Thursday, April 30, 2015

Looking for the Crest of a New Wave

Lara Unnerstall:

If you’re 33 or older, you will never listen to new music again—at least, that’s more or less what a new online study says. The study, which is based mainly on data from U.S. Spotify users, concludes that age 33 is when, on average, people stop discovering new music and begin the official march to the grave. 

Yes, Lara, are you there? Can you hear me? Yes, OK, great. I'm reporting to you live from somewhere beyond age 33, and I can assure you that there is indeed musical life out here. It's sparsely populated, perhaps, but not dead. That's right, all hope is not lost. Granted, a lot of what you've heard back there in the studio is true — careers, kids and bills do tend to eat up the energy and money that was formerly devoted to seeking out new music on a whim. Trying to keep up with popular music makes a lot of people feel silly for being out of step with their peers. And, let's face it, it can be difficult for older listeners to relate to the lyrical fixations of youth culture. So much melodrama, anger and mindless rebellion!

But though time may rob you of some of your affinities, there is no law of entropy preventing you from cultivating new pleasures. Getting older means very few things will surprise you with sheer novelty, but there is still plenty of quality to be found. Take the time, make the effort. Music, to me, has an unparalleled ability to make the same old world feel completely new. It's what keeps my thoughts from becoming stagnant. This is one instance where I agree with all that stuff about age only being a number — if your mind is still active, and you can still find pure joy in the interplay of melodies and rhythms, you're not really old.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Seeking Out the Cracks

Matthew Crawford:

But it seems best to conclude by registering a note of sobriety, as against hopes for transformation. If cultural despair rests on a view of history as being more powerful than individuals, the revolutionary for his part entertains an exaggerated fantasy of world changing. A heady vision of the progressive hereafter in which economic antagonism has been overcome may come to stand in for, and distract him from, the smaller but harder work of living well in this life. The alternative to revolution, which I want to call Stoic, is resolutely this-worldly. It insists on the permanent, local viability of what is best in human beings. In practice, this means seeking out the cracks where individual agency and the love of knowledge can be realized today, in one's own life.

Friday, April 24, 2015

This Looks Like a Job For?

Choire Sicha:

But the actual problem with the Internet isn’t us hastily tweeting off about foolish people. The actual problem is that none of the men running those bazillion-dollar Internet companies can think of one ­single thing to do about all the men who send women death threats.

Ronson has written about the harrowing experience of individuals suddenly finding themselves being pursued offline by a baying pack of thousands of virtual hounds. Sicha, in keeping with the tenor of the times, is more concerned with the aggregate, and would apparently have preferred to see a book confirming the popular belief that men's terrible treatment of women online is a uniquely awful problem deserving a specially tailored solution, which, for the purposes of a review, goes beyond providing wider context into changing the focus altogether. I'm guessing that women who participate in things like Justine Sacco's mobbing are considered statistically irrelevant.

At the beginning of the very same paragraph from which I plucked this excerpt, Sicha notes that thousands of years of unambiguous advice urging us all to be kind to each other, no exceptions, has failed to eliminate mean-spiritedness, but somehow comes around a few sentences later to the weird conclusion that tech CEOs are specifically responsible for figuring out how to design their products in such a way as to keep men from using them with malicious intent. Is this just a symptom of our age, that we expect to find a technological fix to perennial flaws in human nature? Maybe we should just give the NSA jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute anyone who uses social media to threaten felonious assault, since they're the only ones who have the budget and monitoring capacity to handle all that anyway.

Earlier in the review, Sicha downplays the significance of online mobbing by saying that it's much worse to be physically beaten with fists than virtually pummeled with tweets, yet I'm sure it would be considered offensive to borrow that logic and suggest that not all gendered "death threats" are created equal either. That's why I'll just appeal to the intersectional authority of Glenn Greenwald.

The Ordinary and the Unremarkable

Saul Frampton:

For Montaigne stands at the watershed of the two great intellectual movements of the past millennium: the darkened vaulting of medieval Christendom and the monstrous progeny of seventeenth-century science. In both of these, everyday life is, in a sense, relegated: in science into mechanism and matter; in religion into transitoriness and sin. Montaigne is like a man standing on a platform, waiting between these two trains. Yet during this silence, in the space of perhaps a few decades around the end of the sixteenth century, life begins to unfurl. For what Montaigne discovers is the power of the ordinary and the unremarkable, the value of the here-and-now.

He may have created our modern sense of self, or he may have been the first phenomenologist. Either way, the sense of selfhood that Montaigne explored is what Jackson Lears is wistful for here:

Among the educated professional classes, no one would be caught dead confusing intellectual inquiry with a quest for ultimate meaning, or with the effort to create an independent self. Indeed the very notion of authentic selfhood—a self determined to heed its own ethical and aesthetic imperatives, resistant to the claims of fashion, money, and popularity—has come to seem archaic. In an atmosphere dominated by postmodern irony, pop-neuroscience, and the technocratic ethos of neoliberalism, the self is little more than a series of manipulable appearances, fashioned and re-fashioned to meet the marketing needs of the moment. We have bid adieu to existential inwardness.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Circular Intersection

Phoebe Maltz Bovy:

It’s entirely possible for a Jew whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust to benefit from certain aspects of (for lack of a better term) white privilege. That the Nazis wouldn’t have considered you white doesn’t mean that store clerks, taxi drivers, prospective employers, and others in the contemporary United States won’t accord you the unearned advantages white people, Jewish and otherwise, enjoy. That your ancestors were victims of genocide in a different place and at a different time doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the victimizing caste in your own society, any more than having had impoverished forbears means that you can’t have been born into money. (Not, to be clear, that all Jews are!)

But if you have relatives who were killed for their “race,” killed because powers-that-be didn’t consider them white; if your family and culture were deeply shaped by this fact, and if you’d still be considered Other if you lived on the continent where all of that happened, then I think balking at white-privilege accusations is understandable. There’s an aspect of white privilege that’s about the ability to be sort of carefree about your identity. For your heritage to be a quirk, but not a thing. Through some mix of real and imagined (but understandable, given the historic context) concerns, that version of white privilege isn’t one all Jews see as available to them.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Devil Take the Hindmost

Patton Oswalt:

It feels a little frustrating that a site like Salon that I used to always go to for great news, great commentary, did turn into a caricature of what a lot of really dumb conservatives used to say it was. That’s really disturbing to me because I don’t want it to be. And I’ve been saying this over and over again.


I asked, "Is there any way to be critical of this "callout culture" without sounding like a whiny white male who is sad that he can't tell racist jokes anymore?" And she told me, "No. So just go ahead and do it." I'm sure some people will take it that way. And that is unfortunate, because I honestly think there is a balance that could be struck between making sure that closet racists, woman-haters, etc are made known and this kind of obsession with finding something Wrong with everyone. And yes, I think someone sifting through five years of tweets upon first hearing of a comedian is, if not legitimately obsessive, at least on the Obsession Spectrum.

We are addicted to the rush of being offended and we love tearing down our idols. Always have, always will. I'm not going to join the Patton Oswalt brigade of "Oh dear, You People are so sensitive that it's silencing my white male voice!"

George Carlin famously joked about how everyone who drives slower than you is an idiot, and everyone who drives faster than you is a maniac. As in so many instances, George was making us laugh while imparting a deep truth about human nature to us: We all picture ourselves occupying the sensible, moderate, middle ground; we all imagine ourselves to be the embodied avatar of clear-eyed common sense. Personally, I think this tendency is hardwired into our psychology. It comes standard with the narrative-maker we all use to make sense of the world. Everybody, no matter how nuts they are, thinks there are clowns to the left of them and jokers to the right.

Like the Bible says, then, as ye triangulate, so shall ye be triangulated against. Oswalt wants to take pains to differentiate himself from the "dumb conservatives" who were criticizing the excesses of progressive piety a long time ago, which kind of prompts the question of how dumb they really are if they were wise to this well in advance of him, but we'll let that slide. Ed tries to heed the wise words of his friend, but a mere few sentences later, his weak nerve breaks and he realizes that he doesn't have to outrun the social justice mob, he only has to outrun Patton Oswalt, so he slaps a PRIVILEGE RULES, SOCIAL JUSTICE DROOLS sign on Oswalt's back and takes off at a sprint.

Salon is indeed a worthless leftish tabloid, so good on Oswalt for giving 'em the what-for. And the rest of Ed's post is perfectly agreeable, so huzzah to him for saying it. Overall, there's far more positives than negatives in those two links. But like Ben Franklin said, you fellows might want to learn how to hang together, or you will assuredly hang separately. Look, I speak as one who has spent a few years waging solo guerilla warfare deep behind enemy lines here. I returned with a very simple message: If there is ever to be a viable alternative to technocratic, corporate-friendly, neoliberal Democrats or rabid, corporate-friendly, reactionary Republicans, it sure as shit is not going to spring from the barren, toxic soil of intersectional identity politics. Therefore, there is no need to placate these people or make excuses for them. If you are critical of them at all and significant enough to attract their attention, they will eventually treat you the same way they've treated all those other racist, misogynist, right-wing shitlords, many of whom, funny enough, considered themselves liberals in good standing right up until the moment they found themselves being publicly denounced and ostracized. If you think this only happens to people who "deserve" it, that your obvious reasonableness and unimpeachable credibility will prevent such a travesty from ever happening to you, then you're a fool, and I hope for your sake you're not active on social media.

Monday, April 20, 2015

We Feed Off of Each Other, We Can Share Our Endorphins

Scott Alexander:

Many people have remarked on the paradox of an academia made mostly of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners trying so very hard to find reasons why lots of things are the fault of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners. The simplest example I can think of is attributing the woes of Third World countries to colonialism; without meaning to trivialize the evils of colonization, a lot of academics seem to go beyond what even the undeniably awful facts can support. Dependency theory, for example, is now mostly discredited, as are a lot of the Marxist perspectives. I would provide other examples if I weren’t satisfied you can generate them independently.

This is on the face of it surprising; naively we would expect people to cast themselves and those like them in as positive a light as possible. Forget about whether these attributions of blame are right or wrong. Even if they were right I would not expect people to believe them as enthusiastically as they do.

The theories I’ve heard to explain this paradox are rarely very flattering; usually something about class signaling, or holier-than-thou-ness, or trying to justify the existence of an academic elite.

I want to propose another possibility: what if people are really, fundamentally, good?

I think he's overthinking it. Why waste time with an unanswerable question like whether people are essentially good or bad? Either way, can't we agree that they are often driven, probably by evolution itself, to take the path of least resistance? I'm not saying "people are lazy" in a moralistic, judgmental sense, I'm saying that people are always alert to the possibility of getting what they need with as little effort as possible. Work smarter, not harder, as the saying goes.

As we learned in high school biology class, parasitism is really an excellent evolutionary strategy. A parasite gets all the sustenance it needs at a minimum of effort and risk. In the online ecosystem, many parts of which significantly overlap with the academic ecosystem he's talking about, sustenance comes in the form of praise and recognition. One could certainly earn a lot of praise and recognition by being a highly moral person who performs a lot of good deeds. But then again, if you're the kind of person who's spending a lot of time righting wrongs and actively doing good deeds, you probably don't have much time to be monitoring Google alerts on your name to see who's talking about you on Twitter. And going out into the world to confront injustice might entail a lot of hard, thankless work for little reward. How could one receive praise for hizzorher exemplary righteousness and have the time and energy to bask in it?

Thus did natural selection inevitably produce the remoras, fleas and tapeworms you encounter every day on social media, which it has equipped with just enough inchoate political awareness to allow them to fasten on to a passing discussion and suck all the goodwill and usefulness from it. Alexander seems to think that all the overwrought performances of moral outrage are well-intentioned, if irrationally ineffective, attempts to actually change things. They're not. Elevating people's sense of guilt to near-existential levels is a way to ensure a constant supply of hosts upon which to feed, as the Catholic Church might be able to tell you off the record.

Likewise, I have no idea why he finds it puzzling that some educated, progressive, white Westerners are eager to quickly denounce others like them. Freddie there might say that these people are preemptively exempting themselves from their own critique, implicitly suggesting by their analysis that they are somehow morally superior to those who remain in the outer darkness, denying their own sinfulness. Or, as we learned in history class, up the stairs and down at the other end of the hall from biology, while studying the Salem witch trials, the best way to deflect suspicion from yourself in a volatile, hostile environment is to point an accusing finger at someone else first.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Wish I Knew How to Quit You

I must admit, Will Shetterly's periodic proclamations of being done with blogging about SJWs had a comforting familiarity about them. Like winter becoming spring and summer fading into fall, all seemed right with the world upon seeing yet another post from Will insisting that, no, really, he means it this time, he's done. His latest resolution, though, makes me suspect it might stick.

Way, way back in the day, when Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre announced that he was entering rehab for painkiller addiction, it prompted some uneasy media coverage over what high health costs these athletes were incurring for the sake of our entertainment. I remember reading one article in which a former player was quoted as saying that he had been in the locker room and seen guys, when told that they couldn't have any more painkillers, start desperately licking out the pill residue from their empty bottles. For him, that was the breaking point. If you're sticking your tongue down a bottle just to get a little pill dust, you've got a serious problem, he said.

In the course of my travels around the web over the last few years, as I attempted to gain perspective on the SJW phenomenon, I have definitely encountered a fair number of bottle-lickers. Of course, "hate-reading" is a longstanding tradition online, especially in the political blogosphere where I was, uh, raised. Lots of blogs are built entirely around the desire to obsessively catalog and relentlessly mock the output of their ideological opponents. Some of them can do it lightheartedly while maintaining a sense of humor, but some of them are uncomfortably close to being stalkers who could really stand to develop other, more rewarding, hobbies. I've seen who knows how many thousands of words of gleefully angry commentary devoted to parsing the most irrelevant utterances of Jonah Goldberg, Peezus Myers and other buffoons, and I was always conscious of wanting to avoid becoming one of those humorless obsessives. If you find yourself eagerly anticipating the stupidity and depravity of others as a source of frivolous entertainment, you might want to step back and introspect.

I never made any official New Year's resolution or anything like that, but sometime over the winter, I came to feel that I had gotten a satisfactory perspective on the whole thing for my purposes. I had a mission and an exit strategy, and with that accomplished, my interest began to fade like the end of a song. The problem, though, is that much of online media, especially the current events/pop-culture part of it, has a blatant social justice-y slant, with the terminology and thematic focus of intersectionality popping up damned near everywhere. Even explicitly conservative sites are compelled to directly react to it, thus leaving the lone web voyager with an unsavory choice between Scylla and Charybdis. Perhaps hobbyist and niche interest sites might still provide a haven, but in general, I fear that the SJW worldview has become "a whole climate of opinion under which we conduct our differing lives", to borrow Auden's description of Freud's influence. Individuals may decide to be done with it, but it might be a long while before it's done with us.

This Merry Mess

Danny Heitman:

The quotidian quality of Montaigne’s essays, in fact, is their biggest appeal. They seem so drawn from life that they look effortless. Penso recalls that philosopher Eric Hoffman once tried to share Montaigne’s essays with some acquaintances, to no avail: “One man flipped through the book for a while and handed it back, observing that it was nothing special—anybody could have written it. Montaigne would have liked that.”

When Montaigne changed his mind about a subject, instead of revising his views seamlessly, he’d often just tack an addendum on his previous statement, leaving the original one intact. One can easily imagine a contemporary literary agent surveying this merry mess, then pitching it into the trash can.

If Montaigne doesn’t seem obviously concerned with pleasing an audience, it’s probably because he wrote his essays at least as much for himself as anyone else. Montaigne’s temporary withdrawal from public affairs came about because of what we might today call a midlife crisis.

...Others had written in the first person before Montaigne, but they typically offered their opinions from positions of authority. Montaigne simply wrote as himself: a guy at the apparent midpoint of his life trying to sort himself out. He called his compositions “essays,” which translates as a trial or attempt, and seemed like a shrewd way to lower expectations. Montaigne offered his prose as a first stab at wisdom, a work in progress rather than an intact philosophical system.

Someone writing randomly about what he’s thinking for hundreds of pages sounds pretty dull, but Montaigne pulls it off. “How does it happen that Montaigne is not ever, not on any of all those pages, even a bit of a bore?” Thomas asks, and then answers his own question: “He likes himself, to be sure, but is never swept off his feet after the fashion of bores.”

Montaigne, as I've said a few times, is probably my biggest role model here. He doesn't come up often as a direct reference, or in the form of notable quotables (though this remains one of my absolute favorite posts I've ever written), but his spirit animates my whole understanding and practice of blogging. It's always a delight to read another article about him. You should read it too. And then go pick up a copy of the Essays and read that.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Nothin' Ever Doesn't Change but Nothin' Changes Much

But, overall, knowledge does give us power? 

That is true. It doesn't, by itself, free us. It is a two-edged sword. You can use certain technologies to promote freedom but also to spy on people. One of the core thoughts of the book where I descend from a strong philosophical and religious tradition, in philosophical terms from Socrates, is that I hold that the advancement of knowledge is not in itself liberating.

The general view today is, I think, that the growth of knowledge leads to a growth of human freedom. But the human world isn't accretive in that way as the sciences. In human history what often happens is the destruction of whole civilizations.

There seems to be a certain monoculture in our thinking today, in our view of the world. Whatever side you're on, most people would believe in inevitable ethical progress that is attached to the sciences.

There'd be different content, but still the general assumption is that we are moving to a better state. Now, my view is that politics and ethics aren't like that. I take that ethics and politics are more erratic and discontinuous. There are serious advances, but then they are regularly lost.

And, unfortunately, good things are lost. For example, in the ancient world, pre-Christian Europe, there wasn't a persecution of gay people! That was then lost for 2,000 years. That's quite a long regression. People who believe in progress must allow the question, "But what about those 2,000 years?"

There are good events in history—there are genuine advances—but they are inherently fragile. That's my key message.

Punch Drunk

Kenan Malik:

The talk suggests that Trudeau has surprisingly little knowledge of his subject. He appears to think, for instance, that Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten editor who commissioned the ‘Danish cartoons’, is a woman, and that in France, a country that has some of the toughest hate speech laws in Europe, ‘hate speech…is only illegal if it directly incites violence.’

More problematic, though, is his argument that Charlie Hedbo had ‘wandered into the realm of hate speech’, that it was ‘punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority’, that it was responsible for ‘triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died’ and that it would be better had its anti-Islam cartoons not been published. All this raises questions that echo those in the Barney & Clyde cartoon, questions about how a liberal like Trudeau imagines Muslim communities, whom he imagines represents those communities, and what he imagines constitutes free speech and hate speech.

...I have no problem with the claim that satire is best directed at the powerful, not the powerless (though that should be a moral goal, not a reason for censorship). I do have a problem, however, with the way many people, including Trudeau, understand ‘punching up’ and ‘punching down’. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Your Ruling Thought

Free, do you call yourself? Then I would hear your ruling thought, and not merely that you have escaped from a yoke.

— Nietzsche

Michael Roth:

The World Beyond Your Head begins with a terrific introduction, "Attention as a Cultural Problem." The concern isn’t just the technological appendages like computers or iPhones that we’ve come to depend on; it’s that we can’t control our own responses to them. "Our distractibility indicates that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to — that is, what to value," Crawford writes. Everywhere we go, we are assaulted by commercial forces that make claims on our mental space, so that "silence is now offered as a luxury good."

That isn’t just inconvenient. It destroys independence of thought and feeling: "Without the ability to direct our attention where we will, we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will." And they have gotten very good at manipulating our environment so that we are turned in the directions that can be monetized. But it’s really bad for us. "Distractibility," Crawford tells us, "might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity."

We have become more vulnerable to this regime of manipulated attention, he argues, because we have only individualism as a defense. The Enlightenment quest for autonomy leaves us powerless against those who mount noisy appeals to our personal preferences, in service of manipulating us. Against this tendency, Crawford argues for a situated self, one that is always linked to (not independent of) the environment, including other people.

Sarah Bakewell:

Thinkers who prioritise meaning and authenticity often have an uneasy attitude to liberty, and Crawford is no exception. There is some psychological truth here: the more constrained our situation is (short of actual imprisonment), the more we seem to enjoy what we have, while near-limitless freedom often brings anxiety and a loss of joy and value. Being able to do what we like robs our actions of their weight. As Philip Roth observed in the 1970s of communist Czechoslovakia, in the unfree world “nothing goes and everything matters”, while in the west “everything goes and nothing matters”. Communism has (almost) gone now, but in the techno-utopia promised by Google and Facebook, we continue to suffer the curse of existential weightlessness.

Personally, I think we should try for it all. I do want to spend idle moments picking up fascinating facts from Twitter, dropping in on absent friends, and sharing photos, and I cannot accept that this inevitably leads to my meaningful existence disappearing in a mist. Can there be no way of enjoying our liberties while still ploughing a disciplined furrow in the world? Can we not prize our Enlightenment freedoms and have an authentic connection to the real?

I haven't read anything by Crawford before, but he sounds interesting. The point about distractibility and value-agnosticism echoes one I've made here many times — feeling a lack of direction or control in your life might be an indication that you simply can't decide what you really want, and rather than own up to that indecisiveness, you retreat to comforting stories about how your agency was stripped from you. And the paradox of choice has been a preoccupation of mine for a long time. But "distractibility as mental obesity" is what really leaped off the page and grabbed me here. That's such a perfect way of putting it — an excess of temptations combined with a lack of discipline or purposeful mission leads to a lot of impulsive, aimless consumption of whatever is conveniently available. But talk like that tends to make us mostly-liberal folk leery. Sounds a little too conservative to focus on "discipline", "purpose", "meaning", "mission" or "values", doesn't it?

There's an interesting question here over what constitutes human flourishing. The classical liberal view is concerned primarily with maximizing personal choice and minimizing the restraints, pressures and compulsions of family, community, nation and religion. The conservative view, which I'm guessing is what Crawford is emphasizing (like I said, I'm only going by these two reviews), finds it absurd to talk as if the ideal of a neutral, yet rationally self-aware subject could ever exist. Long before we ever begin clumsily shaping our own character and inclinations, it is being shaped in countless ways by our genetics, our home environment, our peers, and our culture. A truly well-rounded character can't be understood apart from the context in which it was formed. (Of course, the stark differences here are more rhetorical than actual. In practice, most people understand to different degrees that neither the individual nor the collective can meaningfully exist without the other.) At some stages in an individual's life, then, a narrowing of perspective and a restricting of options might be more beneficial to one's ultimate well-being.

A friend of mine once explained her decision to send her granddaughter to a Catholic school (despite her antipathy toward organized religion, having been raised Catholic herself) by saying that "If you don't believe in something, you'll fall for anything." Her view was that it's fine, indeed, even necessary, to outgrow the identity with which you were raised, but it would be negligent to take a laissez-faire approach and start a child with nothing but a generic, default concept of identity in a neoliberal consumer society. As she put it, people like that are the ones who end up joining whacko cults once they grow up just to have something to believe in besides earning more money and buying new toys.

I think she overstated her case. Personally, I think shallow, pathetic twits like this woman, rather than cultists, are the more typical result of a culture in which people have no depth to their values. Still, I understand her basic point. People tend not to appreciate things they haven't had to work or sacrifice for. The wisdom you've accumulated through trial and error is not cumulative. Your children will have to learn all those same lessons through their own experiences; you can't give them a cheat sheet. A flourishing life needs to develop along a certain trajectory. A life of little struggle faced with an ever-expanding smorgasbord of available options will only inspire ennui and possibly self-destruction.

I was raised in middle-class comfort. My mom was a lapsed Catholic-turned-spiritual-not-religious-New Ager. My dad was culturally Protestant and very classically liberal (in modern terms, libertarian). There was a definite emphasis on personal freedom from compulsion, is what I'm saying. Even my otherwise conservative parents bowed to the zeitgeist and went out of their way to avoid tyrannically imposing their own values on their kids. "We just want you to be happy in whatever you do" and "we just want to do what we can to make sure you have more options in life" were two common themes I heard growing up. Well, I'm going to suggest to you that when life is pretty nice and comfortable in general, it's difficult to have any strong idea of what exactly makes you "happy". I had absorbed from the cultural atmosphere that it was a good thing to "think for yourself" and not let anyone else tell you what to do, and I had a dim idea that "passion" was somehow important in deciding what to do with your life. But no one had taught me how to think effectively, and I spent a long time waiting for one of the many generally pleasant aspects of life to seize me with the sense of purpose I was waiting for, becoming increasingly anxious as none of them did.

As it happened, music and a philosophy 101 course taken on a whim turned out to give me sufficient passion and direction in my life, and my solitary nature kept me from falling under any malign influences during those confused, impressionable years. I'm perfectly content with how things have gone for me personally. But as a general rule, as a utilitarian standard for society as a whole? I'm not sure I'd recommend it. I suspect that many people who suffer from the strange modern inability to find contentment in the midst of plenty would have benefitted from a stronger influence during their formative years, someone willing to impose a "ruling thought", more or less.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Using Great Big Words That They Don't Understand

Having just read a couple books by David Grambs, it occurs to me it's been a long time since I compiled a list of interesting words. Some of these are from Grambs' books, and some of them have been acquired over the last few years from various sources. I like to jot words like this down when I encounter them. I don't really expect to find a use for them, but I like to read over the list periodically and familiarize myself with them. Whether it's because of their interesting meaning, or their sheer musicality, these are words that I think deserve to be better known and appreciated, even if they've outlived their usefulness to everyday conversation. Feel free to adopt any which catch your eye; there aren't enough good homes for all of them!

ultracrepidarian: one of those presumptuous overreachers who try to address something outside their knowledge or field of expertise and shouldn't, who should know their own limits and don't.

advesperate: to get dark or late.

nemophilist: the lover of forests and woods, or of the sylvan world. The nature lover who most likes the unbeaten paths in tracts of trees and the beauties of coppices, groves and dells; and who of necessity must also be a dendrophile, or tree lover.

vertumnal: pertaining to spring; vernal.

nullibist: a disbeliever in any kind of spirit, soul, or incorporeal being.

henhussy: a husband or live-in male who busies himself with housework more commonly done by women. Not a nice-sounding word for the modern house-husband, but for some women the henhussy is the true man around the house — one who has no ego or identity problem. Two other words for henhussy are cotquean and betty.

vespertine: during the evening.

asteism: a cleverly polite insult.

lucubrator: one who studies long into the night (or 'composes by lamplight' as the original Latin has it), or who gives deep thought to something. One who keeps an all-night vigil without books is not a lucubrator but a pernoctalian.

shunpiker: the driver who avoids highways for byways, taking slower but more relaxing and scenic back roads instead.

callithumpian: boisterous and noisy.

genicon: that fantasied sexual partner, as opposed to the one you're actually stuck with.

solitudinarian: the loner who prizes the solitary life, who wants to be alone, thank you.

clatterfart: a chatterer or babbler.

ephectic: always suspending judgment.

rejectamenta: things or matter rejected as useless or worthless.

cockalorum: a self-important little man.

sciamachy: an act or instance of fighting a shadow or an imaginary enemy.

misoneism: hatred or dislike of what is new or represents change.

isolato: a person who is spiritually isolated from or out of sympathy with his or her times or society.

1. of or pertaining to accidental causes; of luck or chance; unpredictable: an aleatory element.
2. Law. depending on a contingent event: an aleatory contract.
3. Music. employing the element of chance in the choice of tones, rests, durations, rhythms, dynamics, etc.

silentious: taciturn.

1. having perception; discerning; discriminating: a percipient choice of wines.
2. perceiving or capable of perceiving.

brabble: To argue stubbornly about trifles; wrangle.

sizzard: unbearably humid heat.

decathect: To withdraw one’s feelings of attachment from (a person, idea, or object), as in anticipation of a future loss.

parviscient: uninformed or knowing little.

hamartia: Tragic flaw.

pharisaic: Practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit; self-righteous; hypocritical.

1. Ill-constructed; unpolished: incondite prose.
2. Crude; rough; unmannerly.

noctivagant: night-wandering.

banausic: Serving utilitarian purposes only; mechanical; practical: architecture that was more banausic than inspired.

1. Adherence to or persistence in an erroneous use of language, memorization, practice, belief, etc., out of habit or obstinacy.
2. A person who persists in a mistaken expression or practice.

apotropaicIntended to ward off evil.

1. A large number or quantity; mass.
2. The great mass of undistinguished or inferior persons or things.

graveolence: a strong or offensive smell.

metagnostic: unknowable.

1. To regard or treat as of little value or account.
2. To vilify; depreciate.

expostulate: To reason earnestly with someone against something that person intends to do or has done.

1. A breach of good manners or etiquette.
2. A nonstandard or ungrammatical usage, as unflammable and they was.
3. Any error, impropriety, or inconsistency.

1. Utmost; most complete.
2. Superlative of very.

pansophy: Universal wisdom or knowledge.

thanatopsis: A view or contemplation of death.

hobson jobson: The alteration of a word borrowed from a foreign language to accord more closely with the linguistic patterns of the borrowing language.

1. Unfading; everlasting.
2. Of or like the amaranth flower.
3. Of purplish-red color.

gnathonic: sycophantic or parasitic.

1. Necessarily true or logically certain.
2. Incontestable because of having been demonstrated or proved to be demonstrable.

cater-cousin: An intimate friend.

irenic: Tending to promote peace; conciliatory.

corybantic: Frenzied; agitated; unrestrained.

vacivity: emptiness.

canorous: Richly melodious; pleasant sounding; musical.

1. Cunning or crafty.
2. Of or resembling a fox.

fastuous: haughty, overbearing, pretentious or showy.

liminal: Relating to the point beyond which a sensation becomes too faint to be experienced.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Good That I Would, I Do Not

Alan Jacobs:

But then there are the people Nicholas Carr interviewed, and Carr himself: people who know what it is like to be lost in a book, who value that experience, but who have misplaced it — who can't get back, as Lucy Pevensie for a time can't get back to Narnia: what was an opening to another world is now the flat planked back of a wardrobe. They're the ones who need help, and want it, and are prepared to receive it...I don't know whether an adult who has never practiced deep attention — who has never seriously read for information or for understanding, or even for delight — can learn how. But I'm confident that anyone who has ever had this facility can recover it: they just have to want that recovery enough to make sacrifices for it, something they will only do if they can vividly recall what that experience was like.

What do I want? What do I need? Why do I want it? What's in it for me? Thus did the Beastie Boys provide us with a rhythmic, rhyming conceptual framework for investigating those goals which remain unmet despite our professed intentions.

Jacobs talks earlier in the book about the different reasons why people read. Some people are after an experience of raptness, of being immersed in a book to the point of forgetting to eat dinner or go to bed on time. But some are not so much interested in reading books as in having read them — books are merely instrumental, a means by which to have improved one's character, raised one's I.Q., or boosted one's status. (Both tendencies can coexist in the same individual at different times, of course; I speak from experience.)

We understand this in other contexts. Some people genuinely enjoy exercise, and being fit is just a nice bonus for something they would do anyway. Some people would like to have exercised, and would like for other people to see them as fit, but aren't so keen on actually doing it. They like the idea of being healthy and slender, but they also like the experience of relaxing and indulging. The irresistible force of their vanity meets the immovable object of their laziness.

Being conflicted like that is, I would suggest, much more of a "natural" human state than being highly motivated and disciplined. We vacillate between different impulses all the time. We desire mutually exclusive things and avoid making a hard choice between them. We fear that what we really want isn't what we should want. Our tastes and appetites change over time. And we inevitably frame our choices in the most flattering way possible. No, really, I would have exercised if not for... Honestly, I love reading books, but these gadgets, see, they're rewired my brain...

We feel the trembling uncertainty along these fault lines in our character and hurriedly dash back to the safety of such comforting narratives. But it is precisely those cracks in the tectonic plates of our personality which invite us to explore a little deeper. What if you're not truly the person you thought you were, or the person you'd like to be? Would that be such a bad thing? What are you willing to sacrifice to get there, then?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Fix It with Your Tiny Fist There


But where is the prescriptive element? I mean, I get that Ramsey wants white Americans to rise up and work to fix things. But how does he propose that we actually inspire them to do so? Sure, it should be enough to show them the reality to provoke them to fight for change. But should is a word of remarkably little relevance in the real world. 50 years after the most important Civil Rights legislation, it seems obvious that just pointing out that our society is unjust is not enough to provoke the white majority to create change.

In other words, the piece recounts in exacting detail a political problem but does nothing to establish a political solution. It begs for a next step– “here’s what I would do to convince white Americans to get on board with a political movement against racial inequality”– that it never takes. And in not taking that next step, it falls perfectly into line with the general, bizarre trend, the trend to say “it’s not the job of oppressed people to educate you.” Really? Then whose job, exactly, is it? I hear that all the time, and I find it such a bizarre attitude for self-described activists to take. To call yourself an activist is precisely to say “It is my job to educate you.” Change is active by its nature. The status quo doesn’t need activists. Change requires that you make it your job. So where’s the political strategy? I don’t pretend that it would be obvious or easy– in fact I think it’ll be incredibly hard– but, well, 200 years ago you could buy people, and the ability to do so was deeply embedded in the economy. Things can change, but you’ve got to make them happen and you have to motivate people who aren’t inherently predisposed to be motivated in order to do so.

Freddie is asking rhetorical questions, of course. He's patiently trying to lead some incredibly stupid horses to water. I, on the other hand, don't believe that these particular horses actually want to drink. That bumper sticker image up above (courtesy of Tom Tomorrow) perfectly encapsulates what they're all about. The "political" twitosphere is nothing more than a bunch of people complaining that "somebody should do something about this, that and the other fucked-up thing!" Not them, of course. They've already done their part by writing a multi-part tweet that went viral, dintjasee? They're the "ideas" crew. They just want to heave the ball of their righteous wisdom down the online lane and watch all the opponents of progress scatter like pins.

That's why I put "political" in scare quotes. These people are not activists, they just play them online. They're the political equivalent of Monday-morning quarterbacks. Real activists are far too busy with the never-ending, thankless hard work required to make actual political change happen in a world where, honest to God, believe it or don't, three-quarters of the inhabitants don't even use Twitter, let alone know that some celebrity totally won the Internet with their post about gun control in the wake of another mass shooting (which continue apace despite near-unanimous opposition on social media, strangely enough). They don't have time to waste on social media posturing and performing for several hours a day.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not condemning a tabloid site like Gawker for failing to draft intelligent policy proposals, as if they're capable or willing. They're only playing their role as the cool kids' table in the social media cafeteria, just as they were designed. I'm merely underlining the point that the "political" web exists almost entirely for signaling and venting, nothing more. It's a way for people to yell at their TV in public. As Freddie keeps saying, if you want to win enough support for unpopular ideas to turn them into policies and laws, it's suicidal to act as if the truth and righteousness of your position is self-evident, and if your opponents can't see that, well, it sucks to be as stupid as them. And yet, that's the attitude you see displayed time and again. Even at a more intellectual site devoted to the history of ideas, where you might reasonably expect a post titled What Is The Left, Anyway? to offer up a more substantial vision of what it even means to be a leftist today, you get this kind of vapid rambling, where empty snark is about as close to a serious point as you come.

If you want to put your politics into action, put the computer to sleep and go find some activist groups in your area to get involved with. Spend your free time and weekends working with them. Or go find people who don't already agree with you, but are at least reasonable enough to converse with, and try to sway them to your way of thinking. Any of those things would be more meaningful than sitting on your ass reading yet another post about how awful and stupid your opponents are. What are you going to do with that information? Vote for Democrats? You were doing that already! Vote even harder for Democrats? Please. The "political" web is just another form of entertainment for people who are too status-conscious to be seen keeping up with the Kardashians.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Searching, Seek and Destroy

Brad Warner:

The Huffington Post picked up on this and reported that the pizza place “publicly vow(ed)” to “reject gay weddings.” This entirely inaccurate description of what actually transpired was seized upon by countless folks all around the Interwebs. The pizza shop’s Yelp page was spammed with eight pages negative reviews, most of them quite obviously from people who had never been there. Their phone rang off the hook with fake orders. Someone on Twitter threatened to burn the shop down. The folks at Memories Pizza temporarily closed their restaurant.

"Punching up. Punching up! PUNCHING UP! PUNCHING UP...!"

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Just 'Cause You're Right Doesn't Mean I'm Wrong

Elizabeth Stoker-Bruenig:

In balancing a systematic critique on a single person’s story, Erdely essentially used a rightwing strategy to make a leftist point. The trouble is only that the right is skilled at this game, and correctly deduced that undoing Jackie’s story would go a long way to endangering Erdely’s larger structural point. It’s an opportunity they never should have been given, both for Jackie’s sake, and for the sake of the victims who really do find themselves struggling for protection within a hostile justice system.

In case you were wondering how the Rolling Stone rape story debacle was still somehow the right-wing's fault, Stoker-Bruenig is here to bolster your faith. Amidst all the obfuscatory hand-waving, though, there's a noticeable lack of two simple points. One, for deep-rooted psychological reasons, people will always grasp lessons better when they're couched in compelling narratives as opposed to dry statistical analysis. (Progressives usually understand this, as evidenced by their almost-religious levels of faith in the dubious idea that reading novels makes you a better, more emotionally-intelligent person.) Rather than bemoaning that fact, perhaps you should simply make a stronger effort to tell the truth in your own narratives. Which leads us to the second point: fudging factual details in service to a "higher" truth is a bipartisan phenomenon, regardless of what partisan hacks will tell you to the contrary.

(Bonus third point: this post of Scott Alexander's is a far more penetrating look at why partisans reliably choose the most sketchy stories to go to war over.)

...adding, speaking of Alexander, and speaking of lying for a higher truth, he links to this story, of which I had been completely unaware.

Enlightenment Was Seeking Him

Not having seen the commercial being referenced, I thought this comic was playing on those old Chuck Norris jokes. I like my interpretation better, to be honest.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Back in (Soft) Black (and Shades of Grey)

Eh, so much for that experiment. Wordpress has a lot more variety in their blog designs, so I wanted to see if I could steal some of their impressive color combinations and make them work in a Blogger template, but the results were not to my satisfaction. Oh, well.

While I was playing around with colors and designs, I was amusing myself listening to ironic bluegrass. Would you like to listen, too? Of course you would. You're welcome.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Jesus Tie-Dyed for Your Sins

Adam Gopnik:

To a modern reader, the relaxed egalitarianism of the open road and the open table can seem undermined by the other part of Jesus’ message, a violent and even vengeful prediction of a final judgment and a large-scale damnation. In Mark, Jesus is both a fierce apocalyptic prophet who is preaching the death of the world—he says categorically that the end is near—and a wise philosophical teacher who professes love for his neighbor and supplies advice for living.

...One thing, at least, the cry assures: the Jesus faith begins with a failure of faith. His father let him down, and the promise wasn’t kept. “Some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God,” Jesus announced; but none of them did. Jesus, and Paul following him, says unambiguously that whatever is coming is coming soon—that the end is very, very near. It wasn’t, and the whole of what follows is built on an apology for what went wrong. The seemingly modern waiver, “Well, I know he said that, but he didn’t really mean it quite the way it sounded,” is built right into the foundation of the cult. The sublime symbolic turn—or the retreat to metaphor, if you prefer—begins with the first words of the faith. If the Kingdom of God proved elusive, he must have meant that the Kingdom of God was inside, or outside, or above, or yet to come, anything other than what the words seem so plainly to have meant.

Secularism is all that matters to me regarding religion and society. I got bored by hair-splitting philosophical and theological arguments a long time ago, and unlike many New Atheists, I don't believe that religion has the power to make otherwise good people do bad things, so I couldn't care less to harangue people about how logic and decency compel them to abandon their faith. Whatever gets you through the night is all right, as long as you're not being an asshole about it. On this point, however, I do think it's worth standing polite-yet-firm. There's a thin line between metaphorical interpretation and intellectual dishonesty, and people who refuse to acknowledge what Biblical scholarship has revealed about the historical circumstances of Jesus the person are on the latter side, in my opinion.

Hey! You! Get Off of the Cloud!

Paul Roberts:

But when it comes to consumer convenience, we need to consider whether easier really is always better. Online shopping, for example, is already so effortless that we often don’t remember we’ve ordered something until the package arrives at our door. What happens when consumption becomes even less of a conscious process — when, say, our smart cupboards and refrigerators, empowered to monitor what we’re using, start making buying decisions autonomously?

...As important, might it be possible to make things too easy? Systems like Amazon’s Dash are attractive because they let us skip routine tasks, such as managing the household, which gives us more time for things that are more important to us. But when we eliminate even a mundane task, we also lose some of the mental skills that the task required. Granted, losing the mental skills needed to compile a shopping list hardly seems a cause for worry. But we should consider that loss as part of the broader “de-skilling” of everyday life with the spread of automated conveniences.

Ian Crouch:

As propaganda, the video seems more like a condemnation of consumption than a celebration of it. All that stuff, the same stuff, used and discarded day after day. It’s the kind of montage that a movie director would use to show just how sad and soulless a character’s life was. And the idea of shopping buttons placed just within our reach conjures an uneasy image of our homes as giant Skinner boxes, and of us as rats pressing pleasure levers until we pass out from exhaustion. But according to Amazon, these products represent the actual rhythm of life, any interruption of which might lead not only to inconvenience but to the kind of coffee-deprived despair that we see when the woman realizes that she has run out of K-cups. That’s the real dystopia: not that our daily lives could be reduced to a state of constant shopping but that we might ever have to, even for a moment, stop shopping.

...But what if there is actual value in running out of things? The sinking feeling that comes as you yank a garbage bag out of the box and meet no resistance from further reinforcements is also an opportunity to ask yourself all kinds of questions, from “Do I want to continue using this brand of bag?” to “Why in the hell am I producing so much trash?” The act of shopping—of leaving the house and going to a store, or, at the very least, of one-click ordering on the Amazon Web site—is a check against the inertia of consumption, not only in personal economic terms but in ethical ones as well. It is the chance to make a decision, a choice—even if that choice is simply to continue consuming. Look, we’re all going to keep using toothpaste, and the smarter consumer is the person who has a ten-pack of tubes from Costco in the closet. But shopping should make you feel bad, if only for a second. Pressing a little plastic button is too much fun.

Just to be clear: these guys are making like Amish elders evaluating what are essentially little wi-fi buttons you can put around your house that will allow you to add everyday-use household items to your Amazon shopping cart. I mean, you could still do it the old-fashioned way, like we did back in my day, and walk around the house with a laptop or a smartphone to make a shopping list. But in our slave new world, you will still get an email to confirm that you did intend to add that item. Your kids cannot accidentally order 700 boxes of dryer sheets by playing with the button. There would seem to be little danger that this will somehow prove to be more addictive than using Amazon's already-existing one-click option. No one is going to turn into a hoarder and bankrupt themselves ordering 20,000 jars of Peter Pan peanut butter and Welch's grape jelly because it's "too much fun" pressing this button. If anything, this would seem to be marginally more useful than those smartwatches that the tech geeks have been fapping over for the last couple years, and I don't remember anybody seeing those as harbingers of dystopia.

So, yes. Roberts asks if technology like this will "make us stupid". Crouch, when he's not standing outside the Dollar General wearing a cilice and urging shoppers to repent, seems to think that most people normally fill in the lacunae in their hectic days by contemplating the essence of the good life, rather than cursing the shitty luck that caused them to run out of trash bags and detergent now, of all days, for chrissakes. Like Calvin's dad, both sound eager to remind harried consumers how stress and hard work builds character. If this sounds awfully familiar, why, yes, we were just talking about this.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Someone Whose Mind Watches Itself

But Orwell himself, very early in his career, argued against this style of reading literature. In one of his first book reviews, in 1930, for example — on Lewis Mumford’s book Herman Melville — he argues that such interpretation (an “unpleasant but necessary word”) is a “dangerous method of approaching a work of art. Done with absolute thoroughness, it would cause art itself to vanish.” Reducing a work of art to an allegorical message, he said, “is like eating an apple for the pips.” In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus also argued against reducing novels to what he called a “thesis-novel, the work that proves, the most hateful of all, […] the one that most often is inspired by a smug thought.” For both men, a novel is not supposed to tell the reader what to think, but rather to create the conditions through which the reader can experience thinking for themselves. This idea became the creative spark that fired also their political imaginations, especially their opposition to totalitarianism.

...And yet, where Orwell is praised for his political judgment, albeit based upon a denigration of his literary imagination, Camus is praised for his literary works (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, after all), but, in the process, he is denigrated for his political thinking — often dismissed as a noble but vague humanism; admirable, but not worth taking seriously.

However, by the time most of the French intelligentsia embraced Communism in the late 1940s and ’50s, Camus had already joined and been expelled from the Communist Party (the Algerian branch). At a time when many others — such as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre — were being seduced by Communism, Camus was already aware of its theoretical contradictions and practical impossibilities. His experiences during the purges of the mid-1940s showed him that today’s victims can easily become tomorrow’s executioners. His own political thinking — which, like Orwell’s, was grounded in intellectual honesty and concrete experience — developed early, through his growing up in poverty in working-class Algeria. What Orwell learned only slowly, and from the outside, about poverty and working-class culture, Camus knew firsthand, from the root source.

Camus sharpened his political sensibilities through his journalism, which forced upon him the practice of keeping an open mind, of collecting the facts for himself, and then thinking through their significance and implications.

I have no idea why Camus has been so frequently popping up in my online reading recently. I'd like to think it heralds some sort of pendulum-swing away from ideology and toward humanistic sanity, but it's probably just a happy coincidence. Whatever the case, it's good to see. As Arthur said to me:

The toxic ideological dust has settled, and Orwell and Camus emerge with honor from the disgraceful period when the intellectual dishonesty of Stalinists like Sartre was the chic thing. What admirable human beings, as well, which gives moral authority to their humanism. This is why they're not academically popular, or haven't been till recently: they distrusted theory, knowing first-hand how easily it become sophistical and a mere rationalization--for example, of crimes against humanity.

It's good to read about two guys who were not academic "thinkers" but thinking writers who showed personal courage and held on to humanistic convictions in the face of totalitarianism left and right. They matter, because they put themselves on the line (the question of suicide in Camus, as the article shows, was not a philosophical abstraction, but truly "existential," that is, personal). There is almost nothing at stake in the academic acrobatics of even a Foucault. Everything is at stake in the writings of Orwell and Camus.

Leave the Spotlight, Dodge the Searchlights

Isabel Colegate:

The celebrity hermit, a modern phenomenon, seems to escape the tolerance, let alone respect, accorded to other species of solitary, being regarded instead with indignation and outrage. The reasoning behind this must be the thought that no one would be a writer or an actor or a musician — or indeed prominent in any way — unless their chief object was to be famous, and that therefore they should lay themselves down gladly as a sacrifice on the altar of human curiosity.

Despite this observation, the index of the book shows no references to Bill Watterson, which strikes me as odd. What better example could you ask for?

In the film Dear Mr. Watterson, his mother commented on the creepiness of some fans who not only go out of their way to find out where he lives, but make it known to him that they've done so, like it's a game of hide and seek. It's like, "You have created something that provides an enduring sense of fascination for me. Now you're obligated to stay within reach in case I ever want to indulge my curiosity further." Even I, who respect a desire for privacy to a greater degree than most, have to admit that I would eagerly read more about Watterson the everyday guy if that information were available. Yet, I'm fully aware that doing so would almost certainly add nothing to my appreciation for Calvin and Hobbes. What drives this insatiable fascination, this urge to use someone up until they have nothing left to show or give? Why do we find it so difficult to simply allow mysteries to exist?