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.

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.

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.

Rereading Native Son

I’ve begun re-reading a book (with the students in my philosophical issues in literature class this semester) which, as I noted here a while ago, made a dramatic impact on me on my first reading of it: Richard Wright‘s Native Son. Thus far, I’ve read and discussed Book One with my students (on Wednesday last week); we will resume discussions on April 8th once spring break is over. But even on this brief revisitation I’m struck by how my reading has changed. I’m now twenty-six years older than I was on my first reading. Then, I was thinking about returning to graduate school; now, I’m a tenured professor assigning the same text to my undergraduates. Then, I read Native Son in the anticipation of discussing it with my girlfriend, who had gifted it to me; I think I subconsciously hoped to impress an older and wiser woman with my sensitive and nuanced take on Bigger Thomas’ fate. Now, I read Book One (Fear) of Native Son in anticipation of discussing it with my students, many of whom have already shown themselves capable of sensitive and nuanced readings of the novels I have assigned them thus far; I therefore look forward to their understanding of this classic novel, daring to hope that they will bring a new interpretation and understanding of this material to my attention.  For my part, I’m far more attentive to many plot details and devices on this reading; I’ve become, I think, a more careful and sensitive reader over the years, looking for more, and often finding it, in the texts I read.

Before we began class discussions I subjected my students to a little autobiographical detail: I informed them of my prior reading, of the book’s influence on me, of the passage of time since then, how I would be re-reading the text with them, and so on. I did not detail the full extent of Native Son‘s impact on me; that discussion will have to wait till Bigger’s trial and his defense by Max. But I cannot wait to do so; I wonder if I will be able to capture the sense I had twenty-six years ago of suddenly seeing the world in a whole new light. One part of that anticipation also fills me with dread; what if my students simply do not ‘get’ from it what I was able to? What if, indeed, as I read on, I find myself disappointed by Native Son?

But if the first class discussion last week was any indicator, I needn’t entertain such fears. My students ‘came through’: they had read the first book closely; they had responded to Wright’s dramatic evocation of a fearful, angry, and violent Bigger, living in a ‘black world’ disjoint from a ‘white world,’ destined to run afoul of those forces that had conspired to make him who he was, to drive him to kill, negligently and willfully alike, onwards to his fatal rendezvous with America, his home and his graveyard. Bigger’s story endures; it does so because much else–like the forces that harried him–has too.

That Elusive Mark By Which To Distinguish Good People From Bad

In Journey to the End of the NightCéline‘s central character, Ferdinand Bardamu is confronted with uncontrovertible evidence of moral goodness in Sergeant Alcide–who is nobly working away in a remote colonial outpost to financially support a niece who is little more than a perfect stranger to him. That night, as Bardamu gazes at the sleeping Alcide, now once again, in inactivity, utterly unremarkable and undistinguishable from others who serve like him, he thinks to himself:

There ought to be some mark by which to distinguish good people from bad.

There isn’t, of course. But that hasn’t stopped mankind from continuing to hold on to this forlorn hope in the face of the stubborn difficulty of making moral judgements and evaluations about our fellow humans. Sometimes we seek to evaluate fellow humans on the basis of simple tests of conformance to a pre-established, clearly specified, moral code or decision procedure; sometimes we drop all pretence of sophisticated ethical analysis and take refuge in literal external marks.

These external marks and identifiers have varied through and across space and time and cultures. Sometimes shadings of skin pigmentations have been established as the distinguishing marker of goodness; sometimes it is the shape of the skull that has been taken to be the desired marker; sometimes national or ethnic origin; sometimes religious affiliation. (If that religious affiliation is visible by means of an external marker–like a turban for instance–then so much the better. West Pakistani troops conducting genocide in East Pakistan in 1971 were fond of asking Bengali civilians to drop their pants and expose their genitals;¹ the uncircumcised ones were led off to be shot; their bodies had revealed them to be of the wrong religion, and that was all that mattered as the West Pakistani Army sought to cleanse East Pakistan of those subversive elements that threatened the Pakistani polity.)

Confronted with this history of failure to find the distinguishing external mark of goodness, perhaps emblazoned on our foreheads by the cosmic branding authority, hope has turned elsewhere, inwards. Perhaps the distinguishing mark is not placed outside on our bodies but will be found inside us–in some innard or other. Perhaps there is ‘bad blood’ in some among us, or even worse, some might have ‘bad brains.’ Unsurprisingly, we have turned to neuroscience to help us with moral decisions: here is a brain state found in mass murderers and criminals; innocents do not seem to have it; our penal and moral decisions have received invaluable assistance. But as a growing litany of problems with neuroscientific inference suggest, these identifications of brain states and their correlations with particular behavior and the explanations that result rest on shaky foundations.

In the face of this determination to seek simple markers for moral judgement my ‘There isn’t, of course’ seems rather glib; it fails to acknowledge the endless frustration and difficulty of decision-making in the moral domain–and the temptation to seek refuge in the clearly visible.

Note: R. J Rummel, Death by Government, page 323

Gide’s Immoralist And The Existential Necessity Of The Colony

The immoralist at the heart of André Gide‘s The Immoralist, Michel, does not travel just anywhere; he travels to French colonies like Algeria and Tunisia; the boys who he meets, is attracted to, and falls in love with, are not just any boys; they are Muslim Arab boys. He is old; they are young. He is white; they are brown. He is sick and tubercular; they are young and exuberant, bursting to the seams with health and vitality. Their blood is redder, and flows more freely; Michel’s blood is black, and hideous, and disgusting. He is diseased, but as he spends time among his new companions, whose bodies and nakedness underneath their clothes he cannot take his eyes off of, his health improves and he begins to describe the arc of a journey to greater health and well-being, away from disease; he begins a journey from flirting with death to welcoming life in all its fullness. The language that Gide uses to describe Michel’s journey or passage is richly symbolic and metaphorical, and invites multiple interpretations, mingling as it does, these descriptions of the physical with those of the mental, so that we are tempted to see Michel’s journey from bad to good health as his journey from being ‘a lost soul’ to being ‘a found self’; that much is straightforward.

But why place this journey in colonized lands, why make the vehicles of Michel’s transformation and self-discovery be the colonized, the subjugated, the colonial subject? For one, we can see the colonizer use both the land and the peoples of the colony as his experiential space for self-discovery; it becomes one more of the services or functions that the colonized provides; besides markets, it provides an avenue and domain for self-construction; it becomes one more of the means by which the colonizer comes to realize himself. Because the colonized inhabits a world in which the colonizer has been, as it were, ‘marketed’, Michel finds in the colonies and in the gaze of the colonial subject, one component of his identity: how a Frenchman is understood by those he has colonized. If the colonial identity is an indissoluble part of what it meant to be a Frenchman in the twentieth century then Michel has done the right thing by traveling to a French colony; it is there that he will find out what a Frenchman truly is.

But this salvation need not be individual; all of French culture and Western civilization may be redeemed in the colonies; it is where a decadent, dying civilization looks to being revitalized; to literally being brought back to life. French and Western civilization has become old and tubercular, its blood is polluted. But the Muslim Arab world is younger, even if immature, it promises a new vision of life to a culture on its death-bed and drags it back from its flirtation with death.

The colony is a material and spiritual and existential necessity; it extends the life of the colonizer; the journey to a new form of life for the colonizer begins there.