Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Quiet Life

You're not allowed to live quietly and without ambition in America. Everyone must be Up and Doing, all day, every day, to preserve an instrumentalist delusion. That your circumstances not only may be changed for the better but that You are the agent of that change. Also, it should be changed for the better, no matter how satisfied you are now.

This is the pathology at the root of the American dream. Alexis de Tocqueville saw it some two centuries ago, how Americans of every class were perpetually buying and selling. No sooner did some Ohio Valley burgher purchase a horse or a butter churn then he was trying to sell it again at a profit. One nation under the side hustle.

Even if you think you're getting into a profession - or at least a day job - that will afford you some peace and quiet, you will soon find this not to be the case. As the economy moves more and more away from actual production and into the exponential bureaucracy of managerial feudalism, even the most innocuous activities become charged with a production for production's sake mania. You have to crush that PowerPoint, demonstrate enough can-do spirit to single-handedly build a pyramid, or you run the risk of appearing as a layabout. Not a doer. An un-person, unworthy of friendship or love or your middling office job - where a dozen others also compete in who can best present the simulacrum of productivity.

Because without that job, you're nothing. Without any job, you're worse than nothing. The less America spends on welfare, the more it resents those dependent on such public assistance. Poverty is the one unforgivable sin, so better look busy.

Friday, September 21, 2018

As Above, So Below

Ever since their founding, the American suburbs have been the subject of bitter criticism. We should all be critical - suburbia birthed every wrong-thought from libertarianism to LARPing - but the bitterness is because, even in the wake of financial collapse, the suburbs won. There is no escaping them and half the 20th Century is choked with books and films and records born of resentment at this crushing normality.

He Digs A Hole by Danger Slater is an heir to this anti-suburb philosophy, at least on the surface. Harrison Moss is an average decaying man in an average decaying cul de sac who rebels against this dreadful state and tries to find a way out. So far, so standard. Even the splatter-horror approach is more cosmetic to the story, with Moss shearing off his own hands and replacing them with garden tools. So he can dig his hole and get away from his depressing house and vacuous neighbors.

Except that's only half the story. Literally, as Moss and his wife Tabitha descend down the hole halfway through the book, emerging in a negative universe beneath. A place populated by monstrous horrors and walking worms, but curiously still ordered exactly as the post-industrial hell above. A different, deeper hell but a hell all the same.

This is where Slater's book diverges from the well-worn path of the suburban doldrums tale. It's not a matter of escape so much as transcendence, breaking free of the rut by breaking free of one's own apathy and alienation. This part of the narrative isn't even carried through by Harrison but by Tabitha, who was always the stronger of the two - an excellent twist on what is often a masculine escape and power fantasy. The Mosses do not break free of the hells within hells through more striving - striving just leads back to the cul de sac where this all started - but through each other. For all the grotesque madness of spleen fruits and zombie garden parties, He Digs a Hole is a strangely uplifting book. Even with the world consumed and the sun blotted out, as long as Tabitha and Harrison have each other they have hope.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Contra Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche is one of those favorites among dilettantes because he wrote accessible prose that flatters the individualist yearnings of stunted middle class children. This is not to disparage Nietzsche's very real accomplishments in meta-ethics and the history of morality, just to disparage all the modern fans who take his arguments as an excuse to be conceited dickheads in their Philosophy 101 courses. You know who I'm talking about.

Nietzsche famously differentiated Classical and Christian ethics, defining the former as a good/bad dichotomy and the latter as good/evil. Classical ethics, rooted in a warrior elite from Achilles down to Charlemagne, prized courage and personal honor, using these virtues to define themselves as separate and above the greater mass of humanity and thereby justifying their own privileged position in society.

Christian ethics, in contrast, seek to promote a universalist altruism and therefore concern themselves first with evil, rather than virtue. This evil often constitutes the same privileges enjoyed by the Classical elite - wealth, sensual pleasure, mastery over their social inferiors. Nietzsche saw in this a slave revolt, hence his christening of Christianity as the "slave morality" which shames those who display the Classical virtues.

Nietzsche, being the prototypical angry white boy, bristled at this shaming. And his critique has served as inspiration for alienated youth in Western Civilization for generations. However, as much fault as Nietzsche found with Christian ethics, his own description of "master morality" doesn't sound all that better:

To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle which even the apes might subscribe; for it has been said that in devising bizarre cruelties they anticipate man and are, as it were his "prelude."

Much as the abused might come to identify with her abuser, her Nietzsche has fetishized the abuse on which Western nobility built its reason for being. This indeed makes him all-too-human, as it echoes Hegel's parable of two men at the beginning of history vying for dominance. Because, as David Graeber points out, the archetypal everymen "in all such stories, they appear to be 40-year-old males who simply rose out of the earth fully formed." Which speaks more to the historical forces that shaped modern Western philosophy, rather than any essential Human Nature.

Further, this is usually where some readings of Nietzsche identify him as a fascist. And with good cause - his Will to Power and injunctions to embrace an aristocratic ethos is entirely in line with the reactionary tradition as described by Corey Robin, who traces every disparate strain of conservatism, from George Will to Sarah Palin, back to the Counter-Enlightenment sentiment "that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others." A sentiment Nietzsche ran with in his otherwise laudable resistance of Victorian moralizing.

Where Nietzsche identified the pathology of Victorian Christianity, Lewis Mumford identified the pathology of Classical kingship:

Murderous coercion was the royal formula for establishing authority, securing obedience, and collecting booty, tribute, and taxes. At bottom, every royal reign was a reign of terror.

The enforcement of such a reign necessitates the same "submissive faith and unqualified obedience" Nietzsche spurned in Christianity, but instead directed towards the desires of a sovereign, whose very station both breeds and rewards an anti-social neurosis:

The rigid division of labor and the segregation of castes produce unbalanced characters, while the mechanical routine normalizes - and rewards - those compulsive personalities who are afraid to cope with the embarassing riches of life.

To see the apotheosis of this pathology, just look at Donald Trump's Twitter feed.

Nietzsche did necessary work in dismantling the shoddy foundations of Western morality. He just didn't go far enough. Excavating down to the fetid and worm-eaten base of kingship, he declared "This is good!" either out of a limited imagination or the artist's desire to shock the middle-brows. Would that he'd gone further and dynamited the whole edifice, we might actually have tasted that freedom he talked about so often. Instead, we just traded the white collars for power ties, vicars for venture capitalists. The same song of power since Ur, now dumber than disco.

Works Cited
David Graeber. "Consumption." Current Anthropology, Vol. 52, No. 4.
Lewis Mumford. The Myth of the Machine.
Friedrich Nietzsche. On the Genealogy of Morals.
Corey Robin. The Reactionary Mind.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The World as Won't

"The surest way to fail is not to try." Everyone has heard some variation of that injunction. Every American especially, as the civic religion and mythos of America declares at every turn all things are possible for those with the Will. That "those with the Will" have historically been property-owning white men is often left out of the pithy proverb.

Another such proverb, "You only lose if you play the game," appears at first to be promoting the same can-do exceptionalism. The words are superficially the same, but the core idea is different. Where "The surest way to fail is not to try" compels - commands, even - the listener to go out and seize the day, "You only lose if you play the game" presents the natural state not as failure but as null. One does not court failure except by engaging in whatever pursuit the first proverb commands, and so failure may be avoided altogether simply by not getting involved.

Digging deeper, we find "You only lose if you play the game" further offers a critique of the dog-eat-dog paradigm our opening proverb takes for granted. "The surest way to fail is not to try" presents failure as the default state, the state you're in right now. A state that persists until you actively take charge of your own life and destiny, shaping the world to your Will!

A stirring idea, if you've never worked an office job.

The reality, which we've all experienced, is that the World is not amenable to Will. The World just is. The idea that by giving it the old college try we can rectify this rests in the same instrumentalist view that animates everything from neoconservative foreign policy to new age cults like The Secret.

This is the game that you only lose if you play. A rigged game too, as demonstrated by the continuing foreclosure crisis amidst yet another Wall Street boom. Millions have played this game, or tried to, only to discover that as you try and try you still fail. Because effort does not correlate with success, nor success with righteousness, no matter what Calvin and Adam Smith claimed.

But if you refuse to play - reject the logic imposed by the game - you escape the default failure state imposed on everyone not born into the winning class. It may not reshape the World into something more amenable to your own notions of justice, but it's a damn sight better than being ground under the treads of this awful Megamachine our forefathers have foisted upon us.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

John McCain in Hell

John McCain steps up to the podium. His raggedy skin hangs looser now, blistered and peeling from the everlasting fires, but nothing can dampen his enervating rictus grin. A little teeth peaks out at the corners, a little more fang now as he more directly reflects the contents of his own soul. "My fellow Hellions!" he declares to the assembled imps and incubbi, "We stand at a crossroads...

"When I first arrived, I - like so many of you - knew only torment for my sins and wickedness. In my first thousand years, I suffered as I made others suffer on Earth. Bullets tore my flesh, I drowned over and over, and of course I tasted the rough caress of the same fires I unleashed on Vietnamese children.

"I did not object to this treatment, as I am a longtime champion of personal responsibility. I told the news media so in life, over and over so they would actually think it was true. But now I come before you because I fear Hell has lost its way.

"Since the Fall, a stalemate has held against our accursed enemies in Heaven. While we gather the greater magnitude of souls, we are nonetheless denied our rightful place as the first among afterlives. Satan is as much to blame for this sorry state of affairs as God and His angels, opting to tempt and corrupt one mortal at a time. He has lost the will to fight and limited the real tools at our disposal."

Here the late Senator looms over the podium, bristling with indignation and bloodlust. "Our Dark Lord says 'That's the way of things,' but I'm too much of a maverick for that! I say we strike at Heaven now, not on some designated Day of Reckoning. Even with the proper resources, it's a campaign that will be measured in years, not days. And we do have the proper resources - massive resources made up of all the sinners and psychopaths who ever lived! I know some of them personally, having served together in the Navy or the Senate."

The audience cheers and hisses with malicious glee. Behind the stage curtains, Tricky Dixon nods approvingly, while wiping sweat from the scales of his upper lip. He hadn't really believed John could rally the troops like he never could. "But they used to talk about your integrity all the time on CNN," Tricky had argued, CNN being the only channel available in Hell.

"Look, did I tell Dubbya to go get stuffed when he asked me to campaign with him?" McCain had spat back. "Did I turn down that moose-fucking loon from Alaska? I rode her just like I rolled over on John Kerry. Fuck that integrity shit - I'm in this game to win!"

And he certainly looks like he's winning now in the eight circle of hellfire, the horns atop his head and forked tongue whipping from his cracked lips as he whipped the legions of lof the damned into a wargasmic frenzy. "Let's finish the fight the First of the Fallen started!" McCain declares. "Let's march straight up to those pearly gates and bomb them into the stone age!"

Friday, August 24, 2018

Fiction Friday: Drones

I have a new story out, all about the coming robot apocalypse and how it will be so very dreary and corporate.

The doors nearly shut on Luis as he lingered, watching the girl rush down the narrow lane between cubicles to her spot with the Analytics Team. Aardvark, as they’d been dubbed during the last restructuring. Luis ducked his head down as he traveled to his own team, Dark Dungeons. So named by another developer as a roundabout way of naming themselves after his favorite hobby and as “Double Ds.” Just as he came within view of his workstation, he heard the familiar, nasally voice –

“I was just looking for you,” said Campbell, as he swooped in. Though nearly a whole head shorter than Luis, he always felt like the tallest man in the room. “You didn’t just get in, did you?”

Luis, feeling the conspicuousness of his backpack and still damp umbrella replied, “No.”

“Good, good,” Campbell said, not giving it a second thought. “Listen, I’m gonna need the whole team — but you especially — I’m gonna need you all to double down on the AGI project.”

God, not that boondoggle again… “Sure thing.”

Campbell did that thing that looked like a very happy chipmunk. “Great to hear! You’re my man, Luis!”

Luis nodded, smiling with great effort. “Yes, I am.”

He let his face droop back to normal once Campbell turned around and sauntered away. That damned AGI project…

Read the rest of "Drones" at Strange Fictions Zine! They did some awesome artwork.

Monday, August 13, 2018

No Fate But What We Make

One of the more obnoxious things about contemporary literature is how every MFA grad thinks they're the first to break the fourth wall or mix philosophy with satire. You can probably find a best-seller in Barnes & Noble right now, celebrated by all the respectable rags for being bold and experimental when really it's an overwritten shaggy dog story that does the "Dear Reader..." thing you forgot Dickens put into every single novel he ever wrote.

Truth is fiction has always been much more wild and experimental than the best-selling beach reads. Case in point: Denis Diderot. A contemporary of Voltaire, you didn't hear about him in AP English because his philosophy is too complex and self-critical to fit as neatly into the American "common sense" dogma. Also he's French and Americans have long failed to appreciate the nation that midwived their own.

What sets Diderot apart from more acceptable thinkers like Voltaire are two things antithetical to American sentiment: his material atheism and his determinism. Now this might seem contradictory on the face - how can a totally godless cosmos still be determined? - but that confuses determinism with Fate.

Determinism simply posits that A leads to B leads to C. That cause leads to effect. Fate, on the other hand, holds that a certain outcome has already been pre-determined. Or rather pre-ordained, as Fate can only exist in a metaphysical framework as posited by religion, whether modern iterations or the pagan pantheons of the Axial Age.

Thus, a Deterministic cosmos is compatible with a metaphysics of material atheism, however this framework is still incompatible with Fate.

The debate between Fate and Determinism matters because both imply - indeed require - their own ethos that are fundamentally opposed to one another. If Fate, the Will of Heaven, then there is comfort that even misfortune has a good reason but also implies said misfortune may be deserved. Illness and poverty are divine judgements, or at the very least tests, and mass political action to alleviate this suffering becomes a defiance of that same conscious, almighty Will. That is in fact where the Protestant Work Ethic comes from - Calvin's doctrine of predestination and Adam Smith's Invisible Hand are opposite sides of the same idea that there is an order, a purpose to the world which is reflected in material wealth.

However, if events are determined but not pre-determined, if there is still a reason but not a transcendent or at least benevolent one, the ethical implications change entirely. Misfortune is not a test or punishment but a hazard of existence faced by all. This raises the issue of how a people or a society should manage these misfortunes, a moral imperative in a deterministic cosmos that can turn on all of us.

Diderot communicated this Determinism through comic vignettes, often to the point of self-parody. The title character of Jacques the Fatalist argues that all is pre-determined, written up above on a great scroll ("tout ce qui nous arrive de bien et de mal ici-bas était écrit là-haut") but his examples from his own life are all clearly the products of his own foolishness and incompetence. Fate would make a great comfort to a fool, as it absolves him of the moral responsibility for his own foolish actions.

But can the fool still be held accountable under Determinism? Does he bring the angry cuckolded husbands on himself or is it again the indifferent cosmic winds? That's a question no physicist can answer so it falls back to the philosophers and there is indeed a long philosophical tradition of grappling with how to improve the human condition. Karl Marx himself even cited Diderot as his "favourite prose-writer."

Because if the world is Determined but not ruled by Fate, we can shape the causes to gain beneficial effects. We can "hack" our lives, in the jargon of douchebags, achieving greater happiness and tranquility. But only if we can get over the primitive prejudice that Fate makes you rich or poor.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Adventures in Outreach

One of the hardest challenges facing public libraries is reminding the public they exist. Especially your local neighborhood branch, which lacks the advertising - and impressive architecture - of central libraries. That same central library will often have an "outreach office," partly a marketing department and partly a community program clearinghouse. And always stretched too thin to get the word out on every little satellite of a municipal library system

Which leaves much of the branch outreach in the hands of the branch librarians. This is difficult because nobody gets into librarianship because we like talking to people. Patrons are the one drawback to an otherwise sweet gig. Unfortunately, since we have to defend our existence to the local government bean counters - who will always cut public services before their own bullshit jobs - we have to get those numbers up. And that means outreach.

I've had the fortune - good or bad - to work in both a central outreach office and a small neighborhood branch in one of the largest municipal library systems in the country. For plausible deniability, we'll call it Booker. While stationed in the main branch of the Booker Public Library, I sat in on every conceivable outreach scheme from oral histories to Tumblr feeds to holding seminars on household pests. It was comprehensive and well-funded and when pressed I still can't describe anything I'd describe as effective outreach strategy.

Except the day we spent handing out fliers when I worked at a small neighborhood branch. We had our work cut out for us since this particular branch had been closed for renovation for 18 months, owing to a busted HVAC that they didn't fix. Gave us lots of new furniture for the kids' section though. That's also typical of the big municipal systems.

Fortunately, everyone really liked the library. Across five blocks of store fronts, I heard from people how excited they were we'd be open again, how much they missed the library, and could they have their own stack of the flyers to hand out. A better experience than expected all around.

Then I came to a small barbershop with just the barber. A sour Russian sort you see all the time in this particular city. I gave my then well practiced spiel about the library re-opening and would he mind posting our flyer.

"What type of business is this!" he demanded.

"Uh, it's not a business. It's a public library -"

"I no like libraries!"

Fair enough. I wished him a good day and moved along.

I told my colleagues later - because the librarians are always talking about you - and they asked if this barber had any customers. When I said he didn't, they all said, "Exactly!"

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Rambo Revolution

Before winning the Vietnam War and joining the Mujaheddin, John Rambo fought the law. People often forget this first chapter in the Rambo saga, since it has the lowest body count and keeps its reactionary politics under wraps until Stallone's climactic monologue. Those politics have been better scrutinized elsewhere, so I'd like to talk about the subversive streak in the movie that introduced the Rambo character, First Blood.

Beginning with dialogue-free scenes of John Rambo drifting across small town America. It sets a somber mood, putting the audience in the shoes of a socially alienated vet in the dreary fringes of Reagan's America. Where the Carter malaise still lingers and the local sheriff is the sort of power fetishist who will harass and jail anyone who looks weak and unimportant.

The sheriff in First Blood is a villain that couldn't exist in the present time, despite being much more timely. Such sheriffs certainly exist in reality - from Joe Arpaio to the wannabe fascist who ticketed you this morning - but the Police lobby is much too vocal these days. And the whole culture is much more policed, especially since 9/11.

Not so in the First Blood era. People forget but in the years following the Vietnam debacle and the Watergate scandal, police and other symbols of power were a dirty word in American discourse. Nixon and Reagan had to work over time to make "law and order" - the sheriff's mantra for his own doomed pursuit of Rambo - a palatable concept to the public at large. Their base were already fans of course, because their base were just the sort of atomized suburbanites who cheer police shootings and vote for Trump. The mindless, moronic fascism of ordinary people.

Rambo, in his first iteration, didn't fit that paradigm. Clothes too dirty, hair too long, the sort the "law and order" types always target because the order they seek is an ordered appearance. As the sheriff says, "We have a nice town." And keeping it nice means keeping out the undesirables.

It doesn't stop there, of course. It can't because just by existing, Rambo threatens the sheriff's sense of order. He must be broken down, made to fit in if not disappear completely. He doesn't, he rebels, and the whole power of the police-state descends upon him. All because he wanted to eat in a diner in peace. Rambo's desperate cries of "I didn't do anything!" fall on deaf ears because he has no voice in this system - like more and more Americans in this ever more authoritarian and neoliberal state.

So he takes up arms. It's the only logical path, when reasoned argument and civility did nothing to dissuade a police state that is not so much corrupt as corrupting, the power it confers with a badge really just license to continue being the schoolyard bully into adulthood. This is also where the film finally breaks with reality - at least our sick and sad modern reality - as Rambo is a product of the military-industrial complex.

What you call home, Rambo calls Hell.

A full-bird colonel - meaning a company man - arrives late in the third act to talk up Rambo's battle prowess in the exaggerated manner of all stunted twerps who provide fascism with its shock troops. In the original ending of the film, as in the book, the colonel kills Rambo as he's nothing but a defective part in the machine that bombed and massacred the Vietnamese for the crime of wanting to be something other than American. In the film, Rambo surrenders peaceably after a largely bloodless rampage, setting up the cartoonishly jingoistic sequels.

But in this first film, even with the lost cause malarkey at the very end, Rambo serves as the everyman caught between the insatiable Pentagon empire and a homefront dominated by the democratic feudalism of respectable neighborhoods and pigs with badges. It's very weird how films can age.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Steven Pinker is an Idiot

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

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

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

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

"Great Scott I'm dumb!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 9, 2018

Netflix Killed the Video Store

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Fly Eagles Fly

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

Brandon Graham

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

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

Nick Foles

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

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

Jay Ajayi

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

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

Chris Long

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

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

*sad trombone music*

Also, Justin Timberlake is a twat.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Fiction Friday Returns!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Willard Goes West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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