Sunday, October 16, 2016

Packed My Bags, Oh, Lord, I'm a Travelin' Man

Yeah, I think I'm done here. From now on, I'll do my writing here, and, to a lesser extent, here. Come along if you're so inclined.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Best Which Has Been Thought and Said

While I wait for this spell of literary laryngitis to resolve itself, I decided to go back through the archives and pick a few dozen of my favorites for a "greatest hits" retrospective.

You're the Sounds I Never Heard Before, Off the Map Where the Wild Things Grow, Another World Outside My Door

We Came From the Breeze

Alphabet Soup

He Don't Lie, He Don't Lie, He Don't Lie — Montaigne

As Below, So Above

Innocence, In a Sense

How Much Reverence Has a Noble Man for His Enemies!

Cliques Nix Politics

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

Children Having Their Fun With the Blues

A Hundred Roots Silently Drinking

The Recline of Western Civilization (Slight Return)

Clouds In My Coffee

The Gorgon Gaze of the Expectant Audience

In the Shadow of Reason

Speak to Me In a Language I Can Hear

Devil Take the Hindmost

Santutthi Paramam Dhanam

Fill Your Heroes

Death Rehearsal

The Good That I Would, I Do Not

Irritable Vowel Syndrome

Bros Before Prose

Nowhere You Are

Cosmetic Palette

Not Wise, but Otherwise

What's It All About When You Sort It Out?

A Brotherhood

What Fresh Hell Is This?

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Pseu-Pseu-Pseudo, I Just Say the Word

Textual Harrassment

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

Dream Dream, Filling Up an Idle Hour

So I Shut It All Off, I'm a Happy Idiot

All You True Believers, You Gotta Move On With Your Lives

Sui Generic (Slight Return)

If You Sweep Up This Mess I've Created, Nothing's Left to Show I Existed

A Dog and a Man Who Walked Together for a Time

The Word Made Grilled Flesh

Empty Free Unplugged

I Am No Better, and Neither Are You

A Philosopher for Everyone and No One

Sciapods, Blemmyes, and Panotii, Oh My!

There Goes the Neighborhood

And If My Interest Is Waning, I Can't Fake It

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Ghosts of Who We Used to Be, I'm Just Tryin' to Find My Way

Joshua Rothman:

Often, after a way of talking has obviously outlived its usefulness, a period of inarticulateness ensues; it’s not yet clear how we should talk going forward. 

So there I was, reading this review of J.D. Vance's much-talked-about book, Hillbilly Elegy, wondering when I might finally find something that inspired me to write, when these words separated themselves from their context and leapt off the page to slap my cheek.

Yesterday marked eleven years since I started this blog. (I didn't start writing regularly for a few more, but still.) A lot changes over a decade-plus, especially if you're still fairly young at the start. The cumulative effect of all that change is that I find myself wondering if this particular "way of talking" has outlived its usefulness. I have certainly felt inarticulate lately, plagued by a strange sense of not knowing what to say about this, that or the other — or, perhaps, simply not feeling the need to bother saying it. It's not depression, or exhaustion, or anything like that. I don't even think of it as "writer's block" — I have plenty of things I could say, I just don't feel like saying them here, in this context. They don't seem to measure up to some inscrutable standard I've somehow set for myself. I'm not sure what that's about.

I've felt like this before, and that, too passed. Maybe this will as well. But like the Ship of Theseus, I suspect that enough tiny details have slowly changed over time to make this a different situation. Much of what I thought and was willing to say in print a decade ago seems callow and superficial to me now, but I haven't yet come up with a positive replacement for it. "I've changed my mind so much I can't even trust it/My mind changed me so much I can't even trust myself", said Issac Brock. Is time and patience the only cure? Or should I change scenery and start posting exclusively at my other sites, laying this one to rest like putting away childish things?

I don't know, but at least writing it down seems like an improvement.

Monday, September 05, 2016

She's So Heavy

Lena Dunham:

Despite my moments of bravado, I struggle at industry events (and in life) with the sense that I don't rep a certain standard of beauty and so when I show up to the Met Ball surrounded by models and swan-like actresses it's hard not to feel like a sack of flaming garbage. This felt especially intense with a handsome athlete as my dinner companion and a bunch of women I was sure he'd rather be seated with. But I went ahead and projected these insecurities and made totally narcissistic assumptions about what he was thinking, then presented those assumptions as facts. 

Projected insecurities and narcissistic assumptions! I'd like to think that this brief glimpse of undiluted self-awareness will have a lasting effect on her, but I doubt it. Lena, dear, as long as we're being honest and confessional here, you've never been fooling anyone but yourself. No amount of inspirational rhetoric about body positivity, no number of photos taken of you sitting naked on the toilet stuffing your face with cake, will ever change the fact that this has always been a sad, pathetic attempt to beat your critics to the punch by "owning" your weaknesses. Aggressively flaunting your insecurities doesn't make them go away; it just becomes a new role for you to get trapped in.

That's the weird thing about Generation Safe Space — for whatever reason, the pendulum has swung back into learned helplessness. There are countless people who are fat and unattractive but manage to accept it and get on with their lives. People like Dunham, or Lindy West, are especially tiresome because they clearly desperately want to be among the beautiful people, but rather than put in the effort necessary to achieve it, they try to pre-empt the possibility of failure by refusing to play, claiming the game is rigged, and like so many people who have sat through media studies classes, they think that there are no such things as innate preferences that can't be re-engineered through advertising and lecturing. Honestly, diet and exercise, however tough it can be, is still much easier than wasting that time and energy on endless rationalizations. Changing your own habits is much more likely to succeed than subjecting society to a propaganda barrage in the hope of making obese homeliness the new beauty standard. And, you know, most people, even the beautiful ones, still have fears and insecurities. They just refuse to allow their lives to be defined by them. Whatever happened to simply refusing to give a shit about the opinions of superficial people who judge you on appearance?

Thursday, September 01, 2016

The Tide Is High but We're Holding On

Razib Khan:

When Dreger pointed approvingly on Twitter to University of Chicago’s statement on “safe spaces,” I told her that most of my liberal Twitter follows were enthusiastically sharing this piece, UChicago’s anti-safe spaces letter isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about power. The piece makes some coherent points, but mostly it is self-congratulatory intellectual masturbation. At a certain point the cultural Left no longer made any pretense to being liberal, and transformed themselves into “progressives.” They have taken Marcuse’s thesis in Repressive Tolerance to heart.

Though I hope that Dreger and her fellow travelers succeed in rolling back the clock, I suspect that the battle here is lost. She points out, correctly, that the total politicization of academia will destroy its existence as a producer of truth in any independent and objective manner. More concretely, she suggests it is likely that conservatives will simply start to defund and direct higher education even more stridently than they do now, because they will correctly see higher education as purely a tool toward the politics of their antagonists. I happen to be a conservative, and one who is pessimistic about the persistence of a public liberal space for ideas that offend. If progressives give up on liberalism of ideas, and it seems that many are (the most famous defenders of the old ideals are people from earlier generations, such as Nadine Strossen and Wendy Kaminer, with Dreger being a young example), I can’t see those of us in the broadly libertarian wing of conservatism making the last stand alone.

Honestly, I don’t want any of my children learning “liberal arts” from the high priests of the post-colonial cult. In the near future the last resistance on the Left to the ascendency of identity politics will probably be extinguished, as the old guard retires and dies naturally. The battle will be lost. Conservatives who value learning, and intellectual discourse, need to regroup. Currently there is a populist mood in conservatism that has been cresting for a generation. But the wave of identity politics is likely to swallow the campus Left with its intellectual nihilism. Instead of expanding outward it is almost certain that academia will start cannibalizing itself in internecine conflict when all the old enemies have been vanquished.

During my romantic youth, I read the autobiography of Russell Means, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement. As an ethnic liberation movement sticking it to The White Man, AIM was, of course, beloved by left-wing radicals. Means, though, was interesting, and not just because he eventually ended up running for President on the Libertarian party ticket a couple times (once as Larry Flynt's running mate). I recall him talking about how, when he finally served a couple years in federal prison, he made an effort to read Marx at the urging of fellow radicals, only to conclude that Marx's view of the environment was just as acquisitive and destructive as any capitalist's. In the mid-'80s, he burned all the bridges to his left by supporting MISURASATA, a rebellious coalition of Nicaraguan Indians, against the Sandinistas. As he tells it, the Indian regions under Somoza had been self-sufficient and largely self-governing, but the Sandinistas were determined to impose forced integration and relocation upon them, using all the tools of traditional colonialism. When he tried to spread the word about the movement, he found that he was effectively blacklisted from the same universities that had happily supported him just a few years earlier — until the Unification Church, the infamous Moonies, stepped in to give him a platform for a speaking tour. This choice of bedfellows, combined with his political heresy, cemented his former allies' opinions of him. He never supported the Contras, or the Moonies, for that matter, but the mere fact of his association with groups like that, however strategically self-serving, was enough to pronounce him guilty.

So, yes, Alice Dreger. I read her book last year and liked it. I see from Razib's post that she recently delivered the FIRE 2016 keynote address, which I'm sure has likewise cemented hostile opinions about her. Like many others, she seems to hold faith in some Platonic ideal of "liberalism" different from the way liberalism is actually practiced today; like Razib, I am impressed by her tenacity, but suspect she's fighting a losing battle. The first article I read about her quoted her as being "uncomfortable" with the fact that she was attracting more conservative followers on Twitter, and last fall, she was still trying to distance herself from the dreaded c-word, for all the good that will do. I'm not saying she, or anyone else, should just give in and identify with the term; I'm saying that there is no point in hoping that you will be granted an exemption from slander due to your impeccable integrity. If you cross the party line, you'll be treated just as uncharitably as any other caricature. As long as you fear excommunication, it's a weakness, and people will sense that and exploit it.

I love the ideal, the fantasy, of academia. Easy to do, of course, from the naive perspective of a bookworm with a mere high-school diploma and a Whitman's Sampler of community college classes to his credit. But a life devoted to reading, researching and writing while cloistered away in a library still tickles my fancy. It may simply be that a clownish curmudgeon like Morris Berman had the right idea after all — those who value such ideals will have to find a way to practice and preserve them without institutional support, without recognition, until one day, hopefully, when the intellectual climate changes for the better.

Your Menstruating Heart, It Ain't Bleedin' Enough for Two

Well worth a read: "The Politics of Kindness in 2016", by Brandon Ambrosino. Equally worth reading are two articles cited, but not linked, in his piece: "The Case Against Liberal Compassion", by William Voegeli, and "Virtue Signaling: Why Political Debates on the Internet Are So Often Pointless", by Dan Sanchez.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Putting the Cold In Cold Dead Hands

I mean, I get it. Really, I do. It's tough to be a progressive. Always trying to find some new angle, some novel way to put yourself in the moral vanguard. It has to be exhausting, running around like Mencken's definition of a Puritan, telling everybody that they're doing everything wrong (and for shameful reasons to boot). And as fewer and fewer people bother to take you seriously, you start becoming desperate, trying to find a previously-overlooked source of sinfulness that will make them pay attention again.

And so here we are. While I'm sure that, like most of their pathetic outbursts, it's best to just ignore this, I have to admit that I don't consider this sort of outright blasphemy against my lord and savior to be amusing. I suddenly have a strong urge to join the NRA, buy an AR-15, and take a selfie in front of my AC unit, daring them to come and take both. Some arguments just deserve nothing but trolling in response.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Justice, Just Us

Fred Baumann:

Three cognate tendencies have arisen in the United States to combat Locke-fed milk-and-water liberalism in the name of true justice. First, as mentioned, is the Marxist strain. Marx, acutely aware of the injustices that any ruling class commits, wished to dissolve politics altogether by means of a salvific proletariat, which would usher in a change in human consciousness that approached what he called “species being.” The state would wither away and administration would thus be apolitical and innocent.

Second, American “pragmatism” and “progressivism,” thrilled by the potential of science to rationalize human life, attacked the outmoded limitations on the state that liberal constitutionalism presented. Rule by experts was to replace the clumsy Madisonian system of rival factions and governmental branches balancing themselves out. The ruling class wasn’t a problem because it would merely transmit the findings of science, and, less charitably, because it would be composed of the pragmatists and progressives themselves.

But, third, when hope for the proletariat had faded (as it had even for Lenin, who thought the proletariat capable of nothing better than “trade union consciousness”), and when the luster of scientific planning had also been dimmed through experience of its failings, rescue came from the France of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty in the form of what Allan Bloom called “Left Nietzscheanism.” It was Left in being radically egalitarian and Nietzschean in being irrationalist. This combination, oddly, was reassuring, because it meant one could rule from “commitment”—which is to say, out of good moral intentions rather than actual knowledge (which was anyway impossible).

It's a long article, but well worth the time. Make it count, because you only get one free article per month at that site.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Don't Wanna Be Like Freddie Now

When I first discovered Freddie deBoer's blog several years ago, it was revelatory for me. Not only was he an excellent writer, his criticism of the social media left managed to thread the needle perfectly — it was constructively critical without becoming reflexively contrarian. It reminded me of Jacob Bacharach in his IOZ persona, except that IOZ always seemed too in love with his own cleverness and too relentlessly ironic; Freddie, at least, wasn't afraid to earnestly stand for something. I respect him for that, even if the things he earnestly stood for seemed increasingly cringeworthy to me.

Therein lay the problem — Freddie was invaluable for pointing out how online progressives practiced politics the same way they maneuvered through the social hierarchies of the high school cafeterias they had only recently left behind. Once you had seen the ubiquitous virtue signaling from his perspective, it was impossible to un-see it, and impossible to take any of these people seriously again. But how many times does this need to be pointed out? At some point, the question has to come up: are you constantly criticizing these people because you think that social media can seriously become a force for 21st-century socialism in America if only they would quit clowning around? Then I don't think you clearly understand the nature of social media. Are you just criticizing them because it gives you a more exclusive niche from which to play the same signaling game? Then you're just as bad as they are. Or do you honestly think there's a silent majority of "true" socialist lurkers who are inspired by your example to do things correctly? Then I fear you're deluded.

Most importantly, if you honestly think that incoherent socialism and legally-sanctioned polygamy are good ideas, I can't take you seriously either. In fact, if that's the sort of thing you want people to come together to work for, I'm perfectly happy for them to keep being pathetic and ineffectual while seeking status on social media. Power to the hashtags, baby.

Now he's apparently done with his blog. I haven't read him regularly for over a year, but I appreciate him in retrospect for the inadvertent way he helped me to a greater level of self-understanding, though he would probably be dismayed to think that he had played a significant role in turning someone away from radicalism. He convinced me that something was truly, deeply wrong with the left, and I spent years trying to understand what that was, only to conclude that he had severely underestimated the problem, and that the social media/justice left was actually a predictable feature, not a bug; the entire radical left project was diseased at the roots, incapable of being saved. Nevertheless, I have both intensely agreed and intensely disagreed with him, and it's rare to find that, in my experience. It's sad to see one more regular blogger give up and pack it in, and I wish him well.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Power of the Purse

Tom Scocca:

If you want to write stories that might anger a billionaire, you need to work for another billionaire yourself, or for a billion-dollar corporation. The law will not protect you. There is no freedom in this world but power and money.

Anyone who is interested can find plenty of articles arguing over the potential ramifications of this ruling. Suffice it to say, I am yet to be convinced that this is the catastrophic disaster for free speech and a free press that Gawker and its defenders would have you believe, and that's not just because I've loathed that scumbag media empire and its guttertrash army of tabloid hacks for years. At any rate, whatever, good riddance, I wouldn't have murdered them myself, but this is still an obituary I will read with immense satisfaction. I only make note of this because I got an unexpected, ironic laugh as I read the above excerpt. As I said once in reference to culture-war boycotting, the social media progressive's favorite sport:

As other critics have noted, this tendency to let the market referee our moral disputes is pure neoliberal logic, which you would think the left would be wary of endorsing. You would expect them to object to a standard where the people willing to throw their money around most aggressively should get to set the terms of debate and the moral agenda. After all, aren't we constantly being told that the rich are all right-wingers with more money than the rest of us put together?

I'm too lazy to look for all the other times I made similar points about how, if free speech is going to be made practically exclusive to those rich enough to be able to withstand the vindictive economic embargo imposed on them for exercising it, we shouldn't be surprised at the predictable results. Nevertheless, it was all fun and games when we were "merely" trying to bankrupt this or that business over some offensive faux pas, or getting a guy fired for having donated his own money years ago to support a perfectly legal ballot initiative. It's like Stalin said, when one guy with a billion dollars spends his money in support of his values, it's a tragedy, but when millions of self-righteous progressives band together and threaten to withhold money they never intended to actually spend in hopes of putting an offensive company out of business, it's social justice. (That's not verbatim, of course, but it's pretty much the spirit of it.)

You know how everybody says, "I'm not one to say 'I told you so'?" Well, I am the one to say it. You made your hell, now burn in it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Divisions You Create

Your kind, it keeps on cutting
Divisions you create
Now it's all exploding
Soon nothing left to break


Livia Gershon:

In 1960, 94 percent of U.S. college students were white. By 1991, that had fallen to 80 percent. Women became a majority among students and also gained more representation within faculties. With these demographic changes came demands that white male professors, administrators, and students listen to points of view they had not had to consider before.

...Today, as the country continues to become less white and women and minorities gain access to more positions of power, maybe it stands to reason that the movement against political correctness has moved from academia into just about every part of public life.

A quick trip to Google will confirm that "divisive" and "polarizing" are terms frequently applied to Donald Trump. But I'm pretty sure everyone actually agrees that he's an asshole; his fans just happen to love that about him.

This, on the other hand... I mean, JSTOR Daily is basically a Reader's Digest of academic journals in blog form. Gershon's brief post about the historical usage of the term "political correctness" is written in anodyne language. And yet, I'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of divisive, polarizing rhetoric.

To summarize her summary in my own words: critics of political correctness are just bitter, resentful white men who feel threatened by the gradual loss of their power and privilege. Yes, it turns out that people who dogmatically insist that race and gender explain everything about culture and politics also insist that it explains any criticism directed toward them. Anyone who argues otherwise becomes ipso facto an angry white male conservative (those who insist, inconveniently, on being critical without being white, male, or conservative are, of course, just fellow travelers suffering from false consciousness, mindless puppets dancing on the strings of their white male controllers). Any self-identified liberal who refuses to toe the party line will be treated as a conservative for all intents and purposes until they wearily give in and accept the label.

It's hard to imagine a more self-defeating tactic. It's a perfectly closed circle of logic which guarantees that once all the heretics have been expunged, the true believers will turn on each other in the inevitable purification rituals. Nothing worth keeping will ever grow from this poisoned soil, and yet, too many liberals continue to make excuses for it out of the fear of looking conservative. As Trump would say: Sad!

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

When Two Zen Masters Meet Each Other on the Street, They Need No Introduction

I'm currently re-reading all of Alan Watts' books, so it was especially interesting to discover that Bruce Lee was also a devotee of him. The only biography of Lee that I've read is Bruce Thomas' Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit, and a glance through the index reveals no mentions of Watts throughout the book. I suppose I'll have to get a copy of John Little's book as well.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Hearing Only What You Want to Hear and Knowing Only What You've Heard

Evgeny Morozov once dismissed a book by Jeff Jarvis with the acerbic one-liner, "This is a book that should have stayed a tweet." Neil deGrasse Tyson hasn't written a book, merely a Facebook post, but still, the same principle applies; he should have just left things well enough alone.

What I find most interesting is that Tyson helpfully links to several critical articles written in response to his original tweet, from which he apparently learned nothing. Like Mr. Magoo blithely traipsing across the yawning chasm of the is/ought divide, he somehow manages to arrive at the proposition — offered, as far as I can tell, in all seriousness — that in his utopian state of Rationalia, we might create an "Office of Morality" (because "Ministry of Truth" was apparently already trademarked) where moral codes can be debated and settled. Perhaps these new morals can be enforced by an equally-innocuous-sounding agency, like, say, the Committee of Public Safety, or some such. Had Tyson bothered to study the, uh, evidence accumulated thus far, he might have realized that Brian Carnell's vision of the glorious future much more closely resembles what we've learned from empirical observation.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

I Feel Summer Creepin' In and I'm Tired of This Town Again

Inspiration is hard to come by lately. That seems to be the case every summer. This year, especially, it seems that everybody is babbling about either the election or terrorism, and I have nothing interesting to say about either. I'm mulling over the thought of taking a moderate break from the web altogether to work on recording music like I did last year. We'll see. Perhaps I'll just continue to spend most of my free time hiking, swimming, reading, and playing video games for a few weeks until things become interesting again. Either way, here are a few good things I've read recently that you may enjoy:

Robert Herritt, "Hard to Believe". This one really resonated with me. I find it very unsettling to consider just how little I really know about any given topic, not to mention how much of what I think I know depends on being willing to trust this or that source of authority.

John Gray (the British philosopher, not the Mars and Venus self-help guy) has always been one of my favorite authors, and his reviews of other books are equally worth reading.

Speaking of books worth reading, I might be interested in this one.

John McWhorter on the empty platitude of having "a national conversation" about race. (The site informed me that I got free 24-hour access to a "premium" article, so if you run into a paywall, try clicking through his Twitter feed, as I did.)

Everyday Feminism is an excellent parody site. Or, at least, your enjoyment will be maximized by reading it in that spirit. "Whew!" you can say after closing the tab. "Thank goodness it was all just a hilarious joke and no one takes that stuff seriously! Right? Right?"

John Banville, "Let It Go"

James Ceaser, "Behind Enemy Lines" (Previously)

Friday, July 22, 2016

Quest for Solutions? You Ain't Gonna Get One Here

Daniel Oppenheimer:

On a gut level I care a lot more about my friends and family than I do about the masses. I view with skepticism people who want to preach to me, from on their high horse, what I should be thinking and doing in the name of justice. I see our political system as being, on balance, one of the more half-decent ones that history has produced, and I’m somewhat horrified by radicals who think that its very real and deep flaws and sins justify tearing it all down. I think human societies, like human beings, are flawed, imperfect, frail things, and as such deserve both idealistic prods to be better than they are and some measure of tolerance and compassion for the many ways in which they’ll inevitably fail.

These are all perspectives that fit comfortably under the rubric of “conservative.” Yet my overt politics are democratic socialist.

At the most conscious, explicit level I would like for the U.S. to move (democratically, with moral urgency but not haste) in the direction of those lovely Scandinavian countries, or at least my fantasy of them, where a vibrant market economy co-exists with high taxes, a generous welfare state, strong unions, tough but well-engineered regulations, appropriate urgency about climate change, egalitarian views about sexuality and gender, and a general aversion to war and imperialism.

As a young man, I used to enjoy reading hair-splitting discussions of atheism and theology. Having long since become bored with all that, I now enjoy reading attempts by other questioning folks to pin down some sort of ontology of political identity. Perhaps we can start identifying as politically queer, or politically trans, even? Poli-fluid? Stop oppressing me with your political binary! Anyway, this is the first of what will apparently be a multi-part dialogue between Oppenheimer and a couple other people, so I don't want to read too much into what must, of necessity, be very general and broad statements, but a few things do jump out at me right away.

Here, he presents his situation as a standoff between his conservative heart and his democratic socialist head. The problem, as I see it, is that this particular formulation is one big ol' begged question. I would suggest that "even conservatives" are in favor of "appropriate" urgency about climate change, "a general aversion" to war and imperialism, and other noble-sounding ideals. The question is not about whether we all, right and left, would like to see a world full of Good Things; the question is whether these things are obtainable at a reasonable cost. Contrary to many progressive polemics, conservatism is not inherently opposed to change no matter what. Even Edmund Burke allowed that societies had to be flexible enough to adapt to new circumstances. The tendency of conservatism to err on the side of caution and inertia is not the first step on a slippery slope to the social vision of Joseph de Maistre. Progressives may not dream of an actual utopia in which all problems have been eliminated, but they do seem credulous toward the possibility of optimizing our way toward a perfect balance between liberty and security, individuality and equality, and other competing goods which may very well be incapable of occupying the same social space at the same time. Conservatives, in contrast, are more likely to insist that life is nothing but trade-offs, each unsatisfactory in its own way, and to rest resignedly with the assumption that not all social ills can be cured through policy solutions.

The optimism bias, also known as the valence effect, describes the common tendency of idealists to imagine the best-case scenario resulting from their actions. The fallacy sneaks in with the next step, which is to assume that the best-case scenario is also the most likely result. What you should do, instead, is try to imagine alternatives. What happens if your actions fall short of their goals and result in unintended consequences? What sort of backup plan do you have? How do you calculate whether the possibility of failure outweighs the urge to act? A conservative might ask Oppenheimer: what happens if an increasingly-powerful welfare state becomes invasive and oppressive, and how would a citizenry which had allowed its civic spirit to atrophy find the resources to resist it? What happens when the unions become corrupt and obstructionist? What happens if taxes and regulations become detrimental to the economy? What happens if platitudes about egalitarianism turn into Harrison Bergeron-style schemes of Procrustean leveling? These sorts of questions don't have a priori answers, which is why we shouldn't be cavalier about making significant changes.

But speaking of the progressive fascination with the supposedly-greener grass elsewhere, another problem presents itself. As I wrote elsewhere, those who would like to see the U.S. transform into a Scandinavian social democracy have to consider the implications of the fact that a numerically small, ethnically homogenous population seems to be a requirement for such a system to work. How would it translate to a nation of 320 million, bitterly riven by separatist identity politics? The obvious suggestion would be a civic creed that transcends ethnicity. Unfortunately, the only thing currently less popular among the American left than white male privilege is the idea that there was ever anything noble or worthwhile about the founding myth of America as a land of freedom and opportunity. So, if social democracy is unlikely to germinate organically from a deeply-felt common American identity, it seems that the left would have to settle for imposing it in the Saint-Simonian fashion. Hopefully, one doesn't have to be a doctrinaire conservative to look at that and say no, thanks.

This 21st century American left, which I suspect is on the rise, and will wield more influence over the next few decades than it has in the past few decades, is one I feel comfortable supporting. I think it’s a far better bet, in terms of humanizing and stabilizing American society, than the right, and felt that way even before the right attached itself to Donald Trump, who truly scares the bejesus out of my conservative self. I can imagine a future in which the left becomes powerful enough, and indulges its worst instincts enough, that I’d turn against it, but to my eyes that isn’t now. As we go forward I’ll just have to do my best to remain flexible enough in my thinking, and secure enough in myself, that I can ally with the right side, whatever that side is.

Well, fair enough, that's all anyone can really ask. Other writers whom I respect have surveyed the scene and come to the opposite conclusion. Intelligent people can amicably disagree. However, I think it may well be too early to predict exactly what Trump's effect on the right will be, especially if he loses, as seems likely. The right is hardly unified right now. A best-case — but not necessarily most likely! — scenario might lead to a more mainstream conservative party no longer primarily beholden to the religious right or the neoconservatives. And in addition, I see nothing to reassure me that the left won't continue its post-Marxist withdrawal by continuing further down the dead-end road of grievance-mongering and identitarian fragmentation while making reflexive gestures in the direction of revolutionary salvation; if anything, Trump's likely defeat will only lead to more hubristic excess. I agree with the widespread perception that progressives are primarily concerned with their image as "the good people", happy to consider themselves members of a new cognitive elite, superior to the reactionary masses. I'm even sympathetic to the idea of writers like Joseph Bottum that this tendency is largely displaced religious yearning, a lingering desire among the mostly-godless to sort the world into the saved and the damned.

All of which is to say, I remain agnostic and noncommittal. But I'm looking forward to the rest of the exchange.

I Got an Open Mind So Whyntcha All Get Inside?

Farhad Manjoo:

Though Silicon Valley has well-known problems with diversity in its work force, people here pride themselves on a kind of militant open-mindedness. It is the kind of place that will severely punish any deviations from accepted schools of thought...


[T]he novel explicitly shows people learning Doublethink and newspeak due to peer pressure and a desire to "fit in", or gain status within the Party — to be seen as a loyal Party Member. In the novel, for someone to even recognize – let alone mention – any contradiction within the context of the Party line was akin to blasphemy, and could subject that someone to possible disciplinary action and to the instant social disapproval of fellow Party Members.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Lucubratio (XXI)

Brad Warner:

To take an example related to animal intelligence, I can recall a moment around 15 years ago when I was sitting on a park bench in Tokyo eating my lunch. I was watching some crows strutting around the park looking for food. Suddenly I noticed that the very same intelligence that looked at the world through my eyes also looked at the world through the eyes of those crows.

It’s very difficult to write a good, watertight, rational kind of explanation for why I knew this to be true. It’s so unlike the way most human beings have been learning things about the world for the past few thousand years that it sounds kind of dopey. It even sounds dopey to me and I know it to be true.

...Intelligence isn’t a function of the brain. It isn’t contained there. The complexity of a creature’s brain doesn’t determine its intelligence.

Frans de Waal:

Griffin was at least three decades my senior and had impressive knowledge, offering the Latin name of the birds and describing details of their incubation period. At the workshop, he presented his view on consciousness: that it has to be part and parcel of all cognitive processes, including those of animals. My own position is slightly different in that I prefer not to make any firm statements about something as poorly defined as consciousness. No one seems to know what it is. But for the same reason, I hasten to add, I'd never deny it to any species. For all I know, a frog may be conscious. Griffin took a more positive stance, saying that since intentional, intelligent actions are observable in many animals, and since in our own species they go together with awareness, it is reasonable to assume similar mental states in other species.

That such a highly respected and accomplished scientist made this claim had a hugely liberating effect. Even though Griffin was slammed for making statements that he could not back up with data, many critics missed the point, which was that the assumption that animals are "dumb," in the sense that they lack conscious minds, is only that: an assumption. It is far more logical to assume continuity in every domain, Griffin said, echoing Charles Darwin's well-known observation that the mental difference between humans and other animals is one of degree rather than kind.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Sigh of the Oppressed Creature

There are many things to laugh at in this Marxist rant about the counter-revolutionary wrongthink of Pokemon Go, but after some tough deliberation, I think this has to be my favorite part:

The map of your neighborhood you see when you play the game is a GPS map, something originally designed to help steer guided missiles.

It's just!... so gratuitous, so out of the blue! I mean, you expect to see theoretical jargon, you expect to see references to Marx and Heidegger, and you expect, oh my Lord do you expect to see the writer fuming about the way in which the bovine masses prefer their false consciousness and commodity fetishism to their revolutionary potential, but nothing so perfectly paints a picture in words of the futile pounding of tiny, ineffectual fists as this little aside. It's like he had a sudden attack of self-awareness, realized the absurdity of being forced to labor in the clickbait factory while holding onto a faint hope of salvation through a discredited religion, and made one last, desperate attempt, through some kind of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-logic, to halfheartedly fling some shit against the walls of the system in the hope that something finally sticks. Yeah, man, I was ready to write you off as just another doctrinaire leftist with all that talk about changing the experience of reality from alienation to liberation, but that point about GPS, man, that really made me think, you know?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

One Thing Leads to Another

♫ You see dimensions in two
State your case with black or white 

Thirty years ago, moral panic profiteers like McIntosh and his vice squad partner Sarkeesian would have been leading the charge against subliminal messages on heavy metal records, or the epidemic of Satanic child abuse in day care centers. One day soon, we'll be able to look back and laugh at the thought that anyone took these frauds seriously. The bad news is, that will just mean that we've found a new moral panic to fixate upon. People don't "progress"; they just trade an older-model hysterical delusion in for a newer one. And so it goes.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Left, Left, Left Fight Left

We are the left!

No, we are the left!

Fellows, fellows! You're both equally delusional in your own special ways, and we love you all the same. It wouldn't be nearly as entertaining with only one of you. You need each other.

Monday, July 11, 2016

If Laurie Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy

Laurie Penny:

The isolating ideology of wellness works against this sort of social change in two important ways. First, it persuades all us that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted, the problem isn’t one of economics. There is no structural imbalance, according to this view—there is only individual maladaption, requiring an individual response. The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are. Secondly, it prevents us from even considering a broader, more collective reaction to the crises of work, poverty, and injustice.

Well, that's certainly one possibility, that there's an ancient neoliberal conspiracy, stretching all the way back to the Stoics, to keep us from rising up collectively and smashing the ruling class by deflecting our attention toward small, personal efforts at self-improvement which pose no threat to the system. But if the amount of liquid oppression in the glass of society is equal to half its volume, then it depends which part you choose to emphasize. Alternatively, it could be that you're just a congenitally miserable crank whose entire laughable, clichéd ideology is merely an attempt to transfer responsibility for your contentment to the rest of society. It might even be that your pose as the world's whiniest bodhisattva is less genuine concern for all the suffering beings in the world and more a means of making millenarian fantasies such as, uh, "the end of patriarchy and the destruction of the money system" the necessary conditions for your happiness, thus conveniently guaranteeing that you'll never have to stop complaining, and never have to risk being crestfallen should it turn out that all your revolutionary reveries came true and you were still unhappy, leaving you with no more excuses. Finally, there's the troubling likelihood that most people have considered, yet still reject, your false dichotomy of individual vs. collective well-being in favor of trying to strike some sort of imperfect balance between the two. Everything in moderation, as some damned neoliberal Greek once said.

Views Differ

What does it mean to be a black conservative? If you ask Chidike Okeem, you'll get an interesting, nuanced response. If you ask Leah Wright Rigueur, well, hey, somebody's gotta provide the bite-sized news niblets for the busy progressive, I guess. I don't want to know all the boring details, I just want to know how to signal about it!

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Verily, Verily, I Say Unto Thee

Sunday and Monday were glorious — unseasonably cool temperatures in the 60s, overcast and drizzly. We spent the days hiking in the national park. Now we've got the first truly scorching weather of the summer, perfect for spending time in the pool. Reading about stupid people saying stupid things online has taken a reduced role as a consequence. So, until I feel truly inspired to write something, here's some links that might be worth your time.

Andrew Orlowski, "The Great Brain Scandal"

Yeah, I have to say, this doesn't sound all that outlandish to me anymore.

Helen Andrews, "The New Ruling Class"

Lawrence Glickman, "Everyone Was a Liberal"

Zach Weinersmith imagines Nietzschean trucks (really, though, it's unfair to single out any one of his comics; you should just read them daily).

Likewise, David Malki on question-begging, parts 1 and 2.

Ben Sixsmith on the tiresome contrarianism of Spiked! magazine. I find them equally exasperating and stimulating, but on balance, I'm glad they exist in the media landscape.

Ed Krayewski on guns, or rather, to be specific, on empty political grandstanding, due process, and the amazing way in which people who can recite from memory a hundred reasons why the War on Drugs has been a catastrophic failure and a moral travesty can still convince themselves that a War on Guns would somehow avoid the same problems.

Sonny Bunch on "artisanship", i.e. the culture war commissars.

The older I get, and the more time I spend online exposed to the demented screechings of damaged freaks, the more I, too, appreciate emotional continence in my friends and loved ones. (Related.)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Mornin', Sam. Mornin', Ralph

Alan Jacobs:

As a conservative-liberal-socialist, I don’t fit onto any political maps that I know of, and I am accustomed to feeling slightly out of place — more, out of focus — in any given policy debate. But despite the sizable liberal element in my own personal political constitution, in times of serious conflict — today’s Brexit contretemps, for instance — I am always temperamentally alienated from liberalism. For what distinguishes many (most?) liberals from both conservatives and socialists, as today’s social media torpedoes reveal, is genuine incomprehension that any sane and decent person could disagree with them.

Yuval Levin said once that the right and left in this country are both liberal. By this, he meant that they share a common heritage of classical liberalism, which has a conservative and a progressive tendency. They both believe in inalienable rights, representative democracy, and free markets; they just differ in the details. If that sounds ridiculously counterintuitive, it's because a lot of time and rhetorical energy has been invested in claiming that "conservatives" and "liberals", conventionally defined, occupy opposite sides of a vast, unbridgeable chasm, but it would be more accurate to see them as two wings of one political tradition, with the differences between them often being of the small, narcissistic kind. "Conservatives" do not seriously want to restructure society around the divine right of kings, a landed aristocracy, and other elements of a feudal society, nor do they yearn for life under a fascist dictator, and "liberals" do not actually want to impose a godless communist tyranny.

Yeah, that disturbance in the force you just felt was as if millions of bloggers cried out in terror upon hearing the legitimacy of their entire identity and life's work called into question. Ignore it; it'll pass.

Assuming all this is accurate, Jacobs' comment clarifies for me the way that much political argument has become nothing more than fashionable posturing, an argument rooted in the idiosyncrasy of taste rather than irreconcilable principles. I, too, lean left on certain issues and right on others, but I, too, can't stand the entitled, bitter, moralistic flavor of today's Progressivism™️ — those ads with the "Now containing more social justice!" thing, the attempt to rebrand it for the millennial generation, that was all a mistake, I think. Hopefully they'll recover soon, though I'm not too optimistic over the new CEO they've got coming in, you know? We'll see, I guess, but for the time being, I'm switching to small, independent craft politics.

Anyway, without a serious opponent like fascism or communism to challenge it from without, liberalism seemingly devolves into status competition within. Everyday life proceeds as reliably and predictably as ever, even as political partisans work themselves into feverish delirium trying to portray the next election as the last chance to stave off certain apocalypse. The more our lifestyles converge, the more significance we have to invest in trivial distinctions of language, manners, hobbies, education and consumption to keep a semblance of deep, existential meaning alive. And all of these tendencies are magnified and amplified in the online world, as people separated by a mere few cubicles can spend the workday unknowingly raging at each other's pseudonyms in a blog comment section, before wishing each other good evening at quitting time and returning to their personal lives. When people are too comfortable, they get bored, and rather than do something uplifting, they create drama and conflict just to entertain themselves. That's the conservative in me talking.

Progressivism is currently in power, both politically and culturally. Power makes people stupid, complacent and arrogant. I don't think that's peculiar to progressivism. Should they ever find themselves in the political and cultural wilderness, they'll quickly relearn how to argue uphill against a hostile reception.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Wacky Morning D.J. Says Democracy's a Joke

I've started re-reading Isaiah Berlin's books, and they're even better than my rose-tinted memory pictured them. By the way, for newer readers, it is a requirement that you, too, familiarize yourself with Sir Isaiah's works, in order to be permitted to read here. An usher will be around shortly to check that you have your copies on hand, and there may even be a pop quiz to follow. Just so you know.

Anyway, that's from Freedom and Its Betrayal, in the chapter on Claude Helvétius, a French philosopher from the mid-eighteenth century. Berlin describes him as the first utilitarian, a man to whom Bentham was deeply indebted, and one of the first to formulate the idea that politics could be turned into a science, with final answers to political questions existing a priori, waiting to be discovered by a sufficiently dedicated scientist with the proper tools and methods. For three hundred years, progressive minds have dreamed of the day when politics, with all its frustrations and compromises, could be brushed into the dustbin of history, and an elite ruling caste of enlightened technocrats could take power and give the people what they really want, as proven by the latest data and neuroimaging techniques, even if the poor, deluded cud-chewers don't know it yet, and for those who still can't adapt to the program, there's always lobotomies, of either the pharmaceutical or old-fashioned kind.

This idea is still alive and well in our own age, as a glance through this morning's news can tell you. I almost needed a lifejacket to surf the web today, what with all the crashing waves of progressive tears over the Brexit vote. Site after site featured the spleen-ventings of apoplectic proggies, furious that anything so outdated as a popular vote could have been allowed to interfere with their vision of a bureaucratic superstate. As you'd expect from uptight, moralistic prigs who spend every moment patrolling the police state of their minds, looking for any problematic words or ideas which could conceivably cause offense should they ever tunnel under the walls and wire and run amok among polite company, there has been a shuddering, gasping explosion of ecstatic release as they are finally allowed to vent their hatred of another group of people in the most positively un-enlightened language. Lower-class white Westerners? Racist white Westerners, you say? Oooooh, God, yes, okay, wait, wait, just let me slip my hand under here, and — ahhh, yes. Terminate with extreme prejudice! Scorch the earth and salt it so they can never grow back! Why did we ever let these subhumans vote in the first place?

I have no informed, meaningful opinion on Brexit, and my guiding assumption is that, as usual, the loudest, boldest predictions making the rounds right now are likely to be wrong, and the eventual results, once we've attained enough perspective to judge, will likely contain surprises no one anticipated, but which will seem obvious in hindsight. I realize that can't compete with lurid prophecies of apocalypse and revolution, but I never said I was a pundit. No, what interests me is, one, as already mentioned, the way in which the ideas of a three hundred year-old philosopher are still entirely relevant today, and two, what this says about the political left in general.

Christopher Lasch, as I noted recently, wrote about how, a century ago, just before technocratic liberalism was about to reach its zenith, strangely enough, the mood among progressive thinkers was already shifting, becoming gloomier and self-pitying. As Lasch said, the Nation in 1922 was already developing the progressive aesthetic which loves to portray itself as a small, beleaguered outpost of impeccable taste and civilized values marooned in a wasteland of fundamentalists, rednecks and other savages. Even more recently, though, Peter Dornan, in the course of demolishing Naomi Klein's latest screed, said it succinctly: the left has adapted to powerlessness. It has largely given up on seeing itself as the true vox populi, wanting nothing to do with those unwashed barbarians, and seems to be content with impotent fantasies about a society in which social scientists and academics have finally taken over the government. As he says, this is why a book like Klein's, an incoherent grab-bag of sloganeering, wishful thinking and leftist bromides can find praise along the entire spectrum of left-wing media; it's not like anything's riding on it, after all. None of them expect it to be taken seriously or acted upon. It's merely a way of signaling one's membership among the elect, whether you wrote the book or whether you just wave it.

Jonathan Bronitsky said in a recent book review:

To this day, liberals and their other non-revolutionary siblings on the left might disagree with communists over the extent to which the state should engineer “fairness,” yet they still share with them a vision of what constitutes fairness and an image of a properly re-engineered people. For all ideologies of the left are tied to the Enlightenment, with its emphasis upon predetermined progress via reason and the accumulation of quantifiable knowledge.

"They still share with them a vision of what constitutes fairness and an image of a properly re-engineered people." This, more than anything, is what strikes me about today's left. They may have been forced to grudgingly admit that the state couldn't remold society from the top down, but they have yet to admit that their ideal of what a just, equitable society would look like is incoherent. A chimera. A crackbrained fantasy. Like Wile E. Coyote, they're running in place in midair, afraid to look down lest political gravity finally kick in. Thus the insular, self-congratulatory smugness. Thus the self-serving mythology about how only they can truly be opposed to all the insidious -isms which haunt the world like the imps and demons of a bygone age. Thus the need to make a virtue out of necessity — when confronted with their failure to persuade a majority of people to support their views, rather than adjust their tactics and redouble their efforts, they rationalize it as further proof that they're just too pure for this fallen world.

Bear in mind, I'm not saying there aren't perfectly valid-but-tediously-wonky arguments to be had over marginal tax rates and other specific policies. I'm talking about progressivism as an identity, as a surrogate religion, as the tiresome posturing that dominates social media. I'm talking about people who still, after three centuries, refuse to lose faith in a future Newton of politics who will finally reduce the maddening, complicated business of living and cooperating together in society into a few clear, inviolable rules that can be objectively applied by the credentialed experts. That vision appalls me, and furthermore, as Ben Cobley says, I don't see any meaningful way to disentangle an essence of progressivism worth keeping from the insular, identity-obsessed cult it has become.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Radio Free Thought

Well, well, well. In news that will shock absolutely no one, another right-wing, pro-family, homophobic fundamentalist preacher has been outed as a participant in the sinful lifestyle he railed against from the pulpit. Except by "right-wing", we mean "left-wing". And by "pro-family", we mean "conspicuously poly".  Also, by "homophobic fundamentalist", we mean "doctrinaire social justice-atheist".

(With apologies to the original.)

...adding, this is a pretty good summary too.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Falling Farther from Just What We Are


I also know that I’m not the only “content creator” who’s struggled with this dilemma. There’s so many of us, all exhausted, all trying to keep up with the internet’s short attention span by constantly reaffirming our presence. But all good things must come to an end, as they say. And I’ll add to that: Anything that doesn’t end isn’t good. So I’m ending this good thing, knowing full well that it may cost me the attention, the respect, and the reassurance of the people I have entertained over the years. But I will make another thing, and hopefully people will like it, and when that thing ends I will make another thing, and another, and another.

Well, I'll certainly miss this particular shtick. Blog years are almost like dog years, aren't they? I'm starting to feel like an old-timer opening a newspaper and turning straight to the obituaries to see which blogs I know that have recently passed on. But he's right. That's the thing with having a shtick and an audience; they quickly start dictating the terms of you how you operate, and before you know it, what was once your passionate hobby has become another job. I'm fortunate that I knew early on that amateur writing for its own sake was enough to sustain me; I never wanted a large readership, and I had no interest in trying to figure out how to monetize my blog. My family and most of my friends have absolutely no idea that I do this. That anonymity and solitude has kept my enjoyment of writing as pure as I could have possibly hoped. As in so many things, Montaigne understood this a long time ago:

For me, as long as there are books and web content that inspire me to think a little more deeply, or at least crack a joke, I can't see ever getting to the point where I think a blog is a creative dead end. The semi-epistolary blogging format works well to keep things evolving slowly without becoming stale. Many of the topics that were interesting to me several years ago are boring to me now. Many of the perspectives I voiced then make me wince with embarrassment now. That's as it should be. If I didn't have the freedom to grow and change like that, if I felt pressure to keep "in character" and keep giving the customers what they want, I would have burnt out a long time ago. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, when a man is tired of wrestling with his thoughts and setting them down in writing, he's tired of life itself.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Broken Overton Window Theory

During the first wave of New Atheism, Sam Harris popularized a certain argument in which moderate religion is said to "provide cover" for fundamentalism. Think of it as the "broken windows" theory applied to the Overton Window — if we refuse to tolerate an intellectual misdemeanor, such as mainstream religious belief, we will create a cultural atmosphere of lawful order where a serious crime wave of fundamentalist terrorism has no chance of breaking out. Now, Henry Rambow has written an essay restating the idea based on his own experience as a former fundamentalist. Like Harris, Rambow seems to conflate religion with culture, which only increases the perception that this is all a futile exercise in tilting at windmills.

Second, moderate religion propagates and legitimizes the vehicles of fundamentalist ideology — both the texts and the rituals. The fact that millions upon millions of Americans believe that the Bible is a holy book drives publishers to print millions upon millions of copies every year. Bibles are available in every home and on the back of every church pew. And all it takes for a fundamentalist to be born is for one lost soul to pick up a copy and find a powerful sense of purpose in a literal interpretation of the text. The same is true of the Koran.

Ergo, if there were no moderate religion, there would be no fundamentalism. Sort of like how if there were no football games, there would be no hooliganism (I honestly can't tell if that's a serious anti-football perspective or a pinpoint-accurate parody of the anti-Islam rhetoric). Or if only the public had never been exposed to the study of biology, we would have never had a half-century of progressives being infatuated with Social Darwinism and eugenics (in case you need to be reminded that religion does not have a unique power to inspire men to commit atrocities in service to an imaginary future paradise). Or if there had never been a field of economics, there would have never been a Karl Marx to addle the brains of leftists right up to the current day.

You can use this formula to come up with any number of your own absurd counterfactuals and hypotheticals, but the important thing is, at this point, we are simply at loggerheads: you either believe the human race is capable of being perfected through education and social engineering, or you believe that no matter what, the diabolical genius of our species is that we can make a miserable mess out of absolutely anything, we will always find a way to sabotage our contentment, and therefore, it is not worth confiscating or destroying what makes nine people happy in the vain hope of teaching the tenth a lesson. If religion didn't exist, people would find another justification for murdering each other.

To give Rambow credit, he does offer a solution other than aggressively attempting to morally shame people out of religious belief. Unfortunately, that solution is to demand that moderate religions essentially perform the same surgical operation on their scriptures that Thomas Jefferson did and excise all the malignant verses that don't conform to the ethical fashions popular among modern, educated progressive sensibilities. A pretty tall order in itself, this seems reminiscent to me of the naive arguments from social conservatives claiming that if only kids weren't exposed to rock and rap lyrics glorifying sex and drugs, they would never be tempted to experiment with them. Not to mention, I don't see what's to prevent the black market allure of scriptures promising the true, unexpurgated version from attracting the lost souls Rambow fears. The genie is out of the bottle, the apple has been eaten, and violence of some sort will always be with us.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Do You Really Think You Could Stand Upright in the Winds That Would Blow Then?

Alice More: Arrest him!
Sir Thomas More: Why, what has he done?
Margaret More: He's bad!
More: There is no law against that.
Will Roper: There is! God's law!
More: Then God can arrest him.
Alice: While you talk, he's gone!
More: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast– man's laws, not God's– and if you cut them down—and you're just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety's sake.

Avi Woolf:

But the horrible irony is that PC is actually a horribly ineffective weapon against the devil of intolerance. Real bigots, like real rapists who we are told should be taught “not to rape,” care nothing whatsoever for shaming or moral chastising. To the contrary, they take pride in being monsters. To call them bigots or racists or what-have-you is for them a badge of honor.

No, as Professor Tom Nichols pointed out in his excellent article on PC and Donald Trump, what PC did was something else: utterly destroy the political center. Once upon a time, you could hold a middle ground, nuanced position on any given issue in public discourse. Now? You’re either all the way one way or all the way another way.

In going after the devil, PC has slain the good men, the knights who could fight the danger, or at least check or weaken it. It searched for enemies where none existed only to release the ones that did. It reminds me, sadly, of Europe of the 1930s, when democracy and any hint of moderation was so thoroughly discredited and weakened in the name of instant solutions and hatred of “the system” that everyone ultimately had no choice but to pick which side was less awful: Stalin or Hitler.

Radical Islamist terrorists certainly exist. We all know that. But fifteen or so years ago, to many of us on the political left, center, or even moderate right, it seemed at times that the threat of Islamic terrorism was a rhetorical trope more than a geopolitical reality. The Bush administration used the shock of 9/11 in service to an incredibly radical agenda, cynically conflating honest critics of particular policies with reflexive anti-American radicals, smearing the patriotism of people who had supported them in Afghanistan, but balked at invading Iraq. You're either with us, or you hate America and you want the terrorists to win. We all know this by now as well.

Likewise, racists, sexists and rapists certainly exist. However, this generation of freshly-hatched university students, their heads filled with academic grievance-mongering and their hearts yearning for a grand, significant civil rights battle of their very own, started training analytical floodlights on language, video games and other harmless phenomena in order to make shadows appear larger and more threatening. The undeniable progress that society has made over recent decades regarding race and gender issues wasn't good enough; in fact, it only added to the crusaders' frustration. If devils couldn't be easily found, they'd have to be invented. As should have been expected, the people who bore the brunt of their fanatical fury weren't the proudly racist or the crudely sexist, but the mostly-liberal people who, up to the point of their own show trials, had thought themselves part of the fight against those reactionary ills. You're either with us, or you're with the misogynists. And the line defining who was a misogynist kept creeping closer. If you protested, you became a rape apologist.

The moderate Democrats circa 2003 thought that by giving the administration the benefit of the doubt, and by rhetorically distancing themselves from anyone to their left, they might be respected as loyal opposition. Likewise, many progressives made excuses for the social justice warriors, rationalizing that "at least they're not Republicans". They urged critics to soften their oppositional stance and inevitably smeared the character of anyone who refused. Honestly, though, I expect nothing less than fanaticism from those who would hunt devils, which is why I reserve the bulk of my contempt for the foolish cowards who make excuses for them in hopes of saving their own skins.

Words Are Very Unnecessary

Ben Sixsmith:

The immediacy and excitement of social media and online journalism have encouraged people to ignore this and hold forth on everything. Mouthing off with insufficient knowledge of one’s subject can entail devising and promoting arrant nonsense. What it also does, however, which is far less acknowledged, is make it more difficult to stop promoting nonsense as having publically endorsed a particular opinion one has made a personal investment in its success, integrating the idea into one’s identity and gambling one’s social status on it being impressive.

In the depths of an old-growth forest, a tree falls. In a study, a blogger glances over the headlines and trending topics in his feed reader and rolls his eyes in disdain before closing the laptop and picking up a book. Do either of them make a sound? It depends, of course, on how you define the term. Are the soundwaves that ripple out from the tree's crash into the undergrowth significant if they're only registered by the ears of forest creatures incapable of recursively reflecting on them? Is the blogger's weariness with the fatuity of social media meaningful if it isn't publicly performed in that same venue in return for validation by clicks, likes and retweets?

It's no fun ignoring people if they don't know they're being ignored, is it? How are people to know that the weeklong lapse between posts is due to my principled rejection of the popular topics and viral essays on offer, rather than my being occupied with work or other hobbies, if I don't say so? However, conspicuous disdain, the kind that wants to make sure the audience knows just how unworthy of your attention you find the current object of your attention, should be beneath us. It's akin to the fraudulent spectacle of a football player peeking through his fingers to see if the referee has taken note of his simulation of mortal injury. In the social media marketplace, sense and nonsense are not polar opposites, however invested consumers might be in believing otherwise; they're competing products, like Coke and Pepsi. Performance, signaling, and seeking validation — these are the currency, the bills and coins which dirty the hands of the enlightened and benighted alike.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Statistics, aka Highbrow Astrology

Oh, yeah, just so you know, if I'm not around as much for the next month or so, I'm busy. Today, f'rinstance, I just wanted to enjoy the Spain-Czech Republic game without encountering my longtime nemesis, Commentators Whose Pattern-Seeking Software Has Gone Haywire. Is that too much to ask? Apparently so.

Alejandro Moreno: If you're a Spanish national team fan, you may want to turn away right now and not listen to this.

Max Bretos: *Giggles*

AM: Spain — this is fact —

MB: A great tease, by the way! You have my undivided attention!

AM: Spain has never won on June thirteenth. Never. Five matches. One draw —

MB: Start the bus, everybody!

AM: Four losses, including the catastrophe and the disaster against the Netherlands in the World Cup.

MB: And this is — it's just a date, but then you said, it's a, it's a big sample size of games, so suggests there's something more to it.

AM: Just make of it what you will. Just giving you a fact.

A fact! Why, it's practically a scientific certainty, I'd say! How'd that turn out? Oh. Even with that, uh, big sample size? Golly!

Anyway, once I pried my palm off my face, I promised the gods a year off the end of my lifespan if they would let Spain win. Well worth it.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

And I Don't Believe What I Believe Anymore

She paused. "All my life, I trusted that what I read in places like this was accurate; that someone had checked it out. I assumed that doctors were careful people who know a lot more than I do. Then I find these glaring errors, and who am I? I'm nobody," she said. "How did an article that cites Sports Illustrated pass muster with a peer-review board of scientists?"

That's an excerpt from Bronwen Dickey's excellent book Pit Bull. In this particular chapter, a woman who worked in the records department of a sheriff's office took it upon herself to carefully read the professional literature dealing with dog-bite fatalities, and you'll never guess what happened next! No, you probably already have. It turned out that she, with no professional credentials but a lot of determination and savvy, exposed how astonishingly careless and slipshod the "experts" had been in constructing the narratives that dominated the conventional cultural wisdom surrounding supposedly dangerous dogs, like the unjustly-maligned breed in question. But this paragraph obviously has a lot of relevance beyond its original context.

To wit: I just recently learned about the Western European marriage pattern. A book I read happened to mention in passing that the nuclear family had been the norm for several centuries, citing statistics from England since the 1700s. After doing some sleuthing, I discovered that this was, in fact, widely accepted among historians. Since the late Middle Ages, at least, that's been the case.

Now, as I've said many times, I'm not highly educated or credentialed. Whatever smarts I can be said to have are due to genetics and the sweat of my studying brow. But I think it's fair to say that I'm inquisitive, and I read several dozen books every year, almost entirely non-fiction. It's not difficult to get me interested enough in a topic to read a 300-page book about it on a whim. I'm pretty slutty that way. And yet, despite having been attentive to all manner of cultural and political events and ideas for a couple decades, I had never heard anything to contradict the assumption, originally picked up who knows where, that intergenerational families had been the norm pretty much everywhere, certainly in America, until the post-World War II prosperity allowed people to customize their living arrangements. For years, I heard a steady message surrounding the topics of families and marriage: talk about "the decline of the family" or "family values" is pure right-wing propaganda, nothing but nostalgia for the days when patriarchs could lord with impunity over their women and children. If anything, capitalism itself was forcing families to splinter into the smallest units for easier mobility as they tracked the skittish herds of jobs across the country. Why, only last month, we saw another rote repetition of this tendentious mythology.

But mythology is what it is. And while the precise dynamic of familial arrangements in Anglo-American history isn't the sort of keystone that forms the foundation of an entire worldview, it's unsettling to be reminded how often this might be the case, that much of what we think we know is just someone else's convenient myth which we've never had cause or opportunity to debunk. There are so many things we just have to accept as provisionally true, because who has time to diligently investigate every single idea encountered in daily life? And the alternative of paranoid epistemological nihilism is even worse. We can try to surround ourselves with diverse perspectives to increase our collective wisdom, but how do we know what we're missing until it bites us on the ass?

It's a funny paradox. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I conclude that a relaxed agnosticism about damned near everything appears to be the best approach. As is so often the case, Montaigne had it right: Que sais-je? What do I know? I can't even imagine what "facts" I'll have to unlearn next.