Thursday, May 29, 2014

Crows Are Pulling at My Clothes, The Wind Got My Fingers Froze

Lori Rotenberk:

Its symbolism is universal, but the original scarecrows were nothing like the now familiar straw-stuffed icon of Halloween. Scarecrows, sometimes bearing an animal skull or rotting produce, were placed in fields in the spring and were burned after the Autumn harvest in celebration, their ashes returning nutrients of potassium and nitrogen to the soil. In Great Britain they are known as hodmedods, murmets and Hay-man, Tattie bogle or bodach-rocais (old man of the rooks). To the Bengali’s it’s a kaktadua. A straska to the Czech’s. The Russians, a pugalo, just to name a few.

A definitive history of the scarecrow has never been penned. What is known is that among the first field “gods” were Japanese “kakashi”, a deity of knowledge and agriculture such as Kuebiko who is unable walk and therefore simply stands in the fields. American folk art historians say scarecrows are in a class known as “ephemerals” in that they don’t last long. Snowmen and harvest figures are also counted among the ranks of ephemerals.

My P.R. agent informs me that you humanoids the "masses" like it when larger-than-life figures such as myself descend from the Olympian heights long enough to reveal some trivial "humanizing" details of our irrelevant personal lives to make us seem more approachable and humble, even though I personally would release the hounds upon any of you who actually got within 500 yards of me. So, with that in mind, here's one of those touchy-feely little factoids for you to treasure: I collect ornamental scarecrows.

By birth, temperament and aesthetic inclination, I've always been a child of the autumn. It's when I feel most vibrantly alive. And so, for reasons I only dimly understand and could never really articulate, I've always been attracted to symbolic images of anything autumn-related. The first scarecrow I got was a ceramic Hallmark figurine, as a gift one October. Around that very same time, I discovered Peter Haining's book, the cover of which you see above, in a second-hand bookstore downtown. Oh, how I love that book. I've reread it dozens of times over the years.

From that point on, I visited arts and crafts stores, florist shops, curio shops and roadside apple butter festivals to collect any interesting and unusual scarecrows I could find. I even pilfered one from a hotel's front desk one year, such is the depth of my passion. Well, come on, I obviously appreciated it far more than they would have. I liberated him, is how I prefer to look at it. Anyway, I collected around a hundred before it became hard to find any unique types I didn't already have. (Yes, I suppose that makes me a bit of a scarecrow hipster — they were cool before they became, like, all mass-produced and uniform. I only collect extremely creative ones now. You probably haven't seen any like them in your big-box crafts store.) They range in size from three feet tall to one inch. I have them scattered in various places around the house, mostly on the screened-in back porch, but I hope to one day have an area constructed especially for them.

I'm always delighted to find references to them in movies, novels or any other facet of pop culture. Two songs in particular that I like which make poetic use of the image are Ministry's "Scarecrow", which imagines Jesus himself as the original man of straw, and Beck's song of the same name, in which the broken, forlorn narrator, after a failed relationship, finds himself "Standing all day keeping watch/over all the treasures we lost." (Beck also refers, in a different song, to the "scarecrow shadow of the Nazarene".)

And We Know We Won't Be Missing Out on Anything

Jacob Burak:

Welcome to FoMO (Fear of Missing Out), the latest cultural disorder that is insidiously undermining our peace of mind. FoMO, a spawn of technological advancement and proliferating social information, is the feeling that we’re missing out on something more exciting, more important, or more interesting going on somewhere else. It is the unease of feeling that others are having a more rewarding experience and we are not a part of it. According to a recent study, 56 per cent of those who use social networks suffer this modern plague.

...Freedom from other people’s opinions and release from social comparison is a triumph reserved for very few. The self-discipline strong enough to withstand the power of FoMO is no less rare. In 2012, the University of Chicago social psychologist Wilhelm Hofmann studied the use of willpower to resist daily temptation: his participants found it far easier to abstain from food and sex through willpower alone than to stay away from online networks, where the failure rate was 42 per cent.

I am here to preach the saving grace of moderate misanthropy. When you realize that most of what you read online is superfluous garbage, and that most people aren't worth the time it takes to get to know them, this onerous burden will dissipate into nothingness like so many instantly-regretted and quickly-deleted tweets. But perhaps you weren't fortunate enough to be born with a natural resistance to the company of others. In that case, I would recommend maximum indulgence. The only way out is straight on through the other side. Go ahead, join all the trendy social networking platforms, try to sample every empty-calorie viral story, try to be au courant with every lulzy meme. Be like a kid trying to scarf his entire bag of Halloween candy in one sitting. As you later kneel, retching into the toilet, just think of your discomfort and regret as weakness leaving the body.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Folk Devils

The normally-discerning 3QD links to the latest from the ever-ridiculous Amanda Marcotte on the topic that even a hotline psychic could have accurately predicted she'd be writing about:

Well, I think I have a theory, and yes, it’s sexism.

Now, attentive readers — and you all are attentive, aren't you? You're not like the stupid readers that NPR pranked on April Fool's Day who comment on articles they haven't read, are you? — will have noticed that the above quotation is nowhere to be found in the linked article. Yes, I confess, I pulled the ol' switcheroo on you. That's actually from a post she wrote last winter where, once again, astonishing, I know, in the neverending Rorschach test that we call life, Amanda saw sexism where others only saw meaningless ink. Anyway, the point is, that blurb is pretty much the Platonic Ideal of her writing, the sine qua non, a journeyman free agent that could sign a contract to appear in just about any one of her posts and articles. She is to blogging what Clayton Homes is to housing construction — a supplier of easily-transported, quickly-assembled, prefabricated building templates whose slipshod construction doesn't take long to reveal itself. I mean, she's barely had time to cash the check for this job, but look at the drywall already cracking in this section:

But the internet and the PUA community have created a self-haven for young men engaged in this self-pitying discourse, encouraging them to cultivate that chip on their shoulders, wallowing in misogynist accusations that women en masse are failing them by not giving up the sex these ostensibly unappreciated men believe they deserve. With so many men spending so much time egging each other on, and trying to top each other when it comes to blaming women for their own pitiful lives—to the point of advocating for the denial of basic rights to women—it’s little surprise that one of them would finally work up the nerve to get his “revenge” for all these imagined slights.

When Dimebag Darrell was murdered on stage by a gunman a decade ago, an opportunistic hack could have similarly described it as an inevitable result of the nebulous "culture" of angst, aggression and macho violence that heavy metal is popularly associated with, or even singled out the unfortunate comments made by Philip Anselmo in particular shortly before the shooting. It's "little surprise" that one of those moshing meatheads would finally decide to bring a gun into the pit, isn't it? Likewise, we're all familiar with earlier attempts to blame the suicides of depressed and/or drug-addled adolescents on particular songs by Ozzy Osbourne or Judas Priest. It's "little surprise" that impressionable, disturbed youths would be pushed over the edge by an emotionally manipulative power ballad glorifying death or suicide, isn't it? But the, uh, surprising fact remains that such extreme occurrences are exceedingly rare. Millions of fans manage to find healthy catharsis within the scene without taking things to their supposed logical conclusions, which should lead one to wonder if the logic isn't missing something, perhaps.

No, of course that analogy is not to say that misogyny doesn't exist, or that you can't find valid examples of men saying awful, offensive things about women (especially if you seek them out). It's simply a reminder that an unsympathetic outsider's perspective can easily morph into a good old-fashioned moral panic, which is increasingly what all this hysterical focus on online misogyny is coming to resemble.

Marcotte would like to have it both ways — the rare example of an Elliot Rodger is proof of how inevitably dangerous her ideological opponents are and how we live in a culture that at least passively endorses misogynist ideals, but the fact that most maladjusted sexless adolescents will never be guilty of anything worse than stupidity or boorishness, or the fact that many men somehow manage to altogether resist the omnipresent siren song urging them to treat women as inferior objects will, of course, not count as disproof; the definition of misogyny will simply become more elastic in order to remain relevant. She's a seasoned veteran at this sort of thing, though. Several years ago, if you remember, the progressive blogosphere was going apeshit over how the murder of Bill Sparkman, the Kentucky census worker found hanged with the word "Fed" written on his chest, was so obviously the inevitable result of violent, anti-government Teabagger rhetoric. When it turned out a couple months later that he had committed suicide while trying to make it look like a homicide, lesser mortals would have slunk away in shame to contemplate the perils of instapunditry, to think twice about publicly jumping to preordained conclusions based on incomplete breaking news reports. Not our heroine, though. No, in fact, it was still the Teabaggers' fault for making us believe that they were even capable of such an act in the first place. If it should somehow turn out that there's more to Elliot Rodger's rampage than first met the eye, you can safely bet the house that misogyny will be to blame for that, too.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Grabbed a Book and Read the Cover

Karl Greenfield:

What we all feel now is the constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate. So that we can survive an elevator pitch, a business meeting, a visit to the office kitchenette, a cocktail party, so that we can post, tweet, chat, comment, text as if we have seen, read, watched, listened. What matters to us, awash in petabytes of data, is not necessarily having actually consumed this content firsthand but simply knowing that it exists — and having a position on it, being able to engage in the chatter about it. We come perilously close to performing a pastiche of knowledgeability that is really a new model of know-nothingness.

NPR’s April Fools’ Day web story “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” went viral on Facebook, where pranksters in on the joke linked to the piece and others then argued that they do too read and indignantly shared the link with exhortations to “read the story!” without actually clicking on it themselves to see that the only content was the revelation that the whole thing was a prank: “We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this ‘story.' ”

I finished reading The Vertigo Years over the weekend. It was a look at the major cultural, political and technological trends in the first couple decades of the twentieth century, leading up to the Great War. After reading one particularly poetic passage near the end, I stopped for a minute and just marveled at the exquisite style of it. I thought about how much time, research and vision would have to go into writing such a book. I tried to imagine, from my layman's perspective, how one would even go about analyzing the ocean of information pertaining to such a culturally fecund period, how one would even begin to sort though the chaotic jumble of threads in order to weave the relevant ones into a coherent narrative. I remembered things that Mark Forsyth had said about the art of rhetoric and things Jonathan Gottschall had said about the deep structural patterns of storytelling and felt grateful for having the opportunity to read a book by someone who had done a masterful job with both elements.

What I appreciated most of all was the sense of context and perspective that comes from reading a good book. It's the sort of thing that makes you realize how much of what you read on the web is merely stimulating, or perhaps I should say agitating, without being informative. There are a lot of interesting-but-fragmentary perspectives, but very few people with the ability to put them into meaningful context. Too often, information appears as if in a funhouse mirror, distorted and distended. Of course, if you think of social media as being a boisterous party environment, where everybody is trying to entertain and be entertained, it makes sense. Conversations tend to be fast, hyperbolic and superficial. Spend too much time talking in-depth to one person, and you might miss out on something exciting happening across the room. But again we find that limits and boundaries on the horizontal plane are essential if there is to be any depth to explore. Some perspectives require your undivided attention to reveal themselves. You have to excuse yourself from the party, block out the overstimulation and narrow your focus to get there.

Killing in the Name Of

More than a decade ago, Tom Tomorrow said something worth dusting off and repeating:

I have seen it suggested that the advantage of the blogs is their immediacy, but I would also posit that it is their Achilles Heel. The first time I heard of the Instapundit site, I actually thought it was a joke. Instant punditry? Surely, I thought, this must be some sort of sly meta-commentary on the tendency of pundits to instantly, and by implication thoughtlessly, formulate opinions before they’ve had a chance to really mull things over, do some research, consider the implications. But no — it’s a serious self-designation, trumpeting what the author apparently considers the strength of the blogs — the ability to draw conclusions even more quickly than normal pundits.

And so, before the bodies had even cooled in the latest mass shooting, representatives of various monomaniacal obsessions had quickly moved in to claim the victims as martyrs to their respective causes. Same as it ever was. As for me, I will just offer two tangential observations:

• The NRA must hardly believe their good fortune that some other "—RA" group is taking most of the heat for this one. Only one letter apart in the alphabet, but oh, what a difference it makes!

• Irony delights me, but I still find it amazing that the same people who will use a snarky #NotAllMen or #YesAllWomen have no problem turning around and essentially claiming that #NotAllMentallyIll people are dangerous and violent. Well, no, but...

Friday, May 23, 2014

Verily, Verily, I Say Unto Thee

This transcript of a talk by Wilfred McClay on Michael Oakeshott's place in the history of modern conservatism, and this essay by Fred Sanders on the importance of the medium and the message in Calvin and Hobbes (and what that means for evangelicals, but I skipped over that part), are two things that I found well worth reading this week, though I don't really have anything to add to them. Perhaps you might also find them worth your time.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Opinions and Assholes

Once again: it’s not the “snobs” who close doors and forbid some kinds of art; it’s the anti-snobs. It’s not the “snobs” who go on and on about the illegitimacy of the art they don’t like; it’s the anti-snobs. It’s not the “snobs” who try to legislate their own taste, it’s the anti-snobs. It’s the anti-snobs who are conservative, smarmy, closed-minded, arrogant, and rude. It’s the anti-snobs. They’re the ones who shrink the world of what art can be and can do. They’re the ones living in caves, sniveling about how disrespected they are, trying with all their might to forbid the possibility that other people might like other things than they do. It’s just like I’ve been saying.

I dunno; you can read the Grantland piece Freddie links to, and then you can compare it to this from William Giraldi in TNR, which almost approaches moral panic-mongering over what it means about us as a culture that we tolerate so many philistines in our midst. (Speaking of which, despite the lack of top hats and monocles among the staff at that execrable magazine, this seems to be a recurring theme with them.) In Giraldi's furious rant, note especially how the critical judgment of the art itself is inseparable from the scornful, snobbish assumptions about the intelligence and moral character of the people who willingly consume it. I don't see any sense in being invested in the idea that one "side" of the great brow divide is worse about this than the other; it seems evident to me that humans, as social apes, are naturally obsessed with monitoring, judging, policing and condemning the thoughts and actions of the rest of the troop. Hermits are the only ones too removed or too crazy to care about the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is "doing X wrong" and having the audacity to be happy about it.

I mean, look, even a casual reader here should know how important books are to me, what a burning passion I have for reading. Take a moment, if you would, to contemplate just how often I talk about what I'm reading, how often I use a passage from a book as a springboard for my own musings. So, then, imagine what a massive, throbbing, gaping hemorrhoidal asshole you have to be to make me feel sympathy for non-readers. To wit:

Tell me the books you read and I’ll tell you who you are; tell me you read no books and I’ll tell you there is no you.

This is so breathtakingly stupid, so gratuitously obnoxious, that I am nearly struck dumb with amazement. This kind of assertion doesn't deserve a counter-argument so much as a pillow held firmly over its face. And oh, sweet Lord, the irony; even as Leon Wieseltier leans over the battlements to bellow at Steven Pinker, it turns out the reductionist barbarians were inside the gates of the humanities all along!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

He Went Metric Years Ago. The Guy's Hat's Got No Brim


Hi, it’s me. ‘Niggardly’. I just wanted to talk about the way you use me. Got a sec?

I‘ve always been honest with myself about my uncanny resemblance to the word ‘nigger’, even though we have no common etymological ancestors or definitions. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of it – it’s a weird linguistic fluke and nothing more.

I’m not exactly an everyday word. I’m no ‘pants’ or ‘food’ or ‘door’ or ‘hand’.  When people need to describe the state of being ‘ungenerous or stingy’ most of them just use ‘cheap’. ‘Cheap’ gets a lot of action, cuz it’s short and sweet. And once the word ‘nigger’ became more or less universally reviled, I figured my usage would drop off even more. When gangsta rap came along I hoped maybe people would start using me as slang. Like, ‘Yo, my nigga, that’s a muthafuckin’ niggadly tip you left the waiter.’ But that didn’t really catch on. Them’s the breaks in the world of words, though, There’s lots of words that don’t get used often because they sound like other words; just ask ‘coccyx’ and ‘angina’.  You roll with it.

The post goes on to lament the author's suspicion that some people continue to use the slightly-archaic word because it hits the sweet spot of implied racist intent while technically retaining plausible deniability. Eh, I guess it's possible, but my amateur fascination with the evolution of language has convinced me that attempts to morally sanitize word usage will forever remain a couple steps behind people's inventiveness. In fact, while reading this, I found myself wondering whether the more clever racists have actually moved on to some new linguistic convention similar to Cockney rhyming slang, where synonyms like "stingy" or "miserly" become code words for referring to, you know, those people.

On a more lighthearted note:

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

When I Was an Alien, Cultures Weren't Opinions

Suzanna Walters:

Tolerance is not just a low bar; it actively undercuts robust integration and social belonging by allowing the warp and woof of anti-gay animus to go unchallenged. Tolerance allows us to celebrate (hysterically) the coming out of macho professional athletes as a triumphant sign of liberation rather than a sad commentary on the persistence of the closet and the hold of masculinist ideals. Tolerance allows religious "objections" to queer lives to remain in place, even as it claims that a civilized society leaves its homos alone. Tolerance pushes for marriage equality and simultaneously assures anxious allies that it won’t change their marriages or their lives.

And there you see the crux of the tolerance trap: If an ostensible concession doesn’t challenge straight lives, it’s not very radical, and if it does challenge them, it’s not a concession gays and lesbians will win. The marriage assurances are similar to gay responses to right-wing attacks on queer parents: Researchers and advocates argue that "no harm" is done to our kids, that there is no difference between gay and straight parenting. But couldn’t we imagine the strong case? Shouldn’t we argue, instead, that our progeny would/could grow up with more expansive and creative ways of living gender and sexuality? Shouldn’t we argue that same-sex marriage might make us all think differently about the relationship between domestic life and gender norms and push heterosexuals to examine their stubborn commitment to a gendered division of labor?

Once you sift out all the pomo gender studies-speak, it seems to me that her essay balances uneasily on two contradictory premises. On the one hand, she decries "tolerance" as an ideal because, she claims, it depends on the idea of immutability — if gays are truly "born this way", then we have to grudgingly tolerate them, even if we aren't enthused about it. This interpretation might come as a surprise to J.S. Mill, whose classic formulation of tolerance as a liberal ideal did not depend upon a notion of people being born to think a certain way. At any rate, as is typical of radical leftist perspectives, she doesn't like the fact that "tolerance" implies a power imbalance. In a truly just world, no one should ever have to beg for concessions from anyone!

But then some of her complaints seem to be those of an aging radical unhappy that a new generation is content to accept queerness as just another insignificant lifestyle choice, rather than being a truly different subculture, forever opposed to the dominant culture's mores. These damn queer kids today, they're just content to be allowed to get married, join the army, and be proportionately represented among TV sitcom characters! Well, I just have two pieces of free advice, which are worth every penny: one, as long as you're wishing upon a star for things to be different than they are, don't forget to finish with "...and a pony." And two, if you're really into fetishizing intractable differences between cultures and subcultures, you might not want to be so scornful toward an ideal that takes for granted an imperfect state of affairs in which deep, important differences will always exist between people, and seeks to create the conditions for them to exist together without serious conflict. If the pragmatic reality is that you will always be a minority, both demographically and philosophically, disparaging the ideal of tolerance for being less than perfect is a bit like sawing through the branch you're sitting on.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Mr. Freedom, Big Time Talker-Upper, Thank You Very Much, But No

Adam Gurri:

Let us start with a consideration of what exactly it is that telescopic morality entails. The question, as the Vulgar Moralist put it, is what the proper sphere is for morality. The telescopic friends and loved ones I have known over the years have obsessed over problems far away, which they were unable to meaningfully influence. Moreover, they were righteous about this, and either implied or outright told those of us with more mundane concerns that we were immoral for ignoring the cosmic injustices occurring around the world on a daily basis. Indeed, by doing so we were perceived as partly culpable for the fact that such things continued to occur.

The claim, in short, is that the proper moral sphere is the whole world and encompasses all of humanity, and focusing primarily only on those things touched by a typical individual’s life is myopic and indistinguishable from egoism.

Most of the time this is merely annoying. People talk big or (as the Vulgar Moralist puts it) attend rock concerts to end hunger, but don’t actually make any meaningful personal sacrifices. My piece last week was largely a response to the combination of this attitude with the perpetual outrage machine that the Internet has been turned into. This combination results in real consequences to the objects of ire regardless of whether or not the outraged people have carefully investigated the context—and I am highly skeptical than any significant proportion of them ever do. The combination of gluttony for righteousness, unquestioning acceptance of the particular context a story is presented in, and entitlement without sacrifice is a recipe unlikely to produce virtue.

Some interesting back-and-forth in the comments over there. It's curious to me that anyone would feel threatened or offended by this perspective — for me, it seems to be simply saying that, one, there is an annoying class of people, especially on social media, who treat moral issues as a positional good, and a pinprick to their balloon might do them some good. Two, choose your battles with care. Believe it or not, youngsters, the average person (not you and I, of course; we're all above average here, naturally) has a finite amount of time, energy, money, knowledge and optimism, and it doesn't go very far in terms of making substantial change happen in the world. Make it count when you put it to use. And three, wow, those conspicuous crusading types are really annoying.

I Guess All Us Snakes Find Our Tails Pretty Damn Tasty

James Wolcott:

In a still-relevant essay from 1971 called "Culture Now: Some Animadversions, Some Laughs," Saul Bellow noted the proclivity of intellectuals and pundits to pronounce an all-encompassing death sentence with the pound of a judge's gavel. Liberalism is dead. Literature is dead. Cinema is dead. America is dead. And so on. "[W]hat a lot of ideological burial parties the twentieth century has seen!" So, too, the 21st century, which got off to a crummy start and can't seem to get galloping. This week alone we were informed that The Novel Is Dead (oh no, not again!) and that Twitter, if not dead yet, is feeling mite poorly and beginning to shuffle off to the bone yard ("A Eulogy for Twitter," by Adrienne Lafrance and Robinson Meyer).

See, kids, this is why you need to pay heed to wise elders like Wolcott; they're an invaluable source of context and history. Watching life scroll by on your phone screen, it can be easy to get the impression from one article after another that a trend too big for the cradle is as good as in the grave, and that this manic impatience of the chattering class is largely a product of our social media age. But here you have the necessary corrective from a man of letters with the jaded gaze of an unimpressed sphinx, reminding you that this, too, will not only pass but will be coming around again.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Oh, No, I've Said Too Much, I Haven't Said Enough

Arthur has developed an interest in Nagarjuna's philosophy recently, and we've been trading emails on that and related subjects. Here's an excerpt from his side of the conversation:

I ordered Batchelor's book, it sounded so interesting. Plus it cost a penny plus shipping. Wisdom on the cheap is still wisdom, right? I also read the article in Aeon: fascinating, as much for the comments as for the article. One comment puts it succinctly: the Buddha was not interested in ontology. Nagarjuna wrote reams of prose and verse explaining exactly why. He effed the ineffable, which perhaps he shouldn't oughta, but he did, so there it is. REM: "Oh no, I've said too much, I haven't said enough."

Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that many things can be shown but not said, and wrote a whole book (the Tractatus), explaining what and why. Martin Heidegger made himself famous by asking what Being is, and then spent much of the rest of his life explaining why you can’t even ask this question. Call it mysticism if you want; the label has little enough meaning. But whatever you call it, it is rife in great philosophy – Eastern and Western.

"Mysticism" is an unfortunate word, because it implies obscurantism: let things remain a mystery. If you have to ask what it means, you'll never know what it means.

Here's what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say about it (actually, them, since there are two distinct but eminently punnable words that are spelled the same but are not the same):

early 14c., in a theological sense, "religious truth via divine revelation, hidden spiritual significance, mystical truth," from Anglo-French *misterie, Old French mistere "secret, mystery, hidden meaning" (Modern French mystère), from Latin mysterium "secret rite, secret worship; a secret thing," from Greek mysterion (usually in plural mysteria) "secret rite or doctrine," from mystes "one who has been initiated," from myein "to close, shut" (see mute (adj.)); perhaps referring to the lips (in secrecy) or to the eyes (only initiates were allowed to see the sacred rites).

"handicraft, trade, art" (archaic), late 14c., from Medieval Latin misterium, alteration of Latin ministerium "service, occupation, office, ministry" (see ministry), influenced in form by Medieval Latin mysterium (see mystery (n.1)) and in sense by maistrie "mastery." Now only in mystery play, in reference to the medieval performances, which often were staged by members of craft guilds. The two senses of mystery formed a common pun in (secular) Tudor theater.

The operative sense is "mute." Zip it. Stow it. Whistleblowers beware. No journalists or photographers allowed. Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent--or else.

Initiates into the highest levels of the Eleusinian cult were called "mystai." Athenians could be and were executed for publicly divulging details about the cult's doings. Even Aeschylus was put on trial for running his mouth about the Mysteries in one of his plays. (He was acquitted: or was he? Like the Mafia, the Athenian archons just bided their time, till one day: pow! A tortoise just happens to fall from the sky and lands precisely on his head. Yeah, right.)

The second "Mystery" is unrelated etymologically but leads irresistibly to puns because the meanings dovetail: Mysteries were guilds, guilds had initiation rites and killed members who betrayed their secrets... Sounds a bit like the NSA/CIA/cronyism complex.

In other words, the NSA is a Mystery Cult. Dick Cheney, the arch-crony, is the ultimate Mystic. 

I responded:

I'm currently reading Philipp Blom's The Vertigo Years, where he writes:

The multilingual philosopher Fritz Mauthner (1849-1923) knew about the impossibilities of literal translations between languages and became fundamentally suspicious of what could and could not be said with words. Mauthner analyzed the ability of language to transport definite meaning, after having noticed that concepts and their connotations were subtly different in every language he would use. Experience is unique and immediate, and the very moment it receives a name it loses those crucial qualities, Mauthner contended, and in his Contributions to a Critique of Language, 1901-03, it took him three hefty volumes to explain that language was unable to convey thought content -- one of the more paradoxical achievements of Western philosophy. Mauthner's philosophical project culminated in an all-embracing but godless mysticism.

Of course, there wasn't anything peculiarly Teutonic about this tendency toward logorrheic reticence, as Po Chu-i famously snarked about Lao Tzu:

"Those who speak know nothing;
Those who know are silent."
Those words, I am told,
Were spoken by Lao Tzu.
If we are to believe that Lao Tzu
Was himself one who knew,
How comes it that he wrote a book
Of five thousand words?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Book By Its Cover

Gabriel Arana:

Corporate America long ago signed on to the idea that diversity—besides being a noble goal in itself—is good for business. Companies with diverse workforces consistently outperform their competitors; diversity drives innovation, and workers tend to be happier at companies that value inclusiveness. But it's even more important in journalism than, say, at an accounting firm. When you're in the business of telling stories, lacking diversity means you're limited in the sorts of stories you can tell—or even think of telling. A newsroom filled with white guys simply lacks the same imagination as one with people from an array of backgrounds.

Our demographic feng shui practitioner has apparently gotten journalism confused with creative writing class, but that's okay, because journalism has much bigger problems than office cosmetics to worry about, and it could be that all the non-honkies are simply smart enough to get involved in a field with a future instead. Still, he's absolutely right. Imagination and empathy aren't qualities that can be honed by just anyone; they're genetically encoded in our race and gender. I mean, white people's fiction all sounds exactly alike, obviously. Same with their music — you've heard one white artist, you've heard them all.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Pearls Before Swine

So, last week, Freddie made what I thought to be an obvious and straightforward observation — tribalism begets tribalism. The irrelevant scalp you take now will one day be your own. Once more, with feeling:

This is going to happen: sooner or later, some CEO or sports team owner or similar is going to get ousted because he or she supports a woman’s right to an abortion, or the cause of Palestinian statehood, or opposes the death penalty. It’s inevitable. I can easily see someone suggesting that, say, Israel is an apartheid state, and watching as the media whips itself into a frenzy. And when that happens, the notion that there is no such thing as a violation of free speech that isn’t the government literally sending men with guns to arrest you will be just as powerful, and powerfully destructive, as it is now.

The context in which this simple point was made provoked furious reactions from Balloon Juice and LG&M. Freddie updated his post to say that not one of his critics had attempted to explain how they would have any ground to stand on in the event of a hypothetical such as he described, which, again, was the whole point of the exercise. Blog comment sections continued to make a persuasive case for their retroactive abortions. Drama, drama everywhere, nor any thought to think. I shook my head at the spectacle and then got busy with work for several days.

I blame that overwork for not thinking of the obvious rejoinder at the time. So when I finally got a free minute this evening, I just did a simple search at each of the posts in question to see if anyone had thought to bring up the infamous example of the Dixie Chicks. Silly me, I thought that if anyone had, it would be as an admonishment to progressives — hey, remember how horribly unfair and cynical you thought it was when their career was threatened for simply voicing an opinion? Shouldn't that at least make you pause and reflect before jerking your knees and calling for someone's job the next time they offend you? Did you all shrug and agree with Bush's smirking response, which sounds so similar to the laissez-faire attitudes you hold now?

The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say…They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out. Freedom is a two-way street.

Like I said, silly me. One person at Freddie's and three at Balloon Juice mentioned it. A couple of them brought it up in a tit-for-tat manner, as if Freddie were a disingenuous right-winger who needed to be reminded that conservatives can be tribal too, and the other argued that public shaming was free speech in action, apparently happy to allow the occasional consumer boycott of progressive artists in return for the right to have trial by social media. All of this in response, remember, to an attempt to argue for an increasingly charitable spirit of free speech. It's not about the merits of Brendan Eich or Donald Sterling or the Dixie Chicks or anyone else in particular, but about trying to transcend the principles of "Mom, he started it!", and "But it's different when we do it!" It's a reminder that your opponents will one day disingenuously take advantage of the same loopholes and technicalities to gain a trivial bit of revenge on you, and for what? A race to the bottom. Whatever, so be it. Hatfields and McCoys forever; you deserve one another.

If I weren't going to be busy for at least a couple more days, it would sure be fun to hop in the wayback machine and go visit some of the progressive blogs circa 2003 to see what the reaction was at the time. Sanguine, I'm sure. I'll bet you a vast sum of imaginary money on it.

ADDENDUM: Let me approach this from another angle to hopefully clarify some things. It seems evident to me that Freddie often takes a more, shall we say, meta-perspective on the issue du jour than most other bloggers. (I like to think I do as well, but I think he does it better than me.) If online progressivism is a fishtank, most bloggers are just writing about the details of the other fish. Freddie is more likely to be writing about the pH level of the water, the condition of the filter, and the size and shape of the tank itself. He's more interested in the context in which these issues are being discussed. So, if I understand his general drift, he might ask, "What does it mean that all these people online are squawking about Brendan Eich or Donald Sterling or whothefuckever it is today?" A straightforward response might be, "It means that they oppose racism and homophobia and they think people who hold to such beliefs should pay a social penalty, duh. That's a good thing, obviously!" To which he might respond, "No no no — what does it mean that they're squawking about it in this particular environment?" Meaning, the incestuous environment of progressive social media.

If you've read even half of the links I've made to him, then you're probably aware that he frequently revisits a theme, one that I find perceptive and rarely broached elsewhere. He frequently describes the way progressives behave online as being primarily concerned with an elaborate display of signaling, sorting, and other forms of jockeying for social status within the in-group. Numerous studies have shown what your own eyes have probably told you as well: the sheer volume of information available to anyone browsing the web, contrary to many of the early, rosy prognostications, has often tended to reduce people's openness to new facts and perspectives. People cling more tightly to their beliefs for fear of losing their identity, with the added bonus that the web's design allows them to customize their filters to an extent that they rarely, if ever, have to encounter any news or opinions that might seriously rattle their worldview. "Internet silos" is as good a name as any for this phenomenon. Political progressives may often be smug and self-satisfied about how tolerant and reality-based and culturally sophisticated they are, but they're just as prone to this as any other group of humans who spend too much time inhaling their own fumes.

Another recurring theme of his that I like, one that he just revisited the other day, is that politics, if it's intended to actually make a difference in the world, is about trying to convince people who don't already agree with you. Simple, obvious, yet still almost radically powerful, because when you think about it, you realize that most "political" blogging is actually just preaching (or ranting) to the converted. If you're a reader and a commenter, how much time do you spend at sites that actually challenge what you think, engaging people in thoughtful conversations, possibly changing your mind in the process? And how many do you go to where you can be sure that you'll be surrounded by people who already agree with you on everything of substance? If you're a blogger, how many times are your links either of the "Yeah, me too, +1," or the "Ha ha, hey everybody, look at this stupid clown saying something stupid" variety? And how many times do you link to people who, even when you think they're wrong, are still worth grappling with because doing so forces you to think more deeply about your own priors and assumptions?

If you're at all typical, you probably go for the reinforced conventional wisdom and cheap laughs. Which is fine, but gossiping about political issues on a blog is not politics. It's not activism. Like Freddie said, it's a coffee klatsch. It's a way to gather with like-minded people and reassure yourselves that you're on the side of the angels, unlike all those benighted heathens over there. It's a mutual admiration and handjob society. If someone from "the other side" actually did show up to attempt to argue a point, you or your comrades would almost certainly shout at him to scare him off, or you'd insist on reducing him to a cartoonish caricature, making it into a competition to see who could get in the most clever jab before running him off. Freddie likes to call this We Are All Already Decided, or something to that effect. We're not trying to convince any undecided bystanders or question any assumptions; we've long since made up our minds on everything important, and now we're just preening and grooming one another while we wait for the world to come around and recognize our obvious brilliance. Again, everybody needs to enjoy some form of entertainment, and I'm all for people wasting the company's time while pretending to work. But this seems to be a form of entertainment with delusions of grandeur.

My personal take on the Sterling drama, ferzample, should you need it spelled out in so many words, is pretty much the exact same as that of the Ruthless Reviews article I linked to: I don't care. So, some mummified old rich fuck who will be dead in a few years anyway said something racist on tape. Apparently, people familiar with this corner of the sports world had known the guy was racist for quite a while, but until the revelation got presented in a bite-sized, chocolate-coated, sugar morsel format that the subliterate Twittards could absorb, no one else cared much either. But viral attention suddenly meant everyone had to publicly present the appearance of caring, so there was much joy and cheer as the bad man was forced to sell his team at a huge profit and retire before the grim reaper himself could show up to escort him away. Do I have that about right? If so, then again, this isn't news. This is useless drama. This is soap opera gossip. This is irrelevant fluff masquerading as something culturally significant. This changes nothing. So what does it mean that so many people online devote so much attention to it?

It is in this absurd context that people like Freddie and myself start to notice, hey, you know what, it seems like this incestuous little environment is starting to get a little too enamored of the idea that political activism amounts to little more than baying like a hound at the first sniff of a naughty word or a reactionary attitude, a little too complacent in thinking that justice has been served by getting someone fired. Granted, that's a judgment call, a vague perception, and yours may differ. But if you're waiting until Barack Obama, the Congressional Democrats, Paul Krugman and all the A-list bloggers all come out together and say in so many words that anyone found holding certain verboten opinions should be fired from their job before you decide to take seriously the idea that the spirit of free speech should be a bit more generous than the letter of the law, it's probably too late at that point.

And again, if I haven't made it already clear, I think that if there is to be any chance of such a charitable attitude gaining favor, it won't begin online. I think that the dynamics I'm complaining about are exactly what the system is set up to produce, and I have no realistic hope that it could be any other way. Cement-headed idiots screaming at each other in sentence fragments. 500 people all trying to talk at once in the same enclosed space, reacting instead of thinking, trying to be the first to fire off a snarky one-liner. The kinds of conversations worth having are simply not going to happen in this environment. Everything is structured against it.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Married, Buried, Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah

Jessa Crispin:

Marriage is problematic. That is not a controversial statement to make. Its long history is mostly a history of oppression and treating women like they are property. It was a business deal and a way to manage money and inheritance, and it was not a decision made by the participants, it was a contract arranged by the parents. Only in the last 150 years or so has marriage had anything to do with love and passion, and yet redefining a marriage as an emotional bond rather than a legal one has not fundamentally changed its nature. The rules remain the same (if you give me your sexual fidelity I will give you access to my bank account), the legal arrangement remains the same, and the institution drags its ugly history behind it like a diseased tail.

My first thought when reading Bruce Benderson's chapbook Against Marriage was, FINALLY. Finally someone is clearly and passionately attacking this arrangement, from an historical, political, and philosophical angle, as a gay rights activist and a feminist. Because marriage, despite looking for a while like it might be tossed aside to let in new ways of arranging families, participating in romance, raising children, has actually gained power in the last few decades. The pressure to marry is enormous, especially for women. And then the whole self-help culture wants to make sure your relationship is arranged exactly like everyone else's -- any deviation (polyamory, triangles, communal living, even long distance relationships) are seen as expressions of childhood trauma or low self esteem or some other form of madness.

While interviewing Benderson, she adds:

It's the same from the feminist angle. I don't understand, having read the last 200 years of feminist theory, and I don't understand how we got to this point, where we are just commenting on the culture, blogging about the television shows we like and don't like, rather than hacking away at the structure with a fucking axe.

Speaking of history, isn't it depressingly predictable how often these Enlightenment-inspired visions of a rational reordering of social mores, when met with rejection or even a polite lack of interest, end up in accusations of false consciousness? "Hacking away at the structure with a fucking axe"? Well, first of all, points deducted for the hackneyed metaphor, and secondly, what do you mean "we", paleface? I dunno, maybe we're not doing that because — oh, how it pains me to state the bleeding obvious — there are such things as happy, monogamous marriages, and it is entirely possible that people have had enough time to look at hippie communes and rationally decide, "Eh, not for me, thanks." I mean, if you want to be a nomadic, literary bohemian on society's fringe, more power to you, vaya con dios, but before you start urging the masses to yank the wedding manacles from their fingers, you might want to consider that some people actually want comfort, stability, routine, and a reliable partner to raise kids with, and it doesn't mean they've been brainwashed. (Let's not even get into the role biology and psychology might play in all this, lest I add to the reactionary charges being prepared against me.)

True, obviously, most people these days do not marry till death does them part. I'd say you could file that one away under the paradox of choice — when given the ability to endlessly customize the details of one's life, people tend to have trouble sticking to a decision, whereas they tend to adapt and settle soon enough when such decisions are taken out of their hands. (Amusingly, this fact leads Benderson to advocate a return to arranged marriages if we must retain them at all, which, to me at least, sits rather awkwardly among all the fulminations against the ways in which the institution has stifled and strangled our romantic imagination and creative potential. Seems like a textbook false dilemma there.) And you'd get no argument from me over the suggestion that many people have unrealistic ideals in their love lives that condemn them to avoidable misery. But I'm jaded enough to agree with Schopenhauer — many if not most people spend their lives vacillating between boredom and despair. I mean, here's a current group of patriarchy-smashing feminists, several of whom seem to espouse some type of open-relationship ideal, and judging from what I've seen, they're just as confused and neurotic and generally fucked-up as anyone, with extra drama to boot. People, as a rule, are unhappy wherever they are with whatever they have, always judging the grass to be greener elsewhere. Pessimistic? No, just the human condition.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

You Know You Must Decide to Conquer the Madness of the Day

The only ethical path is to be more selective. Storytelling in the public sphere, in its best form, is like an ongoing conversation that has no end in sight. Ask yourself: what conversations matter to you? Which are relevant to your life, and which are relevant to your interests? After figuring that out, be stricter about excluding stories that fall outside of those conversations. Be selective about the publications you read regularly, and seek to go deeper rather than broader in the conversations you follow. There’s only so much you can do while still remaining online—being on social media means getting a lot of stuff outside the bounds of what you want to pay attention to. But improvement in this area is possible. Clay Johnson has a lot of great thoughts on this in his book The Information Diet.

Most importantly, let go of any pretense of telescopic morality. It will only hold you back from the things that really matter, the things on which you can make a difference and for which you have the most context on which to deliberate.

Prometheus Round and Round

How many times have you heard that we humans are "using up" the world's resources, "running out" of oil, "reaching the limits" of the atmosphere's capacity to cope with pollution or "approaching the carrying capacity" of the land's ability to support a greater population? The assumption behind all such statements is that there is a fixed amount of stuff—metals, oil, clean air, land—and that we risk exhausting it through our consumption.

"We are using 50% more resources than the Earth can sustainably produce, and unless we change course, that number will grow fast—by 2030, even two planets will not be enough," says Jim Leape, director general of the World Wide Fund for Nature International (formerly the World Wildlife Fund).

But here's a peculiar feature of human history: We burst through such limits again and again.


A new report by WHO–its first to look at antimicrobial resistance, including antibiotic resistance, globally–reveals that this serious threat is no longer a prediction for the future, it is happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country. Antibiotic resistance–when bacteria change so antibiotics no longer work in people who need them to treat infections–is now a major threat to public health.

“Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,” says Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security. “Effective antibiotics have been one of the pillars allowing us to live longer, live healthier, and benefit from modern medicine. Unless we take significant actions to improve efforts to prevent infections and also change how we produce, prescribe and use antibiotics, the world will lose more and more of these global public health goods and the implications will be devastating.”

Monday, May 05, 2014

Everyone Will Click on a Pic of a Chick


If Hess has made you wonder, hmm, maybe unrestricted anonymity is bad because it gives trolls too much power, then the system has successfully used her for its true purpose: brand it as bad, to you. She is unwittingly teaching the demo of this article, e.g. women in their 20s with no actual power looking to establish themselves, who are the very people who should embrace anonymity, not to want this: only rapists and too-weak-to-try rapists want to be anonymous. Smart women write clickable articles about their sexuality for nothing, because what good are you if you can't make someone else money? Interesting to observe that the article's single suggested solution to cyberharassment is to reframe a criminal problem into a civil rights issue using a logic so preposterously adolescent that if you laid this on your Dad when you were 16 he'd backhand slap you right out of the glee club: "it discourages women from writing and earning a living online." Earning a living? From who, Gawker? Most of the women writing on the internet are writing for someone else who pays them next to nothing. None of them control the capital, none of them get paid 1/1000 of what they bring in for the media company. You know what they do get? They get to be valued by work, and in gratitude they are going to the front lines to fight for the media company's right to pay them less.

And the indoctrination has worked, the less Asperger's a woman is, the more she'll hate writing anonymously. Don't get angry at me, they did a study, and I think it explains why women don't want to write for The Economist. In the reverse, put a pic in your byline and you improve your female audience; put a pic of a female in your byline and you've maximized ROI, everyone will click on a pic of a chick. This is economic and psychologic universe in which Hess finds herself.

He may only post every month or two, but when he does, you're sure to get a lot more insight than you've likely gotten from all the other forgettable articles you've read on the topic.

All These Contradictions are Bound to Confuse; Which Wrong Will You Choose?

Graham Priest:

The second lesson is quite different and more striking. Buddhist thought, and Asian thought in general, has often been written off by Western philosophers. How can contradictions be true? What’s all this talk of ineffability? This is all nonsense. The constructions I have described show how to make precise mathematical sense of the Buddhist views. This does not, of course, show that they are true. That’s a different matter. But it does show that these ideas can be made as logically rigorous and coherent as ideas can be. As the Buddha may or may not have said (or both, or neither): ‘There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.’

Fun stuff. Also, the post I wrote on Nagarjuna's tetralemma is one of the most popular ones I've done; I still get visitors to it on an almost-daily basis. Some people use the Internet for something besides gossip and drama, I guess.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

What's Mine Is Mine and What's Yours

Brad Warner:

My Twitter friend appears to believe that my sentiments represent those of an arrogant, over-privileged American telling people who have been steeped in Buddhism for thousands of years what their religion is really about. How dare I?

But does the mere fact of being an American Buddhist really make one less qualified to say what Buddhism is actually about? If we were to follow that line of thinking to its logical conclusion, then I, as a person who grew up in a Christian country, would be more qualified to speak about the true meaning of Jesus’ life than a Singhalese Catholic monk who spent thirty years studying and practicing Christianity.

Having lived a large portion of my life outside of the United States, as a child in Kenya and an adult in Japan, it seems to me that people all over the world are very much alike, often in surprising ways. The kinds of Buddhists who find tattoos of Buddha offensive or who attack their neighbors for being of the wrong religion are pretty much the equivalent of American Christians who think Jesus had blond hair and blue eyes and hated homosexuals. They don’t know any more about Buddhism than our homegrown reactionary, racist “Christians” know what Jesus’ message was about.

...I think those of us in the West who are deeply interested in Buddhism also tend to understand Buddhist philosophy better than the average Asian who tends to assume they know all about Buddhism because they’ve grown up around it. It’s a bit like how some of our most hardcore Christians in the US don’t know much about what’s actually in the Bible.

A Pew Forum survey showed that agnostics and atheists in American tend to know more about the Bible than those who call themselves Christians. That’s because atheists and agnostics don’t just assume they know. They go look the stuff up! It’s the same with Western Buddhists. We don’t have any reason to assume we know what the Buddha said just because we’ve been raised around a miasma of mixed up misquotations and folk sayings wrongly attributed to the Buddha — the same as American Christians often think that things from Dante’s Inferno and Shakespeare are part of the Bible.

This fetishizing of origins from racial/cultural/religious separatists only makes me wonder where they each draw the line marking off the pure, original race/culture/religion from all the lamentable appropriation that followed. If we can pin each of them down on a definitive time and place (which will naturally all be different), then we can pit them against each other and watch them fight it out for our amusement.

Hungry Like the Wolf Blitzer

After a long day on the road Friday, I stopped for dinner at a Chinese mega-buffet. It was one of those restaurants that have closed-captioned TVs on every other wall. Barely had I sat down with a plate of lo mein when CNN flashed an attention-grabbing "Breaking News" banner on the screen. Goodness! This looks important! Wait, Donald Sterling speaking out for the first time since the scandal? Are you kidding? This is why you interrupt my dinner, to try to feed me more useless drama?

I turned back to my plate, certain that I could find more illuminating perspectives on the latest morality play later if I wanted. And so it proved:


I guess it’s brave to ignore an important dude who pays your salary being a major league asshole until it becomes a big media story and you have to suddenly be outraged. The definition of bravery is pretty whimsical. It used to be the first man rushing into the breach. Now it’s disassociation as fast as your little chicken legs can carry you. I’m not saying Donald Sterling is not a racist asshole. I’m saying if you’ve waited until he was 81 to make first mention of it, you need to do a little Michael Jackson man in the mirror self-reflection time. Not that that stopped Michael from clown bagging little boys, but you get the idea.

Plexico Gingrich:

As Liberal Puritanism and other forms of self-indulgent, lazy morality become normalized, and as the science of manipulating the public becomes more refined, and as our systems become more corrupt, what the powerful do, in terms of helping and hurting other people, is becoming irrelevant. It will just occasionally matter what they say. You can actively promote elements of institutional racism against poor blacks, be caught and have it all proven in court. Just don’t say anything ugly about a famous, rich black guy. You can plunder struggling local governments to increase wealth that already vastly exceeds what you can spend in a lifetime. Just make sure to read a book to a kid on TV in a school that has less money because of you.

The rich and powerful can do whatever they want and hurt as many people as they want and we’ll continue to celebrate them. Just as long as we get the chance to screech at one here and there for making some stupid faux pas that doesn’t really harm anyone.

For our part, we’ll be able to agree on easily digestible, trivial moral problems that have to do with the individual failings of some villain du jour. We’ll be right, he’ll be wrong. We’ll congratulate ourselves for promoting justice. He’ll liquidate a billion dollar asset and pretend to go to rehab or something. Then he’ll return to alternately enjoying total opulence and buying press and politicians to use as weapons against the rest of us. And when we get hung up on one dickhead saying one shitty thing, we’re playing that game just as much as he is.

Freddie deBoer:

This is going to happen: sooner or later, some CEO or sports team owner or similar is going to get ousted because he or she supports a woman’s right to an abortion, or the cause of Palestinian statehood, or opposes the death penalty. It’s inevitable. I can easily see someone suggesting that, say, Israel is an apartheid state, and watching as the media whips itself into a frenzy. And when that happens, the notion that there is no such thing as a violation of free speech that isn’t the government literally sending men with guns to arrest you will be just as powerful, and powerfully destructive, as it is now. So what will these people say? I don’t have the slightest idea how they will be able to defend the right of people to hold controversial, left-wing political ideas when they have come up with a thousand arguments for why the right to free expression doesn’t apply in any actual existing case. How will Isquith write a piece defending a CEO’s right to oppose Israeli apartheid? A sports owner’s right to do the same? I can’t see how he could– unless it really is just all about teams, and not about principle at all.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

I'm Not Sure Who They Are but I Know Who They've Been

Will Shetterly:

And since I'm on the subject, I've seen a person or two suggest I coined "social justice warrior". Nope. I'm not sure where I found it first, but it's been around a while. Urban Dictionary had it long before me, and so did Be a SJ Ally, not a SJ Sally. I don't like it, but it's common, and I haven't found another name for identitarians who think raging online about social privilege will make a better world. If I was prone to conspiracy theory, I would think they were all provocateurs trying to discredit the real social justice workers who spend time in the world working to end poverty for everyone, regardless of their social identity.

Several years ago, frustrated by the progressive fixation on cosmetic diversity masking ideological uniformity, I wrote to a few of my former-academic friends and asked them if they could recommend any incisive liberal critiques of the identitarian left. After a lot of shrugging and head-scratching, the only one that got offered up was Robert Hughes' The Culture of Complaint, which was indeed a good book. Since then, I've read books like Russell Jacoby's The End of Utopia, which criticizes the left's post-Marxist turn toward postmodern academic obscurantism in lieu of trying to make positive political change in the real world, Richard Bernstein's Dictatorship of Virtue, written in the mid-90s, which criticized the multicultural academic agenda from a liberal perspective, Keith Windschuttle's The Killing of History, which, despite Windschuttle's conservatism, seemed to me to be one of the most clearly-written and genuinely informative looks at the various postmodern/cultural studies trends in academic history, and Bruce Bawer's The Victim's Revolution, which, though containing some good points, came off as a little too desperate to impress upon the reader the intellectual bankruptcy of the academic trends he covered, rather than simply giving his subjects enough rope to fairly hang themselves.

What I've mainly learned is that there is nothing new under the left-wing sun. The only difference, the only difference in a book like Bernstein's, say, is a lack of references to the Internet and an abundance of references to Poppy Bush/Clinton era politics. Otherwise, it could have been published last week. The academic climate it describes and the multiculti dogmas it presents can be observed in real time by twentysomethings preaching on Twitter right now. Well, actually, that is one other important difference — now, we have social media, which magnifies and amplifies all the absolute worst tendencies of group behavior, so that obnoxious behaviors and delusional theories which would have formerly been confined to campus lecture halls and mimeographed zines are now shared with everyone. "Social justice warriors" seems like as good a term as any for describing what happened when the multiculti left met Web 2.0.

(Speaking of twentysomethings, I still favor my hypothesis that the apparent omnipresence of SJW issues on the web is due to us currently experiencing a glut of underemployed millennials who have graduated college but are yet to settle down with families and serious careers, thus leaving them with a lot of free time to waste online sharing the pearls of their postcolonial gender studies wisdom. This gives me hope that in a few more years, they'll be too busy changing diapers and climbing the corporate ladder to bother the rest of us anymore.)


Well, damn. I was in D.C. today, but I didn't know anything about this until now! Mine are a little too old to be traveling and marching, but I would have liked to be there. Good on the folks who organized it.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Who Is Passionate Enough When the Punishment Begins?

Kenan Malik:

The trouble is, whether certain ideas are odious or unacceptable is itself usually a matter for debate. Take the two cases here. Many people do not see Brendan Eich’s opposition to same-sex marriage as homophobic or Hirsi Ali’s opposition to Islam as Islamophobic. Even if you think they are homophobic or Islamophobic, there is no value in simply shouting ‘Oh but they are’ and proscribing such views. That makes no more sense than Hindus demanding that Wendy Doniger’s book be banned because it supposedly disparages Hinduism, or Islamists demanding that Maajid Nawaz be disciplined for supposedly offending Muslims.

There is a difference between creating a society in which we have genuinely reduced or removed certain forms of hatreds and demanding that people shut up because they have to conform to other people’s expectations of what is acceptable. To demand that something is unsayable is not to make it unsaid, still less unthought. It is merely to create a world in which social conversation becomes greyer and more timid, in which people are less willing to say anything distinctive or outrageous, in which in Jon Lovett’s words, ‘fewer and fewer people talk more and more about less and less’. The Culture of Shut Up fashions not a less hateful world but a more conformist one. And there is chasm between the act of conforming and that of transforming.

Ideally, it would be great if we could "genuinely reduce" prejudice and hatred without simply demanding that people shut up. Realistically, no matter how committed a society is to maintaining a healthy culture of open discussion and debate, there will always be a significant minority who can't be reasoned into agreement with the majority and will thus be intimidated into silence or ostracized. Eventually, they will accept that the social costs of being racist or homophobic simply aren't worth the open expression of the sentiment, and over time, people will adjust to the new consensus as they always do. However, it still doesn't feel right to endorse the intimidation/ostracizing, as inevitable as it may be. This is the part I wrestle with myself. I agree with the general point of Malik's post (and his stance on free speech in general), but I think he sidesteps this point and is left vaguely gesturing in the direction of a world in which no one is ever compelled into behavior without their fully conscious, rational assent. How do we realistically come to terms with the fact that a tolerance omelet may require a few broken Eichs? How much resistance do we offer to the latest trial-by-Twitter even as we know that, ultimately, societal norms always have and always will require a certain amount of non-rational social pressure to become fixed into place?

If we are forced to accept the inevitability of these social costs, perhaps the best we can do is to moderate their scope and intensity. In the cases of people like Eich or Justine Sacco, what exactly are we trying to achieve? Ferzample, I heard it said that elevating Eich to CEO of Mozilla was the step too far, that it was too close to the company endorsing his political views. Fair enough, but how much effort, in general, should be devoted to scrutinizing someone's political views or personal life? How far should we go in attempting to dig up dirt on them if it's not readily apparent? And how long do the punitive sanctions last? If Eich or Sacco land in new high-profile, lucrative jobs, will they attract more negative attention? That is, will they be perceived to have gotten off too easily and thus require more hounding? I just don't get a sense that most people have bothered to consider things like that. What concerns me is the ad-hoc nature of what constitutes justice in these situations. I suspect that a lot of people just want to enjoy judging and punishing (especially as social media creates the conditions where doing so brings status and other social rewards), and I worry about the possibility of the terms of punishment remaining open-ended and subject to extension.