Archive for the 'What the Fuck?' Category

Nabokov to Dan Brown: the decline of the literary succès de scandale

I friend of mine was telling me about one of these bullshit programs that analyzes your writing (instantaneously) and tells you what famous author you supposedly write like, probably based on your frequency of use of the word “the.” I fed it passages from the story I’m writing just for the hell of it, and I got back four different names: Dan Brown, Cory Doctorow, Kurt Vonnegut and Vladimir Nabokov. Those would actually form pretty decent category headings for four major gradations of writing ability, and are probably the only four names in its database, but in any case I think I can say, without making any special claims for myself one way or another, that neither I nor probably anyone else on this earth writes like both Dan Brown and Nabokov.

The false consciousness parade

Maybe it’s because I’ve been studying for exams the last few weeks, so that my mind has become like the eyes when they’ve been staring too hard for too long, and things come into and go out of focus chaotically and lose depth and proportion, but there has been something strange about watching the NBA the last few days, especially the commercials.

I don’t know if there are so many commercials for the military just because it’s Memorial Day, but commercial breaks are starting to just look like different wings of the military vying with each other for fresh meat. Yes, it’s truly a new era of cooperation and harmony between the branches of the armed services in the post-9/11 world. I assume they think that basketball is the sort of manly spectacle that many potential recruits will be watching, but then again one of the series prominently features Manu Ginobili and Sasha “everyone wants to punch him in the face” Vujacic. Anyway, I was watching the game with an Indian guy the other night when a commercial for the Air Force “unmanned surveillance drone” came on. I glanced over at him and thought about asking him whether in his country military equipment gets advertised between commercials for Dockers and SUVs, but I still have a vestigial stump of national pride that, like a tail bone, might be painful to shatter.

I also like how they emphasize the “leadership and career skills” you supposedly learn as a soldier, as if the real goal of following the glorious calling of arms is to develop competence as a data enterer. And what are these delectable “leadership positions” that strafing Afghan shepherds with an M-16 gets you? The commercials seem to show a lot of car mechanics and TV camera operators. Funny, if I was lured by promises of career success it would be to escape from a future as a car mechanic or an equipment operator. So I’m not exactly sure what lower rung on the career ladder all this risking death or disfigurement is sparing them.

Nor can I quite determine what skill is necessary for becoming a car mechanic that any random person that has two hands and isn’t retarded can’t develop going to work at 17. And if that is all that’s necessary it might be a good thing for all the ex-soldiers, since although in the commercials they show montages of, for example, a soldier operating a rotating machine gun turret fading into the same person operating a video camera as if there was a seamless transition between the two, I can think of many career uses for proficiency with automatic weapons, but few of them are legal. Michael Corleone in The Godfather started out in the military, as did John Allen Muhammad, the “D.C. sniper,” so I guess those are advertisements for the military “providing the tools” for some kind of “career success.”

It begs the question, though, given that the main tangible career benefit of being a soldier, apart from the salary, is the GI Bill, which is supposed to allow poor kids to go to college, if the career paths that the brains behind the military advertising see as most likely for soldiers are fixing cars or operating a camera, how many soldiers do they expect to actually take up that opportunity to go to college? In other words, it could be a cheap way of luring in the less rational sort with promises of career “benefits” which turn out to be of a nature, i.e. money for college, that most recruits aren’t interested in and won’t use.

Even the cops are joining in the nationalization of commercial breaks with their ads warning us all to wear seat belts. One of them does so by just camera-staring at a quadrapalegic for 30 seconds, a message I could respect more if not for all those afore-mentioned military recruitment commercials. If the fine for risking paralysis or death by not wearing a seatbelt is $500, how much is the one for volunteering for the Marines? Or better yet, what about for enticing someone into volunteering? Oh, but as the ad says, “when you see a Marine you can’t help but look up to them.” Especially if you’re a Hadithan laying on the ground because they’ve ordered you to get out of your car and lie down in the road as a prelude to shooting you in the head. Wait, I forgot, there’s no judicially usable evidence of that happening because none of the witnesses are willing to come to America to testify. Yes, the fact that people aren’t willing to let the soldiers that they watched kill their neighbors take them into custody and out of the sight and reach of anyone who knows and cares about them in order to supposedly bring them to give evidence that would be hugely damaging to those same soldiers makes them completely irrational and unreliable witnesses.

Of course the military hasn’t been able to prevent a scandal simply by avoiding some farce military trial, but on the plus side for them, studies have found that home-field advantage yields up to up to an 84.6 % winning percentage for non-professional teams when visitors have to travel more than 200 miles. Since like all self-respecting imperialists the U.S. military has progressively invaded more and more distant locales, this could be a comprehensive excuse for its declining winning percentage.

Backing up to youth

I’ve never really understood why at stoplights the flashing hand on the walk sign goes longer than the yellow light. You would think that since people on foot go about 1/10 the speed of cars and therefore need less time to slow down and stop it would be the other way around. Maybe the traffic engineers are simply reflecting the stages along life’s way: you know, first you crawl, then you walk, then you drive. At every stage you gain speed and at every stage time seems to go by more quickly. I suppose relativistic speed would be like the minds of old people driving: outside everything is flying around at high speeds, but inside the gears are moving by rope and pulley. Maybe this correspondence explains a strange phenomenon in China: a popular form of exercise seems to be walking backwards, but only among women over 40. Since this also happens to be the group that is most sensitive about age on the face of the earth, I figure maybe it’s like when people put their cars in reverse to roll back the odometer.

Pascal’s ethics?

I find Eugene McCarraher, the Christian socialist professor at Villanova, an intriguing writer, since his intellectually rigorous left-wing theism isn’t too common these days, so I was interested what he had to say about Hannah Arendt. He makes a somewhat predictable charge, that her mostly suitable (to him) soft-socialist morality is not tenable without being grounded in doctrinal theology. Leaving aside the question as to whether the criticism is applicable to Arendt, the pertinent question in my mind is as to whether religious belief can ever really arise on the basis that is implicitly suggested here. Granted, what McCarraher proposes is less nakedly self-interested than Pascal’s wager, but it is still essentially predicated on a similar idea. Pascal held that it is better to believe in God than not in terms of self-interest, and McCarraher seems to be saying that it is necessary to believe in God in the interest of abiding by an adequate ethical system. But in both cases the question is, can anyone really hold a belief in God for instrumental purposes? I’ve certainly never met anyone who did, although my Russian TA was baptized on explicitly Pascalian grounds. To be fair, I misrepresent somewhat, in that McCarraher never actually holds that religious beliefs should be founded on ethical considerations. But a criticism of Arendt for divorcing ethics from religious belief is only relevant if she could freely adopt an adherance to religion to buttress her ethics.

As I say, I am dubious that it can be done, and I am rather dubious as to the validity of the premise as well. In my mind it is a historical fact that the increasing prosperity of Western societies and attention to alleviating misfortune in this life correspond almost exactly to the recession of dogmatic religion from public life. From what I know of modern Christianity theological dogma has evaporated whole-sale from even the fundamentalist Churches, and it seems to me that this is both a creation of modern liberal society (i.e. the end of enforced conformity to ecclesiastical thought) and the very thing which allows people like McCarraher to equate religion itself with a metaphysical rationalization of ethics. I certainly would not claim that religious belief cannot be beneficial in enforcing moral conduct when people are impressed with the gravity of their actions, by consequences for themselves that transcend death. But it can equally make some people conclude that the world is corrupt and worthless and should be destroyed for their unrighteousness. I agree that Arendt seems to conceive of totalitarianism as too unitary of a phenomenon, paying insufficient attention to the particular features of the particular systems that exemplify it (she thought that anti-Semitism, for example, was a fundamental postulate of totalitarianism, which would probably be news to the Chinese or Cambodians). But it would be equally simplistic to ascribe such unity to the effects of religion, or even Christianity, on ethics and the public sphere. And besides, people believe what they think to be true, and even if this is often a rationalization of that which is in their pereceived interest, I have yet to see an instance in which this can be consciously done, when someone can really take on a belief not because they really believe it to be true but because it will have positive secondary effects. In other words, even if you believed that belief in God would make you better off or more virtuous if God exists, what difference would that make if you don’t believe that it exists?

Oil on troubled waters–cosmopolitans to the rescue!

I don’t want to get too stuck in a rut of just criticizing other philosophies, but this kind of thing could provoke a camel. Is this seriously the point to which “alternative,” “progressive” political philosophy has led itself? That the new inspiring ideal that is going to unite the oppressed masses is–cosmopolitanism? I’m reminded how important it is, no matter how widely one travels or mingles in the outside world, that one not become cosmopolitan. In the rather unappetizing form presented here, it doesn’t seem like much more than a loss of principles. The author claims: “There is a strange presumption in recent thought about human values. When we think about basic issues in ethics and politics, it is taken as a given that we face a choice between liberalism and relativism…There are many things wrong with this dichotomy. One of the most obvious is that it is highly parochial. Liberalism may look like the only game in town these days, but just a generation ago there were Marxists, anarchists, socialists and others who believed a systematic alternative to liberal society was desirable, imaginable and practically feasible. ” Well, I know plenty of liberals, and I can’t think of one of them who believes that liberalism is the only integral uiversal value system in existence. They just believe it’s the best one available.

To continue: “In Appiah’s view cosmopolitanism has two intertwined strands: the idea that we have obligations to other human beings above and beyond those to whom we are related by ties of family, kinship or formal citizenship; and an attitude that values others not just as specimens of universal humanity but as having lives whose meaning is bound up with particular practices and beliefs that are often different from our own…As a position in ethical theory, cosmopolitanism is distinct from relativism and universalism. It affirms the possibility of mutual understanding between adherents to different moralities but without holding out the promise of any ultimate consensus.” To me this seems like an almost totally empty point. To take one of the most extreme examples, I don’t know almost anyone that is not aware that the lives of Islamic terrorists are “bound up with particular practices and beliefs that are often different from our own.” At the same time, this awareness does not make them any more inclined to sympathize with those practices and beliefs, or any less committed to their own brand of liberalism, conservatism, socialism or whatever. Usually quite the contrary. And forgive if I’m wrong, but the knowledge that an “ultimate consensus” probably cannot be achieved, it seems to me, is an instigator of open conflict at least as often as it is of tolerance.

I get the feeling that this hollow attempt to pass off “awareness” as tolerance and to receive commensurate credit for it derives at some level from the uncomfortable, even if subconscious, realization that tolerance is not necessarily a very admirable thing. Tolerance of that of which we don’t disapprove is more or less redundant, and tolerance of that which we do implies basically putting up with what we consider to be wrong. I don’t of anyone whose moral beliefs would allow that to be a good thing. The article implies a bogus distinction between things which are objectively, indisputably wrong, like murder or genocide, and things about which one can have ethical beliefs but also tolerate deviation in others, like personal religious habits. This is bogus because I would argue that it is only the views about which one is intransigent that count as one’s true moral beliefs. I certainly don’t care about other people’s personal religious habits (unless they involve harm to others), but these do not hold any place in my moral framework because they are indifferent to me. In fact, an issue on which one will not tolerate deviation from what one considers to be right might count as a definition of an ethical belief. The sorry denouement of this concept of cosmopoolitanism is evident in this little gem at the end of the article: “In international relations this idea is expressed in the prevailing belief that only regimes that respect human rights or practice democracy (it’s not always clear which) can be legitimate–a view that has been used by the neoconservative right to justify the calamitous attack on Iraq. If we are to avoid similar disasters in the future, we need an account of legitimacy as applied in the society of states that is not just a recent version of liberalism writ large. ” Right, so the problem with the invasion of Iraq was a disastrous concern with human rights, and apparently the job of cosmopolitanism is to find up with some means by which to legitimize regimes which don’t respect human rights. Well, let’s face it, this is what cosmopolitans tend to spend a large portion of their lives doing anyway, so this would likely not be too drastic a change in course.