Drexel University Should Uphold George Ciccariello-Maher’s Academic Freedom

On Christmas Eve, George Ciccariello-Maher, Associate Professor at Drexel University, sent out a tweet which read as follows:

All I want for Christmas is White Genocide

There were no scare quotes around ‘White Genocide’ but the upper-case spelling was an indication that something less straightforward than calling for the genocide of white people was on the cards. (After all, Ciccariello-Maher could have just tweeted “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.’ Think I’m reading too carefully? What can I do–it’s an old habit of mine.) A little investigation–i.e., googling ‘white genocide’–produces the following link as the first hit:

White genocide is a white nationalist conspiracy theory that mass immigration, integration, miscegenation, low fertility rates and abortion are being promoted in predominantly white countries to deliberately turn them minority-white and hence cause white people to become extinct through forced assimilation.The phrase “Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white”, coined by high-profile white nationalist Robert Whitaker, is commonly associated with the topic of white genocide. It has been spotted on billboards near Birmingham, Alabama and in Harrison, Arkansas. [citations removed]

Was Ciccariello-Maher calling for ‘mass immigration, integration, miscegenation, low fertility rates and abortion‘ in particular communities as part of a strategy to render ‘white people…extinct’? I doubt it. (Though I don’t suppose he’d be unhappy with rights for immigrants,  the protection of abortion rights for women, etc.) Given the definition provided above, and given Ciccariello-Maher’s previous tweeting record, which includes many online spats with neo-Nazis, anti-semites, and an assorted army of trolls and deplorables, it is fair to surmise–indeed, it is an inference to the best explanation–that Ciccariello-Maher was cocking a snook at this army of trolls, throwing their term mockingly back in their face; he was, how you say, being satirical.

By way of related example, consider a Facebook status that I put up a a week or so ago:

Our campus safety officer sent us some ‘Holiday Safety Tips’ – you know, the usual, watch your purse and package etc. But no warnings about wearing earplugs for Christmas caroling, or avoiding wassailers like the plague. You may, if you like, consider this the opening salvo or broadside of the War on Christmas. By air, by land, by sea, and sometimes, by social network.

On one reading of my Facebook status, I seem to be declaring–by way of my suggestion that Chrismas carolers and wassailers require safety tips to be sent to those in their vicinity–a ‘War on Christmas’. Inquiring into the provenance of that phrase–which I have capitalized above–shows that it is a favorite of FOX News. I appear to be having a little gentle fun at those who would bemoan the secularization of the holiday season.

I provide this bordering-on-pedantic analyses of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet, because the investigation I carry out above is in point of fact an elementary one; anyone with a modicum of intelligence would arrive at the same conclusion I did: Ciccariello-Maher was being satirical. But not Ciccariello-Maher’s employers, Drexel University, who in response to a predictable chorus of bleating complaints from a Breitbart-led army of trolls–who also sent many death threats to Ciccariello-Maher–issued a statement of reprimand and concern; disciplinary action might yet be taken against Ciccariello-Maher.

This is a familiar situation: an academic makes an extra-mural political statement; complaints from the butt-hurt issue; university employers, their commitment to academic freedom always shaky, overreact. (The American Association of University Professors operative standards of academic freedom protect precisely the kind of political speech that is at play here.) Moreover, Drexel, by condemning the content of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet, seems to be taking on the position that it is ‘against’ ‘white genocide’–that is, it is against ‘mass immigration, integration, miscegenation, low fertility rates and abortion…being promoted in predominantly white countries to deliberately turn them minority-white and hence cause white people to become extinct through forced assimilation.’ I doubt Drexel has any such position–so why is it making such a claim?

The larger trend, on display here, is worrying too: as a new administration takes office, and installs Breitbart types in its administration, its faithful crack down on political speech they deem offensive. Drexel University should hold the line and protect the academic freedom of its employees, and not cave in as shamefully as they have here.

Note: The following is Ciccariello-Maher’s statement: Continue reading

Westworld’s ‘Analysis Mode’ For Humans

In the course of a discussion about the various motivations underlying the character Robert Ford‘s actions in HBO’s Westworld, a friend raised the following query:

In what senses would it be good, and in which bad, if human beings could put one another into ‘analysis mode’ like techs can do with hosts in the show? If analysis mode involved emotional detachment, earnest self-reflectiveness, and transparency, but not unconditional obedience.

As a reminder:

Analysis Mode is a state which hosts enter and leave on command…While in Character Mode, hosts seem unaware of what has transpired when they were in Analysis Mode….This mode is used by staff to maintain, adjust, and to diagnose problems with hosts. In this mode, hosts can answer questions and perform actions, but do not appear to initiate conversation or actions….While in Analysis Mode, hosts often do not appear to make eye contact, much like an autistic human, or it could be described as the eyes being unfocused like someone who is day dreaming. However, there are also numerous times when hosts in Analysis Mode do make eye contact with their interviewers.

One effect of the kind of ‘analysis mode’ imagined above would be that humans would be able to transition into a more ‘honest’ interactive state: they could request clarification and explanations of actions and statements from those they interact with; some of the inexplicable nature of our fellow humans could be clarified thus. This immediately suggests that: a) humans would not allow just anyone to place them in ‘analysis mode’ and b) there would be limits on the ‘level’ of analysis allowed. We rely on a great deal of masking in our interactions with others: rarely do we disclose our ‘true’ or ‘actual’ or ‘basic’ motives for an action; a great deal of artifice underwrites even our most ‘honest’ relationships. Indeed, it is not clear to me that such a capacity would permit our current social spaces to be constructed and maintained as they are; they rely for their current form on the ‘iceberg’ model–that which is visible serves to cover a far greater reservoir of the invisible. These considerations suggest that we might ask: Who would allow such access to themselves? Why would they do so? Under what circumstances? (Could you, for instance, just place an interlocutor, on the street, in the boardroom, into ‘analysis mode’?)

As might be obvious, what underwrites the suggestion above is the hope that underwrites various forms of psychotherapy, which, of course, is what ‘analysis mode’ sounds a lot like: that under persistent, guided, querying, we would make ourselves more transparent–to ourselves. Moreover, we could reduce the hurt and confusion which often results from our actions by ‘clarifying’ ourselves; by explaining why we did what we did. As the caveat about ‘unconditional obedience’ acknowledges, we generally do not allow therapeutic analysis to proceed in any direction, without limit (psychoanalysis puts this down to ‘unconscious resistance.’) The ‘bad’ here would be those usual results we imagine issuing from greater transparency: that our current relationships would not survive if we were really aware of each others’ motivations and desires.

‘Analysis mode’–understood in the way suggested above–would perhaps only be possible or desirable in a society comfortable with, and accustomed to, the greater access to each other that such interactions would produce.

V. S. Naipaul On The Supposed ‘Writing Personality’

In The Enigma of Arrival (Random House, New York, 1988, pp. 146-147) V. S. Naipaul writes:

It wasn’t only that I was unformed at the age of eighteen or had no idea what I was going to write about. It was that idea given me by my education–and by the more “cultural,” the nicest, part of that education–was that the writer was a person possessed of sensibility; that the writer was someone who recorded or displayed an inward development. So, in an unlikely way, the ideas of the aesthetic movement of the end of the nineteenth century and the ideas of Bloomsbury, ideas essentially bred out of empire, wealth and imperial security, had been transmitted to me in Trinidad. To be that kind of writer (as I interpreted it) I had to be false; I had to pretend to be other than I was, other than what a man of my background could be. Concealing this colonial-Hindu self below the writing personality, I did both my material and myself much damage….Because of my ideas about the writer, I took everything I saw for granted. I thought I knew it all already, like a bright student. I thought that as a writer I had only to find out what I had read about and already knew….It was nearly five years…before I could shed the fantasies given me by my abstract education. Nearly five years before, quite suddenly one day, when I was desperate for such an illumination, vision was granted me of what my material as a writer might be….I wrote very simply and very fast  of the simplest things in my memory. [paragraph breaks removed; link added]

Indeed. The confusion Naipaul speaks of is engendered by several factors here. There is, of course, some of the oldest misunderstandings of the creative process, with its suggestion that the ‘creator,’ the artist, either manufactures something out of thin air, or gives birth to that which already resides within them. But there is too, a suggestion that the writer steps into this world as writer, as finished product; but does not become one. Furthermore, because the writer is identified as an existent type, and because the exemplars available to the colonial subject would have been that of samples drawn from the colonial masters’ land–or those like it–the writer acquires a form, and his or her writings acquire their content. Now, all is clear: to be a writer one must write like one, one must write on what ‘writers’ write on; inauthenticity is the natural result of the mimicry forced upon, or readily taken on by, not the colonial subject. (Nostrums such as ‘to thine own self be true’ and ‘no man can give that which is not his’ instruct us similarly.) But others too imagine that the writer is a pre-formed type that must be instantiated. They would do better to think of the writer as something in the process of becoming over time, worked on by the labors of all those who write. By their form and content alike. Who knows what forms yet writers and writing might yet take, and what they might write on?

John Nash On Thinking Rationally As Dieting

In A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998, p. 351), Sylvia Nasar writes:

Nash has compared rationality to dieting, implying a constant, conscious struggle. It is a matter of policing one’s thoughts, he said, trying to recognize paranoid ideas and rejecting them, just the way somebody who wants to lose weight has to decide consciously to avoid fats or sweets. [link added]

This is a particularly perspicuous analogy for Nash to have made. For the failure rates of diets provide one grim indication of the difficulties of the task at hand: thinking ‘rationally’–whatever that may be, and for the time being, I’m going to elide the difficulties of providing an adequate definition–is almost destined to fail for most people. We get on the wagon, we fall off, we get back on again, straining and striving, only to find out at the most inopportune of moments that our reserves of resilience have run dry, and that we have relapsed.

This slip back down the slope, back to where the rock waits for us, waiting to be pushed back up the slope, is suggestive in more ways than one.

First, the ultimate objective, a lower weight, a more rational mind, remains a contested goal: we might not want to get to the top. We have received conflicting signals about the desirability of it all. Sure, a lower weight will transform some statistics pertaining to my health in a favorable manner, but perhaps my aspiration for it is grounded largely in vanity and low self-esteem, in a failure to accept myself for what I am. And as the Underground Man suspected, thinking rationally isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either–especially if it ends up excluding vast domains of experience and reflection. Or, as another master of suspicion might have wondered: Why should we think ‘rationally’? Who wants us to do so? What is in it for them? Perhaps, I could define ‘rational’ in a way that is more suited to the achievement of ends that I have freely chosen for myself; if I have to ‘overcome’ myself, let me do so my own way, driven by my own needs and wants.

This further suggests then that the dieting and reasoning Sisyphus might, while only partway up the slope, let go of the rock himself. Not only are the doubts about the destination overwhelming, but so is the promised relief of the downhill journey back to the rock. We should not forget that Sisyphus has the  pleasures of an easier task ahead of him now; sure, the agonizing task of pushing the rock back up the slope awaits, but for now, sweet release awaits. (Let us not forget the pleasures of the early stages of the ascent too.)

Perhaps rationality, like dieting, only ‘works’ if it’s not seen as such; if it’s not a program of self-improvement, but an ongoing way of life. That ongoing way requires constant decisions and choices, each consuming considerable cognitive resources; pitfalls abound along this path. Failure is more common than success; as it should be, given the ambiguities noted above. And much as we use the data pertaining to the failures of diets into our reckonings of what a ‘good weight’ is, and what ‘success’ in a diet amounts to, we should reconfigure our notions of the desirability and possibility of rationality as well.

On Seeking Out The Unpleasant For The Subsequent Relief

This past Saturday afternoon, after I had completed my abortive attempt to scale Mt. Washington, I returned–exhausted, bedraggled, and freezing–to my motel room in North Conway, NH. It was about 3:30 PM; I had stopped off on the way to pick up a cup of coffee (and had my car get stuck in the parking lot snow for a while; some good samaritans pushed it out for me.)

Once inside my room, I began peeling off my various layers of clothing, all inflicted with varying degrees of wetness from sweat and melting snow: a pair of soft-shell climbing pants, a pair of hiking pants, a ‘base layer’ of long-johns for the bottom, and then, up top, a heavy fleece jacket, a mid-weight jacket, a lighter jacket, a wool sweater, another lighter jacket, then a matching ‘base layer’ for the top. Off came the two pairs of gloves, one light, one heavy, and then, two pairs of ‘smart wool’ socks. I had planned to shower once I was indoors, but all I did was slip into a pair of shorts and get into bed. And there I lay for several hours, reading Nicholas Howe‘s Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire, (a superb read, which I finished that night itself) and occasionally checking the news on CNN and MSNBC; later, for dinner, I ordered in some pizza. My fingers and toes cramped repeatedly; four fingers and two toes still burned and tingled and ached, showing signs of incipient frost-nip/bite (a diagnosis grimly confirmed now by blisters on two fingers); my throat was parched and I drank water by the liter.

It felt awesome.

And I couldn’t wait to subject myself to the same grim business I had subjected myself to earlier in the day: the rising at 530AM, the ‘gearing up,’ the exhausting plodding through deep snow, the freezing cold on my face and fingers and toes, the biting wind, the clumsy climbing and slipping, the constant reminders of my lack of co-ordination, the persistent doubt and fear about the venture I was undertaking. And I was willing to do this again because I knew that at the end of those trials and tribulations would lie the pleasurable recovery, the basking in the glow of aching muscles and a slowly warming body. I had ‘failed’ to reach the summit; I had been beaten back down by a combination of bad weather and my own weaknesses. A stronger, fitter, more skilled climber might have made it to the top; I hadn’t. But that didn’t stop me from ‘enjoying’ that late afternoon and evening of recovery.

Very often, we voluntarily subject ourselves to the painful and the uncomfortable not just because we can, because we want to find out whether we can endure those states of being, but also because we know that the relief station at the terminus of the unpleasant is especially salubrious. The ordinary pleasure becomes extraordinary within those precincts; we enjoy a form of sensory and perceptual enhancement there quite unlike any other. We have altered our state of consciousness radically; pain is understood differently now. It signals not trauma now, but something else altogether.

The prospect of such relief might be compelling enough to make us want to subject ourselves to the trials required beforehand; that pleasure is sweet enough is to draw us on, upwards and onwards through zones of persistent discomfort. And to make us want to go back again for seconds.

Democratic Party Mulls Forced Population Transfers As 2020 Strategy

The Democratic Party’s planning for the 2020 elections, as expected, began on November 10th, and have only picked up pace since then–even as party officials and campaign strategists engage in the proverbial struggle to drink from the fire-hose of hot takes seeking to assign blame for the 2016 electoral fiasco. But consensus is emerging, driven largely by the two issues that have most preoccupied party thought-leaders and influencers ever since Hillary Clinton’s concession speech: the banal evil of the Electoral College and the staggering margin of victory that Clinton enjoyed in the popular vote (three million and counting.) That consensus seeks to minimize the demographic dynamite that torpedoed the Clinton Campaign–by way of forced population transfers of minorities, arguably the most reliable voting bloc for the Democratic Party, to those underpopulated regions of the United States that currently enjoy disproportionate representations in the Congress and Senate. As one party leader put it, “We need to take some of those three million votes and put them where they count, where we know they can make a real difference; we need more brown and black folks out in the countryside, up in the mountains. They can’t keep clinging to the coasts. This damn electoral system isn’t changing any time soon; we need to change the country instead.” (There is ample precedent, of course, in American history for such population transfers. Native Americans can relate chapter and verse about the Trail of Tears for instance; and one might plausibly view the KKK-prompted post-Reconstruction migration of African-Americans to regions distant from the Deep South in a similar light.)

The sheer audacity of this plan has injected new life into a party thought to be moribund in its political theory and praxis alike. In one fell swoop it will accomplish the following: place reliable Democratic voting blocs as fifth columns in Republican strongholds; beat the founding fathers at their own game; use the unwashed to triumph over the unwashed; and, of course, introduce multiculturalism to formerly monochromatic regions of the US. (San Antonio, San Diego, and many other Sans have too many taco trucks as it is; some of them could be profitably deployed in, for instance, the Florida Panhandle, the Mississippi Delta, and the prairies. Similar considerations apply to soul food–though not to hiphop.)

Objections to this plan have been restrained, an unsurprising turn of events for a nation preparing for an administration that is equal parts Barnum and Goebbels. Little cover will be needed to accomplish this, and indeed, little force will be too. The Democratic Party is counting on being able to sell this electoral strategy in much the same way it has sold its goods to its members for ever so long: if you do not comply, do not pack up bag and baggage and move to regions picked out by our data management consultants on the basis of calculations that have revealed where your presence will have the most electoral impact, you will be stuck with the Republican Party again.

Who could resist such an enticement?

Notes On Winter Climbing In The White Mountains – II

Yesterday, I made note here of my activities on the first of a pair of days of guided climbing in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Our plan for the second day was to try to summit Mt. Washington, a beastly business in the winter. I had hoped a) to become proficient enough in climbing to attempt one of the gullies in either Huntington or Tuckerman Ravines as an ascent route and b) that the avalanche risk in those ravines was low enough to allow us to do so. Neither conditions were realized; I was still far away from being competent enough in climbing to try to do a gully ascent, and moreover avalanche risk ran high in those ravines (the Forest Service assesses the ravines’ conditions and posts updates on their website.) We would stick to the standard Lion’s Head Winter Route.

On Saturday morning, Nick Aiello-Popeo (of Synnott Mountain Guides) and I geared up at the AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and set off; the snow lay thick about us, and kept falling lightly. I found the going hard; winter hiking is slow and tedious at the best of times. I was also still coming to grips with the cold-induced clumsiness and stiffness; everything–putting on crampons, changing layers, grabbing a quick snack–was harder to accomplish. Once the Winter Route began, the slope pitched steeply upwards, and some caution, including roping up, was required on a couple of sticky sections.

lionshead1

 

lionshead2

We slowly cleared the treeline, heading for shrubs, which is where we encountered a fierce wind and swirling snow. We pushed on for a while; our steps were slow and labored. The wind–which had been forecast to pick up during the day–was strong enough on occasion to push me back down the slope I was attempting to move up on. I followed Nick, who kept breaking trail, but even his steps were quickly wiped out by the snowdrifts that came cascading down. My goggles were fogging rapidly, and my slightly shortsighted vision meant that I kept misjudging the depth of the snow in front of me. Indeed, the swirling snow and poor visibility meant that at one point, I lost sight of my leader and had to call out to confirm his location. (Thankfully, Nick was only a few meters ahead.) Finally, Nick walked back down the slope, and suggested we call it off; unsurprisingly, I agreed. Conditions were pretty hostile; we were moving too slowly; we ran many risks in pushing on. (Especially as, I suppose, Nick must have reckoned that my inexperience was unlikely to be an asset in pushing on.)

Our return wasn’t much easier; I kept slipping and sliding, finding it hard to internalize the simple lesson to place my cramponed heels first on the downward slopes. At one point, the endlessly patient Nick’s patience ran out, and he suggested I rope up for going down as well. I agreed; I had had my ice axe knocked out of my hands once on one slip, and a repetition would not be pretty. Fortunately for me, my slip-sliding adventures ended quickly thereafter, and we made it down to the end of the trail safely. We had been unsuccessful in making to the summit; a disappointment for sure, but it wasn’t clear to me that I could have pushed on in those conditions. (This photo gives some indication of what it was like in the Dragons’ Lair just below the Lion’s Head; as you can tell, I had my head down as I tried to move on.)

dragonslair

I was cold, exhausted, and sore all over once we had finished; I drove back to my motel, changed out of my wet clothes, stripped off the multiple layers (five on top, three below), and tried to warm up. Four of my fingers and two of my toes still complained about their treatment by the cold; one blister on a finger showed I had acquired a little frost-nip. Sustained further exposure might have made things worse.

All in all, winter climbing was an educational and humbling experience.; I need to be stronger, more practiced, more flexible, mentally more resilient. Like most things pertaining to the mountains, you get your ass kicked, but still harbor a curious desire to repeat the dose. Which I will, soon enough.