Friday, October 14, 2016

Happiness and Success! A short three act play

Every now and then I write a satirical short three act play in Crooked Timber comments. It normally takes 15 minutes to write them, so I don't save them, but this one, I think, catches the mood of the current U.S. election better than any other 15 minute piece I could write. It was originally here.


People should be warned that the levels of meaning and allusion in this play are exceptionally subtle and nuanced: I’m not sure that anyone will understand it immediately. But keep studying it and various symbol-systems may cohere.

Also: trigger warning for eyeball eating and other violence.

Happiness and Success!
A short three act play

Act I
(A WOMAN and A MAN are sitting at a picnic table).

A WOMEN: “I hate this election season. It’s so bitter this year. It’s like our whole civilization is under threat!” [She stabs a fork down into the tray in front of her, pulls out a human eyeball, and eats it.]

A MAN: “Yes, this election isn’t like any other one I’ve heard of. I’m really worried.”

A WOMAN: “I do my best to make things better… I even eat free range eyeballs. “

A MAN: “Free range *people*, honey. It’s not really correct to objectify parts of people that way.”

A WOMAN: “Oh, yes, of course. That’s what that horrible SECOND CANDIDATE does! I can’t believe that for a moment I sounded like SECOND CANDIDATE!” [She eats another eyeball.]

A MAN: “FIRST CANDIDATE will win, if only those young people vote. I don’t know what their problem is, complaining that we ate their eyes and everything.”

A WOMAN: “And they’re so nasty. They even insulted Gloria Steinem!”

Act II
(A circle of GUARDS in standing in the middle of a crowd: each GUARD is holding a leveled automatic weapon. Throughout the scene the GUARDS keep up a low, menacing chant of “KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!” A small group of NIHILISTS stands nearby holding various protest signs.)

A MAN: “He’s running away! KILL!” (A GUARD shoots a running man in the back.)

A WOMAN: “I want to feel safe! KILL!” (Another GUARD shoots three people in the crowd.)

ANOTHER MAN: “Our society is racist! We won’t protect people from dictators.”

ANOTHER WOMAN: “Eh, join in.”

ANOTHER MAN: “All right, I want to fully participate in our society! KILL! KILL!” (GUARDS mow down five more people).

ANOTHER WOMAN: “Law and order! KILL!”

ANOTHER MAN: “Responsibility 2 Protect! KILL!”

A NIHILIST (holding a placard which reads “Maybe we should kill fewer people”): “Um–“

GUARD: “Get back to the free speech zone, sir! Otherwise I will have to KILL!”

A NIHILIST: “Sorry! Going back now!”

ANOTHER MAN: “Racist!”

(the public square. There are happy people, balloons, etc.)

A MAN: “The votes are almost in. I think it’s going to go for FIRST CANDIDATE!”

A WOMAN: “I’m so happy! I love democracy!”

A MAN: “She’s going to win … I’m filled with hope!”

A WOMAN: “By working together we can all figure out how to succeed at whatever we want to do! I’m so happy and full of joy!”

A DIFFERENT MAN: “The votes are in! FIRST CANDIDATE wins!”

The CROWD cheers. FIRST CANDIDATE smilingly takes a machine gun from one of the guards and mows down ten people.

SECOND CANDIDATE: “Eh, she’s still a loser. I would have killed twenty people, because I’m a winner!”


YET ANOTHER WOMAN: “I’m so proud that she’s shown our daughters that anything is possible. Now my little girl will know that she can grow up to kill lots of people just like any man!”

The crowd starts to sing. Even A NIHILIST is pulled in.

“We’re happy and we’re right”
“And oh so polite”
“We know we can succeed”
“And darkness recede”
“Because the killing future is so bright!”

(People are swirling around, laughing, munching on eyeballs, firing weapons into the crowd.)

“Now with this great leap”
“We’ve beaten that creep”
“The election is over”
“And we’re in clover”
“And now it’s time to sleep”

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Listen, Neoliberal

Thomas Frank's book _Listen, Liberal_ has a central problem: it describes U.S. political neoliberalism in detail but never makes the jump to calling it something other than liberalism. As a result, it's never quite sure what it's recommending. Something about going back to how liberalism was during the New Deal era -- but what was it then, and can we really go back to that now, and how would we get there?

Before writing more about his book I'll give a short description of what I think neoliberalism is: neoliberalism is the ideology of the global managerial class. It encompasses leading political neoliberals such as Clinton(s), Blair, and Obama, Eurocrats, the upper management of multinationals, the management of large NGOs, higher-up Chinese Communist Party members, and everyone else who comes together to make the current world system work via characteristic international agreements and arrangements. It may more or less be held as an ideology by middle management, and by most professional economists and international functionaries, but it has no mass base as such. Neoliberalism in policy becomes free trade agreements, austerity, the inability to address income inequality, free rides for banks, and general politics under the rubric of "there is no alternative" as elites loot whatever they can loot. Neoliberalism is a liberalism, and depends on conservatism being more objectionable than it is (and the left being generally absent), but it is not left-liberalism, and it is not classical liberalism since it exists within a system that has contemporary political actors in it.

Neoliberalism obeys the dictates of the elite without, itself, being composed of a classical wealth-owning elite: neoliberals are often very wealthy, but they are managers of other people's wealth rather than capitalists as such. But there is no base anywhere that demands austerity or the TPP, so neoliberalism always pretends to be a vaguely left centrism, and adopts left ideas on racism, sexism, homophobia and so on in the sense that it ideally treats people as meritocratically chosen.

Distinguishing neoliberalism from the remnant New Deal or left-liberal base of the Democratic Party might have been a good thing for Frank's book to do, but it doesn't. Looking up "neoliberalism" in the index, first the book mentions the U.S. Neoliberals of the early 1980s, then it refers to NAFTA in 1993 as a landmark of neoliberalism, but there's nothing about how we got from one meaning of the word to the other. This is a common confusion: there are still people who insist that neoliberalism is a word that describes a U.S. movement of the early 1980s that then disappeared, or Britain under Thatcher. But the rest of the world outside the U.S. has long since settled on the word "neoliberalism" to describe a worldwide politics and a worldwide system. Using it only in its anglosphere-historical sense is parochial.

As a result of not being able to call neoliberals neoliberals, Thomas Frank has no real way to describe what happened other than by going through a lot of detail, most of which will be long familiar to any left reader in the U.S. There's a lot about Clinton, Obama, and the prospective HRC Presidency. I really didn't learn much from the bulk of the book, other than that microlending has failed and indeed is rather like a predatory payday loan scheme for people outside of the U.S. (something which I should have suspected, in retrospect). It would be a good book to read for someone who still thinks that Obama is a left-liberal and who expects that from HRC. But Frank's analysis is a bit off when he identifies professionals as "the 10%" who support contemporary-Democratic-Party politics. Professionals broadly may be sympathetic to neoliberalism and certainly to meritocracy, but they don't broadly have the power to maintain a neoliberal system or the numbers to be a voting base for it.

Frank seems to believe that the Democratic Party can return to something like a New Deal coalition, something that I think is impossible. The system has moved on and can't be glued back together. The state fundamentally doesn't need most people and is looking for ways to shed them -- ways which neoliberalism makes possible -- and labor doesn't have the power that it once did, not because of the machinations of the elites (although those certainly are happening) but because we don't need as much labor or the same kind of labor as we once did. A new party of the non-elites is going to have to be based on something other than labor power, something that Frank's analysis isn't far enough from the mainstream to guess at. That said, this will still a useful book for some people.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Pokemon Go Biodiversity

One of first things that I noticed about Pokemon Go was the "realistic" way in which the creatures that you found were like the species that predominate in a disturbed environment. If you live in a place that's mostly parking lots alternating with scrub, you're going to see generalist, opportunistic species, not highly coevolved specialists. And so it is with Pokemon Go. Wander around (in New England, anyways) and what you see is Pokemon rats, pigeons, sparrows, and weeds. Ok, Weedle is an insect larva, not a weed, but you get the idea.

Biologists have already started commenting on the Pokemon/biology fieldwork intersection and the #PokeBlitz hashtag, so hope is gamely being kept alive that this will interest people in real creatures. I think the results are going to be mixed. The game encourages a lot of stop-and-go walking in which you're looking down at your cellphone screen a lot, so you're less likely to notice anything unusual about your actual surroundings. On the other hand, it does get people outside more. I've seen people playing the game sitting inside in highly trafficked locations (when a lot of people have the app open in one place, there will be Pokemon) and you can catch Pokemon as a passenger in a car. But to hatch Pokemon eggs you have to walk (or bike) pretty significant distances: riding in a car won't do it.

Still, my son has already told me that it would be interesting if you could take pictures of real animals that you see and "capture" them as Pokemon-like virtual creatures. Even in the college town that I live in, there are actual charismatic megafauna around. (I generally see black bears once a year, hawks, and once a flock of five wild turkeys scratching their way through the woods. Even my yard has had rabbits, mice, and praying mantises living in it.) Pokemon's diminished biodiversity may be "realistic" in some sense, but I still wonder whether it's giving an impression that the biological world is in the end as limited in its variation as Pokemon is.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

You're the problem with the left

Ever wanted to tell someone that the left (however defined) would be better off without them? That they aren't simply wrong, but actually make the left worse than it would otherwise be? Here's a handy guide.

(This was originally written in blog comments somewhere. George Scialabba wrote that I should turn it into an essay, but I don't really do essays, so it's here as is. Someone else thought it was a list of "wrongthinks", and it wasn't intended to be: each of the kinds of reasons below can sometimes be true, but more often they're just rhetorical ways of amping up one's disapproval of someone.)

I’ve arranged the various types of reasons in something like what I consider to be increasing order of attempted rhetorical force, though this ordering probably tells more about me than anything else.

1. Unintended consequences. “X is a sincere revolutionary, but X can’t see that trying for a revolution is what the state wants and they’d just use it as an excuse to crush us.”

2. Structural / continuing consequences. “X believes that the left-liberal order is a good thing and I agree that left-liberals have made some progress, but X doesn’t see that preserving the liberal order is what keeps us from having real socialism.”

3. Ignorance / non-reflection. “Poor X still can’t see he writes using white male privilege. I wish that he’d take the time to educate himself before he keeps going.”

4. Personal motivation. “Yeah, X has done a lot for social democracy, but who benefits from that? Mostly social democratic bosses like X.” “If only those purists weren’t so eager to get radical cred that makes them feel good about themselves, they’d see that we have to accept the lesser evil because it does real good for people.” (the LGM special)

5. Collective motivation. “X knows what’s going on when they talk about how good the New Deal was. They’re trying to preserve a system that’s sort of on the left but really it’s mostly good for people like X.”

6. Neener neener. “X is too chickenshit to be a real radical.” “Sure, X says they’re a radical, but they’re just looking for an excuse to hurt people.”

7. Bad seed. “I’ve seen ambitious attention seekers like X, and they really want to be one of the enforcers for the ruling class.”

8. Factual. “X is a police provocateur.”

Saturday, May 7, 2016

some notes towards: four most overwritten subjects / inside and outside

some notes towards: four most overwritten subjects / inside and outside

Cats outside run through grass
Leaping, amazed at new freedom
Meow at humans, noses scratched
Appear again days later, thinner
Cats outside get admired by Charles Bukowski

Cats inside look outside
Casting glares at the rustle in the bushes
Growl as they strike down mice
Sit in laps, unlike anything else
Cats inside get ruffled up by Stevie Smith

If you take your cat on a leash
It will be both inside and outside at once
It will run up trees as you walk
Yowl when it can go no higher, leap down
Stuck in an uncomfortable third dimension

Cats are human, pretty much
House cats, we made them
Even outside wandering through our tunnels

Clouds outside make days different
From other days, in the quality of light
Or they make Rorschach shapes
Clouds outside love the pathetic fallacy
And wander around lonely

Clouds inside seep in as fog
And can't be seen, only felt on skin
You can only see them with distance
Invisible they mean sad or confused
Clouds come inside on little cat feet

Clouds high up can be inside and outside
Like a foggy hut on a mountaintop
Or when you fly in a plane through one
Though maybe only if it crashes
If the plane breaks in half, the cloud comes inside

Clouds might as well be human
We think they are so persistently
Only rarely does their real scale hit the sublime

Poetry outside happens in ovals and circles
Wind rustling pages, eyes glancing up
To check clouds for rain
There is always something blustery about it
Poetry outside is Robert Frost and freestyle

Poetry inside is where it's supposed to live
In books, or in hearts if you want to be poetic
In minds, clouded by words
In the thoughts of someone in a crashing plane
Of a childhood book with practical cats

The easiest way to resolve is go backwards
Before there were words or understanding
Before cats evolved, before there were clouds
Before the Earth formed an atmosphere
Before an inside or an outside, there was poetry

Poetry is inhuman
Everywhere the Earth from the beginning
No voices are needed

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

You have more than one vote

It's a year divisible by four, so discussions of voting in American politics are inescapable. Four years ago I wrote about how not voting can be an important social signal and about who voters are actually negotiating with. This time I'll point out that people actually have more than one vote, at least in the U.S., and fully legally -- because they can turn out other votes. So the question of what they should do with "their vote" is silly.

First, some basics. An activist is someone who takes action in order to try to cause some political effect. Activists are generally not hired to do this, which is what differentiates them from professional political operatives, but that's not important at the moment. In the U.S., there are two main paths for activism: non-electoral activism and electoral activism.

Activists generally want to have the largest effect that they can, so they usually end up looking for multipliers to their individual effort. The classic multiplier is to become an organizer of other people. So a non-electoral activist goes from participating in protests to organizing protests. An electoral activist goes from attending rallies to activities like volunteering for a candidate or party's ground turnout operation.

The U.S. has something like 40% of its eligible voters not vote, so there's a huge pool of voters to turn out. Each voter who would not have otherwise voted but whom you got to the polls produces an extra vote that would not have existed if not for your efforts. So each person potentially "has" a large number of votes. How many votes can a volunteer expect to turn out? I'm not familiar with the technical aspects of this, since I'm a non-electoral activist, but here's a sample article. I imagine that a volunteer might be able to turn out 100 votes or more.

So all of the endless agonizing about who to vote for, whether it's moral to vote or not vote, whether you have responsibility for the action of voting or the inaction of not voting, is all kind of beside the point. People who are seriously committed to having a measurable impact on this process have long since decided what to do and are doing it. If electoral activists were boasting among themselves about how many people each of them turned out, that would be fine: activists get little enough reward so that a little boasting is a good thing, and it would probably quickly turn into an exchange of technical details among the group that would help each other. But the discussions of how to use an individual vote are pointless and usually deployed simply for moral leverage. They reduce an issue to individual virtue: is someone a good person or not for doing an almost entirely symbolic act.

Friday, January 1, 2016

No Stopping Any Time: pictures of downtown Cleveland 2001

Today I read the news story saying that the policeman who shot Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy holding a pellet gun, would not be charged with a crime. Tamir Rice was black: the police officer was white.

Racism is completely visible in America: you're just not supposed to talk about it. In 2001 I spent a couple of days in downtown Cleveland. Fascinated by its unfamiliar-to-me architecture, I took a point-and-shoot camera and starting taking pictures. And what was one of the first things I noticed? Quoting myself:

"[...] racial segregation is omnipresent in this area. Without exception, every person who I saw working as a waiter or waitress in a restaurant, working at the desk of a hotel, or walking in a suit to the courthouse was white. With only two exceptions, every person working in maintenance or cleaning rooms at a hotel, working a minimum-wage job at a fast food or drugstore counter, or homeless or begging on a streetcorner was black."

I've lived in D.C., L.A., and a few other places and I've never seen that level of occupational racial segregation anywhere else. And it seems pretty clear that that's going to produce shootings like this.

I've gotten nasty Email from all sorts over the years, but one classic insulting rant was from someone who felt that I was dissing Cleveland when I made that observation on a Web site. I shrugged and deleted his Email: too bad, because it would be fitting to quote it now.

At any rate, I think those pictures have held up fairly well, given the limitations of the technology I was working with. Here's a photo exhibition called No Stopping Any Time: downtown Cleveland as I saw it, complete with mock medieval fortifications, Buck Rogers defense zones, and a statue in front of a bank holding up a severed hand: