This is thanks to Paul Krugman, who keeps an eye on things—like Bureau of Labor Statistics observations—that I can’t bring myself to look at.
“Will you tell me the truth?”
“Almost never. The truth is complex, far more complex than my intention. The truth that I will tell you, that I can tell you, is that between human beings intention is everything, and that my intention is to tell you only as much of the truth as I think likely to leave you undamaged.
That’s why you mustn’t trust me. Good intentions are inevitably tainted with both ignorance and condescension. Never mind what Nietzsche said, no one ever gets beyond good and evil. The nature of reality forbids it.”
In the U.S., the Republicans’ sad entourage of the desperate, demented, and enraged are tearing at the Constitution’s exposed achilles tendons. In Russia the gangsters of Prigozhin are battling the siloviki of Putin for control of the spoils of a twice-failed totalitarian state. In India, Hindutva pursues a scorched-earth battle against Islam. In Germany the AfD tidal wave has engulfed the SPD, broken the CDU, and arrived at last in Bavaria, intent on washing away once and for all what little is still left of the CSU’s liberal democratic pretensions.
In Italy a fascist consumerism has sprung full-grown from the brow of Meloni. The trains now run on time, and foreign investors are once again reassured. In Finland and Sweden, the local populists have decided that white people are the only real people after all. In Israel, Syria, Hungary, Belarus, and Turkey, the warlord grifters have outlasted everyone. In Saudi Arabia and the gulf states, the kings, emirs, sultans and satraps of one kind or another are now completely convinced that having more money than Allah the Merciful means not having to apologize to anyone ever.
In Iran, a cabal of wizened religious fanatics calling themselves the Islamic Republic have yet to see any reason to deny themselves the perverse pleasure of beating and imprisoning women at random, and of shooting their own children whenever the kids act like they might be the coming thing. In China, a suspiciously but undeniably prosperous Communist (sic) Party oligarchy has decided that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is nothing more than a confession of the failures and arrogance of so-called Western civilization.
I don’t think Web 3.0 is going to be a lot of help in preserving what’s left of the secular humanism that evolved over four centuries in Europe, and was sealed with the French and American revolutions. Neither will eleven aircraft carrier battle groups or a triad of delivery systems for nuclear weapons, given that both have long been controlled by people who bear no allegiance whatsoever to secular humanism either as a creed or a philosophy of government.
I’m not one to cry O tempora, o mores! every time someone in Washington does something stupid, but I do think that if the last sad road show of the Enlightenment comes to your town, you should go and listen to what was once promised us, and what very shortly we’ll all be missing.
Realists will tell you that DeSantis has done no such thing, but with realists it’s an article of faith, if not a quasi-autonomic reflex, to deny that metaphors have anything to offer them that might alter their certainty about what exists and what doesn’t exist.
I pity them. They belong either in Congress or under a monument somewhere. We should never, ever grant them a role in determining our future, at least not one as large as those they’re constantly proclaiming for themselves. Metaphors embody the perpetually emergent property that distinguishes our species, the interface between being and becoming, the herald of perceptions which weren’t there before, but will alter, perhaps forever, where and how we fit into a future version of our world.
We’re lucky they exist, and we should be grateful that they do. Listen to poets. Do not listen to people who deny that DeSantis has opened fire on Fort Sumter. They are dead inside.
Je pense, donc je suis.—Renė Descartes, Discours de la Méthode Pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences, 1637
I am I because my little dog knows me.—Gertrude Stein, The Geographical History of America, or the Relation of Human Nature To the Human Mind, 1936.
Gertrude Stein’s little dog may confirm her sense of self, but in doing so it also defines her in terms of a moral obligation which she cannot betray without sacrificing her identify. Our identities as human beings are constructed of many such relationships, many such obligations. We see ourselves reflected in them, and know who we are.
Or do we? René Descartes‘ assertion doesn’t actually deny that we are a part of the society which has created us, or that as a consequence, we have obligations to that society. He would not, I think, disagree with John Donne that no man is an island, entire of itself. Implicit in his assertion nevertheless is the supposition that individual human beings have moral and political agency, that they have the right to assist society in defining what it is, and therefore who they are.
The consequences of Descartes’ assertion, whether or not he was as conscious of them as we are today, are clear enough. If, by virtue of being a rational creature, the individual human being has the right to agency on their own behalf, then there can be no divine right of Popes, Mullahs, Kings, Führers, or General Secretaries to arbitrarily define the collective will of a society, or to censor the behavior of the individuals who comprise it merely because they lack the power as individuals to defend themselves. This is the founding principle of the Enlightenment and of secular humanism in general, that no one owes obligations to a society which refuses them the right to contribute to its governance.
In a civilized society, you shouldn’t have to pray, genuflect, make pilgrimages to Mecca, recite the shahada, or go to confession. You shouldn’t have to salute the flag, say the Pledge Of Allegiance, or sing the national anthem. You shouldn’t have to publicly admire the thought of Xi Jinping, avoid expressing certain opinions, or sit still for the burning of books, heretics, or so-called enemies of the state. The relationship between individual and collective in a civilized society is reciprocal. There’s a feedback loop between the two, one governed by mutual respect. The political manifestation of this feedback loop has traditionally been called democracy.
Democracy, though, is fragile. It has many enemies, even in so-called democratic societies. More often than not, what outs these enemies is their ritual acts of public piety. Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. Whatever he may have intended, Kennedy’s appeal to a grandiose selflessness was in fact a radical attack on the very idea of a personal right to self-determination. You don’t have to doubt that we have both a moral and political obligation to contribute to the society which gave birth to us to find formulations like Kennedy’s of benefit principally to tyrants and sycophants.
Authoritarians love to tell us that freedom isn’t free, as though we didn’t already know that all too well. What this bumpersticker-on-the-back-of-a-pickup actually means is something more like this: When they tell you you’ve got to go somewhere and shoot people, you have to do it. Otherwise we get to spit on you.
This is the kind of freedom that a genuinely free person instinctively rejects. The real price of freedom is very different. The real price of freedom is one that no patriot, no acolyte, no devotee will ever realize that they owe, let alone be capable of paying. That their little dog knows them is good enough for them, although I doubt it’s ever been all that good for the little dog.
Twitter. After more than a decade of contented blogging, I tried it last year, and was almost immediately chased off the premises by a persistent sociopath who needed to be there far more desperately than I did. I’d been onboard long enough, though, to realize that what made Twitter valuable was its omnipresence. It saw everything everywhere all at once, and was both faster and less timid than any curated medium was at reporting what it saw. Despite its flaws, Twitter always knew what was up, and it was always eager to tell everybody about it.
Being able to eavesdrop on the entire world in real time, or as close to real time as human perception and internet data transmission allow, is intoxicating in both the good and bad senses of the term, which is undoubtedly why Twitter can sometimes appear to us as a fountain and sometimes as a cesspool, and sometimes as both at the same time. Despite attempts by management to police vile and unpleasant behavior, there has never been any credible gatekeeper on Twitter, no credentialing, certification, or approval process that couldn’t easily be circumvented. The reason for this was the sheer scale of the task. The universe of discourse on social media in general, and on Twitter in particular, was and is too large and too fast to control, even with the assistance of computer-driven algorithms. Unlike the editors of the New York Times, Jack Dorsey and his staff had no illusions about their ability to monitor, let alone enforce, cultural norms at scale. On Twitter, civilized discourse was an option, but it was never the only option. Caveat lector was the rule.
And so it was until Musk, full of who knows what except himself, decided to cast his bread upon the waters. Given that we’re only a few days into his reign, it’s hard to predict the outcome of his dalliance with any confidence, but at the moment it seems unlikely that he’ll ever find that bread again, at least not all 44 billion dollars worth of it. What the rest of us will find is even more uncertain, but I suspect that even after Musk has done working everything over from top to bottom with his libertarian hatchet, Twitter will remain pretty much what it always has been, the human comedy entire, in all its tawdry glory. It’s also a fair bet, I think, that Musk the reformer isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and it won’t be all that surprising if, in the waning days of his epiphany, he turns out not be as solvent as he thought he was either.
All that aside, what I found useful about Twitter last year is still just as useful, and I know my way around the place now. I no longer need to browse except when the mood strikes me, I’ve found a place where the sociopaths can’t get to me, and if Elon ever tires of his pet project, or surrenders it to the bankruptcy courts, I’ll still have Mastodon, or something very like it, to fall back on. Caveat lector is working out just fine for me. YMMV.
A meditation on Brad DeLong’s Slouching Towards Utopia
Is the logic of capitalism the logic of the germ cell or the cancer cell? If it actually turns out to be both, what does that augur for our future?
Social democracy demands consensus. Fascism demands obedience. Neither has much respect for the richness of human intention.
We are a mercurial species. Cats are actually easier to herd than we are. Sooner or later, this drives the zealots, ideologues, and bureaucrats of every religion and ism around the bend. If they weren’t so vicious in their disappointments, they’d deserve our sympathy.
There are echoes of an eloquent despair in DeLong’s perceptions, something prophetic, something like an eternally acerbic Brechtian irony:
Wäre es da—Bertolt Brecht, die Lösung
Nicht doch einfacher, die Regierung
Löste das Volk auf und
Wählte ein anderes?
Would it not in that case
Be simpler for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
If in the end democracy isn’t robust enough to save us from the metastatic influence of 21st century technologies on our nastier impulses, what then? Even if human evolution were proceeding according to our fondest hopes, could it ever be quick enough to make Brecht’s tongue-in-cheek option a viable one? Clearly not.
I don’t care. I’ve just finished reading Slouching Towards Utopia, and I’m putting away my lantern. I’ve found an honest man. To return to Brecht again:
In den finsteren Zeiten
Wird da auch gesungen werden?
Da wird auch gesungen werden.
Von den finsteren Zeiten.
In the dark times—Bertolt Brecht, Schlechte Zeit für Lyrik
Will there also be singing?
There will also be singing.
About the dark times.
The thing about people crazy the way Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are crazy is that their own exquisite craziness, as many-faceted as they imagine it to be, is never enough for them. They’re rapists by nature, not onanists.
I learned 56 years ago, sitting in my underwear on a bench in the Armed Forces Induction Center in Los Angeles, how to avoid being cast as a bit player in someone else’s psychodrama. I don’t believe that what I learned there is something that social media can teach you, but bullies certainly can.
Optimism is rarely a completely honest emotion, and pessimism often seems an order of magnitude too facile to be taken seriously. Realism, at least the realism practiced by its self-described and insufferably self-righteous adepts, lacks respect for those subtler aspects of reality that an attuned consciousness can perceive, but never adequately describe — except perhaps through the approximations of poetry.
What we need is a secular Vergil to guide us deeper into the sunlit hell we’ve made of the 21st century. If he does his job well, and we are truly paying attention, we should be able to find our own way back once the tour is over.
Real Men™ shouldn’t need to:
1. Call themselves boys, even if they have fond memories of once having been one.
2. Take steroids, or cultivate patriarchal beards.
3. Own bulletproof vests or camouflage-patterned caps, hats, jackets, shirts, cargo pants, underwear, jock straps or socks.
4. Store 10,000 rounds of ammunition and a crate of hand grenades in their garages.
5. Buy or carry any device or appurtenance labeled tactical, including knives, flashlights, dog-tag holders, hip flasks, and roach clips.
6. Wear machine guns in public the way Donald Trump wears a tie.
7. Strike Rambo poses in front of fifty American flags.
8. Decorate themselves or any of their possessions, especially trucks, with Confederate battle flags, swastikas, or Nazi slogans.
9. Mistake mobs of vicious degenerates for patriots.
10. Bully their wives and beat their children (or vice-versa, or both.)
11. Go home at night and lick their AR-15s.