Taibbi: The Divide

Matt Taibbi’s new book The Divide is superb. Everyone needs to read it right away. He oscillates from heartbreaking descriptions of people arrested for “blocking pedestrian traffic” (these arrests are purely done to meet police quotas) and enraging explanations of white-collar criminal activity that’s never investigated, let alone punished.

What emerges is a devastating critique of dysfunctional American injustice, especially for those on the top and bottom of our economic system. Toward the end he explains beautifully:

This goes far beyond the oft-quoted liberal cliché about how we now have “two Americas”, one for the rich and one for the poor, with different sets of laws and different levels of punishment (or more to the point, nonpunishment) for each. The rich have always gotten breaks and the poor have always had to swim upstream. The new truth is infinitely darker and more twisted.

The new truth is a sci-fi movie, a dystopia. And in this sci-fi world the issues aren’t justice and injustice, but biology and mortality. We have a giant, meat-grinding bureaucracy that literally alters the physical makeup of its citizens, systematically grinding down the losers in a smaller, meeker, lower race of animal while aggrandizing the winners, making them bigger than life, impervious, super-people.

Again, the poor have always faced the sharp end of the stick. And the rich have always fought ferociously to protect their privilege, not just in America but everywhere.

What’s different now is that these quaint old inequities have become internalized in that “second government” — a vast system of increasingly unmangeable bureaucracies, spanning both the public and private sectors. These inscrutable, irrational structures, crisscrossing back and forth between the worlds of debt and banking and law enforcement, are growing up organically around the pounding twin impulses that drive modern America: burning hatred of all losers and the poor, and breathless, abject worship of the rich, even the talentless and undeserving rich.

The Pessimism of George RR Martin and the Inadequacy of Game of Thrones

“Pessimism about man serves to maintain the status quo. It is a luxury for the affluent, a sop to the guilt of the politically inactive, a comfort to those who continue to enjoy the amenities of privilege.” — Leon Eisenberg

“All the pessimists in world history together are nothing against reality.” — Elias Canetti

“[A pessimist is] a man who thinks everybody as nasty as himself, and hates them for it.” — George Bernard Shaw

Note: I haven’t read the books. If you feel this disqualifies me from responding to the show, it’s probably best that you stop reading now. You will be missed.

Game of Thrones is the Human Centipede of fantasy epics in the 21st century. Both stories revel in the deplorable wretchedness of humans at their worst, without any viable mention of compassion, empathy, or conscience. Both stories work primarily to shock and revolt audiences, exploiting our emotions rather than digging into the deep soil of humanity.

There’s no question about the skill of Monsieur Martin (and the show’s writers) in creating complex characters, effective dialogue, and epic story arcs. My complaint is not with his skill with the tools of fiction writing; my complaint is with how he uses these tools.

There’s also no question about — and therefore hopefully no reason for me to discuss — the horrible brutality of GoT. We’re introduced to sympathetic characters and hopeful situations, only to watch them mutilated without mercy. Much has been written about the veneer of Schadenfreude that permeates Martin’s work, and many of his fans delight in watching newcomers cringe and squirm as good butchered by evil.

Responding to this phenomenon, Martin is quite clear. When asked by Entertainment Weekly if his books present a cynical view of human nature, he said:

I think the books are realistic. I’ve always liked gray characters. And as for the gods, I’ve never been satisfied by any of the answers that are given. If there really is a benevolent loving god, why is the world full of rape and torture?

A fair question, and I wish neither to argue to problem of evil from scratch, nor demand a theistic narrative paradigm. But Martin’s worldview as depicted in GoT is unrelentingly negative, and it is pessimistic. It pretends that compassion and empathy are statistically insignificant freaks of nature.

But this is not a full and fair accounting of reality, and I am tired of seeing hideous atrocities presented as the only “real” things, with the vast array of other human interaction derided as “unrealistic”.

To wit: Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He worked with the VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) program, part of Johnson’s War on Poverty. He clearly believed that there was a pathology in carpet-bombing thatched huts in Vietnam, and that he could do some good in refusing to fight.

So where are the conscientious objectors in Westeros? Why are there no scenes of compassion triumphing in small ways against hideous evil? I’m not calling for simplistic Pollyanna happiness, nor an idiotic deus ex machina to stop the wicked machinations of the Lannisters. But blood and suffering are the only “reality” we’re given. (A few tiny moments of romantic or motherly tenderness are inevitably bookmarked by elongated sequences of torture, rape, and murder.)

At the risk of repeating myself: Those horrible atrocities are not the full and fair reality of our world.

You cannot tell the story of the Santa Cruz massacre without mentioning Amy Goodman. You cannot tell the story of Black September without mentioning Marie Colvin. You cannot tell the story of Rwanda without mentioning Paul Rusesabagina. You cannot tell the story of the My Lai massacre without mentioning Hugh Thompson, Jr. And so on.

I’m not done with Game of Thrones, but I’m sick of its facile emotional exploitation. If a storyteller asks me to give up 30 hours of my life, I think I deserve a little more than crude manipulation and superficial reminders of how nasty people can be.

Two Quotes

Dennis Rodman had been drinking? Hard to believe!

 ”It had been a very stressful day. Some of my teammates were leaving because of pressure from their families and business associates,” he explained. “My dreams of basketball diplomacy were quickly falling apart. I had been drinking,” and felt “overwhelmed” by the time of the interview, said Rodman.

Also: Chris Christie responded to questions about how the traffic flap (which I understand a little less than I care about it) with an amusing retort:

I know that everybody in the political media and in the political chattering class wants to start the 2016 race. And universities can’t help themselves but do polls that are meaningless three years away from an election. And you guys can’t help but put them on the air and talk about them.

Classic!

Didactic SynCast #72: Swimming Naked

This week we talk about Warren Buffet swimming naked. WOOO! Also: EPMD and Clint Eastwood. Enjoy.

DS #72: Swimming Naked

Top 3 Links of the Week

Current Events

Economics

Education

Killer Robots, Etc

Hip-Hop

EPMD: “Strictly Business”

Norway, Means, Ends, Attentat, and Video Games

The recent terrorist attacks in Norway, masterminded by Anders Behring Breivik (right), have left me — like most of you, I’m sure — with sadness and frustration. I know how easy it is to jump right into the political commentary and finger-pointing (believe me, I know), but I’ve learned that it’s important to take a moment to let ourselves feel the sorrow and aggravation for the death and suffering that this man has caused.

I shall forgo any discussion of his political affiliations or ideological intent here, except to point out — once again — that terrorists come in all colors and religious persuasions and hairstyles.

I will say this, though: I’m sure conservative commentators will argue that, like McVeigh and Kaczynski, this guy was an exception that proves the rule. If you believe that’s the case, then, let me ask you: Why is it that — with a few notable exceptions — why are almost all of those who commit these hideous acts of mass violence men? If you believe that there’s some innate cultural reason why so much terrorism comes from Islamic fundamentalism, do you also believe that there’s some innate cultural reason why men are usually the ones who plan and carry out terrorist attacks?

Means and Ends

Whatever. That’s not why I’m writing this. I’m writing this to make two points, and the first is about means and ends. Mr. Breivik wrote a 1500-page manifesto that is now circulating on the internets, which Garrett and I both spontaneously (and independently, without the other’s knowledge) compared to John Doe’s notebooks in SE7EN.

It’s most chilling in its deliberate commentary, which is designed to serve as followable model for others who seek to carry out similar activities. He refers constantly to the organizations with which he’s involved, and the righteousness of his cause, mostly to do with “cultural Marxists” and those pushing an agenda of “multiculturalism” (ie, Muslim hegemony). There’s a good summary from Blake Hounshell at Foreign Affairs.

It’s not surprising that he declares his admiration for Al Qaeda, since they share a fanatical devotion to their own self-righteousness. Once again we see the blinding effects of closed-minded certainty with violence as the instrument of delivery.

Several years ago, while working to make the Wikipedia page about Emma Goldman to a Featured Article, I came across this quote from her, which made a powerful impact on me and which I now quote constantly:

There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one thing, while methods and tactics are another…. The means employed become, through individual habit and social practice, part and parcel of the final purpose.

Breivik and Bin Laden (like Hitler and Stalin and every other terrorist you can name) both believed they were doing nasty violence in the name of a greater good. One more example of the “To do a great right, do a little wrong” sentiment Shakespeare presented in The Merchant of Venice.

But this way of thinking is a fraud. The world doesn’t work this way — if you use violence to achieve a political goal, you will achieve violence. People will die and others will suffer, and you will make things worse.If you want a better, more peaceful world, you must use better, more peaceful ways. Otherwise you become violence, and the world you create is one of suffering and pain.

I’m willing to admit — like Cornel West — that there are certain situations where violence is the only alternative to annihilation (the Treblinka uprising, for example), but usually it’s just delusional people who refuse to consider any point of view other than their own.

Therefore this is a good time to provide another excellent quote, this one from Chinua Achebe (another of my Wikipedia FAs):

Whatever you are is never enough; you must find a way to accept something, however small, from the other to make you whole and save you from the mortal sin of righteousness and extremism.

Amen, dude.

Propaganda of the Deed

Another sad connection between Breivik and Goldman is their belief in the goodness of attentat, or “Propaganda of the Deed“. Basically, the idea is this: “If we kill [name of bad person/people], enough people will wake up and take action and things will start to get better!”

Another absurd line of thinking. Emma Goldman and her buddy/lover Alexander Berkman decided they would murder wealthy industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Ironically, after they shot him (wounding but not killing him), it was one of Frick’s oppressed workers who subdued Berkman until the police arrived.

Here’s a fun quiz: Guess whether or not a massive uprising of workers took place after this incident? Give up? The answer is: No! There was no spontaneous revolution or burst of class-consciousness epiphany. If anything, I expect this action only led people to believe that their anarchist cause was dangerous and stupid.

This will (hopefully) happen also in Breivik’s case. There will doubtless be ignorant buffoons who view his actions as heroic, but I daresay the vast majority of onlookers will be horrified and saddened and dissuaded from his ideology. As with the above, the point here is clear: If you believe The People™ need to be educated about the rightness of your cause, then use actual education. Quit pretending that your egoistic violent action will inspire anyone to make anything better.

Video Games

Okay, one last thing. The guy was apparently a fan of video games. In his manifesto he explicitly mentions Dragon Age: Origins, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and Modern Warfare 2. In fact, he celebrates MW2 as a way to “more or less completely simulate actual operations”.

This is chilling and sad, and provides another example (along with the Columbine kids and DC sniper Lee Boyd Malvo) of a terrorist associating video games with his murderous actions. And while it’s obvious that the knee-jerk reaction is quite correct (“There are so many other factors to consider, how come so many other people play these games and don’t kill anyone, etc etc”), I’m sickened by the fact that I enjoy games which are praised so highly people who actually kill.

It’s easy for us to say over and over that we’re not affected by these games, but just as I get high off of loud techno music, or inspired in positive ways by great literature, it’s just not true that video games have no impact on me whatsoever. The key is to be honest about all of the effects — good and bad — and committed to balancing the bad with positive resources from other places.

Like I said in 2008: I’m playing a living contradiction. (And speaking of which: It’s time for a GTA4 playdate!)

UPDATE: This Calvin + Hobbes cartoon is pretty relevant, dont’cha think?

TimeWaster™

I love 5 Second Films so much. (TWO WARNINGS: 1. If, after you watch that movie, you hit “Random” even once, you will spend an hour on the site. I guarantee it. 2. There are some adult situations in some of their films. 3. This is the best thing they have ever done.

Today I’m listening to: Electric Oasis!