Archive for the ‘Debate’ Category

Be forewarned: this is long and self-indulgent. Kinda threw everything and the kitchen sink at it.

In the August 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Walter Kirn’s “Easy Chair” column called “Apocalypse Always” revealed his brief, boyhood fascination with dystopian fiction. This genre has been around for a very long time, to which the Cassandra myth attests. Kirn’s column is more concerned with “high mid-twentieth-century dystopian fiction,” which in his view is now classic and canonical, an entire generation of Baby Boomers having been educated in such patterned thought. A new wave of dystopian fiction appeared in the 1990s and yet another more recently in the form of Young Adult novels (and films) that arguably serve better as triumphal coming-of-age stories albeit under dystopian circumstances. Kirn observes a perennial theme present in the genre: the twins disappearances of freedom and information:

In the classic dystopias, which concern themselves with the lack of freedom and not with surplus freedom run amok (the current and unforeseen predicament of many), society is superbly well organized, resembling a kind of hive or factory. People are sorted, classified, and ranked, their individuality suppressed through goon squads, potent narcotics, or breeding programs. Quite often, they wear uniforms, and express themselves, or fail to, in ritual utterance and gestures.

Whether Americans in 2018 resemble hollowed-out zombies suffering under either boot-heel or soft-serve oppression is a good question. Some would argue just that in homage to classic dystopias. Kirn suggests briefly that we might instead suffer from runaway anarchy, where too much freedom and licentiousness have led instead to a chaotic and disorganized society populated by citizens who can neither govern nor restrain themselves.

Disappearance of information might be understood in at least three familiar aspects of narrative framing: what happened to get us to this point (past as exposition, sometimes only hinted at), what the hell? is going on (present as conflict and action), and how is gets fixed (future as resolution and denouement). Strict control over information exercised by classic dystopian despots doesn’t track to conditions under which we now find ourselves, where more disorganized, fraudulent, and degraded information than ever is available alongside small caches of wisdom and understanding buried somewhere in the heap and discoverable only with the benefit of critical thinking flatly lost on at least a couple generations of miseducated graduates. However, a coherent narrative of who and what we are and what realistic prospects the future may hold has not emerged since the stifling version of the 1950s nuclear family and middle class consumer contentment. Kirn makes this comparison directly, where classic dystopian fiction

focus[es] on bureaucracy, coercion, propaganda, and depersonalization, overstates both the prowess of the hierarchs and the submissiveness of the masses, whom it still thinks of as the masses. It does not contemplate Trump-style charlatanism at the top, or a narcissistic populace that prizes attention over privacy. The threats to individualism are paramount; the scourge of surplus individualism, with everyone playing his own dunce king and slurping up resources until he bursts, goes unexplored.

Kirn’s further observations are worth a look. Go read for yourself.

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Adding one, revising one. The added one is The Daily Impact, written by Tom Lewis, author of a couple books warning of the collapse of industrial civilization. Lewis appears to be a news junkie, so posts are often torn from the day’s headlines. He’s a good read and not afraid to be sardonically funny. The revised one is The Compulsive Explainer, written by Hal Smith. Blogs come and go, and I had thought that The Compulsive Explainer had stopped being updated last summer, but I see that the author merely switched from WordPress to Blogger without any indication. I suspect Smith isn’t much read (if commentary is a useful measure) but probably deserves to be, not least for his ex patriot perspective.

Because this entry is so slight, there is considerably more unrelated content beneath the fold. (more…)

The phrase fight or flight is often invoked to describe an instinctual response to threat to survival or wellbeing, especially physical attack. The response is typically accompanied by a rush of adrenaline that overwhelms the rational mind and renders preplanning moot. The phrase is among the most ubiquitous examples of a false binary: a limiting choice between two options. It’s false precisely because other options exist and further complicated by actual responses to threat arguably falling within more than one category. Other examples of false binaries include with/against us, Republican/Democrat, tradition/progress, and religious/secular. Some would include male/female, but that’s a can of worms these days, so I’d prefer to leave it alone. With respect to fight/flight, options might be better characterized as fight/flight/freeze/feign/fail, with acknowledgment that category boundaries are unclear. Let me characterize each in turn.

Fight. Aggressive types may default to fighting in response to provocation. With combat training, otherwise submissive types may become more confident and thus willing to fight. Of course, level of threat and likelihood of success and/or survival figure into when one decides to engage, even with snap judgments. Some situations also admit no other response: gotta fight.

Flight. When available, evading direct confrontation may be preferable to risking bodily harm. High threat level often makes flight a better strategy than fighting, meaning flight is not always a mark of cowardice. Flight is sometimes moot, as well. For instance, humans can’t outrun bears (or wolves, or dogs, pick your predator), so if one retains one’s wits in the face of a bear charge, another response might be better, though reason may have already departed the scene.

Freeze. Freezing in place might be one of two (or more) things: paralysis in the face of threat or psychological denial of what’s happening. Both are something to the effect, “this can’t possibly be happening, so I won’t even respond.” An event so far outside of normal human experience, such as a fast-moving natural disaster (e.g., a tsunami) or the slow-moving disaster of ecocide perpetrated by humans both fail to provoke active response.

Feign. Some animals are known to fake death or bluff a stronger ability to fight than is true. Feigning death, or playing possum, might work in some instances, such as mass shooting where perpetrators are trained on live targets. Facing a charging bear might just intimidate the bear enough to turn its attentions elsewhere. Probably doesn’t work at all with reptiles.

Fail. If the threat is plainly insurmountable, especially with natural disasters and animal attacks, one response may be to simply succumb without resistance. Victims of near-drowning often report being overtaken with bliss in the moment of acceptance. During periods of war and genocide, I suspect that many victims also recognized that, in those immortal words, resistance is futile. Giving up may be a better way to face death than experiencing desperation until one’s dying breath.

Bullying is one example of threat most are forced to confront in childhood, and responses are frequently based on the physical size of the bully vs. the one being bullied. Also, the severity of bullying may not be so dire that only instinctive responses are available; one can deploy a bit of strategy. Similarly, since it’s in the news these days, sexual assault, typically men against women (but not always — Catholic priest pederasts are the obvious counterexample), the response of a surprising number of women is to succumb rather than face what might be even worse outcomes. One can debate whether that is freezing, feigning, or failing. Doesn’t have to be only one.

Twice in the last month I stumbled across David Benatar, an anti-natalist philosopher, first in a podcast with Sam Harris and again in a profile of him in The New Yorker. Benatar is certainly an interesting fellow, and I suspect earnest in his beliefs and academic work, but I couldn’t avoid shrugging as he gets caught in the sort of logical traps that plague hyperintellectual folks. (Sam Harris is prone to the same problem.) The anti-natalist philosophy in a nutshell is finding, after tallying the pros and cons of living (sometimes understood as happiness or enjoyment versus suffering), that on balance, it would probably be better never to have lived. Benatar doesn’t apply the finding retroactively by suggesting folks end their lives sooner rather than later, but he does recommend that new life should not be brought into the world — an interdiction almost no parent would consider for more than a moment.

The idea that we are born against our will, never asked whether we wanted life in the first place, is an obvious conundrum but treated as a legitimate line of inquiry in Benatar’s philosophy. The kid who throws the taunt “I never asked to be born!” to a parent in the midst of an argument might score an emotional hit, but there is no logic to the assertion. Language is full of logic traps like this, such as “an infinity of infinities” (or multiverse), “what came before the beginning?” or “what happens after the end?” Most know to disregard the former, but entire religions are based on seeking the path to the (good) afterlife as if conjuring such a proposition manifests it in reality. (more…)

This Savage Love column got my attention. As with Dear Abby, Ask Marylin, or indeed any advice column, I surmise that questions are edited for publication. Still, a couple minor usage errors attracted my eye, which I can let go without further chastising comment. More importantly, question and answer both employ a type of Newspeak commonplace among those attuned to identity politics. Those of us not struggling with identity issues may be less conversant with this specialized language, or it could be a generational thing. Coded speech is not unusual within specialized fields of endeavor. My fascination with nomenclature and neologisms makes me pay attention, though I’m not typically an adopter of hip new coin.

The Q part of Q&A never actually asks a question but provides context to suggest or extrapolate one, namely, “please advise me on my neuro-atypicality.” (I made up that word.) While the Q acknowledges that folks on the autism spectrum are not neurotypical, the word disability is put in quotes (variously, scare quotes, air quotes, or irony quotes), meaning that it is not or should not be considered a real or true disability. Yet the woman acknowledges her own difficulty with social signaling. The A part of Q&A notes a marked sensitivity to social justice among those on the spectrum, acknowledges a correlation with nonstandard gender identity (or is it sexual orientation?), and includes a jibe that standard advice is to mimic neurotypical behaviors, which “tend to be tediously heteronormative and drearily vanilla-centric.” The terms tediously, drearily , and vanilla push unsubtly toward normalization and acceptance of kink and aberrance, as does Savage Love in general. I wrote about this general phenomenon in a post called “Trans is the New Chic.”

Whereas I have no hesitation to express disapproval of shitty people, shitty things, and shitty ideas, I am happy to accept many mere differences as not caring two shits either way. This question asks about something fundamental human behavior: sexual expression. Everyone needs an outlet, and outliers (atypicals, nonnormatives, kinksters, transgressors, etc.) undoubtedly have more trouble than normal folks. Unless living under a rock, you’ve no doubt heard and/or read theories from various quarters that character distortion often stems from sexual repression or lack of sexual access, which describes a large number of societies historical and contemporary. Some would include the 21st-century U.S. in that category, but I disagree. Sure, we have puritanical roots, recent moral panic over sexual buffoonery and crimes, and a less healthy sexual outlook than, say, European cultures, but we’re also suffused in licentiousness, Internet pornography, and everyday seductions served up in the media via advertising, R-rated cinema, and TV-MA content. It’s a decidedly mixed bag.

Armed with a lay appreciation of sociology, I can’t help but to observe that humans are a social species with hierarchies and norms, not as rigid or prescribed perhaps as with insect species, but nonetheless possessing powerful drives toward consensus, cooperation, and categorization. Throwing open the floodgates to wide acceptance of aberrant, niche behaviors strikes me as swimming decidedly upstream in a society populated by a sizable minority of conservatives mightily offended by anything falling outside the heteronormative mainstream. I’m not advocating either way but merely observing the central conflict.

All this said, the thing that has me wondering is whether autism isn’t itself an adaptation to information overload commencing roughly with the rise of mass media in the early 20th century. If one expects that the human mind is primarily an information processor and the only direction is to process ever more information faster and more accurately than in the past, well, I have some bad news: we’re getting worse at it, not better. So while autism might appear to be maladaptive, filtering out useless excess information might unintuitively prove to be adaptive, especially considering the disposition toward analytical, instrumental thinking exhibited by those on the spectrum. How much this style of mind is valued in today’s world is an open question. I also don’t have an answer to the nature/nurture aspect of the issue, which is whether the adaptation/maladaptation is more cultural or biological. I can only observe that it’s on the rise, or at least being recognized and diagnosed more frequently.

I watched a documentary on Netflix called Jim & Andy (2017) that provides a glimpse behind the scenes of the making of Man on the Moon (1999) where Jim Carrey portrays Andy Kaufman. It’s a familiar story of art imitating life (or is it life imitating art?) as Carrey goes method and essentially channels Kaufman and Kaufman’s alter ego Tony Clifton. A whole gaggle of actors played earlier incarnations of themselves in Man on the Moon and appeared as themselves (without artifice) in Jim & Andy, adding another weird dimension to the goings on. Actors losing themselves in roles and undermining their sense of self is hardly novel. Regular people lose themselves in their jobs, hobbies, media hype, glare of celebrity, etc. all the time. From an only slightly broader perspective, we’re all merely actors playing roles, shifting subtly or dramatically based on context. Shakespeare observed it centuries ago. However, the documentary points to a deeper sense of unreality precisely because Kaufman’s principal shtick was to push discomfiting jokes/performances beyond the breaking point, never dropping the act to let his audience in on the joke or provide closure. It’s a manifestation of what I call the Disorientation Protocol.

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As time wears on and I add years to this mostly ignored blog, I keep running across ideas expressed herein, sometimes long ago, recapitulated in remarks and comments elsewhere. Absolutely disparate people can develop the same ideas independently, so I’m not claiming that my ideas are stolen. Maybe I’m merely in touch with the Zeitgeist and express it here only then to see or hear it again someplace else. I can’t judge objectively.

The latest coincidence is the growing dread with which I wake up every day, wondering what fresh new hell awaits with the morning news. The times in which we live are both an extension of our received culture and yet unprecedented in their novelty. Not only are there many more people in existence than 100 years ago and thus radical opinions and events occurring with extraordinary frequency, the speed of transmission is also faster than in the past. Indeed, the rush to publication has many news organs reporting before any solid information is available. The first instance of blanket crisis coverage I remember was the Challenger Disaster in 1986. It’s unknown to me how quickly news of various U.S. political assassinations in the 1960s spread, but I suspect reporting took more time than today and imparted to those events gravity and composure. Today is more like a renewed Wild West where anything goes, which has been the preferred characterization of the Internet since its creation. We’ll see if the recent vote to remove Net Neutrality has the effect of restraining things. I suspect that particular move is more about a money grab (selling premium open access vs. basic limited access) than thought control, but I can only guess as to true motivations.

I happened to be traveling when the news broke of a mass shooting in Las Vegas. Happily, what news I got was delayed until actual news-gathering had already sorted basic fact from confabulation. Paradoxically, after the first wave of “what the hell just happened?” there formed a second wave of “here’s what happened,” and later a third wave of “what the hell really happened?” appeared as some rather creative interpretations were offered up for consideration. That third wave is by now quite familiar to everyone as the conspiracy wave, and surfing it feels inevitable because the second wave is often so starkly unbelievable. Various websites and shows such as snopes.com, metabunk.org, MythBusters, and Penn & Teller: Bullshit! (probably others, too) presume to settle debates. While I’m inclined to believe scientific and documentary evidence, mere argument often fails to convince me, which is troubling, to say the least.

Fending off all the mis- and disinformation, or separating signal from noise, is a full-time job if one is willing to undertake it. That used to be the mandate of the journalistic news media, at least in principle. Lots of failures on that account stack up throughout history. However, since we’re in the midst of a cultural phase dominated by competing claims to authority and the public’s retreat into ideation, the substitute worlds of extended and virtual reality become attractive alternatives to the fresh new hell we now face every morning. Tune in and check in might be what we think we’re doing, but more accurately, we tune out and check out of responsible engagement with the real world. That’s the domain of incessantly chipper morning TV shows. Moreover, we like to believe in the mythical stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, such as, for example, how privacy doesn’t matter, or that the U.S. is a free, democratic, liberal beacon of hope, or that economic value inheres in made-up currencies. It’s a battle for your attention and subscription in the marketplace of ideas. Caveat emptor.

What is more tantalizing and enticing than a secret? OK, probably sex appeal, but never mind that for now. Secrets confer status on the keeper and bring those on whom the secret is bestowed into an intimate (nonsexual, for you dirty thinkers) relationship with the secret sharer. I remember the sense of relief and quiet exhilaration when the Santa Claus story was finally admitted by my parents to be a hoax untrue. I had already ceased to really believe in it/him but wasn’t yet secure enough as a 6- or 7-year-old (or whenever it was) to assert it without my parents’ confirmation. And it was a secret I withheld from my younger siblings, perhaps my first instruction on when lying was acceptable, even looked upon approvingly. Similarly, I remember how it felt to be told about sex for the first time by older kids (now you can go there, you cretins) and thus realize that my parents (and everyone else’s) had done the dirty — multiple times even for families with more than one kid. I was the possessor of secret knowledge, and everyone figured out quickly that it was best to be discreet about it. It may have been the first open secret. Powerful stuff, as we were to learn later in our hormone-addled adolescence. In early adulthood, I also began to assert my atheism, which isn’t really a secret but still took time to root fully. From my mature perspective, others who believe in one sky-god or another look like the kids who at a tender age still believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I don’t go out of my way to dispel anyone’s faith.

Even as adults, those of us who enjoy secret knowledge feel a bit of exhilaration. We know what goes on (a little or a lot) behind the scenes, behind the curtain, in the backrooms and dark places. It may also mean that we know how the proverbial sausage is made, which is far less special. National security clearance, operating at many levels of access, may be the most obvious example, or maybe it’s just being a bug on the wall in the dugout or locker room during a pro sports contest. Being within the circle of intimates is intoxicating, though the circumstances that gets one into the circle may be rather mundane, and those on the outside may look oddly pathetic.

The psychology behind secret knowledge functions prominently with conspiracy theories. Whether the subject is political assassinations, Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, the moon landings, Area 51 and alien abduction, chemtrails/contrails, or 9/11, one’s personal belief and pet theory inescapably confers special status, especially as unacknowledged or unaccepted truth. Often, as others seek to set the record straight, one digs in to defend cherished beliefs. It’s an elixir,  a dangerous cycle that traps people in contrafactual cliques. So we have flat Earthers, birthers, 9/11 truthers, creationists, climate change deniers, etc. (I count myself among one of those groups, BTW. Figure it out for yourself.) The range of interpretations floated in the political realm with respect to the machinations of the two parties and the White House boggle my mind with possibilities. However, I’m squarely outside those circles and feel no compulsion to decide what I believe when someone asserts secret knowledge from inside the circle. I float comfortably above the fray. Similarly, with so much fake news pressing for my attention, I consciously hold quite a lot of it in abeyance until time sorts it out for me.

Here’s the last interesting bit I am lifting from Anthony Gidden’s The Consequences of Modernity. Then I will be done with this particular book-blogging project. As part of Gidden’s discussion of the risk profile of modernity, he characterizes risk as either objective or perceived and further divides in into seven categories:

  1. globalization of risk (intensity)
  2. globalization of risk (frequency)
  3. environmental risk
  4. institutionalized risk
  5. knowledge gaps and uncertainty
  6. collective or shared risk
  7. limitations of expertise

Some overlap exists, and I will not distinguish them further. The first two are of primary significance today for obvious reasons. Although the specter of doomsday resulting from a nuclear exchange has been present since the 1950s, Giddens (writing in 1988) provides this snapshot of today’s issues:

The sheer number of serious risks in respect of socialised nature is quite daunting: radiation from major accidents at nuclear power-stations or from nuclear waste; chemical pollution of the seas sufficient to destroy the phytoplankton that renews much of the oxygen in the atmosphere; a “greenhouse effect” deriving from atmospheric pollutants which attack the ozone layer, melting part of the ice caps and flooding vast areas; the destruction of large areas of rain forest which are a basic source of renewable oxygen; and the exhaustion of millions of acres of topsoil as a result of widespread use of artificial fertilisers. [p. 127]

As I often point out, these dangers were known 30–40 years ago (in truth, much longer), but they have only worsened with time through political inaction and/or social inertia. After I began to investigate and better understand the issues roughly a decade ago, I came to the conclusion that the window of opportunity to address these risks and their delayed effects had already closed. In short, we’re doomed and living on borrowed time as the inevitable consequences of our actions slowly but steadily manifest in the world.

So here’s the really interesting part. The modern worldview bestows confidence borne out of expanding mastery of the built environment, where risk is managed and reduced through expert systems. Mechanical and engineering knowledge figure prominently and support a cause-and-effect mentality that has grown ubiquitous in the computing era, with its push-button inputs and outputs. However, the high modern outlook is marred by overconfidence in our competence to avoid disaster, often of our own making. Consider the abject failure of 20th-century institutions to handle geopolitical conflict without devolving into world war and multiple genocides. Or witness periodic crashes of financial markets, two major nuclear accidents, and numerous space shuttles and rockets destroyed. Though all entail risk, high-profile failures showcase our overconfidence. Right now, engineers (software and hardware) are confident they can deliver safe self-driving vehicles yet are blithely ignoring (says me, maybe not) major ethical dilemmas regarding liability and technological unemployment. Those are apparently problems for someone else to solve.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve barrelled headlong into one sort of risk after another, some recognized at the time, others only apparent after the fact. Nuclear weapons are the best example, but many others exist. The one I raise frequently is the live social experiment undertaken with each new communications technology (radio, cinema, telephone, television, computer, social networks) that upsets and destabilizes social dynamics. The current ruckus fomented by the radical left (especially in the academy but now infecting other environments) regarding silencing of free speech (thus, thought policing) is arguably one concomitant.

According to Giddens, the character of modern risk contrasts with that of the premodern. The scale of risk prior to the 17th century was contained and expectation of social continuity was strong. Risk was also transmuted through magical thinking (superstition, religion, ignorance, wishfulness) into providential fortuna or mere bad luck, which led to feelings of relative security rather than despair. Modern risk has now grown so widespread, consequential, and soul-destroying, situated at considerable remove leading to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, that those not numbed by the litany of potential worries afflicting daily life (existential angst or ontological insecurity) often develop depression and other psychological compulsions and disturbances. Most of us, if aware of globalized risk, set it aside so that we can function and move forward in life. Giddens says that this conjures up anew a sense of fortuna, that our fate is no longer within our control. This

relieves the individual of the burden of engagement with an existential situation which might otherwise be chronically disturbing. Fate, a feeling that things will take their own course anyway, thus reappears at the core of a world which is supposedly taking rational control of its own affairs. Moreover, this surely exacts a price on the level of the unconscious, since it essentially presumes the repression of anxiety. The sense of dread which is the antithesis of basic trust is likely to infuse unconscious sentiments about the uncertainties faced by humanity as a whole. [p. 133]

In effect, the nature of risk has come full circle (completed a revolution, thus, revolutionized risk) from fate to confidence in expert control and back to fate. Of course, a flexibility of perspective is typical as situation demands — it’s not all or nothing — but the overarching character is clear. Giddens also provides this quote by Susan Sontag that captures what he calls the low-probability, high-consequence character of modern risk:

A permanent modern scenario: apocalypse looms — and it doesn’t occur. And still it looms … Apocalypse is now a long-running serial: not ‘Apocalypse Now,’ but ‘Apocalypse from now on.’ [p. 134]

I’m a little gobsmacked that, in the aftermath of someone finally calling out the open secret of the Hollywood casting couch (don’t know, don’t care how this news cycle started) and netting Harvey Weinstein in the process, so many well-known actors have added their “Me, too!” to the growing scandal. Where were all these sheep before now? As with Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton, what good does it do to allow a serial abuser to continue unchallenged until years, decades later a critical mass finally boils over? I have no special knowledge or expertise in this area, so what follows is the equivalent of a thought experiment.

Though the outlines of the power imbalance between a Hollywood executive and an actor seeking a role (or other industry worker seeking employment) are pretty clear, creating a rich opportunity for the possessor of such power to act like a creep or a criminal, the specific details are still a little shrouded — at least in my limited consumption of the scandal press. How much of Weinstein’s behavior veers over the line from poor taste to criminality is a difficult question precisely because lots of pictorial evidence exists showing relatively powerless people playing along. It’s a very old dynamic, and its quasi-transactional nature should be obvious.

In my idealized, principled view, if one has been transgressed, the proper response is not to slink away or hold one’s tongue until enough others are similarly transgressed to spring into action. The powerless are duty bound to assert their own power — the truth — much like a whistleblower feels compelled to disclose corruptions of government and corporate sectors. Admittedly, that’s likely to compound the initial transgression and come at some personal cost, great or small. But for some of us (a small percentage, I reckon), living with ourselves in silent assent presents an even worse option. By way of analogy, if one were molested by a sketchy uncle and said nothing, I can understand just wanting to move on. But if one said nothing yet knew the sketchy uncle had more kids lined up in the extended family to transgress, then stepping up to protect the younger and weaker would be an absolute must.

In the past few decades, clergy of the Catholic Church sexually abused many young people and deployed an institutional conspiracy to hide the behaviors and protect the transgressors. Exposure should have broken trust bonds between the church and the faithful and invalidated the institution as an abject failure. Didn’t quite work out that way. Similar scandals and corruption across a huge swath of institutions (e.g., corporate, governmental, military, educational, entertainment, and sports entities) have been appearing in public view regularly, yet as a culture, we tolerate more creeps and criminals than we shame or prosecute. (TomDispatch.com is one of the sites that regularly reports these corruptions with respect to American empire; I can scarcely bear to read it sometimes.) I suspect part of that is a legitimate desire for continuity, to avoid burning down the house with everyone in it. That places just about everyone squarely within the “Me, too!” collective. Maybe I shouldn’t be so gobsmacked after all.

Caveat: This thought experiment definitely comes from a male perspective. I recognize that females view these issues quite differently, typically in consideration of far greater vulnerability than males experience (excepting the young boys in the Catholic Church example).