Tag Archives: Culture

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

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

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)


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

The Parallels of Polarized Discourse

What if the medium is the message is the zietgiest?

There may be no odder quirk of fate – or sign of the times – than the fact that both the Movement Conservatives on the right and the student activist movement on the left are demanding safe spaces in which they need not be confronted by opposing views.

This is not to conflate the two movements, or suggest they are fundamentally the same – but the trend of ideological polarization that demographers have been noting in America for decades (Blue States get bluer, Red States get redder, and people of identical incomes are increasingly clustered) is having an impact on the way debate is conceptualized in this country.

Given both increasing demographic segregation, and the increasing segmentation of the (social) media into targeted niches, should it really be a surprise that the nature of debate has gone from trying to win arguments to demanding freedom from the existence of opposing arguments?


Continue reading The Parallels of Polarized Discourse

Will the “real” Rebecca Solnit please confirm that she is not an enemy of Humanity?

Sometimes the more evidence there is, the more difficult it can be to evaluate someone as a thinker.  Especially across multiple forms of media.  I wonder sometimes if, much in the way sound travels through different forms of matter in different ways, ideas also sometimes travel differently across interviews and essays and speeches.

I have not only enjoyed but been thoroughly impressed by the interviews I have seen author and well-quoted-feminist Rebecca Solnit give.  I’ve found her thoughtful, incisive, and comprehensive.  I’ve enjoyed Solnit in sound-bite form too.  I mean, she coined the term “Manspalining,” which … until it became so thoroughly part of the lexicon as to die from exposure … elegantly served a useful purpose.

Based on such shining, I thought hers to be a star I ought to let guide me, and so I bought her latest book:  “Men Explain Things To Me.”  Here the struggle begins, because I find her essays to be tedious, pedantic, and sometimes so horrifically wrong as to make me question either her seriousness or her sanity. Continue reading Will the “real” Rebecca Solnit please confirm that she is not an enemy of Humanity?

What we don’t know about Demon Camp can haunt us

There’s no sight in nature more beautiful to me than the dance of epistemologies, but of late I’ve begun tuning out articles on “science vs. religion” and “atheism or faith” because the Death of God appears to have discharged more heat than light.  When the usual suspects make the usual points in the usual way to the usual crowd, a wise man is forgiven for playing “Flappy Birds” instead of taking notes.

I grant you that a subject like this dates back thousands of years and advances at a glacial pace, but it does advance.  The writing about it in much of the popular press does not.  It treats the clash of culture the way it treats celebrity outfits – an infinitely renewable source of the same old adjectives draping the flavor of the week.

I also have a problem with Flappy Bird.

So after a long scholarly winter I’m pleased to have some truly thought provoking works on how we navigate the search for divinity and our place in the world.

It’s hard to recommend Adam Gropnik’s New York piece “Bigger Than Phil” enough.  A subtle, nuanced, search not so much of the issues of theological epistemology (how do we know God does or doesn’t exist) but of the moment when our cultural switched from one default position (“of course there’s a God”) to another (“what kind of intellectual could possibly be a believer?”).  In that look at our history, of course, we discover a lot about our present that’s worth knowing, and Gropnik is an elegant cultural coroner.

“The problem is that godlessness as a felt condition is very different from atheism as an articulate movement,” he notes.  “(W)e are divided not so much between believers and non- as between what might be called Super-Naturalists, who believe that a material account of existence is inadequate to our numinous-seeming experience, and Self-Makers, who are prepared to let the human mind take credit even for the most shimmering bits of life.” … “Indeed, much of the argument against God works less well as argument and thesis than as atmosphere and tone. The sappers who silently undermined the foundations of the Church did more damage than the soldiers who stormed the walls.”

And then there’s this insightful section, which deserves to be quoted in its entirety: Continue reading What we don’t know about Demon Camp can haunt us