All posts by Benjamin

The Apocalypse Cabaret: (Nu-blesse Oblige)

This is part of an episode of my periodic podcast on politics and culture, The Apocalypse Cabaret, produced with Ariel Cruz.

In this episode, Benjamin and Ariel discuss the concept of noblesse oblige in the context of secular modern technocracy and whether or not it, and other civic virtues, can be re-activated in the culture. Also Ariel paraphrases deadeyed ghoul Grover Norquist in a way he would have hated, kickstarting a conversation about the role crisis plays in the generation of urgency and commitment, which are necessary conditions for re-building a sense of community in an age of market driven social atomization.

All Apocalypse Cabaret episodes can be found here.

A story about fear

A young woman who had moved to the city and learned the art of sculpting from the last legendary survivors of a once boisterous scene now shivered in her garret each night in fear.

For upon the death of the High King, a great wave of iconoclasm had swept the kingdom, and young men with hammers crashed through the doors of museums, destroying any art that looked human. They tossed acid on painted portraits, and threw busts out windows. For it was a sin, they said, and a presumption, for art to imitate men.

They did not all agree on the reasons. Some said it was because only God should have the power to present the human form, and so artists were lacking in awe; some said it was because to paint or sculpt the faces of men is to laugh at mankind, and so artists were cruel; some said it was simply bad art, and so artists wasted their materials; and some simply liked to smash the images of people with sledges and crowbars, and said that destroying art was not enough. Continue reading A story about fear

San Francisco’s Incredible Expanding Budget

Toy Golden Gate Bridge(This story originally appeared in San Francisco Magazine)

San Francisco’s budget has almost doubled over the last 10 years, from $5.3 billion to nearly $9 billion. We’re nearly paying for two 2005 San Franciscos—even though the city has grown by only about 10 percent, or 75,000 people, and even though inflation over the same period has been only 21 percent. By contrast, Philadelphia—another major city-county—had its budget increase from $6 billion in 2005 to just over $8.5 billion in 2015.

Paying almost twice as much money clearly hasn’t solved San Francisco’s problems: We still have decaying infrastructure, thousands of homeless, and not enough affordable housing. So what exactly are we spending our double budget on?

Continue reading San Francisco’s Incredible Expanding Budget

The “Attention Singularity” and cultural psychosis

Have you ever wondered what a culture’s collective psychosis feels like? I think this is it. I think that’s what we’re going through now

The Singularity is already here, Our consciousnesses have been uploaded to the cloud via social media as our world is now governed by invisible automated systems – and we’ve only just noticed, and by noticing have stared into the abyss.

We respond by screaming at each other about a presidential election that makes less sense than the plot of a Saturday morning kids cartoon. We don’t really believe this can possibly be happening, but we’re afraid to laugh and we can’t get away and nothing we do changes anything. We vacillate between learned helplessness and explosive rage but we’re afraid to disconnect because we might miss something.

Continue reading The “Attention Singularity” and cultural psychosis

To cook free will, first heat your biography to 400 degrees

Groggy in bed this morning, I discovered I was having some kind of conversation with myself about freedom from the oppression of one’s autobiography.

“As you get older,” I realized I was saying (I might have been worried if I wasn’t still half-asleep), “you come to realize that your personal history is both inescapable and irrelevant. If you do it right. Because of course your past is what has thrown you into the present – not just as a set of circumstances but as a set of perspectives, the limits of your whole concept of the world. And yet, at exactly the same time, the more distance you get the less power it has over you.”

Why the hell should I care about how passionately I fought my high school administration … and my college administration … and my grad school administration … let alone affect my behavior right now? What do loves lost 20 years ago matter? You can certainly hold a grudge, but the more time you fit under your skin the more alarmingly free you become to disregard everything you have been up to this point.

Continue reading To cook free will, first heat your biography to 400 degrees

Why are young progressives so angry at Hillary Clinton?

(This article originally appeared in the Canandaigua Daily Messenger)

Hillary ClintonLet’s talk about Hillary Clinton.

It’s not uncommon for progressive enclaves to hold that someone who agrees with them 85 percent of the time is so much worse than someone who never agrees with them, much in the same way that many conservative Republicans are far more angry at Republicans In Name Only than they are at Democrats. Even so, the level of sheer loathing and contempt that young progressives hold for Hillary Clinton goes above and beyond the call of either duty or sense. The idea that it is better not to vote at all than to vote for Clinton against Donald Trump, it’s a kind of lunacy.

Regular readers of this column know I have a lot of issues with Clinton, and my personal dislike of her at least has the honesty of having met her. But even if the vicious images of Clinton held by so many people weren’t absurdly over the top in the first place, they are completely incompatible with her time as a U.S. senator from New York (her only time actually in an elected office), where she excelled in almost every possible way.

The same conservatives who now see her as an incarnation of evil never bothered to rally against her when she ran for re-election in 2006. That’s because she won their communities over. She went around to every town, village and hamlet in Upstate New York, whether run by Democrats or Republicans, met every municipal official and sat through their all-day presentations on Erie Canal economic development and agricultural policy. And took notes. And asked intelligent questions. And then got back to them, in the weeks and months that followed, with concrete ideas about what her office could do to help.

Many of these Upstate Republican officials disagreed with her on matters of ideology, but nobody had ever given their bread-and-butter issues so much time and attention. Not even other Upstate Republican officials. Sure they theoretically supported her opponent, but only theoretically. They liked working with Clinton because she made their issues her own, and she never stopped working on them.

That woman would make a great president.

What happened?

Continue reading Why are young progressives so angry at Hillary Clinton?

A note to my internet friends who say police are evil

This is written in response to a group of young (and less young) progressive types who I chat with online, in response to an argument that given the state of police departments as a whole, most individual police must be evil.

So I’ve written a lot, and unapologetically, about the need for police reform – like here, and here, and here too – and I stand by everything I’ve said.

But that’s not the same as saying most police are evil.

Have any of you ever read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography? “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”? It’s an amazing book, in which he tells the story of how he grew up a slave, managed to teach himself to read, and then escaped to be the nation’s leading orator and abolitionist leader. It’s incredible testament to the story of the human spirit and our capacity for greatness.

The only problem is that it has been used by … oh, let’s say less than sympathetic elements … to suggest that all slaves should have done this. “Hey,” they’ve said. “His story proves that if a slave really wanted to, he could educate himself and escape. So slaves who didn’t must not have really wanted it.”

It’s a batshit crazy argument, but it’s the kind of argument that comes up in a lot of contexts. Most recently in Republican Presidential Candidate Ben Carson (it’s really hard to say that with a straight face) when he argued that the problem with the Jews in Germany was that they didn’t arm themselves and fight back. Why didn’t they do that? It’s like they wanted to be exterminated.

It comes up in other contexts too. Are people homeless? Well, the fact that some people were able to work themselves out of homelessness must mean that the people who didn’t really want to be homeless.

(Living in San Francisco, one often hears about the homeless “Why don’t they just learn to code?”)

Continue reading A note to my internet friends who say police are evil

It’s not so much “identity theft” as “authenticity theft”

Paper mapMany years ago while visiting Texas during an election season, I caught a lot of local television.

A pattern emerged: local news anchors who sounded like they were from the Midwest would toss to business commercials where people spoke with no discernible accent, which in turn transitioned into political adds where people spoke with Texas twangs so deep they sounded like they were coming out of oil wells.

The people of Texas (at least in this region) sounded almost entirely like everybody else in America. But the politicians of Texas were going out of their way to sound like they’d never gone north of highway 20.

This was one of the great impacts of radio and TV on language: the flattening of accents and the development of “standard American” English across regions. By the late 20th century it had reached the point where sounding like where you were from was an affectation.

The internet is having a similar impact, according to a recent article in Quartz: “Everybody has the same personality online.”

“Even larger-than-life personalities, such as Sarah Silverman or Amy Schumer, lose their idiosyncrasies on Twitter,” Olivia Goldhill writes. “They might write clever jokes that fit into the 140-character word limit, but there’s no silliness or slapstick. I can’t tell who’s goofy, who’s thoughtful, and who’s anxious from online profiles alone.”

Continue reading It’s not so much “identity theft” as “authenticity theft”