Confessions Of An American Ambien Eater, By Roseanne Barr

I here present you, courteous net surfer and peruser of the productions of bloggers, with the record of a remarkable period in my life: I trust that it will prove not merely an interesting record, but useful and instructive too. That must be my apology for breaking through that delicate and honourable reserve which restrains us from the public exposure of our own errors and infirmities.  Nothing, indeed, is more revolting to American feelings than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice her moral ulcers or scars; for any such acts of gratuitous self-humiliation from those who can be supposed in sympathy with the decent and self-respecting part of society, we must look to our talk shows, our Twitter feeds, our Facebook feeds, our blog pages. All this I feel so forcibly, and so nervously am I alive to reproach of this tendency, that I have for many months hesitated about the propriety of allowing any part of my narrative to make its way online.

Truth be told, there is only one confession to be made, and it will have to do for now, so heavily does the burden of it bear upon me. For many years now, I have consumed the magical potion of Ambien to soothe my easily inflamed nerves; it has induced calmness, a soothing caress of the brow, a gentle lulling to rest in dreamland, a succor eagerly welcome by a vexed and anxious soul like mine. I do not consume Ambien in solitude; there are many fellow sufferers like me who also partake of its healing qualities. But I’m most decidedly alone in my unique and singular experiences, which have now come to haunt me for the spotlight they have shown on my soul, thus revealing its darkest recesses, domains I had thought I would not be exposed to ever again (since that fateful day on the couch in the Upper West Side clinic when I first became privy to their inclinations.)

For I have noticed for some time now, that to partake of Ambien is to engage in a mode of introspective analysis that forces deep and repressed feelings, unconscious ones, to the surface of my conscious sensibility. So powerful is this effect that my bodily being is taken over, my limbs begin to move, my tongue to speak, all of their own accord.  Because I communicate as often with my thumbs as I do with my tongue, Ambien has made me ‘talk in tongues’–with my thumbs, on the keypads of modern smartphones. And the words it induces me to type reveal my soul to me. Sometimes I find out I respect the gibbering opinions of orange-haired fascists, sometimes I find myself to be a clumsy racist; mostly, I’ve found out that I’m not very funny at all, that my glory days, such as they were, are long gone, that I’m living on a reputation borrowed from the past.

But mostly, it is the witless dark bottom of my soul that has been the most disturbing vision of all in my Ambien-infused ambulations.

Note #1: My apologies to the literary estate of Thomas De Quincey for liberally plagiarizing the words they so carefully administer.

Resisting Big Data: Interfering With ‘Collaboration,’ Nonconsensually

Consider the various image-sharing databases online: Facebook’s photo stores, Instagram, Flickr. These contain trillions of photographs, petabytes of fragile digital data, growing daily, without limit; every day, millions of users worldwide upload the  images they capture on their phones and cameras to the cloud, there to be stored, processed, enhanced, shared, tagged, commented on. And to be used as learning data for facial recognition software–the stuff that identifies your ‘friends’ in your photos in case you want to tag them.

This gigantic corpus of data is a mere court-issued order away from being used by the nation’s law enforcement agencies to train their own facial surveillance software–to be used, for instance, in public space cameras, port-of-entry checks, correctional facilities, prisons etc. (FISA courts can be relied upon to issue warrants in response to any law enforcement agency requests; and internet service providers and media companies respond with great alacrity to government subpoenas.) Openly used and deployed, that is. With probability one, the NSA, FBI, and CIA have already ‘scraped’, using a variety of methods, these image data stores, and used them in the manner indicated. We have actively participated and collaborated, and continue to do so, in the construction of the world’s largest and most sophisticated image surveillance system. We supply the data by which we may be identified; those who want to track our movements and locations use this data to ‘train’ their artificial agents to surveil us, to report on us if we misbehave, trespass, or don’t conform to whichever spatial or physical or legal or ‘normative’ constraint happens to direct us at any given instant. The ‘eye’ watches; it relies for its accuracy on what we have ‘told’ it, through our images and photographs.

Now imagine a hacktivist programmer who writes a Trojan horse that infiltrates such photo stores and destroys all their data–permanently, for backups are also taken out. This is a ‘feat’ that is certainly technically possible; encryption will not prevent a drive from being formatted; and security measures of all kinds can be breached. Such an act of ‘hacktivism’ would be destructive; it would cause the loss of much ‘precious data’: memories and recollections of lives and the people who live them, all gone, irreplaceable.  Such an act of destruction would be justified, presumably, on the grounds that to do so would be to cripple a pernicious system of surveillance and control. Remember that your photos don’t train image recognition systems to recognize just you; they also train it to not recognize someone else as you; our collaboration does not just hurt us, it hurts others; we are complicit in the surveillance and control of others.

I paint this admittedly unlikely scenario to point attention to a few interesting features of our data collection and analysis landscape: a) we participate, by conscious action and political apathy, in the construction and maintenance of our own policing; b) we are asymmetrically exposed because our surveillers enjoy maximal secrecy while we can draw on none; c) collective, organized resistance is so difficult to generate that the most effective political action might be a quasi-nihilist act of loner ‘civil disobedience’–if you do not cease and desist from ‘collaborating,’ the only choice left to others still concerned about their freedom from surveillance might to be nonconsensually interrupt such collaboration.

Some Philip Roth Moments

Philip Roth is dead. I read many of his books over the years. Here, in no particular order, are some recollections of those encounters:

  1. I discover Portnoy’s Complaint in graduate school. This, I’m sure you will agree, is a strange time for someone to ‘find’ Roth, especially when you consider that the person doing the ‘finding’ is a thirty-something Indian man, undergoing a career change from being a systems analyst to a graduate student of philosophy. I found Portnoy’s Complaint hilarious, side-splittingly so; its depiction of an unabashed psychosexual insanity curiously sanity-inducing; the Jewish mother was someone I could recognize, and even love from afar. I did not think that I would find resonances with my life here, in this text, written by this person, in that time and place. But I did; it was one of the most American moments of my many years in America.
  2. I turned my girlfriend onto Portnoy’s Complaint; she went ahead to read Goodbye Columbus and told me she loved Roth so much that she would read anything and everything he wrote; I was possessed by jealousy for a few moments (fine, a little longer than that), but it soon passed. He could write.
  3. Roth could be very insightful; he could also be very tedious. The Human Stain was the most tedious of his works. It was too long by about two hundred pages. I recognized the attempt for the story-telling to be capacious in it, but it did not work.
  4. The women in Roth’s novel often made me uncomfortable; they fucked a lot, they had lots of good lines, but they seemed, not in a good way at all, to be figments entirely of Roth’s imagination. They seemed to be as he wanted women to be, desperately: sexually voracious, uncomplicated, roughly and strongly accepting of the stupidity and cruelty and blindness of the men in their lives because they saw past all of that to the hurt, the fear, the desperate desire to be alive in their own uncompromising way that was very often the hallmark of the Roth man. For Roth, their sexual appetites made them alive; more alive than those who claimed to speak for them or protect them from writers like Roth. For all that, they still seemed to hew close to cliche.
  5. Once, in my own classic ‘Jewish encounters in Brooklyn’ story I met a young man at my gym whose father also lifted weights here. The father was loud and profane and strong; he was a dirty old man who liked asking about other mens’ partners in ever-so slightly leering ways. His son was proud of him, perplexed by him. His father was not as observant as his mother; his mother was orthodox. The young man’s girfriend was a shiksa; his father liked her but wanted his son to date a Jewish woman so that it would make his mother happy. The young man loaned me a lot of his Roth collection; I finally read Goodbye Columbus thanks to him. We talked about tribalism; we talked about identity. He was half my age, but very thoughtful, and I don’t think it was accidental that the bridge between us was Roth’s writing.

Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone: A Climbing Lesson

This past Saturday, after falling, for the proverbially umpteenth time, off a climbing route at The Cliffs in Long Island City, I walked off, wondering yet again, this time loudly enough for gym staff members to hear me, whether it was worse to have never climbed a route in the first place or to keep failing at a route that you have climbed once before. (In case you were wondering, this was a route I had climbed once but have not been able to top out on since then; clearly, the stars had aligned on the day I had climbed it for the first time.) A young man who works at the gym yelled back at me, “The second one!”

He was right. As Cinderella pointed out a long time ago, all the way back in the long-gone eighties, don’t know what you got till it’s gone. And things get worse when you set off in pursuit again of ‘it,’ all the while possessed by a peculiar sort of anxiety: What if the good news I had allowed myself to believe turns out to have just been a beguiling lie? What if the clouds had merely temporarily lifted, allowing for a glimpse of the promised land, and then closed again, cruelly tantalizing and mocking? As my note about the possibility of the stars aligning on the first ascent indicates, maybe my first ascent was just me ‘getting lucky,’ a ‘fluke’ of sorts that said nothing whatsoever my climbing ability or skills. These repeated failures were confirmation instead, of my true incompetence in climbing, my ‘I-don’t-belong-here’ status; they were exposures of this impostor who had dared venture out and up on these climbing walls with their frustratingly distant, slippery, and small holds.  I was a fool to have ever imagined I could be any good at this; shame on me for having let myself believe such a falsehood.

When climbing a route that has remained elusive, I sense a virtuous effort at play; I can easily ascribe nobility to my striving; I have never succeeded here, but I think I can, so I must keep trying; again and again and again. My perseverance and its accompanying failure acquires its own particular grace. But when I’m climbing a difficult route I have climbed before I am beset, quite easily, by the doubts and anxieties noted above.

A task that is potentially repeatable, and yet non-trivial–like a climb–thus allows us to inspect this interesting variant of anxiety and self-doubt. The positive counterpart to these worries is well-known: if you’ve done it once before, you can do it again. But we all know that not to be true; sometimes we grow slower, less adept, less skilled; we can’t always do it again.

Such anxieties and the variants I make note of here, are not easily conquered. They do, however, confirm the wisdom of the adage of staying in the moment: enjoy each moment (each success on each route) while it lasts; it might not be yours again.

On Getting Stopped For ‘Shoplifting’ In Barnes And Noble

Some fifteen or so years ago, shortly after beginning my professorial employment at Brooklyn College, I stopped in at a Barnes and Noble store at Fifth Avenue and 18th Street in Manhattan; then, and perhaps even now, for I’m no longer sure it still exists, this ‘branch’ was the largest B&N store in New York City, one with an extensive selection of college textbooks in a rear annex. That annex was my destination; I wanted to see if some texts I had placed on my syllabi for the current semester were available here by chance, and if so, I could direct some of my students here for their book procurements. My search was unsuccessful; later, I wandered through the main shelves, browsing the philosophy, history, and literature sections before heading for the exits, my tried and trusted backpack slung over my shoulder.

As I reached the doors, my path was blocked by a security guard who asked to inspect my backpack. I handed it over; it contained the usual mix of a spare sweatshirt, my phone, some keys, and a few books. I expected the search to be perfunctory; I had not purchased anything and had no cash receipts to show. It wasn’t.

The guard picked out one of my books–on ‘The Great Game‘–and asked me where I got it from. I replied, ‘That’s mine; I’ve borrowed it from a friend.’ The guard asked me if I had a receipt. I replied (now, a bit tersely), no, I did not; my friend had not supplied me with the receipt when I borrowed it from him. Before I could add anything to make clear to the guard the absurdity of this line of questioning, he had walked off with my backpack. I stared after him: precisely what the fuck was going on? Clearly, I was under suspicion of shoplifting that newish looking book.

The guard returned with his manager, who repeated the question of where I got the book from. My temper rising, I said it was mine, and had been in my backpack when I entered the store. He then asked me why I had so many books in my backpack. I replied, “Because I’m a college professor!” My voice had risen by this time. The guard, watching this exchange, was sniggering. My awareness of this was making my temper rise further, even as I suddenly became aware of the danger I was in.

Were I to lose my temper any more (my backpack was still being held by the guard, and I would have to snatch it off him to leave with it; I didn’t think he would just hand it over), the police might be called in to ‘calm down’ an excitable brown man in post-911 New York City; the situation that was developing would most likely see me handcuffed and marched off to the local precinct for ‘disturbing the peace.’ My eventual release would be of no relief.

My snappy reply seemed to have snapped the manager out of his stupor. He gestured to the guard to hand my backpack over. The guard, still smirking, handed it over. I took it and stormed out. I haven’t been back to Barnes and Noble–any store–ever since.

The New York Times’ Op-Ed Page Is An Intellectual Dark Web

The New York Times Op-Ed page has been an intellectual dark web for a long time. Few corners of the Internet can lay claim to both Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, two of the most widely ridiculed, mocked, and parodied ‘thought leaders’ ever to have deigned to grace us swine with their pearls of wisdom; so extensive and ubiquitous is the scorn sent their way and so, correspondingly, entirely self-unaware is this pair that they continue to write on as before, unaware that they are now parodying themselves. The Times’ Op-Ed page also includes Maureen Dowd, who slipped into irrelevance during the Bush years, and only makes periodic, pitiful attempts to show up on readers’ radars–sometimes by penning unhinged rants about clueless consumption of marijuana edibles in legal jurisdictions. Then there is Sophist-in-Chief-And-Apologist-For-Religion Ross Douthat, whose rambling, self-pitying pieces about the marginalization of conservative thought by remorseless liberals have also settled into their own familiar and head-scratching template: see, liberalism, you so mean, you just shot yourself in your own foot while you thought you was picking out distant conservative targets.

And then, we have Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens.

I must confess to knowing little about these two writers before they were promoted to their own space on one of the nation’s most prominent media platforms; the former apparently distinguished herself by attacking the academic freedom of Arab scholars to criticize Israel, the latter by cheerleading for the Iraq War. But their settling down into the boring, predictable output emanating from the New York Times Op-Ed page was rapid enough, and Weiss’ latest offering cements her own particular corner in that outpost: a paean to those intellectuals who have thrown their toys out of the pram because they are not being recognized–it remains entirely unclear by whom–for the intellectual revolutionaries they imagine themselves to be. Here they are: Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan etc. They have giant book deals, extensive media presence and connections, YouTube channels and podcasts whose audience runs into the millions; indeed, you might even imagine them ‘thought leaders’ of a kind. Their ideas are, sadly enough, disappointingly familiar: sexism and racism and the wonders of the free market find scientific grounding here, as do dark imprecations about the conceptual connections between particular religions and social dysfunction, and so on. No matter: what really unites the intellectuals is that they imagine themselves iconoclasts and pioneers and brave outsiders. And those writing on them imagine themselves to be similar intellectual heroes: they are, after all, speaking up on behalf of the rebels and outsiders and outliers.

A more depressing display of intellectual cluelessness cannot be imagined; the essay’s astonishing photo-spread, which showcases the various profiled ‘intellectuals’ in the act of getting caught peeing in the bushes confirms this assessment. The ‘intellectuals’ profiled by Weiss are not on the margins; they are right at the center, and they aren’t keen to share the spotlight with anyone; an elementary examination of their cultural placement would reveal this fact rather quickly. It is hard to know how this pitch was first made by Weiss; it is equally hard to fathom the editorial reasoning that led to its approval and to the final finished form.

Before Weiss is alarmed by the scornful response to her piece, she should remember that she is not being ‘silenced,’ that her ‘essay’ was published at the New York Times, and that, despite the writerly incompetence on display, she is not being sacked. She’s right where she belongs: on the intellectual dark web.

Trump’s Legal Escape From ‘Stormy’ Weather

Rudy Giuliani’s supposedly unhinged and indisciplined rant on the Sean Hannity show opened up a legal path for Donald Trump to extricate himself from La Affaire Stormy Daniels with minimal legal jeopardy. By admitting that he recompensed Michael Cohen, and thus admitting knowledge of the contract, Trump makes the non-disclosure agreement with Stormy Daniels valid, and thus ensures she is still bound by its non-disclosure terms–even as he simultaneously denies ever  having had an affair with her. Moreover, even if his recompensing Cohen can be viewed as a violation of campaign finance laws, Trump may get off with merely a misdemeanor violation and not suffer a felony conviction.

Two ugly facts conspire to make such an escape for Trump possible: it has been assumed thus far that Trump would not ‘fess up to knowledge of the contract with Stormy Daniels because to do so would be to submit to the embarrassment of having to admit that he had an affair, or at least a sexual encounter with her, which he then sought to cover up with a pay-off and a non-disclosure agreement, but in point of fact, Trump and his team have realized that there is no embarrassment in simply denying any such ‘contact’ took place. They can call Stormy Daniels a liar and rely on their usual obfuscations to do the rest of the work; for the Republican base, the misogynistic assessment of her as ‘only a porn star’ is enough. The claim that a non-disclosure agreement was the best way to get a ‘hustler’ or a ‘shyster’ to ‘shut up’ will find favor with the Republican ‘base’ quite easily. So the ‘escape’ picture emerges: the non-disclosure agreement was made ‘legally’ to silence a nuisance; the president did speak falsely on occasion, but never under oath in a court of law; his conversations with reporters are like his other lie-ridden interactions with the media, that is, nothing distinctive. Moreover, we can rely on the legal system to deliver the lightest slap on the wrist possible to Trump when it comes to violations of campaign finance law; the rigorous conditions of ‘knowingly and willingly’ required for a felony violation will be hard to meet. The payments Trump made to Cohen can be ‘contextualized’ in some fashion to make them ever so more ‘appropriate’ and not transgressive of legality; they can be made to look less like flagrant violations of campaign finance law if dressed up with the right kinds of  language.

No matter what the political costs, Trump’s legal team has at least devised a scheme for reducing their client’s legal jeopardy; it ‘works’ in conjunction with a particular social setting in which he can also rely on his sentencing on any possible violations of campaign finance laws to be rather gentle. Embarrassment as a social force only works when the subject responds to it accordingly or sees it working as intended; in the current  media setting and in the current psycho-political mood no embarrassment is enough. All will be tolerated in the name of inducing liberal rage. Fuck your feelings indeed.