Archive for November, 2016

Continuing from my previous post, Brian Phillips has an article, writing for MTV News, entitled “Shirtless Trump Saves Drowning Kitten: Facebook’s fake-news problem and the rise of the postmodern right.” (Funny title, that.) I navigated to the article via Alan Jacob’s post at Text Patterns (on my blogroll). Let me consider each in turn.

After chuckling that Phillips is directing his analysis to the wrong audience, an admittedly elitist response on my part, I must further admit that the article is awfully well-written and nails the blithe attitude accompanying epistemological destruction carried out, perhaps unwittingly but too well-established now to ignore, by developers of social media as distinguished from traditional news media. Which would be considered more mainstream today is up for debate. Maybe Phillips has the right audience after all. He certainly gets the importance of controlling the narrative:

Confusion is an authoritarian tool; life under a strongman means not simply being lied to but being beset by contradiction and uncertainty until the line between truth and falsehood blurs and a kind of exhaustion settles over questions of fact. Politically speaking, precision is freedom. It’s telling, in that regard, that Trump supporters, the voters most furiously suspicious of journalism, also proved to be the most receptive audience for fictions that looked journalism-like. Authoritarianism doesn’t really want to convince its supporters that their fantasies are true, because truth claims are subject to verification, and thus to the possible discrediting of authority. Authoritarianism wants to convince its supporters that nothing is true, that the whole machinery of truth is an intolerable imposition on their psyches, and thus that they might as well give free rein to their fantasies.

But Phillips is too clever by half, burying the issue in scholarly style that speaks successfully only to a narrow class of academics and intellectuals, much like the language and memes employed by the alt-right are said to be dog whistles perceptible only to rabid, mouth-breathing bigots. Both charges are probably unfair reductions, though with kernels of truth. Here’s some of Phillips overripe language:

Often the battleground for this idea [virtue and respect] was the integrity of language itself. The conservative idea, at that time [20 years ago], was that liberalism had gone insane for political correctness and continental theory, and that the way to resist the encroachment of Derrida was through fortifying summaries of Emerson … What had really happened was that the left had become sensitized to the ways in which conventional moral language tended to shore up existing privilege and power, and had embarked on a critique of this tendency that the right interpreted, with some justification, as an attack on the very concept of meaning.

More plainly, Phillips’ suggestion is that the radical right learned the lessons of Postmodernism (PoMo) even better than did the avant-garde left, the latter having outwitted themselves by giving the right subtle tools used later to outmaneuver everyone. Like other mildly irritating analyses I have read, it’s a statement of inversion: an idea bringing into existence its antithesis that unironically proves and undermines the original, though with a dose of Schadenfreude. This was (partially) the subject of a 4-part blog I wrote called “Dissolving Reality” back in Aug. and Sept. 2015. (Maybe half a dozen read the series; almost no one commented.)

So what does Alan Jacobs add to the discussion? He exhibits his own scholarly flourishes. Indeed, I admire the writing but find myself distracted by the writerly nature, which ejects readers from the flow of ideas to contemplate the writing itself. For instance, this:

It turns out that the children of the ruling classes learned their lessons well, so when they inherited positions in their fathers’ law firms they had some extra, and very useful, weapons in their rhetorical armory.

In precisely the same way, when, somewhat later, academic leftists preached that race and gender were the determinative categories of social analysis, members of the future alt-right were slouching in the back rows of their classrooms, baseball caps pulled down over their eyes, making no external motions but in their dark little hearts twitching with fervent agreement.

Terrific capture of the classroom culture in which teachers are steeped. Drawing identity politics more manifestly into the mix is a fairly obvious extrapolation over Phillips and may reflect the results of the presidential election, where pundits, wheeling around to reinterpret results that should not have so surprised them, now suggest Republican victories are a repudiation of leftist moral instruction. The depth of Phillips’ and Jacobs’ remarks is not so typical of most pundits, however, and their follow-up analysis at some point becomes just more PoMo flagellation. Here, Jacobs is even more clearly having some fun:

No longer did we have to fear being brought before the bar of Rational Evidence, that hanging judge of the Enlightenment who had sent so many believers to the gallows! You have your constructs and we have our constructs, and who’s to say which are better, right? O brave new world that hath such a sociology of knowledge in it!

This goes back to the heart of the issue, our epistemological crisis, but I dispute that race and gender are the determinative categories of social analysis, no matter how fashionable they may be in the academy. A simpler and more obvious big picture controls: it’s about life and death. My previous post was about geopolitics, where death is rained down upon foreign peoples and justifying rhetoric is spread domestically. Motivations may be complex and varied, but the destruction of people and truth affects everyone, albeit unevenly, without regard to race, gender, religion, nationality, etc. All are caught in the dragnet.

Moreover, with the advent of Western civilization, intellectuals have always been sensitive to the sociology of knowledge. It’s a foundation of philosophy. That it’s grown sclerotic long precedes PoMo theory. In fact, gradual breaking apart and dismantling of meaning is visible across all expressive genres, not just literature. In painting, it was Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. In architecture, it was Art Deco, the International Style, Modernism, Brutalism, and Deconstructivism. In music, it was the Post-Romantic, the Second Viennese School, Modernism, Serialism, and Minimalism. In scientific paradigms, it was electromagnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics, the Nuclear Era, and semiconductors. The most essential characteristics in each case are increasingly dogmatic abstraction and drilling down to minutia that betray meaningful essences. Factoring in economic and political perversions, we arrive at our current epistemological phase where truth and consequences matter little (though death and destruction still do) so long as deceits, projections, and distractions hold minds in thrall. In effect, gravity is turned off and historical narratives levitate until reality finally, inevitably comes crashing down in a monstrous Jenga pile, as it does periodically.

In the meantime, I suppose Phillips and Jacobs can issue more gaseous noise into the fog bank the information environment has become. They can’t get much traction (nor can I) considering how most of the affluent West thinks at the level of a TV sitcom. In addition, steps being considered to rein in the worst excesses of fake news would have corporations and traditional news media appointed as watchers and censors. Beyond any free speech objections, which are significant, expecting culprits to police themselves only awards them greater power to dominate, much like bailouts rewarded the banks. More fog, more lies, more levitation.

I watched John Pilger’s excellent documentary film The War You Don’t See (2010), which deals with perpetual and immoral wars, obfuscations of the governments prosecuting them, and the journalistic media’s failure to question effectively the lies and justifications that got us into war and keeps us there. The documentary reminded me of The Fog of War (2003), Robert McNamara’s rueful rethinking of his activities as Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (thus, the Vietnam War). Seems that lessons a normal, sane person might draw from experience at war fail to find their way into the minds of decision makers, who must somehow believe themselves to be masters of the universe with immense power at their disposal but are really just war criminals overseeing genocides. One telling detail from Pilger’s film is that civilian deaths (euphemistically retermed collateral damage in the Vietnam era) as a percentage of all deaths (including combatants) have increased from 10% (WWI) to 50% (WWII) to 70% (Vietnam) to 90% (Afghanistan and Iraq). That’s one of the reasons why I call them war criminals: we’re depopulating the theaters of war in which we operate.

After viewing the Pilger film, the person sitting next to me asked, “How do you know what he’s saying is true?” More fog. I’m ill-equipped to handle such direct epistemological challenge; it felt to me like a non sequitur. Ultimately, I was relieved to hear that the question was mere devil’s advocacy, but it’s related to the epistemological crisis I’ve blogged about before. Since the date of that blog post, the crisis has only worsened, which is what I expect as legitimate authority is undermined, expertise erodes, and the public sphere devolves into gamification and gotchas (or a series of ongoing cons). If late-stage capitalism has become a nest of corruption, the same is true — with unexpected rapidity — of the computer era and the Information Superhighway (a term no one uses anymore). One early expectation was that enhanced (24/7/365) access to information would yield impressive educational gains, as though the only thing missing were more information, but human nature being what it is, the first valuable innovations resulted from commercializing erotica and porn. Later debate and hand-wringing over the inaccuracy of Wikipedia and the slanted results of Google searches disappeared as everyone simply got used to not being able to trust those sources any too much, just as everyone got used to forfeiting their privacy online.

Today, everything coughed up in our media-saturated information environment is understood either with a grain of salt mountain of skepticism and held in abeyance until solid confirmation can be had (which often never comes) or simply run with because, well, what the hell? Journalists, the well-trained ones possessing integrity anyway, used to be in the first camp, but market forces and the near instantaneity of (faulty, spun) information, given how the Internet has lowered the bar to publication, have pushed journalists into the second camp. As Pilger notes, they have become echo chambers and amplifiers of the utterances of press agents of warmongering governments. Sure, fact checking still occurs, when it’s easy (such as on the campaign trail), but with war reporting in particular, which poses significant hurdles to information gathering, too many reporters simply repeat what they’re told or believe the staging they’re shown.

Stray links build up over time without my being able to handle them adequately, so I have for some time wanted a way of purging them. I am aware of other bloggers who curate and aggregate links with short commentaries quite well, but I have difficulty making my remarks pithy and punchy. That said, here are a few that I’m ready to purge in this first attempt to dispose of a few links from by backlog.

Skyfarm Fantasies

Futurists have offered myriad visions of technologies that have no hope of being implemented, from flying cars to 5-hour workweeks to space elevators. The newest pipe dream is the Urban Skyfarm, a roughly 30-story tree-like structure with 24 acres of space using solar panels and hydroponics to grow food close to the point of consumption. Utopian engineering such as this crops up frequently (pun intended) and may be fun to contemplate, but in the U.S. at least, we can’t even build high-speed rail, and that technology is already well established elsewhere. I suppose that’s why cities such as Seoul and Singapore, straining to make everything vertical for lack of horizontal space, are the logical test sites.

Leaving Nashville

The City of Nashville is using public funds to buy homeless people bus tickets to leave town and go be poor somewhere else. Media spin is that the city is “helping people in need,” but it’s obviously a NIMBY response to a social problem city officials and residents (not everyone, but enough) would rather not have to address more humanely. How long before cities begin completing with each other in numbers of people they can ship off to other cities? Call it the circle of life when the homeless start gaming the programs, revisiting multiple cities in an endless circuit.


Over at Rough Type, Nick Carr points to an article in The Nation entitled “Instagram and the Fantasy of of Mastery,” which argues that a variety of technologies now give “artists” the illusion of skill, merit, and vision by enabling work to be easily executed using prefab templates and stylistic filters. For instance, in pop music, the industry standard is to auto-tune everyone’s singing to hide imperfections. Carr’s summary probably is better than the article itself and shows us the logical endpoint of production art in various media undertaken without the difficult work necessary to develop true mastery.

Too Poor to Shop

The NY Post reported over the summer that many Americans are too poor to shop except for necessities. Here are the first two paragraphs:

Retailers have blamed the weather, slow job growth and millennials for their poor results this past year, but a new study claims that more than 20 percent of Americans are simply too poor to shop.

These 26 million Americans are juggling two to three jobs, earning just around $27,000 a year and supporting two to four children — and exist largely under the radar, according to America’s Research Group, which has been tracking consumer shopping trends since 1979.

Current population in the U.S. is around 325 million. Twenty percent of that number is 65 million; twenty-six million is 8 percent. Pretty basic math, but I guess NY Post is not to be trusted to report even simple things accurately. Maybe it’s 20% of U.S. households. I dunno and can’t be bothered to check. Either way, that’s a pretty damning statistic considering the U.S. stock market continues to set new all-time highs — an economic recovery not shared with average Americans. Indeed, here are a few additional newsbits and links stolen ruthlessly from

  • The number of Americans that are living in concentrated areas of high poverty has doubled since the year 2000.
  • In 2007, about one out of every eight children in America was on food stamps. Today, that number is one out of every five.
  • 46 million Americans use food banks each year, and lines start forming at some U.S. food banks as early as 6:30 in the morning because people want to get something before the food supplies run out.
  • The number of homeless children in the U.S. has increased by 60 percent over the past six years.
  • According to Poverty USA, 1.6 million American children slept in a homeless shelter or some other form of emergency housing last year.

For further context, theeconomiccollapseblog also points to “The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans” in The Atlantic, which reports, among other things, that fully 47% of Americans would struggle to scrape together a mere $400 in an emergency.

How do such folks respond to the national shopping frenzy kicking off in a few days with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Charitable Sunday, and Cyber Monday? I suggest everyone stay home.

Back in the day, I studied jazz improvisation. Like many endeavors, it takes dedication and continuous effort to develop the ear and learn to function effectively within the constraints of the genre. Most are familiar with the most simple form: the 12-bar blues. Whether more attuned to rhythm, harmony, lyrics, or structure doesn’t much matter; all elements work together to define the blues. As a novice improviser, structure is easy to grasp and lyrics don’t factor in (I’m an instrumentalist), but harmony and rhythm, simple though they may be to understand, are formidable when one is making up a solo on the spot. That’s improvisation. In class one day, after two passes through the chord changes, the instructor asked me how I thought I had done, and I blurted out that I was just trying to fill up the time. Other students heaved a huge sigh of recognition and relief: I had put my thumb on our shared anxiety. None of us were skilled enough yet to be fluent or to actually have something to say — the latter especially the mark of a skilled improvisor — but were merely trying to plug the whole when our turn came.

These days, weekends feel sorta the same way. On Friday night, the next two days often feel like a yawning chasm where I plan what I know from experience will be an improvisation, filling up the available time with shifting priorities, some combination of chores, duties, obligations, and entertainments (and unavoidable bodily functions such as eating, sleeping, etc.). Often enough I go back to work with stories to tell about enviable weekend exploits, but just I often have a nagging feeling that I’m still a novice with nothing much to say or contribute, just filling up the time with noise. And as I contemplate what years and decades may be left to me (if the world doesn’t crack up first), the question arises: what big projects would I like to accomplish before I’m done? That, too, seems an act of improvisation.

I suspect recent retirees face these dilemmas with great urgency until they relax and decide “who cares?” What is left to do, really, before one finally checks out? If careers are completed, children are raised, and most of life’s goals are accomplished, what remains besides an indulgent second childhood of light hedonism? Or more pointedly, what about one’s final years keeps it from feeling like quiet desperation or simply waiting for the Grim Reaper? What last improvisations and flourishes are worth undertaking? I have no answers to these questions. They don’t press upon me just yet with any significance, and I suffered no midlife crisis (so far) that would spur me to address the questions head on. But I can feel them gathering in the back of my mind like a shadow — especially with the specters of American-style fascism, financial and industrial collapse, and NTE looming.

The U.S. election has come and gone. Our long national nightmare is finally over; another one is set to begin after a brief hiatus. (I’m not talking about Decision 2020, though that spectre has already reared its ugly head.) Although many were completely surprised by the result of the presidential race in particular, having placed their trust in polls, statistical models, and punditry to project a winner (who then lost), my previous post should indicate that I’m not too surprised. Michael Moore did much better taking the temperature of the room (more accurately, the nation) than all the other pundits, and even if the result had differed, the underlying sentiments remain. It’s fair to say, I think, that people voted with their guts more than their heads, meaning they again voted their fears, hates, and above all, for revolution change. No matter that the change in store for us will very likely be destructive and against self-interest. Truth is, it would have had to end with destruction with any of the candidates on the ballot.

Given the result, my mind wandered to Hillary Clinton’s book It Takes a Village, probably because we, the citizens of the Unites States of America, have effectively elected the village idiot to the nation’s highest office. Slicing and dicing the voting tallies between the popular vote, electoral votes, and states and counties carried will no doubt be done to death. Paths to victory and defeat will be offered with the handsome benefit of hindsight. Little of that matters, really, when one considers lessons never learned despite ample opportunity. For me, the most basic lesson is that for any nation of people, leaders must serve the interests of the widest constituency, not those of a narrow class of oligarchs and plutocrats. Donald Trump addressed the people far more successfully than did Hillary Clinton (with her polished political doubletalk) and appealed directly to their interests, however base and misguided.

My previous post called Barstool Wisdom contained this apt quote from The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky:

The more stupid one is, the closer one is to reality. The more stupid one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence squirms and hides itself.

We have already seen that our president-elect has a knack for stating obvious truths no one else dares utter aloud. His clarity in that regard, though coarse, contrasts completely with Hillary’s squirmy evasions. Indeed, her high-handed approach to governance, more comfortable in the shadows, bears a remarkable resemblance to Richard Nixon, who also failed to convince the public that he was not a crook. My suspicion is that as Donald Trump gets better acquainted with statecraft, he will also learn obfuscation and secrecy. Some small measure of that is probably good, actually, though Americans are pining for greater transparency, one of the contemporary buzzwords thrown around recklessly by those with no real interest in it. My greater worry is that through sheer stupidity and bullheadedness, other obvious truths, such as commission of war crimes and limits of various sorts (ecological, energetic, financial, and psychological), will go unheeded. No amount of barstool wisdom can overcome those.

Predictions are fool’s errands. Useful ones, anyway. The future branches in so many possible directions that truly reliable predictions are banal, such as the sun will rise in the east, death, and taxes. (NTE is arguably another term for megadeath, but I gotta reinforce that prediction to keep my doomer bonafides.) Now only a few days prior to the general election finds me anxious that the presidential race is still too close to call. More than a few pundits say that Donald Trump could actually win. At the same time, a Hillary Clinton win gives me no added comfort, really. Moreover, potential squabbles over the outcome threaten to turn the streets into riot zones. I had rather expected such disruptions during or after the two nominating conventions, but they settled on their presumptive nominees without drama.

Polls are often predictive, of course, and despite their acknowledged margins of error, they typically forecast results with enough confidence that many voters don’t bother to vote, safe in the assumption that predicted results (an obvious oxymoron) make moot the need to actually cast one’s vote. (The West Coast must experience this phenomenon more egregiously than the East Coast, except perhaps for California’s rather large population and voting power. Has Hawaii ever mattered?) For that reason alone, I’d like to see a blackout on polling in the weeks leading up to an election (2–3 ought to do), including election day. This would allow us to avoid repeating the experience of the Chicago Daily Tribune publishing the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” back in 1948.

Analysis of voting patterns and results also dissuades voters from considering anything other than a strategic vote for someone able to actually win, as opposed to supporting worthy candidates polling far enough behind they don’t stand a chance of winning, thus reinforcing a two-party system no one really likes because it keeps delivering supremely lousy candidates. Jesse Ventura, having defied the polls and been elected to office as an independent, has been straightforward about his disdain for the notion that voting outside the two main parties is tantamount to throwing away one’s vote. A related meme is that by voting for independent Ralph Nader in 2000, the Democratic vote was effectively split, handing the win (extraordinarily close and contestable though it was) to George Bush. My thinking aligns with Jesse Ventura, not with those who view votes for Ralph Nader as betrayals.

If the presidential race is still too close for comfort, Michael Moore offers a thoughtful explanation how Trump could win:

This excerpt from Moore’s new film TrumpLand has been taken out of context by many pro-Trump ideologues. I admit the first time I saw it I was unsure whether Moore supports Trump. Additional remarks elsewhere indicate that he does not. The spooky thing is that as emotional appeals go, it’s clear that Trump connects with the people powerfully. But Moore is right about another thing: to vote for Trump is really a giant “fuck you” to the establishment, which won’t end well.