Archive for July, 2021

“Language is dynamic” is a phrase invoked in praise or derision of shifts in usage. Corollaries include “the only constant is change” and “time’s arrow points in only one direction” — both signalling that stasis is an invalid and ultimately futile conservative value. The flip side might well be the myth of progress, understood in reference not to technological advancement but human nature’s failure to rise above its base (animal) origins. This failure is especially grotesque considering that humans currently albeit temporarily live in an age of material abundance that would provide amply for everyone if that largesse were justly and equitably produced and distributed. However, resources (including labor) are being systematically exploited, diverted, and hoarded by a small, unethical elite (what some call “alpha chimps”) who often use state power to subjugate vulnerable populations to funnel further tribute to the already obscenely wealthy top of the socioeconomic hierarchy. But that’s a different diatribe.

Although I’m sensitive the dynamism of language — especially terms for broad ideas in need of short, snappy neologisms — I’m resistant to adopting most new coin. For instance, multiple colors of pill (red, blue, white, and black to my knowledge) refer to certain narrative complexes that people, in effect, swallow. Similarly, the “blue church” is used to refer to legacy media struggling desperately (and failing) to retain its last shreds of legitimacy and authority. (Dignity is long gone.) Does language really need these terms or are hipsters just being clever? That question probably lacks a definitive answer.

My real interest with this blog post, however, is how the modern digital mediascape has given rise to a curious phenomenon associated with cancel culture: deletion of tweets and social media posts to scrub one’s past of impropriety as though the tweet or post never happened. (I’ve never deleted a post nor have any plans to.) Silicon Valley hegemons can’t resist getting their piece of the action, too, by applying deeply flawed algorithms to everyone’s content to demonetize, restrict, and/or remove (i.e., censor) offensive opinion that runs counter to (shifting) consensus narratives decided upon in their sole discretion as water carriers for officialdom. Algorithmic dragnets are not effective kludges precisely because thoughts are not synonymous with their online expression; one merely points to the other. Used to be said that the Internet is forever, so wait before posting or tweeting a reasonable duration so that irresponsible behavior (opinion and trolling, mostly) can be tempered. Who knows who possesses technical expertise and access to tweet and video archives other than, say, the Wayback Machine? When a public figure says or does something dumb, a search-and-destroy mission is often launched to resurrect offending and damning past utterance. Of course, scrub-a-dub erasure or deletion is merely another attempt to manage narrative and isn’t a plea for forgiveness, which doesn’t exist in the public sphere anyway except for rehabilitated monsters such as past U.S. presidents a/k/a war criminals. And the Internet isn’t in fact forever; ask an archivist.

Shifting language, shifting records, shifting sentiment, shifting intellectual history are all aspects of culture that develop naturally and inevitably over time. We no longer believe, for instance, in the four elements or geocentrism (a/k/a the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system; never mind the intransigent Flat Earthers who need not be silenced). Darker aspects of these shifts, however, include the remarkable Orwellian insight that “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” from the 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Here’s the passage for context:

Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past … The mutability of the past is the central tenet of Ingsoc. Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.

In 2021, the awful lesson is taken to heart by multiple parties (not the Party in the novel but wannabes) who have latched maniacally onto Orwellian mechanisms of thought control specifically through the manipulation of records, history, and language. But as mentioned above, policing mere expression is not the same as policing thought itself, at least among those who retain critical thinking skills and independence of mind. I abstain judgment how effective attempted brainwashing is with the masses but will at least mention that Yeonmi Park, who escaped from North Korea in 2007 before settling in the U.S. in 2014, describes the chilling totalitarian thought control exercised by the North Korean government — the stuff of nightmare dystopianism. The template is by now well established and despots everywhere are only too happy to implement it repeatedly, following an evil trajectory that should be resisted at every turn while still possible.

Among those building fame and influence via podcasting on YouTube is Michael Malice. Malice is a journalist (for what organization?) and the author of several books, so he has better preparation and content than many who (like me) offer only loose opinion. He latest book (no link) is The Anarchist Handbook (2021), which appears to be a collection of essays (written by others, curated by Malice) arguing in theoretical support of anarchism (not to be confused with chaos). I say theoretical because, as a hypersocial species of animal, humans never live in significant numbers without forming tribes and societies for the mutual benefit of their members. Malice has been making the rounds discussing his book and is undoubtedly an interesting fellow with well rehearsed arguments. Relatedly, he argues in favor of objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand that has been roundly criticized and dismissed yet continues to be attractive especially to purportedly self-made men and women (especially duped celebrities) of significant wealth and achievement.

Thus far in life, I’ve disdained reading Rand or getting too well acquainted with arguments in favor of anarchism and/or objectivism. As an armchair social critic, my bias skews toward understanding how things work (i.e., Nassim Taleb’s power laws) in actuality rather than in some crackpot theory. As I understand it, the basic argument put forward to support any variety of radical individualism is that everyone working in his or her own rational self-interest, unencumbered by the mores and restrictions of polite society, leads to the greatest (potential?) happiness and prosperity. Self-interest is not equivalent to selfishness, but even if it were, the theorized result would still be better than any alternative. A similar argument is made with respect to economics, known as the invisible hand. In both, hidden forces (often digital or natural algorithms), left alone to perform their work, enhance conditions over time. Natural selection is one such hidden force now better understood as a component of evolutionary theory. (The term theory when used in connection with evolution is an anachronism and misnomer, as the former theory has been scientifically substantiated as a power law.) One could argue as well that human society is a self-organizing entity (disastrously so upon even casual inspection) and that, because of the structure of modernity, we are all situated within a thoroughly social context. Accordingly, the notion that one can or should go it alone is a delusion because it’s flatly impossible to escape the social surround, even in aboriginal cultures, unless one is totally isolated from other humans in what little remains of the wilderness. Of course, those few hardy individuals who retreat into isolation typically bring with them the skills, training, tools, and artifacts of society. A better example might be feral children, lost in the wilderness at an early age and deprived of human society but often taken in by a nonhuman animal (and thus socialized differently).

My preferred metaphor when someone insists on total freedom and isolation away from the maddening crowd is traffic — usually automobile traffic but foot traffic as well. Both are examples of aggregate flow arising out of individual activity, like drops of rain forming into streams, rivers, and floods. When stuck in automobile congestion or jostling for position in foot traffic, it’s worthwhile to remember that you are the traffic, a useful example of synecdoche. Those who buck the flow, cut the line, or drive along the shoulder — often just to be stuck again a little farther ahead — are essentially practicing anarchists or me-firsters, whom the rest of us simply regard as assholes. Cultures differ with respect to the orderliness of queuing, but even in those places where flow is irregular and unpredictable, a high level of coordination (lost on many American drivers who can’t figger a roundabout a/k/a traffic circle) is nonetheless evident.

As I understand it, Malice equates cooperation with tyranny because people defer to competence, which leads to hierarchy, which results in power differentials, which transforms into tyranny (petty or profound). (Sorry, can’t locate the precise formulation.) Obvious benefits (e.g., self-preservation) arising out of mutual coordination (aggregation) such as in traffic flows are obfuscated by theory distilled into nicely constructed quotes. Here’s the interesting thing: Malice has lived in Brooklyn most of his life and doesn’t know how to drive! Negotiating foot traffic has a far lower threshold for serious harm than driving. He reports that relocation to Austin, TX, is imminent, and with it, the purchase of a vehicle. My suspicion is that to stay out of harm’s way, Malice will learn quickly to obey tyrannical traffic laws, cooperate with other drivers, and perhaps even resent the growing number of dangerous assholes disrupting orderly flow like the rest of us — at least until he develops enough skill and confidence to become one of those assholes. The lesson not yet learned from Malice’s overactive theoretical perspective is that in a crowded, potentially dangerous world, others must be taken into account. Repetition of this kindergarten lesson throughout human activity may not be the most pleasant thing for bullies and assholes to accept, but refusing to do so makes one a sociopath.