Wednesday, March 31, 2010


In this Bloggingheads episode, Dave Weigel refers to Eric Cantor's spokesperson as a vizier. (Also, it seems to me that Jim Pinkerton takes a special thrill in saying "Piss Christ," but I could be projecting.) A vizier is like a Persian or Turkish consigliere.

Here's my question: what is the deal with viziers? I don't mean metaphorical viziers like Eric Cantor's spokesperson, although I suppose he could secretly really be a vizier. I mean viziers in art and such. Are they always evil? If they are evil as often as they are portrayed, wouldn't you eventually stop having them? "You know, now that I'm sultan, I'm just going to abolish the position of vizier, because every vizier before has been evil, trying to kill the sultan and marry his daughter and such." Seems logical to me. The daughter marrying seems like a constant, too. I guess getting princesses is why you get into the vizier business in the first place. The first vizier I ever encountered was actually from the original PC game Prince of Persia. (Let me throw my complete support behind the original, Luke Skywalker formless white sack outfit for the prince, by the way.) That dude was bad. Then of course I saw Aladdin and my view of viziers was confirmed.

Also: all viziers are named Jaffar. The PoP one is, the Aladdin one is, the one from The Thief of Baghdad is. Although apparently there's a movie called The Thief and the Cobbler and it has an (evil) vizier named ZigZag, which is pretty strange. Here's my question: if you had to pick someone to rescue a princess from a vizier, would you go with Jake Gyllenhaal? Me neither.

Also: Jake Gyllenhaal-- not Persian.

finally banned at Jezebel!

I was really asking for it, this time. I've added a widget on the sidebar to help you keep track!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

since I am apparently incapable of human communication...

So I'll tell you a story.

A long while back, when I was still at the League, I sent a query in to Conor Friedersdorf for his brief "Ask Conor" (or whatever) blogging advice column. In my query, which I wrote in a certain stylized way, I pointed out my frustration with never having earned the coveted Matt Yglesias link, Yglesias being my favorite blogger. Conor ran it, I thought my email and his response were both pretty funny, and then Yglesias linked. Which made me happy: I enjoy blogs and blogging, and it was cool to see that.

Now, the response in the comments of his blog, the post he linked to and the post Conor made all depressed me a bit, because the most common response was to mock me for making my various status anxieties and the fact of my fandom public. "Ho ho ho, I think Freddie was showing his insecurity!" And, you know, to a degree I was. What I couldn't and can't understand was why the commenters were incapable of seeing that, of course, the whole episode was going to make me look a little silly, and that there was no way I could have failed to predict that fact ahead of time. Making just a little statement about the various status anxieties, hierarchies and strange open/closed systems of blogging was part of the point. I thought that the obviousness of that would show people that I wasn't unaware of those things, so that perhaps they might take part of my point about it.

Anyway, that is all antecedent to say that the point of the vlog was actually to show that I am fine, but to do so in a way that makes you understand that "being fine" is a process. Look I'm not turning on the oven over an argument about philosophy on a blog, and-- you know-- I wouldn't have weighed in at all if I wasn't interested in or capable of dealing with argument. And, yeah, look I was a leetle upset about the number and tenor of comments that the post got, but hey. I'm a big boy. What I want to make plain is that it is at times I care a lot about the criticism, at times I don't; at times I feel strongly that I've been misinterpreted, and at times I don't; at times I am emotionally invested with it, and at times I'm not; and I don't see much particular value in acting like I have some sort of unified front about it all.

Look the point is just that there are some very consistent and perpetually strange ways in which bloggers at once reveal themselves to their readers and at the same time restrict what is revealed. I wouldn't have it any other way, of course, in the basic "now you see me, now you don't" quality of blogging. You certainly won't ever read about my social life in this space, nor do I want you all to know exactly what I spend my days doing. What does sadden me is what people choose not to reveal the parts that are most valuable to me: ideas as process; shifting attitudes towards ones ideas and work; the process of feeling upset about negative reaction and then gradually developing a more useful response to it; being grouchy; being thoughtful; acting out; gradually accepting your own limitations. See to me that's where there is the possibility for the limited but transformative power of the Internet.

Instead what I mostly see are people trying to sell themselves as some unified Platonic whole of opinions, acting professionally and refusing vulnerability. Now I know why people would do that, and I particularly understand it for people like Yglesias or Ezra Klein, who are at once people and brands in the weird way of the Internet. It's just that to me, the real value is in demonstrating the human process of idea generation, value acquisition and staking opinions. Showing people the gears, to me, is at once more intimate and more useful than saying, "I'm taking sweetums out to the clam shack tonight so blogging will be light."

I just don't think the human experience, for most of us, is a matter of walking around as a discrete whole of well developed and carefully weighed opinions, but rather an always swirling mix of cognition and emotion that changes from moment to moment. At times I contradict myself. I try not to, but I also try to remember that part of the reason for contradicting myself is that I am a process, and that process is influenced by everything in my intellectual environment-- including, most certainly, all of you.

To me that's the value, to show people the endless process of revision that, I think, is the reality of being human. Far better to show that than to try to sell myself as a discrete, ordered and uncomplicated collection of carefully balanced and presented opinions. That's been all my gamble. It seems, though, that a lot of people really don't like it, so maybe I should reconsider.

Anyway: as for my mood, never fear. I get upset about things, I act out a bit, I get over it, and I will show you all of it.

this recent business

Little Respone Vlog from Freddie deBoer on Vimeo.

You should read Julian Sanchez here, and Will Wilkinson here, and Will Wilson here. If you know of others, email or comment and I'll update.

Monday, March 29, 2010

commenter reading comprehension corrective

The collective reading comprehension of the Internet is as sharp as ever, and so I am writing a reply to some of my tired and predictable critics in the comments of my recent post on skepticism.

The most repeated and yet least defensible claim is the hoary old argument towards self-refutation. This trope is evergreen, it appears. Many commenters are taking the tack, "you are saying with certainty that you can't have certainty!" or "you are saying without doubt that we must always have doubt!" or some such. I really have a hard time knowing how to address this failure of reading comprehension: I defy anyone, really, to find a single statement in that post that is expressed in a way that declares itself certain, lacking doubt, atemporal, non-contingent or objective. Take your time; I'll wait. I don't think you're going to find anything. I am quite disciplined on this subject; I've done this dance before. To the point of distraction, I point out the contingent and subjective nature of my own claims, but I have to, because even having done so, you get this same old insistence that I am being certain about uncertainty. I'm not. Please, if it really is unclear from all of the verbiage that I expended on this issue: there is no position or idea that I expressed within that post that I intended as objective, certain, indubitable, atemporal, or non-contingent.

That I was so careful on that score, but that people still launched into the boring old self-refutation gambit again-- and it is boring; despite the fact that so many commenters insist on thinking that they have cracked some kind of code, it is literally ancient, Plato having made a version of it-- I think that reveals a tendency I see more and more on the Internet: there is a large crowd of readers and commenters who read entirely through a kind of reverse shorthand, where they take any post that vaguely resembles a post they've read somewhere else, and respond to it as though it were that earlier post. So John Q. Commenter says, "Aha! I remember someone once say, 'I am certain there is no such thing as certainty,' and boy didn't I give it to that guy in the comments! To the Batmobile!" Well, I'm sorry folks, but you've got to work a little harder than that. Saying over and over that I was expressing certainty doesn't change the fact that I intended no such thing.

Now, if you'd care to read a book or two, you could see that the self-refutation charge has been discussed at length and considered before. Suppose I hadn't been as scrupulous as I was in avoiding making certain or objective truth claims in my post questioning the pragmatic value of truth claims. Suppose I had said the descriptive phrase, "there are no certain truth claims," or the prescriptive phrase, "we should proceed as though we know nothing for certain." This is the sort of thing that those who want to enforce strong truth claim visions of human knowledge jump all over. But are they really self-contradicting? Only if you assume exactly the vision of truth that I am denying. If you assume that the statement "metanarratives are untrue" means "it is objectively and non-contingently true that strong truth claims are untrue," then yes, that would be self-contradicting; but assuming that is to beg the question. To talk as though it is always the case that descriptive or prescriptive language makes appeals to objective truth is to assume exactly the vision of truth that I am telling you I don't assume. If I said, "metanarratives are untrue," I would mean "from my subjective standpoint, I find it useful not to take metanarratives as transcendentally true." And in the context of that post, you should be able to figure that out; after all, I was busy telling you that this was how I look at truth claims.

If you do some reading-- I've recommended Barbara Herrnstein Smith's Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy in this space before-- you'll find many responses to the self-refutation charge, much better argued than mine. Most or all point out the above, that these claims are ultimately usually tautological or question begging, because they are internally consistent only if one assumes the vision of objective knowledge that is being rejected by the claims that are called self-refuting. People have pointed that out for a long time, and indeed Plato has come under criticism for that. If that is the only arrow in your quiver, ladies and gentlemen, then please, don't bring that weak shit to the rim here. Again: any claim I make, as I keep pointing out, is itself a subjective and contingent claim. I make no claim to certain or objective truth with anything I am here saying.

One commenter claims that I am wrong to call evolution random and directionless. I suppose this depends on how exactly you mean those things. Evolving species will proceed over time through natural selection to being more fit with their environment, but this evolution is the product of functionally random mutation, and no particular evolution ever has to happen. Evolution does not produce perfectly fit organisms, it merely eliminates those so unfit that it prevents survival. What's more, natural selection conditions species through their exposure to their environment, which is itself conditioned through random events. A species might be very well adapted to its environment, but a random environmental change occurs that renders it poorly adapted. If natural selection does not have the time to condition the animal to be more suited to its environment through the superior ability to propagate of animals with beneficial mutation, the species will die out. If it does have time, that evolution will have been the product of random changes in the environment.

Speaking of self-refutation, we've got some of that rare but funny tendency on the Internet for multiple commenters to criticize the same author but from entirely different directions. So you've got the self-refutation crowd who thinks that what I am saying is self-evidently contradictory, and then you've got people who are saying that "everybody knows" what I am saying and I'm not making any important points.

To those who say that I am not disagreeing with Harris, I'm a bit confused: here I am, disagreeing with him. Harris claims that, despite uncertainty and a multiplicity of moral actions, we can make objectively moral or immoral actions or statements. I don't believe in transcendent morality of any kind. Morality, to my lights, is best thought of as an agreement between people, which is therefore never certain, timeless, or transcendent. I think it is to our practical benefit to act as though there is no moral value that transcends limited human agreement. Which means, yes, I am incapable of saying that the Taliban is objectively or certainly of inferior moral value to the Dalai Llama. And if you'd like to haul out the high school debating team tactic, no, I can't say that Hitler, the Holocaust or Nazism are permanently, objectively and non-contingently evil in some transcendent way.

That doesn't mean that I don't consider them evil, or that I can't fight them, or that my feelings towards Nazism and the obligation to fight it are any less passionate or committed. Not at all. It merely means that I find the genesis of that opposition and that passion to be within the subjective framework of my own life. This is part of the problem again: people insist that saying, for example, that scientific truth is socially constructed represents some great insult to science, but it only would be if you maintain belief in a transcendent truth that socially constructed truth can be compared to. I don't. From my perspective, use visions of truth are actually more respectful of science, because science is fantastically useful.

Ultimately, it's the very anger that the comments section contains that suggests that there is something to what I am saying. It's like clockwork: you say, "people get upset when you question the reach of the human mind," and then people show up and lose their shit because you've questioned the reach of the human mind. To call the comments section uncharitable would be an understatement, wouldn't you say? Why? Because this stuff is very, very sensitive for people. It really makes people unhappy. And this is in a context with my beliefs, which are wonderfully capable of existing alongside alternative visions of the truth. I am happy for you to go on believing in the transcendent power of the human mind; there is space for that within my position because, again, I am making no claim with objective certainty. I am not saying that it is objectively the case that there is no objective human knowledge. I am merely saying that for the pragmatic benefit of mankind, it seems to me that epistemological modesty is a very beneficial resource, and further that it seems to me that people get upset if you say so. When you show up in the comments and start flipping your wig to say it isn't true, I wonder if you all appreciate the irony.

Finally, some insisted that this was just my insecurity at being in the humanities and not the sciences. While I am a humanities man at heart, and will defend them to the day I die, I am actually in the social sciences, and I am in the process of being credentialed as a quantitative researcher. My academic coursework these days largely revolves around research methods and statistics. That isn't to make any claim to any kind of hierarchy of knowledge. It's just to dispute a particularly reductive explanation for why I think what I do.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Poem and Thoughts

The Dirty Word
by Karl Shapiro

The dirty word hops in the cage of the mind like the Pondicherry vulture, stomping with its heavy claw on the sweet meat of the brain and tearing it with its vicious beak, ripping and chopping the flesh. Terrified, the small boy bears the big bird of the dirty word into the house, and, grunting, puffing, carries it up the stairs to his own room in the skull. Bits of black feather cling to his clothes and his hair as he locks the staring creature in the dark closet.

All day the small boy returns to the closet to examine and feed the bird, to caress and kick the bird, that now snaps and flaps its wings savagely whenever the door is opened. How the boy trembles and delights at the sight of the white excrement of the bird! How the bird leaps and rushes against the walls of the skull, trying to escape from the zoo of the vocabulary! How wildly snaps the sweet meat of the brain in its rage.

And the bird outlives the man, being freed at the man’s death-funeral by a word from the Rabbi.

(But I one morning went upstairs and opened the door and entered the closet and found the great bird dead. Softly I wept it and softly removed it and softly buried the body of the bird in the hollyhock garden of the house I lived in twenty years before. And out of the worn black feathers of the wing I have made these pens to write these elegies, for I have outlived the bird, and I have murdered it in my early manhood).

Today, I could post nothing else. Here they come.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

re: Emily Gould

So: an interested party wrote me to say that I was unfair to Emily Gould in my recent post on Gawker. And, you know, he was right. I shouldn't push my conception of her onto her, or act like I am prescient enough to understand what her concerns are or what her life is. I do have to say that I can't help but feel that there is something desperate in how she approaches sharing her life, and it touches me because I see that something in a lot of my peers, and in myself. But, again-- that's my baggage, not hers, and it was wrong of me to act like I knew her or what she was expressing. So: my take on her was stupid, and I shouldn't have said it, and I apologize.


So, yeah, Archer is definitely my favorite new show.

Friday, March 26, 2010

How to Think About Gawker

(This is one of those posts on the Internet where someone thinks a little too deeply about something. So please, if you aren't into that at the moment, just skip it.)

Credit where it's due: I think Gawker has been a smarter, funnier and more entertaining website that it once was for over a year now. I've been a rather scalding critic of Gawker, at times, not that I have the kind of audience where that matters much. There was a period for awhile there where the site was really quite a shit-show. The bloggers working there had seemed to have taken the criticisms from the notorious n+1 piece and decided, "Fuck it, we'll double down on empty sarcasm and cruelty." But it really has improved, I feel like, in the last year or two.

Why? It's funny, because judging by the comments, many people who comment there seem to prefer Gawker be meaner. To me, though, it's much better when it tones down the cruelty. Not just because of that whole morality deal, but also because usually it's meanest when it feels the most aggrieved, when whatever particular blogger gets it into his or her head that he or she is striking against some wrong doing or, even worse, taking someone down a peg. Please: you are not a modern day Oscar Wilde, your bloggy musings aren't a corrective for whatever minor injustice you are railing against, and nobody asked you to return balance to the Force.

And this is the thing: Gawker is at its worst, its absolute worst, whenever it allows itself to lapse into self-mythologizing. Do you remember when MTV used to run specials about the Video Music Awards every 6 hours or so? They'd create these documentaries, about MTV, made by people from MTV, and show them on MTV, over and over and over. And the content would just be people who work at MTV talking about how cool and hip and crazy MTV is. This kind of self-fellatio would be offensive even if it weren't for the fact that MTV is fucking painfully uncool and filled with employees who are exactly the kind of people who used to sit around in high school pining for the day they could work for MTV. You know, the people who think a cable conglomerate can be cool.

Anyway, that's the sort of attitude you very occasionally get at Gawker, this same sort of self-mythologizing. It's just as bad when Gawker does it. To be fair, this mostly happens when Nick Denton himself rears his head, as in the second half of this post here. But it also comes up a lot, for example, when Gawker bloggers insist on trumpeting every bit of bad news about the newspaper and magazine industry, and declaring again that (wait for it) the Internet is the future! That get's tiresome. I wouldn't be surprised if that stuff, too, came from Denton's edict; it's long since been revealed that Nick Denton is history's greatest monster. Either way, the whole "there's, like, a holy war between old and new media, and we're winning" shtick is lame and tired, and every time they trot out those cliches, my eyes glaze over and I find myself instinctively clicking over to Fleshbot. Yes, magazines and newspapers are in trouble, no, neither you nor I nor anyone knows exactly what's going to happen, no, blogs and "the Internet" are not going to replace what is dying, and no, you aren't some culture warrior valiantly flailing away at the old guard. Look, a pretty accurate gloss on Gawker would be "Brooklynite whites who would rather work for Conde Nast or The New York Times talking shit about Conde Nast and The New York Times." That's no insult; I live in Rhode Island, I write navel-gazers about post-structuralism that nobody reads and I own a Jeep that is missing its back window. This is the Internet; there's no need to stand on false pretenses.

That's the point. Gawker is at its best when its bloggers recognize this central fact: the defining characteristic of Gawker is its fundamental mundanity. Again, no insult. I'm not putting on any airs to say that. I just think that the way to think about Gawker is to say that it is a website that is often funny, usually intelligent and occasionally really insightful. It has some writers who are really quite brilliant. (Alex Pareene springs immediately to mind.) It just isn't anything to get particularly enthused about or upset over. So as much as I found that n+1 piece to be insightful and accurate, I also thought that it was a bit too heavy on the meaning of Gawker, or whatever.

Or take this piece about Emily Gould and her recent booklike product, from fellow Gawker media alum Anna Marie Cox. You can be really uncharitable with Gould, and the way she always pretends that she is expressing guilt about doing immoral things when she clearly doesn't feel guilty at all grates. But, you know, I do have sympathy for Gould. She seems smart, and I bet she can be sweet. It's a little simpler than Cox makes it: Gould has been taught by her culture that she has to be famous, but she isn't particularly interesting or good at anything. Many of us go through that, and you know, it's tough. From my angle, the way forward for Gould is to stop worrying about making everyone care about and like her a little and worry instead about making a small select group care about and like her very much. You know, care about your friends and the people around you, maybe start a family, not a weird Internet cooking show. But everybody confronts such questions on their own. Anyway-- again, on an analytical level, I can't say that I disagree with much that Cox has written, but at the same time I feel like there is this assumption that Gawker is this big important deal.

And to me, that's not the way to understand Gawker or enjoy it, and I think part of where they get into trouble is when they buy into their own press a little too much. Just give me a little Manhattan gossip, some trenchant analysis of the latest media evolutions, and the odd dick joke. Do what you do. It's enough. There's no insult in having modest goals, and none in my saying that I like you when you do you and not when you try to do more than you. Gawker is funny, sometimes. It's alright. That's how you've gotta put it: Gawker's alright.


Now, in the interest of full disclosure: I am the guy who wrote this. (Short version: I think Gawker creates divisions and ranks of commenting through its commenter approval and starring process to create a kind of velvet rope effect, flattering the egos of commenters and making them feel like a part of a kind of cool club, making them more loyal visitors.) I recently had the experience of learning how right I was. A few months ago I was "starred" in the comments. It was unexpected, but I was flattered. I knew it wouldn't last long, and being me, I was pretty quick to bite the hand that feeds, but I commented quite a bit for a couple months. I mocked John Cook, the "Gawker Investigations Editor," out of a conviction that Gawker Investigations is an absurd concept, and also because he sucks. Anyway, he destarred me. When I logged in an found out, I have to admit-- I felt a real pang of loss, and a little regret. Even though I knew just what they were up to, I fell right into it. I had to laugh. Denton, you brilliant, despicable bastard. I never thought I'd come so cheap!

Update: Please see this brief note of apology.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

skepticism and the last dogma

I made a joke the other day that I wanted to go to a TED conference and read aloud from Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense," and then Andrew Sullivan comes along and drops this on me. It fits what I was thinking exactly. I wonder, often, if there has been a period of greater intellectual arrogance than the one I live in. Of course there has been; there was a time before the modern critique, and, you know, Aristotle had already figured it all out. But it's hard to keep that perspective in our current time. I have watched, with half-horror and half-bemusement, the rise of what I call we might call human achievement yuppies. They are all over: the techno-utopians, the market fetishists, the hipster teleologists, the neo-Aristotelians, "the Secret" devotees and similar cultists, the prosperity gospel evangelists, the proponents of various self-help books, the lifehackers, the starry-eyed socialists, the evolutionary optimists, the scientism proselytizers, the policy wonks, the personal virtue republicans.... Incidentally, were I in charge, I would hold the TED conferences or similar in a Brazilian favela, or village in Haiti or Somalia. I don't think you can meaningfully come to understand human progress without understanding the depths of human misery; a consideration of the human endeavor that weighs only the progress and none of those who have been progressed upon is a work of fantasy.

This is all one of the reasons, among many, that I find the constant invective against the postmodern turn in the academy so strange. Postmodernism is not and has never been a powerful force in the world; for how could it stand against the dueling certainties and totalizing ideologies that we have never fallen out of love with? For my part, personally, I distrust those that think of practicality as a cardinal virtue, who believe our experience represents finally a series of problems to be solved, who think that efficiency is to be pursued in all elements of human achievement, who think that living is something that can be done better or worse. I'll favor those who take as their goals to be beautiful, to be moral, and to be happy. There is no greater insult in this than the expression of personal preference. Such things are personal, and if you'll forgive me, unspeakable.

There are many things that I call myself. The one that I think is the most accurate and the most important has always been "skeptic," but I've rarely used it. I rarely use it because of what most other self-identified skeptics have made of it: when most people here of skeptics, they think of people who are deeply dismissive of the existence of Bigfoot (and isn't that a courageous stance), but who are entirely credulous towards the power of human cognition. You might think of Penn Jillette, the living smirk, who has a massive and showy disdain for people who believe anything that fails to meet his evaluative criteria, and yet seems to apply his own ability to accurately understand the universe around him to no such scrutiny. This is the kind of skeptic that Sam Harris is: he is skeptical of competing claims of truth and accuracy, but not of his own capacity to judge, nor of the human capacity to create intellectual structures that make that judging correct. Certainly, this is what the edifice of modern skepticism represents: a skepticism that first flatters the intellect of the skeptic in question, and the human mind in general.

I've always felt that the kind of skepticism that is most valuable, that is to our pragmatic benefit, is the skepticism that begins the skeptical enterprise at the human mind, the classical Greek skepticism that regarded any real certainty as dogmatism. Not because it is true, or even because it is superior, but because epistemological modesty seems to me to be an entirely under appreciated tool for the practical prosecution of our lives and our arguments. You can of course read a vast array of literature making this same point, from people far smarter and better argued than I am. You can read people like Sextus Empiricus, the Buddha, David Hume, George Berkeley, Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty.... Not because they are gurus who will point you towards truth, but because what they have to say may help you along your way.

For me, I would merely put it this way: that we do not encounter the physical universe unmediated but through a consciousness mechanism and sensory inputs that seem to be the products of  evolution. And the belief (however you want to define a belief) in evolution makes the idea of those consciousness and sensory mechanism being capable, no matter how long the time scale, of perfectly or non-contingently ordering the universe around us seem quite low. Evolution does not produce perfectly fit systems, it only eliminates those systems so unfit that they prevent survival and the propagation of genetic material. A chimpanzee's intellect is a near-miracle, capable of incredible things, but it will never understand calculus. I could never and would never say this with deductive certainty, but it seems likely to me that our consciousness has similar limitations.

They tell me that the Copernican revolution and the rise of evolution have permanently altered the place of humanity in the human mind. They say that the collapse of the Ptolemaic worldview towards a vision of our planet and our sun as existing amidst a sea of stars of incomprehensible vastness has destroyed our arrogant notion that our planet is special. They tell me that evolution has destroyed any belief in divine creation and with it the notion that humanity is anything other than an animal species. And they say all of this from the position of didacticism and superiority, weaving it into a self-aggrandizing narrative about how these skeptics are the ones who are capable of looking at the uncomfortable truths of the world and not flinching.

To these specific changes in fundamental worldview, I say, fair enough; I can't argue with either turn, I suppose. For my part I would only remind them that we live here, in the relentless narrative of our human subjectivity, and such things are of little interest when the rent must be paid. But fair enough, all the same. What I ask of them-- what Nietzsche asks of them; what so many in the field of the humanities, that beleaguered but proud area of human inquiry, have come to ask of them-- is to take it one step further: that if we are indeed a cosmic accident, the result of the directionless and random process of evolution, then it makes little sense to imagine that we are capable of ordering the world around us, beyond the limited perspective of our individual, subjective selves. This has always been to me the simplest step in the world, from the first two beliefs the the third, from the collapse of geocentrism and creationism to the collapse of objective knowing. Yet I find that it is one many people not only refuse to make, but one that they react against violently. This is the skepticism that is refused, and this refusal is the last dogma.

All of this would be just another round in the great battle of human disagreement, and as always, I work with precious little ammunition and, often enough, not even the will to fire. What compels me to speak is that there are many Sam Harrises in the world, and most of them wield their epistemologies against other people. Many atheists, for example, say that religion arose as a way to enforce power, that people looked out unto a frightening and incomprehensible world, and that the priests said, "this is the way," and the fix was in. That was Marx's line, anyway. What I want to suggest from where I stand is that any way of knowing that claims certainty is inevitably the enforcement of power. All philosophical systems are, of course; mine most certainly is. And yes, we are inevitably going to require some minimal normative framework to make basic social interaction necessary. But degree matters, and every step we take back from absolute or totalizing claims, I think, increases the space for people to live their strange, idiosyncratic lives. And if it is the case that man invented God because he looked out at a terrifying world, it is equally the case that man invents the perfect cognition because he looks out at a terrifying world. Each is a comfort, but I wonder if it is not to our pragmatic benefit to look with great skepticism upon both. Sam Harris, too, is in the condition of the caveman looking out unto an endless, empty sky, and that is why I must criticize his convictions, and that is why I must extend to him, to the degree I am able, understanding and compassion.

This line of thinking has always been met with some standard criticisms: that it is self-refuting, that it is antagonistic towards science, that it renders us incapable of standing in opposition to what we call evil. This last one is a favorite of many, and it is a bit like blaming a murder on the constraints of police power rather than on the murderer. All of history's greatest villains were people who were certain. From Pol Pot to Hitler to Stalin to the Spanish Inquisition, the conquistadors, the progenitors of the Rwandan genocide, the Ku Klux Klan.... They all had it all figured out. I read neoconservative critiques of postmodern -- I read, for example, Sullivan's infamous post 9-11 essay on Islam and John Rawls-- and I wonder what exactly they might make of the history of human suffering, and from where they think crimes against humanity emanate. What the world needs isn't yet another muscular certainty that seeks to impose itself on all. What it needs is doubt, I think.

But suppose my intuition is wrong. Suppose there is, actually, a transcendent morality, a right and wrong that is capital-t True, that is non-contingent, not temporal, that applies to each and every person and situation: then totalitarianism must become the truth of man. If Sam Harris emerges from his lab with his beaker and his chart of what is right and what is wrong-- cast the human question onto the fire. There could be no difference, no diversity. Say goodbye individualism, say hello to the jackboot, and knowing that it is all the worse for being objectively true. To Harris's credit, he acknowledges in the video that there will never be some moral calculator that empowers us to make every minute moral decision with objective certainty. But as soon as we remove doubt, as soon as there is a moral framework that is endless and timeless, fascism has become the truth of man. Nazism was not a moral obscenity merely because it got the answer so terribly wrong, but also because it thought to give the whole answer entirely. Harris gives himself an out by talking of peaks and valleys of moral behavior, but as long as he and his fellow philosopher-kings are holding the measuring tape, that is the end of human freedom. Harris is no fascist, not at all, but fascism is at the heart of his project, his "moral realism."

Among the few necessary social  functions that religion performed, and that we now are lacking in a post-theistic world, is the enforcement of a certain humility. There is no god, but you and I are still dust, we always were.

Update: I have posted a response to the usual comments here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Poem

Love is to me that you are the knife which I turn within myself.

-Franz Kafka

Friday, March 19, 2010

books that have made me

I have come to be troubled by the idea of "influence" in the way we usually mean it, but I am intrigued by the meme that has been going around-- and, like Matt Steinglass, I too am hopelessly faddish. So call these books that have taught me something, and forgive the pretense when I say that of course, every book I have ever read has taught me something. Much thanks to Tyler Cowen for coming up with the meme; Cowen deserves all the good things you've read about him.

The Ethics of Ambiguity, by Simone de Beauvoir. The most important book I have ever read. The most humane, the most human. Certainly, from my estimation, the most livable and most compassionate text of Sartrean existentialism ever written. The kind of book that you fall in love with for both the things it reveals to you, and for its fierce dedication to reminding you that you are not learning anything to set you apart from any other human being. I am in love with Simone de Beauvoir, and I am quite sure I will love her the rest of my life.

Witch Week, by Diana Wynne Jones. An immensely entertaining, incredibly true school story that taught a 10 year old kid who might have been inclined to go the Holden Caufield route that there is no romance in being a scorned genius. It's a meditation, compassionate and fair, that at once brilliant describes the endless cruelty of childhood social divisions and how outsiders are divided from the pack for ridicule, and yet refuses to make that awareness an excuse for those outsiders to turn around and hate the mass and worship their own genius. I remember, in high school, realizing that the unpopular kids could be just as close minded and image obsessed as the popular kids. Jones reminds me again, that the only way forward is understanding and empathy for all of them.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Green Zone, ctd

From the "you can't make this shit up" file, Ross Douthat complains about the lack of nuance and moral complexity in Hollywood movies... and targets Iraq War opponents. Yes, that's right, the people who were opposed to talk of evildoers, "if you aren't with us, you're against us," the division of the world into terrorists and defenders of freedom, an Axis of Evil against an arsenal of democracy-- yeah, those are the people who need a lesson in Manicheanism. It's fucking absurd.

Read Daniel Larison:
Then again, the reason our debates are so poisonous and our nation so divided might have something to do with the existence of utterly unaccountable members of the political class that can launch such a war, suffer no real consequences, and then reliably expect to be defended as “decent” and “well-intentioned” people who made understandable mistakes.
 There have (still) been no real professional consequences for the army of pundits who were happy to cheerlead the war in Iraq, and were proven disastrously wrong in doing so. Larison shreds neocon bullshit with such effortlessness and concision, I feel bad for Ross. Then I read this column again and I stop feeling bad for him. It's like he's been dared to try and out-Hiatt The Washington Post's op/ed page.

And, as I will keep insisting, as I said in my piece about Green Zone last night-- it is flatly untrue to say that the movie portrays Iraqi Baathist generals as good guys and American soldiers as bad guys. The Iraqi general who is the most important plot element is (spoilers ahead) described in no uncertain terms by the movie as a morally disreputable figure, and is killed by the single most sympathetic character in the movie for what he has done. It's just isn't fair or accurate to say that he is a white-hatted good guy. (Sorry to disrupt the narrative, guys.) Instead, he's exactly the kind of ugly strongman that the United States has found it has had to empower in Iraq to get basic security and elementary infrastructure going. Or did you suppose that the Awakening has been the result of a bunch of starry eyed idealist democrats crawling out of the woodwork and rebuilding Iraq? This character, al-Awari-- that's who you inevitably end up in business with when you do things like destroy a foreign government without provocation. It's dirty business.

Douthat has been a pretty consistent member, since the real quagmire began, of the set who admits the disastrous mistake that Iraq was, but insists always on attacking the leftists who opposed the war anyway. Better wrong with the neocons than right with the lefties, and he's far from alone. Some temptations are evergreen.

Green Zone

I just got back from seeing Green Zone. There's no way to talk about a movie about Iraq and WMD without breaking my no politics rule, so I'm just going to break it, and if you're disinclined to read politics here you can skip ahead. Also there may be some spoilers ahead.

Green Zone isn't a great movie. As some reviews have suggested, the main character, played by Matt Damon, goes off on his own little WMD investigation that is frankly pretty hard to believe. And, yeah, Paul Greengrass-- shaky cam, we get it. If you're shooting a crazy gunfight in Baghdad after the invasion of Iraq, I get it. If you're shooting a long back and forth conversation between two guys sitting at a desk, invest in a tripod. This is also yet another movie for my file that goes on too long and has a bit of unnecessary, self-congratulatory exposition at the end, after a really natural ending point in terms of rhythm. It's not like the audience needs an explanation; we know what went on to happen in Iraq. (Real Life Spolier: Iraq became hell on earth.)

But I've got to defend Green Zone from the predictable charges of anti-Americanism from Sonny and Kyle Smith at The Post. They posit that the movie is, in Sonny's words, "as pure an example of anti-American sentiment as you will find," and anti-soldier. I'd say that this is undermined just a teeny bit by the fact that our hero is American soldier Matt Damon. You know, blond haired, blue eyed, cleft chinned Matt Damon. He's got a little unit of supporting soldiers who are also portrayed very sympathetically, and even a CIA bigwig who is shone as smart and committed to America's best interest. When a CIA suit is being portrayed sympathetically, I think it's time to abandon a vision of a movie as stridently anti-American, don't you? Surely, a really pure anti-Americanism wouldn't countenance an American hero. Trust me, there are far purer anti-Americanisms. 

What's really behind these charges of "slander," I suspect, is that this movie tells the bald truth about America's involvement in Iraq: that the chief rationale for invading Iraq, that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, has been proven entirely false. It is true and uncomfortable that we invaded a country and brutalized its people under false pretenses. If telling the unhappy truth about American actions is enough to get a movie labeled anti-American, then I suppose Amistad is an anti-American film. The movie also makes a big deal about de-Baathification and the dissolving of the Iraqi military. The movie points out that this was insanity, and this again is true and uncomfortable. The point is really important for this discussion, too, because de-Baathification was and remains a morally complex issue. Not dissolving the Iraqi military and allowing some Baathist officials to remain in power would have surely meant that some people who committed despicable crimes against the Iraqi people would keep their positions in Iraqi governance. But this is part of the point: when you do things like destroying the governmental infrastructure of an entire country, sometimes there are morally ambiguous choices. You often have to swallow hard and do things like supporting terrible people. (You know, like we're doing with the Sons of Iraq?) That's what happens when you go about breaking countries; you get forced out of the Manichean bullshit of people like Paul Wolfowitz. It's a lesson that stretches all across American foreign policy; reinstall the shah, end up with the Ayatollah. Screw people with Noriega, get screwed by Noriega. Hands get dirty fast.

This is essential because it subverts the idea that this movie is pro-Saddamite general and anti-soldier. Sonny asks, "Will they sympathize with the Iraqi generals who spent most of their days brutalizing the Iraqi population?" This is rather dishonest, if you've seen the movie, seeing as (minor spoiler) the most sympathetic, important Iraqi character makes a big deal (and thus the movie makes a big deal) of pointing out that the general was responsible for atrocities, and (major spoiler) defies Damon's character by killing the general for his crimes. The movie isn't viewing these generals with rose colored glasses, and makes that point explicit. But, again-- when you rip the authoritarian government out of the heart of a country, you are going to have a set of very difficult moral decisions very quickly. That plays into a discussion of the end of the movie as a whole. Sonny says that the audience he was watching the movie with cheered for the killing of an American soldier. I'm sure they did, but I'm very surprised; the movie doesn't play those moments up for cheering the deaths of American soldiers. No, the whole thing is a confused, bloody mess. Sort of like Iraq. And certainly the actions of our hero directly after the death of one particular soldier undercut the idea that the soldier's death was played for applause. 

The simple fact of the matter is that the movie presents some soldiers in a positive light and some in a negative light. Sadly, this is enough to get a movie labeled anti-American. Generally, that label can get applied to anything short of the hagiography of Black Hawk Down, a bit of propaganda only slightly more subtle than your average Soviet newsreel. Some soldiers doing the right thing and some doing the wrong thing in the movie-- in a way that, I admit, seems forced and unsatisfying-- simply mirrors human life, where "soldier" is a broad label applied to a large swath of human beings. As human beings, soldiers sometimes do good and sometimes do bad. If admitting that is somehow anti-military, I think we're on shaky ground.

The most serious charge that both Smith and Sonny are making is that the movie is a slander because it misrepresents the whole WMD situation, by saying that the movie makes the fact that we invaded Iraq under false pretenses a matter of dishonesty rather than mere recklessness and stupidity. This is the whole "why are you claiming that they lied, when they might have just been wrong" angle. The first thing to say is that they lied either way, because the administration claimed many, many times that they knew for a fact that there were WMD in Iraq. They couldn't have known that, as it wasn't true, and so claiming that they knew it to be true was dishonest, even if they believed there were without as much certainty as they claimed. 

Secondly, I'm unclear why Green Zone isn't allowed to fictionalize unknown events in a fictional telling of true events. This is standard practice, and we still don't know a lot of things about Iraq. Does that constitute slander? Movies about historical events divert from history all the time, and often to push a storyline more positive towards the United States. Even Paul Greengrass has done similar, with his United 93, a movie that was somewhat fictionalized out of necessity, thanks to the lack of understanding about what really went on in that event, and fictionalized towards a more uplifting, heroic American story. I don't see that Green Zone has done anything more egregious in the realm of fictionalization than, say, Pearl Harbor.

More to the point... I'm really to take it that the country that produced the Gulf of Tonkin is beyond lying its way into a war? Really? As more and more declassified documentation becomes available, the litany of illegal or immoral things that the United States has done to satisfy its own agenda grows and grows. You can read this stuff yourself. You can even read books that exhaustively document this paper trail for you. Over time, arguments against criticizing American misconduct always seem to proceed from being arguments of denial to being arguments of justification, as certain events unflattering to America's image become undeniable thanks to declassified and leaked documentation. (The fact that such declassified documentation exists, by the way, is certainly to America's credit; there was no Freedom of Information Act in Saddam's Iraq.) 

The truth is we don't know exactly what happened behind the scenes with Iraq. I doubt anyone was convinced that there weren't any WMDs at all in the country but pressed on anyway. What we know was that they wanted to go since before 9/11, that they talked it up within 48 hours of 9/11, and that they dragged this country into the war based on the erroneous assertion of Saddam's WMD. Wars have many makers, each with many motivations. When people say it is a war for oil, of course, it was a war for oil. When people say it was about bringing democracy to the region, I don't doubt that for a second either. I'm sure, within the whole cabal, there were a whole host of agendas, and they pushed us towards the ruinous destruction of a society. That the movie would rather supplant this complicated set of shifting motivations with a simplistic and moralizing setup of a single individual being knowingly deceptive is indeed a failing, artistically. But hey. It's Hollywood.

Today, we can be happy to say that the successful ethnic cleansing of Baghdad, the bribery of militants with  millions of taxpayer dollars, and the establishment of a government that is rushing to take part in a little of the corruption, authoritarianism and oppression of disfavored minorities that its predecessor wreaked on Iraq. Thank heaven for little favors. What we are left with is more proof of the two central lessons of postwar American foreign policy from the 20th century: that America will do anything to secure its own interests, and that people will do anything they can to deny that this is the case. I'm told Green Zone did quite poorly at the box-office. It isn't hard to see why. It's hard to think about, what this country has done.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


So, first things first-- all respect to AC/DC in general, of course. I'm not some kind of monster. I wasn't around to appreciate them when they were most necessary, when rock and roll had descended into a level of pomposity and self-indulgence not to be seen again until U2. (Has any song been more necessary than this?) Led Zeppelin really inspired a lot of really terrible music, which is sad, because who doesn't like Led Zeppelin? Then again, if AC/DC was a reaction to those following Led Zeppelin, and so was punk, well... all's well that ends well.

The thing is, though-- I just think Bon Scott AC/DC is way, way, way better than Brian Johnson AC/DC. By a country mile. I mean look, I've got no issue with the guy, congratulations on his success, and good for the band for soldiering on. That's all great. I just don't think the music is great after Scott died. Even, it's true, Back in Black. That's sacrilege, I know, and it's better than a lot of other albums, but it just doesn't compare to the albums that came before it, for my tastes. Back in Black just always seems to me like AC/DC doing their impression of an AC/DC record. This is a pretty common problem for bands; as they drift further into their career, they can either rehash their sound over and over, or they can try to stay relevant by evolving with the latest trends-- which is usually worse! So I don't begrudge Brian Johnson for being in a band that was already 7 years old when he joined it, but Scott's death is a good mile marker for me for when the band went downhill. And, it's true, I much prefer Scott's voice.

Of course, some of this may just be channeled rage from endlessly hearing "You Shook Me All Night Long" in bars. I never, ever, ever need to hear that song again.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Gammage Cup

Back in fifth grade, my beloved teacher Mr. Shearer-- maybe the best I've ever had-- bought every kid a book or set from one of those Scholastic book sale flier things. (Did most people get those?) I was waffling for ages, so eventually he chose for me, a two-book pack from Harcourt that featured Ginger Pie, a book about a missing dog which he had read to us that year, and The Gammage Cup, by Carol Kendall. (Missing being young and being read to is pretty close to a universal phenomenon, I would guess.) No offense to any fans of Ginger Pie but I always thought it was pretty stupid; the idiocy of the kid heroes galled me so much, as a ten year old. But The Gammage Cup, I knew right away, was special.

The book is the story of a lightly supernatural fantasy world, and a little village in particular, where a tightly regimented and conformist society is thrust into trouble, and saved from it, by a small band of outsiders. I don't want to spend too much time recounting the plot details, because this book is very much more than its plot; the occasional predictability of it is made irrelevant by its spirit, and by its simple but brilliantly realized message. "Didactic" is usually a bad word when describing books, especially books for children (I'll tell you about it sometime), but this book is didactic in the best sense, animated by an iron devotion to the two pillars of human life that cause us such controversy, the rights of the individual and the good of the community. This book is at heart a libertarian fable, and there is something utterly true about its depiction of the deadening conformity of "the way things are done." At one point, the protagonists get the chance to form a bit of the ideal society in the wilderness that we all dream of, where we can shrug off all of the expectations and petty impositions on our freedom, and be the way we are.... In the end, they have to return to save the day, and return to society, even while the book maintains its fierce devotion to the right to be different. Because we have to live together.

Adult readers, and perhaps especially big readers of genre fantasy, may be a little turned off by some of the more juvenile seeming elements of the story-- the protagonists are called Minipins, the villains Mushrooms, and if you are looking for a lot of fantasy violence, you won't find it. It is also not what I would call particularly inventive; the story, setting and characters are fairly well-worn archetypes. This is a book for children. But I think adults can enjoy it, and I still do, because of its energy and intelligence, and because of the power of its lessons.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Bigelow vs. Cameron!

This Kathryn Bigelow vs. James Cameron thing (and it's that, not The Hurt Locker vs. Avatar) is a good example of why the media can be so hateable sometimes.

The New York Times puts it, "In a sense, the awards season had shaped up into a showdown between James Cameron, who directed “Avatar,” and Ms. Bigelow, who was previously married to Mr. Cameron." Yes, in a stupid, reductive sense, that's true. In a more useful, interesting sense, this awards season has been about a crop  of very good movies that seems to lack any truly great ones, with a lot of heavy favorites in the acting awards. There's a myriad of interesting plot lines. The Bigelow-Cameron one is just the one with the most obvious narrative. That's a consistent problem for our media, pursuing the good story over the more accurate and deeper one. We're a storytelling species.

That isn't to say that the story of Avatar and The Hurt Locker isn't interesting, but it's interesting in far more ways than "ex-husband and ex-wife fight!" And I can't help but feel that, by obsessing over the dynamic of her beating her ex-husband, the media is diminishing Bigelow's achievement. It's a subtle thing, because it's caught up in an overall feminist story, but by making her victory all about her ex-husband, it's marginalizing the larger point, that Bigelow directed a strong, entertaining movie, and did a damn good job of it too. Personally, I'm just already annoyed at having to hear about this one lame storyline so much.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sunday Poem and thoughts

The Creations of Sound
by Wallace Stevens

If the poetry of X was music,
So that it came to him of its own,
Without understanding, out of the wall

Or in the ceiling, in sounds not chosen,
Or chosen quickly, in a freedom
That was their element, we should not know

That X is an obstruction, a man
Too exactly himself, and that there are words
Better without an author, without a poet,

Or having a separate author, a different poet,
An accretion from ourselves, intelligent
Beyond intelligence, an artificial man

At a distance, a secondary expositor,
A being of sound, whom one does not approach
Through any exaggeration. From him, we collect.

Tell X that speech is not dirty silence
Clarified. It is silence made dirtier.
It is more than an imitation for the ear.

He lacks this venerable complication.
His poems are not of the second part of life.
They do not make the visible a little hard

To see nor, reverberating, eke out the mind
Or peculiar horns, themselves eked out
By the spontaneous particulars of sound.

We do not say ourselves like that in poems.
We say ourselves in syllables that rise
From the floor, rising in speech we do not speak.
If ever the Kierkegaard critique was necessary, it's necessary in regards to this story.

The first thing to say, right, is that this biologist, Anthony Cashmore, seems an awfully prickly pear about his position. I'm not going to try and prosecute an argument against that position; abler philosophers than I will have to rise to that challenge. I'm sure they will. Despite the cultural marginalization of philosophy as a discipline, contemporary philosophers remain extraordinarily cogent arguers. My suspicion is that there is something tautological about Cashmore's claims, but like I said, I'm not one to judge. I do know that I am naturally suspicious of new claims to having found the answer to age old questions.

Here's the larger point: who cares? The question is irrelevant to how we proceed in our lives. This was Kierkegaard's most enduring insight; philosophy must be a benefit to how people live their lives, or it has little use. This isn't to dismiss the intellectual value, or fun, of pondering the imponderables. But it does point philosophy in the direction of actual human dilemmas. What I want to ask is how this insight is actually going to change anyone's life. Cashmore offers up the example of justice, where we judge intent, but I find that whole bit incredible strained. Surely something is amiss there. (He seems to think his way of thinking totally changes the meanings of justice, but his actual proposal for the governance of justice is... experts should think over punishments before they are carried out.) Besides, the point isn't that he's wrong, but rather this: say you decide to devote yourself entirely to this agency-free vision of human life. You try to grok it as completely as you can. How will it change how you go about your day to day life? Whatever you do, you will have been destined to have done, so what difference does any change you make in how you think about determinism and freedom matter?

What's more, we certainly live life as if we are making choices. We interpret the world as if we are making choices. Our sensory apparatus leads us to believe we are making choices. The subjective human experience proceeds as if you are in control, so you don't really have much choice in the matter. And as it can't be transcended, to what perspective can we reasonably be said to not be acting in self-control? (To Anthony Cashmore?) I suspect this is one of those situations where, hiding and crawling around in the bushes of ideas, there's a theistic assumption somewhere, unwilled though I assume it is. I don't mean to underestimate the philosophical consequences, and I am indeed afraid of some of the consequences of this thinking-- more and more, people seem to be pushing towards hard genetic determinisms, and down that path lies eugenics.

But, you know, tomorrow, there will be figuring out what to make for breakfast, or getting the kids to the bus, and you've got to decide if you can take that vacation, and you feel the need to start being better towards the wife, and how do I really feel about abortion, anyway? There's a story I heard about one of the Beats, I think Gary Snyder, meeting DT Suzuki, and he gets very excited and starts asking Suzuki really intense philosophical questions, like "Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?" Suzuki just smiled, and said, "Don't forget the tea." We live here, on earth, in our own lives, and philosophy should keep an eye to the tea.

In just a quick note, Andrew Sullivan flatters me. I'm not cool enough to pretend that I wasn't delighted to read that.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

rumble, young man, rumble

Japan: No, it sure isn't funny.

 The eyes that are evaded are the eyes that matter, the eyes that judge... . Whoever desires to be protected from these eyes accepts the core assumption of antiblackness-- the supremacy of whiteness. Such a figure experiences vertigo in the presence of whites; whites become the bottomless subjectivities at the edge of which, the body of which, there is the threat of slipping into facticity, slipping into being seen by "truly human" eyes. The exoticist is therefore not a masochist, for as it turns out he doesn't want to be seen. He wants to stand before innocent eyes, eyes incapable of understanding what stands before them, eyes that can look without seeing.

-Lewis Gordon, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism

I know that a lot of academic language and academic ideas, particularly ideas from the world of English and literary theory, are not popular. I've resigned myself to it. Yet I could hardly be prouder of the existence of the postcolonial critique, and the Orientalist critique, having read this. It is, I tell you true, one of the most disturbing things I have ever read on the Internet. I read the whole thing. It was hard, but had to be done.

This guy, this Tim Rogers... . You know, discussions of "whiteness," as a category, as a presence, are tough. They threaten to contribute to the perpetuation of race-as-totality, which is the sad philosophy those oppressed by racism labor under; and they also tend to be had by white people. Like me.

This is troubling because whiteness-as-category has, among many unfortunate characteristics, the status of great assimilator. It takes everything in, co-opts everything, drags more and more into its maw. Every attempt to stand apart from it or away from it or against it can be dragged into it. No matter how angry or defiant or oppositional or adversarial, there isn't anything it can't consume. Jenny from Forrest Gump joining the Black Panthers; Freddie deBoer enjoying egotrip's Big Book of Racism! This is the difficulty of insurgent racial resistance movements in a context of cultural whiteness; well-meaning white people, like me, come with the earnest desire to help, and in so doing slowly, imperceptibly make the gains and victories won by such an insurgent movement just another gift from white privilege. This is why Stuff White People Like is so corrosive; it is an acrid critique of whiteness from a white person, enjoyed overwhelmingly by other white people, in an unmistakeably white Internet narrative. It criticizes whiteness while tightening its grasp on the racial dialogue.

But, white man that I am, I still have to stand against Tim Rogers. Because his post, and its reaction in comments, doesn't just speak to the attitudes of one particularly proud and self-serious exoticist-- and make no mistake, his complaints are all exoticism, negative exoticism, but exoticism nonetheless, because they stem fundamentally from the assumption that he is the only human in his interactions with Japan and the Japanese. It speaks also to our diseased racial dialogue, it's bloat and its pretensions, and the vast, simmering layer of genuine racial animus that resides in the backlash against talk of racism.

Rogers, to be plain, is a perfectly ordinary figure, at heart. He's the classic white Japan fetishist, who just happens to have the rare privilege to actually find himself in the "culture"-- for that is how he experiences it, not as a culture but as a "culture"-- that he has reduced for so long to an object for his appropriation and his interrogation. I'm imagining the origins of his feelings in Japan, back in his days getting totally into Buddhism and stuff, telling people how much cooler a Famicom is than a Nintendo, masturbating into his Sailor Moon pillowcase, elevating Japanese people to the most beloved, harmless object that his mind could comprehend. That's a cruel thing for me to say, and crude stereotyping. Those are the conditions he's laid down in that post, though, and while it diminishes me, I can't help myself. In his mind he builds a temple, an elevated space, an exalted one, where lovely automatons dance for his enjoyment, as alien and inhuman as the surface of the moon. And now he writes his missive from Japan, and every word, every single word, screams with the fact that this is a man whose gaze is the most pure of colonial instruments, because he believes it all exists only for him. Every aspect of his experience in Japan is defined by this solipsism. It's all for him. It's all for him.

Do you, reader, like everyone in your hometown? Everything about your hometown? It's an odd question. It's not fuel for your approval or disapproval. It's a place, and they are people, and they exist with their own subjectivity. Rogers's post writes about a place that doesn't exist beyond the way that he has imagined it and the way that he now interrogates it. When he rides on the train (and doesn't he hate the crowded train, so many alien bodies packed so tightly, jostling him, obscuring his view) he takes it all in and makes it mere fuel for his perception. What he once found delightful in the way it surprised his assumptions he now finds ugly and mannered. This is the limit of dissensus: that in the end, nothing could be more totalitarian than a pure subjectivity. It grinds up all difference.

And, you know, it's an unbearably racist post from an unbearably racist person. This is as clear as such a thing can be, and yet it will tell you everything about our racial dialogue and our racial attitudes that, first, this is a man who could not be more certain or more proud of how inflammatory and yet not racist, in his own mind, his post is; and, second, that the number of attaboys and compliments in the comments are all of them straining around the unspoken accusation of racism, the one they are in fear of but secretly desire so that they can destroy it. That comments thread is a terrifying thing. It is pregnant with the fear of being accused of racism, but daring the accusation. It is filled, of course, with commendations for Rogers-- for his bravery. Bravery, honesty, telling it like it is. These are the constant congratulations that race baiting heaps on itself. Curious to see so much praise for truth-telling from people who have never been to Japan, but you know how that goes; the exoticist's love is always one breath away from hatred, the oddity that attracted in the first place being so easily a target for resentment and misunderstanding. The kudos in that thread! The relief that someone else said it, what they've been thinking, what they want to say! The whole enterprise is sweaty with resentment, real, honest-to-god racial animus. Observe it for awhile. It's educational.

I'm sure Rogers would react to accusations of racism with righteous fury. It's a well wrung pose, at this point, of course. We've seen it all before. "Hey, I'm not racist, I live in Japan, I live here! I've got the guts to really take this place in and judge it!" I bet there's a Japanese girlfriend, too, and a better understanding of Japanese history and news than I could ever hope for, and pride in the friendly rapport with the guy from the corner store. It doesn't matter. The post makes it clear that there's only one Japanese person, and he's not really a person, not the way you and I are. It's all so much ching-chong-China.

What makes it all worse is that it is so clearly a perfect inversion of who he must have been when he first moved. I can imagine the calls home, the breathless emails-- it's so cool here, there's so many interesting things, and the cheap noodle houses, and you feel safe when you walk down the street. I'm sure when he returns home Rogers will become the picture of the proud multicultural American, the kind who let's it slip that he lived in another country so easily, trades on it so cheaply. How quickly the novelty became a source of frustration, how the cultural differences that once seemed at once quaint and exciting became a stand in for all the petty failures and annoyances that are a part of everyone's life-- but then how quickly, again, in the presence of other white people, of other Americans, the experience brings that cache. This is the very nature of assimilation: even the things you think you hate can be bent to your purpose.

I'm sure Rogers knows more facts about Japan and Japanese people than I'll ever know. But still, he's a tourist, no matter how long he lives there, the worst kind of tourist. A culture vulture in the truest sense, taking the parts of "Japan" he likes and gnawing what he likes from the bone, while he eyes with contempt the actual face of the thing itself. Smoking! They all smoke! The category: Japanese, they smoke, the lot of them. What a filthy habit, after all, and how bad for you. This is not the cute strange, not the exotic strange, but the actual feeling of butting up against people who are not like you. When you are in another culture, and you're dutifully taking snapshots, and you come across that one little thing, in the least expected place-- something strange to you, in the pharmacy, about the television, something small-- that uncanny shiver... that's the most valuable of it all, because it reminds you that it really is difference, and not difference-for-you.

The right way to understand this, the best way to respect it, is to remind yourself that this is as real and important as what you like. And if you work at it, you might understand, finally, that it is not for you. That it exists in sublime apathy to your frustration, your wonder, your very understanding. Me, I'm a tourist too. We all are, after a fashion. But god save me from letting that tourism devolve into this flat, ugly anger, this pure prejudice. I spent a lot of time in Indonesia growing up. And, yeah, I first remember the gamelan music, my father's friends, the food, the sensory overload. I also take care to  remember the most unforgettable memory, which I came to experience again and again, the foul, rotten smell of burning plastic, as the Balinese burned trashed in great piles, anywhere they wanted, mere yards from people, children. For awhile I took this as "the good, the bad," until finally I realized: none of it was for me.

Rogers, meanwhile... at one point, he is describing why Japanese humor is terrible-- and he is, of course, so proud of his sweeping generalizations, so fucking pleased with himself and his iconoclasm, his post-racialism-- and he says "comedians or ex-comedians to whom I express this opinion all sigh, say, 'You know, man, I'd love to get out there and do some edgy jokes, though that's just not how it works here, man. You have to play by the rules. You wouldn't understand. You're not Japanese.'" We're to take it, I suppose, that this is the real racism, that Japan's refusal to bend over and pander to his smug fucking hipster Orientalist persona is indicative of the country's essential lack of class. This coming, of course, from a man who feels that his presence in Japan, in the myopia of his own life, empowers him to understand it all: Japanese mores, Japanese psychology, Japanese people. Because, you see, the Japanese are so Japanese, so situated, so limited in their perspective. He, meanwhile, looks out from outside of any landscape. His whiteness is free of perspective or bias in its perfection. I know this feeling all too well. I rail against it, and then I put it on like armor, my perfect fucking white perspective. I will decry it until I am blue in the face, but I would never, ever give it up. I covet it. I need it. It's a shame, and I'm a hypocrite. The worst kind.

That comments section-- it chills me. When people talk about racial progress, when the talk about a post-racial America, a post-racial world.... . I cannot tell you how often I feel the incredible discomfort of being around white people-- decent white people, by and large, haters of the crude racism that they see as the only kind, resistant to the n-word and lynching but disinclined to see racism in anything else-- the discomfort of being around white people who are engaged in some enterprise that involves race, and are waiting. Waiting for an accusation of racism. Waiting for that moment when they can freak the fuck out that someone had the poor form to make an accusation of racism. It is palpable, you can feel it, this immense resentment at a lifetime of hearing and reading about race and racism, the immense backlash that is growing against movies and TV and magazines about slavery, the Civil War, the Amistad. That's an artifact of the push against antiblack racism, but it informs the way people react to a post like this one. Some of these fetishists, with their Bruce Lee movies and their shrines to Miyamoto and their AZN porn-- yes, they're better than the old school yellowman hater, of course they are. I believe that. But inside some of them, there's a killer, I suspect. I hope I'm wrong. Me, my family... we love a lot of Japanese stuff. Many people I care about do. But where is the line? And how do you understand your appropriation as an appropriation?

Rogers builds to a crescendo:
What I've realized, recently, is that the skeleton of rules of the "game" of "life" is just too visible here in Japan, where multiple perfunctory sentences are required to start any conversation, where you can use a certain positive verb to soften the preconceived impact of a negative verb form, where you can prove mathematically that you are a good person by drinking alongside everyone else, by being the last to go home every day, by ritualistically screaming in the middle of the street after a company party. Oh no! You messed up today! The company lost money. BONUS ROUND: At least you get the opportunity to apologize to the boss. People who can apologize well are respected! Be sure to apologize every time you pick up the phone! Miss one, and you'll lose points! Your score in this game is represented by the balance of your bank account. When you reach the goal, you have earned the right to play a game with much simpler rules.
If you think this is that far removed from talking about the essential barbarism of the ooga-booga black man, I think you're very naive. This is where we stand: we have come close to eliminating racist form, but not racist content; we are ruthless in destroying a Michael Richards but recoil at the thought of challenging Tyler Perry; we have conditioned our language but held onto the ideas; we have imagined, finally, that our interrogations of race are wicked if and only if they bear hatred or distaste. If, instead, they are expressed in the language of post-racialism but reflect the most boring, dog-eared racist ideology, they are praised for their honesty, their courage. I don't know if Rogers wrote the headline (Japan: It's Not Funny Anymore); often times, the bloggers don't. Either way, it's perfect. Because it understands, so completely, so accurately, that it was all a joke to begin with. Unlike those Japanese, with their sanitized humor, Rogers, man-- he had guts. He moved halfway around the world for this joke: a man alone, in the one of the largest cities on earth. He walks through crowded streets and, save for that occasional white face, he's the only one there.

Kotaku is a part of Gawker media, a consortium of blogs run by well meaning liberals from New York City. It is populated by bloggers and commenters who couldn't dream of themselves as anything other than enlightened, and I'm sure I would be proud to call many of them friend, had I the opportunity to get to know them. But many of them are both terrified and delighted by the idea of being accused of racism, fearful of the repercussions but bitterly desiring the opportunity to unleash their fury at the very idea-- and out would pour all the resentment, the anger, the built-up tension at being asked, for so long, to understand, and in their minds, at being subtly accused. This post, as far as I can tell, from a prominent, high-traffic blog, passed through the blogosphere without a whisper. This is post-racial America.

At the center of it all is Tim Rogers. I have some sympathy for the guy. He has merely mistaken his dissatisfaction with his life for dissatisfaction with those around him, I'd wager. But while he cannot control his attitudes, he is responsible for his words, and they are ugly business. I wonder how his day went. He walked among Japanese people. Worked with them. Probably ate with them. Every moment, I imagine, he sees as a statement of his enlightenment. How could he possibly be anything less than perfectly righteous? That's the thing, about him, about all of them. They'll never, ever consider it. The idea that they aren't the best to judge, well... it puts the burden of judgment on people who aren't people, people who are an empty set of customs and mores and etiquettes, as capable of judgment as the video games and cartoons that set it all off in the first place.

Where to go, from here? I don't know. I have just put my shoulder to the wheel and winnowed away the space for critique of whiteness that is free from whiteness-in-fact, my whiteness-in-fact. And I kind of feel like a bastard for saying these things about this Rogers, because he's just some dude. See I have fury for his repugnant attitude, and am sickened by the praise for his bravery, but he is real to me, in some way, and the Japanese I am ostensibly defending are merely a class. A fairer vision of a class than his, I do think, a friendlier one, a more just one. But the truth is, they aren't any more real to me, right now, than they are to him. I must learn all of my lessons the hard way.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Actual PC Games















And yet, can I get Madden for my PC anymore? No, of course not.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Don't change your jersey number

Lebron James is switching his jersey number from 23 to 6. This follows a change, in the last couple of years, of Kobe Bryant from number 8 to number 24. As a lifelong Chicago Bulls fan, I first want to say, obsessed over the greatest much? (I get it, Kobe, one higher than MJ! I suppose if your career can't hold a candle to Jordan*, you might as well beat him in jersey number.) What I really want to ask, though, is if either of these two were ever a kid.

Despite all of the propaganda, kids can be miserable, mean little bastards. Of course they can be wonderful and sweet and smart too. Often the same kids can be both. But one thing that doesn't change is that kids are capable of extreme cruelty with one another, and two central ways they go about this is in the arenas of appearance and class. Basketball jerseys function in both realms. Jerseys are expensive. You can find some cheaper ones, but the "real," coveted ones can be ridiculously expensive. (And kids know the difference.)

James and Bryant wear the league's two most popular jerseys. There are thousands and thousands of these things out there. Now, it's come to my attention that this isn't popular knowledge, but it's the case: people make fun of you if you have an out of date jersey. If you have a player's jersey and he gets traded or signed elsewhere, and you keep wearing the old one, people will make fun of you. It's exactly the sort of thing a kid might use to ridicule another kid. So when Bryant switched from 8 to 24, he pretty much screwed over hundreds of thousands of kids with his jersey. The richer ones could afford to buy the new edition. The poorer kids couldn't. And now the new best player in the league is doing it too. I just wonder, were these guys never kids? Do they not think about this stuff?

I do wonder if the socioeconomic class of the two of them comes into effect. Bryant was an affluent kid, famously the offspring of former pro Jellybean Bryant, and lived in a tony suburb of Philadelphia along with Italy. James I'm a little less sure of, but from what I understand I believe he lived a comfortable middle class childhood. Regardless, I wish they'd take a little time and think about the ramifications a bit more before they do something fickle.

*Since now, to my incredulity, some people think there is some sort of a debate: Jordan won 6 titles as unquestionably the best player and first option, won 6 Finals MVPs, 5 regular season MVPs, 10 All NBA First teams, 9 All Defensive First Teams, a Defensive Player of the Year award, and made 14 All-Star Teams. He has the record for highest scoring average in league history in both the regular season and the postseason. He scored more a game than Kobe, shot for a better percentage, rebounded more, got more assists, more steals, and turned the ball over less. All of those career totals, meanwhile, reflect Jordan playing into his 40s at a significantly reduced level, hurting all of his percentages, whereas Bryant's statistics stand now when he is in his prime, before a similar regression. There's no debate.

Update: Young Will from the League points out that James actually had a hard childhood.