“Modern” Life

I heard a talk a while back from an art/architectural historian, I think it was, who gave a somewhat personal and broad definition of pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism. He expressed it in very simple and concise terms because he wanted to talk about Doric columns and crap. I intend to elaborate a bit, but according to his working definitions:

A pre-modernist is someone who is not aware of other cultural identities, or is barely aware of them. Where he encounters other cultures/peoples, he doesn’t recognize them as fully human. A pre-modernist thinks of himself as one of THE people, the TRUE people, a chosen people. He is a member of the real and authentic culture, while every other human is less than he in some intrinsic way.

Pre-modernists having a round-table philosophical discussion on the nature of life, the universe and hair care products.

Think tribal early theological man here. Not that such thinking doesn’t exist anymore. I’d argue that a good third of humans still think they are somehow superior to other humans based on deeply held irrational beliefs. A pre-modernist may write poetry, but only so later generations can continue to chant it by the fire in a language that only he really understands (he’ll insist…) wearing a goat head as a hat while banging on a skull drum.

A modernist is much more aware of his surroundings. He very well knows there are other cultures and peoples in the world. Lots of them. But a modernist is convinced that his culture is the best, and it is his duty, privilege, manifest destiny, etc. to show that superiority through the gamut of cultural modalities: empire, war, slavery, exploitation of natural resources, etc.

19th Century Gentlemen
The pursuits of the 19th century gentleman included fox hunting, empire building, Botany and genocide.

And along with those things he has all the rationalizations to go with them ranging from the mandate of Heaven right down through the paternalistic desire to bring “civilization” (the modernist’s version of it, that is) to the poor, downtrodden savages just aching to serve/emulate their colonialist masters, thus saving their souls just before they die of smallpox, get used as cannon-fodder to squash other backward (but slightly more independent) barbarians, choke to death in mines, or otherwise ground up into grist by the modernist’s relentless gears of progress. It’s hard to really differentiate between pre-modernists and modernists these days other than to note the scope and scale of their activities. In practice, they wind up using much the same vocabulary. A modernist writes sonnets or talks about iambic pentameter and thinks Byron or Kipling or Tennyson was witty as shit because he’s been told so, and he believes it.

A post-modernist not only realizes that his is not the only culture in existence, but also has the sneaking suspicion that it might not be the best one ever devised by humans or gifted to them by the Grace of God. He might even be part of a culture that is made up largely of vicious, murdering shitheels, desperately rationalizing the confluence of geography, luck and circumstance that has lead to their current technological/resource advantage over other cultures, and attributing their depredations on some some arbitrary pool of generalized, yet conflicting, social constructs from which they pick and choose on a case by case basis in order to justify the latest horror inflicted upon their fellow humans.

Hippy? Hipster? Homeless?
—sigh— Labels…

A post-modernist realizes that, hey, maybe the female of the species is human too, so he takes off his bra and burns it (figuratively) along with the ladies, and he roots for the murderous underdog trying to murder his murderous oppressors, votes with his wallet in addition to his actual votes, and considers (but doesn’t actually engage in) composting. A post-modernist doesn’t need singers to be melodious or cars to be shiny, and doesn’t think it has to rhyme to be a poem, so every sentence is a stanza… somewhere else. There’s a lot of post-modernists running around these days. They wear the latest clothes that firmly identify them as individualists, just like all the other individualists.

So, at this point, I’ll add a category that the arty architect didn’t mention: the post-post-modernist. For starters, the post-post-modernist wonders who the fuck the post-modernist is going around advocating for people and somehow managing to make it all about himself again? Because that’s some Citizen Kane bullshit right there. The post-post modernist knows cultures come and go; they don’t even really last a generation. It’s all a construct anyway, but it’s unavoidable, so even if you flip the board, you’ll just have to pick it up and keep playing because not playing is part of the game too. The post-post-modernist watches The Simpsons and listens to Wagner with the same intensity, calls pasta by its individual forms, uses they, them, and their as singular pronouns and writes to be read. Or not.

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A Not-So-Quick Note About Where We Are Now

I got the “whatever happened to personal responsibility?” argument with someone today, once yesterday and, weirdly, twice the day before. Four conversations in three days on three different topics. (The same one twice.) The exact details of the situations aren’t terribly important. What’s important is that it seems like that argument gets used as a kind of smokescreen these days. It’s about “personal responsibility” and then… pretty much nothing after that. Just “personal responsibility” followed by a mike drop. What that actually means, and how it might influence society is actually an important issue. It is the opposite of a “’nuff said” argument the way it so often used, and does not nullify the need for efforts that so often get dismissively labelled “the Nanny State” or some such thing. So, I’m going to try to give it a little perspective.

I appreciate a call for personal responsibility as much as the next guy. We do need more personal responsibility in America. However, when it comes to things like gun violence, vaccination of children by parents, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, etc. one must consider such an effort in the following context:

You’re talking about a population that is eating detergent pods right now.

Sure, that’s a somewhat pat example, but I defy you to find any given period in your lifetime when that kind of thing wasn’t going on. Jackass: the Movie isn’t just a series of movies; I’d argue that it’s a cultural byproduct. That’s just one example of culture being reflected back at culture. If you disagree, I both admire your optimism and think the burden of proof is on you, not me. I look forward to the counter argument.

With that in mind, there are two options:

The first is a broad restructuring of society to focus on fact-based learning, critical thinking and intellectual integrity to create a culture of personal responsibility that counters the last several decades (we can only take responsibility for the last generation or so) of intellectual deterioration in about a third of the population that will, in the long run, reduce that third to a quarter or maybe even a fifth over the next 10-20 years.

The second is a more immediate system of warning labels and “awareness” campaigns to keep the drooling, gibbering morons from walking into sharp objects, putting everything in their mouths and having unprotected sex with other idiots that they’ve contacted through their access to a global communications system that’s on a device they keep in their pocket.

Of course, these are not mutually exclusive efforts. It’s a long-term care versus triage kind of thing, and a two-pronged approach (each with many smaller, sharper, more carefully aimed prongs on it) is the way to go. But we need to face that it’s almost certainly too late to do much with the old dogs at this point. It’s too late to use information based on data to try to influence the behavior of a huge percentage of the population for whom science, history and logic are all a mysterious whirlwind of white noise in the background of whatever emotive shadow puppet show their watching on the wall of Plato’s cave.

So, sure, we should do the personal responsibility thing too, but that’s not going to kick in fast enough to stop a health crisis like the tens of thousands killed by handguns, the rising numbers of children catching diseases that we should be on the verge of eradicating, or hooking up with someone they met on Tinder.

We need to do both, not one or the other. Yes, it’s a personal responsibility issue, but it’s not JUST a personal responsibility issue, and personal responsibility is a broad, long-term solution, not the cure all for more immediate problems. We can’t rely on it as response to broad demographic problems unless we realize what it entails, and recognize it’s limitations. Or just swipe left.

Never Let Me Go… Going… Gone.

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ishiguro probably isn’t the guy to read if you’re looking for closure in your literary experience. He’s the crown prince of the anti-climax, the pope of pointlessness, the CEO of ennui.

His methodology for doing so is downright demented genius. In the future, if reality show producers can implant cameras directly into the brainpans of contestants they’d still not produce something so focused on the minutiae of ego and dramatics in the face of everyday events. They’d still not capture the depths of Ishiguro’s prose. It’d require some sort of juicing equipment to squeeze the liquid pain right out of the neurons to get something equivalent. Honestly, it’s something of a bizarre experience. I got quite sucked into this one, but the whole time I was asking myself, “Why? Why am I reading this? I could not be doing something right now. I don’t have to read about someone else not not doing anything either…. Do I?”

I guess I do. I went right along for the ride. The fact that it’s a roller coaster that never really has any thrills doesn’t seem to enter into the equation. It just goes up, up, up, clicking away, building to a whole height of expectation and tension.  Just when you think you’re going to slip into freefall, the ride suddenly starts back up again, leaving you unsatisfied but still in a state of anticipation, so you stay in your seat as the ride climbs inexorably to a new height from which to plummet.  And then you get out. Next customer please.

So, with all that abstraction out of the way, let’s get to some confusing specifics, like how one would classify this novel. First off, it’s barely science fiction. There is cloning as will become obvious to anyone relatively soon after they pick up the book, but if Ms. Atwood can say that her work is really “speculative fiction” rather than science fiction, then I think a very similar argument can be made here. The existence of clones and mentioning some genetic improvement possible on the human genome are the only science fiction elements. Well, that and an apparently preternatural super-Englishness, if you will. More on that in a bit.

The premise of the book is that clones are bred, raised and then harvested as organ donors, which is hardly an original thought, let alone for something published in 2005. Where Ishiguro does differ is in portraying the subject of such a program in stark, emotional terms. He lavishes them with all the pettiness and foibles of kids in a more or less dominant and oppressive social structure. To wit: a British boarding school. It’s not really a boarding school, but a near equivalent for the raising and housing of future organ donor clones. However, it has all the elements of such an environment that will be recognizable to anyone who attended any sort of public schooling: bullies, teasing, humiliation, cliques, best frenemies, ridiculously empowered administrators with little meaningful authority, etc. In brief: the adolescent public/private school experience, and all the social interaction nightmares that entails.

Within that context, the book is very British. Or, rather, it’s very English. Hyper-English, with some expatriated Japanese self-sacrificial, suicidal servility on top.  (Which is no accident.  Ishiguro was born Nagasaki, and he and his family moved to England in 1960 when he was five.) Indeed, it is very upper-middle/lower-upper class English. Here’s a scene to illustrate what I mean:

But Miss Lucy was now moving her gaze over the lot of us. ‘I know you don’t mean any harm. But there’s just too much talk like this. I hear it all the time, it’s been allowed to go on, and it’s not right.’ I could see more drops coming off the gutter and landing on her shoulder, but she didn’t seem to notice. ‘If no one else will talk to you,’ she continued, ‘then I will. The problem, as I see it, is that you’ve been told and not told. You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way. But I’m not. If you’re going to have decent lives, then you’ve got to know and not properly. None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day. Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do. You’re not like the actors you watch on your videos, you’re not even like me. You were brought into this world for a purpose, and your futures, all of them, have been decided. So you’re not to talk that way any more. You’ll be leaving Hailsham before long, and it’s not so far off, the day you’ll be preparing for your first donations. You need to remember that. If you’re to have decent lives, you have to know who you are and what lies ahead of you, every one of you.’

At that, all of the students, rise up and… go with it! ‘Well, so what? We already know all that.’ That’s the reaction. Seriously, that’s a quote from the book.

Can you imagine that scene playing out in a school in some other English speaking part of the world where calm, under-stated reserve isn’t a fetishized social value? I don’t see that even happening in a British/English school, mind you, but the idea of placing that scene in Scotland, Australia or–Heaven forbid–the United States just doesn’t jibe. Nonetheless, the point of Ishiguro’s story is that he never gives you a resolution for that injustice. In nearly any other piece of entertainment, one would take that kind of speech as a call for revolution. But Ishiguro will give no satisfaction to that emotional desire for injustice, build up, rebellion and resolution. In truth, such resolution is a rare commodity in real life–not nearly as pat and simple as it is generally portrayed in fiction–and in that sense he’s giving us a much more truthful representation of humanity.  And if one looks at the current state of the world, it’s hard not to recognize those self-same qualities in every nation on Earth.  They’re just not quite so British about it….

So, if you go through the whole book wondering when the penny is going to drop, it never does. Nothing drops. There is no penny.

Instead, we get a strange piece of literature, but one that is an illustration of how most people really fail stand up for anything. Even in the tumult of massive social change, there are only a few true participants. The rest are merely in attendance, lend little more than their numbers to the unfolding of events, and really have no more connection to events than to include themselves with that barest of participation trophies that we award ourselves, and upon which we place so much significance, but which have so little actual meaning, the feeble admonition, “I was was there.” What Ishiguro describes is a society where there are no movers and shakers, just a mindlessly grinding social machine that eats itself like ouroboros on Quaaludes. He’s showing us the commonality of humanity that led so many to walk impassively into the gas chambers while so many more looked on, that allows so many of us to turn a blind eye to the suffering around us right now, that prevents us–even as we espouse views that directly oppose such things–from doing anything in the face of the predation of the few on the many that we see every single day.

In doing so, he dips into some Orwellian language for his vocabulary that is chilling. The clones are not clones, of course, but students, then carers (when they provide company to their fellows as they go through the surgical procedures) and then donors. Their instructors are not teachers, but “guardians.” Clones do not die when they are finally put to death. Instead, they “complete.” These are horrific terms delivered with the deadpan indifference that is brutal, but completely recognizable in a world where newscasters and politicians use terms like “collateral damage” to describe the gory dismemberment of civilians with industrialized killing machines with cold, calculating cynicism.

If Ishiguro has a fault it is in the repetitive nature of his plotting and anti-climaxes. That is, his technique is to foreshadow a situation with a term or even just a word in a way that tantalizes the reader, and then over the course of the next few paragraphs, pages or even the whole book, reveal what he hinted at. It’s a fairly standard technique, but in this case, that foreshadowing inevitably leads to an anti-climax. For example, Ishiguro ends Chapter Eleven with one character, Tommy, discovering our protagonist, Kathy, leafing through some pornographic magazines. When Tommy asks her what she was looking for she gets coy, and Ishiguro ends the chapter with this sentence: “I did tell him eventually, but that wasn’t until a few months later, when we went on our Norfolk trip.”

That hint leads to what will be an anti-climax. To get to that anti-climax, however, we have another chapter with a trip to Norfolk that has it’s own set up, build-up, and anti-climax, and within that chapter there are a few minor set ups, build-ups and anti-climaxes. The whole structure of the book is a broad, looping series of set ups, build-ups and anti-climaxes until you get to the final one that was set up in the first chapter and then resolved (or not, as it is, after all, an anti-climax) in the last. From a structural standpoint, it’s quite an accomplished piece of work.

But it’s not a thriller. It’s all angst all the time. Angst and what folks today sometimes call “butthurt.” You could make a drinking game out of the number of times people stomp off in a huff over some triviality or another. The particulars of every expression and posture of characters are related in sometimes agonizing detail, and it does get repetitive. By Chapter Sixteen when I came across this paragraph:

But to explain what we were talking about that evening, I’ll have to go back a little bit. In fact, I’ll have to go back several weeks, to the earlier part of the summer….”

I actually blurted out “Oh, fer Chrissake!” and had to put the thing down for a while. At certain points, this book could try Jane Austen’s patience….

Do I recommend it or not?

I can’t give this one a thumb’s up for most folks. The subject matter isn’t at all difficult, and it did read well for me personally in that under-stated, Oh-so-English way, but thematically I think there are some real problems. He is using the idea of clones and organ donation to tell a story about the human condition, but that basic premise is already a dated one, and arguably has been dated for a long time. For all of it’s accomplishment in terms of theme, structure and emotive content, the story itself is highly affected and contrived. Not one character thinks to run away, to challenge the system that they are a part of, to even contemplate resistance. They don’t even discuss it. That means either these clones are modified away from humanity so that they aren’t actually human–and we should, therefore, not be as concerned about their fate–or that presentation itself is ultimately inaccurate. The closest we get to bucking the system is a response to a rumor that under certain circumstances their fate might be “deferred” for a few years. As a result, the accomplishments of the book are vitiated, and even in appreciating them, we have to recognize them as abstractions. The lessons to be learned from the book are not direct, meaningful ones, but remote and generalized so far as to make them quite thin.

If you have an interest in structure and what I have to describe as an artfully depressing story, then I can highly recommend this one. For the average reader who isn’t interested in those things? Well, there are social satire/authoritative books all over the place, and if we didn’t already accept the fundamental humanity of clones then any number of more direct, action/adventure stories that precede this one wouldn’t exist. So, go read Orwell or Atwood for examples of speculative fiction. Those books might not be as carefully poignant as Ishiguro’s version, but they are more profound.

I gave it three (of five) stars on Goodreads, which probably isn’t even remotely fair; it’s a much more accomplished piece of work than that middling rating conveys.  But if anything one of the lessons of this book is that life isn’t fair, and that such things are personal and cruel even when we want them to be just and fair, so I’m sticking by that assessment.

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Criticizing Critical Thinking

A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information AgeA Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age by Daniel J. Levitin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the kind of book that should be distributed to high school juniors and seniors, and upon which tests should be composed which would determine whether or not students were to be issued diplomas. Maybe not this particular text. Levitin is writing for a broader market and more general audience than the average or below average high schooler whose mental powers need some sort of hammering into shape. But if not this one then one very similar.

As for adults, Levitin’s target audience, all I can say is that if the majority of lessons in this book aren’t ones that they’ve already absorbed, then reading this book alone might not be enough to penetrate. It’s remedial, but not so remedial that it can trick out an old dog. I’m increasingly finding a cold comfort in the words of the dearly departed George Carlin who said,

My point being, it might be too late for a lot of ’em. If you consider for a moment (using some of the mathematical probability ideas expressed in this book, or just some simple math) the lower half of that bottom half, then look around at the world in which we find ourselves, George’s axiom becomes pretty clear. We live in an age of unprecedented access to information. A vast amount of the knowledge of the human race is at our very fingertips. Yet, even with access to the World Library, tens of millions of Americans are unable to make a simple binary decision without being influenced by the most shallow and obvious lies. Now, we could argue that that is due to an equally unprecedented amount of disinformation to go along with it, and while that’s true, I think it ignores the basic problem. Even with access to knowledge, there is an unimaginably large number of people unwilling or unable to understand basic facts. They aren’t just Luddites who reject progress; they reject any value of truth itself. Think of the lower half of Carlin’s bottom half–the people upon whom that “average” person thinks, “Wow, what a dummy…” and reflect that such a person represents the top edge of the bottom 25% percent of the population. That’s well over 75,000,000 people in this country alone, the nominal democratic leader of the Western world.

Looked at like that, it’s kind of surprising that Vitamin Trump only got 62,984,825 votes.  I’m sure that remaining 12 million weren’t of age, or couldn’t find the polls, or were at home watching The Price is Tac-Toe Family Feud or wandered off into the night with a ballot stuck to their shoe.

With that in mind, I’m not so confident that the idealistic basis of this book can actually happen. The liars are in business for good, and they are thriving. What’s worse is that at this point, their audience is effectively insane. People who believe in chemtrails and that we faked the moon landing are almost quaintly idiosyncratic now. There’s a huge swath of the population who cannot entertain reality even when confronted with it in favor of a fantasy construct in which it is truly they who are the smart ones. Oh, sure, they don’t read books, or understand the math, or know anything about art, or history, or SAT vocabulary words, or science, or engineering, or how to compose a grammatical sentence, or cook without a microwave, but really THEY are the intelligent ones. Because all those things are for the smarty-pants, who are really dumb. Being smart isn’t about knowing things, or knowing how to do things, or what things are, or how they work. There’s a core center of instinctive intelligence that is much, much more importanter… importantly? importantism? Whatevah. You know whaddImean. Words are for those smarty-pants anyway.

How is a book that relates the basic workings of statistics going to compete with that mindset? These people would take their cues from The Real Housewives of Narnia before factoring the probability of life saving medical procedures to be performed on their relatives.

If we were to break up the population into thirds rather than halves as does Saint George, then I suppose it’s possible that a book like this one might be able to help some of the folks in that middle third… maybe the middle third of that middle third. Much to either side of that and you start running into people for whom it is a repetition of the stats class they took as an AP course in high school on one side and the people who think the layaway program at TJ Maxx is a really good deal on the other.

Still, it might be a good idea to start walking around with a few copies of this book under your arm to hand out to people who confront you with the latest round of, say, Russian-Collusion-with-the-White-House-by-way-of-Fox-News Hillary Clinton propaganda at the counter of your local diner while you’re just minding your own business trying to eat a fucking tuna melt. (That’s a true story, BTW.) Just slip a copy of this book across the counter towards them and see if they cringe away, hissing like Gollum. “Bookses! It readses bookses! They burns us, my Precious-Hannity! Burnsssss ussss!”

That one’s for you, brah:

Gollum J Trump

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Completely Change Your Life in 30 Seconds for Dummies

How to Completely Change Your Life in 30 SecondsHow to Completely Change Your Life in 30 Seconds by Earl Nightingale

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read a bunch of Earl Nightingale decades ago. How to Win Friends and Speak in Public. That sort of thing. I picked this one up because it was literally lying around the house, and figured a little motivational prose might be a good way to clear my mind from the Trumpiness of the era in which we find ourselves. “Couldn’t hurt…” I thought. And it can’t. Not really. Not in a material sense. Not much. I don’t think so, but I’m not positive.

There’s a joke/anecdote I like to tell from time to time when talking with people about our health. If I ever write a book on the subject, it’ll be called Eat Less, Exercise More, and the entire text will be those four words, repeated as a mantra (or like the pages of “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” in The Shining) and I’ll just sit back and let the cash and accolades roll in. I mention it because I remember Nightingale being more than a little relentlessly cheerful from reading his work in the past, and much of that is the kind of elaboration that starts to ring as superfluous very quickly in something longer than an article in a fitness magazine. So, in this case the secret to completely changing your life in 30 seconds that Nightingale is talking about could be boiled down to four words:

Make plans; think positive.

Most of the book is an exercise in restating those four words as elaborately and with as much enthusiasm as possible. Make plans mindfully. Make positive plans. Make plans cheerfully. Make good plans. Plan to think positively. Make happy plans. Make happy plans to plan your positive plans with cheerful plans that are planned positively then plan to do your plans positively as well. It’s less tiresome than that, but that’s the basic idea.

Where I think Nightingale goes off the rails is in two major bits of rhetoric.

Too happy 01
Every day is Christmas in the Nightingale-verse!

First, his use of superlatives and absolutes borders on the pathological. Saying things doesn’t make them so, but you’d never know that from reading tens of thousands of words of positive affirmations that is any given Nightingale book. In fact, his zeal for optimism transcends optimism itself to become evangelical. After a few chapters of this book in particular, it becomes clear that this isn’t a methodology so much as a belief system with all the saints, angels and faithful that such a religion implies (Nightingale is the pope in this metaphor.) And like any dogma, the promises of salvation are hyperbolic to an extreme. Nightingale’s version of the ultimate, karmic fairness of the universe is that all effort is returned to the person who put it forth with perfect and total reciprocity. It’s a “law of nature” he insists, like gravity. It is a lovely idea, but it is no natural law, and is also one that fails as soon as anyone who can gather just a moment of objectivity actually observes the real world.

Very quickly Nightingale’s work stops being about how to change your life, and about how to pretend your life isn’t what it’s really like because admitting fault and failure is tantamount to being at fault and failing. His account of the CEO who would insist at every possible problem that “That’s good!” is simply insane (and probably not true. Imagine someone coming to that boss and saying he has to take three days off for bereavement to be confronted with “That’s good!” like some manic version of the Joker in a business suit.) Not everything is an opportunity for growth and profit. There really are setbacks and things that must be overcome, and even in overcoming them we are less than we would be had that situation not been encountered at all. Not all tragedies are learning experiences, and anyone who tells you different is in denial. The effort to reject that basic reality is called post-rationalization and at a certain point the insistence to recast everything within such a narrow and illusory framework smacks of embracing a fantasy world more than the incremental and effortful work required to make one’s life a little bit better than it was the day before. Three chapters into Nightingale’s text I was pretty sure the mindset he insists is the only way to achieve success could be replicated by a blow to the head and a lifetime prescription of Prozac. Like the drug addled and delusional in a psych ward, firmly rooted in a world of perceptive illusion, those who embrace his ideal wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference between accomplishment and failure. “You’ve got a narcissistic personality disorder,” a doctor might say, only to get the standard response as if from some grinning automaton, “That’s good!”

Too Happy 03
Covered in blood and gore?   That’s good!

The second problem with Nightingale’s rhetoric is how reductive and dismissive it is of failure. Those who fail in his estimation are utterly responsible for that failure. Reward for effort is, he insists, a fundamental law of the universe, so any failure can only be the result of a lack of effort on the part of the person putting it forth. Further, if we “become what we think about” as he repeats is the basis of all success, then people who don’t achieve success are at fault on a personal and psychic level, not because the economy shifted, nor because of the circumstances of their birth, and certainly not because their efforts were stolen or sabotaged by rivals. There is no room for such things in the Nightingale worldview, and he has all the examples he needs to prove the point, no matter how much he may misrepresent those examples or how exceptional they might prove compared to reality. Yes, there are counter examples of people who succeed despite any of those things, succeed where others fail, or who take long odds and win, but those examples come from the whole of human experience, and many, if not most, of those stories are very likely the result of a bit of creative self-assessment from people who really succeeded through no meaningful effort of their own, or who succeed wildly out of proportion with the amount of effort they actually put in. Citing them has all the normative value of a lightning strike. Not only does the real world not work that way because of any number of issues ranging from random chance to the zeitgeist in which we abide, but Nightingale insists not just by implication but expressly that those who have failed have only themselves to blame (he says it in much nicer terms than that, but he does talk quite a bit about people who are at fault for their own bad attitudes and, therefore, failure in life as he assesses it.) Within the construct of Nightingale’s ideas, that failure can be based on no other influence than their own mental powers of positivity that just happen to line up perfectly with his own personal success or—at least—the version of it that he is presenting himself. So, in the end, if you fail that’s your fault, but if you win it’s all thanks to the ideas he describes or, in short, to him. You’re welcome.

Always look on the bright side of life

Or I should say Him there, because Nightingale does use the Bible as a source for an awful lot of his ideas. The Bible spends a lot more time telling people not to eat shellfish than to think positively, but Nightingale cherry-picks from the Bible those ideas that fit into the mental construct he insists is the only right way to look at the world. And, of course, where they don’t fit, he “interprets” them until they do. That’s a process that certainly predates Nightingale. It’s not like religious leaders, politicians and pundits didn’t selectively read passages from religious texts until he came along to show them how to do it.

Nigel Farage
I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.

Nightingale was not the first to apply that process to business and personal success itself either. It’s not hard to hear John Harvey Kellogg echoing all the way from Battle Creek in Nightingale’s pie in the sky fanciful writings, for instance. But he was almost certainly the most successful at it of his time, and though I’m sure he’d claim that was all due to the methods he applied, I’m very confident that he is just tapping into that same emotional weakness that people have to be accepted by the other primates in the jungle than much to do with actual financial, personal, social or even emotional success.

None of that is to say that a positive outlook is something of NO merit. It does have a lot of utility. There are a range of studies that show how it influences perception and how one is perceived. You can get more with a smile and a handshake than without one. Physically, a positive attitude taps into the same psychological conditions that lead to things like the placebo effect, hormonal balance and aids all kind of things like digestion and oxygen intake. It’s a real thing. It’s just not the end all, be all of human existence, and like moderation itself, must be taken in moderation. The guilt of failure that Nightingale puts on people is the dark side of his superlative use of language, and the zeal with which he presents his convictions. The sense of entitlement of those who have economic advantages and who justify themselves based on things that they never put effort into, were gained by chance, or even acquired unethically are all justified by the language of Nightingale’s ideas. And what’s worse, he doesn’t just fail to acknowledge that they exist, he insists that they do not. “You are what you think about.” All trouble is temporary or a blessing in disguise. In the long run, that lends itself to the most tragic kind of failure and collapse—the kind that we all must face as part of our fundamental humanity, and is incredibly vulnerable because the fragility of the logic means emotionally his ideas are even more delicate and, thus, easily shattered. To embrace optimism to the degree that Nightingale insists isn’t just an impossible standard, it is to live in a desperately delusional world of denial that is always on the brink of despair. That doesn’t sound like much of a route to success to me.

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Too Happy 04
Have a nice day!

The National Review Learns a Thing… And Mad Now! Mad! Maaaaad!

I suppose it had to happen eventually. The folks at The National Review learned a thing that didn’t come from a 19th century economics treatise on factory management.

This month, 3-4 decades late, they heard about the Bechdel Test and, predictably, they no like-y. So, words about it. Not smart words, of course. They don’t appear to have understood it, know anything about it’s application, or perused the materials from which they derive their examples. But those aren’t the kinds of things that stop an ardent crypto-intellectual who calls him/herself a “conservative” in a way that would probably have made Orwell dry-heave. They are, in fact, the soil from which they grow. Like weeds. And not the good kind that you can put in a pipe. Here’s a snippet:

Now, I’m not even going to get into why that particular example adds up to stupid. If it’s not readily apparent then explaining why it doesn’t make sense isn’t going to penetrate. Let’s just say that if you’re a fan of that kind of argument then, well, this article is full of it….

For those so inclined, here’s the full article: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/449340/bechdel-test-feminist-litmus-test-movies-useless-political-correctness

Donald Trump Is Not Hitler, Part 1.3: Where Do We Go From Here?

I wrote this up in response to a Huffington Post article last January:


HUFFPO isn’t usually my muse. The stories on that site often have a certain word vomit quality that I find off-putting, which means HUFFPO-inspired bloviation becomes “a dog returning to it’s own vomit” literally/figuratively, and I have to admit that is more than a bit incestuous.  But we’re talking about the Man Who Would Be Dating His Daughter here, so let’s not get too worried about inspiration. Normally, I rely upon a kind of incipient wit and distrust in the intellectual powers of mankind for my political thoughts, and that seems to work out pretty well.  Nonetheless, I’m reposting it here because it was on Facebook, and Facebook makes me kind of sad these days, but also because people are actively talking about the 25th Amendment on this Fourth of July Weekend (on Tuesday) and I think these ideas are worth contributing to the blogosphere in that context.

There’s four options as far as I can see:

Trump Golf1. Trump will resign. The presidency is a job. Trump’s never had a job. Oh, he and his supporters will say he works hard, is a successful business man, etc. But the reality is that he’s a guy who inherited wealth, has spent most of his life squandering it, and been propped up by what is, effectively, a system of economic class exploitation. That’s not the same as having a job. All those folks who complain that the Obama administration, or just the left in general, have been waging “class warfare” are, essentially, right. But they’re right in that essential sense that the class war has been fought for decades and everyone below the upper classes has been losing. There’s a class war in the U.S. alright, but it’s the upper class preying upon everyone else. And Trump, through no initiative of his own, has been a beneficiary of that. Whether someone who has never actually had a job can suddenly step into the presidency for very long is a pretty dubious proposition. Traditionally, Republicans put in an awful lot fewer hours than Democrats in office, but it’s still an actual job, and that’s not the kind of thing Trump has been prepared for.

25th Amendment
The 25th Amendment, strangely, doesn’t say a thing about colluding with foreign powers.

2. The 25th Amendment. This one is basically about the succession, and what happens should the President become “incapacitated” or otherwise unable to do his duty. Now, this has been pretty seriously ignored and bypassed in the past (look up our illustrious first female president, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, whose husband’s stroke, invalid condition, and seclusion made her effectively a shadow president for a time) but it’s hard to see that happening again in the 21st century. In the early 20th century a president could be secluded for weeks. Bush was in seclusion for days after 9/11 and it was so obvious that even his own party started criticizing him. Trump will very likely start exhibiting the symptoms of his several mental disorders over the coming months, and that could easily be grounds to declare hm unfit. Of course, then we’d wind up with Mike Pence at the helm….

Trump - Impeachment Clock3. As this article suggests, impeachment. Personally, I don’t see this happening before the midterms. It’s possible that Trump could be impeached by a Congress dominated by his own party, but that just doesn’t seem very likely to me. There could be any number of bases for impeachment. There’s already fodder enough given Trump’s refusal to divest from his financial conflicts of interest to his ties with the Russians, the mafia, let alone his activities in office. Still, we’ll have to see how this plays out. And we should bear in mind at this point that under Bill Clinton the bar for Impeachment was lowered so far as to include lying about getting a blowjob being cast as obstruction of justice.

4. The fourth option is that he serves his full four year term. Hell, maybe he’ll get a second term, or repeal the 22nd Amendment and become “President for Life” like any number of other tinpot dictators. Then he could just delegate the actual work of the presidency to his lieutenants, setting up a kind of Henry VIII-style monarchy in which some functionary or another has to fall on his/er sword whenever things go wrong. That looks to me like what he wants to do anyway, and would appear to be the deal struck with Pence. Hell, at this point, anything is possible.

King Trump
Just three more wives and he’ll beat his hero’s record!

Not a lot has changed since January.  Well, things have changed in the sense that the United States is a laughingstock around the world, and the core of our freedoms are being corroded from the inside, but when it comes to the solutions we have the same basic options.

What Passes For Intellect These Days….

Intellectuals and SocietyIntellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is a fascinating idea: a study upon the nature and influence of intellectuals themselves upon society. What more appropriate group for study than the people dedicated to study? Many people have described the nature of academia, or the processes of research and development in American life, but as far as I know, nobody has turned the spotlight on intellectuals as a group. That lack means that such an analysis is not only warranted, but even needful.

Unfortunately, Sowell fails in this analysis on every meaningful level. In describing the errors of what he deems to be the intellectuals of American society he makes several fundamental errors that fatally doom this effort to describe the processes of intellect, and he does so in ways that should have been obvious to anyone before they sat down to write. In brief, in his criticism of intellectuals in American culture, Sowell commits—almost systematically—every error of logic, shallow misinterpretation and sin of omission that he accuses his subjects of performing. In many cases he commits the error he is describing an intellectual of committing AS HE IS DESCRIBING IT. He does so without any apparent recognition of his own participation in the exact same processes in a way that must be recognized as irretrievably hypocritical if not pathetically naïve.

I can’t fully address the fallacious errors of this book because it is so rife with them that doing so would require a similarly lengthy text. Let’s just say that the logical errors are so fundamental, and Sowell’s embracing of them so complete, that they appear on nearly every single page, in every example, and in his every argument.

Let’s start with his first and probably least offensive error of logic. Sowell begins by defining intellect, its role in society and the differences between intellect and intelligence, or even that elusive concept: wisdom. “The capacity to grasp and manipulate complex ideas is enough to define intellect,” according to his definition. Or, more succinctly: “Intelligence minus judgment equals intellect.” Now, right off, we’ve got a problem because that’s simply not the operative definition of intellect in the common understanding of the word. Here’s what a dictionary has as a definition:

1. the faculty of the mind by which one knows or understands, as distinguished from that by which one feels or wills; capacity for thinking and acquiring knowledge.

2. capacity for thinking and acquiring knowledge of a high or complex order.

3. a particular mind or intelligence, esp. of a high order.

4. a person possessing a great capacity for thought and knowledge.

5. minds collectively.

Intellect is not intelligence less judgment. Judgment is part of understanding. You can no more divorce judgment from intellect than you can remove knowledge, thought or comprehension. One of the reasons we do not have an artificial intelligence is that we have been unable to develop a machine with judgment. Machines can rate, value and compare, but they do not judge. That’s what an intellectual does. Sowell’s definition “intelligence minus judgment” describes a machine, not an intellect.

Unfortunately, Sowell then goes on to further lobotomize the definition by casting it across society so broadly as to make it a meaningless standard. His examples are drawn from the halls of academia to be sure, but he also includes editorialists, journalists, playwrights, psychologists, politicians (notably some who were anti-intellectual) religious leaders, doctors and a range of industrialists. Now, it is certainly true that there are intellectuals amongst any or all of those groups of people, but what Sowell does in lumping them together so haphazardly is create a pool of intellectuals and—at best—non-intellectuals from whom he can draw his examples. He then picks and chooses amongst them to make his case. In doing so, he seems to have redefined “intellectual” to mean “anyone with a public voice” no matter where that voice comes from, nor how it is expressed.

Furthermore, according to Sowell, intellectuals cannot be people who go about actually implementing the fruits of their ideas. They are not “policy wonks” or social engineers. They leave such things to others. Specifically mentioned, therefore, as NOT intellectuals are people like Jonas Salk and Bill Gates, whose mental efforts actually produced something that changed society directly. Intellect, it seems, is intelligence less judgment, action AND success.

I suppose if one really wants to parse the concept down, one could exclude Bill Gates from the concept of intellectuals on the basis of the relative newness and specificity of his intellectual efforts on a global and historical scale. It would be an error to do so, but it’s a comprehensible one. However, I defy anyone to reasonably describe Jonas Salk as not an intellectual. Sowell had to turn a particularly strange and elaborate backflip in order to justify that one.

In short, Sowell defines intellect as anybody he deems foolish, ineffectual or shallow, and whose efforts have had no meaningful influence on society.

(Yet he seems to have no sense that he might himself qualify according to his own standards.)

This failure of comprehension permeates the entire book, and Sowell goes into rhapsodic fallacious detail in describing the common errors of human beings as the faults of intellectuals.

Just one, of many, examples of this error:

In short, at all levels of the intelligentsia, and in a wide range of specialties, the incentives tend to reward going beyond whatever expertise the particular member of the intelligentsia may have, and the constraints against falsity are few or non-existent. It is not that most of the intelligentsia deliberately lie in a cynical attempt to gain notoriety or to advance themselves or their cause in other ways. However, the general ability of people to rationalize to themselves, as well as to others, is certainly not lacking among the intelligentsia.

Here we again run into one of the constant logical loops that Sewell completely fails to acknowledge or, apparently, to recognize. He could very well be talking about himself in that paragraph. In fact, he *is* talking about himself. Sowell is trained as an economist. He’s written books on social theory and commentary, but his authority to do so is derived through his education and his experience as a pundit, not his expertise.

Furthermore, what he attributes to the intelligentsia is, in fact, simply part of the human condition. Everyone acts outside their specialties, and we are all incentivized to do so. Not to do so is to deny a fundamental human quality. Specialization has a role, but to only act within that specialization is to reject intelligence itself.

Where Sowell’s efforts to describe a social phenomenon don’t simply fail but become truly offensive is in his presentation of other’s ideas. Sowell either misrepresents the ideas that other scholars have presented or fails to comprehend them so badly as to make himself a fool exactly of the kind he is attempting to critique. I’ll give two examples, just to illustrate the point.

First, in his description of reactions to the police:

…many of the intelligentsia express not only surprise but outrage at the number of shots fired by the police in some confrontation with a criminal, even if many of these intellectuals have never fired a gun in their lives, much less faced life-and-death dangers requiring split-second decisions.

Now, here Sowell draws upon and stumbles over his experience as a pistol instructor for the Marine Corps. (This is the kind of error he attributes to many intellectuals early in the book.) The problem is that Sowell’s military experience has nothing to do with the objection, and his apparent inability to see past that training makes his assessment a problem. What he fails to recognize is that the nameless intellectuals (he avoids referencing anyone or a particular case on this issue–though it would have been much easier to do so than nearly any other example he cites–since the logic here gets quite shaky) he describes are not objecting to the actual number of shots fired alone. Intellectuals, in fact, understand not only the rate of fire of modern weapons but also their accuracy—just as most Americans, or anyone with a television, is capable of grasping that simple and obvious reality, regardless of their status as a combat veteran. When someone objects to the number of shots fired in a particular case it is done when there is also a contrast between that reaction and the situation with which the police officer was confronted. When it turns out the suspect was not armed, did not make any threatening move, was detained without proper cause, or was otherwise not an appropriate target of police fire at all. When a policing situation goes so far as to require a military style response, intellectuals are perfectly capable of understanding and recognizing that transition. No intellectual objected to the number of shots fired in taking down the Boston bombers, who were themselves armed with firearms and explosives. Intellectuals do not object to the more then 2,000 shots fired in the North Hollywood shootout in and of itself, though someone (including, say, a police officer reviewing the situation and preparing a report on it to his department) could quite legitimately ask why those robbers had 44 minutes to engage the police, thus allowing for such a long exchange AND so many shots fired.

When intellectuals object to the number of shots fired in a particular situation, they are pointing out that the transition between an everyday policing problem and the more military role of the police in suppressing violence has been blurred or bypassed. They are pointing out that shots should not have been fired at all, let alone dozens or sometimes hundreds of them. That Sowell is unable to recognize this objection for what it is, and must instead cite statistics about the number of hits at a particular range, illustrates his failure to comprehend even the most obvious of intellectual statements.

(You may be able to see one of the reasons Sowell didn’t cite examples for that particular objection. Doing so would make his argument and position quite vulnerable. He’d be in danger of siding with cases of police brutality and malfeasance, and that would undermine his true objective for this book. More on that in a bit….)

I could go into more detail about the specific examples that Sowell cites. Let’s just say that as he extrapolates into broader and even more meaningful areas (civil liberties, social justice, the justifications and prosecutions of war) Sowell goes from offensive to truly misguided and repugnant. In rationalizing the American participation in the Iraq War, for example, Sowell abandons any arguments where reasonable people can disagree and dives right into the horrific logic of submental rationalizations employed by the truly misguided. He engages in such sophistries as this:

In fact, all the Americans killed in the two Iraq wars put together were fewer than those killed taking the one island of Iwo Jima during the Second world War or one day [emphasis included] of fighting at Antietam during the Civil War.

I’m not going to describe why that bloody accounting is offensive, and if you need an explanation you’ll not be capable of understanding it, so let’s just leave it at this: comparing the casualties in wars for survival to the American involvement in Iraq is not to slip off the slope, but to leap from it.

I’ll conclude on this note: Where Sowell goes to some pains to explain that many of the people he describes as intellectuals are not engaging in their efforts cynically, having read this book I have no such expectation of Sowell. In fact, the only justification for this book that I can see is that it is as a resume. It is filled with so many errors of logic and assertion that it can only be a curriculum vitae for someone seeking grant money from think tanks funded by deep pockets. These organizations are actively and constantly seeking justification and arguments for the money they spend on political support. This book is a play for some of that funding, and the high-paying speaking engagements that go with it. It has no real value other than to outline the script for buyers of such a product. Nobody should bother attending such a lecture any more than they should bother with this book. It’s not, in fact, about intellectuals at all. It wasn’t written by one. It doesn’t serve any meaningful or worthwhile purpose other, perhaps, as an illustration of the lengths and breadths of mental hypocrisy and narcissism.

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The Ridiculous and the Sublime

Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who sees the world from this kind of perspective: alienated, hyper-aware, with a surreal consciousness of the sublime but also the omnipresence of the ridiculous and constantly cognizant of the ritualistic humiliation that is life.

But then I remember the time I saw a clown at kid’s birthday party taking a break. He had his big clown foot up against the stucco wall, propping him up a bit, and was smoking a cigarette. He said, “How’z it goin’?” when I walked by, and reflexively I said, “You know… same old, same old, man.”

“Yeah,” he said, and took another drag.

Then I walked in and got some cake. Home made. Not bad. The punch was watered down, but I found a bottle of vodka in the freezer and raided it. Kids ran by while I poured. The mommy/hostess said, “Help yourself…” with more than a hint of sarcasm, but I chose not to hear it. “Thanks,” I said, and poured a second cup of the stuff for the clown.

He took it without a word when I handed it to him, and even though it was at least as much potato go-juice as punch, he didn’t even twitch when he took a sip.

“Tough gig?” I asked.

“Beats workin’,” he replied. Fucker had it all figured out, man. Embrace it. Embrace it all. Every ridiculous bit.

Doing Twitter Wrong

I try to avoid certain topics on Twitter.  Or, I should say, I try to avoid a meaningful conversation about certain topics.  It’s just not the medium for anything really substantial.  Sure, there are little axioms or pearls of wisdom that one might be able to convey in 140 characters or less (with a graphic and emojis!) but that kind of format doesn’t lend itself to an awful lot of comprehension.  News updates.  Pithy one-liners or two-liners.  Jokes.  These are the things that Twitter is meant for.  Anything else requires a different venue like, say, a blog or something tiresome like that.  Even that wretched pit of distant family and moribund friendships maintained only by that most invasive of artificial life support, Facebook, is a better able to convey complex thoughts.

Tweet Limit 1To get around the limitations of the system, people employ a range of tactics on Twitter, probably the most obnoxious of which is the emoji storm.  Not just one, not just two, not just three, but a whole line of animated smiley faces graphically slapping away at mimed knees.  Hoo-boy!  That’s a hoot!  There’s always the site link, which is probably how most of the folks who might be reading this happened upon it.  My apologies for getting spammed by me.  My personal favorite is the text graphic in which someone puts text into through some shiny word processor, or just does a copy/paste over some longer text they’ve written and puts it into a picture attachment rather than the usual Twitter fare of pirated political cartoons and porn stills.  The text/graphic has got a certain charm if for no other reason than it games the system using the system.

Leap Year TweetProbably my least favorite way of getting around the Twitter character limit is the tweet thread.  I suppose under certain circumstances, it has some utility.  Live-tweeting a current event, for instance, maintains the Twitter sense of immediacy while also allowing one to convey more detailed information.  As a general rule, though, I try to avoid put things up on Twitter that are going to require a series of tweets.  It’s unavoidable sometimes, but tweet threads aren’t my thing.

But we’re in the era when nobody can stay in their comfort zone with a clear conscience, so here’s my contribution to Twitter verbosity:

Trump Thread 1-3