Saturday, March 18, 2017

links for the weekend: The Atlantic muses on how American innovation might be complacency; Gopnik at the New Yorker briefly pretends liberalism might be on the wrong side of history; thoughts within the left on the gulf between the feminism off the 99 and the 1

Americans have fallen in love with the idea of their entrepreneurial spirit. Silicon Valley seems to have replaced New York City as the country’s metropolitan mascot of dynamism. Innovation is the unofficial buzzword of corporate America, and news organizations heap praise on the zillionaire startup heroes of the Millennial generation.
But this is a mirage, according to the economist and popular writer Tyler Cowen, whose new book is The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. In fact, the nation's dynamism is in the dumps. Americans move less than they used to. They start fewer companies. Caught in the hypnotic undertow of TV and video games, they are less likely to go outside. Even the federal government itself has transformed from an investment vehicle, which once spent a large share of its money on infrastructure and research, to an insurance conglomerate, which spends more than half its money on health care and Social Security. A nation of risk-takers has become a nation of risk-mitigation experts.
The sign of a good book is that it helps readers see the world through a useful lens. Cowen’s book is a full of “huh, I hadn’t thought about it like that” moments, even on topics that I’ve spent years thinking about. For example, in the last few years, many people, like myself, have argued that the American Dream is dying in America, while it seems to be flourishing more in Canada and northern Europe. But Cowen argues persuasively that many international comparisons fail to account for the fact that lots of people are achieving the American Dream—they just weren’t born in America. “When there is mobility in the American labor market, it comes disproportionately from Mexicans and Mexican Americans,” he writes. “Denmark hasn’t elevated nearly as many immigrants, in either absolute or percentage terms, as America.” In other words, America didn’t completely lose the dream. Rather, the only dreamers left are immigrants.

in the realm of effective clickbait, Washington Post notes a NY assemblymen has proposed a bill that could create an American "right to be forgotten" on internet search engines.

Seeing as one of the unique aspects of our freedom of speech culture, in legal terms, that makes us different from European legal precedents is that we don't have a "right to be forgotten" it'd be nice to keep that element.  Alastair Roberts wrote a bit about the problems of viewing freedom of speech entirely in negative terms earlier so I don't feel like linking back to that just now, but regulars of this blog probably already knowI think the "right to be forgotten" precedent in European culture is not something the United States press and blogging culture needs.  I spent some time at a church where a guy used to preach regularly about the importance of legacy.  Part of the importance of legacy is not being forgotten so by extension no one who cares about legacy should WANT to be forgotten. :)

Also in a clickbait realm (it's all clickbait but not all clickbait is of the same flavor) Adam Gopnik has
"Is Liberalism on the Wrong Side of History?"  Don't think liberalism as "blue state" but as the Western tradition of the last few centuries.
...As in painting and drawing, manual dexterity counted for as much as deep thoughts—more, in truth, for everyone had the deep thoughts, and it took dexterity to make telescopes that really worked. Mokyr knows Asian history, and shows, in a truly humbling display of erudition, that in China the minds evolved but not the makers. The Chinese enlightenment happened, but it was strictly a thinker’s enlightenment, where Mandarins never talked much to the manufacturers. In this account, Voltaire and Rousseau are mere vapor, rising from a steam engine as it races forward. It was the perpetual conversation between technicians and thinkers that made the Enlightenment advance. TED talks are a licensed subject for satire, but in Mokyr’s view TED talks are, in effect, what separate modernity from antiquity and the West from the East. Guys who think big thoughts talking to guys who make cool machines—that’s where the leap happens.

The history that Mokyr details can be seen as a story of gradually decreased metaphysical illusion, with ineffable spirit being driven, by turns, out of the cosmos, the biological tree, and the human mind. In the final reduction, the idea of the “human” itself may vanish into algorithms and programs. The coolest machine of all thinks its big thoughts for itself.
This is the view of Yuval Noah Harari, a lecturer at the Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, and the author of “Sapiens,” a bracingly unsentimental history of humankind, which was praised by everyone from Jared Diamond to President Obama. “Homo Deus” extends Harari’s argument about man’s fate far into the future. The first fifty or so pages go by smoothly, with a confident, convincing account of the transformations that have made the world less treacherous than ever before. He reprises, in rosy if not Pinkerian hues, the long peace and our advance toward an era of declining violence; we moved from an age where divine authority sponsored our institutions and values to a human-centered age of liberal individualism, where values were self-generated. Then he announces his bald thesis: that “once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end, and a completely new process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend.”

A reader can’t help noting that anti-liberal polemics, today as in the lurid polemical pasts that Mishra revisits, always have more force and gusto than liberalism’s defenses have ever had. Best-sellers tend to have big pictures, secret histories, charismatic characters, guilty parties, plots discovered, occult secrets unlocked. Voltaire’s done it! The Singularity is upon us! The World is flat! Since scientific liberalism of the kind Mokyr details believes that history doesn’t have a preordained plot, and that the individual case, not the enveloping essence, is the only quantum that history provides, it is hard for it to dramatize itself in quite this way. The middle way is not the way of melodrama. (That’s why long novels are the classic liberal medium, and why the best one is called “Middlemarch.”)
Beneath all the anti-liberal rhetoric is an unquestioned insistence: that the way in which our societies seem to have gone wrong is evidence of a fatal flaw somewhere in the systems we’ve inherited. This is so quickly agreed on and so widely accepted that it seems perverse to dispute it. But do causes and effects work quite so neatly, or do we search for a cause because the effect is upon us? We can make a false idol of causality. Looking at the rise of Trump, the fall of Europe, one sees a handful of contingencies that, arriving in a slightly different way, would have broken a very different pane.

So if we pivot from The New Yorker to The New Republic we get a proposal that if there's a problem in liberalism it's a problem that can be described in terms of privilege.

It was only in 2016 that politics went full privilege turn. The Democratic contest was all about “privilege,” with Bernie Sanders’s and Hillary Clinton’s supporters incessantly accusing the other side of supporting their candidate because of their (that is, the supporters’) unearned advantages. Privilege accusation, however, is by no means limited to intra-left battles. Conservatives regularly accuse liberals of unchecked privilege, and they have been doing so for years. The old “limousine liberal” clichĂ© became the ideological underpinning of intellectual conservatism. In 2010, political scientist (and controversial The Bell Curve coauthor) Charles Murray wrote in The Washington Post that “the New Elite spend school with people who are mostly just like them—which might not be so bad, except that so many of them have been ensconced in affluent suburbs from birth and have never been outside the bubble of privilege.” This insight led him, two years later, to produce a “bubble” quiz, which if anything anticipated the viral privilege-checklist phenomenon. It asked (and asks; a reissue appeared in 2016) well-educated white liberals to admit they had no idea what NASCAR was, and that they thus were too out of touch to know what’s good for the country.  ...

A theme that could be extrapolated from this is that what passes for feminism in the contemporary American age may not be feminism for all women but a feminism for the one percent, to wit, the Clintons and Beyonces of the world.


As far as [Ariel] Levy is concerned, the fruits feminism owed her were a vibrant career, a marriage, and the ability to bear a child. The fact that one week she thought she had these things but the next week, she didn’t, is the book’s central action, the reality treated as both exemplary and instructive for readers who apparently would otherwise not believe that “we can’t have it all.” “It’s all so over-the-top,” she writes, referring to her divorce, the sale of her house, and the end of her pregnancy. “Am I in an Italian opera? A Greek tragedy?” While surely she suffered, nothing about the vehicles of that suffering is rare or unexpected. Millions of Americans have divorced; millions more than once. As many as ten million Americans lost their homes in the recession alone, and it’s estimated that up to a quarter of all pregnancies result in miscarriage. People in Greek tragedies kill their children, accidentally marry their mothers, and commit suicide; they don’t amicably separate from their partners before flying to South Africa on a self-devised writing assignment for their high-paying job.

In a phrase, Levy is a member of one of the ruling castes, to use the useful old left/Marxist way of putting things.  The debates about what privilege is and who has it could be a lot of smoke or a lot of heat without light, but it could also highlight that in educational terms the sorts of people most likely to recognize privilege may be those who have ideological incentives to exonerate themselves of having the privilege they have. 

I've been writing off and on about how the old coalitions on the Left and the Right have crumbled in the last thirty years.  It can be too easy for those ensconced within either the bubble of the left or the bubble of the right to presume that the other team has a unified front, neither side seems to have a unified coalition any more.  For want of a better way to describe things, being unified out of spite for whatever you think the other team stands for is not the same thing as sharing values in common.  D. G. Hart had a little book about how the coalition on the right that Reagan held together briefly, so to speak, crumbled in the wake of the Cold War's end.  A comparable alliance on the left seems to have, at length, also crumbled.  Part of what that means is that the feminism that holds Clinton or BeyoncĂ© as emblems of girl power or the sisterhood may discover that even from within the left, to say nothing of the right, women may come to regard the basking in the power and privilege of class will not suffice. 

I'm not particularly liberal/left in my own tendencies, as regular readers will have worked out, but it's been fascinating to read across the political spectrum and get the impression that if a Trump appealed to angry white reactionaries on one side that Sanders could appeal to angry white radicals (and others) on the other.  I do try to read across the span between Jacobin and The Weekly Standard as I can. That the DNC didn't let Sanders get the nomination by dint of late arrival makes sense at one level, but at another level the DNC's refusal to let a populist agitator hijack the game may signal that the DNC has been managed by a ruling elite that doesn't want a populist agitator to have influence.  In other words, it's not a false equivalence to suggest that the DNC liberal/left may ultimately represent entrenched power preserving its own collective interests over against the public good within the blue machine as has been said of the red machine. It was easy last year for people within the blue scene to snort that the Republicans were stuck with Trump back when it seemed certain Trump couldn't possibly win, back when the assumption seemed to be that there was no way Trump was going to win the Electoral College system.  And now who is stuck with Trump?

There may be those who regard the election of Trump as an apocalyptic event.  There's two ways of understanding apocalyptic among many.  Much of the time in American popular imagination, perhaps due to some strange mixture of dispensationalist/futurist thought or residual postmillennialism or something else, presents us with the apocalyptic as the end of all things.  The world as we know it comes to an end when Skynet becomes self aware.  Authors at local weeklies can talk about how in Trump's America it no longer feels safe to be a woman even though just ten months ago it may not have been any more safe to be a woman in the Seattle area than it has been since.  But the apocalyptic imagination proposes that an era has changed, and often in popular imagination that era change is for the worse. 

But the apocalyptic genre does not only ever deal with what Christians call eschatological topics, the things of the end.  Apocalyptic can also be a kind of theological and political idiom that reveals the true nature of what things are.  Cal P mentioned this over at a blog post earlier and it seems useful to mention now, the apocalyptic idiom having both an eschatological and a revelatory component that we should keep distinct may help us in an era of Trump.  It's obviously not "the end" here, since people can read stuff on the internet.  But at another level Trump may constitute an apocalyptic moment revealing to blue state America what the real nature of the political order has always been.  But it seems that to go by debates and differences within the liberal/left scene there's room for debate as to whether the liberal/left has recognized its own role in this apocalyptic transition. 

TO put it dryly, I've become jaded about the apocalyptic panic of red and blue partisans in the last twenty years.  Obama did not replace the dollar with the amero.  Christians did not get sent to FEMA camps.  Conversely, George Bush 2 did not suspend the Constitution, declare martial law, appoint himself president for life and set  out to invade Iran. 

Hollywood may have sold us and itself a magical vision of what passes for journalism and truth-telling.  During the years I was documenting the history of Mars Hill and tracking things it could seem as though there were people wanting a silver bullet, a single incontrovertible revelation of this or that that, once revealed, could bring the entire empire crumbling down.  That's Hollywood fantasy, and it's ultimately a power fantasy of an egregious and deceptive nature.  In the post-mortem of Driscoll's Seattle empire the observation was rightly made that it was no one thing that brought him down.

What seems missing in both the liberal reaction to Trump and the conservative reaction to Trump can seem like a crisis of core principles.  Liberalism of .... what?  Liberalism can be thought of as a tradition but also as a trend.  What is being preserved?  The puzzle is more or less comparable on the other side, conservatives are trying to conserve .... what, exactly?  Despite the labels liberal and conservative or even radical and reactionary, it's as if everyone has gone into reactive reactionary mode since November.  What are we trying to conserve and why?  Are we sure it's worth conserving?  One of my progressive friends told me that if, for instance, the global ecological crisis is what it seems to be is there really a point to a redistributive economic program if our global economy needs to shift away from being dependent on fossil fuels in the long run?  That can seem like a fair point.  Redistributing the economic pie in the post-industrial West could seem like a fool's errand if the global ecosphere will be harmed by a continual reliance on fossil fuels.  And if that's true then what's the value in pushing for the kinds of socially progressive aims the Western left has been shooting for?  Letting more post-industrial Westerners enjoy a higher standard of living that may be the doom of the global ecosphere?  If that's the case then the worst thing to be is a asocial progressive in the contemporary Western style if the long-term goal is a more sustainable ecologically informed approach to social life.  The priesthood of social progress and the arts could, in this kind of light, turn out to be the real bad guys regardless of red and blue concerns. 

We've had years of Jon Stewart or other comedians providing political commentary being heroes to liberals and leftists and yet the signal aspect of that priesthood seems to have been that for the most part the priests and prophets stayed out of formal political power and stuck to the priesthood, so to speak.  There might be exceptions like Al Franken, of course.  Hollywood tradition seems to be that the priests don't seek the royal scepter but anoint those worthy of receiving it.  Preferably a Kennedy or a Clinton, perhaps.  You don't seize the scepter for yourself because it's unbecoming.  Or at least that seems to be the blue state variant of civic religion.  The red state variant of civic religion has shown us it has a different set of convictions.  When a red state priest gains the level of brand recognition and popularity typical of a blue state priest it seems the conviction is that reaching for the royal scepter is almost a requirement.

It's hard to shake a general loathing of the two-party system at this point.  These two civic religions will not be satisfied with compromise.  Nor will the red and blue civic religions grant sustained internal criticism.  This has nothing to do with the fact that substantial and sustained internal criticism has been happening within the left and right in small ways; it's more about how what we seem stuck with is the polarity of propaganda campaigns, how for the red and the blue the coherence and sustainability of the internal program is dependent on the assumption of the other team being already unified.  It becomes the basis from which to ignore the possibility of internal criticism because the assumption is that if we don't all get on the same page NOW the enemy will win.

That mentality had a firm place in Mars Hill over the course of a decade.  Once that viewpoint could be dropped internal criticism and division did happen.  It needed to happen.

But a comparable internal critique of a gap between stated first principles and real-world behavior seems off the table for the left and right establishments in the US.


Cal P said...

I got cited! I'm relevant! :)

Anyway, Zizek said in a lecture he really liked the movie V for Vendetta. But what he would really like would be the sequel. What happens after the revolution? Where do we go from there? What would happen if Jack ever did destroy Aku? That's what Hollywood fails and struggles with. There's a double movement: we hurdle towards the future with a fantastical love, while we're simultaneously pessimistic in our visions. The Futurists with their absurd visions are met with a simultaneous rapture of annihilation. We fantasize of AI and upgrading the Human race, and are pelted with I-Robot, the Matrix, Terminator. Cure for Cancer? I am Legend's Zombie apocalypse. The American Empire of the 21st century is, in a lot of ways, like the Victorian British Empire of the 19th. It was the era that was incredibly prudish and sexually repressive, while also the most gushing with prostitutes, pornography, elite sex clubs, and gothic erotica through pulp on vampires and other creatures. Maybe that's what privilege really means at a national level: we're secure enough in our own power and way of life we can day dream about our collective suicide.

It might seem pessimistic, but maybe this is actually the fruit of unbridled optimism. It's the swagger of someone secure in his own ability and place that he can joke about getting fired. Maybe this "dark age" of television is not a change in the American spirit, but its consummation. The true believer is the sarcastic character and mocker who does his job at the end of the day. He believes at such a deep level that his verbal and social conduct, seemingly oppositional and non-conformist, is epiphenomenal. Maybe this is, in part, why the so-called liberals immediately flocked to Michael Hayden and the CIA as almost heroes in battling the Trump-Troll.

This is why Capitalism is truly a sinister and nearly invulnerable politico-economic social structure. The secret, as displayed in Mad Men, is that it can almost adapt and absorb all challenges and reorient them. Grunge was almost immediately inverted and became a marketing slogan. Individuality is a brand. I think about St. Paul's warning to not peddle or hawk the Gospel.

I wonder if Revolution or actual social change is like hitting a tv to fix it. There are tons of factors, all of which no one can really understand. Sometimes jostling it, without really any technical precision, is exactly how everything falls back into place. I don't know, but I thought it was a funny image.


PS. Ironfist came out on Netflix. I've been watching it and have liked it so far (I always love David Wenham). Are you going to watch it/review it? If not, I'm putting in a request.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

The observation you made about apocalyptic was a useful reminder to me that as I've studied apocalyptic literature and eschatology in the last decade and a half I realized that many of the views I disagree with tend to collapse eschatology and apocalyptic into a single unified field. Now, sure, apocalyptic tends toward socio-political commentary and in traditional Christian thought eschatology and apocalyptic overlap but if we remember that they are distinct categories and that only God ushers in the true end of things it may help us resist the temptation to see ourselves as having to play the eschatological role as we come to a fuller understanding of, for want of a better way of putting it, our apocalyptic identity as the Body of Christ in the current age.

I haven't seen Iron Fist yet. It takes me a while to get to some stuff. I might manage to get around to Iron Fist but it may take a while. I've got some musical premiere stuff coming up later this year and some badly overdue Justice League essays to write. But I'll try to keep Iron Fist in mind.