Saturday, September 10, 2016

A tisket, a tasket

Assorted reactions to Clinton՚s “basket of deplorables” remark:
  • It managed to express something everybody knows but for some reason is never made explicit: politics is about labeling the other side as bad people. Rightwingers think leftists are bad, and vice versa. Just a simple fact. Politics is all about solidifying these sorts of moral/social judgements.

  • But we are in a democracy, which means that everyone, no matter how much of a scumbag they may be, is entitled to a voice and a measure of respect, or at least lip service to their basic goodness. Presidents and presidential candidates especially are supposed to maintain the fiction that we are a united country rather than a collection of mutually antagonistic groups. So this was an unusual eruption of real-talk into the discourse.

  • People are comparing it to Mitt Romney՚s remark that 47% of the populace were entitled moochers. They have a superficial resemblance, to be sure, in that they seem to cursorily dismiss a large fraction of the electorate. Of course the main difference is that Clinton՚s was largely accurate and Romney՚s was not, although that doesn՚t seem to be a big consideration.

  • It՚s a really awkward turn of phrase. “Deplorable” is not really a noun and people don՚t generally get organized in baskets. It also seems politically clueless. Here՚s some interesting theories as to where the phrase originated, although it doesn՚t explain the political motivation behind using it.

  • One assumes that anything out of Clinton՚s mouth has been carefully engineered, so what՚s going on? I've heard a theory that the weird phrasing was deliberate, something people could't help discuss and propagate, so now people are talking about the exact level of racism and other deplorable characteristics of Trump's supporters -- maybe it's half, or maybe just 20%, but that idea is now firmly lodged in the discourse.

All the above is kind of abstract, here՚s my concrete and personal reaction: Yes, I find Trump and most of his supporters deplorable, and I don՚t have any problem with making that judgement, or the idea that this particular political contest actually is a fight against a very real form of evil.

Trump has sort of done the country a service, because normally I wouldn՚t feel much solidarity with someone like Hillary Clinton, who I find awful in some ways, but her awfulness doesn՚t hold a candle to that of Trump. So he՚s brought the country – the decent parts of it – together.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Burning Sensations

That last Burning Man post was way too serious, trying to make up for it.


Holy Labor

It՚s Labor Day and for some reason I have a tradition of making posts on this holiday. And I wouldn՚t want to break tradition, it՚s one of the few things we can hold onto in this chaotic world. But if it՚s an obligation, that writing it becomes work, and you are not supposed to work on labor day. So I՚m trying to write in a spirt of anti-work.

Whatever is motivating me to write, it does not feel like work, at least not the onerous kind. It՚s work but in pursuit of goals that come from within rather than from without. So I՚m not anti-work, I՚m anti-working-for-someone-else. At least for today, tomorrow I can go back to the daytime adult world, where everyone has someone to report to, even the CEOs. I՚ve been slowly and grudgingly accepting this fact of life, which most people seem to accept at an early age.

The ethics of Marxism seem to promise, not redemption from work, but redemption through work, which at least sounds more mature. To an old-school Marxist (if there are any left) labor does actually have something of the holy about it. I can even sense a spiritual logic behind it. Just as the breath (prāṇa) is holy because of its role as a connection between mind and body, labor is holy because it is a connection between mind and effective action in the world. Both represent a path towards reconciliation and reconnection of things that are split apart.

But (again according to Marxists) labor has been misdirected into alienated tasks, that is to say, despiritualized and mindless forms of action, and it is the job of the revolution to redirect it to its proper purposes.  (And yes, we all know how well that worked out). But I give Marx some credit for trying to turn labor from a curse (one of Adam's punishments in Genesis in fact) into something liberating.

So we should celebrate labor day not by lazing around a barbecue, but by laboring on what is not alienated, on something that aims at liberation.

[Realized I wrote almost the same post a year ago. Guess it really is Belabor Day.]

Saturday, September 03, 2016

The End of Argument

Argument used to be the foundation of intellectual activity. Between the internet and the more general culture of outrage, it's kind of dead. Nobody really argues on the net; when people try, it reads as trolling. Now you are only supposed to talk to people you already mostly agree with. That might be great for socializing but seems awfully boring or worse for ideas, which can only thrive under conditions of opposition.

One reason this is the state of things now compared to early iterations of electronic communication is the replacement of public space (mailing lists and usenet groups) with privatized spaces (Facebook pages, blogs, Twitter feeds). Whether or not this is a bad thing, it means that there is no public square to have a fight over. Now it makes more sense, instead of having an argument to settle the matter, you just go start your own blog and attract like minded people.

I suppose this is just a particular incarnation of the more overarching transition from modernity to postmodernity. In the latter state, every community gets to have its own version of the truth, and there is no master narrative, nothing worth fighting over.

In some ways this is a good thing. The old-style intellectuals were arrogant and their testosterone-fueled contest to impose the One True Ideology or Philosophy or whatever had some unfortunate consequences. Yet something feels lost.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Pull of the Man

So I՚m not going to Burning Man this year, for various lame reasons. But I feel myself pulled towards it nonetheless, in a weird way that is not exactly wanting in the normal sense. I guess I do want to go again, but I՚m not completely sure why – sure, it՚s a hell of a fun party, but I՚m not that much of a party person. The art is spectactular, but art is not usually capable of motivating me to travel so far from the comforts of home. The political aspect of it – the gifting economy, the sense of collectively building a workable temporary utopia – has a lot of appeal, but it՚s hard to see what it has to do with the power structures of the default world, and politics without real stakes is an unredeemable waste of time. There are a ton of interesting weirdos to meet there, but those connections too don՚t seem to travel back into the default world. I certainly had some worthwhile and unique experiences, but for the most part felt kind of out of it – too old, too asocial, too square, too intellectual, and without access to the right kinds of creative power that would enable me to go beyond spectator status. And it really is not a place for spectators.

Yet still I feel oddly drawn towards it, and I probably can՚t adequately convey the nature of that oddness. After all, it is not so odd to want to go to Burning Man. I assume I am pulled in by forces that are similarly acting on all the 80,000 or so people who are there, as well as those like me who are just dreaming of it. But what is the nature of those forces? They are no doubt various and ill-defined, yet somehow they have sustained the event for 30 years, an incredible length of time for a something like this to persist.

One of my kids asked me the other day about the Grateful Dead concerts I went to in my youth – what did I actually do there? He seemed to be after a deeper answer than “go nuts and have fun” – probably he takes me more seriously than I do myself. And truly, that answer isn՚t satisfactory even to me. I was looking for something larger then that, although I couldn՚t say exactly what. And it՚s not just me, everybody goes to concerts and other happenings or public events because they fill deep and usually unarticulated emotional needs – for meaning, for community, for beauty, for access to the sorts of things that tend to get left out of life under late capitalism.

There is a ritual nature to these events. A ritual, broadly speaking, exists any time humans come together around some shared focus of attention. Every random concert or performance has something of the ritual about it, but Burning Man is more explicit about its ritual structure, from its physical layout to its practices. Black Rock City is arranged in concentric circles, surrounding a mostly empty circle of desert, and directly in the center the Man himself.

There are some other centers of attraction in the layout, such as a cafe/community center ( a center for talks, small-scale performnances of the hippie arts and the like, and one of the very few places you can spend money). Another is the Temple, which is more for silent contemplation and connection to the higher powers. These two and centers and the main center, the Man himself, are laid out on a central axis.

I have to admit I spent an awful lot of time at the Temple during my one burn – that wouldn՚t have been my conscious choice, there were plenty more fun or interesting places to be than that, but that is where I felt myself pulled. The Man and the Temple are both burned towards the end of the Burning Man week, which determines the temporal side of the large-scale structure of the Burning Man ritual. And, of course, it has the nature of a sacrifice.

Sarah Perry recently published a useful summary of some functionalist approaches to ritual. Such theories are all very well and I՚ve spun them myself, but they are kind of mechanistic and feel external to the phenomenon they are trying to describe. They can explain from an evolutionary standpoint why rituals exist, but they can՚t convey what they are like. Yes, people may perform sacrificial rituals in order to signal commitment and gain status – but that is probably not what they are thinking and feeling while they are doing it. If they are, it isn՚t working – something designed to be directed at lofty communal goals is being perverted into base, greedy, individualistic goals.

And who knows, maybe the vast majority of religious display is infected with this sort of egotistic hypocrisy, but I can՚t believe that it all is. Perhaps I am naive, but it seems to me that people are often quite sincere in their displays of religious enthusiasm – that is, they actually want to participate, they want to be directed at something outside of and higher than their usual concerns, and they are drawn into the ritual based on its nature and their own, not by external compulsions or calculations. Since people are not naturally going to stop engaging in egotistic calculations, part of an effective ritual is that it breaks down individuality. This condition is both terrifying and desirable, and this contradiction underlies some of the weird dynamics of ritual and religion.

It is this desire for transcendence that strikes me as somewhat mysterious, at least in my own case. This mysterious attraction appears to be spiritual in nature. I really hate to use that word, my self-image rejects it. It՚s embarrassing to find myself longing for spiritual experience, to want to be in the sort of place and state of mind in which the individual ego gives way, where the infinite contacts the finite, where the ineffable expresses itself. Such desires don՚t fit in with my self-conception as a realist, pragmatist, materialist, member in good standing of the techno-intelligentsia, and general competent adult.

Maybe It՚s not the spirituality that is embarassing – after all this is California in the 21st century, and everyone is permitted, if not actively encouraged, to engage in all manner of practices. No, it is the longing that is vaguely shameful – at my age, I should just go after what I want, or give it up, all this mooning after the impossible-to-get seems juvenile, especially in the land of do-as-you-please.

But I don՚t think my feelings and reactions are anything out of the ordinary. I may be more conscious of them than normal people, for a variety of reasons, but that doesn՚t make them special. So I conjecture that rituals are structured in such a way as to focus people՚s attention and desire onto something transcendent, that is, something not quite real in the ordinary sense, and thus not really attainable. Longing is built-in to the structure of the sacred.

And if something shameful adheres to the notion of longing, at least a ritual allows people to do it collectively, to align their longings with that of others. Individual longing may be a puerile waste of time; collective longing defines a culture.

[My earlier trip report and an alternative, less weighty view of the nature of the event.]

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Talking to Trumpers

So I tried to engage with a bunch of Trump supporters at one of the wingnut websites I occasionally frequent [sorry no link]. Kind of thought of it as a civic duty. Unfortunately all I have to report back is basically what I knew going in. These people are:
  • stupid: the kind of stupid people who think they are smart, bringing to mind this classic scene.
  • racist: not the virulent kind, more the whiny kind who think blacks are getting special advantages and the decks are stacked against white men
  • assholes: in all manner of ways, but most striking to me was when I pointed out that Trump had a habit of stiffing the contractors who did work for him, they replied that “the work must have been substandard”. In other words, in a fight between a rich and powerful guy and a lesser power, automatically back the rich guy. This may be due to something basic in the core of the authoritarian psyche, but it is incomprehensible to me.
  • convinced that there is something called “the left” that includes everybody from Hillary to Stalin, that is deliberately evil and devoted to “destroying our liberties”, and basically is in league with Satan.
This last point of course means that whatever Trump՚s flaws, he appears to be the better alternative to them. So pointing out Trump՚s near-total ignorance, his vile personality, his fraudulent background, and his absurd and destructive proposals means nothing. They claim to be conservatives but are willing to take the risk of vast destruction of our existing system of governance, simply out of hatred for someone who exemplifies the existing system.

These people are lost to sanity, and all we can do is hope that they aren՚t a very big or influential group come November.

[addendum: I don't think I did a very good job of doing what needs to be done -- that is, getting some kind of sense of what these people are really about. That is (a) hard to do on the internet as opposed to f2f and (b) probably better accomplished by people with more empathic skills than me. Here's George Saunders, who normally writes fiction about the broken people of the modern world, giving it a go.]

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Stealing the future

“these companies really are designing the future and they may get away with it.”
Here՚s an article that caused a minor shitstorm among the self-appointed defenders of nerd-dom. It՚s not a very good article and the reaction it got is also pretty stupid, but it touches on themes of interest so I can՚t resist wading in.

The article claims:

  • “Relatively young white males overwhelmingly run Silicon Valley firms and they are stealing the future from everyone else.”
  • The algorithms of these young white males are biased.
  • Since these algorithms are an increasingly important part of the public sphere, they should be regulated by the public.
  • SV has an “almost complete absence” of females, non-whites, and people from demographics like the aged or the low-income.
  • Many of the men who run the techno-corporate behemoth are autistic or have minds tinged with autistic thinking.
  • In that regard, they “know little and care less” about other people.
  • Autistic traits are useful technically, but “can become a hindrance if a general naiveté about human beings is translated directly into the design of the products and services used by billions of other people around the world”.
  • “We” (society, or maybe neurotypicals?) ought to take more control of the technology rather than letting the autistics impose their warped vision on “us”.
Some of these statements are just false – for instance, SV has a very large number of Asians in both engineering and money roles, and while females are underrepresented, they are hardly completely absent. Others are phrased in a ridiculously contentious fashion: “stealing the future” is a brilliantly nasty phrase.

Nonetheless, I think underneath all that stuff are a couple of worthwhile points: (1) that tech companies have too much social power (2) there՚s something vaguely autistic about their methods. The first of these points seems obviously true to me. Companies or whole industries rise on tweaks to Google՚s ranking algorithm, and Facebook has assumed the power to tell us how we are allowed to present ourselves in public life. This just can՚t be good. It՚s not that Mark Zuckerberg or Sergey Brin are bad people, it՚s just that it՚s obviously asking for trouble to cede the fundamental architecture of collective human society to individuals and for-profit organizations. I suppose it՚s controversial to suggest that big tech companies should be regulated or reined in somehow by the rest of society, but surely we can agree that they have immense power and there՚s no particular reason to think that they, of all human organizations, shnould be immune to the corruptions that accompany power.

But that particular line of attack isn՚t what triggered the remarkably strong reaction of the critics, who went so far as to compare the article to Nazi writings on Jews. At first, that seemed ridiculously overblown to me, almost offensively so. But maybe not -- scapegoating is an inherently ugly business, and the “stealing the future” line evokes that chilling song from Cabaret, In this reading, the autistic take the place of Jews in a story of illegitimate power wielded by a somewhat inhuman and alien race of people, a race that has expropriated the legitimate heirs to the future, whoever they are. If that wasn՚t bad enough, the article also blurs autism and whiteness and privilege in general. Sure sounds like like incitement to hatred.

And then it introduces the idea of “autistic corporations”, which is an interesting idea, but what does it really mean? A corporation run by or largely staffed by autistics? Seems to me a corporations, which is a legal person, might have plenty of these alleged evil autistic traits (such as lack of empathy) even if staffed entirely with the neurotypical.

These are all tantalizing questions for me: what does it mean to be human, how do we implement ethics and empathy, and how do the loosely-autistic people in the tech community diverge from the human norm? And how do collectives like corporations manage to embody partial humanity? However, this article does a piss-poor job of raising them. I guess that is due to the degraded state of public discourse, which largely consists of outrage contests.

So the worst thing about that article is not that it is going to cause pogroms against the autistic, but that it makes it that much harder to do the kind of informed and careful critiques of technology that we desperately need. It is quite right to say that the future should not be left in the hands of a few private tech corporations; and changing that will involve some kind of political struggle. It's quite wrong to paint this struggle in terms of race or neurotype.

[Addendum: right after posting I found out that today is "Autism Pride Day"