Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Left Wing, Right Wing, Broken Wing

Some people talkin' progressive reform, other people talkin' conservative reform. Well, one of those seems to have done a better job than the other of marrying theoretical speculation to empirical observation. Plus, it seems to me that if you exile the identitarian fundamentalists, the postmodernist academics, the vestigial Marxists, and the social media garbage babies from the Left, at most you're left with...welfare-state liberalism. I dunno, maybe "true" socialism is hiding down a well with the 12th Imam.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

That's Not How Football Works!

Like any Liverpool fan, I was elated by the appointment of Jürgen Klopp as manager in early October. Having been a longtime fan of the Bundesliga, and of Klopp's Borussia Dortmund team, I was giddy with anticipation. And while the style of football has already begun to live up to high expectations, the real treat has been listening to the man discuss his philosophy as a manager.

I've seen exquisitely talented players, exciting teams, and thrilling games as an LFC fan. The current signs of renewal at pitch level, while certainly welcome, isn't completely novel. What has been a delightful surprise is the way he's dealt with the typical breathless and brainless manner of the English media — their ubiquitous tropes, their fatuous clichés, their shallow obsession with titillating gossip, their self-serving narratives with unwarranted sweeping conclusions, and, of course, their relentless, frenetic hype.

In this extended interview with Sky Sports, we have almost a "greatest hits" compilation of the themes he's been expressing since his arrival. In vain, he once again tries to make clear that superstar players do not appear, fully developed, from a vacuum — they are made through training, management, and above all else, time and patience. Football, like life itself, he keeps reiterating, is mostly about hard work with a little bit of luck, but journalists, like impatient children, want something more glorious and glamorous. The press desperately wants to hear stories of superstar players being bought for ridiculous prices, but he keeps reminding them that today's superstars were yesterday's squad players struggling for playing time (while being dismissed by an attention-deficient media as expensive flops or has-beens). In response to a generic question about what would constitute a success for Liverpool this season, Klopp reminds him that even successes, such as Liverpool winning the Carling Cup in 2012, are treated with bored indifference (whereas an early exit from the tournament would have been gleefully pounced upon). Arsenal have won the FA Cup for two years straight, but, as he points out, the dominant media narrative is to scorn them as perennial failures for not having won the league in over ten years. Nothing is ever good enough by these standards, and the only thing that seems to matter to journalists and fans alike is affecting a smug, knowing, jaded posture — "Oh, isn't it all just so obvious."

"Why should the world be like this?" Klopp asks this about the callous disregard the media have for players who have — in their eyes — outlived their novelty or usefulness. When you demand that I should buy these four players who will supposedly help me win the league for sure, he says, you're overlooking that four other players will lose their jobs as a result. What happens to them? Do we care? Do we blithely assume that they will do fine somewhere else, in some faraway league we're not interested in, where all the losers and second-rate players go? Do we secretly resent all of them anyway for being young, beautiful, rich athletes and take a small measure of delighted revenge upon them by gloating over their fall from grace? What a petty, sad way of going about "enjoying" your favorite game. Why should the world be like this? Klopp is far too savvy to ask this out of innocence; it comes from his self-assurance. What matters most, he dares to say, is treating people like human beings and having fun without concern for what others will say about it. The fact that this is absolutely heretical to a class of noxious, superficial people who care about nothing but money, status and gossip makes it all the sweeter.

I had always daydreamed about a manager who could win big games and titles for LFC, of course. But a manager who could puncture the fraudulent bubble economy of media self-worth by speaking plain common-sense truth? I never imagined such a thing was possible, so much so that I didn't even know I wanted it until I saw it happening.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

When It's All the Same, You Can Ask for It by Name

Killing us? Don't abuse hyperbole. Leftism has been nailed to the perch for decades. It's not like the nation was on the verge of a revolutionary change until those meddling kids fucked it all up with their narcissistic tantrums. If anything, the spectacle of lefter-than-thou college brats striving to outdo their peers in fanatical moral purity is the status quo. It has at least a half-century of established tradition behind it at this point! At worst, it has become a tiresome rite of passage for spoiled rich kids steeped in the politics of resentment; at best, it has ironically become a safe careerist choice for tomorrow's faux-radical academics.

Still, as Clarence Darrow said, that is an obituary I would read with great satisfaction. Nevertheless, I'm afraid "committed leftists" are currently busy with more respectable work, such as, uh, re-issuing calls to burn the Constitution:

Ah, the perennial "burn imperfection to the ground and build utopia in the ashes." The idea can never fail, it can only be failed. Sorry; who are the serious adults here again?

The only interesting thing about all this is wondering how long deBoer can continue to convince himself that these predictable paroxysms of identity politics represent some sort of regrettable deviation from "true" leftism, rather than its pathetic denouement. Then again, though he doesn't get a paycheck for it per se, his shtick as the Last Honest Leftist on the Internet depends on him not seeing it that way. After all, if your angle is writing several hundred near-identical posts excoriating the social media left for signaling and status-seeking instead of engaging in useful activism, and you don't maintain an impervious faith in the true democratic socialist potential of the Twittering masses, well, then, you might need to consider whether you're just doing a more niche version of the same signaling yourself.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Then Zarathustra Returned Again to the Mountains and to the Solitude of His Cave and Withdrew from Men

Now I am still
and plain:
no more words.

— Rilke

The time has come for this blog to hibernate while I indulge other creative hobbies.

As I've said a number of times, I'm just a working fellow with a day job and some entrepreneurial activities on the side. Free time is very hard to come by. For the last several years, I've devoted the majority of that free time to writing. Now I'm going to return to my first love, music, and concentrate on re-recording a few dozen of my old songs before seeing what sorts of new stuff I might write, given today's incredible technology and more than a decade's worth of new influences.

I want to immerse myself in it, which is why I'm not going to attempt to keep writing at the same time. That would only lead to the frustration of trying to do too much with too little time, and as a result, failing to do any of it satisfactorily. So, now, when I'm done with work and chores, I want my default setting to be picking up a guitar, rather than surfing the web. When I'm bored, I want to open up GarageBand and play with new sounds, rather than open a browser and play with the same old words. I aim to form an entirely new practice of leisure, to instill new habits. That's the positive vision. On the negative side, I can feel diminishing returns setting in: I'm satisfied with the perspective I've attained, I've explored most of the available topics within my limited reach and ability, and I'm frankly just bored and/or weary of most online discourse. Books are far more worthwhile for inspiration, and I do plan to get a lot more reading done as well, but it takes a lot of time to fully consider the perspectives and insights that books offer. Better, in my view, to just close the lid on my brain stew and let those ingredients simmer unwatched for a while.

I'm not making any promises or suggesting any timetables. Weeks? Months? Years? I don't know. I'll just go as the spirit moves me. I seriously doubt I could ever quit writing, any more than I could quit being musical (in my mind, I've just taken a fifteen-year nap during recording). And I may yet escape from the rat race and find myself with more free time than I've ever had (that's still the active plan, anyway). Until that time, then...

Monday, July 27, 2015

Can I Get an Amen?

Because this isn’t what is actually on the Antiracists’ mind. The call for people to soberly “acknowledge” their White Privilege as a self-standing, totemic act is based on the same justification as acknowledging one’s fundamental sinfulness is as a Christian. One is born marked by original sin; to be white is to be born with the stain of unearned privilege.

The proper response to original sin is to embrace the teachings of Jesus, although one will remain always a sinner nevertheless. The proper response to White Privilege is to embrace the teachings of—well, you can fill in the name or substitute others—with the understanding that you will always harbor the Privilege nevertheless. Note that many embrace the idea of inculcating white kids with their responsibility to acknowledge Privilege from as early an age as possible, in sessions starting as early as elementary school. This, in the Naciremian sense, is Sunday school.

Think of it. A certain class of white person, roughly those who watched 30 Rock and Mad Men, lustily pumps their fists at the writings of a Coates who says that he is surprised that white people—i.e. ones like them—are interested enough in black people and racism to even bother reading his work. Coates is telling these people that they are sinners, in a sense, and they are eagerly drinking in the charge, “revering” him for it. This, ladies and gentlemen, is worship, pure and simple.

Might as Well Be Hung for a Sheep as for a Lamb

Aristotelis Originos:

In a dazzlingly archetypical display of horseshoe theory, this particular brand of millennial social justice advocates have warped an admirable cause for social, economic, and political equality into a socially authoritarian movement that has divided and dehumanized individuals on the basis of an insular ideology guised as academic theory.

I realize that this is merely a rhetorical trope which serves to position the speaker as reluctantly critical, rather than innately hostile, but the vapidity of it is still annoying. The vague, amorphous cause for "social, economic and political equality" (whatever the fuck that actually means in reality) does not need to be "warped" in order to become authoritarian; in fact, it's part of the blueprint. The only way such a state of affairs could be achieved and maintained would be through some form of authoritarianism. You don't have to be a card-carrying libertarian to see that as long as people are free to think and act for themselves, they will inevitably defy the best-laid plans of social engineers; hierarchies, both benign and harmful, will inevitably spring up like toadstools after a rainstorm unless they are mowed down. Calling the cause "admirable" is a pointless concession to make. You're already one of the damned.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

This Is the Day of the Expanding Man. That Shape Is My Shame, There Where I Used to Stand

Ruth Fowler:

Educating the general public about the trials of being a larger woman is a worthy endeavor. But calling thinness a “privilege” presumes that thin people do not understand the suffering of anyone deemed by the western world to be “fat,” or do not have their own struggles. West and her brand of pro-fat feminism also wander into the rocky territory of oversimplified identity politics, trying to equate dress size with other oppressions such as racism, sexism and poverty, and ignoring that one’s weight is not an inherent privilege. 

Last fall, I aggravated a recurring knee injury. Apparently I got a small tear in my meniscus. I say "apparently" because an MRI would have been expensive enough even without factoring in surgery to fix it, so I was content to just take my doctor's best guess based on a physical exam. Not long after that, I began to feel the stirrings of an inguinal hernia on the left side, a year and a half after having the right side repaired. This was all on top of a very painful ganglion cyst in my wrist that had made weightlifting too onerous. Suffice it to say, this was demoralizing after having gotten back into a regular exercise routine, so I was feeling quite sorry for myself through the winter.

In late April of this year, I went in for an appointment with my rheumatologist. I complained about my ankles, knees, hips and back aching more than usual, expecting that he might suggest my arthritis meds were losing their effectiveness, as they are known to do in many patients over time. Surprisingly, though, he said my bloodwork looked perfectly normal. My body wasn't showing any signs of reacting to inflammation. Honestly, he told me, the best thing you can do then is to lose more weight. Take more of those pounds-per-square inch off your joints, which have already taken enough abuse from the arthritis.

Had you asked me that morning why I wasn't working out regularly anymore, I would have complained that I was in too much pain, and that I would probably need more effective drugs to get me to the point where I could start up again. Now I didn't have that excuse anymore.

When I got home from work, my inamorata and I sketched out a brief meal plan based on reducing calories to around 1800-2000 a day and incorporating more fats and protein at the expense of carbs (this is something I never had the discipline to do on my own, but I've come to see that it is far and away the most important thing). Then I went out to the porch to begin my stretching routine before getting back on the treadmill.

Five minutes in, the muscles alongside my shins were starting to cramp. Shortly after that, my feet were protesting. By the end of a half-hour walk, I had reduced my speed and needed to grasp the handrails to keep steady. It was painful and humbling.

Still, the next day, I did it again. And the day after that. And every day since then. Having started by struggling mightily to walk two miles, I now walk four or five easily, at an increased pace. The minor aches faded soon enough, the knee healed well enough, and the hernia has benefitted from having less weight pressing down on it. I've never had any overwhelming hunger cravings or needed to exceed my calorie budget. I've lost thirty pounds in those three months, and aim to lose as much as thirty more (which would put me back to skinny soccer-playing weight). Even if I eventually ease off on the exercise, I think I've acquired enough knowledge and discipline about meal preparation to keep from overeating again.

I won't pretend to know exactly what it's like to be genuinely obese. Even at my weightiest, thanks to my former athleticism, I never showed more than a slight paunch and love handles. But it was enough to be disappointing in front of a mirror, and it certainly felt awful from a physical standpoint. Nonetheless, the point I'm making is that nothing at all changed on that spring day except my mentality. I could eat sugary snacks or pizza with the best of them, but after that, I simply stopped doing it. Those foods didn't become less tasty, I just cared more about losing weight and feeling better. I'm not superhuman, I'm just motivated. It wasn't like I got some grim warning that I needed to lose weight or else face an imminent demise. It was just a suggestion. I just decided to act on it. The rest is all rationalization and procrasturbation.

The Mere Mouthing

Shelby Steele:

In this new liberalism, dissociation from America's characterological evil was not simply a means to a better world; it was an end in itself, a gesture that proved the decency of individuals and the legitimacy of institutions...The point is that America met the great challenge of the 1960s by inventing a faux human virtue — the idea that a vicarious or merely symbolic dissociation from America's evil past counted as a timeless human virtue like courage or honesty or perseverance, all of which require selflessness and sacrifice.

Dissociation is an artificial virtue because its entire reason for being is to avoid the selflessness, sacrifice and risk that true virtue inevitably involves. It gives us a road to the decency and legitimacy we want while sparing us the difficulty and struggle of true virtue. Dissociation turns virtue into a mask. It gives us the means to construct a "face of The Good." It counts the mere mouthing of glossy ideas of The Good the same as an honest struggle toward what is actually possible.

For example, how does a people emerging from four centuries of racial oppression actually overcome all the damage done by that oppression and reach a true and self-evident equality with others? Dissociation spares America the need to wrestle with this. It asks us only to identify with public policies contrived around vague effusions of The Good, like multiculturalism, diversity, gender equity, etc.

See also: virtue signaling, the unwelcome burden of agency, social media as a playpen for political posers, and the general worthlessness of online progressives. What a delight it has been to discover Steele's work. An incisive thinker and an excellent writer.

Friday, July 24, 2015

It Ain't No Trick to Get Rich Quick if You Dig, Dig, Dig With a Shovel or a Pick

So, what aspect of pop culture are the philistines running the Socialist Realism rule over today?

Is there any other production house operating today that is more obsessed with narratives of the workplace and employment? The basic Pixar story is that of an individual seeking to establish, refine, or preserve their function as an instrument within a system of labor. The only way Pixar is able to conceptualize a protagonist is to assign them a job (or a conspicuous lack of one) and arrange the mechanisms of plot to ensure that they fulfill that job. This is why Joy can only accept Sadness once she comes to understand what it is she does.

Pixar’s debut film organized a scenario involving sentient toys as a narrative about two men fighting for the same job. In not one but two sequels, it revisited those same characters in a narrative about how bad retirement is, and how awful it is to be made redundant. In Monsters, Inc., it developed a parallel universe populated by monsters and powered by childrens’ screams to tell a story about a workplace duo striving to be the most efficient employees. Up is ultimately a film about how unthinkable it is to retire; even elderly widowers must find a new vocation. In film after film, Pixar presents narratives chiefly concerned with characters trying to be the best at what they do, or otherwise prove their usefulness.

This excess, epitomized as the complete entanglement of an individual’s private life with their employment, is at the core of Pixar’s conceptualization of what it is to be a person: In every Pixar film, the protagonist’s arc is oriented toward the ultimate goal of being an efficient, productive worker—whether employment has been thematized as being a father, princess, robot janitor, toy, ant colonist, harvester of screams, adventurer in South America, or otherwise. For Pixar, to live is to work. Cars is a film about an ambitious racecar who is forced to chill out and not be so competitive, except he really just learns that chilling out and not being so competitive is the key to being an even better competitor. This is coming from a workplace culture that, under the guise of compassion, has erased the distinction between free time and labor time, and expects their employees not to notice that they working that much harder.

At its bottom, this is the logic of pure capitalism. In an economy structured around limitless growth, dynamism must become the natural state of things. Idle capital is unproductive capital and an unproductive worker is a waste of resources. The virtuous citizen cannot only consume but must produce, an imperative that finds its current (and particularly American) incarnation in the entrepreneur, the boot-strapper, the rags-to-riches hero, who is too busy pulling themselves up by their laces to notice that there’s no top to reach. The natural and profitable ideological by-product of this fixation is an abhorrence of collectivism—and therefore organized labor. To be collective, to be one among many, is to no longer be a special individual producer, which is its own kind of death. This is why Toy Story 2 abhors the idea of Woody becoming part of a box set.

End Tha Police

Mariame Kaba:

History offers evidence of the intractability of the problem of police violence. What should we do then? Quite simply, we must end the police.

Those of us who maintain that reform is actually impossible within the current context are positioned as unreasonable and naïve. Ideological formations often operate invisibly to delineate and define what is acceptable discourse. Challenges to dominant ideological formations about “justice” are met with anger, ridicule or are simply ignored. This is in the service of those who benefit from the current system and to enforce white supremacy and anti-blackness.

And You Can Speak Your Mind, But Not on My Time (Slight Return)

Scott Alexander:

It’s a truism that the First Amendment only protects citizens from the government, not from other citizens. Nothing stops a private college from expelling any student who criticizes the administration, and nothing stops a private business from firing any employee who doesn’t support the boss’ preferred candidate. We apparently place our trust in the multiplicity of the market to maintain some semblance of freedom; out of thousands of competing companies, not all will ban the same political positions; if too many did so, other companies would start offering freedom of speech as a benefit and poach the more repressive companies’ employees and customers.

It’s a little concerning that we accept this argument about freedom of speech when we don’t accept it for anything else. We don’t trust the free market to necessarily preserve racial equality – that’s what anti-discrimination laws are for. We don’t trust the free market to necessarily preserve worker safety – that’s what OSHA and related regulations are for. We don’t even trust the free market to necessarily preserve fire safety – that’s why federal inspectors have to come in every so often to make sure you’re not secretly plotting to let your employees fry. Whenever we think something is important, we regulate the hell out of it, rights-of-private-companies to-set-their-own-policies be damned. But free speech? If you don’t trust the free market to sort it out, the only possible explanation is that you just don’t understand the literal text of the First Amendment.

He goes on to develop this line of thinking in relation to the recent uproar over Reddit, and as always, it's worth reading the whole thing. I'd like to think that arguments like his would eventually penetrate some thick skulls, but I'm afraid we just live in an age where the cultural pendulum has swung further in favor of hypersensitivity to offense. It'll swing back the other way on its own schedule eventually.

To be clear, I don't believe there's any kind of law that can prevent the sort of miserly attitude toward free speech that dominates discussions today (and I don't think Alexander does either, despite the impression a lazy reader might get from this excerpt). The case in favor of a more expansive conception of the spirit of free speech is essentially a moral one.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Nobody Said It Was Easy

Michael Novak:

Dostoevsky predicted this: Humans claim to want liberty but then shuck it off when its attendant responsibilities become irksome. I have come to judge "progressivism" itself to be a well-intentioned but deadly error. It overrates human innocence and goodness and underrates human weakness and preference for getting things for free rather than as a result of arduous work. It claims to want equality, but it does not grasp how that demand undermines the motive for initiative and hard work.

Shelby Steele:

We all, as individuals and groups, have an ambivalent relationship to agency because it is always a call to the will. To be free, and to have ultimate responsibility for a problem, is to be called upon to exert one's will to solve it. Agency demands that we find will even if we are mired in inertia. Thus one of the most common dodges in human experience is to deny agency by denying freedom. We say we are not free enough to have agency over our problem. We are not free enough for responsibility. If we can escape freedom, we can escape agency with its difficult call to will, sacrifice, effort and risk.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Easy Likes on Sunday Morning

I've always liked reading John McWhorter. Here's a twofer from him. One:

Some might object that we should not check that impulse, and that extremism is necessary to create lasting social change. But it’s useful to recall that, when it comes to profanity, there were once people who considered themselves every bit as enlightened as we see ourselves today, with the same ardent and appalled sense of moral urgency. They were people who said “Odsbodikins” and did everything they could to avoid talking about their pants.

And two:

Note that none of these things involve white people “realizing” anything. These are the kinds of concrete policy goals that people genuinely interested in seeing change ought to espouse. If these things seem somehow less attractive than calling for revolutionary changes in how white people think and how the nation operates, then this is for emotional reasons, not political ones. A black identity founded on how other people think about us is a broken one indeed, and we will have more of a sense of victory in having won the game we’re in rather than insisting that for us and only us, the rules have to be rewritten.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

By the Time We Met the Times Had Already Changed

Now it seems strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what's stranger still
Is how something so small can keep you alive

Arcade Fire

Teddy Wayne:

While the numbers cannot account for how many emails are personal, it stands to reason that few sent on business accounts are — and that people are often too exhausted from the relentless inundation to compose meaningful letters.

“I very rarely get a long email from someone,” said John Freeman, a literary critic and the author of the nonfiction book “The Tyranny of E-Mail.” He compared the current era, in which “everyone is overwhelmed” by his or her inbox, with his time after college in the late ’90s, “when people still did write long emails” and “there was something exhilarating,” he said, about the upstart free technology that enabled connectivity with anyone.

If there was a golden age of the epistolary personal email, it most likely started in this period and ended sometime in the late aughts.

I truly feel sorry for anyone who hasn't had the experience of a friendship based on lengthy email exchanges. I've had several over the years, with Arthur and Shanna being especially stalwart electronic companions up to the present day. Now, I love writing here in this space, but there are lots of times when the relaxed, personal nature of email is even better for breaking up logjams of thought. I don't know whether it would be more accurate to call it a process of discovery or creation, but either way, it's certainly true that aspects of my thought, and even my character, have only been brought to light in the course of an extended conversation, spanning over days or weeks, where they would have otherwise remained inchoate and unexamined.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

I Don't Want to Be the Type of Guy Who Lives Alone Reading Books and Never Eats a Pizza Pie

Jake Bittle:

Delight in book collecting, and in showing off one’s book collection, is common, if not universal, among readers and would-be-readers. The biggest reason we spend money on books is because we want to read them (eventually), but that isn’t the only reason: we also like to look at them, and to look at other people looking at them.

...The way I treat my books shows that no matter how important they are to me as things to read, they also exist as decorative objects and status symbols. Luckily for me (and all other similarly afflicted book lovers), recent technological advances have provided something like an alternative to this “literary materialism” in the form of e-books. If collecting physical books distracts me from a humbler and less self-centered reading experience, then eliminating the physical component of the books seems like it would help to eliminate the vanity that comes with them. I could free up a lot of shelf space, make a fair amount of money at used bookstores and clean my environmental conscience, all while getting the same edification that I have always gotten from novels and essays. The only downside is that nobody would be able to tell from visiting my apartment that books are my body and soul.

He goes on like this at length, chastising himself for not being ascetically devoted to the disembodied Platonic essence of study and inquiry. Well, let me suggest that if your book collection is becoming an object of vanity and status, you can always eliminate all the relationships which might entail someone coming over to visit and laying eyes upon it. No audience, no problem. I mean, assuming you're serious, and not just a poser.

A Dangerous Crossing, A Dangerous Trembling and Halting

Here's to a truth we knew
It was a feeling that I shared with you
It could only be hinted at with metaphor
Crudely drawn clichéd form
But I knew what I knew

TV on the Radio

James McWilliams:

When it comes to these questions, it’s worth wondering if empiricism hasn’t run amok in the halls of academe. After all, if we go about the business of being ambitious humans armed with an empiricism that grasps and gobbles up and conquers everything up to and including consciousness, it seems reasonable to wonder if we’ll lose something essential to the precarious project of being human—something such as humility. If nothing else, Nagel’s challenge reaffirms the value of humility.

I have no hard proof for this thesis, but I think there’s something to it: Knowing that there are things we don’t know—and may never know—has a humbling effect on the human mind. Humility is a form of modesty that asks us to accept ambiguity. Ambiguity, in turn, is ultimately what brings us together to explore the mysteries of existence through the wonder-driven endeavors we lump under that broad umbrella known as the humanities. If we knew it all, if we understood what it was like to be a bat, probably even Logan Sander would not be a comparative literature major.

In a way, to catch consciousness, to close the mind-body gap, would be to eliminate that humility. It would be to answer most of the big questions—to collapse the umbrella and move into a post-human world. And that might sound great to logical positivists and atheists and neurobiologists. But as the essayist Charles D’Ambrosio reminds us, “Answers are the end of speech, not the beginning.”

Are we really ready to stop talking?

Loyal Opposition

People who traffic in symbolic manipulation—and that’s most of us, these digital days—are typically inclined to overrate the importance of symbolic manipulation. It’s always tempting to think that to exercise control over symbols—like the Confederate battle flag, which, for the record, I have long despised—is to strike a blow for justice. Again, social media play a key role here: Jerry Gaus once wrote an article “On the Difficult Virtue of Minding One’s Own Business”, but given the hyperpublic character of the web services most of us rely on, and the difficulty of getting any of them to reliably provide intimacy gradients, everyone’s business now seems to be everyone else’s business. In such a environment, ABP—Always Be Policing—is the watchword. Survey and critique others, lest you make yourself subject to surveillance and critique. And use the proper Hashtags of Solidarity, or you might end up like that guy who was the first to stop applauding Stalin’s speech.

Minding your own business, on this commonly-held account of things, is a vice, not a virtue, and those who handle disagreement peaceably are ipso facto deficient in their commitment to justice. To restore a belief to the positive value of disagreement, here, would be a challenging task indeed. When Bernard Williams writes of disagreement as “an important and constitutive feature of our relations to others,” he is speaking a moral language that’s incomprehensible to those for whom free speech is so last century and for whom history is always a story of moral progress.

How might such people come to see, with Williams, the virtue of moral and epistemic humility? How might they be brought to see that it can be a positive good to belong to a society in which people with deep disagreements, even about sexuality and personal self-determination, can live in peace with one another and, just possibly, converse? I have absolutely no idea.

I Believe in a Thing Called Art, Just Listen to the Rhythm of My Heart

William A. Henry III:

The emphasis on tribalism, tokenism, and toeing the political line is, if anything, more painful in the realm of culture, which traditionally represents the highest aspirations of the individual, than it is in other realms of the life of the mind.

This book was published in 1994. Like a few others I've recently discovered, it examines the last wave of political correctness from the perspective of a self-proclaimed liberal. And like those other books, the examples of language-policing, feminist excess and general lunacy it offers could have been plucked from online media within the last week. It just goes to show what a sad holding pattern progressive politics have been stuck in for the last few generations. Fighting the same old symbolitical battles over and over again. Culture war re-enactors make a killing nowadays, me, oh, my.

The problem is, as progressives find themselves repeatedly running up against a solid wall in the political realm, their frustration inevitably leads them to turn their attention to other areas where they can assert some measure of control. Art and pop culture prove to be especially irresistible targets for neophyte commissars.

My political hopes are quite modest. I assume things will always be some degree of fucked-up, and no one will ever be happy with things as they are at any given time. I'm in favor of the least worst version of fucking things up, whatever that may be. But there's still a glimmer of idealism in me nonetheless. I believe in the enduring power of art, even popular art, even escapist novels and rock music, to change the lives of its audience in subtle ways that cannot be reduced to, or predicted by, the gender/race/ideology of the artist. Policies and politicians will come and go, and I couldn't give two shits or a half-fuck about them, but as long as people indulge the urge to express themselves artistically, I still hold faith in the trickster-like nature of reality to defy our attempts to get everyone marching in one direction in unison. Strange, unpredictable things happen when people share artistic visions. Allowing your imagination to be carried away by enchanting prose or a sweet melody can subtly alter your thinking no less than your mood. And thus, I agree with Henry: philistines are the worst of the worst, and currently, most of our philistines are of the leftist variety.

These philistines want to annex the territory of criticism and turn it into a political resource to be allocated on an intersectional basis. Critical judgment and taste, after all, are particular. They're not fair or unbiased. A reviewer may tend to prefer certain styles and authors over others. Equality of outcome is never a likely result when people are allowed to make honest choices and distinctions. Still, the point is not to "transcend" all biases and particular perspectives, as if that were even desirable or possible, but to encompass and understand them. But being that we've long since lost the ability to talk about values without shrieking about oppression, we try to default to the "objective", utilitarian standard of quantification. "Quality", as Robert Pirsig could tell you, is devilishly difficult to define, so we might as well just focus on the things we can measure, like racial and gender disparities among published authors.

Here you see a typical example: critics who profess to be concerned with "quality" and "editorial judgment" above identity politics are covering up their "failings" with "grand claims". The implicit understanding, familiar to anyone conversant with Foucault and his disciples, is that "grand claims" about culture are merely cynical attempts to mask the power structure, which in turn justify even more cynical attempts to seize power for one's own identity group. The important thing about criticism is to see it as a pie chart to be divided in service to social justice goals. Books and music need to be requisitioned and used as materiel for the war effort on behalf of racial and gender equality! Well, I suppose I'm prepared to be shot as a hoarder, then.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

We Can't Accept Any Deviationists and We Don't Need Any Crazies

Amber Frost:

[T]here is something truly dispiriting about not being able to distinguish self-identified radicals from the parodies of us imagined by the right wing. Last year, the wackjob nadir was “Žižek Delenda Est” (“Žižek Must be Destroyed.”) The thesis of the panel—which featured at least one “tankie,” slang for Soviet apologist, or actual Stalinist—was that Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek is some kind of COINTELPRO crypto-Nazi.

Sadly, this is not an exaggeration, and the ineffectual chaos of Left Forum is symptomatic of the state of the left at large. But I do not foresee doom. It’s quite possible the left is at a pivotal moment in political history: these days, Americans actually like the sound of socialism, and the potential for building a new base is incredibly encouraging. But as much as we should be looking to expand, so, too, must we refine our project. The marginalistas distract, disrupt and deter future comrades. So it’s high time we get a little exclusive: tankies, truthers and tofu may supply a steady stream of battle-tested conference anecdotage, but they’re not going to move us any closer to building a better world.

("You can't lop off the fringes!")

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

I Eat Alone, Yeah, With Nobody Else

Jesse Browner:

Nearly two thousand years ago, Athenaeus of Naucratis, in his Deipnosophistae, explicitly equated solitary eaters with criminals ("solitary eater and housebreaker!"), and just this year, the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, in Near a Thousand Tables, echoed Athenaeus' condemnation almost word for word: "that public enemy, the solitary eater." The fact is, eating in groups — along with speech, writing and warfare — is among the most elemental and universal expressions of humanity.

We solitary folk are truly the most oppressed people in history. If it weren't for the fact that all we really want is to be left the fuck alone and not be press-ganged into everyone else's idea of a good time, we would make one hell of a victim-identity group. But that would mean having to band together and interact with other people. Eh, not worth it.

(Since it seems likely that Browner will eventually see this post and think too hard about it, let me lay it out for him: Hi, Jesse. I didn't actually read your book; my inamorata did. I just glanced through the beginning of it and read the chapter about Hitler, which was interesting. This excerpt just happened to provide the raw material for a little joke based on a couple of my recurring themes here. Best wishes.)

Monday, July 06, 2015

None Dare Call It Fashion

Creep into thy narrow bed,
Creep, and let no more be said.
Let the long contention cease!
Geese are swans and swans are geese.
Let them have it how they will!
Thou art tired; best be still.

— Matthew Arnold

Chrissie Daz:

The more important question to ask is why this word is deemed newsworthy? Why have the concerns of transgender people risen from the margins to the mainstream in what must be the most rapid cultural shift in living memory? Trans people (who constitute less than 0.4 per cent of the population, according to even the most generous estimates) have become probably the most over-represented identity group in history.

There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, ours is an era in which who you are trumps what you do. Personal growth and the non-judgemental recognition of others have never been more culturally esteemed. In this environment, trans people have assumed an important role, as representatives of the marginalised and supposedly excluded. The act of vocally supporting trans people is the easiest way to demonstrate that you are virtuous, that you don’t judge others. If you are pro-trans, then you are probably anti-racist, pro-feminist, gay-friendly and prone to cry over the plight of the poor.

The second and most worrying reason for the rise in interest in trans issues is that gender has become entwined with one’s ‘self identity’. Our gender has become something that we must come to terms with, as a self-conscious act, a perceived imposition that we can affirm, reject or mess around with. Hence the most problematic aspect of the OED’s definition of cisgender is the use of the phrase ‘assigned at birth’. It suggests that doctors, midwives and registrars do not simply record a biological fact when they say what sex a newborn baby is; rather, they are forcing us into a gender box that we are duty-bound to embrace, reject or reformulate.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Saturday Shuffle

  1. Serena Ryder -- Stompa
  2. Beirut -- The Flying Club Cup
  3. The Magnetic Fields -- If There's Such a Thing as Love
  4. Hermano -- Señor Moreno's Plan 
  5. Patty Larkin -- Anyway the Main Thing Is
  6. Godflesh -- Circle of Shit
  7. Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel -- Highball with the Devil
  8. Daedelus -- Tsars and Hussars 
  9. Electric Boys -- Into the Woods
  10. Black Pussy -- Indiana
  11. Odd Nosdam -- We Bad Apples
  12. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down -- We Don't Call
  13. Tame Impala -- Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
  14. The National -- Humiliation
  15. J.S. Bach -- Cantata BWV 140
  16. Adam Ant -- Goody Two Shoes
  17. My Bloody Valentine -- Come In Alone
  18. Super Furry Animals -- Tradewinds
  19. Qntal -- Non Sofre Santa Maria
  20. Monster Magnet -- 19 Witches

A Head-Tailed Cat

Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Harry Lime

John Armstrong:

Slavery, universal and unquestioning religious faith, aristocratic government, disregard for the suffering of others: these are the very miserable grounds on which some of the major achievements of civilization in the past were built. Hence the thought: we cannot have those desirable things now, because we have got democracy, freedom of conscience, various kinds of equality (nearly), kindness and hygiene instead. If these really are the only options, then we do not have much choice.

The organic conception of civilization reinforces this view. It stresses the interconnectedness of everything that occurs in a particular society in a particular epoch. Therefore the achievements of a time and place are thought of as inescapably bound up with, and often produced by, the defects of the era. If the passage of time sees the removal of those defects it must also remove the possibility of parallel achievements.

According to this view the great public monuments of post-war Britain had to look like Milton Keynes and the Millennium Dome — because of democracy and a National Health Service and universal education and freedom of opinion. The seventeenth century could have as its greatest public monuments St Paul's Cathedral and the other churches of Sir Christopher Wren because it has oligarchic aristocratic government, poor sanitation, short life expectancy, little freedom of opinion and little public education.

He doesn't mention him by name, but this is obviously one of Nietzsche's central themes. In fact, it's one of the themes that most effectively resist appropriation by those who would turn him into some kind of bombastic life coach. Given his conscious defiance of "systematic" thinking, it's always risky to identify what he "really" meant, but if you ask me — and even if you don't, I'll tell you anyway — I would say that Nietzsche was most concerned with culture, not individuals. Western liberal individualism was just more decadence as far as he was concerned. All his famous exhortations about the Übermensch were centered on the assumption that strong, healthy cultures would occasionally produce heroic individuals like a Beethoven or Goethe, whose artistic genius would redeem life for the rest of us, who are just here taking up space and doing the grunt work. This tendency didn't go in reverse — heroic individuals did not regenerate weak, sickly cultures. Needless to say, he would have looked at our culture, seen a crass obsession with commerce, unhealthy individualism taken to the extremes of narcissism and solipsism, and a weak, neurotic concern with avoiding pain and injustice at all cost, and dismissed any further thoughts of cultural greatness with a disgusted wave of his hand. And yet, he might have said, for all your pride in your civilized harmlessness, you still have slave labor constructing your sports stadiums, and something very much like it building the technological gadgets which give your petty lives a semblance of meaning. You have no problem consigning countless millions of other sentient creatures to miserable lives and assembly-line deaths for the sake of your convenience. You can simply afford the luxury of removing cruelty from your immediate vicinity. Rationalist sleight-of-hand takes care of any uncomfortable remainders. Blood, you're soaking in it. Always have been, always will be. The only question is whether you're going to use it to produce transcendent greatness or self-loathing mediocrity.

However, we could employ the idea of civilization in a more hopeful way. We could see civilization as seeking to equal the best achievements of the past while disentangling them from the misfortunes upon which they once depended. The idea is that we could aim for the same level of civility, grandeur, grace and beauty, but without building on those obviously intolerable foundations.

Hopeful, indeed. Alan Watts used an odd-but-striking example that relates to this idea:

Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariable and necessary cause of the event tail, which is the head's effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes from his failure to see that head and tail go together: they are all one cat.

The cat wasn't born as a head which, sometime later, caused a tail; it was born all of a piece, a head-tailed cat. Our observer's trouble was that he was watching it through a narrow slit, and couldn't see the whole cat at once.

This, in turn, was one of Watts's central themes — the idea that "good" and "bad", "desirable" and "undesirable" are like the head and tail of the cat: inseparable. We simply aren't able to stand up and look over the fence to see the entire cat at once, so to speak. We can't attain the god's-eye perspective from which we could see that no matter how hard we try to eliminate bad, unpleasant things from the world and preserve only the good things, it can never happen. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding, like trying to figure out how the cat's head "causes" the tail. To strain the metaphor further, our attempts to scrub the world clean of undesirable things would be like trying to separate the head and tail of a cat, only to have each head generate a new tail, and each tail develop a new head.

Somehow it appears that the cat mutated into a hydra. Well, no matter. The point is, the idea of "desirable" and "undesirable" as integers which can be increased or subtracted is one of the foundational myths of post-Enlightenment Western culture. You may say, "Well, I greatly prefer the 'problems' of a middle-class Westerner to those of a medieval peasant." I wouldn't disagree. But that's still a value statement, not an objective fact. Likewise, it's a value statement to say, "Well, I'm perfectly content with the way things are right now. They're good enough. No need to risk unintended consequences by messing around with further attempts at optimization." The point isn't that we can't ever agree on a way to live and coexist. The point is that any such consensus will likely have to leave our cherished rationality and objectivity behind.

The Tragic Dimension of Life

John Armstrong:

Erasmus calls his book a 'praise' of folly; this is meant ironically. He does not like folly. But as he multiplies the examples of human stupidity, greed, corruption and confusion, something else begins to emerge: the sheer normality of messing things up. Erasmus is no longer castigating an aberration, which — with a bit of coaxing and prodding — could be put right. He seems to be describing our fate.

If we take this seriously, the pursuit of civilization cannot be cast as the project of removing folly from the world. It has to aim lower: at coping and trying to flourish, given the crooked timbers of humanity.

...In an intimate way, tragedy is founded on the fact that not all good things are compatible: it may be (for most people) impossible to have a happy marriage and a raucous erotic life; or to have a well-paid job and follow your own vocation; it may be that you cannot live in the place where you most want to live; responsibility is tedious and frightening; yet taking responsibility is important. The longing to live an interesting and enjoyable life is always confronted by poverty, fragility, bad luck, death. Things we want to control are often beyond our control. We do not choose the political, moral or economic world in which we have to live; you can wear yourself out seeking genuine progress and end up making none.

So the ambition of civilization, in the face of this, is to strengthen us to face disappointment and suffering. The tragic dimension of life cannot be removed by planning and legislation. Instead we have to cultivate what are called 'stoic' virtues: the capacity to do without, to postpone pleasure, to make ourselves do things we do not want to do (when there is good reason to do them); to put up with minor irritations, to avoid complaint and useless criticism.

In a civilized society, these virtues are communicated and inculcated from generation to generation. There is a species of 'take control of your life' rhetoric that is superficially connected to this, but is in fact radically different. The message of 'take control' is that you will have to suffer a little now (go on a diet, be assertive, work hard), but soon, as a result, you will be successful, rich, famous and beautiful. The reality, however, is that we have to practice the stoic virtues not as a means to securing happy celebrity, but as a way of coping with tragedy. We have to be controlled, effortful, patient and uncomplaining without the expectation of any special reward.

Increasingly, I feel that the lesson most people took away from the failed utopian political experiments of the recent past was merely that such changes can't be made all at once, in a top-down manner. The idea that we can still achieve a near-perfect world by improving one thing at a time, while refreshingly sane by comparison, still acts as if utopia is achievable. I say "acts" because I don't know if anyone has really thought about it to that extent. Do we honestly believe that we can progressively eliminate undesirable things from the world through enlightened management and technique, or have we simply accepted it as our Sisyphean task to forever attempt to improve the world even if we're destined to fail?

The question is not based an a false dichotomy between a "static" world, as in the popular caricature of the Middle Ages, and our current one. People have always used reasoning and problem-solving skills to make changes to the world, going back to the first stone tools at Olduvai. But it is only recently in history that we have come to feel that there is never any good reason to stop trying to optimize things. Settling for "good enough", especially in a political context, is seen as a moral deficiency. I'm proceeding from the assumption that since the Enlightenment, it has become reflexive to see there being no inherent limits in our ability to shape the world in accordance with our desires. If our rational, technological schemes bring disaster, it's only because we overlooked something in the planning or application. This is a technical problem which can be fixed. And even if the problem proves a lot more intractable than it initially appeared, attempting to fix it is an existential imperative for us. The stoic virtues can be tolerated on the individual level, but for society as a whole? I find it difficult (though interesting) to imagine what that would even look like.

Friday, July 03, 2015

The Things You Think Are Precious I Can't Understand

John Armstrong:

The ancient Greek moralist Theophrastus coined a useful term, microphilotimos, which means 'attaching importance to unimportant things'.

This begins a brief section of the book in which Armstrong looks at ways we can find meaning and satisfaction in the ordinary details of everyday life. It's misleading here, though, because the image Theophrastus actually intended to convey with that term is not serenity, self-containment, or imperturbable philosophical depth, but vainglorious posturing, the strutting of a cockalorum concerned with status and validation from others. He used the example of a cavalryman wearing his spurs in the Agora; if you prefer a modern version, picture George W. Bush in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier. Anyway, it doesn't have exotic flavor, and it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, but I use the term "bonsai minimalism" to symbolize a life concerned with simple pleasures, indifferent to status, wealth and power.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Majorities and Money

Three particular features of modernity may be seen — in a pessimistic light — as making civilization either impossible or no longer desirable. We have liberal economic markets. If you can pay, you can have what you want so long as you do not break the law. Whether your choices are good or bad is for you to decide, and you can pursue them until you run out of credit. Therefore the market says: I do not care about quality of choice or whether people consume wisely. I care about whether or not they can pay for whatever it is they happen to want.

We have cultural democracy. Who is to say what sort of art or books or architecture I should like? Everyone's preference is on an equal footing. Some people like Beethoven, some Britney, others both. In the past, elites could trumpet their preferences as superior; they were the only ones in a position to do any trumpeting. Today, there is little cultural authority — there is little deference.

We have freedom of opinion. I am entitled to think whatever I happen to think — irrespective of logic, evidence and self-examination — so long as it doesn't directly and obviously harm other people. No one has any right to tell me what to think. Such freedom is rooted in the profound point that the truths we discover for ourselves are more valuable than those we merely accept on external authority. One is expected to have strong opinions on the widest range of baffling technical matters and impacted problems: how to bring peace and justice to the Middle East; how the economy can be put to rights; the relationship between science and religious faith. The quality of information on which we base our opinions may be low and the quantity slight. But we are perfectly entitled to our own views.

These conditions are associated with a pessimistic view of civilization today. Triumphant vulgarity rules the world (it is said) because the democratic numbers and the market forces always win. Once you have markets, cultural democracy and freedom of opinion, questions about merit and meaning will always be settled by majorities and money. But majorities and money have no real authority on questions of value.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

No Rest for the Progressive

I would assuredly hate to run afoul of the Jacobin version of Godwin's Law, so let me merely say that even in the cutting-edge-fashion-obsessed, social-justice-oversaturated environment of social media, I haven't seen anyone yelping about monogamous privilege or the stirrings of a burgeoning poly-rights movement, so I suspect Freddie is just bounding excitedly down the trail with the scent of seemingly-inexorable theoretical logic, rather than a practical, felt need, filling his nose. I'm especially amused by the presumptuous, almost confrontational attitude: "Hey society! I'm some asshole with a clever idea, and I say 'Jump!'" And society's all like, "LolWUT? You expect us to ask 'How high?' Burden of proof's on YOU, buddy. YOU make the case that there's an actual pressing need for us to rearrange this particular social institution to suit your specifications. YOU prove to US that this is in OUR interest to consider. Better yet, go spend the next few decades building a poly-rights movement, and if the fad hasn't fizzled out by then, we'll talk."

The Value of These Tensions

Samuel Matlack:

Nevertheless, Ellul’s analysis of freedom holds up, since most of us are not masters but consumers of technology, adapting to it and prone to mistake the valuable tensions involved in pursuing the highest goods for nothing but technical problems to be solved (and surely our technicians are no less prone to this). Recognizing the value of these tensions can be difficult, as in many areas of life the constant improvement of techniques to alleviate them becomes an unquestioned goal. But standardized tests cannot measure students’ curiosity, social networking cannot replicate the fullness of face-to-face relationships, and poll-tested ads are no substitute for political deliberation. Of course most of us know these things; and yet, our social ethos seems fixated on prizing ever better tools as ways of overcoming challenges and relieving tensions that we ought to recognize as indispensable to many kinds of excellence.

Tension and struggle are productive forces, on both the individual and social level. Many valuable aspects of life cannot be reduced to the lowest common denominator of quantifiable data. We generally understand this, yet our age is one in which we feel compelled — and compulsion is indeed an apt description of this thoughtless urge — to "solve" anything we see as a problem, and to do it as quickly as possible, especially through the use of science and technology. As our shared moral vocabulary withers, we default to a utilitarian standard that can only think in terms of maximizing pleasure and minimizing suffering. But as mystics have been saying since forever ago, a vision of a world in which "bad" and "undesirable" things can be progressively erased until there's nothing left but good, pleasant things by default is absolutely incoherent, based on a terribly mistaken understanding of reality, and doomed to frustration and failure if pursued.

Yes, I realize I just rephrased the very section I excerpted. I can't help it; I'm just wallowing in the profundity of it. Compelled to rearrange everything we can for reasons we hardly understand in service to a chimerical vision of life we wouldn't want even if we could achieve it. Sometimes you just have to laugh at the grand folly of it all. Hell, even the relatively straightforward task of trying to pin down happiness makes us look like complete fools.

But Who Are the Judges, Who Are You Judging?

Adam Gurri:

Akiva talks at length about our biases and irrationality. Gadamer instead speaks of prejudices, and says that the chief prejudice of the Enlightenment was a prejudice against prejudice.

“Prejudicial” is simply “pre” as in “before” and “judicial” as in “judgment.” Historically, it once meant the provisional verdicts that a judge would mentally arrive at before the time came to render the final judgment. Prejudice is not only necessary here, but good. Making a provisional judgment before the final one allows you to focus on specific questions, to guide your attention to particular matters you might have otherwise overlooked. It’s not only impossible for a judge to sit back without prejudice until the time of rendering a judgment, as the romantics and others have emphasized, they would also be a bad judge for doing so.

Gadamer thought that the romantics, and even Burke, just made themselves into mirror images of the Enlightenment. Where the Enlightment thinkers asserted that tradition was something accepted without reason, and therefore bad, the romantics asserted that tradition was something accepted without reason, but was greater than reason. In both cases it was treated as a black box to be labeled either bad or good.

For Gadamer, tradition is something that only exists if it is participated in, and it is continually created and transformed in that participation.

Coincidentally, shortly after reading this, I happened across an illustration of the point by means of this Louis C.K. monologue. Notice how, in two examples of what Louis calls his "mild, benign racism", what he apparently finds worthy of the term is the fact that he has any preconceptions at all. He notices that, given his experience, it's unusual to see a pizza parlor run by black women, or to have his doctor be from India. He feels vaguely guilty for having pattern-seeking software in his head, the same as every other human, which has drawn provisional conclusions from a specific set of experiences in life. He acts as if his particular, limited experience is the result of a conscious choice to exclude other possibilities out of xenophobia. This incoherent notion of the desirability of a "view from nowhere" is, to put it bluntly, an insane, inhuman standard to measure oneself against. And as his comrade in comedy Jerry Seinfeld noted, this casual conception of social sin trivializes what used to be deadly serious.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Play Is Always Going On, And the Play's the Thing

Yet that is what romantic philosophy would condemn us to; we must all strut and roar. We must lend ourselves to the partisan earnestness of persons and nations calling their rivals villains and themselves heroes; but this earnestness will be of the histrionic German sort, made to order and transferable at short notice from one object to another, since what truly matters is not that we should achieve our ostensible aim (which Hegel contemptuously called ideal) but that we should carry on perpetually, if possible with a crescendo, the strenuous experience of living in a gloriously bad world, and always working to reform it, with the comforting speculative assurance that we never can succeed. We never can succeed, I mean, in rendering reform less necessary or life happier; but of course in any specific reform we may succeed half the time, thereby sowing the seeds of new and higher evils, to keep the edge of virtue keen. And in reality we, or the Absolute in us, are succeeding all the time; the play is always going on, and the play's the thing.

— George Santayana, "Josiah Royce", Character and Opinion in the United States

The danger of utopianism is well-known by now. The less-known danger of its milder relative, meliorism, is the same one that attends any overarching ideal whose conclusion disappears over the temporal horizon. People have always yearned to submit to a "higher" logic, to weave their identities into an inevitable, irresistible, preordained pattern of events, to shrug off the tiresome burden of weighing, judging, measuring, considering...and doubting. A personality which delights in the thought of a ceaseless task, which requires a harness and yoke to channel its energies, is one in danger of forgetting how to live in any other way. People who depend upon righteous crusades to define themselves have a vested interest in maintaining a steady supply of enemies. A revolutionary with clear, attainable goals will soon have to settle down into the boring, tame business of governance. Better to stay a Lost Boy in Neverland and continue fighting pirates forever.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

To Enjoy the Interval

Michael Lind:

Santayana is seldom found in lists of the great modern philosophers. In part that is because, like other ethical naturalists, including Hume and Voltaire and Schopenhauer, he preferred humanist genres like the essay and the aphorism to the academic treatise or the footnoted journal article. One of his aphorisms has lodged in popular consciousness: “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it” (from The Life of Reason (1905-1906).) This choice of rhetorical strategies, I think, is based on observation of the human animal: if you want to teach the public, stories and jokes and conversational talks are more effective than lectures.

...The naturalism of Santayana, like that of Democritus and Epicurus and Hume, proves that a secular worldview need not assume the form of a militant, evangelical counter-religion. It shows as well that a certain kind of worldly hedonism, by privileging simple pleasures, paradoxically can be a kind of asceticism. You cannot be disenchanted with humanity and the world if you were never enchanted in the first place — that is the greatest lesson of the laughing philosophers.

Santayana has been hovering at the fringe of my awareness for some time, one of those gentlemen too polite to shove and shoulder his way to the front of the line and demand attention. But I aim to rectify that. I'm currently reading a small book of his essays, with a few more on my wish list. This selection from one of his books, in which he offers up one of the more incisive criticisms of Nietzsche I've ever seen, puts his rich literary style on full display.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Violence in All Hands, Embrace It if Need Be

Burrough does more, offering lessons to absorb. One involves the inner logic that leads sensitive souls of various ideological predilections to embrace violence for political ends. The number of American leftists studying bomb-making over the last couple of decades may be vanishingly small, but the number of Americans is not: Timothy McVeigh and his drums of fertilizer; the Tsarnaev brothers and their pressure cookers; abortion-clinic bombers; young Minnesotans scouring the Internet for ways to travel to Syria to join ISIS—all of them are seekers of a certain kind of Dostoyevskian fantasy of communion. They are radical narcissists detached from reality, certain that their spark would ignite the great silent masses who share the same sense of futility and frustration. They see society as a powder keg almost ready to blow. The book provides rich raw material to draw these connections, even if Burrough’s own analysis, and his engagement with scholarship about what makes violent extremists tick, is thin. (“What the underground movement was truly about—what it was always about—was the plight of black Americans”: This is his reductive conclusion, when his own evidence points to much more.)

Another lesson is about the counterproductive patterns of thought and action recognizable on the left today, such as the notion that there is no problem with radicalism that can’t be solved by a purer version of radicalism, or that the participant in any argument who can establish him- or herself as the most oppressed is thereby naturally owed intellectual deference, even abasement, or that purity of intention is the best marker of political nobility. These notions come from somewhere; they have an intellectual history. The sort of people whose personal dialectic culminated in the building of bombs helped gestate these persistent mistakes.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

And You Can Speak Your Mind, But Not on My Time

Saul DeGraw:

But boycotts are really one of the few ways for people to cause change, real change. You show your moral and ethical disagreement by refusing to support a business, regime, or conference with your money. There seems to be a basic free speech and association right by saying “I am not supporting this business or regime because of practices X, Y, and Z and I don’t think other people should either” or saying “Conference X invited this crank because of X, Y, and Z to speak and I think that is dangerous even if he or she is speaking on apolitical matters.” Then you have a fight or debate in the public sphere. The conference clearly saw that inviting Yarvin was a mistake and that many people thought he was odious.

This is why many people on the left see conservatism as being nothing more than a maintenance of privilege. The view is simply that liberals are not to do anything to voice their displeasure over anything because that means conservatives might have to do something.

So what are people supposed to do? Just boycott silently? Why shouldn’t they speak out?

In theory, that's all fine. In practice, though, most of these "boycotts" are nothing more than public temper tantrums. Twitter tempests in a 24-hour news cycle teacup. They involve no discipline, no strategy, no commitment. Nothing more strenuous than signing an online petition, retweeting your friends and yelling at some strangers. The point is not to change things, the point is to be seen loudly demanding that things change. This is why many people, not just conservatives, see the social justice left as being nothing more than a narcissistic exercise in virtue signaling. The view is simply that we're all supposed to run ourselves ragged responding to whichever irrelevant piece of infotainment has recently outraged them, even though their deficient attention spans will have long since fluttered elsewhere by the time we figure out what, if anything, can meaningfully be done. In many cases, there is nothing to do except punish individuals for voicing unpopular opinions, which strikes many people, not just conservatives, as petty spitefulness masquerading as high-minded principle. A focus on exiling "problematic" individuals from power and influence also incentivizes people to spend more time looking for trivial infractions to pounce upon, rather than working to create political coalitions to achieve more difficult structural goals, the kind which require a lot more than a judgmental attitude.

Now, lest you get the impression that I, like most people, am only angry when "they" use these tactics against "us", let me offer up a conciliatory example. I have as little respect for Peezus Myers of FreethoughtBlogs fame as it is possible to have. The man embodies the absolute worst aspects of social justice radical chic while practicing and encouraging the most corrosive habits of Internet dialogue. But I have also seen opponents of his who have allowed their hatred of him to start working its rationalizing magic on their own minds. Ferzample, he once made a harmless joke on his blog about having a dream in which his classroom got flooded with seawater, all his female students turned into mermaids, and, he implied, they then had an orgy. I saw people work hard to convince themselves, in all seriousness, that this was evidence of sexual depravity that should be reported to administrators at his campus. I saw them discuss plans to boycott conferences at which he and his allies were scheduled to speak, even when they had no intention of actually attending anyway. I saw them openly acknowledge their desire to use financial leverage to get social-justice atheists ousted from political positions within atheist/skeptic organizations, even though their opponents had technically done nothing wrong to justify losing their jobs. There was no pretense of fairness or objectivity. It was a spiteful desire for petty revenge by whatever means available. Sometimes you can only nail Al Capone for tax evasion.

That is the reality of what I've come to call "boycott culture". There is no careful consideration of whether this or that outrage truly represents a clear and present danger rather than a minor annoyance, and if so, whether an economic embargo is the best tactic to use in opposition. Kneejerk anger quickly turns into disproportionate punishment which breeds more of the same. What are people supposed to do? Acting intelligently and fairly would be a good start.

In a game that never ends and has no final score, the only thing that matters is how you play. Politics — the means by which people figure out how to coexist in society — is a neverending game. This attitude is what motivates my opposition to all "ends justify the means" arguments.

Yuval Noah Harari talks a lot in his book Sapiens about what he calls "imagined orders". He argues that the brute material facts of life, as far as we can tell, show that there is no inherent meaning in life beyond surviving and reproducing. Everything else, from art to morality to religion, is part of an imagined order, a story we tell to make our lives about something besides mere survival. He stresses that these orders aren't mere delusions — they exist as long as we agree on their rules and behave as if they exist. For our purposes here, it suffices to say that an expansive conception of free speech is one of those imagined orders that I consider worth defending. The miserly argument which is currently popular on the social justice left says, hey, all the Constitution allows you is the right to say what you want without official government interference. It doesn't say anything about you having the right to a mic, a stage, a P.A. system, or an audience. I say that this is true but unnecessarily stingy. I argue that we should strive to tolerate as much contrary speech as we can, even when it pains us, rather than seeking every available legal loophole to muzzle and exile our opponents. I am arguing for a shift of emphasis away from the paranoid, hypersensitive mindset which always takes the most uncharitable, restrictive view possible.

I recognize that many will see this as an impractical and naïve stance. In fact, the more observant among you will have noted that I am making a moralistic argument of my own to appeal to your conscience. I am even trying to shame you into agreeing that a more expansive conception of free speech is necessary. I make no apologies or excuses. Furthermore, I will intensify it by going all Old Testament prophet on you. If you are a supporter of this emotionally incontinent boycott culture, I say you are a stupid, shortsighted whore. Your cynicism has corroded one of the greatest imagined orders people have ever invented, and all for the cheap price of being allowed to claim the occasional meaningless, insignificant scalp of a tribal enemy. You can never "win" anything more than a temporary advantage with your disingenuous tactics. You have resigned yourself to the junk food equivalent of political activism, preferring the quick sugar high of judging and condemning "problematic" individuals to the long-term diet and discipline of working to create structural change.

Failings of personal character aside, there's a more sinister aspect to this belief in value-imposition through the supposedly neutral qualities of currency. As other critics have noted, this tendency to let the market referee our moral disputes is pure neoliberal logic, which you would think the left would be wary of endorsing. You would expect them to object to a standard where the people willing to throw their money around most aggressively should get to set the terms of debate and the moral agenda. After all, aren't we constantly being told that the rich are all right-wingers with more money than the rest of us put together? I'm sure they'll be quite happy to let you "win" by forcing some celebrity to grovel on social media, or by getting some speaker removed from an unimportant conference lineup, as long as they get to use the same "I'm a paying customer and I demand my rights!" logic when it suits them.

Friday, June 19, 2015

You Ain't Afraid of Dyin' but You're Terrified of Youth, You Must be Gettin' Rather Long in the Tooth

Is it overly authoritarian of me to want to round up people like this and send them off on an Outward Bound expedition? Any candidate who wants to turn that into policy, you've got my vote. On the other hand, a lot of the Atlantic's editorial decisions make perfect sense to me now, seeing as how they apparently hired some kid from a high school yearbook staff and made him a senior editor at the magazine.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Lulzmological Argument

Here's what I have to say about Rachel Dolezal. The fact that her story hit the news almost immediately after the media feeding frenzy over Caitlyn Jenner, as if designed to throw them into sharp contrast with each other, is clear, unambiguous proof of the existence of a trickster deity who loves us and wants us to be happily amused.

Insidiously Related

It might even be possible that what constitutes the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things – maybe even one with them in essence.

— Nietzsche

Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By ‘moral’, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations.

...At the same time, if violence is motivated by moral sentiments, what is it motivated toward? What are these perpetrators trying to achieve? The general pattern we found was that the violence was intended to regulate social relationships.

In the examples above, parents are relating with children; recruits and fighters are relating with peers and superiors; boys and men are relating with their friends; families are relating with their communities; men are relating with women; people are relating to gods; and groups and nations are relating to each other. Across all cases, perpetrators are using violence to create, conduct, sustain, enhance, transform, honour, protect, redress, repair, end, and mourn valued relationships. Individuals and cultures certainly vary in the ways they do this and the contexts in which they think violence is an acceptable means of making things right, but the goal is the same. The purpose of violence is to sustain a moral order.

For many, this will seem incomprehensible. Surely pain is terrible. The core of anyone’s morality should be to minimise it, only bringing it about when absolutely necessary. But this presumes that the ultimate moral goods in life are the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain. As reasonable as those might sound to us, they reflect modern, Western ideals. There have been many cultures and historical periods where people did not particularly value happiness, or where they actively sought out suffering because they saw it as morally cleansing.

Perhaps owing to the unrealistic expectations encouraged by the New Testament, it seems to be popular to see violence as the absence, or even the negation, of morality. Of course, even Jesus' extreme pacifism and selflessness was predicated upon the promise of the ultimate violence of the apocalypse. Violence and morality have always been knotted together like last year's strands of Christmas lights. Anyway, it's nice to see that modern social science is once again catching up to what Nietzsche was saying a long time ago.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

If All You Have Is Critical Theory, Everything Looks Like Subtext

Joseph Todd:

The dull success of Pharrell’s 2014 track “Happy” wasn’t just down to its repetitive lyrics or its adherence to the saccharine pop-hit formula, but also because it tapped into this ideological hegemony. When Pharrell sings that “happiness is the truth,” he is, in fact, making a profound ideological statement, and one that accords with much that neoliberalism implies. Our immediate physical reality, Pharrell instructs, is unimportant. What matters is how individuals interpret and react to it. We have the agency to choose, our politicians and pop singers tell us, and thus the logic of the market is extended beyond the realms of commodities and services, engulfing our emotional states, too.

Summer is truly the silly season. A few years ago, the latest Batman was said by the Zhdanovite hacks at Salon to be promoting anti-OWS propaganda. Last summer, before Pharrell moved on to insidiously making neoliberalism sound wikked kewl to teenagers, he and Robin Thicke were being accused by hysterical ninnies of providing the soundtrack to rape culture. This year, the memo apparently went out to idiots everywhere telling them to conduct inane debates on whether the new Mad Max is a feminist movie or not. So, overanalyzing banal lyrics? Sure, why not, let's go stupid hard or go stupid home.

However, if we're going to salvage the money our parents spent on a liberal arts education by pressing feel-good pop songs into service as political vehicles for carrying ideological instructions the way dump trucks haul gravel, let's not settle for the drastically foreshortened perspective of critical theory, I mean come on. This conflict dates back to far before late-twentieth century economics. It is abundantly clear to me that Pharrell is best conceived of as the Marcus Aurelius to Bobby McFerrin's Seneca, with these latter-day Stoics most productively located in theoretical opposition to rival visions of the good life such as the Spartan militarism embodied by Manowar, the decadent, Elagabalus-style hedonism of Lil Wayne, the Cynical provocations of GG Allin, and the Caligulan, megalomaniacal egoism of Kanye West.

Better by Now, Different Somehow

I thought my life would be different somehow
I thought my life would be better by now
But it's not, and I don't know where to turn

Aimee Mann

Yuval Noah Harari:

Some scholars compare human biochemistry to an air-conditioning system that keeps the temperature constant, come heatwave or snowstorm. Events might momentarily change the temperature, but the air-conditioning system always returns the temperature to the same set-point.

Some air-conditioning systems are set at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Others are set at 20 degrees. Human happiness conditioning systems also differ from person to person. On a scale from one to ten, some people are born with a cheerful biochemical system that allows their moods to swing between levels six and ten, stabilizing with time at eight. Such a person is quite happy even if she lives in an alienating big city, loses all her money in a stock-exchange crash, and is diagnosed with diabetes. Other people are cursed with a gloomy biochemistry that swings between three and seven and stabilizes at five. Such an unhappy person remains depressed even if she enjoys the support of a tight-knit community, wins millions in the lottery and is as healthy as an Olympic athlete.

...If we accept the biological approach to happiness, then history turns out to be of minor importance, since most historical events have had no impact on our biochemistry. History can change the external stimuli that cause serotonin to be secreted, yet it does not change the resulting serotonin levels, and hence it cannot make people happier.

Compare a medieval French peasant to a modern Parisian banker. The peasant lived in an unheated mud hut overlooking the local pigsty, while the banker goes home to a splendid penthouse with all the latest technological gadgets and a view to the Champs-Elysées. Intuitively, we would expect the banker to be much happier than the peasant. However, mud huts, penthouses and the Champs-Elysées don't really determine our mood. Serotonin does. When the medieval peasant completed the construction of his mud hut, his brain neurons secreted serotonin, bringing it up to level X. When in 2014 the banker made the last payment on his wonderful penthouse, brain neurons secreted a similar amount of serotonin, bringing it up to a similar level X. It makes no difference to the brain that the penthouse is far more comfortable than the mud hut. The only thing that matters is that at present the level of serotonin is X. Consequently the banker would not be one iota happier than his great-great-great grandfather, the poor medieval peasant.

This is true not only of private lives but also of great collective events. Take, for example, the French Revolution. The revolutionaries were busy: they executed the king, gave lands to the peasants, declared the rights of man, abolished noble privileges, and waged war against the whole of Europe. Yet none of that changed French biochemistry. Consequently, despite all the political, social, ideological and economic upheavals brought about by the revolution, its impact on French happiness was small. Those who won a cheerful biochemistry in the genetic lottery were just as happy before the revolution as after. Those with a gloomy biochemistry complained about Robespierre and Napoleon with the same bitterness with which they earlier complained about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette...People think that this political revolution or that social reform will make them happy, but their biochemistry tricks them time and again.

I think he overstates the case a bit. I share Alan Jacobs' suspicion of our ability to abolish sadness without changing the conditions which make us sad to begin with. Aside from that, though, this does a good job metaphorically of articulating an existential truth: the objects of our feelings may change, but the subjective feelings themselves stay within the bounded range of our set point. Our living conditions may change in quantifiable ways, but our emotional reactions to those conditions do not likewise increase or decrease exponentially. The happiness we felt as children with a new toy is not measurably smaller or more fleeting than the happiness we feel as adults when the bills are paid and it's a beautiful autumn day to share with your beloved spouse. A toy may be qualitatively inferior to a loving relationship, yes, but the happiness itself is a product of your circumstances and expectations. I would feel a surge of joy today if the book I was just talking about in the previous post were to suddenly become available at my local library, but my joy would not be diminished by the fact that there are a number of other, more fundamental ways in which my life could be markedly improved. Moreover, that surge of joy would not be layered on top of all the previous surges of joy I experienced upon getting hold of other books I had looked forward to reading. Those all faded shortly after attaining the object of my desire, just as this one will. Your brain cannot stay saturated in serotonin, or, if you prefer a less reductionist formulation, you cannot remain indefinitely in a manic, ecstatic state. Contentment is not cumulative.

Reading Joseph Epstein's appreciation of Michael Oakeshott a couple weeks ago reminded me of one of my favorite pieces of Oakeshott's writing, from his essay "On Being Conservative":

He is describing conservatism as a disposition here, rather than a political program. In addition to that heterodoxy, you notice how he emphasizes that resistance to change, rather than being necessarily and merely a fear and hatred of "progress", can represent a loving acceptance of what is, in all its imperfection. It's almost more of a mystical viewpoint than a political one, where the aim is to have a sense of gratitude for everything life brings, to appreciate things without wishing they were something else. What he calls a conservative disposition is the perspective of a well-adjusted individual who realizes that more will never be enough, that perfection is unattainable, that the future will feel no different from the present when it arrives, that if you can't be happy with what you have right now, you likely never will be. A conservative disposition, by this reckoning, is one which recognizes the folly of expecting changing circumstances to shift one's HHC set point.