Continued elsewhere

I've decided to abandon this blog in favor of a newer, more experimental hypertext form of writing. Come over and see the new place.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Just bring enough for the ritual

[a follow-up to What is it like to be batshit?. See also Voting as Ritual and Republic of Heaven. ]

So there is this election happening in mere days, and it feels like a crucial choice point for the country. If we re-elect Trump, that means something very definite for the story of the US and for the American character, to the extent there is such a thing. And if we don't, it means something else. The choice is stark, the outcome uncertain. It's a collective choice, made by this weird group mind constituted by the biannual mechanism/ritual of aggregation we call an election. To the extent there is an American character (or mind, or soul) this is a key part of how it works, how the whole is constituted out of its parts.

In most past elections, I've had feeling of apathy (not always dominant, but always there). Neither of the major parties represented me or my thinking, such as it was, and I always felt like I was choosing the lesser of two evils. "If voting could change the system, it would be against the law" – that's a funny radical bumper sticker but also encodes an important truth. In a sense voting is supposed to be unimportant.

But during the same decades that I was growing older and thus more conservative (at some level this is inexorable, the interests of the old are not those of the young), the nature of the mainstream parties shifted, until Democrats are the true conservative party (in that they want to preserve the existing institutions of society) and Republicans are the radical wreckers.

So now I find myself in the position of supporting whole-heartedly the kind of mainstream Democrat I disdained in the past. I mean, with every fiber of my being! That feels really weird! But these are weird times.

Maybe I'm kidding myself. It's just politics and politics is just theater, not where the actually important work of the world takes place. Maybe I've bought too far into the media narrative of good and evil. Besides, there is little I can do other than vote and give some financial support to key campaigns. I can of course flame on the internet, which is not exactly nothing, but I can't delude myself that it makes a ton of difference.

Still, history is unfolding, and we are all drawn into the drama, like it or not.

It's important to understand what Trump is, what his role is in the national drama. He's not an out-of-nowhere abberation, no matter how abberant his behavior. He didn't come from nowhere and if defeated, what he represents isn't going away; the 40% or so of the country who supports him isn't going away. Jamelle Bouie wrote a really good piece on this:

For many millions of Americans, the presidency of Donald Trump has been a kind of transgression, an endless assault on dignity, decency and decorum. They experience everything — the casual insults, the vulgar tweets, the open racism, the lying, the tacit support for dangerous extremists and admiration of foreign strongmen — as an attack on the fabric of American society itself. And they see the worst of this administration, like separating children from their families at the border, as an unparalleled offense against the values of American democracy.

… Trump is transgressive, yes. But his transgressions are less a novel assault on American institutions than they are a stark recapitulation of past failure and catastrophe.

…For as much as it seems that Donald Trump has changed something about the character of this country, the truth is he hasn’t. What is terrible about Trump is also terrible about the United States.

So from that point of view, maybe the election is not that important, we are going to have the same history and character regardless (Bouie doesn't say this, but it's an obvious inference).

But it feels like something important is at stake here, that somehow we as a country are putting everything on the line here for a chance at redemption. If we elect Donald Trump twice, it's clear that he represents not merely an unpleasant facet of the American character, but a dominant one. The gross, boorish, bullying, and fraudulent part. The ignorant part, the shortsighted part, the jingoistic part, the cruel part. The part that cares only about strength and knows nothing of justice, love, honor, beauty or caring. The proudly stupid part. And of course the racist and patriarchal part.

That is, of course, not all there is to the American character. There is the inventive side, the pragmatist side, the heroic side, the frontier side, the decent side, the helpful and compassionate and welcoming side, the creative side, the visionary side. The side that held out hope to refugees and immigrants like my parents. Those virtues are just as real as the vices that Trump has brought to the foreground.

It feels like this election is going to say whether those virtues are strong enough to defeat the forces that Trump represents, or whether we give into our worst version of ourself as a country.

America 4.0

Regardless of how the election goes this is going to be a different country than it was before. Same problems and resources, different collective narratives. We are either in an ongoing catastrophe, or we will have pulled back from the edge of one.

My old friend John Redford (who has a fine blog of his own) said the other day that we are in the early days of America 4.0. That is, there have been three fairly different versions of the US:

  • version 1.0 runs from the founding to the Civil War
  • version 2.0 is from the Civil War until depression/World War era
  • version 3.0 is from the end of WWII until just about now

(Although on reconsideration maybe 3.0 ended in 1989 with the cold war and the years from then to now have been part of an ongoing transition)

In each of these transitions, the nation faced an existential crisis and managed to reinvent itself, often through violence. We may be going through that again, or we may be going through death throes. But it's pretty clear that the current version of America isn't working at all and something new had damn well better get put in place and soon.

What will America 4.0 look like? I really have no idea, although I sure hope that it at least uses technology well. The election won't decide that, but it will determine whether the tentative gropes toward a viable future can start now or we have to have another four years of destruction of the old order before the new one can be born.

[ title due to Warren Zevon:


Thursday, October 29, 2020

What is it like to be batshit?

I asked this on Twitter the other day and got not much in the way of answer.

Although I have studied the right, and even gone so far as to try to intellectually engage with them at times, I find I can't quite wrap my head around what it must be like to be a Donald Trump supporter. That is to say: I can to some extent understand the arguments and the emotional dynamics that lead someone into being, say, a libertarian or neoreactionary, or even a frothing racist. These ideologies may be wrong or loathsome, but it feels like I kind of understand them, in that I can imagine what it is like to hold to them. They may be rooted in bad emotions (anger, hate, fear), but I'm human, I have my share of that stuff, I can sort of understand how it can warp your beliefs.

But I can't quite put myself in the place of a Donald Trump supporter. Something in my imagination balks. He is such a viscerally repellent figure. How the hell can anybody look at him and say, that's who I want to follow, give me more of that? The man is such a constant display of the worst parts of human nature, and the worst parts of the American character. The constant bragging and whining. The proud ignorance. The tacky fraudulence of everything he's involved with. The utter contempt for truth or for any values other than "winning". Think of a good human quality: kindess, courage, strength, wisdom – Trump embodies the opposite of it.

So even if I was somehow on his side ideologically – say I hated Mexicans for some reason, or wanted to keep blacks out of my leafy suburbs, or felt like sticking it to China, whatever – I don't think I could get past the utter vileness of the man.

There's something almost metaphysically disturbing about Trump; he emits a whiff of the abyss, his triumphs hint at the death of meaning itself, the end of virtue. The cultists attracted to him remind me of those that appear in Lovecraft stories: people who have utterly given over their humanity to something depraved and alien, and worship it with a savage inhuman joy. I'm in the position of a Lovecraft narrator watching helplessly as these inhuman powers manifest themselves in a slow but inexorable march towards madness.

But horror aside, what drives these people? Either they don't see what I see (but it's not like Trump's qualities are subtle or hard to detact), or they see it and just don't care. Other considerations are more important. For example: Here's the editor of the National Review explaining that voting for Trump:

is the only way for his voters to say to the cultural Left, “No, sorry, you’ve gone too far.”…Trump is, for better or worse, the foremost symbol of resistance to the overwhelming woke cultural tide that has swept along the media, academia, corporate America, Hollywood, professional sports, the big foundations, and almost everything in between….To put it in blunt terms, for many people, he’s the only middle finger available — to brandish against the people who’ve assumed they have the whip hand in American culture.

Which is basically saying that the hatred of "the cultural Left" is so salient to these people that it overrides every other consideration, such as basic decency, esthetics, or even life itself (since Trump is quite directly responsible for the massive US death rate from Covid). The author of that piece says in the very next sentence "This may not be a very good reason to vote for a president, and it doesn’t excuse Trump’s abysmal conduct and maladministration." But yeah, fuck the left. I guess that is not entirly beyond my ability to imagine – I know what hate is like. I hate Trump, Trump's supporters hate people like me. They think we have "the whip hand" and it is so important for them to seize this opportunity to say fuck you. There's a certain symmetry of feeling there.

But I can't quite make the symmetry work. The sides do not appear to be mirror reflections of the other; one side seems clearly better. No matter how hard I try, I can't take a neutral view of this conflict. There are those who make a virtue of being above the ideological fray, and maybe they are smarter than me, or more morally advanced, that's certainly a possibility. Maybe I am overly locked into my worldview, maybe I am deficient in the necessary empathic imagination. Maybe I am too bought into a constructed media narrative, and they just happen to be bought into a different one.

However: this is not a matter of preference, it's literally a matter of life and death. Covid is a life and death issue; so is fascism. So much as I might like to go all abstract and above the fray, I think the situation demands choosing a side and fighting for it. One thing about Trump, he makes it really easy to see who the enemy is, even if he confounds understanding.

The title of this post is a reference to philosopher Thomas Nagel's well-known paper What Is It Like To Be a Bat? The point of that paper is that while bats are presumably conscious and it makes sense to talk of their experience, that experience has to be utterly unlike our own, given the vastly different world the bat lives in by virtue of its different senses and abilities. 

Trumpists are alien along a different but no less confounding dimension.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Lockdown Review of Books

This is the list of books I've read so far during the lockdown, although it includes a few entries from just before things got serious. In fact the first two I remember reading on my last BART commutes back in February, which seems like the distant past now.

It's kind of all over the place, for better or worse. I'd like to say it represents my wide-ranging intellect but it could also just be randomness. But if you think this list is random, you should look at my stacks of unread books and wishlists!

On second thought there's quite a bit of thematic unity to be teased out here. The literary novels (White Noise, Wittgenstein's Mistress, Blood Meridian) are all more or less obviously about nihilism, all are attempts to face nothingness, meaninglessness, and death head-on.

This bleak topic is counterbalanced by a whole slew of visionaries who are untroubled by the nihilistic disease and instead create elaborate, vast, and questionable systems of occult meaning (Blake, Moore, Woodring, Vimalakirti).

If that stuff is too far off into hippie woo, to contrast with it we include one book that has something to do with my day job in software (Brooks). He was the architect of IBM's System/360, and you can't get much more straight-mainstream-rationalist than that!

And interestingly, a couple of books play around on the border between rationality and the lands beyond. Though one is fiction (Crowley) and one nonfiction (Kripal) they both are about academics who lose their faith in hardnosed rationality and materialism and end up exploring more ethereal domains.

Wow, I am really impressed with my ability to come up with post-hoc structure and rationales! Swear to (the possibly dead) god that I didn't plan any of that out! I guess the influence of the last book I blogged about is pretty obvious (in fact Kripal was Erik Davis's thesis advisor).

Here's the list. I hope to write more detailed reviews of at least some of these, and will expand or link here.

  • Wittgenstein's Mistress, David Markson, 2/11
  • The Flip, Jeffrey Kripal, 2/16
  • The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman, 2/23
  • Promethea v2, Alan Moore / J. H. Williams, 3/11
  • Distraction, Bruce Sterling 4/2
  • Congress of the Animals / Fran / Weathercraft, Jim Woodring, 4/22
  • White Noise, Don Delillo, 5/3
  • Why William Blake Matters, John Higgs 5/20
  • Black Sunday, Thomas Harris 5/25
  • Ægypt, John Crowley 6/21
  • The Vimalakirti Sutra, tr. Robert Thurman
  • The Design of Design, Fred Brooks, 7/14
  • Fearful Symmetry, Northrop Frye
  • Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee, 7/16
  • Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy, 8/2