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.

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.

G. H. Hardy On The Supposedly ‘Second-Rate Mind’

In A Mathematician’s Apology G. H. Hardy wrote:

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings: there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.

I make note of this famous excerpt today because I saw it, again, on a friend’s Facebook status. As I noted in response then, “Hardy says ‘second-rate mind’ like that’s a bad thing. I’d love to have a second-rate mind.” (A response stolen from George Mikes‘ ranking of writers where he says something like “I wish I was at least a fourth-rate writer.”)

But less facetiously, there are two confusions that afflict Hardy’s claim above.

First, Hardy is caught up in the mythology of the lone creator, artist, genius, whose thoughts and works spring ab initio from his or her mind alone, independent of history and context and antecedent work. Such a creature is entirely mythical; there is no fallow ground in the arts and sciences to be worked. All has been worked and tilled before; the creator, the genius, the artist builds on what came before. In one crucial sense, all supposedly ‘creative’ and ‘original’ work is exposition and explication and criticism and appreciation; departures depart from somewhere, they do not find an Archimedean point for themselves. (And can the genius’ work be understood without it being explicated?)

Secondly, a mathematician who writes about mathematical work may be doing philosophy of mathematics or perhaps noting connections between bodies of work that are not visible to those who might have worked on them individually. There is ‘insight’ here to be found, which might be as penetrating in getting to the ‘heart of the matter’ or in affording us a new ‘vision’ as the work of the ‘original creator’–perhaps achieved with flair and style that might lift the work out of the realm of the ordinary. Such might be the case with other kinds of explicatory work. Writing about writing is still writing, and still subject to the critical assessment we direct at the written word; we might find brilliance and innovation and style there too.

Ultimately, Hardy’s view speaks for too many, says too much, and yet manages to convey an impoverished and narrowed vision of the creative mind and its various endeavors. Moreover, it betrays its own trivial concerns in attempting to devise a hierarchy of values for such forays of the intellect: unsurprisingly, we find the work that Hardy saw himself as engaged in placed at the top of this hierarchy.   Philosophies are disguised autobiographies indeed. (My defense of the explainer now suddenly becomes comprehensible.)


Marco Rubio And The Philosophy Of Welding

Many years ago, I taught the inaugural edition of my Philosophy of Welding seminar. I began the semester by introducing some of the problems that would hold our attention during the semester: What is welding? How is it distinguished from other activities that claim to be welding? Is there a distinctive being-in-the-world characteristic of the welder and his tools? What makes a welded work beautiful? How should such works be shared? In the political economy of welding how is value created and sustained? Do we have a moral obligation to weld? And so on.

My reading list for the class was not excessively ambitious: I stuck to some of the usual suspects–Heidegger and some of the works of the Shipyard Collective, for instance–and concentrated on a few key passages in each, hoping close attention to them would repay dividends in the form of rich class discussion. Early in the semester, I began to notice that one young student did the readings diligently, came to class prepared, and engaged vigorously in all ensuing discussions.

This was no idle interest; no lofty, disengaged, from-on-high tackling of philosophical problems. This young man was in the trenches, on a mission. And it was quite clear what it was: defending–nay, aggressively speaking up for–welding and welders. He had air-tight definitions for welding: necessary and sufficient conditions for it neatly marked its domain off from the impostors clamoring to be let in; he offered an at-times-almost-mystical description of the relationship of the welder to the welded (and the tools that mediated that relationship); he spoke movingly of the affective responses that welded works provoked in him, deftly bringing in Kantian notions of the sublime; he offered a creative theory for how welded works could be copyrighted and welders granted patents for their work; he described the outlines of a political economy for welding that would allow welding to continue to generate surplus value in a world increasingly dominated by the intangible and the immaterial; and most movingly of all, he offered a passionate, stirring, argument whose fascinating conclusion was that we have a duty to weld, a moral inclination that must be obeyed.

It was on this last point that we passionately disagreed. Even though I recognized the importance of welding, I could not bring myself to accept this argument. Surely, one could assign welding a respectable position in our hierarchy of valued activities without taking the final move to make our engagement something that acquired normative weight. But this young man would not budge. Welding, as an activity, had normative implications; it gave our lives meaning and value; it was the tide that would raise all boats. It was not the cement of the universe, but it was the tool that brought the fabric of space-time together.

By semester’s close, our disagreements had grown sharper. When it ended, it was clear I had lost my student. My failure–and the rest of the class’–to accept and internalize his arguments seemed to have turned him off philosophy altogether. I do not know what had so animated his passion for welding, but it was clear and distinct, an important motivational force in his psychological dispositions.

Last night, I saw that young man again. Marco Rubio is now a presidential candidate for the US, and his passion for welding has not diminished one bit. And neither has his disdain for philosophers.

The Cade Rebellion and the Republican Party

Jack Cade, the leader of the Cade Rebellion, is an entertaining Shakespearean character (Henry VI, Part 2), well equipped by the Bard with many memorable lines. So are his followers, one of whom utters the oft-quoted, ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’ As Stephen Greenblatt noted in Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (W. W. Norton, New York, 2004, pp. 167-171):

In a sequence of wild scenes [in King Henry VI, Part II], poised between grotesque comedy and nightmare, the young Shakespeare imagined–and invited his audience to imagine–what it would be like to have London controlled by a half-mad, belligerently illiterate rabble from the country….Shakespeare was fascinated by the crazed ranting of those who hate modernity, despise learning, and celebrate the virtue of ignorance.

These ‘wild scenes’ include the following, where the Baron Saye and Sele is brought before Cade:

MESSENGER: My lord, a prize, a prize! here’s the Lord Say, which sold the towns in France; he that made us pay one and twenty fifteens, and one shilling to the pound, the last subsidy.

CADE: Well, he shall be beheaded for it ten times. Ah, thou say, thou serge, nay, thou buckram lord! now art thou within point-blank of our jurisdiction regal. What canst thou answer to my majesty for giving up of Normandy unto Mounsieur Basimecu, the dauphin of France? Be it known unto thee by these presence, even the presence of Lord Mortimer, that I am the besom that must sweep the court clean of such filth as thou art. Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear. Thou hast appointed justices of peace, to call poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer. Moreover, thou hast put them in prison; and because they could not read, thou hast hanged them; when, indeed, only for that cause they have been most worthy to live. Thou dost ride in a foot-cloth, dost thou not?

SAY: What of that?

CADE: Marry, thou oughtest not to let thy horse wear a cloak, when honester men than thou go in their hose and doublets.

DICK: And work in their shirt too; as myself, for example, that am a butcher.

SAY: You men of Kent,–

DICK: What say you of Kent?

SAY: Nothing but this; ’tis ‘bona terra, mala gens.’

CADE: Away with him, away with him! he speaks Latin.

As Greenblatt notes, Cade is too,

[P]rotesting an actual feature of the law…if an accused felon could demonstrate that he was literate–usually by reading a verse from the Psalms–he could claim ‘benefit of clergy’; that is, for legal purposes, be classified by virtue of literacy as a clergyman and therefore be officially subject to the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts, which did not have the death penalty.

The Cade Rebellion’s modern counterpart–in one dimension–certainly seems to be the Republican Party: a ‘half-mad, belligerently illiterate rabble’ that ‘hate modernity, despise learning, and celebrate the virtue of ignorance.’ Pity they don’t have Cade’s wit or his principled critique of the law. All their imagining themselves as rebels and radicals won’t fix that.