I remember it, was more broadly about the idealism and romanticism of youth on the brink of conflict with "the way things really are" (possibly about the romanticism of "golden age" myths, too, e.g. "kids today don't know or care about poetry the way we did in my day..."). Poetry was more proximate than ultimate subject. Keating was attempting to get these high school kids to passionately care about something before the responsibilities of adulthood smothered the opportunity, and poetry happened to be the vehicle he used in this setting. Knox, for instance, is inspired to pursue the girl he thinks is out of his league. Neil is inspired to defy his father and indulge his passion for theater. Todd, the meek wallflower, is inspired to simply assert himself for once. None of that required scholarly precision about a poem's meaning. In fact, we can just go ahead and connect that final dot and note that Dettmar is actually doing exactly what he's complaining about — reading his own perspective into the movie, making it say what he wants it to say. The story was about, as Rilke said, how

We see the brightness of a new page
where everything yet can happen.

Unmoved by us, the fates take its measure
and look at one another, saying nothing.

Oh, wait, Rilke was specifically talking about the beginning of the 20th century, with an ominous hint that suggests an uncanny prescience about what tremendous upheavals were to come. Ye gads, what have I done? What sin have I committed against original context? What if, by giving a misleading impression of Rilke's subject matter, I have set some poor reader up for eventual disillusionment? I can hear Dettmar's buttocks furiously clenching from here.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Taxonomy

Will Shetterly:

I grant that referring to a group by a name they don't use can be rude—I always try to call people by the names they use for themselves. That's Manners 101. But social justice warriors don't have a name of their own. They only have an ideology. The ideology is very identifiable—it comes from the intersection of Critical Race Theory and 1980s middle-class feminism—but the believers don't have a name that their critics can use. So we're stuck with "identitarians" for people who see power primarily in terms of social identities and "social justice warriors" for identitarians who flame online in the belief they'll make a better world by tweeting and blogging and mobbing.

Some people say identity politics is a term only used by the right, but Kimberlé Crenshaw, the woman who offered intersectionality to the feminist lexicon, wrote about it favorably in "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color". When I use the term, I don't mean it as a pejorative—there have been points in history when identity politics were the only practical politics. But I prefer "identitarianism" because it addresses the attitude that underlies identity politics.

Jason Walsh:

In fact the intersectionalists are negative individualists. Negative in that they celebrate frailty rather than laud any of the virtues of individualism, such as being strong and wilful or achieving anything. In the most bellicose intersectionalists we can all recognise precious snowflake syndrome. That this tends to be expressed in purely negative terms makes it no less individualistic: to be the most abused, the most depressed, the most oppressed, to suffer the gravest illness. This phenomenon—I am tempted to call it a negative dialectic out of pure mischief—is a demand for recognition on an unearned basis: affirmation simply for being.

That this, on the surface at least, contradicts their communitarianism doesn’t change the facts—and they’re not the first group to have straddled these two worn-out donkeys at the same time. The tradition this springs from is identifiably that of the New Left and while it therefore has some claim to being left wing, however that term might be defined, it is not communism.

Whatever we call these strange beings we're discussing, I agree that their radicalism is cosmetic, a halfhearted gesture toward something revolutionary, born more of laziness (this situation SUCKS and someone should FIX it, NOW) than true fanaticism. However little I may think of Marxism's historicism, I can at least concede that Marxists were looking for revolutionary change in all the right places, i.e. the material and economic structures of society. SJWs, obsessed with individual piety, seem like they would rather seize the dictionaries than the means of production. And to cite that Hitchens interview for the second time this week, I agree that the New Left should get the credit for this turn toward narcissism:

That slogan summed it up nicely for me: "I'll have a revolution inside my own psyche." It's escapist and narcissistic. In order to take part in discussions we used to have, you were expected to have read Luxemburg, Deutsche, some Gramsci, to know the difference between Bihar and Bangladesh, to know what was meant by the Goethe Program, to understand the difference between Keynes and Schumpeter, to have read a bit of Balzac and Zola. You were expected to have broken a bit of a sweat, to have stretched your brain a bit, in order just to have a discussion. And you were expected to keep up with what was going on as well. If you couldn't hold up your end on that, you wouldn't stay long in the discussion.

With "the personal is political," nothing is required of you except to be able to talk about yourself, the specificity of your own oppression. That was a change of quality as well as quantity. And it fit far too easily into the consumer, me-decade, style-section, New-Age gunk.

But I wonder if it would be accurate to see this phenomenon as a descendant of cultural Marxism. The relevant section for me:

Cultural Marxists use Marxist methods (historical research, the identification of economic interest, the study of the mutually conditioning relations between parts of a social order) to try to understand the complexity of power in contemporary society and to make it possible to criticise what, cultural Marxists propose, appears natural but is in fact ideological.

In other words, like its classic form, the cultural version purports to be objective and scientific. The obvious moralism of intersectionalists is masked by this pretense of having discovered the hidden laws that govern human culture.

Friday, February 21, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About










The twitosphere, pretty much. We're all implicated. I tend to occupy the fourth and fifth word-balloons myself. Maybe I'll achieve that final level of meta soon!

There are many worse ways to spend your time than browsing his archives.

Speaking of animals and surreality, today I passed a Volvo on the highway. The dude had a pet monkey sitting on his dashboard. I think it was a capuchin, but I can't be sure. It came over to the driver's side and stared at me as I passed, and I watched it in the rearview mirror just scampering back and forth along the dash. Now, I don't know about you, but any passenger in my car possessed of opposable thumbs, let alone a prehensile tail, must be capable of being reasoned with. That's simply a non-negotiable. Otherwise, you're riding in a cage, and that is that.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Right Wing Commies, Leftist Nazis

Timothy Snyder:

The course of the protest has very much been influenced by the presence of a rival project, based in Moscow, called the Eurasian Union. This is an international commercial and political union that does not yet exist but that is to come into being in January 2015. The Eurasian Union, unlike the European Union, is not based on the principles of the equality and democracy of member states, the rule of law, or human rights.

On the contrary, it is a hierarchical organization, which by its nature seems unlikely to admit any members that are democracies with the rule of law and human rights. Any democracy within the Eurasian Union would pose a threat to Putin’s rule in Russia. Putin wants Ukraine in his Eurasian Union, which means that Ukraine must be authoritarian, which means that the Maidan must be crushed.

...The strange thing about the claim from Moscow is the political ideology of those who make it. The Eurasian Union is the enemy of the European Union, not just in strategy but in ideology. The European Union is based on a historical lesson: that the wars of the twentieth century were based on false and dangerous ideas, National Socialism and Stalinism, which must be rejected and indeed overcome in a system guaranteeing free markets, free movement of people, and the welfare state. Eurasianism, by contrast, is presented by its advocates as the opposite of liberal democracy.

The Eurasian ideology draws an entirely different lesson from the twentieth century. Founded around 2001 by the Russian political scientist Aleksandr Dugin, it proposes the realization of National Bolshevism. Rather than rejecting totalitarian ideologies, Eurasianism calls upon politicians of the twenty-first century to draw what is useful from both fascism and Stalinism. Dugin’s major work, The Foundations of Geopolitics, published in 1997, follows closely the ideas of Carl Schmitt, the leading Nazi political theorist. Eurasianism is not only the ideological source of the Eurasian Union, it is also the creed of a number of people in the Putin administration, and the moving force of a rather active far-right Russian youth movement. For years Dugin has openly supported the division and colonization of Ukraine.

The point man for Eurasian and Ukrainian policy in the Kremlin is Sergei Glazyev, an economist who like Dugin tends to combine radical nationalism with nostalgia for Bolshevism. He was a member of the Communist Party and a Communist deputy in the Russian parliament before cofounding a far-right party called Rodina, or Motherland.

Communists who later co-found far-right parties. An authoritarian regime accusing its opponents of being Nazis even as it dreams about instituting National Bolshevism. It's only been a couple weeks since I finished reading Vladimir Tismaneanu's book examining the similarities between those supposed polar opposites of political ideology, but I'm starting to think I should go back and read it again, not to understand the past this time, but to get a head start on the future.

There Will Always be Someone Who Wants It All to be About Them

Peezus:

Remember way back in the distant past, say around 2005, 2008, or thereabouts, when we could look at atheism with some pride and hope for the future? And then all the assbutts started waggling their sexism and racism and announcing that atheism just meant you didn’t believe in god, nothing more, and they didn’t have to be better human beings because it all meant nothing anyway? If you didn’t, Jamie Kilstein is going to rub our noses in it.

When my stepson was about four or five years old, he knew there were such things as bad words, but he didn't actually know any yet. Thus, when he got angry and wanted to express it as an insult, he was forced to make up his own versions. "Fratch" and "Hoady" were my two favorites. Poor kid; it must have been doubly enraging to hurl the meanest word you could think of, only to watch the adults collapse in laughter as a result.

And from there we segue into the painfully pathetic spectacle of a middle-aged man, fearful of running afoul of the neighborhood language-watch in his special-needs community, trying to insult people by calling them "assbutts". Oh, yeah? Well, boingfwip to you, Mr. Poopybritches!

Interesting as well to see the continued evolution of a zealous ideologue. What do you think the Peezus of the distant past would have thought of some moron who tried to equate atheism with nihilism just because atheists wouldn't sign on to his vision of moral improvement?

Anyway, yes, I do remember the good old days when I foolishly thought being an atheist was something to be proud of. New Atheism was a genuine media/pop culture phenomenon, and for those of us who were used to being the only heretics in our real-life environment, it was exciting to find so many others making themselves visible online. But there was this one guy who wanted so, so badly to be included among the "Horsemen" of New Atheism. Riding the wave of semi-fame that came with his infamous desecration of a sacred cracker, he even got to hang out with Richard Dawkins and attend movie premieres with him.

But that book he mentioned? The one he was taking a year's sabbatical to work on, back in 2009? It finally fell stillborn from the press in 2013, and it was mostly just a copied-and-pasted selection of his old blog posts. Apparently whatever book he had originally envisioned turned out to be beyond his abilities, and this was his publisher's attempt to at least salvage something from the deal. Perhaps embittered by his near-miss with the big time, he and some other malcontents decided that they could engineer their own atheist media/pop culture phenomenon, and to hell with all those big-name cool kids. Yes, they decided that what New Atheism was lacking was a big ol' heaping helping of the New Left, with its stellar track record of producing a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. It could be that they read that Hitchens interview in the Progressive, but mistakenly thought his description of a meeting centered on the feelings of obese Cherokee lesbians was an ideal, not a dystopian nightmare. At any rate, Atheism+ turned out to be an even more incompetently-realized laughingstock of a project than Peezy's coloring book, with the forums currently resembling a ghost town, after the founding members scared off all the sane people before flouncing/banning each other over the usual doctrinal disputes that radical groups are so reliably prone to. The only thing this revolution of the misfit toys managed to accomplish was to convince most neutral observers that religious believers hardly had a monopoly on irrational dogmatism, and to convince a lot of atheists that moderate Christians weren't so bad after all.

What I wish for most is that someday atheism can mean something positive again.

Someday it might, Peez. Someday when your neurotic freakshow finishes cannibalizing itself and we all do our best to forget it ever existed...

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Yes, a No, a Straight Line, a Goal

Emrys Westacott:

But why do we value consistency? In science and in our everyday beliefs about the way things are, there is a straightforward answer. Inconsistent beliefs, taken together, form a contradiction: a proposition that has the form "p and not p." We assume that reality does not contain contradictions (an assumption first articulated by Parmenides). So we infer that an inconsistent set of beliefs cannot possibly be an accurate description of the way things are.

...To sum up: I'm not saying that we should stop caring at all about logical consistency in working out our positions on moral issues. But I think it is interesting and reasonable to ask why we do care. Moral philosophers, as theoreticians, naturally tend to focus on the theoretical coherence of statements and their implications. But morality isn't mathematics. It is perfectly rational, in one sense of the term, to prioritize practical consequences over logical consistency. Once we accept this, we will perhaps be more comfortable taking a pragmatic approach to moral problems, and feel free to do so without dissimulation or apology.

With Isaiah Berlin's concept of value pluralism never far from my thoughts, I was already receptive to this argument. To me, those two lines are key: "We assume that reality does not contain contradictions," and "morality isn't mathematics." Axioms themselves are often unexamined. At any rate, it's an excellent essay, well worth a careful reading.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Live by the C-word, Die by the S-word

Ahahahaha. Ohohohoho. I just checked the calendar in case it was somehow Christmas again, but no. Regardless, it appears that some mischievous deity gathered up Jacobins and Girondists Skepchicks, FTBers and A-plussers, put 'em in a jar, and shook it up to watch them fight. Like apex predators, if apex predators were pathetic and obnoxious rather than deadly, it seems that self-righteous cultural revolutionaries who have made a specialty of arguing in bad faith are incapable of sharing the same territory without conflict. I know; who could have possibly seen that coming? "It isn't fair, it isn't right," Ms. Watson screamed, and then they were upon her. Yes, it's all fun and games until it's your mind being read uncharitably and your motives being smeared. Ahahaha, oh, my aching sides.

Oooookay I guess that’s a good place to end this absolute clusterfuck of a thread, that I had foolishly hoped would just be a calm discussion between differing parties but has resulted in me and my site being labeled as abusers. Brilliant job everyone.

Excuse me? Excuse me? I'd just like to point out that using "clusterfuck" pejoratively is offensive to the orgiastically inclined, not to mention that it carries a disturbing hint of ableist scorn toward the physically uncoordinated. Why, I haven't felt so shamed and triggered since George Michael claimed that "Sex is natural, sex is fun, sex is best when it's one-on-one." Check your anti-group sex privilege!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Yinshih

While reading this book, I came across an anonymously sourced description of a "yinshih", which greatly appealed to me. A quick search of the term made it clear that Alphonse Vinh must have been that very source, because his response to Andrew Rogers is nearly a word-for-word version of what I read with a few extra details, even:

You asked me what a yinshih was. Well, a yinshih means in Classical Chinese, a scholar-recluse, which is my vocation in life. Yinshihs have existed in every place and time (Walker Percy was a Southern yinshih and Joseph Joubert was a French one); but in East Asian culture, they had an honoured place at one time. Many were poets and writers. Some were mystics. Others were retired scholars who sought a quiet life of spirituality and solitude. But what they all had in common was that they had renounced the 'red dust of the world' and were dead to worldly ambition and desire for career success. Yinshihs renounce all this. The fortunate ones lived in the days of the Empire like many of my ancestors who could write their farewell poems to the world at age 40, "hang up their scholar’s cap", and leave the Imperial Civil Service to take refuge on their estates or their little cottages or huts to devote themselves to contemplation, prayer, study, solitude, literature, and friendship. Very few yinshihs rejected the pleasures of poetry and wine. They did not hate the world—only its unworthy and spiritually uninteresting temptations.

In times of great societal corruption, yinshihs withdrew from society and public service in order to preserve their integrity, no matter the cost to them. Yinshihs have always been gentlemen and lovers of the life of the mind. But they care not for conventions nor do they care much for being in the right society or climbing up the slimy pole of success. They don’t care about such things because they think it's more beautiful to sip wine whilst sitting in their hermitage as the sun sets in the fields before them. They cherish not the group so much as the individual. They are not meant for the big stage but prefer the quiet life in the shadows where it is possible to observe the stream flowing quietly beneath the waves.

Yinshihs suffer all the afflictions of humanity and sin greatly too. But it is their way to strive not to contribute to the general suffering of humanity by their own failings. Their ministry through writing and personal friendship is with the individual person whom God may send their way.

Yinshihs are happy about things that may not occur to more society-oriented people and there’s a chasm of understanding or appreciation between both sides. They do not see their way as better but simply as a reasonable, individual alternative to a group-oriented, power-driven, society-focused way of existence. Yinshihs are the first to admire that famous phrase, "A Southern Gentleman's vocation is being and thinking." If yinshihs have to scratch a living in the world, they will strive to do so with integrity and good will, but they will always see their livelihood as a means to live fully a yinshih life—away from the world. Yinshihs don’t know the meaning of careers. It’s meaningless to them. They care about their place within this beautiful and mysterious universe that God created, they care about worthwhile friendships and good poetry, and if they have to earn their living in the world, they feel they will have gained their right to dream in their real life after the working day is over. Yinshihs value, above all, the inner universe of the individual and the private life which they regard as most holy.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

An Invisible Knapsack Full of Unverifiable Grievances

Jason Walsh:

In practice intersectionality is simply a series of mores, rigidly enforced by threat of excommunication from polite society. Disagree and you’re a misogynist, “white supremacist” (yes, this term formerly reserved for the likes of the KKK is commonplace in intersectional discourse) or transphobe. The only way to make amends is not to argue one’s corner as would be expected in traditional liberal discourse, but to admit the transgression, apologise and promise to learn.

Focussing on identity, intersectionality divides. This is its very raison d’être. It takes the post-modernist celebration of difference to its logical conclusion, rejecting as oppressive the universal political subject, be that expressed as the individual, the working class or anything else that might bring people together.

It, in academic jargon, represents the reification of identity. It is a worldview that collapses individual agency, rejects the human subject and masquerades as liberatory while in fact being essentialist.

Importantly, the internet is a huge factor in intersectionality’s spread: it not only allows advocates of the theory to organise, but also “swarm” opponents and shout them down. As a result Twitter sometimes seems like an endless, global Maoist “self-criticism” trial. As an aside, on a Facebook thread attempting to reeducate him one person bemoaned that Mr Seymour would have known better if he had spent more time on Tumblr. It sounds ridiculous, but microblogging web sites really are where intersectionalists learn this stuff: Tumblr, Twitter and so on.

As regular readers know, I'm a child of the streets. Got my education at the school of hard knocks. Tut-tut-tut! This isn't the time for excessive scrutiny. What are you, my biographer? Point is, lacking a university education, I never officially studied the founding documents of this sort of thing. I'd heard of intersectionality, of course, but I didn't know it was the unifying principle of the worldview of those charming people we've come to call social justice warriors. I thought it was just a peer, more or less, of all the other SJW fixations: radical feminism, postmodernism, privilege-checking, gender studies, cultural studies, critical theory, etc. Actually, I figured they were all siblings, the latchkey kids acting out for attention after the divorce of their parents, the Old and New Left. So, intersectionality is the umbrella term for it all, then, at least in its current incarnation? Good to know.

One thing I have learned from the screechings of intersectionalists is that we, especially we privileged types, should always "listen to the women", so with that in mind, let's listen to what Melissa Thompson has to say.

A Neat Yellow Hole

Just beyond the gate,
a neat yellow hole —
someone pissed in the snow

— Issa

And Many Fantasies Were Learned on That Day

Cass Sunstein:

Research suggests that in the Olympics, those who finish third are likely to be a lot happier than those who finish second. The reason is that much of our thinking is based on counterfactuals. We like to ask: What else could have happened?

If you finish second, you tend to think that with a little good luck, or maybe a bit of extra effort or skill, you might have gotten the prize of a lifetime: Olympic gold. But if you finish third, you tend to think that with a little bad luck, or without that extra effort or skill, you wouldn’t have gotten the prize of a lifetime: an Olympic medal.

My boss and I were on a road trip yesterday, getting some new equipment activated. He was interested to hear all about the world of bookselling, and the conversation naturally turned toward reading for personal enjoyment. "You know, Scribbler, I used to love reading, but..." He shook his head. "Y'know, you get married, then the kids come along... most days, I get home in the evenings, eat dinner, play with the kids. I try to grab at least 15-20 minutes of actual conversation with my wife, and then, if I open a book before bed, it's like five minutes, and BOOM." He closed his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest.

He told me about his former job, working for a global shipping company in New York, how cool it was to have to look up all these faraway cities he'd never heard of and see them on a map. "One day, Scribbler, one day...!" he said, pointing upward with a determined look, "I'm actually going to travel to these places. And I'm going to have time to read when I get back!" He said his wife fantasizes about being able to read a trashy magazine all the way through. "Just to be able to read a copy of US Weekly, uninterrupted; she wants that so bad. I say to her, don't worry, in several years, they won't want to have anything to do with us, and we'll have time for that!"

We didn't actually talk a whole lot, because he spent most of his time making and receiving calls, getting ready for this massive snowstorm that's got me chillin' at home in the middle of the day today. As we were getting off the exit to head back to base, he ended his last call and sighed. "ARRGH, these are the days I hate the most, Scribbler. Trying to keep tabs on 80 employees, trying to make contingency plans with dozens of clients for tomorrow, looking forward to getting my ass chewed in the next conference call..."

"That's why I like having simple jobs," I said.

"Yeah, not aging prematurely due to stress," he said with a slightly forced laugh.

Anyway, yes, to return to the original point: my own experience confirms that setting your sights lower seems to lead to more genuine contentment. I'm fine with my metaphorical bronze medals.

You Got Opinions but You Ain't Got News

Felix Salmon:

The new dominance of social media in the news business is not depressing at all: it’s excellent news. Just as most news consumers were never avid enough to seek out blogs, most Americans were never avid enough to seek out news at all. They didn’t buy newspapers; they didn’t watch the nightly news on TV; it just wasn’t something which interested them. But now the news comes at them directly, from their friends, which means that the total news audience has grown massively, even just within the relatively stagnant US population. Globally, of course, it’s growing faster still — the ubiquitous smartphone is a worldwide phenomenon.

So, you're saying the only outdated part of Thoreau's famous observation is that it's not just the broad, flapping American ear anymore? "The total news audience has grown massively" — hold up, hold up; I think we're going to have to search your definition of news here, sir. When I look at a site like Digg, which is essentially just the top forty current viral stories, well, I suspect your generous notion of news consumption and its supposed beneficial consequences is about as myopic as measuring a nation's economic health by GDP. To continue on that note, perhaps, like the SPI, we'll see these attitudes become more popular in reaction.

Anyway, I remember Noel telling me some time ago about news programs incorporating viewer tweets into their coverage. Not being a news viewer, I didn't see an example for myself until very recently. Sweet Christ, Neil Postman had no idea how prescient he was. Have we had an incident yet of some poor bastard breaking off his reporting of what @horndogg69 thinks about the Syrian civil war by screaming "I went to journalism school for this?!" before exiting stage right in a flurry of scattered notes and epithets?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Started Listening to a Sound So Clear, to the World Around Me


Twitter is nearly a required part of advertising campaigns, and it's ubiquitous among news media. Yet even though it has blanketed the Internet, television and billboards with its hashtags inviting people to log on, four out of five Americans with Internet connections still don't use it regularly. Facebook, by comparison, has more than half the U.S. online population covered and more than five times the world-wide users of Twitter.

Even so...

Odds are you’re on Facebook.  After all, 1 in 6 people on the planet are on it, why should you be the exception? I think in my immediate circle of friends and family I know one person who isn’t on it at all.

I'm not sure what some 16-percenter is doing telling me I'm an exception to the norm, but fuzzy math aside, it's useful to keep things like this in mind for perspective. Many people, even the ones with an active Facebook account, are not actually heavy web users. And even for those of us who spend a lot of free time browsing for both edification and entertainment, much of what we encounter in the twitosphere is the product of a very small, homogenous, self-selecting group of people. The concerns and obsessions of tech geeks, frustrated writers, and underemployed twentysomethings with hardly any life experience, to name a few obvious examples, are massively overrepresented. Precious little of what you're reading about today is going to matter at all in another five years. And so what Noah Millman says about blogging —

The struggle for anybody who actually cares about the quality of what they do is to keep an eye on something other than the immediate reception of the piece, whatever the work is, keep an eye on the object itself. Or, rather, to develop the confidence that you actually know what makes the object itself beautiful and true. The confidence to know that you are Orson Welles and not Ed Wood, to pick two artists who emphatically did it their own way.

The same is true, on a microscopic scale, for blogging. If all you’re doing is hanging out, you’re probably not writing anything very worth reading. If all you’re doing is chasing click bait, or following the news cycle, you’re probably not writing anything very worth reading. And that’s the fundamental question: do you want to write anything worth reading?

—  applies more generally as well. Have the confidence to ignore the noisy crows, the bickering, squabbling multitudes, and spend your time on something more timeless.

Why So Serious?

David Graeber:

What would happen if we proceeded from the reverse perspective and agreed to treat play not as some peculiar anomaly, but as our starting point, a principle already present not just in lobsters and indeed all living creatures, but also on every level where we find what physicists, chemists, and biologists refer to as “self-organizing systems”?

This is not nearly as crazy as it might sound.

Alan Watts:

If work is what must be done in order to go on living, the proper activity of That-which-Is will obviously be play. Reality is what exists without effort, Blake's energy which is eternal delight. I have suggested that hide-and-seek, or lost-and-found, is the fundamental form of play because, at root, being is vibration. It is a state of yes/no, solid/space, here/ there, positive/negative, come/go, inside/outside, symbolized in the fundamental up/down motion of the wave. Rhythm lies at the heart of play, and thus various rhythmic actions are the primordial forms of delight-birdsong, the chirping of crickets, the beating of hearts, the pulsation of laughter, the ecstatic loss of self in drumming and dancing, the sonorous vibrations of voices and strings and bells. Absorption in rhythm can go on and on until energy fails, for when we survey the various cultures of mankind it appears there is nothing men would rather do than be lost all night in rhythm.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Pretenderfoot

I realize this is just his thing, his niche topic, but Lord, Wayne Curtis is such a ridiculous plonker:

The long and short of it: After five million years of perfecting the art of walking upright, we’ve lost the battle in maintaining the spaces that welcome us on foot. And this feeds the cycle of our walking less, and thus rendering it less important. “Landscape design” has the sound of something effete and precious, an art practiced by the overeducated for the overcompensated. But it’s not. In fact, creating the right landscape may be central to our survival.

If we want to get people walking and experiencing their environment and community and avoiding the chronic diseases that are the burgeoning byproducts of sedentariness, it’s not enough to hector and cajole people. Landscaper designers must be teamed up with urban planners to create inviting habitat to lure people from their cocoons of steel.

In short, in working the land, we need to also pay attention to genetics, lest we evolve into limbless rubber balls. Or perhaps we’ll regress to a quadrupedal species, unable to move about without four limbs: Two feet on pedals and two hands on a wheel.

Or perhaps we'll become peripatetic cyborgs who walk in place on machines while watching TV or listening to music through headphones, being that actual evolution is not limited to the unimaginative value-judgments of your romantic fantasies. Speaking of which, my trusty treadmill passed away a few days ago, after more than eight years of loyal, regular service. Thousands, literally thousands of glorious miles spent in each other's company. Not bad at all for the cheapest, most basic model being sold at the time. If I unreservedly recommend Proform for all your inauthentic walking needs, could I perhaps get a sponsorship from the company? For a free treadmill, hell, yes, I'll gladly put the company logo in the sidebar and urge all of you to contribute to Curtis's dyspepsia by getting one yourself. If not, this would be a good time for one of my fabulously wealthy lurking readers to step out of the shadows and become a benefactor. You want me to remain in good health to keep writing indefinitely, don't you? Maybe I'll even throw in a picture of my chiseled muscular legs as a bonus.

Secular Soteriologies

Vladimir Tismaneanu:

Moreover, Marx himself consistently showed an obvious unwillingness to tolerate those socialists who did not agree with him or questioned his authority. The energy he spent denouncing such "heretics" indicates the presence of an authoritarian personality.

In the passionately incandescent lines of the Communist Manifesto, one can decipher the whole tragedy that was to follow: Lenin's forcing of the pace of history, the genesis of Bolshevism as a matrix for generalized terror, the Stalinist horrors, and the universe of the concentration camp. Nations were murdered to carry out Lenin's utopian desiderata. Social classes were victimized in the name of his abstract speculations and moral revolt. The question, therefore, is what connection exists between the Leninist exterminist project and the original Marxist salvationist fantasy. In retrospect, one can argue that Marx's oracular monism, defined by his hyperdeterministic approach, scientism, and positivism, took revenge on the ethical-libertarian dimension and laid the foundation for intolerance and repression.

...With characteristic nineteenth-century hubris, Marx declared his social theory the ultimate scientific formula, as exact and precise as the algorithms of mathematics or the demonstrations of formal logic. Not to recognize their validity was for Marx, as for his successors, evidence of historical blindness, ideological bias, or "false consciousness," which were characteristic of those who opposed Marxist solutions to social questions. Prisoners of the bourgeois mentality, alienated victims of ideological mystifications, and non-Marxist theorists — all purveyors of false consciousness — were scorned and dismissed as supporters of the status quo.

Good book. Still, you'd think these sorts of observations would be common knowledge, but apparently not.

In the interest of continuing to document the charlatanry of a certain fraudulent fat fuck, I also appreciated this section:

With this in mind, I would conclude that Slavoj Žižek's proposed "return to Lenin" means simply a return to a politics of irresponsibility, the resurrection of a political ghost whose main legacies are related to the limitation, rather than the expansion, of democratic experimentation. After all, it was Lenin who suppressed direct democracy in the form of councils, disbanded the embryonic Russian parliament, and transformed terror into a privileged instrument for preserving power. Žižek seems to adopt, and truly enjoy, the role of Thomas Mann's character, the Jesuit dialectician, Leo Nephata: an oracle of the resurrection of what one might call le désir de révolution. In his defense of Leninism, Žižek actually advocates the rehabilitation of chiliastic experiences, secular soteriologies, and visionary messianism, all for the sake of regaining the "authentically apocalyptical Paulinian atmosphere." Simultaneously, though, he (and others who imitate his plea) does not seem to mind the mass graves that people keep discovering wherever the Leninist ideal, in one form or the other, has been implemented.

But...but...but he's the coolest, most influential leftist in Europe!

A Small World After All

And while I shall keep silent about some points, I do not want to remain silent about my morality which says to me: Live in seclusion so that you can live for yourself. Live in ignorance about what seems most important to your age. Between yourself and today lay the skin of at least three centuries. And the clamor of today, the noise of wars and revolutions should be a mere murmur for you.

- Nietzsche

Adam Gurri:

In making our morality telescopic we trivialize the choices that do matter; the ones close to us, involving the people in our lives. Obsession over a world you cannot hope to meaningfully influence is the road to either madness or self-delusion, and it is hubris from the outset. Cast off the chains of telescopic morality and move forward with the morality of human flourishing, of eudaimonia.

TPM:

We should go a little easier on ourselves when it comes to indifference to the news - and recognise that we're one of the first generations to have to deal with the torrent of information about things very far removed from our own lives. For most of history, it was extremely difficult to come by information about what was happening anywhere else. And you probably didn't mind. What difference would it make, if you were a crofter in the Hebrides, to learn that a power struggle was brewing in the Ottoman Empire?

Much of what we now take for granted as news has its origins in the information needed by people taking major decisions or at the centre of national affairs. We still hear the echoes in the way news is reported; timing is assumed to be critical, as it really would be if we were active agents. If you don't have the latest update you might make a terrible blunder or miss a wonderful opportunity.

Ease of communication and a generous democratic impulse mean that information originally designed for decision makers, now gets routinely sent via the media to very large numbers of people. It is as if a dossier, with the latest news from Kiev, which might properly arrive on the desk of a minister has accidentally been delivered to the wrong address and ends up on the breakfast table of a librarian in Colchester or an electrician in Pitlochry. But the librarian or electrician might quite reasonably turn round and politely point out that they can't do anything with this knowledge and that, surely, the files have come to them by mistake. They don't, but only because habit has closed our eyes to the underlying strangeness of the phenomenon.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

And Up Through the Ground Came a Dervish In a Whirl (Sufi, That Is. Persian Style.)

Arthur emailed me this afternoon:

I was trolling YouTube for Yeats material when I happened across this tangential video of Coleman Barks performing, with back-up band, poems by Rumi (the most popular poet in the USA these days, and don't you forget it). After the intro. by Professor Barry Spacks, you expect to see some pale-complected, ascetic hipster walk out -- instead comes this big burly bearded man from Chattanooga, Tennessee with a big burly bearded accent. The unlikeliness of this conjunction of Johnny Cash country with medieval Persian mysticism clinches its authenticity. Like poetry itself, it's just crazy enough to work.

Anyway, I couldn't resist the following parody. (Let me say, in a doubtless foredoomed attempt to fend off charges of regionalist, classist, etc. snobbery by the humor-impaired, that my mother was from a small town in southern Tennessee.)

If Mr. Barks ever sees it, I hope he'll take it in the affectionate spirit in which it was intended. Otherwise I may be in trouble.

In an attempt to let all the Google points accrue to Arthur alone, I will urge you to go read the aforementioned parody at his blog rather than reproduce it here. It's a stellar effort; I trust you'll find it well worth the journey. I did indeed laugh out loud, even though a grin and chuckle is usually the most demonstrative response you'll get out of me.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The More We Move Ahead the More We're Stuck In Rewind

Theo Hobson:

Atheism derives from religion? Surely it just says that no gods exist, that rationalism, or 'scientific naturalism', is to be preferred to any form of supernaturalism. Actually, no: in reality what we call atheism is a form of secular humanism; it presupposes a moral vision, of progressive humanitarianism, of trust that universal moral values will triumph. (Of course there is also the atheism of Nietzsche, which rejects humanism, but this is not what is normally meant by 'atheism').

So what we know as atheism should really be understood as an offshoot of deism. For it sees rationalism as a benign force that can liberate our natural goodness. It has a vision of rationalism saving us, uniting us. For example, AC Grayling, in his recent book The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, argues that, with the withering of religion, 'an ethical outlook which can serve everyone everywhere, and can bring the world together into a single moral community, will at last be possible'. This is really Rousseau's idea, that if we all listened to our hearts, there would be 'one religion on earth'.

To the extent that rationality is assumed to dovetail neatly with conventional notions of middle-class morality, this is true. That is, it's not difficult to find atheists who think that most of the world's ills could be fixed if only people would overcome their "irrationality" and learn to think more clearly. This is merely circular reasoning, of course. What they really mean is, "If everyone would only see things the way I see them, there'd be nothing to fight about." Well, yes. In the real world, though, people will always have conflicting wants and needs, and skullduggery and violence will always be rational, if immoral, options to call upon in competition. Those who calmly and deliberately use rationality to better achieve "evil" goals are, as Nietzsche said about the evil who are happy, a species whom the moralists bury in silence.

But to the degree that atheism gets bogged down in sentimental obscurantism, as we've seen with the progressive fematheists, I still say it makes more sense to think of them as a new phase of the Protestant Reformation.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Rational by Indirect Means

Jonathan Haidt:

Reason is indeed crucial for good public policy and a good society. But isn’t the most reasonable approach one that takes seriously the known flaws of human reasoning and tries to work around them? Individuals can’t be trusted to reason well when passions come into play, yet good reasoning can sometimes emerge from groups. This is why science works so well. Scientists suffer from the confirmation bias like everybody else, but the genius of science as an institution is that it incentivizes scientists to disconfirm each others’ ideas, and it creates a community within which a reasoned consensus eventually emerges.

I agree with Harris that the historical shift away from revealed religion as the basis of society and toward democracy, individual rights, reason, and science as foundations of moral and political authority has been overwhelmingly good for people in Western societies. I am not anti-reason. I am also not anti-religion. I am opposed to dogmatism. I am skeptical of each person’s individual powers of reasoning, and I’m even more skeptical of the reasoning of groups of activists, hyper-partisans, and other righteous reformers who would remake society according to their own reasoned (or revealed) vision.

I prefer to think about how cultural evolution has made our society more rational by indirect means. Social institutions (such as science, democracy, markets, and universities) evolve in ways that we often don’t understand, yet they can end up fostering better reasoning and better lives as an emergent property of a complex society. I prefer to follow thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott who espoused “epistemological modesty” and were skeptical of aggressive rationalism.

The rest of the article leaves something to be desired — the "certainty words" metric he uses seems a bit ridiculous to me, and I think we've already seen that Sam Harris left enough wiggle room in his Moral Landscape hypothesis to cover any change of mind he might have without having to admit to any such thing — but I agree with this part, at least.

Negate Expectations

On the road today, I saw a guy with a tatted-up face and neck driving a Dodge Grand Caravan, complete with stick-figure-family decal in the back glass.

I like to imagine that he was on his way to hang out with this guy.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Continuation of Politics by Other Means

Steven Van Zandt:

He knew more than me, he knew more than Mandela, he knew more than the South African people. His famous line, of course, was, “Art transcends politics.” And I said to him, “All due respect, Paulie, but not only does art not transcend politics… art is politics.

Simon may or may not have been wrong to violate the cultural boycott; I don't know where the vantage point is from which to judge. I can point to a different perspective from Noel Murray, though:

But what’s most exciting about Under African Skies in particular is how it engages with the issue of whether artists have social and political responsibilities, and if so, what those might entail. Though Berlinger takes the criticism of Simon seriously, the film ultimately comes down strongly on the side of the artist’s right to move and work freely, and thus to retain the capacity to surprise. A more sensitive Simon would’ve stayed in New York and tried to approximate the sound of the Boyoyo Boys with local session men. The self-serving Simon ignored the political and cultural implications of his actions, and the result was “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes,” a song that continues to uplift and inspire people decades after the initial furor subsided. Sometimes the process has to be ugly to produce something truly beautiful.

Anyway, it's that last line that rankles me. Van Zandt is right, if, by "art is politics", he means nothing more than the truism that art doesn't come from a vacuum, that art, as a product of social animals, is only intelligible in a sociopolitical context to begin with. I suspect he means a little more than that, though, and I suspect that this is another example of post-Enlightenment thinking in which art that doesn't consciously strive toward politically progressive goals is either reactionary or narcotic. But I'll leave the last word on the transcendent nature of great art to Pankaj Mishra in a slightly different context:

The other point that got lost in the rush to condemn Mo Yan was that we need a more complex understanding of writers working under authoritarian or repressive regimes. Something to replace this simpleminded, Cold War-ish equation in which the dissident in exile is seen as a bold figure, and those who choose to work with restrictions on their freedom are considered patsies for repressive governments. Let’s not forget that most writers in history have lived under nondemocratic regimes: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Goethe didn’t actually enjoy constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of speech. And let’s not forget also, alas, that freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee great literature.

Monday, February 03, 2014

His Mind Slid Away Into the Labyrinthine World of Doublethink

Ian Jack:

On the question of journalistic practice, De Botton is at his most interesting on the job of the foreign correspondent – "interesting" in that the same paragraph can combine a nicely expressed insight into a problem with a monstrous stupidity as its solution. As he rightly says, reporting gives us an unbalanced view of abroad, especially of countries beyond Europe and North America, because it concentrates on political crises and natural disasters, and unless we have some sense of "what passes for normality in a given location, we may find it very hard to calibrate or care about the abnormal". So how does the reporter in, say, Zambia interest his Manchester reader in the Zambian everyday? De Botton thinks it permissible for "creative writers" to adapt a fact or change a date because they will understand that "falsifications may occasionally need to be committed in the service of a goal higher still than accuracy: the hope of getting important ideas and images across to their impatient and distracted audiences".

A goal higher than accuracy? In a book about the news, even one written by an author who cannot decide what news is, there can be no more dangerous form of words.

"To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it..."

Sigh. Assuming this is an accurate description, this is what worried me about his views on art. Can't trust a fellow once he's got it in his head to be a shepherd for the greater good. Once you've decided that you know best what others want and need, what's to stop you from smoothing the path a little bit by rearranging factual complications? I mean, in what imaginable circumstances would "the greater good" hinge on something as trivial as changing a date? It sounds like de Botton has already decided on the necessity of such noble falsehoods, and is now simply trying to engineer a weak excuse to do so when the time is right.