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.)