“Would I do it all over again?” It is a cruel question for anyone. To answer “no” is to deny all we’ve done and all we are and those who are most important in our life, who have loved us, helped us, believed in us. “No” also means that the one chance we get in life we’ve wasted. If the possible answers to Dorsett’s question are “yes” or “no,” the answer, proudly, defiantly, protectively, must be “yes.” And if it is “yes,” the last defense for football leaders, after ignorance and nonchalance, after denial, after inconsequential change, becomes choice. Players have a choice, and it’s theirs and theirs alone to make. Who, after all, has the right to stand in the way of that? But what is the choice offered, and who frames it?
…Offer Dorsett’s grandson a real choice, so that at age 59 if he asks himself the question his grandfather asked, “Would I do it all over again?” he can answer “Yes,” and not have everyone who hears him cringe and feel sad.
Having been plenty critical of the shortcomings of Stoicism, I will say that Robert Wringham does a fine job here of emphasizing its virtues.
Instead, however, GoldieBlox did exactly what you’d expect an entitled and well-lawyered Silicon Valley startup to do, which is pick a fight. It’s the way of the Valley — you can’t be winning unless some household-name dinosaur is losing. (The Beasties are actually the second big name to find themselves in the GoldieBlox crosshairs; the first was Toys R Us.) The real target of the GoldieBlox lawsuit, I’m quite sure, is not the Beastie Boys. Instead, it’s the set of investors who are currently being pitched to put money into a fast-growing, Stanford-incubated, web-native, viral, aggressive, disruptive company with massive room for future growth — a company which isn’t afraid to pick fights with any big name you care to mention.
Just when I think I’ve become jaded, something like this comes along to make me marvel at some people’s capacity for cynical manipulation. Gotta hand it to them, they had a plan and they executed it perfectly. If this had been the work of a true believer, it would have been merely laughable — really, like it’s somehow subversive and challenging to put a stereotypically “girly” gloss on children’s construction toys? And who honestly thinks that playing with pastel Tinkertoys will directly lead to more girls involved in STEM fields later on? Does your career have anything to do with the sorts of games and toys you played with as a kid? But of course, such superficial rah-rah-empowerment platitudes have an enormous, receptive audience in the twitosphere, and those fucking morons reacted exactly as GoldieBlox anticipated they would.
Brian passes this along:
(3) Why do we do this?
My wild guess: we suffer from a lack of seriousness, so that our opinions on important issues becomes matters of tribal identity and entertainment. In fact the tribal beliefs — including the exaggerations and lies — function as group markers. Much as did the dietary laws of the ancient Israelites.
In our nation of increasingly atomized individuals — without the clan, community, and corporate loyalties that for so long defined Americans — these provide new allegiances for the New America. Best of all, they’re free of any cost. Strongly held identities, dedicated to saving the nation or even the world, with no obligations for personal action.
These are unlike the allegiances that built America. Abolitionists, suffragettes, unionists, civil rights activists — all of these were tied to reality, which limited their fantasy football-like disregard for reality.
Can’t really argue with that. Freddie deBoer writes about this theme often, as he did in this essay:
Contemporary strivers lack the tools with which people in the past have differentiated themselves from their peers: They live in a post-virtue, post-religion, post-aristocracy age. They lack the skills or inspiration to create something of genuine worth. They have been conditioned to find all but the most conventional and compromised politics worthy of contempt. They are denied even the cold comfort of identification with career, as they cope with the deadening tedium and meaninglessness of work by calling attention to it over and over again, as if acknowledging it somehow elevates them above it.
Into this vacuum comes a relief that is profoundly rational in context—the self as consumer and critic. Given the emptiness of the material conditions of their lives, the formerly manic competitors must come to invest the cultural goods they consume with great meaning. Meaning must be made somewhere; no one will countenance standing for nothing. So the poor proxy of media and cultural consumption comes to define the individual. In many ways, cultural products such as movies, music, clothes, and media are the perfect vehicle for the endless division of people into strata of knowingness, savvy, and cultural value.
Freddie, of course, is writing more specifically about status competition over consumer taste in this instance. But Fabius is writing about how even our opinions on “serious” sociopolitical issues become game tokens to redeem toward the same kind of empty entertainment. Political identity becomes just another means of social sorting in the high-school cafeteria environment of the twitosphere. For a perfect example, take this post that I saw on the Slymepit a few months ago:
I don’t watch any of that celebrity crap either, but I do loathe the fact that we in America (and probably elsewhere as well) are so obsessed with celebrity culture. People like the Kardashians are famous for… what, exactly? Artistic achievement? Nope. Corporate leadership? Nope. Acting ability? Nope. Political acumen? Nope. Anything at all? Nope. They’re famous for absolutely fucking nothing.
I don’t watch sports either. Fucking bread and circuses. Yay, I barely make enough at work to feed my family and the NSA spies on my phone calls, emails, internet surfing and text messages, but who cares about all that. I’m all upset because my favorite athlete got traded to another team.
As a matter of fact I haven’t watched broadcast or cable TV of any kind in over two years. Netflix and my movie and documentary collections are more than enough for me. When I hear the people at work excitedly discussing whatever the fuck the latest episode of “Housewives of Fill in the Blank” or “Swamp People” was about, I just inwardly roll my eyes and try not to tell them they’re PART OF THE PROBLEM!!! 😆
Reminds me of that joke: How can you tell if someone doesn’t watch TV? Oh, don’t worry, they’ll tell you. But that part is just generic anti-mainstream snobbery. The second paragraph is what I found interesting. Leave aside the obvious fact that plenty of people manage to pay attention to sports, entertainment and other hobbies while managing to stay au courant on world news. Answer honestly: what difference have the NSA revelations made in your life? Have you changed your browsing habits as a result? Your purchasing habits? Are you going to vote differently? Have you done anything whatsoever of a political nature, even something as weak as signing a petition or writing a letter to your Congressman? Or have you, like most of us, shrugged at the confirmation of what you assumed they were doing all along? Isn’t this just one more bit of depressing news to add to the rest of the pile? How has knowing about this benefitted you at all? What kind of ridiculous, petty pride is there to be taken in such a distinction? We’re all helplessly constricted in the coils of the State, but hey, at least I saw it coming!
All such snobbery reduces to empty signaling. “Hey, I’m one of you, the cool people. I’m definitely not like those wrong-thinking morons over there.” A bunch of insignificant lightning bugs flashing their little green asses at one another. It doesn’t matter whether the flashes are in reference to brand loyalties or sociopolitical differences; the medium itself, the social web, makes them equally trivial. That’s one of the things I find so strange about the twitosphere — you might see a blogger one day acting out an anguished performance over the latest gun massacre. Then they’ll post a link to something like Patton Oswalt’s tweets on the massacre, as if his nerd-cred means he’s going to have something profound to say about it. And within a couple days, they’ll be back to posting pictures of a handmade Boba Fett oven mitt — “OMG. Coolest. Thing. Ever!” Serious topics and silly trifles are all presented in the same deracinated context, rendering them all slightly surreal, detached from the real world. It’s all disposable, everything’s always becoming old news.
The funniest thing about the above excerpt is that it comes from someone who’s been a registered member of the forum since its inception, a regular with over 3400 posts to his name. It seems safe to say that he’s found plenty of frivolous things to do with his time rather than wallow in useless angst about the Orwellian super-state. I mean, look, some people like watching Kim Kardashian’s ass. Some people like laughing at lolcats. Some people like watching basketball games. Some people like trawling the blogosphere, looking for confirmation of their biases toward Republicans, Christians, southerners, whatever. Some people like engaging in endless Twitter spats that contribute nothing whatsoever to anyone’s edification. And some people like making funny Photoshops of various morons in the online atheist environment. It’s all entertainment. What Thomas Frank was just saying about journalism is even more true with regards to the twitosphere — sound and fury, signifying nothing, just another comfortable niche for people to waste time in. All these people could be doing something more “important” with their time and energy. But though the Kardashian-keeper-uppers may be vapid and boring, at least they don’t take themselves as seriously as those who prefer their entertainment with a coating of faux-gravitas.
This wouldn’t be very interesting if computers, with their ability to calculate millions of moves per second, were just correcting human blunders. But they are doing much more than that. When engines suggest surprising moves, or arrangements of pieces that look “ugly” to human sensibilities, they are often seeing more deeply into the game than their users. They are not perfect; sometimes long-term strategy still eludes them. But players have learned from computers that some kinds of chess positions are playable, or even advantageous, even though they might violate general principles. Having seen how machines go about attacking and especially defending, humans have become emboldened to try the same ideas.
I love that about playing against computers. Often, I’ll play a game by just asking for and following every hint the computer gives me to see if I can anticipate the strategy.
And I suppose I might as well make this post a one-stop-shop for chess-related articles:
In the months leading up to the tournament, Mr. Paulson talked the ear off any Indian advertising buyer or media executive who would meet with him. Chess, he told them, is a chance to pair with a brand associated with strategy, intellect, creativity and winning. And, with Mr. Carlsen’s ascension, sex appeal.
The thing is, although people are listening to Mr. Paulson — and it’s hard not to — they aren’t yet doing much buying. In fact, he turned to India in part because his initial efforts in Europe to gain corporate sponsorship didn’t take. He faces many obstacles, like a governing chess body widely considered to be strange (putting it kindly), some top chess players who think that his efforts to popularize the sport are lowbrow, and the fact that he is promoting slow-motion entertainment in a world of short attention spans.
I’ll Look at You, You’ll Look at Me, We’ll Cry a Lot, This’ll be What We Said: Look Where All This Talking Got Us, Baby
Two things need to be said about this tsunami of sad. First, that the vast size of it, when compared to the effect that it has had—close to nothing—should perhaps call into question the utility of journalism and argument and maybe even prose itself. The gradual Appalachification of much of the United States has been a well-known phenomenon for 20 years now; it is not difficult to understand why and how it happened; and yet the ship of state sails serenely on in the same political direction as though nothing had changed. We like to remember the muckraking era because of the amazing real-world transformations journalism was able to bring; our grandchildren will remember our era because of the big futile naught accomplished by our prose.
…Why has Packer written such a heavy-handed homage? Maybe because our period is similar to the ’30s. Maybe because elegy and lyric, written without hope for a political rescue, are the appropriate means to describe the disintegration of middle-class America. After all, how many more books screaming about some Great Disaster being worked on the American Dream do we need? What kind of chart can an author or a blogger or a columnist present that would make the slightest bit of difference anymore? The truth is that journalism is almost completely irrelevant. And so maybe only art matters.
One kind of writer, at least, is immune to the lure of fame: the anonymous writer. No name, no literary glory. What would possess someone to go to all the trouble of writing a book and then take no credit for having done so? What compulsion drives this strangest of artists?
Anonymous is more than a pseudonym. It is a stark declaration of intent: a wall explicitly thrown up, not only between writer and reader, but between the writer’s work and his life. His book is one thing and his “real” life another, and the latter is entirely off limits, not only to you, the reader, but presumably to almost everybody. Sometimes he has written about something too intimate, too scary, too real, for him to bear public scrutiny. Once the connection is known, what he has written will mark his ordinary life ineradicably.
“You’re the quietest person around, aren’tcha?” said a woman I’ve worked with for the last couple years.
“Yep,” I agreed, as I continued walking past her.
“Do you ever talk?” she asked.
“Not if I can help it,” I responded over my shoulder.
“Well, I guess you keep out of trouble that way, at least,” she added.
“Yep.” Out the door and gone.
I recently heard through the grapevine about a family member lamenting my taciturn nature — “He’s just so unknowable!”
It amuses me at times to imagine pointing such people here and seeing their reactions. Would they be impressed? Intrigued? Bewildered? Disappointed? I smile at the thought and return to my nondescript life, planning the outline of the next post in my head.
Red-cheeked, I have to admit that I went through my own phase of American Indian obsession as an adolescent, born out of, yes, noble savage romanticism. Oh, I was ridiculous. Bone jewelry. Long hair dyed raven-black. Books on everything from Indian languages, at the respectable end of the spectrum, to money-grubbing pseudo-mysticism written by pale people of dubious ancestry with names like Samuel Squatting Bear on the other. To be fair to myself, I outgrew it because even then, I was aware that such interests were widely seen as clichés. So I kept my eyes and ears open and eventually ended up paying more attention to the American Indian Movement than dreamcatchers and handcrafted medicine pouches. There’s no real moral to that story, though — you generally just come away subdued and depressed by the immensity of the hopelessness. I certainly realized in a hurry that I was not made of stern enough stuff for devoted activism. (I did meet Dennis Banks once, which was cool.) No, I just mention it to lay my cards on the table, to stress that I have more than a passing interest in the topic.
You’ve probably heard that the twitosphere is in the midst of another frenzied point-and-denounce episode, this time over the Alabama high school which mixed a reference to the Trail of Tears in with the usual pre-game trash-talking. “What? Too soon?” Yes, I’m afraid so. Bad taste indeed. Give it a few hundred years. By then, it should all be good, clean fun, just like how you don’t see any groups of indigenous Orcadian descendants today claiming to be triggered by the existence of a football team named in honor of the vicious, colonialist Norsemen who raped and pillaged the villages of their ancestors. You know what, I think I might just do that to entertain myself. Look for me crusading on behalf of the memory of my people on Twitter in the upcoming days! #IndigenousOrkneyNeverForget
But I digress. So, yeah, there are already a thousand unimaginative bloggers telling you what you already know like they think you’re a fucking moron or something — teenagers are impulsive and often stupid, racism is a Bad Thing, and hey, since this is not the first but the second American Indian issue to seize the public’s imagination in recent months (up from the usual number of “zero”), maybe we can have us one of them Teachable Moments. Oh, for the love of the Great Spirit, go jackhammer-fuck yourselves, you tedious bastards. Stating the bleeding obvious bores the fuck out of me. Instead, I will just point out that these kids likely thought the play on words was more clever than offensive because as far as they’re concerned, American Indians only exist as abstractions, barely more than an artifact of this nation’s collective mythology. I mean, how many do you know? How many reservations have you visited? How many popular movies, books and cable docudramas have been devoted to the reality of Indian life today as opposed to rehashing Dances With Wolves-territory? Hell, for all the link-aggregator-type sites I read each day, Metafilter provided the only instance in my recent memory of a link to a story about the grim reality of reservation life. It’s not exactly what they would call a trending topic.
Which brings us back to that other issue. And honestly, the only really interesting thing about all of this is the delightful coincidence of seeing the crusaders for changing the Redskins’ name simultaneously treating natives as equally abstract symbols.
Exhibit A: the article I linked to last month. This was so unbelievably “meta”, it just floored me. A bunch of white jerkoffs talking about their feelings about a satirical newspaper’s take on an abstract logo from the sports/entertainment world. “No Native Americans were affected, adversely or otherwise, during the making of this navel-gazing episode.” Except in the most generic, superficial way, they don’t care about the minorities on whose behalf they are so generously offended, any more than they deeply care about the few dozen other things they tweeted about that day. The most “problematic” aspect of this, to use that beloved buzzword of the social justards, is the fact that it impinged upon their ability to enjoy their entertainment with a clear conscience. As is so often the case, this was just another opportunity for typical guilt-ridden, Internet-savvy progressives, like modern-day Victorians, to project their neuroses and obsessions onto the backdrop of the wider world. These people are pathetic truffle pigs who squeal in delighted outrage whenever they root out another trivial instance of this-ism or that-phobia; once their flickering attention span is distracted by the next pseudo-issue, they’ll go right back to knowing and doing absolutely nothing about the lives of actual, living American Indians.
Don’t get me wrong — sure, the name is embarrassingly outdated, go ahead and change it, whatever. It very well could happen at some point, but likely not until after Daniel Snyder comes to an agreement with the NFL for tens of millions in compensation over the inconvenience of having to completely overhaul his franchise and rebrand it. Money talks, cheap outrage walks. I’m not sure how paying a rich guy tons of additional money in exchange for a feel-good victory would advance social justice, but sure, fine, should that be the case, give yourselves a congratulatory handjob and settle back for some guilt-free fun. Until the whole brain-injury issue starts to gain serious traction…
The great Princeton philosopher Michael Walzer, borrowing from Jean-Paul Sartre, describes the feeling of having dirty hands in politics as the guilty conscience that political actors must live with when they authorize acts that public necessity requires but private morality rejects. “Here is the moral politician,” Walzer says: “it is by his dirty hands that we know him.” Walzer thinks that we want our politicians to be suffering servants, lying awake at night, wrestling with the conflict between private morality and the public good.
Machiavelli simply didn’t believe that politicians should be bothered about their dirty hands. He didn’t believe they deserve praise for moral scruple or the pangs of conscience. He would have agreed with The Sopranos: sometimes you do what you have to do. But The Prince would hardly have survived this long if it was nothing more than an apologia for gangsters. With gangsters, gratuitous cruelty is often efficient, while in politics, Machiavelli clearly understood, it is worse than a crime. It is a mistake. Ragion di stato ought to discipline each politician’s descent into morally questionable realms. A leader guided by public necessity is less likely to be cruel and vicious than one guided by religious moralizing. Machiavelli’s ethics, it should be said, were scathingly indifferent to Christian principle, and for good reason. After all, someone who believes he has God on his side is capable of anything.
…What he refuses to praise is people who value their conscience and their soul more than the interests of the state. What he will not pardon is public displays of indecision. We should not choose leaders who agonize, worrying about the moral hazards of the power they exercise in the people’s name. We should choose leaders who sleep soundly after taking ultimate risks with their own virtue. They are doing what must be done.
We Can Act If We Want To. If We Don’t, Nobody Will. And You Can Act Real Rude, and Totally Removed, and I Can Act Like an Imbecile
You see, the point of shouting Ray Kelly off the dais isn’t to get rid of “stop-and-frisk,” which these students are sophisticated enough to understand as merely symptomatic of greater injustices and inequalities in American life. No, the point is to get rid of Ray Kelly, to make the point that he has nothing to say that’s deserving of public consumption, that he is a wicked fellow who ought to be drummed from public life, his opinions, like those of most of us, to be shared grumpily over beers with no one to listen but the other cranks and kooks drinking in the middle of the day. The point is to shame Brown University—admittedly, a difficult task, since the university in the form of its administration is, as noted, shameless—for inviting the weasely little fascist onto the stage in the first place.
The post would be otherwise forgettable were it not for the fact that Freddie deBoer shows up in the first comment to challenge the complacency of such would-be radicals. Jacob — in keeping with his “Great Refusal” ethos, borrowed directly from pseudo-philosopher Herbert Marcuse, consisting of gestures of futile defiance rooted in impractical moralism, where the impracticality is the entire point, indeed, a badge of honor — cheers the students for refusing to respect the bourgeois liberal aversion to unruly mobs shouting down public speakers. Freddie points out that such actions barely qualify as Pyrrhic victories, that they demonstrate impotence rather than power, and that much of what passes for leftism now is in fact a pathetic acquiescence to that reality — they’ve settled for taking pride in “winning” such meaningless skirmishes on campuses and in the twitosphere, winning like Charlie Sheen. Freddie is saying, essentially, that it shouldn’t be good enough to be satisfied with such a smug, nihilistic response to injustice. At Jacob’s former blog, this would have probably gotten Freddie mocked for being one of those naïve shmucks with lingering faith in the system who want to be told what to do to achieve this or that goal. Now, though, Jacob simply responds by saying “I think we agree.” Eh? No, I’m not sure you do.