A Winning Liberal Strategy For 2020: Scolding The ‘Hard Left’

With the 2018 elections only a few months away and with the 2020 election season about to commence, concerned citizens should begin devising strategies for wresting back control of the House, the Senate, the White House, and many blocks of affordable housing in Washington DC back from the feckless Republicans dunking the American republic in the Trump swamp. Fortunately for Democratic voters, liberals, progressives, members of the ‘hard left,’ and sundry other disaffected Americans, a winning strategy has already been devised by those who voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections. The simplicity of this strategy is bracing; it requires little to implement, and can be carried out all day from home, while traveling or commuting, or in-between breaks at work.

Here is how it goes: on social media and indeed, on all available media outlets, blame the loss of the 2016 election not on those who voted for Donald Trump but rather on those who did not vote for Hillary Clinton. (This strategy does require the person doing the blaming to overlook the fact that a large-scale political event like a once in four years presidential election is massively overdetermined with multiple factors playing significant causal roles–like the design of the American electoral system or campaign strategies of choice. Be that as it may, such considerations are mere distractions to decisive action in these times.)

This blaming can proceed along several axes: an easy one is to pick one out of the long list of political, social, economic, and legal disasters that have befallen the Republic since that fateful November 9th in 2016, and to say “This is on you <Bernie bros, doctrinaire leftists, Marxists, postmodernists, or whatever>!” A variant of this is “Well, I hope you are happy, Bernie-Jill Stein voter-bro, you got what you wanted!” or to mutter “But, but, her emails!” (The latter, however, suffers from a simple confusion; the ’emails’ were of great concern to Trump voters–well known for being sticklers for security in all matters pertaining to internet communications–so the liberal scold here runs the risk of not directly addressing the demographic he or she would like to castigate.)

The success of this strategy is all but foretold. After all, not only did this sort of premptive scolding work to great effect in the lead up to the 2016 election, but as a vast literature on political and community organizing shows, shaming, blaming, and scolding are proven strategies for building broad political coalitions. Such imprecations always make their target eager to build alliances with those doing the blaming; their moral and political faults so clearly identified and laid out for all to see, they can now return to the fold with their tails tucked between their legs, all the more enthusiastic about the education they are to receive in how to correctly exercise their adult electoral franchise.

Readers will be happy to know that the implementation of this tactic is well under way. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement appears to have been the flag drop, and we’re off. Time to sit back and dream about impeachment, veto-proof legislation, and a huge, massive, bomb of a blue wave.

Letter To A Young Girl

Dear A__,.

The decision to have you, to bring you into this world, was not an easy one; your mother and I agonized about it a fair amount. We went for it in the end because we were excited to see how our lives would turn out with someone like you in our lives. Our decision was the correct one; we cannot imagine life without you, and you have changed us for the better in many ways. All isn’t smooth sailing, of course; I regret that this world into which you’ve been born is not in better shape. Climate change is real; fascist political movements are on the rise all over the world; patriarchy is fighting very, very hard to maintain its power. And that’s just three of the many things that makes this world a worse place than it needs to be. I’m not a very optimistic person; and so I think that things will get worse before they get better. Still, there is plenty of occasion to cheer, and to offer me hope for what lies ahead of you. Here are the two biggest factors in my optimism–such as it is.

First, the world is still beautiful; you’ve seen some of it thanks to our family trips but there is so much more; literally, a whole world. I’ve only scratched the surface, but I’d like to think I’m exposing you to enough to whet your appetite. You like climbing, and I’m hopeful that you will keep it up–literally–and go to all those airy ledges that always seem to have the best views of the world below. There is much to see, much to explore; and if the big bad guys want to take away this wilderness from you, then you have a good battle to fight  waiting for you. It’s a good cause; you could do worse than to devote your life to keeping the outdoors wild and beautiful for future wild kids like you.

Second, young people are angry and politically organized. Just yesterday, a young and dynamic woman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, won a primary election–she is going to be the youngest woman elected to Congress. She spoke up for the communities she represents, putting their interests front and center; she did not compromise or triangulate; she spoke clearly and fearlessly; and she inspired many to come out and support her. You don’t have to emulate her; you don’t have to run for Congress; but you should learn from her that sincerity and passion and honesty will take you a long way even as many around you will try to tell you to be insincere and dishonest.

So, there it is. You don’t get an inheritance other than a a beautiful world and some beautiful people to share it with. Oh, there’s tons of trolls and ogres as  well; they’ve got their eyes on the prize too. But what kind of adventure would life be if there weren’t any ‘wild things’ to take on and best at their own game?

Yours with many hugs,

Papa

Jerome Bruner On Cultures That ‘Breakdown’

In Acts of Meaning (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1990, pp. 96-97), Jerome Bruner writes

When there is a breakdown in a culture…it can usually be traced to one of several things. The first is a deep disagreement about what constitutes the ordinary and canonical in life and what the exceptional and divergent….this we know in our time from what one might call the “battle of the life-styles.” exacerbated by intergenerational conflict. A second threat inheres in the rhetorical overspecialization of narrative, when stories become so ideologically or self-servingly motivated that distrust displaces interpretation, and “what happened” is discounted as fabrication. On the large scale, this is what happens under a totalitarian regime, and contemporary novelists of Central Europe have documented it with painful exquisiteness–Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš, and many others. The same phenomenon  expresses itself in modern bureaucracy, where all except the official story of what is happening is silenced or stonewalled…finally, there is breakdown that results from sheer impoverishment of narrative resources–in the permanent underclass of the ghetto, in the second and third generation of the Palestinian refugee compound, in the hunger-preoccupied villages of semipermanently drought-stricken villages in sub-Saharan Africa. It is not that there is a total loss in putting story form to experience, but that the worse scenario story comes to to dominate daily life that variation no longer seems to be possible. [links added]

My reasons for posting this passage, at this time should be clear enough.

The first state of affairs that Bruner lists above has been a feature of American life for as long as I can remember it, and indeed, has been from the birth of the nation; it constitutes a  dynamic and creative tension in American culture. It has led to many species of politics and political engagement, not all of them conducive to the continuance of the American polity. The third condition too, has been realized in ample measure in American life; it is what makes the ‘voices of the downtrodden’ especially worth listening to–as rappers like Public Enemy were fond of saying, by listening to them you learned something about a world most American citizens did not need or want to interact with; that music offered affirmation that despite the ‘impoverishment of narrative resources’ powerful, creative voices still spoke loudly and clearly. The second condition is the one that will seem especially familiar to us now in this era of ‘fake news–the relentless, seemingly unstoppable lying, the bald-faced denial of ‘what is in front of our nose.’

The crucial mistake, a self-congratulatory one, would be to imagine that this state of affairs is entirely new; bald-faced, persistent, and systematic liars have long worked their trade. What is new is the materiality of our information exchanges, their speed and ubiquity, their all-pervasiveness. They make possible the ‘breakdown’ in communication many experience today; the so-called ‘echo chambers,’ the sense that some divides cannot be bridged by discourse. The central irony in all of this, as media scholars have not tired of pointing out, that it is our civilization’s most pervasive, most efficient, most democratic communication system ever that has facilitated this state of affairs.

Breakdowns in cultures are not trivial affairs, and there is no sign that the current political and cultural tensions in American life will lead to anything like an irreparable rift; but complacency is no substitute for thinking about what changes in material conditions can induce a different social and personal consciousness that could help heal the present schisms.

The Republican Base’s Malevolent Algorithm

An entirely unsurprising poll shows that sixty-seven percent of the registered Republicans in the US support the current administration’s policy of separating children from their undocumented immigrant (or asylum seeking) parents at the border. (Those children are then imprisoned in cages in concentration camps with no plans for their release or reunification with their parents.) This poll supplements an essay on Stephen Miller whose headline reads ‘The Outrage Over Family Separation Is Exactly What Stephen Miller Wants.”

It will ‘fire up the base,’ you see, and bring them out in numbers for 2018.

The ‘base’ is, of course, why Trump will never be impeached by the Republican Party; it brought Trump to power; it will keep him in it. This is democracy in action; at its ‘best.’ The ‘people’ have spoken–through an electoral system of sorts–and we know what they want. The ‘base’–the ‘fuck your feelings’ crowd–reliably dislikes its Other: the libtards, the bleeding hearts, the snowflakes, the gays, the blacks, the Spanish-speaking, the feminists, the social justice warriors, the Marxists, the postmodernists, the coastal elites, the teachers, the unions, the gun control freaks, the atheists, the campus radicals, the brown, the immigrants (undocumented or otherwise.) The list goes on.

The reason for cashing out the content of the vox populi as a long list of dislikes and resentments is quite simple: this animosity toward its Other animates the ‘base’; apparently, it is the only policy justification it requires. A simple mechanical test for policy evaluation emerges: Does policy X cause fear, anger, dismay among members of the list above? Does it cause them to issue denunciations and condemnations of the Great Leader? Then it must be Good; if not, it must be Bad. Legal academics and concerned philosophers of technology spend a great deal of time pondering the problem of how to regulate automated decision-making; this is one algorithm for political decision-making that seems to have slipped under their radar. The perversity of this politics might make some parents recall the days of using the infamous ‘reverse psychology’ on a recalcitrant toddler; if you want them to do X, you must suggest that they do Y; the immature toddler, unable to realize he or she is being played, does instead. But comparisons and analogies with toddlers are ultimately unsatisfying; toddlers are also quite cute and entertaining and cuddly at times, and the Republican ‘base’ is anything but. Toddlers grow and mature; the ‘base’ appears to prefer curdling.

The presence of the ‘base’ and its frightening acquiescence to any moral atrocity as long as it meets the requirements noted above render wholly ineffective any political strategy that aims to change the Republican Party’s course by shaming it or pointing out its hypocrisies or inconsistencies. (On Twitter, a whole phalanx of tweeters is dedicated to racking up high RT counts by indulging in precisely such activity.)

Fortunately for the US, not all of its citizens are members of the base. Unfortunately for the US, all too many are. Trump will serve at most till 2024; the ‘base’ will be around much longer.

Jordan Peterson Is A Sexist Tool

Jordan Peterson gets quite upset when he is accused of being sexist and misogynist. Unfortunately, his latest response in the ongoing series of debates over whether he is the reincarnation of Nietzsche or merely the latest in a long line of privileged provocateurs claiming the mantle of ‘radical’ while committing themselves to defending conservative social orders suggests that he is definitely a sexist.¹

My evidence for this claim is exceedingly simple. Consider the following two brief excerpts, which bookend his response to Kate Manne‘s thoughtful critique of his work:

First,

On June 6, journalist Sean Illing…interviewed Assistant Professor of Philosophy (Cornell Philosophy Department) Dr. Kate Manne (the “feminist philosopher”) (Dr Kate Manne’s Website) about me and my work.

And then:

There is nothing the least bit controversial about any of this, unless you are a doctrinaire radical of the sort likely to characterize your ideological indoctrination and lack of familiarity with the relevant psychological and anthropological literature as “feminist philosophy.”

Here is a textbook definition of sexism in action, revealed quite simply, by the use of scare quotes above.

We use scare quotes around terms to indicate suspicion, skepticism, mockery, dismissal, and the like; to use a pair of these is to indicate that the term in question lacks validity or legitimacy of a certain kind–for instance, were I to want to puncture Peterson’s pretensions to be a serious thinker or an intellectual, I would write the following sentence: “The Canadian academic Jordan Peterson imagines he is a ‘serious thinker’; unfortunately, ‘intellectuals’ like him are frequently confused in such self-assessments.”

What has Peterson placed scare quotes around? Around a title that is quite clearly Manne’s to own: feminist philosopher, and around a field of study she has engaged with: feminist philosophy. Manne is a PhD from MIT, and is a tenured (or tenure-track) assistant professor of philosophy at a reputable institution; she has the professional qualifications in academia–of which Peterson is a member, and whose standards he is well aware of, and indeed acknowledges them above–to be called a philosopher. Moreover, she works in a well-established area of political and ethical philosophy; feminist philosophy is an academic field with practitioners, journals, conferences, and ongoing internal debates and external engagements. There is, in short, precisely no good reason to place scare quotes around either of the two terms above.

Now, the charge of sexism: Peterson does not even place scare quotes around the academic fields and academics he despises: Marxism, postmodernists, doctrinaire radicals. He does not place scare quotes around Sean Illing’s title above. He does not place scare quotes around titles and fields when referring to male academics or the fields they work in. His special animus is reserved for a woman philosopher, working in feminist philosophy (a field of study mostly by, about, and for, women.)

This is textbook sexism. Jordan Peterson is a sexist tool.

Note #1: The charge of misogyny will be far more ably laid by Kate Manne herself; but Peterson’s sneering mannerisms, his self-pity, his anger, all indicate to me this man is a misogynist, and a dangerous one at that.

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.