Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Dictatorship of the Yuppies

I have never used Uber.

Let me put that in context. I am a white guy with decent income residing in Brooklyn, I am between the ages of 25 and 35, I have a smartphone, and I have never used nor felt the need to use Uber. I know plenty of other New Yorkers who can say the same and I live and ride the subway with even more non-members of the much talked about "sharing economy" of which Uber is so often Exhibit A.

Unlike many of these same New Yorkers, I grew up far away in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where a service like Uber would be hard pressed to even get off the ground. It's a frequent joke that the town I grew up in only exists because people on I-95 ran out of gas. Cabs are for DC and the airport, which makes them a rarity even among the upper middle class DOD employees - more often, it's taken as a given you can drive yourself or get a lift from someone. This arrangement has never been viewed by anyone as a problem and there is nothing in the transportation system to "disrupt" other than the HOV lane.

All of this leads to the conclusion that Uber - and by extension the sharing economy in general - is simply a non-issue outside a very limited, urban, and well-to-do demographic.

It just so happens that the same demographic contains the primary writers and readers of the New York Times, the Atlantic, and every other respectable publication - to say nothing of the narrowly focused tech publications.

So a narrowly urban yuppie service like Uber ends up getting a much larger share of reporting and commentary than, say, the toxic water of Flint Michigan. Despite reports for more than a year, it's only been in the last few weeks that anyone remembered Flint even existed. And then they looked at the hashtag and asked "Is Michael Moore making another movie?"

Because social media is a product of the same insular, upper middle class culture as Uber users and as such is simply not engaged with the majority experience in modern America. Instead, we get a closed system of materially secure yuppies arguing over an app-based utopia that only they will ever experience.

That's what the sharing economy and all the other "internet of things" dithering comes down to: a gated community for people residing in America's urban coastal enclaves. A community many of them don't even want, but they don't have the guts to leave.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

#ResistCapitalism

As Obama enters his final year and Clinton II devolves into desperate red-baiting, let's take a look at what the past eight years of DNC economics has wrought.

Not a whole lot. While some more jobs have opened up since the 2008 crash, they haven't been enough or paid enough to make up for the losses among middle and working class folks. It still counts as a recovery though because finance is booming.

For now.

Business, according to economist Thorstein Veblen, is not a productive sector of the economy. Production is antithetical to its purpose as that would mean spending something - or in the current case anything - to get to somewhere profitable. Business needs Industry, the material side of the economy with all the production and innovation, to sponge off of in ever more complicated trade deals and financial instruments.

It's really been something of a coup for Business in the past thirty odd years because now those same financial instruments that once robbed productive workers of their earnings are now robbing other financial instruments in a closed system that will generate wealth so long as no one looks too closely.

You'd think that means Wall Street is one audit away from another crash and you'd be wrong. The Fed demonstrated with its recent rate hike that the central bank is firmly behind the private banks in whatever ludicrous gamble they choose.This has nothing to do with "market stability" or whatever fantasies of fairness libertarians indulge in rather than facing reality - that being "[t]he Fed is a central planner that dare not speak its name."

None of this, from federal regulation to Wall Street money laundering schemes, is a rational or natural outcome. This is as politically driven as the hue and cry of #OscarsSoWhite. It's the same old politics that informed the Ancien Regime and the Robber Barons, the notion that being born with more stuff means the rest of society should serve to provide you with even more. The GOP funded pundits and even some Democrats may so otherwise - something about fair play and competition - but that is all trash. They are fools, liars, or both.

Economics has never been about what's fair. It has always been about power and survival. You don't owe a manager or CEO anything and the sooner everyone catches on to that single liberating fact, the sooner central planners like the Fed will start serving the interests of the productive classes, rather than Business.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Video Games Are NOT Art

They are games. And that is perfectly fine.

The "games as art" meme is almost as popular on the internet as kittens falling over, but it's always struck me as a fuzzy position. Video games can incorporate artistic elements - and the best usually do - but they are fundamentally toys to be indulged in leisure time.

Understand I greatly enjoy video games. I've even dabbled in the rhetoric of games as art, but it simply doesn't hold up under scrutiny. The artistic elements of a game detract from gameplay the more dominant they are - Silent Hill 2 may have a brilliant narrative, but it is janky as all get out and anyone who says they prefer save points to quick saves is a dirty liar. And that brilliant narrative is still inferior to, say, House of Leaves if for nothing else than the gameplay hours spent dodging monsters in between James Sunderland's guilt-induced breakdown.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that “Drama is just life with the dull bits cut out”. In contrast, a video game is drama with dull bits added in.

Yet Silent Hill 2 is still a better game than damn near everything in the survival horror genre from the past decade. With a notable exception, "survival horror" just means a compendium of jump scares on the level of three star horror movies on Netflix, but even lacking in the tension of waiting to see which characters get knocked off. There's always going to be one character who survives everything - otherwise it ceases to be a game in any sense - and they're either a blank cipher or a bland Everyman, as any greater characterization could alienate the player. Characters in film and fiction need the freedom to alienate their own audience, but the opposite holds in video games because otherwise no one will play them. Or spend money on them.

In his critique of criticisms of his position, the late Roger Ebert pointed out that those who assert video games are art spoke not in the language of artists but of salespeople. "Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management" are, in the words of the games as art evangelists, the components of this new artistic medium. It's neoliberal logic, which any indie author can tell you is antithetical to artistic expression.

The drive to label video games as works of art appears to be driven by both this attempt at marketable branding in the industry and a deep insecurity among video game players. Is it really so bad if video games are not art? Does that in any way detract from the enjoyment of playing them? Or to draw a comparison - how is Garry Kasparov's lifelong commitment to chess different from a professional Halo player?

FunFact: Bobby Fischer teabagged every opponent's king.

Chess is not art. It's a game, but no one will deny its depth and cultural significance. Why not compare your favorite indie or triple A title to chess? Or go? Because that's what it really comes down to - you call your past time an art because that confers an air of maturity and respectability.

It's an argument that starts from feelings of inferiority, that spending a dozen hours or so with "just a game" makes you a manchild. That's particularly ridiculous when you factor in the majority of video game players being women - now watch the angry comments over that one! - but more importantly, there's nothing wrong or shameful about leisure time. Playing a video game, even an artsy one, is not productive in any sense and that is okay.

So stop trying to compare Call of Duty to Rembrandt. It's intellectually dodgy and concedes that leisure time is not a right everyone should enjoy.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

For Allah and the Emir

So #YallQaeda have been on their #YeeHawd for a whole week now. And while it's fun for internet liberals to call them that - as well as kinda racist - it touches on a very real aligning of interests. Ammon Bundy and his followers are every bit as anti-modern as ISIS.

It's very clear once you look at the groups side by side. The one common factor among foreign - ie. not Syrian or Iraqi - volunteers is a reactionary misogyny, hearkening back to the days when men ruled and women obeyed. #VanillaISIS is every bad macho stereotype to ever put on camo and a cowboy hat.

Ammon Bundy and friends.

Which might make their weepy sentimentalism out of place but really it's exactly how the same reactionary fanaticism expresses itself in American culture. As Matt Taibbi learned while infiltrating John Hagee's megachurch ministry, behind all the hellfire and homophobia of American Protestantism sits a depressingly ordinary self-help system. Repenting in the name of Christ is less a mystical transformation and more a way for atomized suburbanites to feel better aout themselves. This often involves much overt displays of tears by men, which marks Ammon Bundy as a member of this culture that spurns in all things modern while at the same time being wholly committed to material capitalism.

And that there is the biggest part of the Oregon mess that gets so little press attention: This terrorist act was organized by and for wealthy rentiers. As the War Nerd so astutely observed, jihad is only ever pursued by vain middle class loafers and the Oregon militia are no exception. Their hard-bitten cowboy costumes are fresh off the LL Bean racks, their politics pure narcissism, their ultimate end as final and obvious as Jihadi John.

The Bundy Brigade are not rebels or freedom fighters. They are rallying to preserve the same systems of privilege and petty tyranny which have been the principle foes of democracy since the Enlightenment. So go ahead and wish violence by the state on them, they'd support it and try to shoot you first anyway.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Men Are Bums

It seems the hot new thing in literary circles is belated feminist critique of classic novels. Yay, I guess. I’m all for taking the piss out of canonical “serious” literature but this current crop just doesn’t get mean enough.

Like Rebecca Solnit’s critique of Lolita - and her critique of others critiquing her critique. The maven of mansplaining has admirable goals and her analysis of Lolita has some good points. But…

The rest of us get used to the transgendering and cross-racializing of our identities as we invest in protagonists like Ishmael or Dirty Harry or Holden Caulfield. But straight white men don’t, so much. I coined a term a while ago, privelobliviousness, to try to describe the way that being the advantaged one, the represented one, often means being the one who doesn’t need to be aware and, often, isn’t.

I’ll be honest, I had to laugh at 1) the turgidly non-neologism “privelobliviousness” and 2) the idea that anyone relates to Ishmael and Holden Caulfield. At least anyone worth talking to. If I wasn’t feeling charitable, I’d say she’s squirting impenetrable clouds of ink to look smart. I also sat in a fiction workshop just the other week where several middle-aged men regurgitated the patently wrong interpretation that the titular Lola is the sexual predator in the book. So maybe this is just an “everyone’s being stupid” situation.

So let’s instead look at some authors who subsurviate the genderdigm, as Solnit would say.

Jean Rhys

The source of the post title - in a roundabout sort of way - and the best thing to ever happen to Jane Austen’s wretched chick lit. Her subaltern answer to that privileged white chick, Wide Sargasso Sea, is familiar to causal literati but hardly does her justice. Rhys toiled for years in obscurity, cranking out cranky works that rival Charles Portis for penetrating insight. Good Morning, Midnight has all the cosmpolitan wit of Dorothy Parker but none of the self-satisfaction, skewering its protagonist as ably as its many male targets.

Olivia Manning

The best author of the 20th century that you’ve never heard of, you ignorant churl. Like Elizabeth Bowen, her work reflects a feeling of being unmoored from any sort of national identity, which was damn scary at the time the Germans turned their own national identity into an apocalyptic cult. Fortunes of War, a staggering six novel series, follows an average English couple across Budapest, Athens, and Egypt all through the Wermacht’s advance and shows just how stiflingly normal life can remain even when Rommel is five miles from your house.

Joan D. Vinge

While science fiction often claims a progressive pedigree, the truth is far less inspiring. Joan D. Vinge - no relation to that other guy - is a rare case of actually progressive speculative fiction. Her novels about the half-human telepath Cat are some of the best in the genre since Dick returned to the cosmic pink laser and also one of the rare fusions of a far future setting with serious socio-political issues. The overblown angst even fits a narrator who’s barely out of his teens and I swear Vinge predicted Lady Gaga.

So there you go. Some legit lady writers you should go out and read. Right now. Then maybe you can make a coherent literary argument, unlike Solnit.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas at Ground Zero

“Wars have a funny way of taking on a life of their own” wrote Mark Ames after Turkey shot down a Russian plane and World War III became a very real prospect.

It’s taken a backseat to Donald Trump’s strip mall fascism and the Clinton II machine devouring all in its path, but Obama might be facing a real war between First World nations in his final year. And all because of Syria.

There are parallels to another war a hundred years ago: uppity peasants, great power treaties no one ever expected to act on, and a single incident turning into a snowball of death and destruction. To his credit, Obama hasn’t made any firm commitments to Turkey in the event Putin puts Ankara on his list. But then, he and the US at large isn’t about to abandon a NATO member, no matter how pants-crappingly stupid they’re acting.

It would be easy to blame this all on the Turks - they’ve been coddling ISIS all through the Kobane campaign - but that would be letting the rest of the Western powers off the hook. And as we’ve established, the Western powers are fucking idiots.

We’re talking about the groups that have smiled and made nice with the House of Saud, the most reactionary power since the Victorians went out of business and the biggest net exporter of jihadism from the Maghreb to Chechnya. Even now, DC is talking about punitive measures against Iran for less than what North Korea has been doing every year since 2006. Iran is the only effective counterweight to Daesh in the Middle East, but Bibi don’t like ‘em so they’re official enemies of democracy. The Saudis don’t like ‘em neither, cause Israel and The Kingdom are both firmly on the wrong side of history.

They could afford to be wrong up until now thanks to being America’s most valued proxies, but that’s rapidly changing:

In the first half of 2016 we should be contemplating a situation where the S-400s will be targeting and covering the whole Turkish-Syrian border. This will be the moment when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will completely lose his marbles.

The US and Europe could have quashed ISIS when it was just starting in 2013 - or at the very least scolded the Saudis until they turned off the cash flow. But everyone was busy worrying that some of the many thousands to die in Syria might have been gassed by Assad’s forces, rather than just lined up against a wall and shot. This isn’t “chickens coming home to roost” though, this is geopolitical bungling that could see Russian bombers taking more detours over the Turkish border, everyone provoking each other until either Trump or Clinton II takes the reigns and decides to look tough...

A full nuclear exchange is still unlikely, since Putin isn’t suicidal and the American ruling class is terrified of anything that might curtail their donations from Wall Street. But don’t be surprised to hear about US troops shooting at other white people for a change in Ukraine once the new president-elect is sworn in.

...and a happy New Year!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A New Hype

It says something about the creative bankruptcy of the whole enterprise that the first joke spoiler I thought of for the new Star Wars turns out to be correct.


Han Solo dies. Nominally to make way for the new generation of heroes but likely a) because JJ Abrams is limited enough in his imagination to think this will be shocking and b) Harrison Ford didn’t want to get dragged along for three more of these films. He looks half-dead in the trailers as it is.


I honestly cringe every time I see that. It’s such a perfect synecdoche for the whole Star Wars 2.0 phenomenon: repackaging beloved pop culture of yesteryear to be sold as the newest Disney product.

They don’t even bother to advance the plot from the original trilogy. That hard won battle where the teddy bears killed all the Space Nazis and Luke reconciled with his father? Flushed down the tubes, now we’ve got a New Empire and New Alliance to re-enact the battles presented on the screen thirty years ago. Why? Why not?

Maybe the studio accountants were scared too many new ideas might rub people the wrong way, like with the prequels. Those films attempted to tell a new story in the same universe but are reviled for bad dialogue, wooden acting, and bleeping-blooping effects that are seizure inducing. The new plot, even with its inherently reactionary politics, was the lesser problem.

What is there to say about Star Wars Another One? If you liked the originals, you’ll like this? Why not just watch the originals instead of rehashing them, right down to the death of the white haired mentor?

Because then there wouldn’t be a New Thing for geek culture to mindlessly consume. Star Wars is perfect for that because it has always been spectacle without substance:

The story of the hero and the great evil can admit no particularities; the Galactic Empire doesn’t have anything as crude as an actual name; the Rebel Alliance isn’t burdened by anything so weighty as an explicit ideology. All we are allowed to know is that one side is good and the other is villainous — we’re told, in those scrolling-text intros.

In this context, you see how killing off bandit hero Han Solo is both the laziest and safest “twist” Abrams and company could do. It takes all possible drama from a galaxy spanning war and reduces it to bathos over an archetype that was already moldy when George Lucas first presented this human centipede of EE Smith and Dune back in 1977. All in service of a narrative that has happened before and will happen again. And again and again...

And on the same day America embraced this Big Mac of a movie, Hillary Clinton and the DNC orchestrated the demise of the Bernie Sanders campaign.