Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Steven Pinker is an Idiot

For the longest time I've been blissfully unaware of the thought - or what passes for thought - of Steven Pinker. At most, I've seen him mixed together with Jordan Peterson and other intellectual lightweights on the Bad Philosophy subreddit, usually being mocked for their attempts to critique modern philosophy without ever engaging with its ideas. Due to circumstances I'm not going into, I finally read some primary Pinker sources over the weekend and those wry internet barbs have been much too kind to him. He's not just an idiot and embarrassment to academia, he's an apologist for the worst crimes of the day.

Specifically his latest pop-sci book, Enlightenment Now, which claims to be a defense of reason and humanism against all those dastardly postmodernists. Like Ayn Rand and other such imbeciles before him, Pinker picks a fight with a statistical minority within the already statistically minor world of tenured professors, then goes on to not actually quote any counterarguments to his thesis. The closest he ever gets is disparaging the sort of liberal arts syllabus that Limbaugh and Hannity would whinge about but which is never actually seen outside a graduate seminar:
In The Idea of Decline in Western History, Arthur Herman shows that prophets of doom are the all-stars of the liberal arts curriculum, including Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Cornel West, and a chorus of eco-pessimists.
A charitable reader may assume Pinker makes such a broad - and wrong - generalization because he's not read any of the listed authors, just this Herman hack. That appears to be the only excuse for lumping Schopenhauer (a pessimist), Sartre (a Marxist), Nietzsche (a Nietzschean) and Heidegger (???) in with social critics like Foucault and Adorno. Nevermind the explicitly ant-colonial projects of figures like Fanon and Said, whose worldviews hinged on the faith that the world is not getting worse and transformations for the betterment of oppressed peoples is a real possibility.

But that would mean engaging with their thoughts and arguments, something Pinker never does because it would get in the way of his Pollyannaish boosterism for "progress." Pinker incidentally strongly objects to being labelled a "Pollyanna" or a "Pangloss," likely because he flunked comparative literature as an undergrad.

Had he not, and had he actually read any of his proposed opponents, he might understand the difference between pessimism as a psychological disposition and philosophical pessimism. Pinker conflates the two, the better to dismiss it with a sneer and graphs. Lots and lots of graphs, the last refuge of the thin-skinned dullard. He's got graphs showing declines in war! Increases in life expectancy! Growing civility on the internets! And I'm not posting any of them because they're all so fucking stupid!

"Great Scott I'm dumb!"

Take Pinker's assertion that war is on the decline. That depends how you define and measure "war," which Pinker does in such a way to paint a rosier picture. He only tracks conflicts between "Great Powers" running from about the 14th Century to today. That's an awfully broad view, seeing as some "Great Powers" like the Ottomans cease to exist halfway through. Further, he explicitly leaves out colonial wars and proxy wars and all the other wars that have ever been more common than some Game of Thrones-addled clash of empires.

He follows the same murky methodology in his tracking of human well being. Yes, it is nice not to be dying of the plague these days but what of wealth inequality? And healthcare inequality? And the exponential rise in rage massacres since the 1980s?

Also, his claims of online civility are blatant lies, simply for the fact that there's no way he researched the entire Internet for every racist and sexist joke when he couldn't even be arsed to read a little of Being and Nothingness.

Ah, but that's all taking Pinker's arguments in good faith. And as anyone who's read the recent hagiography of Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson knows, these sorts of pop-sci "intellectuals" are not arguing in good faith at all. They stake out positions tied up with their own particular sense of self and bellow that all the pointy-headed know-it-alls are wrong and you can see how if you just buy this new book.

It's a sales pitch masquerading as a sermon, and Pinker is a particularly egregious offender as he claims the language of reason and rationality to argue that things are fine. He rails against climate change skeptics and "eco-pessimists"in equal measure, turning the golden mean fallacy into a moral imperative. His book reads less like a well-reasoned rejection of nihilism and more like any other half-bright yuppie talking back to the evening news:
Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out”— or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as bad things have not vanished from the face of the earth, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news, especially when billions of smartphones turn most of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.
Have you seen those smartphone reports from Syria? Pinker sure hasn't, because it would make a mockery of all his precious graphs. And probably make him puke.

However, none of this should be taken as some call to challenge Pinker as he pretends to challenge two centuries of Continental Philosophy. He doesn't deserve that much consideration and he's much less consequential than his ever unnamed antagonists among the tenured guild who supposedly oppose progress and humanism. Rather, Steven Pinker is just the sort of idiot who comes along every five years or so, selling the same security blanket of a book to all the middlebrows with degrees, IRAs, and crushing debt. He's not assuring them the world is getting better so much as he's distracting them from their own personal experiences getting worse.

Forty years ago it was est and the evangelical revival. Today it's Silicone Valley and shoddy cognitive science. It gives white collar drones and centrist muddlers something to chew on, pretend they have real thoughts, while the real work of philosophy is done by folks like Ray Brassier, who will never get his books excerpted by a billionaire ghoul like Bill Gates.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Netflix Killed the Video Store

When I tell people I'm a librarian, they often ask me, "Isn't Google a threat to libraries?" This is a stupid question, asked only by stupid people, but it skirts close to the observable truth that the Internet has made a number of other forms of media obsolete. At least from a market perspective.

I've been seeing this myself over the past week. My wife and I are finally extricating ourselves from the festering sore of New York City and one of my self-appointed tasks has been selling off all our old crap. Most of this has been bag after bag of books but no small shortage of CDs and DVDs. And as far as the latter two are concerned, nobody's buying.

There are certainly still music stores - and music for sale in big box retailers - but I've been hard pressed finding anyone willing to buy old used music. On CD. What few music shops persist in Manhattan and Brooklyn revolve around vinyl, that favorite medium of snobs with more money than brains.

Likewise, you can still find DVDs for sale around town but no store wants to buy them off you. Look through what they have in stock and you'll see why - things are marked down to the ground. A buyer's market, should anyone care to show up.

They don't. All y'all would rather #NetflixAndChill. Much as MP3s decimated the CD market, streaming services and other such digital distribution are so much more convenient than going out and buying your preferred movie or TV show. In the latter case, you can even cover every season of Friends without ever getting up to change the discs. A brave new world for couch potatoes.

And this has all happened before. Not two decades ago, DVDs did the same thing to VHS tapes. A decade before that, CDs did the same to audio cassettes - which did the same to 8-track tapes, which did the same to vinyl, no matter what those snooty hipsters might say.

Plenty of Boomers and Gen-Xers have lamented these changes as stripping their favorite pop music of all the tertiary goodies, like album art and inventive packaging and travelling four hours to find the one indie record store offering the latest Butt Trumpet LP. But that's just it - all that high-art malarkey always was tertiary to what is a very ephemeral art form. Jazz musician and expat Eric Dolphy said it best, "When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again." People have been trying to capture music for a century regardless, but the vast storage space afforded by modern digital technology just reinforces Dolphy's point. With a hundred thousand songs mixing together in your hard rive, everything becomes an intermingled and meaningless soup of noise. The old-fashioned scolds are right to cling to their old record sleeves as it lends a sense of permanence to something fundamentally impermanent.

It's taken a little longer but the same is now happening to film and television. How permanent can a TV show be if you can watch the new season in a single day? How can you stay focused across such a mind-deadening stretch of time? How are all these woke and prestigious serials not just so much dull porridge of light and noise?

Music and film became dominant art forms in the 20th Century not because of inherent aesthetic value but rather due to the evolving media technology of a post-war boom in consumption. Now that we live in the belt-tightening austerity era all this storage media is so much clutter, the kipple of a middle-class suburban dream from which we've been forced awake. And no one wants to buy that bitter revelation.

But while these reams upon reams of optical discs collect dust in basements and thrift stores - and deteriorate rapidly - used book stores are still doing a brisk business. Borders is shuttered and Barnes and Noble is shit, but Mercer Street and Alabaster Bookshop have better philosophy, poetry, and pulp sci-fi offerings than Amazon. And they'll happily pay cash for your old books. Books trade more easily, and for cheaper, than the aforementioned mediums because what they store can be accessed as easily today as when the first Gutenberg Bible rolled off the press. You don't need a stereo or turntable or busted old Betamax, just the capability to read.

So is the Internet a threat to libraries? Probably not, since it still hasn't killed the indie book stores.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Fly Eagles Fly

Usually I wouldn't address something that is just sports but the recent Superbowl between the Eagles and the Patriots is a very special case. Very personal. My wife is a huge Eagles fan and Tom Brady is the Devil, so this was the one game I've been most invested in since the last one I played myself back in high school. That direct experience, which I've mentioned before, is also how I plan to show that this game has some interesting socio-political implications, as well as this whole post just being an exercise in self-indulgence.

Brandon Graham

First, let's look at the politics of this game as they are just within the world of professional football. Everyone with a lick of sense already hated the Patriots - even their own fans resent them for their cheating - and the Eagles came in as the scrappy underdog Americans are conditioned from birth to cheer for. But as anyone who's followed an NFL season knows, uplifting narratives don't have half the staying power as the demoralizing success of teams like the Patriots, who were shooting for their sixth Superbowl victory, which is currently a club of just one. For all that old timey grit and hometown love driving the Eagles, these sorts of contests in America have historically gone to the crass and the sleazy, as best personified in the Brady-Belichek tenure of the Patriots.

Bill Belichik and Tom Brady represent a common wisdom that is much too common in America. The power of the single, unencumbered superstar to drive a franchise to ever greater heights of wealth and fame. It's the logic that got Donald Trump elected and caused the housing market crash, the logic of ubermensch capitalism that has been harder to kill than Rasputin or Dracula. Tom Brady himself is exactly the sort of hero Ayn Rand would dream up, a completely self-certain and self-satisfied prick who's sole skill - throwing a goddamn ball - is presented as justification for his rich vampire lifestyle. This is aided and abetted by Belichik's management style, where every Patriot player is just a cog in the Fordist machine. This is visible not just in Patriots' fans' own dismal slogans, like "Do Your Job," but also in how Belichik's machine revolves around the arm and ego of Tom Brady.

Nick Foles

When it comes together, the Patriots offense really is worth the hype. Brady proved this with some of the longest Superbowl throws in history, usually to high-functioning freight rain Gronkwoski. The Brady-Gronk pairing, as sports journalism knobs have dubbed them, carried the majority of the scoring during the game and, when the stars were right, proved unstoppable.

But building a franchise around one or two star players is as risky as building a political movement around the mythology of the strong leader. The Patriots proved that too, in all their pre-game hagiography of Brady which was both reminiscent and reflective of the typical American presidential campaign circus, where whatever tired old hack the party's money-men agree on is puffed up and deified like a Roman Emperor. It's the Great Man theory in history, which has looked more and more like a fantasy for power-worshipping nerds ever since Election 2016. And since the collapse of the Patriots offense in Superbowl LII.

Jay Ajayi

Whereas the Eagles' offense proved the old mantra of "four yards and a cloud of dust." Every other first down, they sent the ball up the middle, which will never clear ten yards but will always close the distance a little, giving a team more flexibility with their passing. Nick Foles didn't throw as many passes as Brady, let alone throw as far, but he didn't need to as the rest of the Eagles' offense could be counted on to keep moving the ball down the field. This makes for a slow but inevitable advance, bringing the Eagles close enough for field goals even when the Patriots managed to stop the run.

Teamwork, as the after school specials like to say, but it bears repeating as so much of popular American myth revolves around a single rugged individualist, rather than the long grind of group effort. It may not be as photogenic as Brady's long bombs but, as demonstrated, it gets the job done better. All it takes to make a good quarterback is a good arm, but a good offense needs a quarterback who knows when to swallow his own ego and get out of the way. That's how a good team can carry a mediocre quarterback, but not the other way around.

Chris Long

The Eagles still couldn't have pulled it off, though, if their defense wasn't so scary. A good defense isn't a wall, it's a grenade that sows terror and confusion. A great defense is a white squall descending on Tom Brady's stupid preppy face. The pressure they kept bearing down on him had him throwing for the stands more often than not, anything to save himself from a blitz that would make even Jack "The Assassin" Tatum wince. With Brady in retreat, the morale of the whole team collapsed because, like all tyrants, they had everything to lose in this game and no support from their bloodless oligarch of a coach.

There's a lesson in all of this. The lesson I've been circling around in all the football talk - that the powers that be are not gods, not invulnerable, just contemptible little schemers like Brady and Belichik. No different from a crooked auto mechanic or a Brooklyn hustler, mortal and alone. A great mass movement can unseat everyone from the Patriots to the Senate, if they follow the example set by the Eagles in Superbowl LII: keep driving forward and never give your opponent the space to breath. It won't be an easy victory but it'll still win elections like it wins games.

*sad trombone music*

Also, Justin Timberlake is a twat.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Fiction Friday Returns!

A small boy with a kiddie-hawk haircut and holograph of happy cartoon mutants on his shirt gaped at Jerome. “Mommy, what’s wrong with that man?” he asked in innocent wonderment.

His mother, one of those high-strung yuppie sorts with a severe haircut, reluctantly looked up from her phone. “I’m so sorry,” she said automatically. Adding, grudgingly, because it was expected, “Would you like to sit down?”

As much as he enjoyed watching these sorts squirm, Jerome’s knee just couldn’t keep up with the train today. “Thank you. Yes, thanks.”

The woman tried her best to politely ignore him once he was settled on the seat, between a grumbling fat man in a heavy suit and a fatter woman who sniffed with indignation at Jerome, the train, and just the whole world in general. They all tried their passive aggressive best but the little boy just couldn’t let things go - “But what’s wrong with him? Why’s his skin look like that?” His little voice carried up and down the subway car, even over the squeal of the rusty tracks.

“Mason, stop it!” his mother hissed back. And again to Jerome, she said with repressed bitterness, “I’m so sorry. He knows better than this.”

He clearly didn’t but Jerome just chuckled. “It’s fine, really,” he assured her, making a magnanimous gesture with one gnarled hand. Then, addressing the little boy directly, “Hey Mason, want to know how my skin got like this?”

The boy answered with an excited "Yeah!" while his mother tittered "No he doesn't – No you don't!"

Ignoring her, Jerome told Mason with more than a hint of pride, "I let it happen! I let myself grow old!"

Learn Jerome's shameful secret here, exclusively at Eastern Iowa Review!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Willard Goes West

It's refreshing at a time when Hollywood can't stop congratulating itself on its progressivism to see an uncompromising look at the era of the Indian Wars. As the War Nerd so aptly put it, the First Peoples of the Americas and those 19th Century Americans were engaged in a war of extermination on both sides, with no quarter asked or given. That people speak English and Spanish in New Mexico rather than Comanche or Apache has nothing to do with who was right or wrong but simply who had the industrial base and the birthrate.

Hostiles kicks off with this cold, clear view of the Old West right away with a Comanche gang massacring Rosamund Pike's homesteader family. It won't be the last time she's brutalized in the course of the film and it sets a very deliberate formula for the ensuing two hours: people are cruel, there are no heroes, and gunfights are a matter of sheer dumb luck.

It's a far cry from the usual genre fare at the multiplex and thank Christ for that. I blissfully skipped the latest Star Wars and Marvel film and all those other Disney properties, opting instead for something both old fashioned and on the bleeding cultural edge.

The Western is really the quintessential American movie genre - and it still reflects the cultural zeitgeist even with all the changes from Unforgiven on. The old adventure pictures with noble white hats battling dastardly black hats reflected a popular imagination embracing the post-war vision of a nation as a global leader, the wide open plane representative of the potential and optimistic future just as much as science fiction's rocketry. Now, that plane is just as wide but reminds us how small we all are, how weak and mortal in the face of this great big world.

That old fashioned terror gets a good workout with Pike as she goes from getting massacred to kidnapped and raped to just the generally crummy life on the trail in late 1800s America. She's really the core of the film, emotionally and thematically, even though much of the actual plot revolves around Captain Joe Block chaperoning a dying Apache chief to his ancestral burial ground. It's forty miles of bad road, as Cameron said of Aliens, but much further than that and with fewer respites from the elements or - the greater threat - other human beings.

These sorts of travelling narratives are common - it makes up half of The Lord of The Rings - but many of those embody the threat of the open road in some persistent antagonist, always nipping at the heroes heels until the climactic battle just as they finish their journey. Hostiles has no such over-arching conflict because that sort of thing never happens in our dreary Real World. If it's not Comanches it's poachers, if it's not poachers it's some Army sergeant gone rogue. Or it's just the punishing rain. By the time Block is facing down the gun-toting libertarians - who sneer at his presidential order, proudly racist but happy to shoot other white men over their God-given property rights - you can feel not just his weariness but his bitter incredulity at these constant hurdles. "Great, now this..."

Block himself is just as far from the traditional Western hero as the film is from any redemptive message. Played by Christian Bale with the sort of big filthy mustache they only had in those days, he's much less the gunslinger than the morally apathetic veteran of a counter-insurgency war with no end. Captain Willard on the river, knowing damn well if they search the local's sampan they'll have to kill everyone. But where Apocalypse Now was still enamored with the American Dream and how it supposedly died in Vietnam, Block is on the front lines of the dirty wars that carved a United States out of the wild and free North American continent. He's right there where the Good Old Days were born and it's the bloodiest birth since the aforementioned Alien franchise.

A contrast to Block appears at times. Soft-hand intellectuals and bureaucrats from the East Coast, bleeding hearts for the poor put-upon Red Man. What might have been a reactionary's dichotomy is muddier though, as these are the same pillars of civilization who dispatched soldiers like Block to the Indian Wars in the first place, now full of sympathy and sentiment since the poor put-upon Red Man doesn't look like a threat by 1892. Not to the big cities at least. Most of the serious things never register with the cities, which is how climate change is already sinking Miami into the Atlantic.

But Hostiles admirably does not stake out a morality one way or the other. Comanches massacre the farmers, soldiers torment and murder Apaches, it's a Shankill road gang fight played out across sagebrush and valleys. Hostiles feels like a longer movie than it is but it's a rare case of this being a good thing. It brings you closer to the psychology of the characters, whose common humanity is ground downward with every passing mile by such common human cruelties, until the brutality of everyone from the soldiers to the Native tribes is comprehensible. It's not so much some innate or socially normative evil as just frustration, lashing out in ever more gruesome ways because why the hell not? Screw it, burn the world and God too.

It was the best time I've had at the cinema since Get Out.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

This Is You

This article about the cloying hit show This Is Us is what happens when you raise a generation of middle-class middle-brows on the notion Jane Austen novels were anything more than 19th Century soap operas. The author, and her audience, have just enough education to know this is hokey and culturally regressive, but that's exactly what they crave in their shallow Wal-Mart souls.

They know from the books they read in college that they should be skeptical of the family as an institution and critical of patriarchal structures which mandate all women choose motherhood, especially since it's not always really a choice...

But they're too much a product of contemporary suburban mores and norms to take that truly courageous step out of the Normal and into the sort of rootless bohemianism which the iconoclasts in their Norton anthologies embraced. Their critical articles, their social justice cant, their entire "wokeness" is so much virtue signalling. A mating call from the bland to the bland, so they can go in-hoc on a 4,000 square foot vinyl-sideded fuck-box, as the late Joe Bageant called American middle class housing. And all for the sake of recreating the family holidays and barbecues of their memories, despite how anxious and miserable they really were as children.

The media they consume - I hesitate to call it "art" - reflects this. A few well-timed fart and dick jokes to add a juvenile level of transgression to what is really a stuffy square's morality talking to itself. The Leave It To Beaver ethos, decked out in a few memes so these professional bores can pretend it's something new.

And this deep unconscious craving for the hokey and traditional that they so publicly roll their eyes at is exactly why we have the political climate we do now. Not hot enough to turn Red, but not cold enough to embrace the neo-feudal project of Conservatism, they are as lukewarm as piss in a swimming pool. They can't stand against the madness at this late stage of capitalism because they cannot bring themselves to conceive of a world beyond white picket fences, 2.5 kids, and lifelong consumer debt.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Big Man With A Gun

American Conservatives appear to be engaged in cognitive dissonance when they defend the "right to bear arms" in the wake of yet another mass shooting. This is the one non-negotiable Right for them, all else being easily sacrificed to the Patriot Act should some swarthy foreigner happen to have a shoe-bomb or underwear bomb or no bomb at all, just an expired work visa. None of these people are murdering Americans at the same rate as American Citizens with legally purchased firearms, so earnest Liberals think they can shame the Red Staters and Reactionaries into adopting gun control laws.

"From my cold, sweaty hands!"

But this is a misreading of Conservatism - one which Conservatives encourage. The animus against Muslims and Latinos does not come from any concern for security but rather for preserving the hierarchy of Real Americans over and above Everyone Else. Within this paradigm, frequent flare ups like Las Vegas are acceptable and so is Trump's latest Muslim Ban, as both maintain the primacy of Real Americans over foreign and alien Others, whether from Syria or San Francisco. Further, the untouchable Right To Bear Arms ensures the hierarchy of private, local regimes of power exercised with all the impulsive terror of a medieval manor lord - a "democratic feudalism" in which the boss rules you but you can still rule the wife, who rules the kids, who set fire to the dog because that's how all these little pyramids of "order" play out. Assuming you don't decide to expand your own rule with an Armalite and duffle bag of spare mags, like Stephen Paddock.

So when Conservatives howl about Muslims and immigrants but turn into muddling Constitutionalists at any mention of gun control, they're not being disingenuous. They are being principled, but it's the principles of fascist assholes. And they deserve the same as any fascist.