Saturday, June 28, 2014

Okay, Right Now, I'm Kinda Like a Powder Keg, And You're the Match

I guess that's settled, then!

I still wish he would quit wasting time trying to use Twitter for topics that simply can't be dumbed down to such a subliterate level, but I'm all for him using it to troll SJWs. Discussion is pointless with those imbeciles; just go ahead and keep pushing their rage buttons until they finally collapse from exhaustion. I'll be too busy to check over the next few days, but I'm confident the usual suspects will respond to this with all the equanimity and self-deprecating humor we've come to expect from them.

Friday, June 27, 2014

All Them Books I Didn't Read, They Just Sat There on My Shelf Looking Much Smarter Than Me

When I haven't been watching World Cup games, I've gotta admit I've been much more inclined to read books instead of blogs. Some of these have been on the waiting list for a couple years now. That's ridiculous. I hereby declare my intent to get through this stack by the end of the year.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Flying Down to Rio, Going to Brazil

This might be a good time for you to take that summer vacation you were planning! I don't plan on taking the whole next month off or anything, but I imagine I'll be posting less than usual, especially during the first couple weeks of the tournament. I may continue to update this post with links to things I find interesting, especially if I lack the time or inclination to add much of my own thoughts to them. So you might want to keep checking this space, is what I'm saying.

• ABB — Anybody But Brazil. Yeah, what Leon Krauze says. The entitled arrogance is galling enough, but after watching them cheat their way past a mediocre Croatia in the opening game, I want to see these bastards crash and burn in the worst way.

• The same ignoramus who said last year that postmodernism is just another term for "critical thinking" or "questioning your assumptions" (identical to doing "good science", even) is saying it again, blithely dismissing the actual people and concepts that have defined the field over the last few decades as irrelevant to his purposes (by contrast, here's an actual scientist with a useful summary; scroll down to book page 43 and start reading from the paragraph that starts with "All movements tend to extremes..."). Rather beggars belief, doesn't it, that the term existed without any form or substance for so long until some cow-college biology professor-slash-Humpty Dumpty linguist picked up a comic book guide to pomo philosophy, whereupon he could tell everyone what they'd been missing all these years. By his vague and useless definition, everyone from behavioral economists to Zen Buddhists can call themselves postmodernists (or good scientists). Christ, what a fucking moron.

As always, bad things are directly caused by other people enjoying art and entertainment that I find offensive. Bring back the PMRC!

• Jason Walsh on the self-defeating pointlessness of whatever is currently calling itself "leftism".

The meta-argument.

Fight! Fight!

• Carl Wilson published an excellent little book examining notions of taste, snobbery, class and signaling, using Céline Dion as his focal point. I read it a couple years ago and liked it. Now Evan Kindley has written an essay about the book and its themes. I read it just now and liked it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

You Say You Got a Real Solution, Well, You Know...

I am not an admirer of the original Jacobins, and for this reason I cannot support any media venture that derives its name from that movement. The magazine has on occasion shown itself to be a lucid defender of truth and justice, as for example in a recent defense of serious social-scientific critique of capitalism, against the frivolous academic-blogger culture's displacement of our attention to the all-pervasiveness of gender, and that same culture's vain dream of fixing the associated problems by compelling everyone, pretty much, to just watch their language, and to make regular public performances of preparedness for privilege-checking, of 'radical humility'. "Give me a card-carrying brocialist over one of these oily 'allies' any day" is surely among the most refreshingly exasperated pleas from the left I've read in a long, long time.

But still, shame on Jacobin for helping to turn a murder weapon into an icon of urban radical fashion. I understand that from a certain point of view it is the same desire for 'realness' that motivates them both to publish lovely screeds against silly liberal moralizing and dead-end identity-mongering, on the one hand, and on the other hand to insist that what they are really pushing for is revolution, and that revolution means heads are going to roll, etc. But in truth I strongly suspect that most educated urban twenty-somethings who flirt with the symbol do so in the secret hope and expectation that it is never in fact going to come to that, that they will never be called on to pull the lever on a Goldman Sachs CEO, or on the small child of a Goldman Sachs CEO (nipping inheritance structures in the bud), or on a former comrade now accused of harboring too many deviations.

Jason Walsh:

Jacobin, it seems to me, suffers from the same flaws as its critics, though not necessarily through any fault on the part of its editors or contributors. The problem is this: what does it mean to be left wing in an era when, despite the global economic crisis, there is, in the Western world at least, no organised working class, and no class consciousness to speak of?

...Jacobin‘s demands are, for the most part, squarely social democratic: universal basic income, environmental protection, universal healthcare and so on. There is nothing wrong with being a social democrat, but it is not Marxism. Perhaps it is more realistic than Marxism, but the mixing-up of the two traditions is a serious error, one committed continually throughout the last century by left and right alike. Marxism’s legacy is more than just a pile of corpses. That said, many of today’s youthful soi disant Marxists do appear to have a worrying fetish for Stalinism and should perhaps have a quick flick through Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler—a man whose work cannot be written off, despite his being a truly despicable human being: a misogynist, philanderer and alleged rapist, as it happens. If that’s too much, try Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or my personal favourite The First Circle. At least as far as I know Solzhenitsyn’s only crimes were to be a Russian nationalist and beard-owner.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Dizzy Dames, Screwballs in Skirts


Stoker pointed out that all this has the effect of forcing women into a box– Frost, and now Kilpatrick, are being told that they are bad feminists or, ludicrously, actually misogynists for failing to fall into immediate line with Kendzior. The message of this Twitter mob is that feminism means women are not free to form their own opinions, not about the right language to discuss rape and rape threats, not about the public nature of public tweets, not about how to honestly criticize others in a productive way. Feminism, to this Twitter mob, means that all women fall in line or are ostracized.

...This argument resulted in the typical phenomenon of men telling other men to “shut up and listen” because Kendzior is a woman and is giving her opinion. Why do the women who disagree with Kendzior not receive the same benefit, I wonder? Why are the many men attacking them not themselves compelled to shut up and listen? Because this has nothing to do with feminism, and it has everything to do with teams. It has everything to do with the Great Twitter Outrage Game, which is waged for publicity, for social positioning, for digital strokes. That none of those things contributes one iota to a more just, less sexist, less violent world does not occur to the people involved.

...What this whole incident has revealed is that this is a cross-ideological phenomenon: whether Marxist or conservative or anything in-between, if you are a woman whose opinions do not jibe with those of the self-appointed owners of feminism, you have no right to expect to be shielded from sexism. Feminism no longer applies to you. If you think differently, they’ll sick the pathetic male “allies” like Christopher Carbone to mansplain at you for awhile.

One of the things I deeply respect about Freddie is the fact that he doesn't shy away from stating things that, while true and painfully obvious, are considered to be politically disadvantageous for his "team". Conservatives, both men and women, have been saying this for a long time, just like they've been pointing out that supposedly enlightened, tolerant progressives have no problem calling a black man a "lawn jockey" and "house nigger" for refusing to accept that white progressives know what's best for him. Unfortunately, the absence of progressives with the courage to break ranks and value honesty over expedience means that such complaints can be easily dismissed as irrational conservative bugbears. I would think that such studied, selective dishonesty would be politically detrimental in the long run, but I guess that's why I'm not a sophisticated observer.

I chuckled a bit while reading this, because this is all old hat to anyone who kept up with online atheism in recent years. To rehash the story again for anyone who isn't familiar: a few years ago, one faction of online New Atheists decided that they needed to incorporate elements of typical New Left-style identity politics into their mission statement, especially radical feminism. Long story short, this led to a schism in the community, with the feminist atheists centered mostly around Skepchick and the Freethought Blogs network, and the assorted outcasts and malcontents loosely associated with the free speech zone ironically dubbed the Slymepit. (A longer, detailed history of all this can be found here.)

I had read PZ Myers' blog Pharyngula for several years, and even while paying only casual attention to all this increasing drama surrounding the one true definition of atheism, I couldn't help but notice his repeated mentions of this terrible, awful place called the Slymepit. He ranted about it incessantly, but never provided links to it, as if doing so would be like exposing his readers to deadly poison. So (like many people, as it turned out), I finally got curious enough one day to wonder what the hell this horrible place was really all about and went searching for it. Amusingly, all his free advertising gave their membership quite a boost in those early days, thus demonstrating that Peezus (one of their many amusing names for him) was just as stupid and psychologically naïve as all those religious fundamentalists in my teenage years who ranted and thundered about the evils of heavy metal records without ever twigging to the fact that making something sound exciting and forbidden was a sure way to lead people into temptation.

One of the first things I noticed was the large number of women who were members and regular participants there. Indeed, the forum was started by a woman. Many of them had clear and lucid reasons for not wanting to associate themselves with those who presumed to speak on their behalf. Nonetheless, as Freddie seems to have discovered, merely being in possession of ladyparts doesn't mean you have the right to go filling your pretty little head with just any old big ideas, especially not when there's a man around to do the heavy intellectual lifting for you, and it was no exception here. Even someone like Harriet Hall had to suffer the indignity of defending her feminist credentials against a group of clowns whose idea of activism begins and ends with raging on Twitter like spoiled adolescents. (Magically, it somehow wasn't considered "mansplaining" when Peezus, with all the zeal of those newly-converted from a sinful past, condescendingly informed Hall that she was doing feminism wrong. Almost like it has nothing to do with feminism and everything to do with tribes!) Meet the new boss, same as the old boss — certain men appointed themselves the gatekeepers of feminist discourse while telling actual women to sit down, shut up and fuck off when they tried to speak for themselves.

There's nothing wrong with disagreement, of course. Men and women are perfectly entitled to argue with each other over politics, activism, academic theories, or anything else. The problem comes from disingenuously using political beliefs interchangeably with gender (or race). If you're a woman (or a PoC), these are the issues that should concern you. Here's what social scientists have decided you should think about them, and here's your appropriate course of action. No, no, you don't understand — it has already been objectively, empirically decided, based on all the latest data. If you persist in arguing against us, you are either too ignorant to know your own mind, or you're cravenly trying to curry favor with the reactionary forces we're fighting against by being one of their tokens.

If you honestly believe that all women, not just the politically progressive ones, are oppressed by a patriarchal society, then yes, you also have to listen to the ones who refuse to identify as feminists, or the ones who hold politically conservative beliefs, and take their viewpoints seriously. If you believe that atheism is the necessary logical partner to feminism, then you have to make your case to the religious women who disagree and take their objections seriously. If you can't persuade them to come around to your way of thinking, it could be that your skills as a communicator are deficient, which is your problem. And if you find yourself denying that a woman could possibly be a fully rational agent unless she agrees with you politically, well, maybe you should consider whether you're really doing feminism any favors by your presence. I mean, Rush Limbaugh likewise only has use for the women who tell him what he wants to hear.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Atheism DoublePlusGood

Ecclesiastes famously said that "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." Still, even the jaded author of that line might have cracked a mirthful grin to see some propagandist named Chris Hall trying his best, like Baghdad Bob, to assure his readers that the forces of White Male Privilege are demoralized and on the run from the heroic hordes of New-Atheism-meets-New-Left ideology, even as plumes of smoke from the smoldering wreckage of Atheism+ are visible over his shoulder. I mean, I know this is the twitosphere, where memory only extends back as far as your last ten tweets, and this is a joke of a site like Alternet, where stories too inane to get published at Salon, Raw Story or the HuffPo find a home, but my god, it's been less than two years since this same P.R. job fell to a different hack named Adam Lee, and all these clowns have given the world since then is empty bluster, prodigious butthurt and a few crowdsourced rape accusations. But don't mind me, y'all, go on and double down with your bad selves. I'm sure it will be different this time!

Those Who Know That They are Profound Strive for Clarity

Speaking of unnecessarily convoluted communication, here's Steven Pinker:

Writing is cognitively unnatural. In ordinary conversation, we've got another person across from us. We can monitor the other person's facial expressions: Do they furrow their brow, or widen their eyes? We can respond when they break in and interrupt us. And unless you're addressing a stranger you know the hearer's background: whether they're an adult or child, whether they're an expert in your field or not. When you're writing you have none of those advantages. You're casting your bread onto the waters, hoping that this invisible and unknowable audience will catch your drift.

The first thing to do in writing well—before worrying about split infinitives—is what kind of situation you imagine yourself to be in. What are you simulating when you write, and you're only pretending to use language in the ordinary way? That stance is the main thing that distinguishes clear vigorous writing from the mush we see in academese and medicalese and bureaucratese and corporatese.

The literary scholars Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas have identified the stance that our best essayists and writers implicitly adopt, and that is a combination of vision and conversation. When you write you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that's interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.

That may sound obvious. But it's amazing how many of the bad habits of academese and legalese and so on come from flouting that model. Bad writers don't point to something in the world but are self-conscious about not seeming naïve about the pitfalls of their own enterprise. Their goal is not to show something to the reader but to prove that they are not a bad lawyer or a bad scientist or a bad academic. And so bad writing is cluttered with apologies and hedges and "somewhats" and reviews of the past activity of people in the same line of work as the writer, as opposed to concentrating on something in the world that the writer is trying to get someone else to see with their own eyes. 

Tellin' Me More and More About Some Useless Information

Emrys Westacott:

The reasons for excessive sophistication and complexity vary. Media experts on sport or politics perhaps feel a need to say something "expert" to differentiate themselves from the millions of amateur pundits out there watching or reading what they say. Academics need to publish as part of the tenure and promotion game, so they have to try to find something new to say: in the humanities originality can easily matter more than plausibility since the most plausible ideas are often the most obvious and familiar. And intellectuals generally fear appearing naive or simplistic. The love of paradox and the frequent inversion of conventional opinion that has long been a characteristic of French philosophy seems to be fueled by this anxiety, and something similar affects the work of of those influenced by the leading French theorists.

I am obviously not saying that we should eschew entirely sophistication, subtlety, and complexity. Sometimes truth is complicated, and subtle thinking is needed in order to grasp it. Sometimes challenges to the obvious or the familiar lead to genuinely interesting insights. I am not championing simple-mindedness or philistinism. But we should be aware that there are forces at work driving people to develop analyses that go beyond what is necessary, useful, or plausible. And when we encounter such analyses, we should greet them with a skeptically raised eyebrow and a Gallic shrug.

He started off his post with an example drawn from the gaseous world of fútbol punditry, which was guaranteed to make me swoon. My dad made the mistake over the weekend of asking whether I thought Spain had enough magic left in their golden generation to pull off another World Cup victory, which triggered an impassioned rant from me about the utterly annoying uselessness of most "expert" analysis and commentary.

At any rate, Westacott (who is becoming my favorite of the part-time 3QD writers) seems obviously correct to me in noting how much of a role fashion, the need for superficial distinction, plays in this sort of unnecessary obfuscation. The appearance of novelty might hold long enough to disguise the lack of substance or usefulness, and many people lack the confidence to challenge the apparent social consensus around a nude emperor.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

For Your Eyes Only

Robert Sapolsky:

As a species, we crave status, endlessly keeping track of who's more important. This is challenging, given that we participate in so many realms of comparison simultaneously. Who's richest, smartest, best-looking? Who's got the newer car, house or spouse? Who can drink everyone under the table, who's the most pious at church?

Much of our gossip revolves around status relations. It's a way to reach consensus about rankings and to decide which of them counts more: "Man, she couldn't litigate a traffic ticket, but she's the most awesome foosball player I've ever seen."

Gossip about status, of course, also takes the form of signaling. To answer my own question from the previous post, no, for a social animal like homo sapiens, there's no practical way to be completely free of the ability to send and receive coded messages through even our most mundane activities. Only the physical solitude of the purest hermit or the mental isolation of the extreme autistic would qualify as an escape, and that level of self-containment is a price almost no sane person would want to pay. Even Socrates, in his singleminded devotion to the higher goal of seeking otherworldly truth, had to be aware that his "What? I'm just asking questions to figure out what the Oracle could have possibly meant. Why is everyone getting so upset?" gambit could appear quite disingenuous — a very subtle, inverted way of asserting his superiority, not by elevating but by ostensibly humbling himself, only to then demonstrate everyone else's failure to even rise to his lowly level. "It's not that I'm all that smart, it's just that the rest of you are really fucking dumb." Existing in a social environment makes it inevitable — actions and words will always signify more than their mere face value. If deeper layers of significance don't exist, then they will have to be invented.

Jonathan Gottschall expresses this to an even more pessimistic degree in a recent book review:

I was not many pages into Spent before I found myself helplessly attuned to Miller’s own “narcissistic self-displays.” Miller reminds us frequently of his elite education, tells us that he owns several thousand books, lets on about his sophisticated taste in avant-garde art, makes offhand displays of his mastery of musical jargon (“timbral richness,” “isorhythmic motets,” “polyphony”), stresses his impeccable liberal credentials, and shows off his authentic verbal flair, his cosmopolitanism, and his soaring IQ (he argues —tendentiously —that elite university degrees function as covert IQ guarantees). So Spent functions not only as an attempt to popularize a vein of scientific research, but also as a means of selling the audience on the virtues of its creator: Geoffrey Miller—a smart guy, a bit of a Renaissance man.

There are two things to say about this. First, it is Geoffrey Miller, Renaissance man, who gives Spent so much of its winning personality, its narrative tang, and its consistent good humor. Second, Spent cued me in not only to its author’s self-marketing, but also to my own. For what is a book review if not—at least in part—a narcissistic self-display? What am I doing now, if not flaunting my penetration, my learning, my tough-minded yet charitable judgment, and—most narcissistically of all—my ability to take a decade of Miller’s life as a scholar, scientist, and close observer of American pop culture, and wrap it up neatly in a 1,200-word package—complete with an artful, preening flourish at the close?

Well, I guess that's one way to look at it, but stated this reductively, it seems more than a little unfair, like the classic psychological trope of reducing art and culture to a clever attempt to get laid. Not every assertion of identity is shallow and shamefully needy. Sometimes people announce their interests and values for the simple sake of attracting like-minded companionship, not out of a desire to exclude and negatively judge others. Sometimes girls and guys just wanna have fun. And sometimes people just want to say what they've gotta say because they think it's true and it needs to be said.

Friday, June 06, 2014

He Told Me to Walk This Way

Mark Kingwell:

Even if one were inclined to agree with Gros’s vision of aimless walking—he is also against special shoes, clothing, and those pointed staffs that "are on sale to give walkers the appearance of improbable skiers"—he is awfully normative about the whole business. His demand for aimless, noncompetitive walking is just as judgmental and insistent as any other, and may sail closer to self-contradiction than most. You’re not doing aimlessness right! Walk this way!

There are two things I find interesting about this topic. One, the fact that there are apparently several books, all current, about the supposed "philosophy" of walking. This is a review of a new one from a French author. (Shanna, who enjoys tormenting me with emailed links to things I might have otherwise been mercifully ignorant of, had already alerted me to his existence.) Wayne Curtis, of course, has been an object of mockery here for a while now over his installment essays from his forthcoming book on the topic. Phil Oliver is working on one of his own. And a couple years ago, I read a book that grounded Thoreau's philosophy in his habit of "sauntering", which is a cooler, more exclusive way of walking. Honestly, how much unique is there to say about the "history" and "philosophy" of putting one foot in front of the other?

And two, the fact that the topic seems to lend itself quite naturally to ridiculous levels of signaling. The excerpt above could have been included in any of my own posts about the aforementioned Mr. Curtis, who seems unable to let his topic stand on its own two feet without leaning on the crutch of competitive status-seeking. Perhaps this is only to be expected. With very little to say for itself, walking as a purposeful philosophy has to rely on defining itself by contrast to what it is not, i.e., people who walk in the wrong places while thinking the wrong thoughts, people who only use it as an instrumental method of transport. The only way to make an utterly quotidian subject special is to invent a corpus of insights available only to the initiates.

Kingwell himself, though able to spot the speck in Gros's eye, showed himself last year to be susceptible to the very same tendency to tell people they're "doing X wrong". Is there any escape from the circle of signaling?

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Our Ideas Held No Water But We Used Them Like a Dam

Ben Zimmer:

Those who looked up "misogyny" in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary would find a terse definition: "a hatred of women." Etymologically speaking, that is right on the money, as the word combines the Greek root for "woman" with the prefix "miso-" meaning "hatred" (also found in "misandry," a hatred of men, and "misanthropy," a hatred of humankind).

But given the modern usage of the word, is that definition in need of a rewrite? From the evidence that Mr. Rodger left behind, it is easy to diagnose him as having an abiding hatred for women, but few of the critics of Messrs. Limbaugh and Abbott would go so far in describing their attitudes. The "misogyny" at issue in those two incidents, as well as the kind typically discussed this past week under the banner of #YesAllWomen, has more to do with ingrained prejudices against women than a pathological hatred of them.

Language certainly does evolve. There's no reason why the definition of misogyny couldn't expand to mean little more in practice than "anything that offends a feminist undergrad." Popular usage has committed worse crimes and will do so again. This should be obvious and uncontroversial, but then again, these are largely the same people who will shamelessly turn a half-circle and argue that certain slurs were created from offensive origins, have always been offensive, and can never be anything but offensive, end of story. Political expediency rather than intellectual consistency is the name of their game.

A mere few years ago, if I had heard someone described as a misogynist, I would have been almost shocked. Goodness, what a terrible person he must be! Now? Ho-hum. The currency has been completely debased. It won't even buy you a raised eyebrow from me anymore. To expand upon a recent assertion, the word "misogyny" is currently used to describe the attitude of young men who are only really interested in women as objects of sexual conquest. It supposedly underlies the use of gendered words as insults, indicating contempt for femininity itself, rather than any particular individual woman. It's assumed to motivate the supposedly unconscious bias affecting female hires, and as with Freudianism, denial of the accusation only counts as further proof in its favor.

These and other disparate examples are then assumed to exist on a continuum with extreme expressions of male supremacy like domestic violence and actual mass murder, all logically and necessarily connected. Like a shapeshifting evil spirit, misogyny can manifest in a variety of seemingly-unrelated forms, from self-centered sexuality to murderous rage. If you protest that no single concept can meaningfully describe such a vast range of attitudes and behaviors, well, maybe you've been possessed yourself. Pilgrims must always be on their guard in this fallen world against Satanic misogynist trickery. Have you been known to consort with woman-haters and perform foul rituals in dark corners of the Internet?

Speaking of concepts, there's a useful one called congruence biasRolf Dobelli described the most famous study involving it like so:

A professor presented his students with the number sequence 2-4-6. They had to calculate the underlying rule that the professor had written on the back of a sheet of paper. The students had to provide the next number in the sequence, to which the professor would reply 'fits the rule' or 'does not fit the rule'. The students could guess as many numbers as they wanted, but could try to identify the rule only once. Most students suggested 8 as the next number, and the professor replied: 'Fits the rule.' To be sure, they tried 10, 12 and 14. The professor replied each time, 'Fits the rule.' The students concluded that: 'The rule is to add two to the last number.' The professor shook his head: 'That is not the rule.'

One shrewd student tried a different approach. He tested out the number -2. The professor said 'Does not fit the rule.' 'Seven?' he asked. 'Fits the rule.' The student tried all sorts of numbers -24, 9, -43...Apparently he had an idea, and was trying to find a flaw with it. Only when he could no longer find a counter-example, the student said: 'The rule is this: the next number must be higher than the previous one.' The professor turned over the sheet of paper, and this was exactly what he had written down.

What distinguished the resourceful student from the others? While the majority of students sought merely to confirm their theories, he tried to find fault with his, consciously looking for disconfirming evidence.

The human brain is, of course, a pattern-seeking machine extraordinaire. We see faces in the clouds, detect agency in random movements, connect the dots with a straight line, and invent elaborate ad-hoc theories to give our apophenia the appearance of solidity. In a political environment, though, such as the one surrounding the definition and use of certain words, looking for disconfirming evidence is itself perceived to be a reactionary political act. The very tool necessary to circumvent error has been politicized by ideologues, at which point there's nothing left but the shouting.