Thursday, December 1, 2016

Fear and Loathing in Trumpland

I'm re-reading Hunter Thompson and you should too. There are few writers who better get this new era of Bad Crazyness, the only others that come to mind being Philip K. Dick and Sade.

Not just because Thompson dealt with the same patty malice and inflated ruling class egos that reached their apotheosis in Donald Trump, but also because the man was a pro-football oracle:

The consensus among the 1600 or so sportswriters in town favored Miami by almost two to one... but there are only a handful of sportswriters in this country with enough sense to pour piss out of their own boot, and by Saturday night there was an obvious drift among the few "smart" ones to Minnesota, with a seven-point cushion... But in reality there were only about 400 writers willing to risk a public prediction on the outcome of a game that - even to an amateur like me - was so obvious that I took every bet I could get against the Vikings, regardless of the spread... Moments later, when the Dolphins drove the length of the field for another touchdown, I began collecting money.
~Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl

Thompson saw the pro-sports angle of national electoral politics back when it was just taking root. He rightly railed against it but he also played the game far better than the horse-race pollsters of the time - and especially better than this time. Because politics, like football, is much more about the feel and sheer intuition than wonky numbers. If you know the game in your blood, you can feel which way the momentum carries in the same way sharks can feel the Earth's magnetic field.

I saw this in a microcosm over the long weekend. I married into a traditionalist family with lotsa guys playing fantasy football and dithering over statistics. While watching the Dallas V. 'Skins game on Turkey Day, I called it by the second quarter for Dallas with a tight point spread. One cousin rattled off how there was plenty of time and besides Washington just needed to intercept a pass, grab a fumble, get some other unlikely reversal and then they'd win the day.

Dallas won. With a tight point spread.

I don't know how many yards who's been rushing or who did what last season, I just played the game in high school. Once you've been on the ground, dirt in your face and grass in your mouthguard, you understand the game on an instinctual level. Anyone who's played the game for real knows that feeling in the first half, "We're gonna lose this one," and can always recognize it when it happens to some other poor sucker.

Saturday, I called the Iowa V. Nebraska game in the Hawkeyes' favor before the end of the first quarter. Short version: Nebraska's defense was solid but their offense was the worst I've ever seen. Iowa had a tank running their ball. I checked the final score the next day: Nebraska 10, Iowa 40.

So when I said a few weeks ago Trump's infrastructure plan would be a Yeltsin-style fire sale to big business, I wasn't going off any numbers. No one had any numbers yet anyway, but I've been living in New York City for three and a half years. I've seen exactly how construction works in this city, or rather how it doesn't work at all. Huge sections of Brooklyn are still a wreck four years after Sandy because this big city's government is by and four the leeching class in the construction business. Once you've sat in on a few Build-It-Back conferences, you know exactly how a bloated bloodsucker like Trump will operate.

Just like Iowa and Dallas, I called it:

Since the plan depends on private investors, it can only fund projects that spin off user fees and are profitable. Rural roads, water systems, and public schools don’t fall into that category. Neither does public transit, which fails on the profitable criterion (it depends on public subsidies).

It's not that hard to see, once you've been on the ground. Here in New York, where the greedheads ruled even before Reagan, construction has been little more than welfare for rich white people. And here's the depressing part: DC ain't much different.

I've worked for contractors to both Medicare and the DOD. The two untouchable federal programs - no matter what Paul Ryan is blathering about - because they both serve to transfer tax-payer money to wealthy private interests. This is well-documented with defense spending - the greatest scam on Earth - but let's talk a little about how Medicare keeps Humana and other such vampires in business.

You know Medicare A and B? Also called Original Medicare, it was the first model rolled out under LBJ and covers basic hospital and some outpatient care. Very basic, just enough to keep the machinery of the human body functional enough to keep shuffling around and consuming. It's also the only part that Big Government actually pays for.

What you might be more familiar with is Medicare Part C, or Medicare Advantage. That was Clinton's baby and in keeping with his submerged-state neoliberalism it uses public-private partnerships to disguise the role of the state and enhance the appearance of the market. Every health insurance company that can afford a Congressman has a contract with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a guaranteed profit source as aging Americans require more specialized care and CMS will baby the private sector through every step of the annual bid process.

I personally fielded tech support calls for four years where well remunerated, white collar professionals from Humana and Blue Cross tried to game the system, get crooked and excessive payment plans sneaked through the approval process. Let me say that again - private insurance companies try to extract illegal payments from Medicare beneficiaries every year. They even get away with it, with how buggy and broken the expensing software is by April, and this has been the norm through both the Bush and Obama years. Medicare for twenty years, for all the good it may do for your grandparents, has been just as rent-seeking and ruled by the greedheads as New York City contracting and as Donald Trump's coming infrastructure boondoggle.

And liberals love it because it was Clinton's idea.

This is why average Americans never understood why Yeltsin was such a swine. He tried to do in a few years what the Reagan Revolution has taken over three decades to accomplish: not just the upward transfer of wealth through government-supported corporate rent-seeking, but the normalization of this parasitic behavior. The celebration of vampires like Trump and Jamie Dimon and Mark Zuckerberg as paragons of "free enterprise" because they make money off of what a socially-conscious government would do for free.

And that's why Trump isn't going anywhere.

Recount or not, the orange egomaniac will be inaugurated in a little more than a month. Protests and even riots will accompany this but American police are always eager to crack some heads. It'll be a great pressure release valve for both the outraged humanists and the pig-ignorant revanchists who simmered in their own stupid malice all through the Obama years. It won't change a damn thing.

Trump's economic plans are just Ryan's plans with the "Trump" brand stamped on top anyway. And Trump did very well for himself throughout both Republican and Democrat administrations because he is normal. Reagan and Ayn Rand made him the American Normal long before he started ranting about birth certificates and he has the shameless cunning of a New Yorker. I tell you, these people are all noise - bark with no bite, smarmy chumminess while they pick your pocket. He's also vain enough to be easily strung along by a GOP machine long experienced in handling other ridiculous figureheads all the way back to Nixon - hell, he's been buddies with one of the original Nixon fixers since the 1980s!

Right to Left: Donald Trump, Ivana, Roger Stone.
Will he get serious pushback on his agenda? Not just protests and pithy editorials but pushback that matters, from the loyal opposition in Congress? Short answer: No. They had their chance in the election and the best they could do was talk-down to everyone outside the NY and DC pundit class. The Democrats are so hopeless that they haven't even taken the obvious step and just put Sanders out front, instead muddling about with "bringing the wings of the party together," in stark denial that it's not a matter of divergent views but a tiny Wall Street loving aristocracy who ignored everyone else, running the bastard child of Nixon and Muskie the same year the rest of the country would've voted first and foremost for Madame Guillotine.

There are few brights spots on the horizon. At least World War III has been pushed back by about a year. I appreciate that as it gives me time to get clear of the target cities. You should too, I hear Calgary is surprisingly sunny. Also, the stress of office will definitely be too much for a pampered priss like Donald Trump. The odds are about even he'll have a heart attack by the 2018 mid-terms if he doesn't get impeached by his own party. Not that the Republicans were ever his to start with - they were a convenient vehicle for his self-love project and now he's a convenient vehicle for the leeching class to squeeze some last drops of blood out of this desiccated country. As soon as he stops being convenient - and you know he'll do some impeachable shit in just the first week - he'll be out faster than you can say Black Iron Prison.

But the odds are even better he'll stumble through four years and get re-elected in 2020 when the Democrats run some other neoliberal dildo like Charlie Booker. I sure don't want that to happen but I can't shake that feeling I used to get in the first half: "We're gonna lose this one."

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

From the Vault: Virginia Tech and the Hysteria of Denial

Originally published April 22, 2007. Re-posted as the media blames Daesh for a Somali boy flipping out, just like they blamed North Korea for a mad nerd named Cho.

There’s something about a school shooting that makes everyone really really really stupid. In the past week, all the standard questions and attempted easy answers have been tossed around from easy access to firearms to the genetic disease of Asianess to Dan Brown-inspired jackassery about the shooter being some North Korean sleeper agent. Just enough to keep people nice and distracted from the much higher body counts coming out of Iraq everyday. Remember, deaths only count if they’re pretty white kids.

“But why did it happen? How could it happen?” wails the idiot public. Simple: he was pissy, he bought a gun. If this were Gaza or Fallujah, he would strap on a C4 vest. The Middle-east has human firecrackers, we have the Second Amendment. Why he was pissy, there’s the six-hundred-sixty-six dollar question people aren’t going to ask. Well, they’ll ask it but only in the rhetorical “Why do you hate America?” way. Because the answer is so glaringly obvious, it’s been the answer to every school and office massacre in this country since Charlie Whitman: Cho was picked on.

Bullied, abused, teased, however you want to say it, bottom line is the kid was shat on long enough he got fed up. Hell, he fucking lays it out in his video package for NBC:

Do you know what it feels to be spit on your face and to have trash shoved down your throat? Do you know what it feels like to dig your own grave? Do you know what it feels like to have throat slashed from ear to ear? Do you know what it feels like to be torched alive? Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and be impaled upon on a cross? And left to bleed to death for your amusement? You have never felt a single ounce of pain your whole life. Did you want to inject as much misery in our lives as you can just because you can?

Now I’m no forensic psychiatrist... but that seems like a pretty clear statement Cho was bullied.

People scoff at this. “So he was teased, so what? That’s no reason to go off and kill a bunch of people!” And that’s exactly the kind of attitude that let’s these shootings happen. Nobody wants to talk about the elephant in the room, even when it starts shitting on everyone. Michael Moore touched on it, almost, in Bowling for Columbine, but chickened out and won an Oscar. Mark Ames has been screaming the truth for years and lives as an expat in Moscow: The whole of American culture is one of bullying and oppression! From Baghdad to El Salvador to Kabul to Littleton, we engage in a grand game of prison rules where the man on top makes you his bitch. When the whole of society is organized on this concept, how does Cho’s rampage, or any of the dozens of others strike anyone as surprising? When the world has forced you down in a hole, how is grabbing a gun not the sane thing to do?

Weep for Virginia Tech, but also weep for Seung-Hui Cho. An awkward, nerdy kid who became the target of the true American past time, who in a few hours of horror gave this country a bright shining chance for serious self-reflection, and who will be quickly forgotten by people who will not look into that mirror, who will never give up their god-given right to be assholes. And it will keep happening.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The First Hundred Days

So that happened.

American liberals, never ones for honest political analysis, are still filling social media with self-pity and whinging. They just cannot believe the country would be so backward as to not vote for the Wall Street loving neocon. They really thought George W. Bush in a pantsuit could win against a Philip K. Dick villain, having never known the nihilism that rises from daily desperation in the vast swath of America that has been made worse by globalization. There's so much noise, you almost miss the fact that Clinton won the popular vote with less votes than Romney scored in 2012. Because so few people, barely a third, could hold their nose and vote for either side of the shit sandwich that was Election 2016.

So many apocalyptic pronouncements have followed, like no one else lived through the Bush years. Although I have seen few comments on the worst part of a Trump presidency: Having to wake up and hear or hear about that lump of obesity and cocaine for four years. Trump's voice sounds like his ass smells, making political reporting even more disgusting.

But let's try to think calm and cold about this. So many parody articles of "Trump's First 100 Days!" appeared during the campaign, penned by smug urbanites who thought neoliberalism would last a thousand years, but very few took a look at the man and the Beltway culture he would be entering. So here is a little bit of that honest political analysis that liberals spurned, along with the much more electable Sanders:


  • Trump's cabinet will be the same basket of has-beens as have already gravitated to his campaign. In keeping with the vicious mobsters he borrows money from, he will reward only those craven enough to flatter his enormous and fragile ego. Giuliani really will be Attorney General, finally giving libertarians something worth complaining about. Chris Christie will be Secretary of Transportation, or maybe of eating all the pies. It will look like one of those third-tier concert tours of aging Boomer rock stars.
  • The key point being it will not be like the Bush cabinet. Bush presided over not just an ideological movement but of ideologues who'd made "respectable" places for themselves in the halls of power stretching back to the Nixon years. Trump will have the men who lost out in that same system, all bluster and empty rolodexes. Networking matters to a depressing degree in actually getting legislation passed.
  • Speaking of - The great getting along promised by Congressional Republicans will last halfway through Trump's first Sate of the Union. In that time he will manage to insult the neck of Mitch McConnell, the height of Marco Rubio, and the sexual prowess of every potential ally in the Senate. Professional Republicans are a craven lot but there's just so much abuse even they will tolerate.
  • Tax cuts will still happen, though. Yuge tax cuts and a rollback of what tepid regulations have trickled through over eight years, returning the economy to the Bush model but without the housing bubble to make it look good. If you live outside New York or DC you will experience no difference from the past sixteen years. Even if you live in New York or DC you will only notice if you inherited real estate.
  • The promised growth sector will be all the labor and material needed for the big vanity wall on the Mexican border. This will never materialize, the actual construction disappearing into a labyrinth of contractors and subcontractors. Trump will utilize classic New York City building skills to make the most money for his golf buddies without actually building anything.
  • Small business owners across the country will think this is great because every small business owner is a shit-head.
  • Foreign policy will be exactly like it would have been under Clinton. NAFTA, NATO, etc., are the safest bets for the next eight years. Trump will preside over the same drone assassinations and forced sodomy that have characterized the War on Terror over the past two administrations. Libertarians will not care.
  • Finally, insurance companies will rally to the defense of the Affordable Care Act. Democrats will say this is a good thing. Whatever the result, you will still get enormous medical bills.


The ugliest thing about Election 2016 is how even the "upset" victory by Trump will not change business as usual. If you think otherwise, just look at the optimism on Wall Street. They know a toad will never drain its own swamp.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Intelligence and the Limits of Machine Logic

Among the opinion makers and wealthy scions of Silicon Valley, it is treated as an article of faith that Strong AI is inevitable. And like all faiths, this is rooted in sentiment and a limited experience of the world rather than any serious philosophical investigation.

To demonstrate how wrong these assumptions of the techie class are, imagine a chess match between yourself and a super computer. This is not some imaginary You who is an experienced Chess Grand Master, but the actual you reading this. The one who likely has no more chess experience than average, maybe so little that you don't even know the horsey ends its move on a turn. However, you can defeat the supercomputer in your very first move. White or black, you can win the match with only one move and there is no way it can be countered by your hypertech opponent:

Unplug the computer.

You win by default! A computer, no matter how complex or advanced, cannot function without a steady supply of electricity. If it cannot function, it cannot calculate chess moves. So it cannot play and forfeits the match.

"But that's cheating!" you say. Exactly. The entire point of this thought experiment is to demonstrate something intelligent life can do that simply cannot be recreated in a computational system: cheating!

People too often view computers as mystical and irreducibly complex. The truth is that modern computation is indeed perfectly reducible to its component parts, all of which must work as planned for the system to perform its function. And this necessitates a machine logic that is strictly linear.

Anyone with coding experience knows this in their bones, though surprisingly few will admit the reductionist nature of computing. Even though they frequently employ reductionism in their engagement with society... But to elaborate, every program you've ever used, no matter how complex and seemingly reactive, springs from a code sequence that has been laid out along a strict A to B route. It may contain variables from A.1.j to B.7.&, but if it encounters anything not covered in these variables the whole system will freeze up or throw a fault.

Another example illustrating this quality of computation: video games. Currently the manner in which the most people directly engage with AI, so much more pertinent to this discussion than the latest half-baked idea to emanate from a tech billionaire, video games demonstrate both how computational systems can appear adaptive and dynamic while strictly enforcing their own linear logic.

Ever felt like the computer is a cheating bastard? A boss fight that violates established rules on health and damage or, for you youngsters, the enemy's bullets always hit the mark while yours veer off course for the sake of "realism." While aggravating, this is not indicative of conscious cruelty on the part of the game but rather crummy design. Every pixel that flies across the screen to knock pixels out of your pixel is as predetermined as Spinoza's cosmos, and whether the determined events are pleasing or frustrating to you depends on how many of "you" are upset enough to create a marketing problem for the game's publisher. Otherwise you're likely to hear that old saw, "It's not a bug, it's a feature."

The linearality of machine logic is indeed its biggest feature. A graphing calculator can do your high school algebra test better than you, but that's all it can do. Because that's all it was designed to do. And, returning to the heart of our argument, it cannot cheat.

Intelligent life cheats all the time. You, your pets, and the squirrels in your front yard - all can and do cheat. Frequently. Because survival in this harsh and complicated universe of ours requires constant and ruthless adaptability. Real intelligence does not have the luxury of working within a defined system and so must seek any possible advantage.

Example: A sociopathic carnivore with knife-hands.

Further, mere quantitative power is itself no indication of intelligence. Returning to the example of chess, Garry Kasparov famously went win-loss-draw with Microsoft's Deep Blue. Much better than You would have done in the same circumstances but still Kasparov operated within the rules of the computer system, rather than employing the full range of options available to him as a sentient lifeform. He lacked the simple wisdom of Alexander to pull the plug and declare Man superior to Machine.

This is not to call Kasparov dumb. No, he is dumb because of the smorgasbord of conspiracy theories he embraces: NATO invaded Afghanistan to destabilize Russia, Anatoly Fomenko's assertion that human history only begins in the 11th Century AD, and of course that Microsoft cheated in the match that granted Deep Blue a victory. More damning to quantitative logic as the litmus for intelligence, this range of crankery does not make Kasparov an outlier among chess "geniuses." Bobby Fischer was famously anti-semitic, despite being of Jewish descent, and praised Osama bin Laden for the 9/11 attacks.

These cases of chess players - brilliant in their field, bonkers everywhere else - is indicative of the "intelligence" one can expect from a machine system. The system may perform excellently within the bounds of its programming but the unbending logic of programming itself means it cannot achieve intelligence even on par with a cunning adolescent. That the myth of Strong AI has so occupied tech culture is not because it is close to being realized but simply because tech culture itself is a dog wagged by its own tail.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

World War Trump

I've been trying to avoid the election. Because it's a stupid thing for stupid people. But sometimes the noise gets too loud, like it did over the weekend with everyone arguing over whether or not it's proper etiquette to call brain-dead racists "deplorable." A very Beltway sort of issue - trying to find some way to square the total objective grotesquery of a typical Trump voter with the wonk's instinct to not insult anyone who might see your LinkedIn profile.

And while every right-thinking human knew Trump supporters were deplorable from day one, what to think of the Clinton supporters?


I've mentioned before how Clinton's oh so liberal supporters seem to be kinda bloodthirsty. It's the biggest criticism of her record despite what Peter Daou and other well-paid apologists might tell you and it's always been rooted in the historical fact that Hillary Clinton has killed more Muslims than Donald Trump.

This often leads people to think Trump is a protest vote. Not necessarily a good one but at least a contrary point to the eternal grind of this technocratic empire. They cite a few things he's blurted about getting the US out of NATO and his criticisms of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Of coure, Trump is an American businessman and therefore a lying sack of shit.

James Woolsey, who served as CIA director in President Bill Clinton’s administration, will serve Donald Trump as a senior adviser on national security, defense and intelligence, the campaign announced today. 
Woolsey appeared on CNN shortly after the announcement, saying he joined the Trump campaign because he favors the Republican candidate’s defense budget proposal. Trump has proposed to lift the caps on defense spending.

CNN makes a big to-do about Woolsey having worked under the last Clinton and his time in the CIA, as opposed to his more recent work for anti-Russian NGOs. Probably because of that same wonk instinct to ignore the warts, like a good Victorian, and because distracting y'all from he's an even bigger neocon nutter than Hillary.

Woolsey’s resume of evil is impressive. He helped found the notorious Iraqi National Congress, which provided “proof” about Iraqi WMDs. And he also serves on the Center for Security Policy, headed by fellow goon Frank Gaffney, who in 2004 publicly advised President Bush to level Fallujah (which Bush did), invade Iran and North Korea (which Bush can’t but yet may try), and adopt “”appropriate strategies for contending with China’s increasingly fascistic trade and military policies, Vladimir Putin’s accelerating authoritarianism at home and aggressiveness toward the former Soviet republics, the worldwide spread of Islamofascism.” Note how Gaffney, like Woolsey, equates “Islamofascism” with Putin’s Russia, making Russia a mortal enemy bent on destroying the US.

With the revolving door that is the Trump campaign, it's possible Woolsey will have quit in disgust by the time you read this. And if he does, another neocon will slither in to fill the post. American politics won't let any bad idea fail, whether it's bombing democracy into the swarthy hordes or celebrating business executives as innovators and job creators.

Screw this election. It's all deplorable.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Leprous Bathos

There is a long and storied history among "serious" writers of using some more interesting moment in history to add flavor to their muddling bourgeois tales of self-discovery. Jonathan Safran Foer did it most famously, reducing Soviet pogroms and Nazi extermination of Ukrainian Jews into so much tear-porn for his self-insertion character in Everything is Illuminated. Good business model but makes for lousy storytelling. And lousy storytellers.

Victoria Hislop doesn't have anything as sexy as the Holocaust to pad out her own sentimental novel, The Island, but still found a pretty interesting piece of Greek history: a leper colony! The titular island, it serves as the fulcrum for a family drama stretching back to the Inter-War years, through joys and tragedies that valiantly manage to remain a steady "meh" across more than four hundred pages.

Just off the shore of the tiny Cretan village of Plaka sits a dry and hardscrabble island named Spinalonga. It's a leper colony, one of the last in Greece so it receives "patients" - really internees - from as far away as Athens and Thessaloniki. These Cosmopolitan Hellenes are quite a contrast to the local Cretan villagers, Hislop tells us. And only tells. There's maybe ten pages out of a hundred devoted to telling about the difference - and how it gets all wrapped up neatly with bi-weekly film showings - before this very interesting clash of cultures is left by the wayside, the better to make room for the soap opera drama of three generations of Petrakis women. Noble women of course, as enduring and determined as their provincial island home. Except for Anna, who's a big ol' slut.

I'm inferring quite a bit about the setting as Hislop is less interested the external world of Cretan islands - full of exotic history going back to the Minoans trading and fighting wars with the Pharoahs to the south and the Hittites to the east - than she is in the internal world of her characters. Which is very bad because there's so little there there. The most compelling of them is the aforementioned Anna, a headstrong drama queen determined to escape the doldrums of village life. She marries into a rich family, the only means of social mobility in a society as stratified and chauvinistic as Greece, but quickly finds married life to be just as punishingly boring as kicking around her father's fishing village. This leads to affairs and murders that everyone blames on Anna's perfidy - including the author - though it all comes across with the dull familiarity of predestination. Or a pudding of narrative cliches.

Anna is of course presented in contrast to her dutiful sister Maria and their martyr of a mother Eleni. The eldest Petrakis catches the dropsey from a little boy at her job as a schoolteacher and the both of them are shipped across to the leper colony. Maria follows on the eve of her wedding to the same wealthy family her sister joined, freeing her groom-to-be to plow Anna like a wheat field. What could be a grim and naturalistic look at family history gets a Hallmark makeover however, as a fancy doctor soon arrives to treat Maria and all the lepers with a cure that frees them from exile. Maria doesn't even carry any scars from her five or six years on a leper colony, much like her mother died with quiet nobility offscreen, as it were, with no description of her final horrendous hours.

In fact, aside from a few comments on gnarled hands or feet and one old lady with walnut-sized boils on her face, the leprosy at the center of this turgid tale gets very little attention. From the first introduction to Spinalonga, the focus is much more on the day to day doldrums of any village - just with the added caveat of "Oh BTW, they all lepers." The colony even vanishes from the narrative for long stretches, particularly when Anna and Maria are doing their little girl dream wedding stuff. Even World War II happening in the first third of the book doesn't generate more drama than a few boys running out into the mountains to play soldier, returning after peace is declared in the newspapers without so much as a lost toe and goddamn did Olivia Manning do the banality of war better! All the talk of leprosy is really there to distract the reader from how this book has fewer sharp edges than a rubber nipple.

Really, you can't expect much from a middle of the road Anglo writer like Hislop. She even has a name like one of PG Wodehouse's third tier antagonists, Honoria Glossop the lady sergeant major who forces philosophy books she doesn't understand herself on those who've already mastered the Buddha's path to the good life. Hislop doesn't share that same bludgeoning personality - near as I can tell - but certainly agrees with the Glossops of the world that thick books of ponderous seriousness are what is most needed.

I haven't even gotten to the framing device yet! The bourgeois self-discovery that necessitated all this tiresome historical lecturing, the young Alexis and her misgivings about her fussy boyfriend. I don't remember his name but we'll call him Chad because he is very much that sort of stock character. Actually, we won't call him anything because the frame narrative is even duller than the village girls trying on wedding dresses. In fact, let's forget this whole fucking novel!

But let's not forget Hislop. Proving that history repeats itself as tragedy and farce, Victoria Hislop has managed to craft a literary career for herself out of being the same sort of high-serious dunderhead the almighty Wodehouse skewered so brilliantly with a hundred better stories.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Gazing into the Abyss

I'd like to talk about the nature of evil. "Evil" as a vaguely defined concept is awfully popular in American culture, especially since 2001, but it's never come in for sharp critique.

This is due to two powerful factors: 1) Americans as a general rule do not like to critique anything ever, hence why shit-awful movies like The Avengers and Transformers always make more money than anything worthy. And 2) A serious analysis of evil as a concept leads to discomforting revelations.

Let's start slow - Who do you hate? Just of the top of your head, someone you wouldn't mind seeing creamed by a bus? If you answered at all you've demonstrated evil, naturally, but that brings us to our next question: Why do you hate this person?

Have they done something to you? They probably have, since people are so invariably shitty to one another. Or, to go into murkier waters, has this person actually not done much of anything to you directly but something about their existence just offends you? Maybe they're more successful, maybe they're less successful but not bothered by it.

Maybe they're just different from you...

All of these reasons are evil, there's no denying. At least not by anyone who matters. But why would you have these reasons in the first place? Why should the material fortunes - or lack thereof - of another person concern you in such a way?

Because society told you to. Whether your parents or television or the other kids in your neighborhood, you were conditioned to hold these wicked views by others. Racism is often explained this way and while it doesn't touch on the depth of human atavism it at least gets the gist of things. Whatever malice you hold for others, if not founded in a direct personal experience, was fostered by the world around you as culturally normative behavior.

Here we move out of the comforting Neoplatonist definitions of evil and into the more grimly rationalist view. The idea that this is not in fact the best of all possible worlds, that the harmony we think we see in Nature is just an anthropocentric delusion, and that Evil is not an aberration in the grand scheme of things but rather the banal starting point.
[T]here’s only one evil, it suffuses everything we see, and while one might do less harm than the other, each of its warring parts is still fundamentally the same thing. Donald Trump’s frenzied populism couldn’t exist without the suffocating liberal condescension of a Hillary Clinton; nobody would ever vote for Clinton if it weren’t for the looming threat of a Trump.
That which is good, or at least not-evil, is not the baseline but rather the achievement. The long and ugly march of human history bears this out, though it is too often taken as a given. The old feudal hierarchies of Europe did not so much progress to liberal democracy as they were dragged kicking and screaming. As a labor activist once said, "It's never been easy," because every little improvement came from a confrontation with entrenched power that always sees its own self-perpetuation as the most important task at hand. Whether the power is claimed by divine right or meritocratic ladder climbing, it always seeks to preserve "order" at the expense of those outside its hallowed halls.

Evil, then, is both the natural state of existence and the resistance to changing for the better.