Category Archives: Fascinating Blog

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

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”

The rise of Ms. Marvel and the fall of Spider-Man: superhero Comic Books are at once egalitarian and fascist

An essay in the New York Times about Comic Books and identity issues raises a point I’ve heard before: that the best quality of superheroes is that they are wholly egalitarian.

To quote Umapagan Ampikaipakan:

But for some of us non-Americans, the genre doesn’t need to apologize for itself, no matter how quintessentially American it is. The superhero comic is the American dream illustrated, and by definition the American dream must be accessible to all. However monochromatic its characters, the superhero comic’s message has always seemed universal.” … “I could never be Ganesh or Krishna; they were deities. Yet I could be Spider-Man, because I already was Peter Parker.“ … “After a bout with a radioactive spider or some Terrigen Mist, it could be you or it could be me.”

Comics do have the seeds of egalitarian heroism in their DNA:   their message is very much that when put in extraordinary circumstances, ordinary people can rise up to the occasion and be heroes.

But then what? What does being a superhero mean?

Just because a dream is theoretically open to anyone doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And superheroes very quickly turn from egalitarians into … something else …

… look, I like superheroes as much as the next guy, and probably more since I actually read capes & tights comics during my formative years.  But one of the biggest downsides to the huge popularity of the genre now is the fact that, at heart, it has fascist tendencies.

Continue reading The rise of Ms. Marvel and the fall of Spider-Man: superhero Comic Books are at once egalitarian and fascist

Education in the technocratic age (notes from Voltaire’s Bastards)

Volatiar's BastardsThrough a strange set of circumstances involving Chicken John Rinaldi – and are there ever any other sorts of circumstances involving Chicken John? – I have tracked down the 1992 volume “Voltaire’s Bastards,” by John Saul, a book sadly both out of print and not available in ebook form.

It’s terrific reading so far:  intriguingly, Saul’s thesis about the rise of “Reason” and the technocrats feels both incredibly fresh and germane and completely out of touch with modern reality.  The internet would become a fact of life for elite America just five years after Voltaire’s Bastards was published, and 10 years after that it would be a nearly ubiquitous fact of life.  And we’re still 10 years past that, well into the world of Uber and Facebook.

This is a series of events which Saul’s thesis has everything to say about, but on which it is utterly silent owing to its year of publication.  Its silence on these critical issues is deeply frustrating:  to my mind Saul’s thesis is enhanced by the development of online technology, but the examples he actually uses are dated and almost quaint.  This matters in a way that it does not in a book like Walden or Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, because Voltaire’s Bastards is speaking to a very specific set of historical contingencies rather than to the timeless nature of the human self.

Continue reading Education in the technocratic age (notes from Voltaire’s Bastards)

What’s the matter with Poland? (And everywhere else …)

While the Republican Presidential Nomination is the obvious car wreck to watch, I find myself more compelled by

1)  The American student protest movement

2)  The South African student protest movement (which I have also written about in brief here)

and

3)  The trend towards autocracy in Poland. (Which you can also quickly read about here )

There may be a number of things that they have in common, but I think the common denominator for me psychologically is the way to which they all call into question – and rather terrifyingly – the assumptions on which we base our notions of progress.

Continue reading What’s the matter with Poland? (And everywhere else …)

A bad Star Wars movie would have been better than a pointless one

Much in the way that the second Star Wars trilogy made the original worse, the seventh installment in the series makes episodes 1-3 look better.

The original Star Wars was undeniably – and admittedly – a pastiche of all the pulp genres that had come before it (cowboy, samurai, Flash Gordon/space opera) their content was wholly derivative but their mixing was novel, their aesthetic unheard of (nobody had ever presented a technologically advanced civilization with dirty second-hand tech in constant need of repair before) and the film style used to hold them together – the sharp fades and non-stop pace of the plot, the quick archetypal treating of characters otherwise held so tight they had no room to breath – was a genuine stylistic breakthrough. The original trilogy was so superb in no small part because the medium was the message, and it was a genuine advance.

The films that followed (episodes 1-3) were so disappointing to fans I no small part because they actually tried to do something different. This is not to excuse their many flaws in execution, which were significant and ultimately the real problem with the films, but those flaws have obscured one central fact from popular observation: rather than simply repeating his blockbuster formula (really “the” blockbuster formula), Lucas had a vision to create something new that would extend, deepen, and (had it gone right) enhance the original story he told.

Continue reading A bad Star Wars movie would have been better than a pointless one