Circus Maximus MMXVI: Hello darkness, my old friend

13 11 2016

So this is the end of the series—perhaps I should be using the Doors’s “This is the end” to mark the occasion.

The weekend after and I am still stunned. I still can’t listen to the news (WNYC & NPR), although I am reading plenty online. Reading is easier: as soon as I see something about THIS is the reason. . .  I know to move on. I laid out what I thought were the possible variables for Trump’s win and Clinton’s loss, accept that there might be still more; I don’t accept that anyone knows yet how to sort those variables.

I don’t. I have been knocked on my ass, and not have not managed to find my footing I don’t know much about the ground, either.

There were things I thought I knew. I thought I knew the extent of white supremacy in this country, thought most would, if faced with it, reject it. I didn’t think so many would just brush it aside, claim simultaneously that Trump was being both honest and that he didn’t really mean what he said, that the toxins he released weren’t that poisonous at all.

Maybe there’s something there, to be grasped: that those who embraced a racist didn’t want to be seen as racist. It is a slender reed.

So, what next? I don’t know.

What kind of president will he be? I don’t know.

Will he stick to his campaign promises? some of them? I don’t know.

Will he take the job seriously? I don’t know.

Will he turn over the day-to-day executive functions to his staff, to Pence? I don’t know.

Does he even want the job? I don’t know.

What kinds of judges will he appoint? I don’t know.

What kind of diplomacy will he conduct? I don’t know.

How will he react in crisis? I don’t know.

What will happen when he fails, as all presidents fail? I don’t know.

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. The best possible answers are bad; the worst, are more than I can now bear to imagine.

But if one is to prepare, to resist, then all possibilities, the worst possibilities, must be imagined.


Call me

2 03 2016

So I’m in the process of looking for a cheap smartphone, and I gotta say, it is not making me happy.

Not just because “cheap” is more expensive than cheap should be, but also because I don’t really know what I’m looking for in terms of specs and plans.

Well, okay, it does look like the Moto G 3rd gen is the multiply-recommended cheap phone (~$200), but it’s not compatible with Verizon, so I’d have to find a new carrier.

I don’t mind leaving Verizon (brand loyalty for suckers and all that, plus I’m paying too goddamned much for them), and it looks like T-Mobile will work, but I’m not at all clear how to switch to T-Mobile on a phone I’m not currently using.

(And if you’re about to say “SIM card!” I can only respond, Yeah, I get that, except that I don’t get that.)

Yes, I know, I can work this all out—I’ve worked shit out before—but this is how I get (pissy, frustrated, incoherently swear-y) when I don’t get something.

But once I get it, I’m fine.

Gotta keep bars on all our windows

27 07 2014

Israel is us or, shall I say, US, as told by Jon Snow:

I feel guilty in leaving, and for the first time in my reporting life, scarred, deeply scarred by what I have seen, some of it too terrible to put on the screen.

It is accentuated by suddenly being within sumptuously appointed Israel. Accentuated by the absolute absence of anything that indicates that this bloody war rages a few miles away. A war that the UN stated yesterday has reduced 55 per cent of  Gaza’s diminutive land to a no-go area.

Go tell that to the children playing in the dusty streets or the families forced out of  shelters like the UN school compound, to forage for food beneath shells and missiles.

In and out of an Israeli transit hotel for a few hours in Ashkelon, an hour from the steel crossing-point from Gaza, there were three half-hearted air raid warnings. Some people run, but most just get on with what they are doing.

They are relatively safe today because  Israel is the most heavily fortified country on earth. The brilliant Israeli-invented, American-financed shield is all but fool-proof; the border fortifications, the intelligence, beyond anything else anywhere.

This brilliant people is devoting itself to a permanent and ever-intensifying expenditure to secure a circumstance in which there will never be a deal with the Palestinians. That’s what it looks like, that is what you see. It may not be true.

The pressure not to go on this way is both internationally and domestically a minority pursuit.

He notes the security demands and commands from behind windows and walls, disembodied voices demonstrating control over voiceless bodies:

“Feet apart!” they said. “Turn! No, not that way – the other!” Then, in the next of five steel security rooms I passed through – each with a red or green light to tell me to stop or go – a male security guard up in the same complex above me shouted “Take your shirt off – right off. Now throw it on the floor… Pick it up, now ring it like it was wet” (it was wet, soaked in sweat).

From entering the steel complex until I reach the final steel clearing room where I held the baby, I was never spoken to face to face, nor did I see another human beyond those who barked the commands through the bullet-proof windows high above me.

Is this not how we in the US approach the rest of the world? We send drones over deserts and bombs into buildings and we sit in our sumptuously appointed country pointedly ignoring what we do and how we are.

I’m as free as a bird

1 06 2013

Is freedom possible for human being?

Sure—conditionally. And there’s the rub.

dmf asked in response to the last post whether one could “step out of one’s socialization”, to which I can only say. . . I dunno.

As to “how does this work”, well, you can become aware of your socialization (if only partially), and as a result of that awareness alter your relationship to the forces which have shaped you. Is this awareness “freedom”? It could be, or it could simply be a precursor to said freedom.

It would seem to me that such awareness is necessary to an understanding of freedom in which the individual is able to make meaningful choices about her own being. This doesn’t mean she would have to go against her socialization, but it would mean that she would have to have some sense of other ways of being such that the decision to remain on the path on which she was set can be understood as a free decision.

Such a decision wouldn’t be absolutely free—“absolute freedom” is a nonsense concept—but it could (not necessarily would) be as free as any decision about human freedom. And that the decision is free doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be terrible or tragic: a person could freely choose a life of sacrifice or pain. If she knows she is choosing a life defined by hardship, she may choose it freely, nonetheless.

And that is my objection to closed systems: they block out knowledge of other ways of being. In  countries and cultures in which freedom is prized less than other values, such shuttering of the mind might be necessary, even laudable. Advocates of such systems are themselves free to argue in favor of closure, and I might understand why they’re making such arguments: tradition, truth, obedience, survival, even love.

But if the case for their way of being requires ignorance of other ways of being, it’s tough to see how they have any case at all.

James Fallows shows you how to do this

26 10 2010

Do not piss off James Fallows: he will take off your head, split your torso, slice out your knees, and sever your Achilles heels.

In other words, the man knows how to burn.

Mr Fallows, as I hope you know, is a peripatetic journalist with a wide-ranging curiosity and a rigorous approach to public knowledge—by which I mean he expects that citizens (and more particularly, his readers) have the capacity, and therefore the responsibility, to educate themselves about the world.

Thus, woe unto you if you snipe at him with a faulty rifle.

Consider this response to readers who complained that Fallows, in pointing out that Al Gore was not a signatory of the open letter composed by Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and signed by 14 other laureates to the Chinese government requesting the release of 2010 Nobelist Liu Xiaobo, neglected to mention the 2009 winner, Barack Obama:

When I returned to my computer just now, after an hour away for lunch, I found several screens full of incoming emails all to the same effect. Here’s a sample:

“I don’t see the name of the 2009 Nobel peace prize winner either–namely Barak Obama.”And:

“The list seems to be missing someone else who might have an influence on the Chinese government, oh heay, where is our fearless leader’s John Hancock? Was President Obama too busy playing golf to bother? Didn’t Obama win one, too?”
I am sorely tempted to use the names of some of these senders, but… Many dozens of emails total, all with this same theme — the hypocrisy of Obama in not speaking up for his fellow laureate, and the hypocrisy of me for not pointing that out. Here is what’s interesting:

– Something must have happened to get a lot of people riled up about the same topic all at the same time. Was it mentioned on Fox? Did it get onto a right-wing site? I don’t know. I just see what’s in the inbox.

– Not one of these people could apparently be bothered to check and see that, within hours of the award, Obama had in fact urged the Chinese government to release Liu Xiaobo. The final words of the official White House “statement by the president” were, “We call on the Chinese government to release Mr. Liu as soon as possible.”

He then offers a copy of the headline ‘Barack Obama tells Chinese to release Liu Xiaobo, along with a photo and sub head.

It took me approximately two seconds on Google to find numerous references to Obama’s statement. For tips on how you can do this at home, see here. I’m not blaming anyone for wondering whether Obama had in fact issued a statement. I do blame people for not bothering to find out before issuing a blast.

The combination of ignorance, lack of curiosity, and certitude is a very difficult one to offset.*
*And lest this last sentence further inflame some people, I mean it very specifically: Ignorance = lack of knowledge, in this case about what Obama had done; lack of curiosity = not spending the two seconds it would take to check; certitude = “was he too busy playing golf?”

Ignorant incurious certitude: a modern curse.

** To spell out an issue that would take more than two seconds to look up: While the original letter was an appeal to China’s President Hu Jintao, it was officially addressed to all heads of state of the G-20 countries, plus the Secretary General of the UN and a few others. So Obama was one of the people on the “To:” part of the letter. That would have made it odd for him to sign it — apart from the more basic fact that serving heads of state do not sign open letters.  The real point is: why didn’t he speak up for Liu Xiaobo’s release? He did — right away. (links included; bold added)

Evidence in the face of ignorance, delivered with heat—that’s how you do it.

Incompetence as credential

28 09 2010

You’ve heard the old line: Even the mediocre deserve representation.

A version of this was offered by Senator Roman Hruska of Nebraska, in defense of Richard Nixon’s nomination of Judge G. Harrold Carswell to fill a vacancy on the US Supreme Court, and a man many considered manifestly unqualified:

Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.

Ha ha, right?

Okay, but how about this: Christine O’Donnell, Senate candidate in Delaware, argues that her financial difficulties (being sued 5 times by her college for not paying bills, threatened foreclosure on her home, a declared income in March 2009-July2010 of under 6 grand) not only do not disqualify her from office, but that “I think the fact that I have struggled financially is what makes me so sympathetic.”

Or consider Michael Caputo, campaign manager for New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, who had a lien placed against his assets by the IRS: “Most people I know have had problems paying their taxes,” he said. “I am just like everybody else.”

And then, of course, there is the half-guv, who winked her way into political celebrity and decided that the problem with not knowing answers to basic questions was with the questions, not the not-knowing.

My expectations for political actors isn’t high, and no, I don’t think past problems ought automatically to disqualify someone from political participation. That Sarah Palin mucked about a couple of different colleges before she settled on one which worked for her, well, hell, so what: she was a college student, fer cryin’ out loud.

And financial and job difficulties, yeah, a lot of people have gone through them, and that doesn’t mean they ought to be banished from public life.

The problem isn’t with the difficulties, the problem is that these difficulties are brandished as a badge of honor: Whoo-hoo! I fucked up! Vote for me!

Hey, guess what, I’ve fucked up, too! Does that mean I should be a senator or vice president? Whoo-hoo!

Yes, I am in my bones a democrat (and civic republican—but that’s another post), but to state that the people ought to be involved in their governance is not to say that a people proud of their pig ignorance will govern well.

And no, you don’t need an Ivy League education (Go Big Ten!) or a Ph.D. in political science or even a college degree to govern well. But you need to pay some goddamned attention, and to do the goddamned work necessary to make yourself able to govern.

Mother Jones is instructive here: Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflict.

That’s just smart—and that, of course, is the problem.

h/t: Robert S McElvaine, HuffPo; Ginger Gibson (story pasted to anti-O’Donnell site); Michael Barbero, NY Times;

Don’t get your back up over this

1 06 2009

I don’t lose arguments.

Arrogant? Maybe. But also true.

I have lost arguments, many, many, arguments. But not anymore.

Why not? I’m not a genius, and I don’t know everything, so it’s not as if I couldn’t lose an argument. And I still get pissed off and lose my mind—which is not so good from the never-lose-argument perspective.

And I still drink.

Nonetheless, there are a number of very good reasons why I no longer lose arguments:

One—and this is the most important reason—I don’t engage in arguments I know I’ll lose.

It is so, so easy to avoid losing arguments if you keep yer yap shut when you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I don’t argue about baseball statistics, the appropriate strike formation for an attack on North Korea, or the best way to skin a rabbit. I don’t argue about the advantages of a V- versus inline-cylinder engine, the success rates of arthroscopic surgery, or what makes a souffle rise or fall.

In other words, I don’t argue about most things, because I don’t know most things.

Two, I always admit when I don’t know something. This is not only the honorable thing to do, but it’s also useful: I don’t hang an entire argument on a questionable piece of information.

So, for example, I might suggest that the reasons that women get abortions early in their pregancies are distinct from the reasons of women who procure later-term abortions. I don’t know this for sure, i.e., I haven’t conducted a survey or read through all the data on abortions, but I’ve done enough reading to render this a plausible argument.

But that’s as far as I’ll go. I won’t say This is a fact or Everybody knows when I don’t know if it’s a fact and it’s not something that everybody would know.

(And I never say Everybody knows. Good lord, talk about an easy way to lose an argument: All one’s interlocutor has to say is I don’t know that and game over.)

Three, I’m ruthless. I’ll nail the other person for trying surreptitiously to change the terms of the argument, using a phrase carelessly, or trying to back away from a statement which has since become problematic.

Four, I don’t cheat. This is the flip side to number three: I don’t put myself in a position where the other person can call me out.

Five, I don’t argue when I’m drunk. Anymore.

Six, I don’t argue when I’m really angry. Anymore.

You’ll note, then, that my overall posture is defensive. I don’t overextend myself and always seek the firm ground, and a large part of my strategy is simply waiting for or baiting the other person (in)to making a mistake.

This strategy, of course, does not necessarilly lead to winning. I do sometimes win arguments, especially when I have a command of the facts that the other person does not or I simply frustrate the other person into a blunder, but more often I simply don’t lose. Draw.

I learned the beauty of the draw in grad school, after losing many many arguments to my friend D. D. was smarter than me, more worldly, already had a master’s upon entering the Ph.D. program, and one of the most competitive people I’d ever met. We’d start a conversation, which would turn into an argument, which would turn into a wipeout.

Then, at some point, I got smarter. I paid attention to how D. argued, how he’d slice away the portions of an argument which were inconvenient to his point of view, change the terms of the debate, or assert matters of fact which were, in fact, contestable.

I say this in admiration. He was smart and competitive and knew that the rules only mattered if you got caught. And I started to catch him, and once I did, I stopped losing to him. I don’t think I ever won an argument, but I could draw him out until we would admit to a mutual, exhausted, halt.

THAT was victory.

This history helps to explain why I love to argue with people who are smarter than me: It makes me sharper and forces me to call on every last scrap of knowledge in order to keep up.

Similarly, the desire to stay sharp goes a long way toward explaining why I keep up with the arguments of whatever ‘other’ side there is to an issue I care about. If they have a good argument I want to know it, so I can learn how to counter it.

(No, it’s not all tactical. I also keep up with ‘other’ sides because ‘my’ side has its own blind spots, and if I truly want to know something, I have to be able to see what I can’t see.)

To state that I don’t lose arguments isn’t to say that I’m never wrong. I’m often wrong—I don’t know most things, after all—and, given that I don’t know most things, am far too free with my words. But these are fragments, shootin’-the-shit briefs with coworkers or friends meant to be toss-offs. Assertions, after all, are not arguments.

Finally, I should reiterate that I don’t, in fact, engage in many arguments. I argue with Jtt. because she’s always ready for a throw-down, and always willing to put her authoritarian views on the line. (Also, every conversation with Jtt. can seem like an argument, even when it’s not. It’s how she is.)

But it’s rare that an opportunity for a truly interesting argument presents itself, one in which all present are sober (enough) and engaged (enough) and informed (enough) to really go tits-out  into battle.

And that’s cool. Once I no longer worried about losing arguments, it was no longer so important to turn every discussion into an argument. Now I can have good, heated, involved, conversations with friends, conversations in which our passions lead us to question and into uncertainty and, perhaps, into discovery.

I like to compete, and to know that I can compete. I also like that there’s more to conversation than competition.