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.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Bad Apples

American politics is like a game of Bloody Mary. If any subject more taboo or complicated than a bland platitude is spoken aloud, everyone freaks out and starts sleeping with the bathroom door shut. As if merely naming something gives it power.

Like the Alt-Right, or more accurately Young Republicans who are honest about their racism. Really, there's not a single difference between Alt-Right and Original Recipe except the Nazi anime avatars.

It's really just branding. Or re-branding, as Trump's ascendancy is making more and more Republicans unelectable. And despite Hillary's histrionics, the Alt-Right very much is Repuclanism as we have known it for decades:

In this election, we have the opportunity to repudiate not only Donald Trump but Trumpism, and not only Trumpism but the entire apparatus that gave us this man and this moment. That apparatus is the Republican Party and the modern conservative movement. The movement and the party that gave us the Southern Strategy, that made white supremacy the major dividing line between the two parties, that race-baited its way to the free market as the dominant ideology of our time, that made hysterical, revanchist militarism the common sense of bipartisanship, that helped turn the Democratic Party into the shell that it is today (with plenty of assistance of course from people like Bill Clinton), that gave us Donald Trump.

Trump is a walking nightmare to his own party because he is their apotheosis. The GOP folks who'd like you to think of them as staid and rational are horrified not by the blunt fascist rhetoric but that their own deeply held reactionary beliefs are being trumpeted about. And it worries them because it's embarrassing around the other rich parasites in their little upwardly mobile enclaves in New York and DC. The Alt-Right, the Young Republicans of the 21st Century, are an echo of that trashy showmanship because they don't have any friends to offend.

Most important of all though, the Alt-Right is as impotent as their anointed Glorious Leader. Even if they constituted more than a fraction of a percent of the electorate, they're too busy masturbating over children and contemplating suicide to be an effective political force. Much like Trump's campaign logistics, there's no there there.

By the time the dust settles on this bummer of an election, the only purpose the Alt-Right will have served is as a convenient scapegoat for all those "decent" Republicans who still want to starve anyone not born into a Fortune 500 executive suite. They'll be able to point to them - "See? It was those neonazi freaks, not us!" - and Hillary will join them, since she's just as much an establishment conservative as her BFF and noted war criminal Henry Kissinger.

The Alt-Right won't mind of course. Those sad screwheads would love to be used by a woman.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Your Vote Does Not Matter

There isn't so much a silver lining to Election 2016 as there is a gallow's humor punchline. For all the striving of Third Parties and the popular push for social democracy, the choices in November come down to Donald Trump or a Republican. That's the most nihilistic of slapstick.

Since before the Philly convention the Clinton campaign and its apparatchiks have worked hard to court establishment Republican support while showing contempt for their nominal base on the political Left. Either Clinton herself is being honest about her long-held neocon principles or she is committing career suicide. Her supporters think it shows she can win in November but they also think Muslim women objecting to Jen Kirkman's shitty jokes is misogyny. The Democrats, from the ruling class to the rank and file, are sailing towards the future with an Alfred E. Neuman "What, me worry?" obliviousness to how much everyone hates them.

The same hate, much more than racist nativism, just fuels Donald Trump's campaign. It's easy to dismiss his supporters as paranoid morons because they are - every single one of them -  but this is less a collection of individual failings than it is the collective result of generations of political and government dysfunction. Trump fans thinking Black Lives Matter is secret ISIS psyops comes from the exact same social atomization and sense of powerlessness that lead so many (presumably) sane people to think September 11th was orchestrated by the Bush II administration. As documented by Matt Taibbi in The Great Derangement, the point of 9/11 Truthism isn't so much a quest for justice as it is a grasping after personal meaning in a culture simultaneously celebrating individual achievement and stymieing that very same achievement through social and economic policies by and for a 1% oligarch class.

That Trump was born and bred in that class doesn't worry his supporters anymore than Clinton's professed love of Goldwater worries the good liberals. The presidential race is too tied up in atavism and personal egos grasping for that same elusive meaning as the Truthers for anyone to give ground or admit that the majority of Americans who don't like either of these assholes might have a point. A vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Hitler Trump, same as no vote same as questioning the DNC's vote-rigging in the primary. Everything is acceptable if it's your side and all the Muslims should vote against Trump if they don't want to be deported (implicitly voting for bombing other Muslims). It's the Jack Johnson versus John Jackson fight everyone expected between Clinton and Jeb! but much cruder thanks to Trump's Fox prime time manner of speaking.

But what's really ugly is that Donald Trump is the successful insurgent candidate. The Democrats have waged war on their own base to keep Sanders off the ticket, only to turn around and see the supposedly authoritarian opposition fold to some neonazi yahoos who believe Alex Jones. The same forces that have spent twenty-odd years calling for Hillary Clinton's head are now lining up behind her to protect their own phoney baloney jobs.

The most successful challenge to the system is coming from a minority fringe of cranks, the same flat-earth flatheads Karl Rove cultivated as "values voters" which, with his limited intellect, he believed could be steered by his seven-figure Yalie buddies indefinitely. Those same piggies are now running for cover behind the woman they hate most in the world and precedents suggest she will steamroll over The Donald in an electoral blowout to rival Nixon's in '72. Trumpism as a sentiment may be here to stay but the GOP as an effective political force is now castrated, their only hope for success being low voter turnout.

And would that be so bad? There's a neocon at the head of the liberal party and an incestuous con-man perched atop the wreckage of the opposition, so why bother legitimizing this farce by choosing sides? Vote Third Party or for yourself or not at all. You're vote really, truly does not matter.

Assuming it ever did.

Friday, July 22, 2016

NATO Nonsense

The worst thing about the Republican National Convention this past week is that it was broadcast. America has plenty of ridiculous fringe lifestyles, from trekkies to furries to anime perverts, but you don't see CNN breathlessly reporting on their sad little rituals.

The Internet Outrage Machine has been overclocked every day but if there's one thing that actually deserves special mention it's the Combover Feurher's comments on NATO:
He said the rest of the world would learn to adjust to his approach. “I would prefer to be able to continue” existing agreements, he said, but only if allies stopped taking advantage of what he called an era of American largess that was no longer affordable.

This is an outrage among the coastal yuppie enclaves but I've been hearing the same sentiment from Northern Virginia Republicans since the 1990s. And that's really what I want to say here - that Trump's comments are completely in the mainstream of American conservatism.

Spend enough time at Fairfax summer barbecues and the conversation always turns to how the liberals are destroying America. Not just with all the sex and hippity-hoppity music, but specifically how Democrats are both weak on national defense - leaving Us open to Our Enemies, whoever they are this week - and simultaneously how the Dems are expending American resources on taking care of ungrateful foreigners. Yes, they do have it both ways because Virginia Republicans are fucking morons.

Trump merely echoed the second half of their deluded worldview - the self-flattering assumption that the rest of the world needs to be policed by America. As opposed as the various State and DOD office drones  claimed to be to "nation building" in the Clinton I years, it was always predicated on the assumption that all those other countries full of poorer, browner people needed the patrician hand of the US to raise them out of Third World squalor, to keep their distant streets safe and to tuck them in at night. And these objections were always couched in a finger-wagging "Well they should take care of themselves!" rationalization that never admitted trying to police the world in the first place was a bad idea.

And not due to ignorance. If anyone in America should have a handle on the realities of geopolitics, it would be just these proto-Trumps carpooling around DC and Arlington. They're educated folks, upper middle class at the least, and hold TS security clearances with the military and intelligence agencies of a nuclear superpower. Yet they still blame immigrants for their problems and take Fox News seriously due to bog-standard American chauvinism.

Really, this latest turn against NATO is just the logical extension of the 1990s opposition to all things United Nations. Middle class suburbanites who'd never set foot in Manhattan spent the '90s bitching and moaning about how much space the UN offices took up, how much it strained the resources of poor put upon New York City - which itself was the wretched hive of scum and villainy for other conservative gripes. Because America is always the one taking care of everyone while also being under siege from those same dependents. It's an international variant of the "Water Carriers versus Water Drinkers" meme of the past eight years.

More to the point, this is not a new sentiment nor a strictly Republican one:
We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.

And we know how those same Republicans against nation-building behaved in the Bush years. All those isolationist principles proved as constant as wax - much like how all the current Clintonites who marched against the Iraq War in 2003 have spent the past year celebrating Hillary's own imperial wankery.

Donald Trump's shirking of NATO duties is not some aberration. It's perfectly in line with post-Reagen American culture: an opposition to the empire's wars when the other party is in the White House, mixed with a sanctimonious narcissism that only Our Side can do what is Right for the whole world. And all easily reversed as soon as the reins of power change hands.

Come meet the new boss, same as the old...

Friday, July 15, 2016

Dallas Rising

This was bound to happen.

A week ago, Micah Johnson opened fire on police officers during a #BlackLivesMatter rally, killing five and wounding seven before committing suicide by cop. Every professional TV face in the nation has been weeping over the brave boys in blue since then and not one - pundit or politician - will admit that the only mystery about Johnson's shooting is that it's so far a very isolated incident.

In 2016 alone, leading up to Johnson's shooting, American police murdered over five hundred unarmed civilians. Some might quibble over Philando Castile, a registered gun owner and a repudiation of the all the NRA's claims to defending liberty, but any Virginian will tell you there's a world of difference between armed self-defense and politely informing the trooper you have a concealed carry permit before getting drilled in your own car. And even then - five hundred! We're fast approaching the numbers usually associated with tinpot dictatorships or our own imperial misadventures.

In fact, that latter is a good parallel. Despite the rhetoric of community and service, American police have mutated over time into something like an occupying army. A distrust, even hostility, towards the civilian population, driven by a siege mentality that manifests in everything from these rampant shootings to an Abu Ghraib franchise opening in Chicago.

And to be clear, it ain't just black people:

This is abetted not just by a news media industry reluctant to criticize police but also a popular culture that - wrongly! - prefers Dirty Harry over Columbo. Add in the discomfort the comfortable middle class feels every time race gets mentioned and many abuses by police simply disappear down the memory hole.

...[U]nless there's video, or multiple witnesses, there's usually no consequence at all for police violence, not even on the civil side. The overwhelming majority of incidents simply disappear.

Because for the longest time, this was all normal. That might be the worst aspect for the cloistered TV culture of America - the absolute normalcy of abuse and intimidation by armed agents of the state. The sort of thing seen in movies about Eastern Bloc underdogs, dodging Stasi and KGB on their way over the wall and into the American Dream of an office job and blue jeans.

This sort of oppression in a modern western democracy is abysmally normal though, and there's a very pertinent historical parallel: Ireland under British rule at the start of the 20th Century. White Americans love to brag about the one great aunt or great great grandmother who came from Erin, but they sure are ignorant of why...

The police state of modern America was very much the norm of British controlled Ireland, from subtle hiring prejudices all the way to casual brutality by the security services. And all normal - I cannot stress that enough, normal - leading to the bold and doomed Easter Rising of 1916.

Like #BlackLivesMatter, the Irish nationalists and republicans who barricaded Dublin were much more of a minority of Irish political life than one might assume from their volume. They were also similarly outraged by isolated if common instances of insult and oppression, the sort that can be easily ignored by the Anglo impulse towards authority and obedience. And the bloody crackdown that followed served only to spread nationalism and republicanism better than any pamphlet or Yeats poem.

While poorly organized and over in less than a week, the Easter Rising met with the sort of ruthless British response usually employed in the tropics against browner folks. The leaders were executed after brief, perfunctory trials, the Irish Volunteers and other militia were accompanied into exile and prison by those rounded up in sweeping raids that gave very little thought to evidence or due process, and even pacifists and Unionists - as in Irish Protestants who didn't want to be a damned republic - found themselves targeted by British authorities who didn't understand and didn't care to understand Irish grievances.

The singular case of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington best illustrates this clumsy, bully's response to the rebellion. A devout pacifist and a radical feminist when such a term actually had meaning - he campaigned tirelessly for women's suffrage and took his wife's surname - he was summarily executed by a British officer named Clothurst while trying to prevent looting. That is, Sheehy-Skeffington was trying to prevent the looting. Clothurst also shot an unarmed man who wandered out into the street to see what all the commotion was about, after issuing a command to get back inside which the man then couldn't obey because Clothurst murdered him.

The quintessential "bad apple" that American pundits try to blame the systemic problem of police brutality on, Clothurst was punished mildly by his superiors in a manner seemingly designed to rile up Irish sentiments. Much like even the most blatant cases of murder and abuse are either dismissed, buried, or declared a justifiable use of force in modern America. Taken along with the severe punishments meted out to rebels, this presented the very stark picture of the British government not giving a damn about Irish well-being, treating them as just another colonial property to be exploited and brutalized. So too does the constant stream of police shootings in America capped off by friendly grand juries and cable news rationalizations present the unambiguous statement on behalf of the System that black lives do not matter.

...But there's a snag in my comparison here. The Easter Rising, while rooted in resentment against an oppressive regime, was also an explicitly separatist act. The Fenians and Irish Volunteers and everyone else wanted not a redress of grievances but a complete break with what they saw as an alien power imposing itself on their own political and personal lives.

Further, the Irish nationalists organizations were really very organized. Not in a military sense, as demonstrated by the Rising, but as fully developed political parties with clearly stated goals. When previously apolitical Irish men and women felt outraged at the executions by the British, there were actual opposition movements ready to take them in. Sinn Féin, one of the smaller parties at the time, saw their membership boom after 1916.

There is no parallel in modern America. #BlackLivesMatter, while involving many different activist groups, is still just a hashtag without any coherent political purpose beyond "Stop murdering us." Further, neither of the major parties are willing to accommodate such a wacky and radical demand and the only party of any significance that can will likely lose out again to fussy white liberals voting for the Lesser Evil.

Most importantly, despite their behavior, American police are not an occupying army. They are the same citizens and subject to the same laws - theoretically - as the people they brutalize. This greatly complicates the problem: British troops in Ireland could always go home and the IRA pioneered the guerrilla strategy of outlasting the occupier. American police are already home, even if the schizophrenia of zoning and local economics makes their homes comparatively better and wealthier than the homes across town they raid. Insurgency serves no purpose other than to exacerbate the existing fear and spite of a police culture that already thinks everyone hates them. And if everyone hates you anyway, why not taser that mouthy old lady?

Micah Johnson had legitimate grievances but he is not James Connolly. And #BlackLivesMatter are not the Irish Volunteers, just as the many fragmented police departments are not the Royal Irish Constabulary. The Irish and the English could leave each other alone, American civilians and police are stuck with each other.

Monday, July 11, 2016


While comics and nostalgia continue to rule the multiplex, there's no better time to hide out with some streaming services and their wide selections of indie horror films!

You're spoiled for choices - have been for quite a while - but I'd like to discuss one flick in particular: Howl. A claustrophobically tight little Brit project about werewolves on a train, it hits all the right notes without dragging or getting lost in genre cliches. Admittedly, there aren't many cliches in werewolf film as a genre which brings me to a brief digression.

Werewolves have never been very compelling as a monster archetype. They're two-dimensional and too culturally specific to get under the skin the same way as ghosts and vampires. Further, they lack the moral ambiguity of the restless or hungry dead, being straightforward marauders. When presented heroically, they either play as a mix of Twilight knock-off and Furry erotica - or become little more than New Age superheroes in need of a shave. And yes, I've played Werewolf: The Apocalypse so I know just how silly it can get...

This is not horror.

As straight and unambiguous antagonists, werewolves serve much better. See the iconic Dog Soldiers, which you've already heard quoted up and down the internet. This may not offer as much narrative depth as Herzog's Nosferatu but that's not the point. You don't watch a werewolf movie for gothic high seriousness but for the same reason you watch The Revenant or that movie where Liam Neeson boxes with wolves: the stark, visceral horror of Man Against Nature.

And Howl does that very very well.

This is horror!

Set on a late-night commuter train out of London, the story focuses on beleaguered railway worker Joe and his few colleagues, alongside half a dozen or so passengers. Beyond Joe, the personalities are really developed from the start - with the exception of a prissy girl who never gets off her phone - but this isn't an oversight or incompetence on the part of the filmmakers. We get to know the rest of these meals on wheels gradually as things go from bad to worse. Rather than burden the audience with a Dickensian backstory for people who will mostly be compost by the morning, we get to infer the characters' individual stories from how they react to certain death. It keeps things moving while keeping the audience invested.

Adrian deserves special mention. First presenting as a pragmatic, can-do type who takes charge while Joe is fumbling over how to handle the stopped train, he quickly reveals himself to be a ruthless and deeply selfish character once he grasps the mortal danger they are all in. The same qualities that make him sharp-dressed and successful in the white collar world of London make him a danger to everyone else in their struggle for survival. There's a lesson in that.

And it bears repeating that the werewolves in Howl are bloody fantastic. Look at that picture again - it's just so wonderfully grotesque! They've got some lupine features but not the long doggy snout that, no matter how much it's smeared in blood and gristle, still retains the familiar quality of the family dog. The things in Howl in contrast look like walking barracudas.

You can catch it now on Hulu or through other perfectly legal means. Hulu also has the entire Subspecies series of films, which are hilariously terrible.


Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Dog Ate My Bazooka

And now, a belated July 4th bummer...

Historically, American military victories have been largely "conventional" as opposed to "special." Inchon and Desert Storm are the biggest, relying on logistics and armor and infantry craft - and a steady pounding from the air in the second case -  rather than daring commando operations.

In sharp contrast, the Vietnam conflict drew heavily on CIA black ops and the then new Special Forces and was a colossal failure. That failure has been repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars prosecuted by the super secret and special Joint Special Operations Command. The fact that American troops still occupy Afghanistan five years after Osama Bin Laden was assassinated in a different country is proof enough of strategic failure and whatever successes insane Beltway insiders may have claimed from Iraq are looking pretty flimsy this week.

While there are plenty of political - if not simply careerist - reasons for the politicians and pundits to ignore this nasty lesson of history, a particular facet of American culture also encourages everyone to look away: the national cult of individualism.

Understand individualism in itself is not a problem. The Dutch certainly make it work. But the way it manifests in American culture is much different, much more fetishized, and much more toxic in its denial of harsh reality. Sixteen years of being the Keystone Kops of military powers, and you can still find fictionalized paeans to the "warrior elite" all over the US of A. Like Kill Bin Laden or movies celebrating the actual killing of bin Laden. That the real life inspirations for many of these films - like Lone Survivor and Black hawk Down - where horrible failures, "goat fucks" in the parlance of the men involved, is simply not spoken of in polite society.

In the fantastic Full Spectrum Disorder, Stan Goff lists off special operations from Iran to Somalia - most of which he was involved with, either in Delta or the Rangers - and he soundly declares them failures. And nobody wants to hear him, preferring instead the myths of individual heroism American culture encourages. The Benghazi debacle is already available on DVD, yet another frenetic action film soaking in its own bathos, where the murky politics of the mission is ignored so the narrative can focus on the steely-eyed white boys and their valiant fight for... well, for each other seems to be the only motivation in any of these movies.

It does serve to get impressionable kids into recruiting offices but it's not some conspiracy. Not intentionally. Rather, it's just the natural outcome of a culture that shuns collective action and sacrifice in favor of some romantic Rambo fantasy. And it will keep the imperial misadventures going, same as President Hillary's determination that she can warmonger just as much as the boys.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

An All American Massacre

No matter how much the media and ruling class want to paint Omar Mateen as some swarthy jihadi, those pesky facts to the contrary keep surfacing...

Much is being made of Mateen's sexuality, though often in the most wrong ways. Such as how his former classmates at a police academy are saying they always thought he was gay - a story that relates to far more than just Mateen's orientation, but more on that in a moment. Add in his frequenting of gay clubs and his use of Grindr, and Mateen starts to look like other self-loathing homophobes who usually commit all their crimes while in elected office. Attempts to link his pathology to conservative Islam aren't entirely off-base, but only in the way it would equally apply to any of the myriad reactionary strains of Christianity. Mateen's self-hatred, manifesting as a nihilistic jihad of one against all, has many precedents in American culture.

The Mormon Church for example - that most American of churches - generated close to an Orlando body count earlier this year. And it's not an anomaly:

...youth suicides are twice as high in states with the highest levels of Mormon residents compared to states with the lowest levels of Mormon residents.

That no Mormon LGBTQ youth have sought to take others with them, at least on the scale of Orlando, is sheer luck at this point. If you're comfortable thinking that it's because kids can't get their hands on the sort of firepower used by Mateen, you've clearly never heard of Harris and Klebold. Or been through a gun state.

I grew up in a gun state. I fired rifles and shotguns before I was old enough to drive. In more rural areas, kids get their first gun before their first car. And that was still in the relatively civilized DC sprawl of Northern Virginia. Utah, Florida, Texas - all places where being gay is still considered deviant and where guns are the cure for what ails ya. Hell, the entire point of the Pink Pistols is using one of those cultural norms to protect against the other!

But easy access to guns and a homophobic culture that fosters self-loathing still won't lead to a massacre. As Mark Ames demonstrates in his analysis of rage massacres in the first Clinton era and today, gun control alone will not end these killings because of one final ingredient: a truly toxic culture.

This is speculation, but I am relatively certain the seeds for Mateen's shooting were planted not by homophobia - whether from his religion or the dominant American culture - but from his work as a security guard. Just the title, "security guard," for someone it has been established attended a police academy speaks volumes about the trajectory of his life before this past weekend.

Further, there is the homophobia of every such academy in the United States and Mateen's entire vocation. I've never been in a police academy but I've been in a locker room, which was exactly like Stan Goff's description of that pinnacle of the police state, JSOC:

They like sports, pornography, gun culture, video games, alcohol, and misogynist humor.  Gunslinging is dick-swinging – the dare-ya atmosphere we males know well, what I call probative masculinity.

You can call this toxic masculinity if you want. It sure is a popular pejorative, but it obfuscates the deeper and much more structural sources of this brutishness. This particular strain of masculinity, from Goff's former comrades in Tier 1 all the way down to Florida badges, exists in service of a post-industrial capitalist ideology. An ideology championed by Reagen and Clinton and the source of a twenty year upsurge in mass shootings from workplaces to middle class suburbs. One that continues today, in ever more manifestations and driven by further compound bitterness by a culture that sanctifies happiness - and profit - but endeavers to place everything out of reach through ever worsening inequality.

Mateen's rage is the same as Seung-Hui Cho's and Elliot Rodger's, a savage and nihilistic reiteration of Michel Clouscard's brief but penetrating analysis of democratic capitalism: "All is allowed, but nothing is possible."

Monday, June 13, 2016

Business As Usual

Hey look, another mass shooting! I wonder how Americans will desperately deny reality this time?

No surprise, they've picked the "terrorism" angle. I figured the shooter wasn't a white guy the minute Orlando PD used the T-word on the radio Sunday morning - that's an adjective that only ever means "Muslim" in mainstream discourse. And the shooter himself, Omar Mateen, helped solidify that comforting delusion by babbling about Islamic State and the Boston bombing in a 911 call:

Hopper [head of FBI in Orlando] did not comment on whether Mateen declared his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also know as ISIS) group as reported in US media, but said the caller made references "to the Islamic State."

Mateen's own father also stated in an interview that the boy was more outraged by men kissing than by America's dabbling in Syria's gore, but that hasn't slowed anyone down. The stupid people are blaming it all on "Islamic Extremism." Just like everyone blamed white women after Dylann Roof declared he was protecting their honor.

But the veracity of a source is less important than whether or not it confirms existing assumptions of the world. In that regard, Omar Mateen is entirely trustworthy because it's not like any non-Muslims go on shooting sprees in service to some crackpot ideology. Nope, those are all lone nuts who need psychiatric help. Mateen was clearly an existential threat to American national security.

Even though the FBI disagreed. Once again proving you can't profile a rage murderer, the Feds interviewed Mateen twice over "inflammatory comments" he made to co-workers in 2013 and 2014. Anyone who's held a job in America knows that just disagreeing with your boss over Game of Thrones can constitute "inflammatory" but they insist it was for reals about terrorism and national security and all that jazz.

The Feds let him go because everything was inconclusive, something you think all the liberty-loving small-government types would understand. But as the waffentwerp-in-chief Donald Trump demonstrates, principles don't count for shit among Americans. They're all for draconian police state actions when it involves brown people - so long as y'all don't touch their guns.

And with that, you can see the Standard Mass Shooting Response wrapping up in the media. While calls for stronger gun control and to classify this a hate crime have come up from everyone without a job inside the Beltway, exactly fuck-all is being done in either case.

The next week will see lots of weeping, hand-wringing, and indictment of the American gun lobby. And the only lasting effect will be dumb racists rallying around the dumbest racist, citing the massacre of fifty people they'd have dismissed as debauched catamites at any other time. And when it all happens again - whether for Islamic State, the sanctity of white women, or just another layoff - Americans will again be shocked that such things occur.

UPDATE: Apparently Omar Mateen was motivated by Larry Craig levels of self-loathing. This has naturally prompted Clinton and Trump to argue over how to bomb the most Muslims.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Essence of Truthiness

Reading the works of Martin Heidegger, two things are readily apparent. 1) It makes perfect sense he was a Nazi and 2) Plato has a lot to answer for.

That second may not cover his entire oeuvre but it's front and center in The Essence of Truth, a book compiled from Heidegger's lectures on Plato and the Allegory of the Cave. Over two hundred pages of Heidegger doing a close reading of Plato's dialogues, teasing out all the implications and constructing brick by brick a complex definition of Truth - that just so happens to coincide with his fixation on Being but hey, Western Philosophy - however it is all rooted in a single word: ἀλήθεια.

That's "aletheia" for y'all without too much book learnin'. Heidegger translates it as literally meaning "unhidden" though I asked my Hellenophone wife and the modern translation is simply "truth." We'll get back to that in a minute, but it's worth examining not just the implication of Truth being that which is un-hidden but the presumption that it would be hidden in the first place.

This is more than simply the idea that Truth must be reached through investigation, though that is a part of it. Rather, owing to Plato's Theory of Forms, it follows that the Truth of things cannot be perceived or empirically determined, but rather arises through a more intuitive process. Just as all of physical matter reflects a perfect metaphysical abstraction, so is Truth understood only through the direct revelation in the soul of the philosopher.

This is the heart of the Allegory of the Cave, that humanity in general only experiences a flawed shadow of the Truth. Or at least the Truth as conceived by Plato. From this follows Plato's political philosophy of benevolent dictatorship, where the best the ignorant masses can do is agree to be ruled by the select few who can walk outside the cave and into the light - though Plato also claims these enlightened few, when trying to spread the Truth to the dunderheads in the dark, suffer resistance and ridicule. A less charitable reading would call this rationalization for oligarchy sprinkled with the angsty teen's lament of "You just don't understand!" but it has undeniably had a far-reaching effect throughout history and all of Western Civilization, from political theory to theology.

But what if Plato is wrong?

What if Truth is much more self-evident? What if it can be determined in a more methodological rather than intuitive approach? What if it is painful and disturbing? That last question is at the heart of Existentialism, as it inverts the usual Platonic model of essence before existence. You're certainly free to believe either but believing as Plato that the universe follows an understandable and humanity-friendly order is going to cause you some anxiety when you experience the chaos and indifference of the cosmos. This might lead you to reconsider your assumptions about life, the universe, and everything.

Or you'll need a scapegoat.

See what I did there!?!

There's not much in the Anglophone media about the current Greek crisis as it's experienced by actual Greeks. Probably because it would hurt the narrative promoted by the bankster class that it's all due to Greek inefficiency and laziness. So what luck for all of us that Sophia Nikolaidou's The Scapegoat is in English!

Ostensibly about the sovereign debt crisis that kicked off in 2010, the novel actually bounces back and forth through history, contrasting a previous era when Greece found itself caught between the maneuverings of Great Powers. Specifically, the murder of George Polk in the middle of the Greek Civil War. Of course that "Civil War" was less about Greek politics and more about the US and UK pitting their proxies against the Soviet proxies in the Democratic Army of Greece.

It's always for the sake of "democracy" when wealthy nations kill...

Anyways, Nikolaidou fictionalizes the events and persons surrounding Polk so she can say what she wants without getting lost in the chaotic minutiae of history. And what she says is exactly that you can't rely on that chaotic minutiae to provide the Truth.

This is where the modern storyline of The Scapegoat comes in, focused on too-cool-for-school Minas Georgiou. Really, his very first lines in the novel are about how he's sitting out the infamous Greek university entrance exams because, well, "Fuck this shit, bruh." University is a big deal in Greece, inspiring cram schools and gut-twisting anxiety that should be familiar to every teenager in China, and Minas wants none of it, to the everlasting horror of his mother.

Enter Marinos Soukiouroglou - hereafter referred to as Souk because Holy God - the eccentric history teacher who forces the kids to think rather than just regurgitate data. On the urging of Mama Georgiou, he assigns Minas a special research project on the murder of Jack Talas - the fictionalized Polk - and the hapless Manolis Gris who got sent to prison to keep the US foreign aid flowing.

Nobody actually believes Gris is the guilty party. Not in the modern storyline and not even in his own storyline. As Minas soon learns, the government and police knew very well Gris wasn't the guilty party but saw him as a convenient sacrifice to the bruised egos of their American allies, best exemplified when some high muckety-muck from the Ministry of Justice tries to cajole Gris into signing a confession. He talks about honor and duty to his country, to which Gris responds:

-Sir, why don't you ask your son to sacrifice himself? To have his name go down in history as a benefactor of the nation? My family has already paid a high enough price. I lost a brother in the war. My mother can't bear to lose another child.

Everyone is scandalized. "The Minister let loose for a while and then stormed out, slamming the door behind him, and [Police Commander] Tzitzilis vowed to punish the prisoner's audacity." It's a synecdoche for the entire case: It's not that the authorities are actively conspiring to punish an innocent man, they just don't care who suffers as long as they keep their phony-baloney jobs. Parallels to the ECB are as obvious as a kick in the goolies.

Had she stopped there, Nikolaidou would have crafted the definitive novel of her time. However she clearly possesses the obsession of the true artist because, as the novel and Minas's project reach its climax, she skewers the righteous self-satisfaction of every character and likely her own audience. The Gris affair is perfect conspiracy fodder for the conspiracy-obsessed Greek culture, which can always find some reason to blame "The Government" for every personal misfortune. Even the otherwise enlightened Souk falls into this, demanding that Minas present some alternate theory as to who killed Polk, whether the Greek government or the Communists - or even a British foreign services officer, as hinted in an aside late in the novel.

But Souk has taught Minas too well and the boy refuses to claim any un-hidden Truth. With the neutral rationalism of the best historians, he simply reports the facts as they are, and leaves interpretation to his audience. This outrages Souk, who harangues Minas before the entire school - which prompts the other students encountered throughout the narratives, from the overachievers to the muddling fuck-ups, to rise in defense of not-knowing. It's a microcosm of a generational conflict, between the old guard scrambling to find someone to blame, some scapegoat, the Truth that remains hidden... and the generation growing up in the financial crisis who face the much starker challenge of simple survival. The harsh realities of the world certainly follow chains of causality - whether ECB demands for austerity or US demands for a scalp - but even when this process is transparent, the results are unavoidable. The kids listening to their elders lecture on the importance of a university degree or "what really happened" in a murder case from half a century ago are still living with austerity, no matter who is to blame.

Generational conflict is in fact the great unrecognized theme of The Scapegoat. The confrontation between Minas and Souk is even foreshadowed by Minas venting over his proudly literary grandmother:

Grandma calls it the Socratic Method. She considers it the highest pedagogical technique. I call it cornering a person. Instead of just telling you what I want you to know, I ambush you with questions. You try to escape, but you can’t. You can run whichever way you like, but in the end you’ll fall right into my trap.

It's an overdue critique of Plato's heavily scripted "dialogues." A criticism Mikhail Bakhtin would likely appreciate, as he identified the essence of dialogue being not just the exchange of ideas but that those ideas are forever informing and influencing each other. This leads to much more mutable truths as opposed to Truth, something that a budding Existentialist like Minas - and all his peers - are much more comfortable with than their meaning-obsessed elders.

The Greek intellectual tradition stretching back to Plato offers both a sense of meaning and order to the universe. An explicitly hidden meaning, requiring interrogation and reasoning to ultimately arrive at, but a meaning nonetheless. Minas and the Austerity Generation, perfectly capable of such philosophical investigation, have discovered the self-evident Truth that there is no meaning to any of this. They can reject this perfectly rational conclusion, insist as Souk and the US and the ECB does that someone is to blame... or they can move forward and make the best of this indifferent world.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Man Who Sold the War

In it's continuing quest to stop being the paper of record, the New York Times went ahead and printed this here piece ghost-authored by one General Mark A. Milley. It's the sort of thing that's become the norm among "serious" journalists since the Bush era - falsehoods wrapped in falsehoods and presenting the nagging question of if these people are liars, fools, or some adaptive combination.

Let's start with the falsehood that serves as the premise for the entire article: The US Army is actually good at counter-insurgency warfare. This is the position of General Milley, therefore it is the position of the Times and their stenographer Helene Cooper. No polite American careerist is allowed to dispute anything said by the US military and it's not like the Times actually wants to ask the tough questions anyway, that might hurt their access. Instead, they regurgitate Milley's claim that the Army has been fighting guerillas and terrorists so long, they've forgotten how to wage a conventional war in the classic NATO versus Warsaw Pact scenario.

As anyone who's been following the War on Terror could have told the Times - and Milley - that is the exact opposite of the problem. It took four years of occupying Iraq before brassholes like Milley would even admit to an insurgency and the solution - the much vaunted "Surge" of 2007 - was an exercise in Americans striving to feel good about themselves. Bombings and beheadings went down but not even David "Lost a quarter-million Kalashnikovs" Patraeus would acknowledge that common guerilla doctrine is to go to ground when the enemy is out in force. American patrols spent more time zipping up and down the Baghdad streets in their humvees while the various militias had a nice sit down with some pistachios and shisha as they waited for the big dumb Yankees to finally get bored and go home.

If you still think it was such a strategic success, just look at the abbatoir that is the Sunni Triangle today. The existence of ISIS is due entirely to the US military's failure at counter-insurgency operations. Zoom out to include Libya and Afghanistan, and it becomes all the more certain as one is a failed state and the other is a divided territory with more than half the real estate owned by the Taliban everyone thought was over and done with in 2002.

So that's the heart of Milley's thesis right out the window - but we're not stopping there! No, this general just can't stop being wrong. About everything.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the War on Terror hasn't been a total failure, there's still Milley's argument that the US Army doesn't know how to fight a conventional war. This might at first seem like a legitimate concern, after a decade and a half of counter-insurgency and all the resources flowing into the much vaunted Special Operations. However, this claim is quite simply false as demonstrated by, well, anyone who's been through the Fort Benning School of Infantry in all this time. Or the stated doctrine of the United States Marine Corps. Light infantry craft may not get as much attention in Michael Bay movies but it's still taught, drilled, and drilled again by the two services who would take the brunt of a conventional land war. Even the Rangers, everyone's favorite JSOC skinheads, are first and foremost shock infantry.

Don't take my word for it, take it from former Ranger medic Stan Goff:

The mystique of Special Operations (including the Rangers, who are the Special Operations’ shock infantry component) is useful as a deterrent, but it is not reflective of a reality. The Pentagon and others want you and the rest of the world to believe this mystique, because your fear and the fear of the rest of the world is what maintains the efficacy of a huge bluff. This government wants us to spin out as many scary fantasies as possible, because it serves the dual purpose of either portraying opponents of the military as “conspiracy nuts” or promoting precisely the myth of spooky invincibility that keeps us in line.

Goff was writing on the Pat Tillman fratricide, an event that didn't do much for said mystique of the Rangers or for then Secretary of Defense Rumsfled's claims of "good news" from Afghanistan.

Related to that debacle, the assassination of Osama bin Laden by DEVGRU - a stage-managed affair where some forty to sixty SEALs met no resistance as an ISI officer lead them through the compound to their target. Neither of these cases do much for the mystique of Special Operations but they would hardly lend credence to any claims that US troops have somehow forgotten how to fight a "regular" war.

But let's grant that too, for the sake of argument. The DOD has been so good at fighting terrorism that it's forgotten how to fight a real war and then oh no! The Russians are rolling on Berlin!

Seriously, the Times article presents Russia as the next big threat...

Again assuming for the sake of argument that Putin actually wants to conquer the world rather than just the good beachfront property of Crimea, this does not present a convincing argument for some grand Back To Basics military doctrine because of the one word the Times article refuses to use: Nukes.

America's got 'em, Russia's got 'em, and if you really think a full-on land war in Europe won't see 'em fly, just listen to what a retired Russian general has to say:

The journalist asks again, like just to make sure: "We [the Soviets] would have struck first?" and the General says again, "Of course!"  
And he makes it real clear that he's not just talking about conventional first strikes. The interviewer says, "But [Soviet] Foreign Minister Gromyko said that the USSR would not use nuclear weapons first!"  
I love Burlakov's answer: "He said one thing and we [the Soviet staff] thought another. We are the ones responsible for wars." 

Nothing they teach at Camp Lejeune or Fort Benning can overcome a mushroom cloud, rendering Milley's thesis moot. Even if it wasn't already wrong.

"But what about China!" says anyone trying to look smart. "They're a much more likely opponent in this hypothetical World War III and won't use their own nukes because reasons!"

So let's assume a US versus China war - sans nukes. In that case it would be a naval engagement in the South China Sea, leaving Milley to twiddle his thumbs at CENTCOM.

And it would be a clusterfuck.

Ships currently have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.

Those are the exact words of the US Naval Institute, admitting that this final scenario is over before it starts. You don't even need a nuke in a ballistic missile - hell, a bunch of rocks would disable the runway of an aircraft carrier, and that would mean no more air power projection. Factor in speedboats firing swarms of cheap missiles and it's Battle of Salamis meets the Keystone Kops.

At every level, the argument that the US Army needs to revitalize it's most bread and butter branch is ridiculously wrong. So why did Milley take his story all the way to a credulous New York Times? Well, there's the usual duplicity of anyone with stars on their shoulders auditioning for a lobbyist job. But look at where Milley is:

In West Africa, Army and Special Operations forces are working with militaries from Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and other countries to try to stem a recent wave of attacks by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has taken to hitting hotels and other tourist sites. 
And in East Africa, American military advisers and trainers are working with regional counterparts to fight the Qaeda-affiliated Shabab... The United States is also working in Africa with former Russian satellite states like Angola...

The US is again following in the footsteps of past empires and delving into Africa. Sure, there's Bokos and Shababs and all but there's also billions of dollars worth of the minerals needed to make the mobile device your reading this on right now. Securing precious resources, whether from reactionary dickweeds or democratically elected governments, has always been the purpose of American military power for the past century.

General Milley is singing an old familiar song, and nobody at the New York Times cares that he sings so badly.