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Bearing Arms and Bearing Harms

December 18, 2012

It’s been a bit of a lame-duck session around here, hasn’t it? Reacting has its limits, and I find myself increasingly disinterested in attempting to explain things to people who will never change their minds. Of course, I don’t think anyone reading this blog is unwilling to be persuaded, but I don’t think I’m alone in having had some argument fatigue after the national survey of just how crazy/apathetic/stubborn/shielded/devout some people are. But then you see things like elementary school shootings, you really see how crazy some people are, and all you want to do is fight with people who disagree with you.

I’m not going to recapitulate any of the heartbreaking stories because they are, and that’s not my job. Nor am I going to reprint the name of the killer. The mainstream media seems to have those bases pretty well covered without my two cents.

However, I will say that I am supportive of the “have-the-public-policy-debate now”/”If-not-now-when” approach, largely because national public conversations and debates rarely happen on any particular issue. Usually, national issues are debated by the smallest and narrowest interests with the most incentives to lobby vociferously, and it’s often a question of which interest has the most at stake, and are therefore willing to pony up the bucks to “convince” the congress (and sometimes, even their constituents, if that approach behooves them). Of course, that is just democracy at work. One cannot simply complain that the NRA spends too much money on lobbyists or political donations; it’s the threat of mobilizing their frothing-at-the-mouth member base that gives the NRA power in Washington. But all that makes the prospect of having a national conversation–one that involves a broader spectrum of people who are potentially affected by an issue, and not just those with the strongest biases–more likely to produce a socially desirable (or at least desired) result.

The downside of a public debate, of course, is the fact that unsophisticated voters generally commit a range of pervasive errors that are only multiplied when sabers are rattled. After all, the debate can only center on whether or not to change the law, not whether or not to change reality, although both sides will believe that they are doing the latter. And as a result, both sides will feel cheated when the world doesn’t return the results they believe should follow a victory.

In the words of the great Megan McArdle, this is where the conflicted zeitgeist is at:

Since we can’t understand it, we can’t change it. And since we can’t change it, our best hope is to box it in. Gun control opponents are angry that liberals immediately started talking about gun control, but this seems like a natural instinct to me. It’s not the best way to get good policy, mind you; hard cases make bad laws, and rules passed in the wake of tragedies tend to be over-specific, and under-careful about unintended consequences. But it’s not somehow indelicate to want to talk about this now; if thirty children had been killed in a landslide, I hope that we’d be talking about whether there might be some way to keep that from happening in the future.

So, if you are engaged in a debate about public policy (though that may apply to precious few of you outside the beltway), keep a few duly skeptical principles in mind, but don’t let them stop you from doing something:

  • The Newtown shooting was perpetrated with weapons that were purchased legally.
  • A similar shooting could have been perpetrated by someone who obtained some lower-grade weapons legally, although the scale might be slightly smaller depending on the determination of the perpetrator.
  • The Newtown shooter had been flagged as someone who might have some mental problems, and he had access to mental health care resources.
  • Machine guns have been illegal in the United States since 1934, and since the 1980s, it has been illegal to manufacture and sell any automatic weapon.
  • It is illegal for the mentally ill to buy or have guns, and that’s what background checks are aimed at preventing.
  • Guns do not create homicidal intent.
  • Guns do make people with homicidal intent more lethal.
  • Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people (including 19 children) with fertilizer, racing fuel, and trucks, and no guns.
  • No policy will be implemented perfectly.
  • Not even the most stringent governmental controls or bans will eliminate cheaters.
  • Black markets increase both the costs and the rewards for those willing to cheat.
  • The premise that more guns equal more safety does not apply to those who are irrational actors.
  • Everyone plays video games, not just killers. The same correlation argument about culture consumption could be used to implicate the Beatles.
  • Not even universal health care will eliminate mental illness.
  • Children can always be raised poorly.
  • Systems will always allow failure at the margins.
  • Complicated phenomena have more than one input.
  • American culture cannot be changed by fiat.
  • American culture is not the same culture as any of the other exemplar countries that might be brought into the discussion.
  • Neither America nor any other country should be referred to in unitary terms, as though one caricature of its population could be used to refer to the entirety of the country.
  • No legislation will operate in a vacuum.
  • Unintended consequences are just that.

College Liberal

The big pitfall is that inserting these valid points into a serious conversation about “what to do” is likely to make one appear callous, as though they are merely ironic deflections of earnest positions rather than a serious and engaged response to whatever proposal is advanced. For the record, I personally prefer some kind of gun control, but just think our expectations should be duly tempered. One core assumption of the structure of our deliberative democracy is that the process is supposed to temper extremism and unpalatable utopianism into something more consensus-driven, functional and pragmatic.

After all, are we really going to delude ourselves into believing that we can convince enough people to come to a consensus about a new gun control law? (I mean, if the NRA goes and does something totally emo like deleting their Facebook page and giving Twitter the silent treatment, do we really think they’ll come to the table like civic-minded Americans?) Whether our democracy is even capable of a deliberative and delicate policy discussion in this age remains to be seen. But maybe the fear of victimized children is the key rationale to ramming through policy, as it has been when it comes to regulation of speech and the Internet generally.

So these questions remain: will the passionate, factious temper that works up enough of a lather to generate any new legislation allow for dispassionate assessment of the actual possibilities? Or are we going to end up just shooting from the hip?


Keep Your Chin Down

November 18, 2012

By way of an apology for the dearth of posts during November, I should let you know that I have been focusing my writing efforts on a bit more concrete writing for some longer-form work. Like many (if not most) authors who set out to write a book for the first time, I have encountered various frustrations and self-doubts about whether the endeavor is worthwhile at all, and like those writers, I wonder whether the writing life is for me. I certainly have this blog if I need my intellectual calisthenics, so why bother with something that would occupy a monumental portion of my life, quite possibly never get published, and then languish in obscurity if it is even published at all? Don’t I have other, more worthwhile pursuits? Aren’t there thousands of others individuals out there seeking to make their mark on the world through their storytelling who are unburdened by another career?

These kinds of frustrations inevitably lead to questions about how anyone ever succeeds in a field as flat (to use Tom Friedman’s sense of the word) as writing. Storytelling is one of mankind’s oldest professions (maybe the oldest; sorry politicians and prostitutes), so why should I hope that this could be anything more than just a hobby? But then I wonder if this self-defeating attitude is precisely what’s holding me back from really making progress and seeing my goals accomplished (it’s a vicious cycle), and I observe the canned wisdom about quantity being more important than quality for an early writer, the power of positive thinking, The Secret©, vision boards, etc.

But as it turns out, the kind of positive visualization and thinking that gets people to get to the end zone may not actually produce the best results. Oliver Burkeman describes new evidence that shows that too much positivity can encourage sloppiness, promote irrational exuberance, induce ethical corner-cutting, and train people to be too worried about failure to cope with it when it comes. A little negativity, in fact, may go a long way toward leavening your life with a stronger desire to live in the present and an appreciation for how good things really are.

Ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, optimism with pessimism, a striving for success and security with an openness to failure and uncertainty. The Stoics recommended “the premeditation of evils,” or deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario. This tends to reduce anxiety about the future: when you soberly picture how badly things could go in reality, you usually conclude that you could cope. Besides, they noted, imagining that you might lose the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy increases your gratitude for having them now. Positive thinking, by contrast, always leans into the future, ignoring present pleasures.

Burkeman also cites various examples of tunnel vision (oriented on a goal) leading to various undesirable results, including a famously disastrous Mt. Everest expedition chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. The problem with positive thinking is that the human mind is constantly and naturally evaluating its choices and options; when one deprives the mind of realistic alternatives, the mental calculus gets screwy. And when one’s choices become identified with one’s personhood (which they so often do), these problems take on existential significances. Hence Existentialism as a school of philosophical thought, which says that any preconceived goals, values or limitations imposed externally are invalid.

I may be attracted to philosophy because I almost always feel as though I am in a state of existential transition. When one is prone to question whether one’s life is being properly led, one inevitably has to question whether one’s goals are worthwhile, whether the values one lives by are moral, and whether the habits and practices one has come to adopt are consistent with one’s actual intention. Philosophy is thus the bedrock for a contemplative person wondering if his or her choices have been correct, or whether it is time to begin writing a new chapter in the book of their own life. Like the negative thinking that forces sober self-reflection, considering what leading a good and virtuous life should mean can ensure that you haven’t rationalized your way into a blithe trap set by inertia.

The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement. And we say that serious things are better than laughable things and those connected with amusement, and that the activity of the better of any two things-whether it be two elements of our being or two men-is the more serious; but the activity of the better is ipso facto superior and more of the nature of happiness.

Aristotle, Nichomachaen Ethics.

Well Aristotle, if you say so. I’m going to get back to writing, even if I’m not writing a bestseller. At least I’m doing something that requires some exertion, something challenging. At least I can say it wasn’t easy.

Cloudy Atlas: Reflections on Refractions

November 8, 2012

Cloud Atlas is a novel with few intellectual surprises but plenty of well-crafted pleasures, even if some bordered on the didactically self-aware. (the novel and not the movie, which contains so many divergent choices that I would almost consider it non-canon, like David Mitchell.) The overall thesis I hope to elaborate is top-notch, and even though the prose isn’t always the most clever, the lessons that a reader is left with are eminently worthwhile and artfully constructed. (Here comes the first spoiler of many, extensive spoilers.) The reader is given a whiff of the expert construction just by looking at the table of contents and see the palindromic (or pyramidical if you prefer) layout of the book’s narrators and chapters.

Mitchell employs a handful of needlessly titular references, thankfully they are rarely so pedestrian and clumsy as to seem winking, even if occasionally distracting and shoehorned. Similarly, each character finds the halves of the narrative preceding/subsequent to them as actual artifacts in their narrative portions, and hence the thread that ties the book’s “matryoshka dolls of painted moments” (393) structure together. Of course, each character’s obedient fascination and praise of the other narrative segments as utterly enchanting and enlightening (even the more boring parts), falls flat, but they are forgivable offenses for a bold author.

More subtly (though barely), the metaphor of a “cloud atlas” apparently refers to the desire of Mitchell and his sextet of protagonists to define an ever-changing landscape according to lofty ideals. Seems like you could almost infer that from the title in retrospect, but that doesn’t make the metaphor any less powerful. Each of the sextet refers to a particular value (that would all converge on a mushy concept of “goodness” if Mitchell hadn’t made his characters somewhat unlikable or unrelatable for the most part) set against various worlds defined by the will to power and realpolitik in its various (often explicit) forms.

First, the reader is introduced to the dullest of the sextet, Adam Ewing, a devout American notary on a journey to administer someone’s estate halfway across the globe from his home of San Francisco. It’s a thin allegory for the pilgrimmage typical of a devout character such as Ewing, who is always upturning his nose at his shipmates’ uncouthness, profaneness, and their acceptance that power defines and justifies the world, including any teleological questions. Ewing thus stands for religious fortitude, integrity, and inspiration taken from faith. And let’s not forget his biblical name is perfectly appropriate for the first character the audience meets or that Ewing’s “parasite” (ironically Goose and not the Worm) preys on Ewing’s faith because such faith is susceptible to such power-driven parasites. That parasite does not end with any kind of “justice,” as might be expected, but such an ending is perfectly consistent with a person of faith’s conviction that justice is not for man to mete out or determine (the audience should note that the same futility of human perspective can be said for Ewing’s interaction with Rafael). From Ewing’s perspective, all a human can do is act virtuously.

Ewing, at the book’s end, gives a somewhat rousing plea for individuals to spread their own gospel, and not merely succumb to a society that will eat its own tail if it allows itself to operate on the maxim that might makes right. Or, as Mitchell puts it in the mouth of one particularly cynical character (in Ewing’s assessment anyway), “The weak are meat the strong do eat.” (489) Those who have read/seen Cloud Atlas note the allusion to the Soylent Green-esque section “The Orison of Sonmi-451” (and perhaps agree that there is much ham-handed metaphor, but maybe that’s a good thing for actually reaching an audience). Mitchell, of course, provides an “apocalyptic” vision of what such a society does in the middle chapters, but it’s important to note that each protagonist is up against larger forces than mere individuals, even though the solution proferred by Mitchell is one of individual enlightenment (or to use another Mitchell term, “ascension”).

Mitchell’s next character, is Robert Frobisher, a Modern playboy composer and aesthete, meant to symbolize the values and ideals of the Romance period. You know the stuff: high art, dramatic gestures, secret affairs, etc., all wrapped up in the trappings of entitlement and luxury. Frobisher is a lout in terms of his morals: he skips out on his bills, lies constantly, devises ways to spite his family, and steals from his patrons (in more ways than one), all the while dealing with the question of greatness and artistic creation. Frobisher’s attempts to create on his own while acting as the amaneunesis for a more established, though physically disabled, composer is the battleground of the competing wills. Ayrs, Frobisher’s employer and patron, believes that Frobisher’s efforts belong to him as the commissioner of Frobisher’s works for hire. Petulant Frobisher believes in overblown ideals of merit and credit winning out, ruefully fighting tooth and nail whenever Ayrs attempts to claim any kind of ownership over the work Frobisher believes is his own, regardless of the fact that he is being paid by Ayrs for precisely this purpose (generously too, though it is difficult to discern from the deliberately self-serving account Mitchell writes for Frobisher).

Even though Ayrs is one of the more sympathetic antagonists in the whole novel, he is nonetheless the established power that seeks to maintain its dominion, including by conquest.  In this chapter, that conquest is performed by the intrigue orchestrated (no pun intended) by a much more capable-than-expected Ayrs. Frobisher, by contrast, is stuck in the Romance period, and his victory is pyrrhic, at best. Frobisher completes his Cloud Atlas Sextet (described by other characters as brilliant and genius–I know, groan), but never learns his lesson that he needed plenty of material assistance to do so. Patronage, it seems, has some value, but Mitchell clearly puts a thumb on the scale in favor of the artist to balk at commands that are inconsistent with artistic integrity and vision. Wonder why an author would do such a thing for his most artistic character. The will to power, in such a case, could extinguish greatness and art before it has the chance, in Frobisher’s words, to become a “firework.”

In a passage that lays much of Mitchell’s political theses bare, Frobisher is told that “The will to power [is] the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence is the instrument of this dreadful will. You can see the will to power in bedrooms, kitchens, factories, unions, and the borders of states. . . . The nation-state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions.” (444) However, that thesis applies with greater force to the next matryoshka doll: Luisa Rey.

Luisa Rey is a protagonist that stands for truth, mostly in the journalistic sense, but also in terms of the scientific. As a reporter, she stumbles onto a story of epic proportions, with millions of lives potentially risked by her shedding light on corporate malfeasance (nuclear malfeasance at that). Mitchell paints the Seaboard Corporation as perpetually helmed by nihilistic, evil executives willing to do anything to ensure that Seaboard opens its flawed nuclear facilities. Each executive who assumes power by knocking off his predecessor is united in trying to cover-up a report painting the dangers the nuclear fallout. Potential liability in the form of lawsuits down the road doesn’t dissuade Seaboard, oh no, because operatives within are secretly trying to discredit nuclear power, not actually set up a nuclear power plant. They’ll stop at nothing, including employing sociopathic contract killers and buying out any publication that gets too close to the truth. Oh, and for no reason other than that because Luisa Rey has found Frobisher’s letters, she wants to find and listen to the Cloud Atlas Sextet (groan).

The large sums of money apparently hanging in the balance of this story are enough to induce loyalty- and ethics-betraying actions by almost a dozen characters, all except Napier, a secondary protagonist who stands for loyalty as he proves impervious to being easily bought off. The crosses and double-crosses, mostly in service of suppressing an expensive truth, are evidence of Mitchell’s thesis that the will to power and organized capital can corrupt the pursuit of truth (which truth would potentially save millions of lives), whether in terms of journalism or scientific research. Here, Mitchell is retreading a common and somewhat trite narrative, so it’s no wonder that he puts the story in the words of the novice novelist Hilary V. Hush, who clearly needs the editing services of Timothy Cavendish, the next nested character.

Like Frobisher and Hush before him, Cavendish is another example of a misunderstood artist/creative with bills to pay and organized society failing to protect him. As a result, Cavendish’s fight against established power is a fight against market forces, mobsters, his wealthy brother, and the institutions for the institutionalized. Cavendish is like a foppish version of one of Kafka’s character; the whole world always seems set against him for no reason (but one sometimes gets the impression that maybe Cavendish brought his misadventures upon himself). Unlike Kafka’s protagonists, however, Cavendish’s cantankerousness is quite charming and relatable. In a sense, Cavendish is the protagonist that most embodies a sense of entitlement to justice where civil society and the rule of law fail him, but perhaps that’s simply because his character is infused with indignant incredulity that the world is not automatically predisposed to have everything go his way. His disillusionment with civil society is that of someone who is lamenting their own recent nostalgia, perhaps of a time that never really existed except in a hyperbolic sense, especially given how obviously rude Cavendish acts towards others.

First, Cavendish’s low place in the market makes him desperate enough to publish the schlocky work of a gangster and ruffian, purportedly not realizing negative attention/”infamous” marketing strategy until the gangster thrusts publicity onto himself. Then, Cavendish is coerced into running away from London by the mobsters who want in on the income from the alpha hooligan’s novel because, on some level, the law has little power to stop those willing to commit violence (as the reader has just seen/will see with Luisa Rey). Thanks to machinations by his brother Denholme, Cavendish ends up absolutely stuck in a nursing home evocative of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when attempting to merely lay low, especially given that Nurse Noakes/Ratchet has it out for him as a result of his unruliness and unwillingness to accept his fate. Cavendish’s appeals to the law and to the outside world are fruitless, nor does playing within the system do him any good.

However, it’s clear that Cavendish would have been doomed to languish in Aurora House if he didn’t take charge of his own life with the notable assistance of his fellow compatriots. They devise a plan to escape that operates outside of the harsh law of the authorities at Aurora House (and the U.K. if you count the grand theft auto involved), and obtain their own justice. The theme is clear: Cavendish et al. escaped and created their own fate by asserting their own will instead of becoming “Zombies” like the other old folks that have embraced the lifestyle of Aurora House. Similarly, his peace with the Hogginses is created by reversing the blackmail, and his publishing career turns around by writing his own book cum movie.

Cavendish’s movie is the link to Sonmi-451, a “fabricant” in a dystopian futuristic Korean “corpocracy.” Even though numbering Sonmi with such a transparently referential number as 451 (duh), these chapters have many of the most delightful language choices, including using proper nouns as though they have become pronouns in that society (e.g., “disney” = film, “sony” = cell phone [or tablet or something], “consumers” = citizens, “Unanimity” = the government, “Union” = the resistance/rebellion, etc.). Far from being simply cutesy, this choice serves the overarching narrative of corporations supposedly having taken over much of Asia (and perhaps most of the civilized world–the information gap in this world makes it hard to tell), even though it’s pretty plainly just a totalitarian society with consent manufactured by the civilians’ commodity fetishes and benign complicity in a system rife with abuse of the underclasses. Sonmi goes on to become the ideological face of a rebellion, thrust through a gauntlet of the worst horrors and abuses her society has to offer so that she can reach the ideological breaking point that the resistance hopes she can inspire in her fellow fabricant-slaves.

It is quite clear that this portion of the novel is a critique of capitalism, a more or less full-blown Marxist extrapolation of the outer limits of the consolidation of power and the antipathy of comfortable consumerism. Mitchell seems to say that this kind of runaway capitalism is society’s version of the will to power par excellence, or at least a pliable vehicle for the exercise of that will to power. However, there are other abuses and ignominies contained in this futuristic society than are strictly necessary to discuss the pitfalls of capitalism (e.g., the Soylent Green thing), and so some of the societal ills faced by Sonmi’s society are strawmen. It seems an open question what meaning to attribute to the use of strawmen, however, it seems that this choice was simply a form of necessary subtlety, driven by the need to avoid conversation openly hostile to the status quo we live in. In a way, there is even more art in needing to tread lightly with society’s inertial preferences to retain power, no matter how attained (see also the United States’ taste for slavery), and its belief in the unassailability of capitalism (given the historical “evidence” society has interpreted). In this way, even Mitchell needs to write in a code that our ideologically totalitarian society can tolerate. Otherwise, even a genuine concern with the state of one’s society can be disregarded out of hand as samizdat dissent.

The final, innermost matryoshka doll Zachry lives in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, spinning his yarn for any and all who would listen. Zachry’s narrative is a clear expression of society’s eternal recurrence (a theme–literally–mentioned in Frobisher’s section as well), in that society returns to a medieval version of its former self. The Kona are a cannibalistic, violent, enslaving, war-hungry tribe representing a raw and unenlightened will to power, preying on Zachry’s agrarian, goat-herding tribe. Zachry’s tribe is visited by Prescients who still have the remnants of technology from the hyper-advanced pre-apocalyptic society, which make the population believe they are gods, amongst other medieval beliefs. The bottom line seems to be that a modicum of technology, brought to Zachry’s society by the Prescients, is necessary to secure the blessings of liberty and freedom from those who would forcibly take it. One needs power to protect one’s freedom, especially if the prevailing wisdom of all human time appears to be “The weak are meat, and the strong will eat.”

Of course, stories of individual freedom and spirit vs. coercion and establishmentarian power are hardly original. The same is especially true of Marxist critiques based on a dialectical approach using history to critique the rose-colored lenses of conventional wisdom through which society reads that history. But, in one of my favorite moments in the book, Mitchell preempts the question of originality in one of Cavendish’s parenthetical asides. The charge of “‘But it’s been done a hundred times before!'” is answered–quite expertly, to the thanks of aspiring writers everywhere–with “as if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void-Webber! As if Art is the What, not the How!” (357)

For the longest time, I didn’t quite understand how to explain why each character is so enchanted by the other characters’ stories. Then I realized that it is not the objective qualities of the works (which, in isolation, are pretty paltry), but rather the obvious parallels between each character’s life and the narrative they read. Each character sees themselves and their world reflected in an earlier time, and relates to the struggles faced by their predecessor. And though most characters admit that the relationship is ineffable, they see in the previous character the subjective and ephemeral cloud atlas that might provide an analog–or at least a point of reference–for their own lives, times and struggles. They’re not perfect parallels, but they don’t have to be. It would be rather easier and less artful if Mitchell had made these parallels more exact. The protagonists, like the audience that is also reading these works, refine and define their own values in attempting to discern shapes in those ambiguous clouds.

Monday Punday Funday

October 18, 2012 is possibly my new favorite thing ever. You’ll probably hate it.


Get the idea?

I’ll probably end up trying to figure them all out when I’m not at work with a rapidly diminishing lunch break.

Maybe this post should be a thread for any head-scratchers? Leave links to the tough ones in the comments and we can crowd-source the answers! More fun that I may be having by myself!

Freedom of Screech

October 11, 2012

[Azhar Ahmed, a 20 year-old] man who posted a Facebook message following the deaths of six British soldiers which said: “All soldiers should die and go to hell” has been sentenced to [240 hours of community service] and costs of £300 by magistrates.

Anyone who has read anything on this site probably already knows how I feel about this.

Sentencing him on Tuesday, the district judge Jane Goodwin told him he was “particularly foolish” and the damage caused by his comments, which could be seen by at least 600 Facebook users, had been substantial.

“You posted the message in response to tributes and messages of sympathy,” she said. “You knew at the time that this was an emotive and sensitive issue.” She said with freedom of speech comes responsibility and on 8 March “you failed to live up to that responsibility”.

And this sentence comes just 24 hours after a 19 year-old was given three months in jail for posting jokes online about a missing schoolgirl (on a website warningly entitled Sickipedia, no less). The United Kingdom has decided to start down the slippery slope of “sending a grossly offensive communication.” While the sensitivity argument may have some emotional/fairness appeal, and even some legal precedent, I simply cannot condone the thoroughly British interpretation of freedom of speech that criminalizes even “grossly offensive” speech. As though Orwell didn’t have enough reason to spin in his grave.

Azhar Ahmed’s posts were churlish, to be sure, but were they worthy of criminal punishment by the state and the possibility of jail time? Who does a Facebook post hurt? Where is the real-world consequence? Even if some sensitive widow read that and cried, should society be in the business of penalizing people for being mean? Should there even be a crime of “sending a grossly offensive communication” by today’s standards of “offense”?

The U.S. may have some laws on the books that involve punishment of speech, but they’re certainly not enforced regularly (they’re mostly of the espionage variety or are dusty and on the books solely due to lack of repeal). The much more frequent mechanism for restraining speech is by tort law (usually defined as a private action for redressing a wrong that causes some harm), and in this situation it would be the intentional infliction of emotional distress. In terms of the development of the common law, intentional infliction of emotional distress wasn’t even a recognized tort until 1897, on the grounds that there could be no assault without physical contact. And even then it came out of the acknowledgment that even fright could have real physical results, including miscarriage and shock (in the medical sense). Simply put, the infliction of emotional distress was recognized as a tort in situations where there was actually some clear manifestation of an injury.

America diverges from the common law interpretation by operation of the First Amendment (which of course was enacted long before intentional infliction of emotional distress was recognized as a tort). We have a clear exception to this tort when political speech is at stake, as famously exemplified in the Hustler v. Falwell case. Politics is simply that important to our national genetics.

America treats speech with deference because liberal society recognizes that speech has to be unrestrained for freedom in general to exist. When the state has the power to punish ideas it deems “beyond the pale” as defined by the state, then the established power has a monopoly on power that is supposed to rest with the people (at least in America). In the modern context, we have clear evidence that this premise is fundamental, and that speech should be as frictionless as possible in order to reap the benefits of a free marketplace of ideas.

The strength of a society’s liberties is measured by how well a society protects those it detests and must tolerate, not only those whom are supported and celebrated. That kind of legal system gives a veto to those who simply don’t like an unpopular idea (and Ahmed provides the case in point), regardless of whether there is any actual consequence of his speech other than the upturning of a few noses.

I’m not sure whether Ahmed’s posts would have been protected as political speech in the United States, given the vague nature of some of his comments (even though others are a cogent-enough critique of one-sided perceptions of victimhood). I’d like to believe that he would have had some protection for even his unpopular viewpoints. But when the troops and “national security” are in the mix, as I’ve said before, the constitutional calculus gets very messy.

Beyond Good and Vile

September 28, 2012

A recent WTF with Marc Maron podcast–slightly out of the normal sweet spot of Maron’s excellent interviews with comedians and entertainers–made me think of Nietzsche’s famous maxim:”if you gaze into the void, the void gazes back at you.” The quotation is frequently discussed in the context of Nietzsche’s anticipation of the development of nihilism and in connection with an even more quotable proclamation (i.e., “Nietzsche: God is dead! [God: Nietzsche is dead]”). Scholars often interpret this line of Nietzsche’s thought as concerned with the consequences of people realizing that God is dead, which means that there is no law, that there are no values positive or negative, that everything is permitted.

There is a bit of deliberate irony in the fact that Nietzsche warns about the dangers of gazing into the void while simultaneously doing so himself. As he builds his case about how a free spirit can free him/herself from the chains of contextually and historically derived perspectives and morals, Nietzsche presages the worry that radical freedom can also lead to radical relativism, which is a concern that sounds somewhat out-of-character for a self-proclaimed idol-smasher.

Predictably, my paraphrase is not quite the correct quotation; the real text provides somewhat more illumination:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

(Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146, Kauffman, interp.). And I’m not sure whether or not we should look at the line in the context of the aphorism, sandwiched as it is between two of Nietzsche’s relatively more misogynistic (if metaphorical) aphorisms how women’s genius is dependent on their role as secondary to men. But anyway, we’ll have to take Nietzsche for what he was.

The notion of the abyss–aside from simply connoting a lack of preordained ontological meaning and purpose (or telos)–is also a metaphor concerning human values, especially when read in the context of the actual aphorism. Nietzsche is talking about fighting monsters and and turning into them, so of course the abyss also refers to the need to embrace the full range of the human moral experience in order to be capable of surpassing or overtaking the trap presented by the abyss. In order to get from the free spirit to the philosopher of the future, one must be able to traverse the abyss. One must be able to reject old values, by realizing they come from no more authoritative a source than any other, in order to create new values for oneself. Essentially, the abyss refers to those artifacts of human endeavors that capture our curiosity, desire, morbidity, disgust, perversion, delight, whatever. Maybe it was a snuff film, maybe it was pornography, maybe it’s satanic music.

The thought of what the abyss means in today’s terms is what struck me while listening to WTF’s discussion of outsider art (much of which is hosted at the excellent nearby American Visionary Art Museum). Outsider art, it seems to me, touches on the concept of the abyss insofar as it rejects any dictation of values that result from an appeal to authority. The same can be said for a large swath of modern culture, whether you’re talking about punk or politics.

Of course, writing from the 1880s, Nietzsche didn’t have the concrete evidence of sex, drugs, and rock and roll to describe to the contours of the abyss. Nor would Nietzsche live long enough to see that the fears of nihilism colored a lot of the motivations of modern-day Christians holding the kind of bounded values he was denouncing throughout the entirety of Beyond Good and Evil. But I also don’t think that anyone has really figured out how to interpret Nietzsche’s dictum in the context of everyone’s favorite abyss: the Internet. The extent to which those artifacts are available to each and every one of us has changed dramatically in the Internet era, and now the abyss is accessible from everyone’s pocket.

As a result of the Internet, there is nothing truly sacred anymore, nothing mysterious. From a Nietzschean perspective, that might be the first step in the road to recovery from the staid values of old, or the first step of society turning into monsters. The Internet has made depravity available to all comers (e.g., 2 girls 1 cup, tubgirl, goatse, etc.), but the degree to which the Internet has made such access frivolously easy may have made that search a bit too easy. In the digital age, one need not acquire the desire to gaze into the void before the void is thrust in one’s face.

Thus, society is faced with new questions of how the Internet has affected society’s capacity to develop and grasp morality. From a Nietzschean perspective, the whole point of gazing into the abyss is to acquire a concept of how people get to the point of moral extremes. How does a person do something so viscerally horrible? What brings a person to commit a crime, and what goes through a psychopath’s mind? These are questions as old as drama, and understanding these questions has value to a philosopher, social scientist, or anyone else with a curious and ranging intellect. But now we’re asking questions like how true is Rule 34?

One might argue that the abyss does not bear understanding, only reflection. And if we are not morally equipped to withstand the abyss, as free spirits, that reflection could be dangerous; we can become the monsters we are supposed to be fighting.

Most directly, this philosophical conundrum plays out in the tension between those who value experience and education no matter what kind and those who fear the end result of moral relativism from a more paternalistic point of view. Throughout history there have been those who pressed for obscenity laws or the restriction of access to information on the grounds that it is dangerous. The Internet simply moots the question of access. Now we are left to deal with the more pragmatic moral question of how we deal with these bits of Promethean fire.

I always put my thumb on the scale in favor of free speech because I think that people should be treated as potential free spirits. Nietzsche would certainly agree that it would be a greater disservice to inhibit a single free spirit than to turn an army of adolescents into monsters. But when one asks direct questions, the answers become harder: should one be allowed to inspect nuclear schematics? Tub girl? Who’s to judge?

Reading Between the Party Lines

September 25, 2012

They say that political ignorance is a rational choice. They say that, moreover, politics isn’t motivated by reason. The effort expended to learn about current affairs is certainly more than the discounted value of a single vote.

But you know what else is economically irrational? Spending your time on fashion, entertainment, humor, philosophy, love.

For the same reasons and more (by definition, since political participation is almost certainly a positive externality with spillover benefits coming from more enlightened policy), it’s worth it to learn enough to actually process/analyze/examine a political position without an appeal to some other authority. Because those authorities have vested interests and motivations that are at least one degree removed from the interests of yourself. Absolutely no one is selflessly beneficent, and that is doubly true for politicians.

Love yourself and your neighbors. Learn enough to form an opinion.

Preoccupied America

September 24, 2012

Can you believe it’s been one year since the first days of Occupy Wall Street?

Do you remember how you felt about the resurrected notion of real political change–not as in the party in power, but the nature of the way power is wielded? Did you see parallels to the Muslim Spring? Did you think that maybe this was a sea change for the cause of freedom, and that established interests might finally have met a match? Were you genuinely optimistic as Occupy went viral, spreading to cities and campuses across the country?

Were you equally enraged upon hearing that the forces of control could not accommodate civil threats to power and unleashed waves of mass arrests of protesters that continue to this day? Would you be more enraged knowing that those who abused their power are not experiencing any legal retribution?

Do you remember the point when that passion gave way to the soft acceptance of the justifications put forward by the state without so much as a mention of the right of the people to peaceably assemble to petition their government for a redress of grievances? I don’t.

What was singular about Occupy was that it evoked and traded on passion. Not only did Occupy give voice to positions that had been excluded from the political mainstream by the dynamics of representative government addicted to campaign finance, but it also actively encouraged and legitimated those people who had been actively disenfranchised simply by being ignored for so long. That acknowledgment means a lot to people.

Occupy’s power certainly wasn’t a coherent vision for a different America, as so many commentators liked to point out (for lack of any real political analytical tools at their disposal). However, Occupy sparked something we really haven’t seen in liberal America since the 1970s: passion translated into politics. Occupy promoted beliefs that actively pitted the people against moneyed and powerful interests, and did so in a fully-throated, unrestrained, unleashed way that Democrats have failed to do on the national level for decades.

I was reminded that the public sphere was once inhabited by individuals with actual, intellectual, liberal backbones at one point in this country by this admittedly tragically executed sketch from 1980.

It reminded me that there was a time when there was an actual feeling that the revolution was ongoing. History was still what individuals would make of it. Then America’s chief rival imploded under the weight of its own contradictions, and blind optimism combined with a superiority complex supplanted the feeling that progress was something worth caring about.

It’s easy to chalk Democrats’ inability to capitalize on genuine dissatisfaction and desire for distributive justice to “spinelessness” or a lack of political savvy, but it’s far worse than that: it’s that Democrats suckle on teats not so far removed from Republicans: corporate cash. The corporate bias is pervasive because it’s baked into the system. And though one might reasonably argue that the choice of particular teats is significant, being stuck on the teat makes it difficult for Democrats to capitalize on the emotional resonance that comes with a desire for more fundamental, systemic change. Democrats are simply too afraid of upsetting their various constituencies with the notion that there is something rotten in the state of America. Their Republican counterparts have no problem saying that America is simultaneously the greatest country on earth and also in need of a more repressive state to curtail all these “excess” freedoms that make people anxious.

The last year has provided plenty of painfully obvious examples of how the Democrats have been more or less held back from political advantage by the interests that hold (or at least contribute to) the reins.

Perhaps the most obvious example of Democrats standing aside while passion plays itself out in non-partisan spheres is Obama’s campaign. The slogan has evolved from “Hope” to “Forward,” a sadly pointed distillation of Obama’s pragmatism rather than his commitment to idealism and political choices motivated by passion.

The Pussy Riot trial, which fanned the flames of basically every community that cares at all about civil liberties, would have been a great teaching point for Democrats to educate the American electorate that repression of speech and expression is never acceptable, even when the expression is punkish, disrespectful of the state, and dangerous-seeming. (Occupy Pussy, anyone?) If the Democrats had taken the opportunity to point out the legal mechanism of repression utilized by Putin, and analogized the principles that are instinctively odious to an American conception of liberties, Democrats could have capitalized on an emotionally resonant and clear message that freedom of speech should be fiercely protected, even if it happens to conflict with one’s religious sensitivities (which was the ostensible rationale for trumping up those charges).

On the other side of the same coin, the Great Chik-fil-A Debate of 2012 was a total fumble by the Democrats who foolishly (and unconstitutionally) threatened state action to suppress the expression of speech (however bigoted), and instead created a huge backlash because Americans’ passion for fried chicken is more significant and direct than their passion for actively boycotting something that nobody needs more than once a month in the first place.

And the economic front hasn’t been any better: Democrats have let the LIBOR scandal lay dormant without any strong reaction on behalf of the people as a whole (seeing as everyone suffers from rigged interest rates). Democrats haven’t come forward with a strong refutation of Romney’s bullshit 47 percent claims (bullshit in part because the states most dependent on government handouts are mostly red states), nor have they defended those paying the payroll taxes as sufficiently contributing to society. Nor have Democrats even attempted to point to the fact that there is a strong response bias against people who have attempted to take personal responsibility but failed for factors beyond their control (you know, the whole risk/reward thing that capitalism is somewhat premised on?).

And what did the Democratic Party do about Legitimate Rape? Not a whole lot. Instead, they let pundits do their job for them, instead of making a clear appeal to the American people that they are the only party that cares whether or not politics conform to either science or reality. They could point out how many Republicans were opposed to abortion, even in the case of rape or incest, or how much of their platform (a.k.a. “The Republican War on Women“) was based on unscientific, unsupported assertions that could only have been thought up by a party with no greater grasp of reality than Todd Aiken.

All of this squandered political capital by the Democrats is compounded by the fact that the entire premise of Obama’s election was that he would at least attempt to use a bully pulpit to directly educate and lobby the American electorate. The disintermediation of the people and political choices was the intuitive appeal of a slightly more intellectual/populist/counter-establishmentarian presidency. And when Occupy fell into Obama’s lap, instead of giving the hippie drum circle a group hug, he “pragmatically” sat on the sidelines while others glibly wrote them off by telling them to take a shower. And given that Occupy has been speaking real, evocative truth to power, Obama’s silence speaks magnitudes.

Personally, one of the few things I am passionate about is the truth. Especially the plain vanilla scientific fact kind of truth. And when one political party tramples over the truth like a malevolent jerk kicking his way through a finely crafted sandcastle, I feel the closest thing to political passion that the current political climate is likely to yield (see, e.g., every position related to science that the Republican party stands for). It would just be nice if Barry had built his presidency on that kind of idealism and education rather than the middling pragmatism that has defined his first term (especially given that the Republicans haven’t ceded much in the way of pragmatism). I guess I’ll have to keep looking outside the mainstream for some Hope.

Shark Wack

August 16, 2012

BoingBoing is truly a directory of wonderful things. This time around, they’ve honed in on one of my pet peeves about the misperception of relative magnitudes (along the same lines as opportunity costs, etc.). Specifically, with all this hullabaloo about Shark Week (something I’ve never gotten into), the editors at BoingBoing have wonderfully pointed out that cows are more dangerous than sharks.

Between 2003 and 2008, 108 people died from cattle-induced injuries across the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 27 times the whopping four people killed in shark attacks in the United States during the same time period, according to the International Shark Attack File. Nearly all those cow-related fatalities were caused by blunt force trauma to the head or chest; a third of the victims were working in enclosed spaces with cattle.

In case that has you worried, here’s a cow-attack survival guide.

Sure, you can argue that sharks are interesting for reasons other than their potential for human predation, but in 2011, there were 75 shark attacks reported worldwide (only 23 in the United States), and only 12 of them were fatal. For context, here are some other things more likely than getting attacked by a shark:

Dying from a lightning strike: 1 in 83,000

Dating a supermodel: 1 in 88,000

Dying by ignition or melting of nightwear: 1 in 397,000

Drawing a royal flush in five cards: 1 in 649,740

And in terms of fatalities, you’re also more likely to be killed by dog bites or even alligator attacks than by sharks.

Personally, I’m a bigger fan of Shaq week.

Indecisions, Indecisions

August 16, 2012

A flow chart that I would find very useful if I actually owned all these games. Take note potential gift-buyers!