On sharpening contradictions

In connection with the recent atrocities in Paris, Juan Cole has written an important piece on “sharpening the contradictions“, which Cole characterizes as a political strategy that may result in ordinary, generally decent people being co-opted by some very unsavory figures. As Cole puts it:

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.

Therefore, Al-Qaeda may find themselves emboldened by the anti-Muslim bigotry that’s likely to spread as an unfortunate yet foreseeable consequence of the Paris attacks, and then the cycle repeats itself.

The underlying concept is found somewhat more broadly, in my view, and its effects may follow regardless of intent. It’s not necessary that Al-Qaeda (or whomever) intends to so organize people in service of their goals. If reactions to the attacks only help to further polarize Muslims and non-Muslims, rather than produce actual solidarity across religious and ethnic lines, their specific intention might not matter very much.

The concept is also reflected in the French phrase, les extrêmes se touchent1 — that extreme acts, and the extreme reactions that follow, can sometimes lead to similar ends.

You can help prevent yourself from being turned upside-down by simply considering the actual (not ideal) consequences of your action or inaction. Is your response to the outrageous acts of others likely to promote broad solidarity, or is it likely to further isolate large groups of people? And if it isolates large groups of people, what happens to those people? Are they left to be organized by some charlatan? And if so, what’s likely to happen to the people with whom you ostensibly once found some solidarity?

  1. “The extremes are touching.”

Some thoughts on Ferguson

I’m pleased to see that Ferguson has made people more aware of police violence and the fact that it often goes unpunished.

However, I don’t believe anyone can honestly claim to be particularly surprised by the events. Ferguson is not unprecedented. It’s simply a publicized example of what happens with some regularity across the United States.

Anyone who has been to a demonstration isn’t unfamiliar with the sight of our militarized and aggressive police forces. It’s deeply troubling, and as violent and terrible as it is, it remains a fairly mild form of what the United States and its allies have brought to other populations for many years.

Recognizing all this is important, but it’s not enough.

Everyone should be outraged about Ferguson, and the failure of the prosecutor to secure an indictment, but we also have a responsibility to act, and this responsibility is proportional to our privilege.

Decent people with privilege — however that privilege manifests itself — cannot limit their political involvement to voting and expressing outrage. They are the barest things we can do to effect positive change, and there is plenty more that we can do.

The other things we can do often look deceptively minor. Important things like making donations, writing letters, convincing those who are mistaken, and offering our support to others in need may seem like trivial things that have no larger consequence. They can even seem hopelessly naïve. But this is a fatal mistake, and it’s one that only serves the status quo.

When you write a letter to your Congressperson, imagine that a thousand others will do the same. When you make a donation, assume many millions will follow. When you participate in a march, imagine everyone leaving their houses to join you. When you convince a confused person of their error, think about everyone else doing the same, and think about the incredible effect that could have.

Everything we enjoy is the consequence of many millions of tiny actions by people we do not know, and everything we regret is just the same.

Respectable beyond question

@ Jim Naureckas published an important observation about the news treatment of the numerous rape allegations that have been made against Bill Cosby. The observation is applicable not only to NPR’s interview, but a separate unedited interview recently released by AP. (It also applies quite generally to how the media deals with topics it deems unsavory.)

The rape allegations have received very little news coverage over the years, but their recent circulation in social media has made it impossible for mainstream outlets to ignore them. Now, AP and NPR want to take credit for being bold and vigorous in search of the truth.

The only problem is, consistent with their past inaction that effectively suppressed the years-old allegations, neither organization even bothered to explain what Cosby had been accused of in their initial interviews with him. A listener could be excused if they believed that Cosby had been caught in an extramarital affair or with unpaid parking tickets.

Instead, a couple of the more trusted news organizations made the most pained and obsequious efforts to tip toe around the issue, and in so doing, sought to preserve for Cosby that air of respectability that is not merely beyond reproach but beyond even the mildest questioning.

On optimism

@ I recently attended a discussion group on the topic of optimism. In it, we discussed the very real, and often substantial, general progess toward a more civilized and just world that vaguely accompanies the passage of time. When you look at rates of poverty, war, disease, murder, or illiteracy, you can see in broad strokes that humanity is becoming more humane (or less inhumane if you prefer). As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

This is worth keeping in mind as an important and useful counterweight to our increasing awareness of the world around us, which includes an increasing awareness of human atriocities, and the feelings of hopelessness that often seem to come attached.

It’s tempting to read news or opinion and conclude the very worst about humanity. Judging from social media, it even seems to be in fashion. But no good can come from this. If we apply such a conclusion to ourselves, then we’re perhaps honest but will grow to despise ourselves. If we do not, then we’re hypocrites and will tend toward narcissism and dishonesty.

And so, challenging though it may be, it seems to me that the best course is to read broadly, and conclude from it absolutely nothing about humanity at large. Our view of humanity should follow from first principles, including hopefully our optimism. We should bring this to bear on our reading, and not allow the converse.

Should socialists eat brunch?

In Should socialists smoke good cigars? (1932), Bertrand Russell considers whether it is unethical to consume more than one’s share, if everything ought to be divided equally. Many would perhaps admit that it is unethical, but defy the principle anyway. However, Russell suggests it is not so clear.

If it were unethical to consume more than an equal share of the world’s income, then in order to live ethically, one would need to make do with about $10,000 per year. For many of those living in industrialized countries, this would be plainly impossible. So, if the principle holds, we’re left with the result that the majority of people in such countries are living unethically, and perhaps cannot do otherwise, including many of the very poorest in these countries.

Try to advocate for a more equitable world on that platform.

David Shaftel tries as he might in his Brunch is for Jerks, writing:

There’s something more malevolent at work than simply the proliferation of Hollandaise sauce that I suspect comes from a packet. Brunch has become the most visible symptom of a demographic shift that has taken place in our neighborhood and others like it. As rents have gone up, our area has become unaffordable to much of the middle class, and to young families who want more than two bedrooms — or can’t even afford one.

This leaves an increasing number of well-off young professionals who are unencumbered by children — exactly the kind of people who can fritter away Saturday, Sunday or both over a boozy brunch. Our once diverse neighborhood now brims with the homogeneity of an elite university.

Shaftel shows his concern for social justice by chastising those who have the resources to eat breakfast foods at lunchtime hours. Inequity is captured best by the endless stacks of starch and sugar that the Fortunate consume.

However, it would be a mistake to suggest that Shaftel’s disdain for pleasure is primarily motivated by his concern for social justice. He’s actually just feeling a little old:

For me, having a child — and perhaps the introspection that comes with turning 40 — made me realize what most vexes me about brunch: Once the domain of Easter Sunday, it has become a twice-weekly symbol of our culture’s increasing desire to reject adulthood. It’s about throwing out not only the established schedule but also the social conventions of our parents’ generation. It’s about reveling in the naughtiness of waking up late, having cocktails at breakfast and eggs all day. It’s the mealtime equivalent of a Jeff Koons sculpture1.

So before you eat brunch, if you won’t think of the poor, think of the children.

  1. If anything shows that one is of the people, it’s a reference to some controversy in the New York art world.

Comedians and truth

@ Jerry Seinfeld on advertisers at an awards ceremony for advertising:

I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy. Because a brief moment of happiness is pretty good.

Seinfeld has a real talent for observing human behavior, locating the absurdity that often underlies it, and distilling it in almost clinical terms. If an anthropologist from Mars landed on earth and studied us, their conclusions would probably be indistinguishable from Seinfeld’s. Our reaction to them, however, would be quite different.

After Seinfeld made the remarks, the audience — largely made up of advertising professionals — laughed uproariously. People don’t ordinarily laugh when someone expresses contempt for their being, unless that person is insane or a comedian.

I wonder what that means. Do we laugh because the truth makes us feel uncomfortable? Or do we laugh because we think comedians are harmless liars?

I think the latter would be a mistake. Many comedians seem to me our greatest truth-tellers.

The Herd of Independent Minds

@ From Harold Rosenberg’s essay, The Herd of Independent Minds (1948):

The mass-culture maker, who takes his start from the experience of others, is essentially a reflector of myths, and is without experience to communicate. To him man is an object seen from the outside. Indeed it could be demonstrated that the modern mass-culture élite […] actually has less experience than the rest of humanity, less even than the consumers of its products.

To the professional of mass culture, knowledge is the knowledge of what is going on in other people; he alone trades his experience for the experience of experience. Everyone has met those culture-conscious “responsibles” who think a book or movie or magazine wonderful not because it illuminates or pleases them but because it tells “the people” what they “ought to know.”

I think the principle here extends beyond the mass-culture maker to include many mass-culture consumers. It’s a common sport to talk about what “the masses” think, feel, or do — often to the exclusion of what one’s self thinks, feels, or does.

Comments and chaos

@ Elizabeth Spiers touches upon comments in her return to personal blogging:

In the days before comments on blogs, you could generally have a thoughtful conversation online without everything degenerating into madness and chaos simply because responding to a post required that you wrote a post on your own blog and linked back. This created a certain level of default accountability because if someone wanted to flame you, they had to do it on their own real estate, and couldn’t just crap all over yours anonymously.

I’ve always thought comments are a losing proposition from both the perspective of the commenter and the blogger. The commenter consigns their thoughts to a third-party, as if blogs are scarce and hyperlinks expensive, and the blogger hosts a discussion that has practically no structure.

Spiers is right about flaming and the lack of accountability, but I’m equally irritated by the trivial utterances of assent that comments also bring. Blogging can help us enrich our connections to one another, and I think comments often cheapen these connections.

Political temperature

@ From Bertrand Russell’s Icarus, or The Future of Science (1924):

Some people think that we keep our rooms too hot for health, others that we keep them too cold. If this were a political question, one party would maintain that the best temperature is the absolute zero, the other that it is the melting point of iron. Those who maintained any intermediate position would be abused as timorous time-servers, concealed agents of the other side, men who ruined the enthusiasm of a sacred cause by tepid appeals to mere reason. Any man who had the courage to say that our rooms ought to be neither very hot nor very cold would be abused by both parties, and probably shot in No Man’s Land.

I think it’s also important to acknowledge a third kind of partisan. Namely, those who maintain the best temperature is a moderate temperature, not for reasons of comfort but solely because it is neither hot nor cold.

Making computers work for you

It’s been a little while since I’ve made computers actually work for me, rather than the converse, and I’ve been feeling increasingly manipulated by them (or more precisely, by many of those who program them).

That changes now.

Moving forward, I intend to be a lot more deliberate about what reaches my attention. The filters that social networks have constructed serve primarily their ends, not my own, so I will build new filters.

Just one simple filter: A few simple CSS rules that hide the Facebook home feed. Five seconds of work, and now Facebook works for me, as what I’ve always wanted it to be: A fairly dumb directory of my friends and interesting events. A way for me to find out what they’re up to, on my own time and when I’m interested.

That last bit might sound a little selfish, but I think it’s not. None of us have the unconditional right to forcibly take others’ attention, and I’m certain none of us intend to, but the addictive qualities of Facebook (in conjunction with the never-ending content) produce just that result.

Another filter: No notifications, except those that I deliberately choose. Each and every notification constitutes a minor encroachment on our lives. One every so often might not be a big deal, but if you live with the defaults, you’re going to get notifications constantly. This is emotionally draining.

If a person acted the way that many notifications do, you’d think they were being psychologically abusive.

Therefore, all notifications are off, except ones that map to genuinely urgent items. This includes synchronous communications for work, and certain emails, but nothing else. I won’t neglect these non-urgent things, but I will deal with them deliberately. I hope to restore some meaning to the word “urgent”.

I don’t think computers are intrinsically useful, but rather that we must make them useful. By being a little more conscious of their effects, and by using them actively and to my own ends, I think I will grow to like them again.