Sunday, May 31, 2015

Ow-OOO, Beware Wolves in Berlin

Wolfsburg lifted the 2015 DFB Cup thanks to a 3-1 win over Borussia Dortmund in Berlin's Olympiastadion.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang gave Dortmund a dream start, but Luiz Gustavo brought the Wolves back on terms before Kevin De Bruyne put Dieter Hecking's men in front. Bas Dost added a third before half-time, wrapping up victory for the Wolves and inflicting defeat on Jürgen Klopp in his final game as Dortmund coach.

Well done, fellows.

Left Turn

What mattered to this new generation of leftists was the distribution of cultural power among groups—not the fortunes and universal rights of “working men” in the abstract but the fortunes and rights of specific types of men and women, whose race or gender or sect was “privileged” and whose was not. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the absurdities of planned economies settled one question. But the political and social and cultural questions—who was on top, what spoils would they reap—remained open.

...In his policies and his idealism, Bernie Sanders is something of a fossil: a relic of socialism past. I disagree with his conclusions and prescriptions, but I admire his honesty and his goal of helping all Americans regardless of race or ethnicity or religion. What I can’t stand are the liberals who disguise their profit-seeking and social prominence by claiming to stand with the oppressed, who never miss an opportunity to signal their allegiance to the cause of the day, but who would never set foot in Baltimore without a security detail, and have never lost a job because an undocumented worker priced them out of the market.

I Needed to Believe in Something, I Need You to Believe in Something

Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity. It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into 'superiors' and 'commoners' is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth. In what sense do all humans equal one another? Is there any objective reality, outside the human imagination, in which we are all equal? Are all humans equal to one another biologically?

...Advocates of equality and human rights may be outraged by this line of reasoning. Their response is likely to be, 'We know that people are not equal biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.' I have no argument with that. This is exactly what I mean by 'imagined order'. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively. Bear in mind, though, that Hammurabi might have defended his principle of hierarchy using the same logic: 'I know that superiors, commoners and slaves are not inherently different kinds of people. But if we believe that they are, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.'

It's likely that more than a few readers squirmed uncomfortably in their chairs while reading the preceding paragraphs. Most of us today are educated to react in such a way. It is easy to accept that Hammurabi's code was a myth, but we do not want to hear that human rights are also a myth. If people realize that human rights exist only in the imagination, isn't there a danger that our society will collapse? Voltaire said about God that 'there is no God, but don't tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.' Hammurabi would have said the same about his principle of hierarchy, and Thomas Jefferson about human rights. Homo sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas and chimpanzees have no natural rights. But don't tell that to our servants, lest they murder us at night.

I'm a Spy but on Your Side, You See

Brianna Snyder:

Still, I Google every single person I meet. Sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of curiosity. And I bet you, to some extent, do that, too. It’s a reflex now, and like a cliche of Internet culture: If I can access information, why wouldn’t I?

...“People need to understand that we’re in a new era right now. That era is one of complete transparency: You can see and hear and watch what people do more than we ever could before.”

Does Barnes think the Era of Complete Transparency is a bad thing? “Some people think it’s good, some people think it’s bad,” she says. “For me, it’s just real.”

Which is why you’re basically behind the curve if you’re not Googling pretty much everyone you meet. 

"I'm afraid that this thing I do makes me a weirdo. So, to make myself feel better, I'm going to blithely implicate you in my weirdness. By the end of the article, I'll have rationalized, with the help of an Official Expert, that it's not only normal, it's inevitable."

Sorry, weirdo. I manage to make it through the day just fine without needing to pry into the lives of my co-workers and acquaintances. If I'm not invited, it's none of my business to eavesdrop on their online conversations with other people. Granted, many of them are indeed displaying parts of their lives in a public space. Nonetheless, out of basic politeness, I still don't assume that I'm welcome everywhere unless specifically forbidden.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Oh, If I'd Only Seen That the Joke Was on Me

Megan Garber:

Comedy ceased to be the province of angsty and possibly drug-addled white guys making jokes about their needy girlfriends and airplane food. It became (slightly) less exclusionary to women and minorities. It began to ask, and answer, the questions that newfound diversity will tend to bring up—questions about power dynamics and privilege and cultural authority.

As comedy began to do a better job of reflecting the world, it began, as well, to take on the responsibilities associated with that reflection. It began to recognize the fact that the long debate about the things comedy owes to its audiences and itself—the old “hey, I’m just making a joke” line of logic—can be partially resolved in the idea that nothing, ultimately, is “just a joke.” Humor has moral purpose. Humor has intellectual heft. Humor can change the world. We may well deserve, as Schumer said this week, to “watch like no one’s raping.” What she didn’t say, but what is clear from her comedy, is that jokes themselves have a way of getting us what we deserve.

"How Comedians Became Public Intellectuals." This is a typical crosseyed drooler of a thinkpiece in the Atlantic, following the exact same template as the articles you might have read there several years ago gushing about how social media, or Twitter in particular, were likewise changing the world for the better. Now, leaving aside the party-pooping fact of how injustice always seems to prove more resilient than the shiny novelty of the latest game-changer, I like to think that an actual public intellectual would be wondering if it isn't just awfully convenient how all these things we would have been doing anyway, like reading fiction, watching stand-up comedy, and dicking around on social media turn out to be the oil lubricating the engine of historical progress, but that only serves to illustrate the unwitting accuracy of Garber's last sentence there: we are indeed getting the intellectuals we deserve.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Lies That Bind

A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It's much more important to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat...Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.

Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it's the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled...But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That's why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum 'natural' size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither individually know, nor effectively gossip about, more than 150 human beings...How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths...Yet none of these things exists outside of the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.

Diogenes, Shutter Your Lamp

Justin Smith:

What Russia does, with its massive military arsenal and its historically rooted resistance to absorption into the US- and NATO-dominated order, is far more important than anything the American left is currently focusing on. It's far more important than anything ISIS does, than anything alienated European-born jihadists do. No sense can be made of it if one's categories of analysis are 'white' and 'non-white', which again are mostly just memes disguised as categories of analysis. My own view, for which I've argued before, is that the best the left could do is to engage truly progressive, internationalist, anti-Putin forces within Russia, which do exist, even though most in the western left have no idea of them. Even this probably wouldn't help much. Putin is too powerful. And neither he, nor Kadyrov, nor anyone else in the former Soviet bloc, for that matter, could care less about who won the latest White Off on Twitter.

Less identitarian caterwauling, frivolous posturing, and community theater, please. More deep history, real analysis, and global scope. 

To a casual onlooker, many of the issues being discussed on the web have a political appearance. The manner in which they are being discussed, though, demonstrates their lack of serious content. As anyone who has taken DeBoer 101 knows, race, gender, economics and geopolitics are mere tokens in a game of social media sorting, where the players compete for meaningless status. I don't disagree with anything Smith says in his post. I just don't know why he's expecting to find mature discussions of serious issues in this environment, as if the average schmuck on Twitter has anything remotely insightful to say about Russia. Perhaps it's just a rhetorical trope, intended to shame people out of their adolescent superficiality, in which case, good luck.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Where the Rubber Plantation Meets the Capitalist Road

The choices were stark: sack a third of our workforce or cut their wages by a third. After a short board meeting we cut their wages, assured they would survive and that, with a bit of cajoling, they would return to our sweatshop in Shenzhen after their two-week break.

But that was only the start. In Zoe Svendsen’s play World Factory at the Young Vic, the audience becomes the cast. Sixteen teams sit around factory desks playing out a carefully constructed game that requires you to run a clothing factory in China. How to deal with a troublemaker? How to dupe the buyers from ethical retail brands? What to do about the ever-present problem of clients that do not pay? Because the choices are binary they are rarely palatable. But what shocked me – and has surprised the theatre – is the capacity of perfectly decent, liberal hipsters on London’s south bank to become ruthless capitalists when seated at the boardroom table.

The classic problem presented by the game is one all managers face: short-term issues, usually involving cashflow, versus the long-term challenge of nurturing your workforce and your client base. Despite the fact that a public-address system was blaring out, in English and Chinese, that “your workforce is your vital asset” our assembled young professionals repeatedly had to be cajoled not to treat them like dirt.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Race to the Bottom

From the link:

On matters of race, campaigners are instituting a racial hierarchy of intellectual worth. It is based on the idea that only those with 'experience' can properly assess a political issue pertaining to it.

There is obviously a grain of truth of truth in that – all the most powerful falsehoods are based on a grain of truth. But what happens when we embed that fact into how we conduct political discourse? We are saying that the race of the person speaking is more important than the content of their words. We base our assessment of their intellectual and moral validity on their race. This is, quite plainly, 'negative thoughts towards another individual on the basis of their race'. It may be racism with a positive purpose. It may be a drop in the racist ocean compared to the horrors and abuses ethnic minorities go through every day. But that does not change what it is.

The colour of one's skin has been given primacy over the content of one's character.

Most depressingly of all, it is a rejection of the power of moral imagination. It turns its back on empathy as a political force. It does not perceive us as people fighting for the rights of others as well as ourselves. In fact, it is a highly capitalistic and right-wing vision of humanity, as self-interested units only capable of improving their own lot.

I see no reason to be optimistic that the left will ever turn away from the easy incentives of jockeying for status and position within inverted oppression hierarchies, or making vague, impotent gestures in the direction of salvific revolution. At the same time, I'm not a believer in Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis, either. If politics itself has become ossified, then it's likely that culture or technology will eventually provide the dynamic force to shake things up again. (Trying to be more specific than that, though, is a mug's game.) But whatever form change takes, and whichever direction it comes from, I imagine it will take us all by surprise at first, only to appear obvious and inevitable in hindsight.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Old Man of Chelm

But Howe’s central point was far more serious than these occasional descents into shrillness would suggest. In turning its back on liberalism, the left was doing itself irreparable harm. Responding, no doubt, to the mutation of liberalism into the aggressive anti-communism of Lyndon B. Johnson, the left had decided that liberalism was a sham, that democracy itself (or ‘bourgeois democracy’) was merely a veiled form of capitalist domination. For Howe, terms such as ‘liberal fascism’ and the use of the word ‘totalitarian’ to describe US society – Norman Mailer was one of the culprits here – were revealing of a profound confusion. Yes, the Cold Warriors in the US government were as invested in ‘liberalism’ as Dr King, but any left that dismissed the principles of humane tolerance and disinterested speculation that were the essence of the liberal tradition was making a mighty rod for its own back.

The left, he argued, must acknowledge its roots in, as well as the necessity to go beyond – to expand upon – the liberal tradition; it must come to recognise the unity of socialism and democracy, to see socialism as the means through which democracy can be spread to the economic sphere, and not fall for the ‘pseudo-Leninist’ line that Western-style democracy is an impediment to social justice. Howe was in no doubt at all that liberalism was insufficient to solve the problems of equality and injustice. But he also knew that any left that failed to give liberalism its due would slide quickly into either authoritarianism or irrelevance. Perhaps it would not be unfair to suggest that the fate of the New Left, in the US and elsewhere, was to slide into the second, while evincing a callow sympathy for the first.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Shape of Things to Come

As the case of Odinism suggests, Nature abhors a vacuum. If, as the world grows richer and more educated, supernatural religion continues to decline, then the void of belief may be filled by new creeds. Revived paganism is likely to be limited in its appeal. More successful will be secular creeds that combine the imagery of modern science and technology with the certainty and zeal of pre-modern faiths. Marxism was justified by a pseudoscience of history, while pseudoscientific Social Darwinism provided the underpinnings of German National Socialism. Communists and Nazis alike believed that they were scientific and up-to-date, even as they enjoyed the kind of certainty and solidarity that religion traditionally has provided.

The advanced industrial nations of North America, Europe and East Asia suffer from Muslim jihadism, but they are not going to be conquered from without or within by champions of a new caliphate. The real threat to post-Christian civilization will come from within. Like Marxism and National Socialism, it will take the form of a militant secular creed, but adopt the trappings and rhetoric of science and technology and appeal to educated people whose spiritual longings go unmet. The adherents of the next major religion to sweep through the secular West will insist that it is science and will deny that it is a religion at all.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

When I Go Forwards You Go Backwards and Somewhere We Will Meet

Robert Applebaum:

If you look at studies of people in the wishy-washy middle, among them the “shy Tories” who bolted toward the Conservatives at the last moment, you find individuals who do not believe that the future can be any improvement on the present. They sense that the UK is stagnating economically and culturally; they know that it has become less fair than it used to be. They see that the rich have gotten richer even since the coming of the Great Recession, and that one million people have been driven to rely on food banks for daily sustenance. But they don’t feel anything can be done to improve the situation, and their basic instinct is fear that things could get worse.

The shy Tories are neurotics in love with their symptoms. They complain, they feel bad, but they don’t really want to get better. And so given a choice between a remedy and more of the same, they have chosen more of the same.

Ben Cobley:

On the left, we do an excellent job of pushing people away, despite all our talk of ‘inclusion’ and Labour’s claims to be the party of ‘the many not the few’.  My feeling is that this affects all left-leaning parties. That seems to be backed up by the numbers, which show how what you might call a ‘progressive alliance’ composed of Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, SDLP, Greens and Plaid Cymru won 47.7% of the total vote in this election while the Conservatives, UKIP and DUP from the right picked up 50.1%. (Thanks to John Clarke for pointing that out).

Compare that to 2010 (a bad year for Labour remember), when the more ‘progressive’ or left-leaning parties won a total of 55.7% against the right’s 41.7% and you can see that over the past five years the British left has been losing votes to the right, despite having a Conservative-led government implementing public spending cuts (known in left-wing circles as ‘austerity’). As a whole, the voters have looked at us and said, “You know what, the other lot aren’t great but I prefer them over you lot. See you later.”

This is where we need to start, by admitting that with the bulk of the British pubic, we are unpopular – the only serious exception being the SNP in Scotland which has got its identity politics worked out. There are lessons to be learned here. 

I don't have any important insight into British politics. I just found it interesting and amusing to read these posts in juxtaposition. In a way, it's reassuringly familiar to see British lefties like Bobby Appletree respond to political setbacks the same way our progressives do here — with incredulous scorn and withering contempt for the ungrateful voters who are too stupid or craven to choose what's best for them. Well, I'll never be mistaken for a political scientist, but it still seems obvious to me that projecting an attitude of haughty impatience toward people who don't already agree with you, especially when you're not operating from a position of strength to begin with, is rather self-defeating.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Vape Culture

I drove past a vape shop the other day that had a very silly name. I don't even remember what it was, though. That's just it — it wasn't like a clever pun or anything memorable, it was just weird. The kind of thing that makes you say, "What the fuck...?" before slipping out of your memory at the next stoplight.

So, it occurred to me that the title you see above would be a good name for a shop. The way I see it, it's one of those deals where the people who will be angrily boycotting you probably weren't ever going to shop there anyway, and you'll get all the free advertising you could possibly want. Any aspiring entrepreneurs out there, feel free to use it. (Just remember whose idea it was if you ever have money to burn.)

Yeah, yeah, I'm going to hell. As if you didn't snicker.

...of course, Google exists to remind you that you've never had an original thought in your life. Ah, well.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

What's the Big Idea?

'With my other boyfriends we always had discussions about how to improve the world,' Ariane said to me one morning as we lay in bed.

'What solutions did you propose?' I asked. 'Getting rid of armies and governments? Back to the land? The abolition of money?'

'Yes, those ideas came up. How would you improve the world, then?' Ariane asked me.

'Maybe not try to improve it,' I said. 'Stop having dreams of big solutions and try to make it work better with a few more little laws. I dunno.'

Ariane was frustrated by my lack of conviction. Communism was all about building Utopias, but trendy Western European theorists now called our age post-utopian. Where I came from, a lack of convictions was one of one's most deeply-held convictions.

'But how will you end exploitation, poverty and environmental destruction?'

'Maybe they can't be ended,' I said. When Ariane and I talked politics it always made me think of an episode from an old science-fiction series. I felt that my spaceship had touched down on a remote part of the Earth. My ideas were like a Martian language to her.

'But doesn't it matter to you that the gap between the poor and the rich has been getting wider,' she asked, beginning to sound irritated.

'Oh, inequality is not such a bad thing. it doesn't matter that the gap between the rich and the poor gets bigger, as long as the poor are getting richer, which they are.'

'But don't you feel a sense of outrage at the millions of impoverished migrant workers in China and Asia, filling up the slums of the mega-cities and working in sweatshops to make toys for our children and shoes for our feet?'

'Those people are playing catch-up after years of being held back by Communism. Anyway the alternative is that they stay where they came from, trying to keep the family goat alive on a barren hillside.'

...'Sometimes with you, I am worried that I am going to lose my identity,' she said.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Optimism Doesn't Change the Facts, Just What You're Gonna See

Joseph Heath:

When I was younger, I thought that questions of social justice were easy. It seemed to me that there were two sorts of people in the world — those who were basically selfish, and those who were more generous and caring. Insofar as there was injustice or suffering in the world, it was because those who were selfish had managed to see their interests prevail. Thus the solution to these problems was to persuade people to care more or, failing that, to ensure that people who did care more were given access to political power. Furthermore, because of all the "invisible hand" rhetoric, it seemed obvious to me at the time that capitalism was a system designed by the selfish to advance the interests of the selfish, and that right-wing political parties existed in order to give ideological cover to this operation. Anticapitalism therefore struck me as being a straightforward moral imperative. Government was good; the market was bad.

Now that I'm older, I think there are so many things wrong with this view that I wouldn't even know where to begin enumerating them. Many different factors contributed to this dawning realization. Part of it, no doubt, had to do with spending a fair bit of time, over the course of many years, in Asia, and seeing what an incredible force for development even a poorly structured market economy can be (not to mention what a fiasco the state can be, particularly in places where corruption is an issue). Part of it came from meeting more people outside my immediate circle of left-wing acquaintances, and discovering that "the system" is made up of people pretty much like everyone else, acting on the basis of the usual mix of selfish and altruistic motives that one encounters in any walk of life. But a lot of it came from reading economics, and from trying to work through systematically the alternatives to the existing order of things. What one discovers through this exercise is that for any ridiculous, destructive or unjust state of affairs, there is usually an understandable reason why that state of affairs persists. Our problem is often not that we lack the will to fix our problems, but that we don't know how to fix them.

...Most of the mistakes that people on the left make involve failures of self-restraint — an unwillingness to tolerate moral flaws in society, even when we have no idea how to fix them and no reason to think that the cure will not be worse than the disease.

The book examines six economic fallacies apiece per the right and the left, lest you get the impression that this excerpt epitomizes some "road to conservative Damascus" story. No, this caught my eye because of the way it serves as an illustration of an older, deeper conflict, that of optimism vs. pessimism. His newest book, which I have yet to read, has already inspired some interesting discussion around that theme, such as here, where he elaborates on his view that many sociopolitical problems are simply not fixable. (It amused me greatly to see him state flatly that writing books about policy and culture for a general audience pretty much requires the obligatory closing chapters in which the author offers his "solutions" for how to get everything back on track. Anyone who has read such books should be keenly aware by now of the forced, unconvincing tone that permeates such uninspired calls to action, yet he says that the most common complaint about his earlier book Nation of Rebels was that it didn't offer any ideas on how to "fix" consumerism. Even when people know such prescriptions are worthless, they seemingly can't help desiring the reassuring ritual of reading them. They might as well be fondling rosary beads and muttering prayers, though that suggestion would almost certainly offend their self-conception as rational beings.)

Anyway, I think it's fair to say that since the Enlightenment, it's increasingly taken for granted that reason and science are the tools with which humans can solve any problem. In the more aggressive forms of this outlook, the distinct possibility that everything is knowable and controllable in principle easily morphs into a positive assertion of probability. Skeptical pessimism about the ultimate success of the project ended up being relegated to the fringes of religious conservatism, where it could be safely ignored. Even aging and death are now being talked about as "technical" problems which can be "solved". Well, I have nothing whatsoever to base this upon but anecdotes and a personal gut sense, but I feel that non-religious, non-conservative, pessimistic perspectives like Heath's (or John Gray's) are starting to gain intellectual traction. It will be interesting to see how major events in this century tip the balance one way or the other.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


The newly-minted doctor of rhetoric asks a rhetorical question:

Do we still have the capacity, as a political and intellectual movement, to argue in a way that’s not entirely based on associating with race or gender in a totally vague, unaccountable, and reductive way?

Magic 8-ball says...?

He continues:

If you want us to stop being a mess, you have to be willing to criticize, and you have to accept that every criticism of an ostensibly progressive argument is not some terrible political betrayal. Not everyone who complains about white people has enlightened racial attitudes. Not everyone who constantly drops “mansplaining” or “gaslighting” into conversation actually helps fight sexism. One-liners don’t build a movement. Being clever doesn’t fix the world. Scoring points on Twitter doesn’t create justice. Jokes make nothing happen. We’re speeding for a brutal backlash and inevitable political destruction, if not in 2016 then 2018 or 2020. If you want to help avoid that, I suggest you invest less effort in trying to be the most clever person on the internet and more on being the hardest working person in real life. And stop mistaking yourself for the movement.

Matt Taibbi once offered a hypothesis about the psychology of this self-defeating tendency:

That's why their conversations and their media are so completely dominated by implacable bogeymen... Their faith both in God and in their political convictions is too weak to survive without an unceasing string of real and imaginary confrontations with those people — and for those confrontations, they are constantly assembling evidence and facts to make their case.

But here's the twist. They are not looking for facts with which to defeat opponents. They are looking for facts that ensure them an ever-expanding roster of opponents. They can be correct facts, incorrect facts, irrelevant facts, it doesn't matter. The point is not to win the argument, the point is to make sure the argument never stops. Permanent war isn't a policy imposed from above; it's an emotional imperative that rises from the bottom. In a way, it actually helps if the fact is dubious or untrue (like the Swift-boat business), because that guarantees an argument. You're arguing the particulars, where you're right, while they're arguing the underlying generalities, where they are.

Of course, as you may have noticed by the references to God and swiftboating, the original context had Taibbi attributing this mentality to fundamentalist Christians in particular and Republicans in general. If you leave that partisan bias aside, you can't help but notice that "making sure the argument never stops" is also the emotional imperative driving the online dynamics among progressives that Freddie has been criticizing in vain lo these many years. The point of all their sound and fury is not to end misogyny or racism; the point is to keep finding new sources and hiding places of those social ills in order to ensure that the fun of denouncing and posturing never has to stop. The web is not a place for serious political action. It's a kennel full of baying hounds, desperate to be let loose after the scent of social injustice. The thrill of the hunt is what they live for.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What He Seeks Is to Live Nameless

Why does it matter that I want my work to be responded to positively? Or to be responded to at all?

My hunch is that every single one of us who writes something for publication wants to know that someone has read our work. We want to make contact. Why else would we make our writing public? Now there is an idea. What if at the end of every piece of writing the writer posted what they were hoping for from their reader.

My writer friends have indeed confessed to me how "starved" they feel for connection to others through their words and ideas. As a rule, I don't doubt she's correct here. Still, I feel obliged to stand and be counted as an exception to the rule, even as I'm aware that my "standing and being counted", given the unlikelihood of this post attracting more than a few readers, is like the tree falling the forest with no one to hear it, but worth doing nonetheless. Phew! Getting kind of meta in here. Let's start again.

I've been writing consistently here for almost seven straight years. In that time, my daily readership has almost never exceeded the low double-digits. Some of that low visibility is no doubt due to the fact that I've never made any effort to promote myself. I don't have a presence on any other social media platforms. I only have a few people from real life who even know about this blog, and other than Arthur, none of them keep up with it. This doesn't bother me. Quite the contrary. In fact, if I ever became inexplicably popular, I would pull up stakes in the night and start over somewhere else under a new pen name. As in real life, I can't tolerate the sensory overload of having to deal with more than a few people at any given time. I religiously avoid crowds and hubbub, whether in shopping centers or comment sections. I have the same three regular commenters I've had for the last five years (though Shanna wastes too much time on Reddit hanging out with the cool kids to participate as often as she used to; let's see how long it takes her to notice this!), and I appreciate their contributions, but I also recognize several regular lurkers in the site stats, and I equally appreciate the silent compliment of someone who shows up for no other reason than to quietly read what I think.

So why do I write here, in public, if not to attract a following? Well, to be honest, the audience could be purely theoretical and still serve its function. Obviously, if I were adamantly opposed to interaction with readers, I could turn the comments off or make the blog readable by invitation only. But even if I never got any comments, the mere idea of an audience provides a useful focus and keeps this from being an exercise in solipsism. Envisioning a Constant Reader can be a reminder to strive for more clarity. Newcombe seems to drive herself half-mad obsessing over the lack of comments on her posts. I laugh as I check and see that the majority of the posts I'm most proud of have no comments and few unique pageviews. The satisfaction was entirely in the writing. Not that there's anything wrong with desiring company and feedback, of course. I just want to state for the record that a pure, selfish labor of love is not only possible but fulfilling.

I don't hope for anything from you. I only hope that you are either entertained or informed by what I write, or, best of all, that you go away thinking, "Huh; I never thought of it like that before." I hope to clearly express thoughts you didn't even know you had. I hope that you go pick up one of the countless books I mention here and find something enthralling in it. I hope to remind you, if needed, how much fun it is to think beyond the obvious.

He is not merely not looking for fame; he would even like to escape gratitude, for gratitude is too importunate and lacks respect for solitude and silence. What he seeks is to live nameless and lightly mocked at, too humble to awaken envy or hostility, with a head free of fever, equipped with a handful of knowledge and a bagful of experience, as it were a poor-doctor of the spirit aiding those whose head is confused by opinions without their being really aware who has aided them! Not desiring to maintain his own opinion or celebrate a victory over them, but to address them in such a way that, after the slightest of imperceptible hints or contradictions, they themselves arrive at the truth and go away proud of the fact! To be like a little inn which rejects no one who is in need but which is afterwards forgotten or ridiculed! ...That would be a life! That would be a reason for a long life!

— Nietzsche

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Do We Get It? No! Do We Want It? Yeah!

There was a time, not so long ago, that when people talked about changing society, they generally had Big Plans. These plans were big in the sense that, had any of them worked, the world we live in would have been changed almost beyond recognition. Things are different now. People may complain just as loudly, but they generally lack big ideas about how things should be redone. Or to speak more precisely: The big ideas that do remain are so obviously bad ideas (such as Islamic theocracy) that almost no psychologically well-balanced individual feels tempted by them. There is a stark difference between this ethos and a time when mild-mannered, middle-class people actually thought it might be helpful to tear down various pillars of Western civilization and rebuild everything from the ground up.

Nowadays, the disagreements that do remain tend to be over matters of detail. Political protest still carries the trappings of radicalism, but when you scratch the surface a bit, ask people what they really want, you typically end up with some fairly modest proposals. Antiglobalization protesters may still call for the overthrow of capitalism, but they’re usually willing to settle for an environmental protection rider or an amendment to the arbitration mechanism of the next free trade agreement. In France, activists have even insisted upon using the term altermondialisation to describe the movement, rather than antimondialisation, to emphasize the fact that they are not opposed to globalization—they would just like to see it done a bit differently.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Well, the Truth May Need Some Rearranging. Stories to Be Told

Nevertheless, I knew many of my colleagues in the humanities would disagree. I could practically hear them arguing against me, as if they were seated all around me in those cramped fake-leather seats, yelling to be heard above the churning propellers. We have to use our privilege to advance the rights of the marginalized. We can't let people like Bailey and Palmer say what is true about the world. We have to give voice and power to the oppressed and let them say what is true. Science is as biased as all human endeavors, and so we have to empower the disempowered, and speak always with them.

Involuntarily shaking my head, I argued back: "Justice cannot be determined merely by social position. Justice cannot be advanced by letting 'truth' be determined by political goals. Only people like us, with insane amounts of privilege, could ever think it was a good idea to decide what is right before we even know what is true. Only insanely privileged people like us, who never fear the knock of a corrupt police, could think guilt or innocence should be determined by identity rather than by facts."

And Plain to See the Facts Are Changing. No Meaning Left to Hold

The bad news is that today advocacy and scholarship both face serious threats. As for social activism, while the Internet has made it cheaper and easier than ever to organize and agitate, it also produces distraction and false senses of success. People tweet, blog, post messages on walls, and sign online petitions, thinking somehow that noise is change. Meanwhile, the people in power just wait it out, knowing that the attention deficit caused by Internet overload will mean the mob will move on to the next house in the morning. And the economic collapse of the investigative press caused by that noisy Internet means no one on the outside will follow through to sort it out, to tell us what is real and what is illusory.

...Perhaps most troubling is the tendency within some branches of the humanities to portray scholarly quests to understand reality as quaint or naive, even colonialist and dangerous. Sure, I know: Objectivity is easily desired and impossible to perfectly achieve, and some forms of scholarship will feed oppression, but to treat those who seek a more objective understanding of a problem as fools or de facto criminals is to betray the very idea of an academy of learners. When I run into such academics — people who will ignore and, if necessary, outright reject any fact that might challenge their ideology, who declare scientific methodologies "just another way of knowing" — I feel this crazy desire to institute a purge. It smells like fungal rot in the hoof of a plow horse we can't afford to lose. Call me ideological for wanting us all to share a belief in the importance of seeking reliable, verifiable knowledge, but surely that is supposed to be the common value of the learned.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Epistemic Machismo

Polanyi was one of the most prominent physical chemists of the middle of the twentieth century. In the second half of his life he took up philosophy in an effort to understand his own experience of scientific discovery. His elaboration of "tacit knowledge" entailed a criticism of the then-prevailing ideas of how science proceeds, tied to wider claims about the nature of reason. The logical positivists conceived reason to be rule-like, whereas according to Polanyi, a scientist relies on a lot of knowledge that can't be rendered explicit, and an inherent feature of this kind of knowledge is that it is "personal." He explained:

"The declared aim of modern science is to establish a strictly detached, objective knowledge. Any falling short of this ideal is accepted only as a temporary imperfection, which we must aim at eliminating. But suppose that tacit thought forms an indispensable part of all knowledge; then the ideal of eliminating all personal elements of knowledge would, in effect, aim at the destruction of all knowledge. The ideal of exact science would turn out to be fundamentally misleading and possibly a source of devastating fallacies."

But the culture of scientific apprenticeship that developed in Europe, and then later in America, did so without warrant from the official self-understanding of modern science. As Polanyi writes, "To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness." This is intolerable if, like Descartes, you think that to be rational is to reject "example or custom" in order to "reform my own thoughts and to build upon a foundation which is completely my own." The paradox of the Cartesian project is that from a beginning point that is radically self-enclosed, one is supposed to proceed by an impersonal method, as this will secure objective knowledge — the kind that carries no taint of the knower himself. Polanyi turns this whole procedure on its head: through submission to authority, in the social context of the lab, one develops certain skills, the exercise of which constitutes a form of inquiry in which the element of personal involvement is ineliminable.

Let's dwell for a minute on the role that Polanyi assigns to trust: "You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things." This suggests that there is a moral relation between teacher and student that is at the heart of the educational process. Of course, the student must trust that the master is competent. But he also must trust that his intention is not manipulative. It is the absence of just this trust that we found at the origins of the Enlightenment epistemology in the previous chapter: a thorough rejection of the testimony and example of others. This rejection begins as a project for liberation — from kings and priests — and blossoms into an ideal of epistemic self-responsibility. But the original ethic of suspicion leaves a trace throughout. This stance of suspicion amounts to a kind of honor ethic, or epistemic machismo. To be subject to the sort of authority that asserts itself through a claim to knowledge is to risk being duped, and this is offensive not merely to one's freedom but to one's pride.

If Polanyi is right about how scientists are formed, then the actual practice of science proceeds in spite of its foundational Enlightenment doctrines: it requires trust. The idea that there is a method of scientific discovery, one that can be transmitted by mere prescription rather than by personal example, harmonizes with our political psychology, and this surely contributes to its appeal. The conceit latent in the term "method" is that one merely has to follow a procedure and voilà, here comes the discovery. No long immersion in a particular field of practice and inquiry is needed; no habituation to its peculiar aesthetic pleasures, no joining of affect to judgment. Just follow the rules. The idea of method promises to democratize inquiry by locating it in a generic self (one of Kant's "rational beings") that need not have any prerequisite experiences: a self that is not situated.

It's a delightful coincidence that I just encountered this same theme of trust last week in a book about a completely different topic. In fact, I'm just going to merge that post into this one. Here's Saul Frampton talking about Montaigne's understanding of experiential knowledge as opposed to that of Descartes:

But Montaigne can be seen to offer an alternative philosophy to that of Descartes, a more human-centered conception that lays no claim to absolute certainty, but that is also free from what some have seen as the implications of such claims: the totalitarian political movements of the twentieth century, and the individualist anomie of modern Western life.

For at the heart of Descartes' philosophy is the intellectual principle of division, an attempt to offer clarity in a world made uncertain by religious and political unrest. He thus states as part of his 'method' that intellectual problems should be 'divided' into 'as many parts as possible' and that we should accept as true only that which we can perceive 'very clearly and distinctly' — i.e. separate from other things. And this principle provides the foundation for his division of mind and body: he sees the mind as all 'one and the same', whereas he 'cannot think of any Corporeal or extended being which I cannot easily divide into Parts'. For Descartes, true knowledge thus amounts to a singular unambiguous vision: he uses the metaphor of a city designed by one 'single master', rather than evolving naturally and haphazardly through the work of 'different hands'.

Montaigne, by contrast, operates with an older, less cutting-edge, yet perhaps more venerable intellectual instinct: that of proximity. Rather than defining and dividing things, Montaigne wants to bring them together, get near to them, close to them, not least to himself. And rather than searching for certainties that divide him from the commonality, Montaigne sees the principle of trust as of far greater importance; as he says at the start of his essays: 'You have here a book of good faith.' For Montaigne, human relations are the primal scene of knowledge: if trust is restored, agreement, tolerance and hence truth will follow; the search for constancy and certainty strikes him as merely obstinacy in another guise...For in the midst of these [French wars of religion] Montaigne begins to see such conflict as fueled by the search for political and religious certainty.

Whereas Descartes' division of mind and body separates him from other bodies and other people, Montaigne sees his own relationship to his body as opening a gateway to 'the universal pattern of the human', and as a consequence society at large. Self-knowledge thus leads us into ourselves, but then out of ourselves into others: we need to get to know ourselves before we can understand our fellow man — a logical paradox from a modern perspective, but not for Montaigne.

I Am a Human Being, Capable of Doing Terrible Things

Brian alerts me to a sucka M.C. bitin' on one of my routines:

IRL, almost nothing is ever so simple. Almost no situations that ever exist have heroes and villains, victims and victimizers. Most stuff is just people doing their own things, and most of that consists of behaviors that are orthogonal to the entire paradigm of victims, heroes, and villains. Worldviews–and they are many–that attempt to break down all of history and human life to exploitation, war, and struggle are being disingenuous in an effort to use the injustice-hack for themselves.

It will win few friends and lose many to refuse the tribalism implicit in adopting one victim group or another, but if we are interested in stopping the damage caused by these sorts of conflicts, we must forgo the natural highs of responding to an injustice with more injustice. We must maintain that the same ethics apply to defense as offense, because as long as we let them differ in practice, we will just keep up the constant wars, cultural and physical, until that really is all we do…commit new injustices as get-backs for old injustices.

I kid. It's a good post (despite the ever-so-slightly-annoying use of "hack"), and I agree. Consider this excellent strip by Zach Weinersmith:

The same phenomenon occurs going forward in time as well. Self-proclaimed grandmasters of multi-dimensional chess will assure you that the ends will justify the means, that this action, despite appearing unethical and counterproductive by itself, will actually produce a beneficial result in the long run. The obvious problem is, trying to envision what "the long run" will look like is as fraught with error, bias and distortion as attempting to find causes in the past. The valence effect describes our tendency to imagine the best-case scenario resulting from our intended action, and then make the unwarranted logical leap to assuming that this is also the most likely result. Few people have the patience to make a serious effort to ponder all the alternative scenarios in which things don't go so swimmingly.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

When I Said I Understood, I Only Knew Where to Stand

Matthew Crawford:

Tocqueville was struck by the observation that as hyper-Protestants who reject anything that looks like clerical authority, Americans are expected to be self-sufficient in forming their own judgments about everything. This isn't understood as a rare accomplishment, or a capacity that one grows into in the course of a life. It is a moral imperative from the get-go, taught in elementary school.

But of course we run into a problem: we are not competent to judge everything for ourselves. We know this; we feel it. We cannot look to custom or established authority, so we look around to see what everyone else thinks. The demand to be an individual makes us feel anxious, and the remedy for this, ironically enough, is conformity. We become more deferential to public opinion.

Here is an example that seems to fit Tocqueville's insight. The Kinsey Reports on Americans' sexual practices became objects of intense popular interest, maybe because they arrived (in 1948 and 1953) just as the received norms and mores were loosing their grip. Everyone was left to his or her own devices. People wanted to know if they were "normal", where the only norms available, the only ones not discredited as "repression" by the pop-Freudianism that swept America after the war, were now quantitative. How often do other couples have sex? What's the average? Is oral sex something that is done by most people? I like to be tied up — am I sick? The normative center of gravity now resides in the middle of a distribution, rather than coming from a religious interdiction or parental guidance, on the one hand, or from a cultivated, proudly antinomian sense of oneself as a pervert and sinner, on the other.

The web, for obvious reasons, is home to a lot of underemployed literary types with a lot of time on their hands. It's also a playground for people who like to pretend that cultural consumption is a political act. Hence, without any special effort on your part, you can easily find an abundance of articles arguing about the supposed moral and political significance of reading certain books by certain authors. Typically, this involves a lot of empty signaling about race and gender. "This year, I'm aiming to have novels by African-American women account for 50% of the books I read." Okay. And...?

What does it even mean anymore to call someone racist, say? Does it mean this person honestly believes in distinct races with deeply unequal divisions rooted in biology, which should therefore be reflected in politics and law? More cynically, does it merely describe a person who dissents, however mildly, from progressive piety about race? Or is it more of an existential accusation, reflecting a fanatical, almost-Protestant obsession with the purity of one's soul, as reflected in the strange significance accorded to pseudo-scientific horseshit like the Implicit Association Test, with its supposed power to shine an objective light into the deepest crevices of one's character and reveal the reactionary biases and stereotypes lurking there?

Lacking the ability to talk meaningfully (or calmly) about such questions of value, we retreat instead to the supposed pure, neutral objectivity of numbers. We let percentages stand in for values; we let ratios do our thinking for us. Our keys are blocks away, somewhere out there in the darkness, but like the drunk guy, we're looking for them here, because the light is better. Will reading books by African-American women somehow render you immune to racist thoughts? Will it empower them in a politically meaningful way? How do we define who or what represents the quintessential African-American female experience anyway? (Through statistics!) Isn't it rather, uh, problematic to assume that each identity grouping has an essentialist wisdom peculiar to itself, which can't be attained by an outsider through imaginative empathy? Are white male authors a monolith, and does avoiding their books say anything deeply significant about you? Unsure of where we stand on such troubling questions, we settle for the poor substitute of knowing where we stand in relation to everyone else.

Monday, May 04, 2015

You Disappoint Me. I Had Such Fuckin' Hopes for Us

Dave Zirin:

The events of the last two weeks, however, have changed my view of The Wire in a very fundamental way. I have spent most of my time listening to people in Baltimore speak about how this uprising came to be and why the anger runs so deep. I’ve been primarily speaking to black Baltimoreans in grassroots organizations who have, in a state of MSM invisibility, been building movements for years to fight poverty, end street violence, and challenge police brutality. This is humbling to admit, but this experience has made me reassess my favorite show, as if a very dim light bulb was being switched on above my head.

The idea that David Simon, praised as someone with an ear to these Charm City streets like no one since H.L. Mencken, could look at what was happening in the Baltimore of 2015 and not see the social movements and organization beneath the anger, makes me wonder how much he truly “saw” when producing the show.

Now, I cannot help but recall all my favorite Wire moments through a lens that has me wondering if the show was both too soft on the police and incredibly dismissive of people’s ability to organize for real change. In the season that took place in the public schools, where were the student organizers, the urban debaters, and teacher activists I’ve met this past month? In the season about unions, where were the black trade unionists like the UNITE/HERE marchers who were—in utterly unpublicized fashion—at the heart of last Saturday’s march? In the season about the drug war and “Hamsterdam,” where were the people actually fighting for legalization? In the stories about the police, where were the people who died at their hands? It all reveals the audacity—and frankly the luxury—of David Simon’s pessimism.

I am not saying that art should conform to a utopian political vision of struggle like some dreck from the Stalinist culture mills. But I am asking a question that I wasn’t before: Why were those fighting for a better Baltimore invisible to David Simon? I don’t mean those fighting on behalf of Baltimore—the (often white) teachers, the social workers, and the good-natured cops who are at the heart of The Wire—but those fighting for their own liberation? Why was The Wire big on failed saviors and short on those trying to save themselves? And if these forces were invisible to David Simon, shouldn’t we dial down the praise of the show as this “Great American Novel of television” (Variety!) and instead see it for what it is: just a cop show?

In the wake of the Baltimore uprising, The Wire’s pessimism seems childish to me, and I’m going to put it away for a while. I could see myself revisiting it in the future, maybe amidst a more dreary political moment. But that moment isn’t now.

A Fact Without a Noisy Partisan

Matthew Crawford:

Liberal agnosticism about the good life has some compelling historical reasons behind it. It is a mind-set that was consciously cultivated as an antidote to the religious wars of centuries ago, when people slaughtered one another over ultimate differences. After World War II, revulsion with totalitarian regimes of the right and left made us redouble our liberal commitment to neutrality. But this stance is maladaptive in the context of twenty-first century capitalism because, if you live in the West and aren't caught up in battles between Sunnis and Shiites, for example, and if we also put aside the risk of extraordinary lethal events like terrorist attacks in Western countries, then the everyday threats to your well-being no longer come from an ideological rival or a theological threat to the liberal secular order. They are native to that order.

...If we have no robust and demanding picture of what a good life would look like, then we are unable to articulate any detailed criticism of the particular sort of falling away from a good life that something like machine gambling represents. We are therefore unable to offer any rationale for regulation that would go beyond narrow economic considerations. We take the "preferences" of the individual to be sacred, the mysterious welling up of his authentic self, and therefore unavailable for rational scrutiny. The fact that these preferences are the object of billion-dollar, scientifically informed efforts of manipulation doesn't square with the picture of the choosing self assumed in the idea of a "free market". It is a fact without a noisy partisan, so our attention is easily diverted from it. Further, by keeping his gaze away from such facts, the liberal/libertarian keeps his own soul pure, lest he commit the sin of recommending to others some substantive ideal, one that will necessarily be controversial. But outside his garden wall there are wolves preying on the townspeople. In our current historical circumstances, his liberal purity amounts to a lack of public-spiritedness.

This excerpt, I feel it's fair to say, sums up Crawford's message in a nutshell. (There are many other thought-provoking parts in this book, some of which I'll get to in the coming days.) I am on record as having raised a skeptical eyebrow at such assertions before, but in this case, I find myself more open to giving Crawford's perspective as charitable a hearing as I can, partially because I sympathize with and trust his overall approach. I think he is honestly trying to envision what, if anything, can be done to protect fellow citizens from the predations of neoliberalism and its armies of highly-trained experts who utilize the most sophisticated psychological and advertising techniques to manipulate our wants and needs without our awareness. So, as a thought experiment, I find myself pretending I'm a bodhisattva, having attained comfort and security, and now I want to return to this fallen world and help as many others as I can. Or pretending I'm an ancient Greek, out for a stroll around the Agora, only to find myself accosted by some pug-faced man named Socrates wanting to know what my idea of the good life would entail. Barring some unreal Jacobin fantasy of total social re-engineering, what should people do to avoid living the isolated, directionless, debt-ridden lives that pervade so much of society today?

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Saturday Shuffle

  1. Austra -- Darken Her Horse
  2. Pale Sketcher -- Supple Hope
  3. My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult -- Diamonde Doll
  4. Chet Faker -- Blush
  5. Lightning Dust -- I Knew
  6. Orangutang -- Bigger Chunk
  7. Author & Punisher -- L_r
  8. Modest Mouse -- Satellite Skin
  9. Datarock -- I Used to Dance With My Daddy
  10. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club -- Fault Line
  11. Serj Tankian -- Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition
  12. Andy McKee -- Drifting
  13. Isle of Q -- Bag of Tricks
  14. Tombs -- Deathtripper
  15. Corrections House -- Run Through the Night
  16. Thao Nguyen -- Bag of Hammers
  17. Spirit Caravan -- Dreamwheel
  18. Aimee Mann -- Nothing Is Good Enough
  19. The Wake -- Control
  20. Bang Tango -- Wrap My Wings