Saturday, July 11, 2020

"Cancel Culture": "Political Correctness" for 2020

And political extremists roam the land, abusing the privilege of free speech, setting citizens against one another on the basis of their class or race.
-- George H. W. Bush, commencement address at University of Michigan, May 4, 1991
The fussin' and fightin' over That Letter hasn't flamed out yet, days later.  A few intelligent contributions have been made, but on the whole the level of discussion remains embarrassingly low.

I'm not going to say that there's no such thing as cancel culture; that would be like claiming that there's no such thing as the "Democratic establishment"; or from another perspective, that there was no such thing as a "homosexual" before the word was invented in 1869.  What I want to challenge here is the common claim that the attempts to silence disliked opinions and people are new, a feature of the Age of Trump.  (Because, as we all know, history began on January 20, 2017 and nothing happened before that date.)  This is a false claim, and it baffles me that anyone over the age of ten can make it.  But we live in the United States of Amnesia, so of course they do.

I just found a good essay by Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson, responding to an article by Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi from almost a month before That Letter appeared.  Taibbi's examples of Political Correctness Run Amok are about the same as those That Letter, though it's impossible to be sure because That Letter is carefully unspecific about them.

Robinson dissects Taibbi's cases.  For example
Often, I’ve found that when you actually click the links on stories about how the “social justice warriors” or “wokescolds” or “cancel culture” doers are getting wildly out of control, you find that the facts are far more nuanced than critics want you to believe. For example, Taibbi cites an instance of “a UCLA professor placed under investigation for reading Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ out loud.” This sounds so extreme that I doubted whether it was true, and indeed it isn’t. The students actually complained because when the (white) professor read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” aloud, he chose to say the n-word rather than censoring it. And when Black students told him they would have preferred if he’d omitted the word, he apparently doubled down and said being white didn’t mean he couldn’t say the n-word. (Students were apparently also upset that he had shown them a video containing the n-word and graphic pictures of lynchings, apparently without having had a conversation about it.)
And so on.  I suddenly experienced a dizzying moment of deja vu: I'd read essentially the same article many times during the 1990s, when a range of writers (some journalists, some scholars, and a vile hack named Dinesh D'Souza - you may have heard of him) were claiming that America's colleges and universities had been taken over by Communist deconstructionists who hated Western culture and were brainwashing our young people with their gay feminist multiculturalism; and a range of other writers, mostly scholars but some journalists carefully exposed the inaccuracy of their accusations in detail.*  Not all those who jumped on the Culture Wars bandwagon were right-wing; some were liberal and some were even some kind of leftist.

For example, the distinguished historian C. Vann Woodward gave D'Souza's mendacious book Illiberal Education (excerpted in the liberal magazine The Atlantic) a favorable review in The New York Review of Books.  NYRB has a long tradition of publishing letters, often very critical ones, addressing their articles, with responses by the reviewers.  Several critical letters were published, detailing errors by Woodward and D'Souza.  Interestingly, Woodward admitted that when he checked he found numerous falsehoods in D'Souza's account of the activist Rigoberta Menchu, but he doesn't seem to have done so with the book as a whole.  His patronizing sneer at the distinguished historian John Hope Franklin -- "John Hope Franklin must have got up on the wrong side of the bed the day he wrote his letter", and it gets worse as he proceeds -- wasn't a great example of serious discussion either.

What the accusers of PC had in common was not a political stance but a disregard for factual accuracy and reason, which they projected onto their targets.  One of my favorite falsehoods was the claim that Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple was being taught in college literature courses more than Shakespeare was.  John K. Wilson refuted the claim in The Myth of Political Correctness (Duke UP, 1995, pp. 84-5):
Perhaps the most famous inaccuracy was written by Christopher Clausen, chair of Penn State’s English department, when he said, “I would bet that The Color Purple is taught in more English courses today than all of Shakespeare’s plays combined.” Clausen’s statement is cited by NAS [National Association of Scholars] member Thomas Short, who agrees that “it is possible that Walker’s black lesbian saga is now assigned more often in college courses than all of Shakespeare’s plays combined.”

My own survey of reading lists for English classes at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) in 1991 found that Shakespeare was the most popular author by a wide margin. In addition to five sections of “Introduction to Shakespeare,” five sections of an advanced Shakespeare class, an honors seminar, and a graduate seminar, eight non-Shakespeare classes also included Shakespeare in their list of readings. Only one class read The Color Purple. Using a conservative estimate of eight plays assigned in each Shakespeare class, nearly one hundred Shakespeare plays were read for every copy of Alice Walker’s book.
Something to notice here: Clausen wrote "I would bet," and Short said "It is possible."  When I first encountered this claim it was from other people, mostly online, who simply declared it as fact.  That's how these things spread.  Someone might argue that Wilson only surveyed one university and things might be different elsewhere.  That's certainly possible, but neither Clausen nor Short bothered to look at even one school.  The burden of proof lies on the person who affirms: it was up to them to provide evidence, but phrasing it as they did allowed them to avoid that obligation.  They were just, y'know, having a good time, so chill!

Before D'Souza, the right-wing scholar Allan Bloom set off a similar shitstorm with his The Closing of the American Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1987), which claimed that American higher education had been taken over by leftist barbarians during the upheavals of the 1960s.  Bloom's claims also were dubious and refuted by many academics and other writers.**  The idea that American democracy is endangered by wild-eyed Reds, anarchists, women, and Negroes is much older, and generally expressed in similar terms, generation after generation.

The writers of That Letter chose not to specify actual cases to back up their complaint, which gave them similar plausible deniability.  When people have attempted to pin down specifics, there's been disagreement among their critics as to what is meant.  But one of the allusions seems to be reasonably clear: "Editors are fired for running controversial pieces".  This probably refers to Senator Tom Cotton's (R-Ark.) notorious op-ed piece for the New York Times which urged that the US military be used against "rioters" protesting police violence.  Calling such a stance "controversial" is the sort of thing that Noam Chomsky, among others, would ordinarily mock.  But on top of that, the Op-Ed page editor confessed that he had not read the piece before it was published; and that the board had solicited it from Cotton, though they would not have been obliged to run it if he'd simply submitted it on spec - corporate media apologists love to remind us that no one can demand to appear in their pages.  It should also be remembered that objections to the op-ed process came not just from the Twitter mob but from Times reporters and writers.  Whether editor James Bennet should have been made to resign can be debated, but his competence is certainly open to question; it wasn't just because he published something "controversial." So the clause in That Letter is highly dishonest, like much of the rest of it.  Which is not how you call for better, more open, more responsible debate.

Which takes me back to That Letter's claims that we (whoever 'we' are) are faced with a new problem: "a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity"; "The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted"; "it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought"; "it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought."

The author laments:
"While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters."
The irony here is that many of the signers (Chomsky, Katha Pollitt, Cary Nelson among them) have been attacked in just these terms themselves.  Maybe it's true that Today's Kids Are Going Too Far, but I could wish for more self-awareness from these sadder-but-wiser elder spokespeople, and in its absence it's hard for me to take them seriously, especially the bit about valuing "even caustic counter-speech."  It's exactly what this letter opposes: not from the signers, but from those who disagree with them.

I don't deny that censoriousness, intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, etc. occur in American society and often inhibit free debate.  Certainly the Internet in general and social media in particular have enabled unprecedented numbers of people to show their asses to the world.  They were always there, however, as anyone familiar with US political and intellectual history should know.

One thing that may have changed is that cancel culture used to conduct its working behind closed doors: senior faculty deciding that they already had enough Jews or women or blacks in the department, upper management quietly pulling reporters off stories because, as George Orwell put it, "it wouldn't do" to put such things into print; troublesome athletes cut loose for being uppity; arrestees having mysterious fatal accidents in police custody.  While there isn't really much outside input in such matters now, there's a lot more than there used to be, and our self-styled meritocratic elites hate that.  Of course they yowl that they're being persecuted by the rabble.

Having said that, I think we need more openness and more rational debate.  Their lack is nothing new, which is not surprising: critical thinking and responsible debate are hard.  Because of this difficulty, neither is really very popular among the people who recommend it to others; scientists, for example, should be its most regular practitioners, but they evade it when they can.  Our celebrity scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Bill Nye, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, are actually prominent in cancel culture: they prefer snarky comebacks, a victim's stance, or vitriolic abuse to reasoned debate.  (Of course they are cast by their fans as the victims of cancel culture.)

When you encounter something like That Letter, which proclaims a new problem, you know you're dealing with grifters.  Not everything in it is false: a smart hustler knows that the best way to lie is with half-truths.  Yes, there are immense pressures against free exchanges of ideas and opinion; yes, many people on the left are hostile to free exchanges; but the biggest pressures come from our big institutions.  Numerous people have pointed out that employment-at-will is a major factor: if your boss can fire you because you're inconvenient, you've given the company bad publicity, then of course you're vulnerable to abuse from the Twitterverse.

Remember how casually Barack Obama jettisoned Shirley Sherrod after a right-wing site released a doctored video that made her look bad.  He didn't even try to find out if the accusations had any validity.  (I suspect he wanted to get rid of Sherrod anyway for some reason, and the Breitbart video gave him an excuse.)  Investigating such questions isn't cost-effective, either financially or politically.  To see Obama now denouncing cancel culture just shows his ongoing dishonesty.  We know from history that false accusations and bad-faith arguments are ancient; they aren't going to go away because Barack Obama or Noam Chomsky or J. K. Rowling scolds them.  Investigating them before acting is not a luxury, it's a necessity; but I'm not going to hold my breath.

Ellen Willis addressed this B.I. (Before the Internet) in a discussion of the firing of the right-wing CBS commentator Andy Rooney, which I quoted at some length in a previous post:
This was seen in some quarters as a victory for the left.  Yet the real reason Rooney got into trouble was that he violated the media establishment's bland, centrist criteria for acceptable speech.  In demanding Rooney's removal, lesbian and gay activists appealed to precisely those standards of "civility" -- that is, niceness -- regularly used to marginalize their own speech.  While Rooney was slapped down for expressing bluntly illiberal views, it's hard to imagine anyone comparably left of the mainstream -- particularly in a libertarian direction -- ever having his job in the first place.  And suppose such a person did slip through and then wrote a letter to the editor defending illegal drug use or attacking organized religion as tyrannical -- can anyone doubt that he or she would have been not suspended but fired, and with little public protest at that?
This is relevant to the Tom Cotton op-ed.  It's hard to imagine anyone "comparably left of the mainstream" ever being invited to contribute to the Times Op-Ed page, though it is well-populated with regular columnists as far right as Cotton.  Yes, a lot of people on the left are hostile to open debate, and I attack them constantly; we all know about the right's hostility to open debate; but I say that the biggest, most intractable threat comes from the Center.  The Center silences you because you're uncivil, because what you're saying is just crazy, and the Center however it's constituted will have the most money and clout.  As Willis indicated, the Centrist media could sponsor and broadcast open, serious discussions; they know how to do it; but they almost never do, because they don't fit their business model.  But then, serious, open discussions aren't part of American culture in general either.

--------------
*  Most accessible are Beyond PC: Towards a Politics of Understanding, ed. Patricia Aufterheide (Graywolf Press, 1992); Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses (Delta, 1995).  For more academic discussions, see Higher Education Under Fire, ed. Michael Berube and Cary Nelson (Routledge, 1995); Michael Berube, Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (Verso, 1994); PC Wars: Politics and Theory in the Academy, ed. Jeffrey Williams (Routledge, 1995); After Political Correctness: The Humanities and Society in the 1990s, ed. Christopher Newfield and Ronald Strickland (Westview, 1995).

*** See Essays on The Closing of the American Mind, ed. Robert L. Stone, Chicago Review Press, 1989.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Circling the Wagons; or, All These People Who Aren't My Boss

I've been meaning to write about freedom of expression here for some time.  Several recent events pushed me - Trump claiming that Twitter or Facebook had censored him; my Twitter account locked for a few weeks; etc.  I'll try to return to these matters later, but today the Twitterverse is aflame over an open letter published by Harper's Magazine and signed by numerous celebrities, among them Noam Chomsky.

I probably shouldn't write about it, because I agree with those people who've declared the letter a distraction, like the Gravel Teens: "pretty incredible that amid mass joblessness and a deadly pandemic all our 'leading intellectuals' can talk about is the deadly threat of 'cancel culture'".  But one: this isn't entirely fair: many of the signatories, including Chomsky, are talking about joblessness, a deadly pandemic, climate change, war, and other important issues.  Many of us can multitask.  Two: it's clear that many of our random non-intellectuals are all too ready to be distracted by it.  Include me in that company if you wish.

Among the many issues raised by the responses I'm seeing to this rather vacuous and dishonest document is the anger, even fury, over it.  There's a lot of babble about "thought control" and "manufacturing consent" on the Internet, and whatever else you can say, this open letter doesn't do either.  The signatories are a motley bunch, with a variety of complaints and motives, but the letter represents an Establishment that is crumbling under the weight of its own incompetence, so it's lashing out at its critics.  I can point and giggle and make rude noises at them, or I can ignore them; I don't think they will make anything happen by attaching their names to this complaint.  I think that many of their left critics have been echoing their position: these people are trying to silence me!  Perhaps they are, but I don't think they will succeed.

In particular many left-identified persons are attacking Chomsky for setting himself up as some kind of shining example of the Left, or anarchism, whatever, and this old guy who doesn't know anything about the Internet is telling them what to think!!!  Before this particular kerfluffle, Chomsky was getting heat for arguing that people should vote strategically, as if anyone had to do what he said.  I've written about this before, about people who say that Chomsky treats his opponents with contempt (oh noes!), or that he demands unquestioning obedience to his authoritarian declarations (false), that you can't disagree with him (also false).  Interestingly, these claims come from individuals on the right, the center, and the left. Whatever influence Chomsky has, he can't make you do anything: you don't have to listen to him, you don't have to read him, you certainly don't have to agree with him.  Yes, if you're on the left, you'll probably encounter people who will cite him as Scripture. which is probably annoying, but that just gives you an opportunity to refute him -- if you can; rational debate is hard work.  But I don't see how it could more annoying than encountering people who attack him inaccurately and irrationally, and I run into a lot of people like that, in person or online.

I respect Chomsky, I honor his dedication and persistence, but he's not my boss and I don't always agree with him.  If I feel strongly enough, I write a critique of him. Therefore I don't feel threatened when he says something I disagree with.  Funny that so many bold free-thinkers have such a different reaction.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Cruelty Is the Point: It's Not Just for the MAGA Crowd




Every day there are more reports of people throwing tantrums because they've been asked to wear masks while shopping.  The most recent I've seen is a woman in a Fort Worth Seven-Eleven who spat on the counter to show the cashier who was boss.  That's better than the California woman who coughed in the face of a bartender rather than comply.

Then there's the woman in a Hollywood Trader Joe's who claimed she had a medical condition that precludes wearing a mask, and ran to the media to claim she was scared for her life, which reminds me of a white woman who called the police on a black man who'd asked her to leash her dog in Central Park, claiming he had threatened her life (he hadn't, but she threatened his).  This woman's story is excessively complicated, and I don't believe her.  The store rejects her version too.

The woman in the video I've referenced above is more of the same, but what really got my attention were the comments under the tweet that spread the clip.  The bulk of the comments point out that she committed vandalism and should be charged for the food she damaged, if not prosecuted, with deploring of the anti-mask faction.  That's okay, but it does become repetitive. Such comments were less prevalent when I first noticed the incident, though.

I was struck by remarks like "This is a nationwide phenomena [sic]. We need to start tagging and tracking Karens, study them. Spay & neuter. Science!"  When challenged, this person qualified it somewhat:  "Not if it's the crazy Hitler eugenics. But if it's only people who act like shitheads in public, or that treat employees like this, I'd be kinda ok with it."  Sterilizing people is the "crazy Hitler eugenics," and as with Hitler's victims, there's no reason to believe that this woman's bad behavior is determined by her genes. 

Then there was "No wonder we are the laughing stock of the planet. I hope they got her license plate number and called the police", followed by "If there’s life on other planets we are probably the laughingstock of the galaxy".  Someone has a wildly inflated idea of the significance and interest of events on our little rock.

A related theme: "Does anyone realize we are the only country that acts like this when they are asked to do something? Unbelievable".  No, we aren't the only country seeing behavior like this.  The South Korean churches that spread the virus through church services, Israeli ultraorthodox fanatics, European politicians scolding their citizens for ignoring the danger, and so on; the difference is probably that this person can only read English Twitter, but also that they don't pay attention or forget disconfirming cases. This is just another form of American exceptionalism.

What really got my goat, however, was this theme: "She’s a spoiled brat. Her parents probably never told her ‘no’. This is the result."  Or: "Such bratty, hardly ever been told NO - behavior! Shame".  Or: "She needs an Asian mom's whopping."  Or: "why does no one punch her in the face?"  Or: "How is it that parents in this country have raised such rotten young people?"  Or: "Why is smacking these people illegal ? It might even reset factory settings".  Or: "Her house needs eggs on the outside. Also maybe some Oreos on her car's windows? Hopefully she gets doxed."  Or: "jesus christ her parents never said 'no' to her did they",  And a lot more; I was hoping to find again the people who said this woman hadn't been spanked enough as a child, but no luck yet.

No matter: my point is that I got the feeling some MAGA types had wandered into the wrong thread: the tut-tutting over people's upbringing, the claim that Kids These Days have no respect or self control, they should have been beaten more by their parents and that's where this country went wrong.  The fantasies of violent punishment.  That's MAGA, as I know from the sewers of Facebook; so why are ostensible Trump-hating liberals parroting the same vindictive garbage?  It's nothing new, alas -- I remember the same phenomenon during the Reagan years -- but I think it's getting somewhat worse, and it's dispiriting to see liberals once again imitating the people they claim to despise.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Cognitive Dissonance

Dan Savage's latest column is an interesting study in contradiction.  It consists of two letters, both from gay men dealing with "kinks" (i.e., light sadomasochism) in their relationships.

The first man has found a good but apparently vanilla boyfriend whom he's afraid of scaring away if he asks to introduce his "need to engage in power exchange with someone."  Meanwhile, keeping his desires bottled up is stressing him out seriously.

Dan is supportive: "Your kinks are an intrinsic aspect of your sexuality and repressing them—not having any way to explore or express them—does take an emotional toll."  So far so good.

The second man has "a new boyfriend who just opened up to me about his kinks."
What’s interesting to me, Dan, is how often this happens. My boyfriend is easily the fourth guy I’ve dated in the last few years who laid down the exact same kink cards: wants to be tied up, wants to be called names, wants to be hurt. I’m learning to tie knots and getting better at calling him names when we have sex, and I actually really enjoying spanking him. But I was talking with a friend—our straight lady mutual (with the boyfriend’s okay!)—and she told me she’s never had a straight guy open up to her about wanting to be tied up and abused. Are gay guys just kinkier?
Dan takes a different tack in response.
I have a theory…

When we’re boys… before we’re ready to come out… we’re suddenly attracted to other boys. And that’s something we usually feel pretty panicked about. It would be nice if that first same-sex crush was something a boy could experience without feelings of dread or terror, TOP, but that’s not how it works for most of us. We’re keenly aware that should the object of our desire realize it—if the boy we’re attracted to realizes what we’re feeling, if we give ourselves away with a stray look—the odds of that boy reacting badly or even violently are high. Even if you think the boy might not react violently, even if you suspect the boy you’re crushing on might be gay himself, the stakes are too high to risk making any sort of move. So we stew with feelings of lust and fear.

Sexual desire can make anyone feel fearful and powerless—we’re literally powerless to control these feelings (while we can and must control how we act on these feelings)—but desire and fear are stirred together for us gay boys to much greater degree than they are for straight boys. We fear being found out, we fear being called names, we fear being outed, we fear being physically hurt. And the person we fear most is the person we have a crush on. A significant number of gay guys wind up imprinting on that heady and very confusing mix of desire and fear. The erotic imaginations of guys like your boyfriend seize on those fears and eroticize them. And then, in adulthood, your boyfriend want to re-experience those feelings, that heady mix of desire and fear, with a loving partner he trusts. The gay boy who feared being hurt by the person he was attracted to becomes the gay man who wants to be hurt—in a limited, controlled, consensual, and safe way—by the man he’s with.
Here Dan explains what appear to be essentially the same kink he described as "intrinsic" to the first guy's sexuality as an extrinsic, contingent result of the fears gay boys grow up with.  His theory isn't implausible, and he's far from the only person to theorize masochism like this, but although I don't have a better explanation, I don't buy it.  For one thing, I think masochism is much more common among heterosexual males than either Dan or his questioner recognize: usually it's expressed without getting genital.  The hierarchical games of dominance and submission between males that play an important role in patriarchy are sadomasochistic at core, even if no one has an orgasm.  (A number of theorist-practitioners of gay male S/M have claimed that genital sex plays less of a role in their erotic lives than the theater of dominance and submission, the cosplay, and so on.)  Expressing these roles through fucking and sucking is very difficult to negotiate between straight males, for the same reason that gay men find it necessary to closet themselves.  The straight female friend the questioner had discussed this with claimed she'd never encountered a man who asked her to dominate him.  That may well be, but it doesn't guarantee that none of them wanted her to. and they had good reason to be afraid to ask.  Some women are happy to play the dominatrix, but many others freak out over even a little kinkiness.  I bet Dan will get some letters about this from straight male and female readers alike.

But I digress.  The point for me is that Dan equivocated in the same column between claiming kinks as "intrinsic" and "explaining" them in the very same suspect way that homosexuality used to be "explained."  If kinks aren't inborn, that means they're acquired or (gasp) learned, and maybe they can be unlearned as well.  I don't think Dan intends or wants to say anything like this, but it follows from his armchair psychologizing.  Physician, explain thyself!

P.S.  This is the 2500th post of this blog.  No biggie, but a milestone nevertheless.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Losing My Innocence, One Chunk at a Time


An old and wise friend posted this meme on Facebook today.  Of course my first reaction was doubt about the attribution.  One might think that an organization like UNESCO would never post a bogus quotation, but one has learned otherwise over the years.

So I looked it up, and sure enough, it is probably not an African proverb.  I found it attributed to the poet Maya Angelou, though in that version she went on to contradict herself: "I have respect for the past, but I'm a person of the moment. I'm here, and I do my best to be completely centered at the place I'm at, then I go forward to the next place."

I also found a version from the British fantasy writer and satirist Terry Pratchett: "If you do not know where you come from, then you don't know where you are, and if you don't know where you are, then you don't know where you're going. And if you don't know where you're going, you're probably going wrong."  And another variation by the novelist and essayist James Baldwin: “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”  It sounds to me like it's a platitudinous proverb that might have come from anywhere.

But, and I think this is more important, I don't think it's true, whether it refers to individuals or to societies and countries.  Life as a journey is a very old metaphor, but it makes little sense if you literalize it.  I know that I came from a woman's body, I'm going, ultimately, to a crematorium.  For many people, I think this platitude is connected to the poisonous metaphor of "roots," that people are determined not only by where they were born, but where their ancestors were born and who their ancestors were.  As far as I know, my ancestors came from two or three European countries, and none of them has much to do with who I am.  Where I was born -- northern Indiana -- is more relevant, but it doesn't determine who I am either, nor did it tell me what to do with my life.  In most respects, my background is utterly opposed to where I've gone: as a gay man, an atheist, an anti-racist, a critic of my government and my country.  Nothing of where I came from told me where I was going, and when it did, I didn't listen.

The same applies to history, especially since so much "history" in all cultures is myth and propaganda.  Nobody knows where we're going, because the future is not determined; the past can be and generally is used to discourage people from doing what they think right.  It's doubtful that the past has much to teach us, even if we have reliable information about it, because no one knows which lessons to draw from history.  Usually people construct a historical narrative to suit their wishes and plans, but to repeat: the future is not determined.  The events of the past few years, most dramatically the coronavirus pandemic, have shown us very forcefully how little we can predict the future from the past.  It was a good idea to prepare for future epidemics, and a very bad idea for Trump to dismantle the agency set up to make such preparations, but little specific knowledge of history was needed to know that.  Nor did it take much knowledge of history to know that the current economic system was going to lead to another crash and depression eventually; it only took working knowledge of events in living memory, and both Obama and Trump ignored that.

It makes me very uncomfortable to say all this, I admit: I grew up on Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", I've read a lot of history, it interests me and it feels important to me.  But when I think about it, I wonder how much it really matters, not despite but because I've read so much history.  And while experience can teach us some things, such as the necessity of planning for disasters, it can't tell us where we're going.

As Barack Obama's presidency destroyed the last remnants of my naive faith in the effectiveness of voting; as the flipflops of epidemiological experts on the value of masks (and other matters) have undermined what remained of my trust in scientific expertise; so this meme revealed the crumbling of my faith in the value of history.  What will go next, I wonder?

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Whom the Gods Wish to Destroy, They First Make Mad



"Our old friend Jon Stewart weighs in on the choice America faces at the ballot box this November, pointing out that only one candidate possesses the humility necessary to lead this country out of this moment of great struggle and sadness."  So says the description under the video, and it might even be true, but unfortunately the one candidate capable of leading this country out of the current morass was torpedoed by the DCCC, and now we're stuck with Joe Biden as the alternative to Donald Trump.

I broke my vow never to watch Colbert again to watch this clip. It's painful, much worse than even I expected, to see Stewart contorting himself -- literally! -- to make an absurd argument for Joe Biden's humanity.  Just for comparison, John McCain also suffered pain and loss, but he never stopped being a vicious racist bigot till the day he died.   I've never seen any reason to believe that Biden's personal losses taught him anything. They certainly haven't kept him from lying shamelessly about his political record, or from being truculent and abusive on the campaign trail before the pandemic shut him down.  I think those issues are what matter, not Stewart's febrile fantasies about the inner man.

I was going to say that Stewart is better than this, but he's never been able to hold Democrats to the same standards he applies to Republicans, let alone criticize them with the same conviction and glee.  His protestations that Biden wasn't even his fourth choice ring hollow to me: if Biden really has these well-hidden depths, why didn't Stewart (or anyone else) detect them before?  Once again, though not for the last time, I marvel at Democratic loyalists' irresistible need to convince themselves that a terrible candidate is really an inspiring demigod if you look at him or her with the eyes of the Spirit.  Can't they cast a vote without being drunk on their candidate's grooviness?  It's strange, after (but also before -- they'll play the theme again many times over the next five months) they've lectured critical voters that you shouldn't need to be inspired, just vote strategically, that they simultaneously insist that you adore the nominee without reservation.

One good thing about Biden, if he wins, is that he's not likely to get the indulgence Obama got.  Sure, toadies like Stewart and Colbert will try to attack anyone who criticizes Biden from the left, but I don't think they'll be very effective.  It's far too early to say right now, but it looks like some genuinely leftish candidates beat entrenched Democratic hacks in these primaries.  If they win in November, the voters may have some genuine representation in Congress.  I'm almost hopeful for the first time in years.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Taking It Spiritually

I found this in How to Read Nancy - you know, the comic strip.*
[Ernie] Bushmiller ... was routinely besieged with correspondence from his readers who searched for significance in his strip and found it: everything from tips on the ponies and lucky numbers for policy players to the theory of tectonic isostasy and the perfect names for their newborns.
When you encounter any esoteric spiritual reading of any text, remembering this should make you wary.  If such meanings can be read into a minimalist comic strip, then they can be read into any writing or image.  But I suppose it's possible that Bushmiller was the unknowing vehicle for a higher truth, just like the writers of the gospels or today's New Age channelers of past lives.

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* Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden, How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels (Fantagraphics Books, 2017).