I, Groucho Marxist Dept.

Why I wouldn't belong to any club yadda yadda.

I'm not sure who came up with that term first, Bob Black (of The Abolition of Work) or the anonymous graffitist who wrote "Je suis marxiste, tendance Groucho" on a wall in Paris sometime in 1968. But it's a sentiment that's strong in me: I wouldn't belong to any club that would have me as a member.

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Tags: Buddhism philosophy sociology Zen

Pick A Side, Any Side Dept.

Science fiction? Science faction.

Not much time to blog lately — impending family stuff, work, re-jiggering some project priorities, etc. The one big thing I keep meaning to bring up is the debacle of the Hugos, but Tim Hall has beaten me to it and done a far better job of running down just what has been so repulsive about this whole mess. What bugs me most about all this is how the hijackers (on both sides, mind you) can claim victory of a kind no matter what happens.

I hate quietism as a political stance, but I know full well I am not immune to it, and the only coherent and sustained response I have produced to all this is to turn my back to it. I've got no taste or patience for clubs or organizations — I suspect I'm a Groucho Marxist in that respect — and so seeing this kind of mid-flinging and turf-stomping only convinces me all the more it's not worth the trouble. I just want to write my books and get them out to the people that care about them, and not have to worry about the prospect of involving myself with the inanities one faction versus another faction.

I also know all too well that kind of thinking is exactly what enables any of the people involved in this mess to claim victory.

Tags: Hugo Awards real life science fiction

Gonehattan Dept.

Further documentation of vanishing New York. Get out your handkerchiefs.

I just discovered the Vanishing New York blog, easily the best and most comprehensive documentation of the way the New York City I remembered and lived in is now being chewed to pieces.

It's an absorbing and depressing read in about equal measure. Bookstores, Judaica, shoe-repair shops, diners, bagel places, papaya-and-hot-dog spots, dive bars and not-so-dive bars — all of them are being squeezed out by stupefying jumps in rent and the maddening urge to knock down a block of five-story buildings of stone and replace it with a fifty-story glass-and-aluminum one. Each disappearance has tons of photos and sometimes video to its name, with talk of the owners and their stories in brief.

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Tags: gentrification history New York

Power Show Dept.

More on the one-dimensional (political) man.

From a ways back: Oliver Kamm: Not the whole story

The social theorist Daniel Bell, whose seminal writings might profitably be consulted by those who imagine Noam Chomsky to be a leading public intellectual in the field, is in no identifiable sense a neoconservative. Bell broke politically with his friend Irving Kristol, the founding father of neoconservatism, in 1972, when Kristol backed Richard Nixon for president while Bell supported George McGovern. To my knowledge, Bell has never amended his ideological self-identification (in his most famous book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism), as a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture.

Emphasis mine. This is a little closer to what I was talking about when I was referring earlier to a multidimensional political spectrum. It's good to be this granular, but again, how many of us do it? More importantly, how many of us would vote for someone who advertised themselves this way?

Then I read this:

Rand Paul and the Empty Box - NYTimes.com

Why is American politics essentially one-dimensional, so that supporters of gay marriage are also supporters of guaranteed health insurance and vice versa? (And positions on foreign affairs — bomb or talk? — are pretty much perfectly aligned too). Well, the best story I have is Corey Robin’s: It’s fundamentally about challenging or sustaining traditional hierarchy. The actual lineup of positions on social and economic issues doesn’t make sense if you assume that conservatives are, as they claim, defenders of personal liberty on all fronts. But it makes perfect sense if you suppose that conservatism is instead about preserving traditional forms of authority: employers over workers, patriarchs over families. A strong social safety net undermines the first, because it empowers workers to demand more or quit; permissive social policy undermines the second in obvious ways.

In other words, the politics are only one-dimensional because that's what best serves incumbent power. To think of it any other way doesn't serve them and them alone, and that's why they don't do it. That incumbent power does not serve any particular political philosophy except the urge to protect itself at all costs.

Barrows Dunham, whom I mention often but never seem to get around to talking about in proper detail, wrote about this in his book Man Against Myth. He was dismayed by the way people who, for instance, asserted that there was no such thing as "truth" or "social justice" (in 1947, mind you), were people who were not harmed one whit by such assertions, and in fact benefited greatly from them, and that was the most tangible reason he could discern for why they argued in favor of them.

Tags: Barrows Dunham Oliver Kamm politics sociology

Diss Belief Dept.

Respect ≠ tolerance, and why that's not a bad thing.

What with two major religious holidays in this country falling on top of each other this weekend, I hearkened back to something from a couple of years back (2007) about one avowed atheist's position:

Oliver Kamm: Religious tests and public office

I was mildly interested that the new Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, professed his own unbelief this week in answer to a direct question. But I was incredulous that he appended it with the pragmatic observation that he had "enormous respect for people who have religious faith". I haven't. Why should a personal belief about first and last things merit any respect at all? The task of democratic politics is to defend freedom of thought on religious matters, not to take a stand on the content of that thought.

Emphasis mine. Kamm is not shy about his atheism, and doubly unshy about insisting that one of the consequences of that atheism is not automatically granting any expression of faith a pass just because it happens to be an expression of faith. This has inspired a good deal of incoherent and illiterate hate mail aimed at him, but the more I think about the issue, the more I realize how easy it is to misconstrue this particular teapot's tempest.

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Tags: atheism belief Oliver Kamm philosophy religion

Forwards Ever, Backwards Never Dept.

"... the moral commitment of democracy... is to a process, not a transcendent goal or a fixed, ideal standard."

An Exchange between Howard Zinn and Sidney Hook on Democracy

...  the United States is more democratic today than it was a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, twenty years ago, five years ago with respect to every one of the criteria he has listed. To recognize this is not an invitation to complacency. On the contrary, it indicates the possibility of broadening, deepening, and using the democratic political process to improve the quality of human life, to modify and redirect social institutions in order to realize on a wider scale the moral commitment of democracy to an equality of concern for all its citizens to achieve their fullest growth as persons. This commitment is to a process, not a transcendent goal or a fixed, ideal standard.

Emphasis mine. Hook is an intellectual hero of mine, along with the relatively unsung Barrows Dunham, and for many of the same reasons as Hook. Both professed progressive politics, but were resolutely anti-totalitarian, and rejected the cringe-inducing justifications touted up for the Nazi and Soviet regimes by their own fellow members of the Left. It was frightening to hear how as late as 1940 people still could keep a straight face while uttering lines about how a Europe under Hitler might not be such a bad thing, or how Stalin was indeed creating a new society worthy of study and maybe also emulation, etc. Both men had the wisdom and the intellectual chops to not be suckered by such dismal apologetics for tyranny.

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Tags: Barrows Dunham Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leszek Kołakowski philosophy politics Sidney Hook

Left, Right, Left Dept.

Political polarities, revisited.

Last couple of days were rather crazy, culminating in a black eye that I still have covered with a steak, but I'm doing my best to keep the swelling down. Anyway, here's a topic I don't touch on much: politics.

Privatization Memories - NYTimes.com

... what you learned early on in the Social Security debate was that centrists desperately want to believe that there is symmetry between the left and the right, that Democrats and Republicans are equally extreme in their own way. And this means that they are always looking for ways to say nice things about Republicans and their policy proposals, no matter how bad those proposals are. That’s how Paul Ryan ended up getting an award for fiscal responsibility.

Emphasis mine. What this tells me is something I've seen evidence of for a long time: the idea of a one-dimensional political polarity in this country — or in all of reality — is as simpleminded as assuming that the world was in black and white back when all we had was black and while film. A mere left/right polarity not only tells us nothing about the realities of the politics that people actually have; it actively prevents us from sussing out such things. But it's convenient, it's easy, and most of have better things to do with our time than divine the politics of others, and so a one-dimensional spectrum it is.

Once 'pon a time, Patrick Farley mentioned something like this on his blog (now long since gone), and argued for a two- or even three-dimensional political spectrum. Fond as I was of the idea, I didn't believe it would catch on, because few people are in the habit of tracking more than one easy, obvious way of thinking about someone else's politics. This is why people sometimes sub-classify, by calling themselves "socially progressive but fiscally conservative", or some variant thereof: they're hooking into what you already know in some distant way. (Side note. I'm not sure anyone would want to classify themselves as "fiscally liberal". What would that translate to in real-world terms, anyway, being a spendthrift?)

The other thing this brings to mind is something I've tussled with a good deal whenever dealing with people on the fringes of a political spectrum that doesn't split neatly into "left" and "right". I speak here of those who look at the most readily identified sides in a given political situation and declare them all to be of equal vileness. The Doctrine of Malign Equivalence is not shy of rearing its head in most any situation; I have seen it invoked to condemn all sides in World War II — Axis and Allies alike — on the basis that a) because no one side can demonstrate complete purity of intention, all are morally polluted, or b) it was really some kind of cynical swap of soldiers and blood for power and territory, conducted at the highest levels of power at the expense of the men in the trenches on all sides.

The first of those two positions is a sort of moral indignation one sees little of these days, in big part because it doesn't lend itself to finding much of an audience. The few people drawn to such a position seem mostly interested in using it as a justification for being radically disengaged from an irredeemably corrupt world. But the second position is tougher to parse: it's flat-out conspiracy theory, but one masquerading as the sort of speaking truth to power that is appealing to the disaffected. I suspect the only reason such people don't automatically burst into gales of laughter at the idea that the likes of Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin would all sit down at a table and agree to let these over here die in exchange for those over there is because they sincerely believe that's how history and politics actually work. A terrifying concept.

tl;dr: We get not only the politics we deserve, but the view of political positions we deserve.

Tags: politics

To Leap Over The Wall Dept.

Why "DIY or die" may not cut it anymore.

From the comments section of All Content Creators Should Watch Porn - The Illusion of More (don't worry, the article itself is SFW):

... a glut of supply in a time of reduced demand drives prices down – or, in other words, that all producers are worse off in this situation.

It gets even better (worse): the big guys are actually at an advantage here. The sheer amount of music being put out there means that potential customers (fans) have no way of sorting through it all and making an informed decision. At this point, standing out above the crowd becomes paramount and the big players are in a much stronger position to do so, because they have the promotional budgets and media connections. You might argue that this can be offset by “guerilla marketing” tactics, but – frankly – that’s an illusion. Oversupply gets you here too, I’m afraid. Someone who has been spammed to death by legions of hopefuls with no talent simply isn’t going to be receptive to even well-meant attempts at self-promotion by yet another artist they’ve never heard of. At this point, you really need to have a trusted taste-maker plugging you or you will be dismissed as yet another crappy, self-published act, which are legion.

Most of us turn to reliable sources — a person we trust, a taste-making platform, an institution we associate with quality (publishing house, record label, hot-shot director) — when we want to find out what else is out there. Those who have the cash on hand to buy attention always win — not because such an arrangement is corrupt, but simply because there are that many more ways to get people's attention when you have money, then there are when you don't.

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Tags: distribution promotion publicity publishing self-publishing

Of Silos And Vin Diesel Dept.

Why never to say something can't win Best Picture. Or shouldn't.

Why Is The Idea Of FURIOUS 7 Winning Best Picture So Funny? | Badass Digest

... if you’re making a big pop movie you’re not going to be engaged with in any real way; there’s an early sense of dismissiveness to how critics approach the work. What’s interesting is that it’s going in an exactly opposite way in the world of music; if you wrote an essay decrying Beyonce you had best be ready to defend yourself not just from fans but from music critics, but writing the 10,000th “Hollywood is making too many superhero movies” piece is a rite of film criticism passage.

I agree with Devin's core point: the more of a sense of history we have about the permeable membrane between "art" and "pop", the more suspicious we should be of our own willingness to segregate things merely based on their lineage, and the sillier it is to dismiss out-of-hand any claim of greatness for something because it comes from the wrong side of the aisle. (Silence of the Lambs, best picture, 1991; case rested.)

As for the too-many-superheroes thing, this is a line of argument I'm preparing to retire entirely myself. Not because I don't think there's a problem there — it's not the problem you think it is, more on that in a moment — but because all of the answers I have heard proposed for that problem do not take into account its real nature.

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Tags: culture entertainment movies

Metric System Dept.

Why numbers make us numb(er).

Anil Dash on Twitter:

One of the biggest dangers in tech is if you focus just on metrics, that might be all you get.

It isn't just tech where that risk rears its ever-so-sleek head, of course, although that's where I hear about the most ostensibly practical majority of it. "Data-driven" this and "test-driven" that; after a while, it ceases to sound like good practice or common sense, and becomes just another item on the Mindless Buzzword Roster. Not because of what it is, but how it's approached — like a magic pill, and not like a tool in the box. (Ask some folks just now crawling out of the trenches of software development if they can hear the words "scrum" and "agile" and not feel a shudder spring from their marrow.)

But go outside of tech, and you'll find people going data- and metrics-happy — and have been for a long time, even if not in those precise terms. The hitmakers responsible for calibrating the loudness of the records we listen to down to the last decimal point, or the studio heads who natter incessantly over whether or not the latest blockbuster has enough cross-quadrant demographic appeal — none of this stuff is new. The professional side of the creative world has been infested with quantimania for decades, and only here and there do people either employ it intelligently or free themselves of it entirely. Consider an outfit like Dark Horse — I don't believe for a second they don't do market research of some kind, but they are consistently behind some of the most inventive, diverse, and downright excellent comics in the market these days.

Part of me feels bad for making The Quants sound like inhuman bodysnatchers from beyond, because I'm not trying to demonize people who are good at math. They're far, far better than I will be at it in any number of lifetimes, that's for sure — and the number of positive, constructive applications for such work is still pleasingly large. Too bad it's more profitable to put that talent to use conjuring money out of thin air, or figuring out ways to pay less attention to the content and more attention to the delivery.

Tags: creativity mathematics

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