Emboldening II: the Endumbening

So here I was, sitting in, how apropos, the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, and half-listening to John Kerry’s press conference where he’s outlining the case for bombing Assad. And there’s this one word that keeps coming up in these discussions, primarily from people who can’t get enough of bombing other countries, and that word is “embolden.” As in, “if we don’t bomb Assad, we’re going to embolden our enemies.” We’re going to look weak to them, you see.

Thesis: anyone who unironically uses the word “embolden” is either a credulous idiot or a lying piece of shit. Or both.

If you’re minimally aware of inter-generational trends in US military spending, you might know that the US spends more money on its military (excuse me, “defense”) than the next n countries combined, where n is a number that I’m too lazy to presently look up but which I’m quite positive is well into the double digits. If there’s anything that anyone knows at all about US foreign policy, it’s precisely that we’re not at all afraid of bombing anyone or anything we like. “We will wreck your shit,” has been longstanding US doctrine in one form or other for decades. I am willing to bet money that no one but an American would be stupid enough to think that the US needs to do anything to prove its willingness to use force.

The whole notion of “emboldening” is an absurd framework that falls apart at the slightest perturbation. The “emboldening thesis” holds that if a particular act (e.g. the use of chemical weapons) goes unpunished, then subsequent bad acts are likely to follow because everyone will assume the policing hegemon is too weak to respond. Italics because that’s the operative principle of the whole thing. But in reality, this has never been true; from the lowliest aspirant to Al Qaeda membership to the highest leadership of any other nation, everyone knows that the countries that end up suffering the wrath of the hegemon are those countries which are politically convenient to punish. The US will happily disregard international law in one instance (here, have some chemical weapons, Mr. Hussein!) where it suits it, while using it as a pretext elsewhere (bad, bad Bashar!), AND NOAH-WAHN DENIES THIS. The lesson any minimally competent observer will extract from this is not that the US is too “weak” to punish transgressors (because, you know, we just literally spent the last decade occupying two different countries, one of which we invaded for totally bullshit reasons), but that the US will just do whatever the fuck it wants when it wants, and it’s not going to explain anything to anyone.

There are lots of terrible reasons to launch a strike on Syria, including the fact that there’s no actual plan to do anything other than lob a few missiles, define whatever they hit as a strategic target, and declare victory. But I think the idea that “we have to do something because otherwise some bad people will be emboldened,” is probably the most idiotic reason for doing anything whatsoever; it flies in the face of all history and sense. The fact that this assertion is allowed to repeatedly go unchallenged in public discourse is just another testament to the sad state of our intellectual life.

Beneath a Steel Sky

About a year and a half ago, I went to San Francisco for a conference, and while I was there I met up with an old high school friend who lived in the East Bay. We went walking around the city, talking, and in a totally unexpected twist in the narrative the topic of discussion veered toward political matters. One of the things we talked about was the difference in political attitudes between the former USSR and the present-day USA, and on that topic, I suggested that one of the biggest difference was the relative intangibility of crisis in America.

That needs explained, as they say here in the 412. What I mean by that is not that large sectors, or even the majority of the population, have been able to escape the consequences of the Great Recession and the corresponding catastrophe of governance that Republicans have managed to create at every level. What I mean is that despite all these things, the country still looks like it’s running. A great deal of that is obviously administrative inertia, but as we all learned in high school physics, momentum is mass times velocity. The bureaucratic machinery may not have a great deal of the latter, but it has enough of the former that it can grind on for quite some time (apparently Belgium did not cease to exist despite failing to have an official elected government for more than a year): you get up in the morning and you still go to your job (if you’re lucky enough to have one) via mostly-functioning highways; by and large, the electricity is still on in the vast majority of places (if you can afford to pay for it); the world physically looks more or less all right, since the rot underneath hasn’t quite surfaced as physical manifestation. In the USSR, on the other hand, that manifestation was ubiquitous; you can joke about bread lines all you want, but the truth is that bread lines absolutely existed. You couldn’t really go outside and not be confronted with your governments failures.

In short, it’s easy to be oblivious in America, as long as you’re still reasonably well off. It’s even easier and better if you’re unreasonably well off. And since it’s the unreasonably well off who control the tempo and content of our political conversation, a great number of people continue to walk around with a vague sense of unease that something has gone terribly wrong, but with no adequate framework for explaining just what it is that has gone wrong and no overt physical manifestation of the wrongness[1]. Because the machine grinds on.

Except when it doesn’t. Which brings us to the debt ceiling debate.

I feel like I should somehow be angrier about this than I really am, but owing to my own relatively privileged position within the great chain of being, I find myself every bit as much under the sway of the cognitive biases outlined above. The infrastructure may be crumbling all around me, but it’s doing it pretty slowly, so every day physically appears a lot like the previous day. The same (sometimes boarded-up) buildings are still there; the buses (fare increases and all) are still running; the streets (Moon-worthy craters notwithstanding) have not yet deteriorated to the point of being undriveable (though many are unbikeable). Everything looks like it’s more or less the same.

But it’s obviously not, because on December 31st, the federal government has officially run into the debt ceiling. Which means that the money required to keep the machine grinding is going to run out, and it’s going to run out very soon, because the Republican House refuses to do what the House has done year in and year out for about a century and raise it. Put simply, obligations already committed to by the government will go unpaid; the country might, quite literally, default.

This should be an unthinkable set of circumstances for the largest and wealthiest economy in the world, and yet here we are. Since Republicans have decided that economic terrorism was the way forward, they’ve quite sensibly taken a hostage that they’re willing to shoot; it just so happens that the hostage is the American economy. What “negotiation” is possible when a minority (and make no mistake about it, Republicans are nationally less popular than Democrats) literally threatens to destroy the economy if it doesn’t get its way? The term “nuclear option” is frequently overused, but that would seem appropriate here. The Republicans have strapped an economic nuclear weapon to themselves and are threatening to take down everyone, including their own constituents.

The whole thing seems absolutely surreal; it’s as though, while intellectually convinced that we’re on a plane headed towards a mountain, most of us (and most of our so-called elites) are sitting calmly in our seats knitting[2]. Maybe it’s the overwhelming sense of despair at being able to actually achieve anything, or the vapidity of the ongoing conversation. Sensible people keep saying things like “JESUS CHRIST PULL UP ON THE STICK SO WE CAN CLEAR THIS FUCKING MOUNTAIN BEFORE YOU KILL US ALL,” but one of the ornery co-pilots has wedged the control stick so far up his asshole that the only way to get to it would be to cut the bastard open stern-to-stern. Too bad all we’ve got on this flight are plastic knives.

At times like these it feels tempting to ascribe the whole thing to some sort of collective insanity. But that’s not fair to actually insane people, nor is it accurate as an assessment of what’s actually going on. You could do some game-theoretical reasoning about the lack of incentives that Republican have to cooperate due to gerrymandering and primary threats, and you would be right, but it takes a special kind of sociopath to look reality in the face and decide that we’re better off plunging into the mountain because it would avoid having to compromise one’s highly-principled stand that no airplane should fly above 10,000 feet. Which is all to say that all of this is deliberate and planned and explainable by simply reading what the principal participants have to say about it.

In the next few weeks, I suppose we’re going to find out whether we clear the mountain after all, or whether the price of America’s continued existence is going to be throwing a good third of the passengers off the plane mid-flight because otherwise we’re all going to die. Recent trends do not justify optimistic projections.

[1] Obviously, for many people the wrongness does manifest itself: in lost jobs, in rising health care premiums, in decreased funding for education, and in many other ways. The point isn’t that people aren’t suffering, it’s that the conversation is controlled by an upper stratum of the elite, who are decidedly not suffering at all; this prevents any kind of serious structural analysis from emerging to help people make sense of what’s going on.

[2] I don’t know why knitting except that it’s the kind of thing I imagine one might do if one wanted to calm themselves. Substitute your favorite calming activity here.

Lust for Life

I don’t know very much about the Troy Davis case. Even given that I’m someone with a tentacle in almost every corner of the internet, it somehow passed me by; these things happen. I have read a number of things both from official news sources and from people whose judgment I trust which allege that the convictions against Davis were based on the flimsiest of evidences, now discredited; I see no reason not to believe these allegations, given my general skepticism towards pretty much any criminal allegations made by agents of the state. The standard is supposed to be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and from what I can tell that standard wasn’t met. Of course, on the morning of this writing, it doesn’t matter anymore for Davis, who was executed in Georgia last night. But maybe it might matter to others in the future.

There are two tragedies when a death penalty is enacted, and the most obvious and direct one is the possibility (or, indeed, sometimes certainty) that an innocent individual has been irrevocably deleted from society. I take it for granted that executing an innocent person is never acceptable, and have no interest in deploying arguments designed to convince anyone of this. Anything else turns the concept of justice into an absurdity. But the second tragedy of the death penalty, which operates even when it’s exercised on the obviously guilty, is the tragedy of what we become as a society when we condone (or worse, demand) the imposition of the ultimate sanction by the state.

There is a good dialogue on the death penalty between Justin Smith and Gerald Dworkin here. One of the notable features of this dialogue is the distinction between Dworkin’s relatively abstract philosophizing and Smith’s repeated appeals to the idea that the death penalty is incompatible with our stated societal goal of not being cruel. I’m not knocking Dworkin here, but I think it should be obvious where my sympathies lie. We have a certain notion of ourselves as a society capable of mercy, and not only that, but incapable of (or at least strongly averse to) cruelty (this tendency is so strong that even in circumstances where the treatment is obviously cruel, c.f. waterboarding, Bradley Manning’s confinement conditions, etc., the overwhelming initial reaction by defenders of that treatment is not to accept the cruelty as necessary but to deny that it’s cruel at all). And I side with Smith when he says that we can’t reasonably sustain those notions when we allow ourselves to employ the mechanism of the state to take the life of another human being, guilty or not.

Because in the end, I believe that a necessary condition of being a moral society is that we be a society that rejects cruelty and bloodlust, even for the worst among us. And when we allow ourselves to be ruled by that bloodlust, we take one step down the road that leads to a descent into barbarism.


The future under Republicans

Many States in Mexico Crack Down on Abortion

Thanks Mexico, for giving us a preview of what reproductive rights will look like if Republicans get their way. It’s considered generally impolitic in today’s world to say that you’re going to arrest women for having abortions, which is why anti-choicers will always dodge that question. But make no mistake: this is exactly the goal they have in mind. This is pretty much what will happen to poor women in conservative states if Roe is overruled.

To be against choice is to be in favor of forced birth, apparently even to the extent of placing any woman showing up to a hospital with gynecological issues under automatic suspicion.

Quit sucking Apple’s dick

The Case against the iPad « Bottom-up

So apparently Apple has introduced some stupid thing called the iPad, which, menstruation jokes aside, seems to be some kind of wireless screen ebook reader doodad. I can’t imagine what one would want with it. Dude linked to above reviews the thing and points out how annoying it is for the device to not have normal ports (like a USB connection) as well as how it lacks multitasking and is a closed system to third party developers.

Predictably, fanboys converge on the thread to point out the benevolence of our Malusian (Is that a word? Is now!) overlords. See, the closed system is for your own good! It allows Apple to build a platform that works, as opposed to all other platforms which totally don’t (after all, have you ever heard of anyone productively using anything other than an Apple product? Didn’t think so!). And the DRM that’s built into all Apple products is so, like, not at all Apple’s fault! Also, not being able to multitask is to keep you from running a program that might wear down your battery in the background or something, I don’t know. Freedom is slavery and war is peace are about the only things missing from that comment section.

I don’t know if the iPad is any good; I suspect, given the lukewarm reviews, that the answer is no. But more importantly, the release of a nowhere-near-perfect Apple product gives us all an opportunity to watch some wonderful cognitive dissonance in action. Instead of acknowledging the shortcomings of the product as actual shortcomings (like a normal person would do), the devotees of the Cult of Jobs will jump through any hoop to rationalize why things were done the way they were. Simple motives like “trying to control the bottleneck to your device so you can make money off it” never seem to enter the conversation. Apple is never anything less than omniscient and perfectly good and therefore everything it ever does is for a good reason.

I don’t care what platform you use; use whatever the fuck works for you, seriously. But don’t, as the proverb says, piss on me and tell me that it’s raining.

Dear film critics: kill yourselves

Film Salon – Salon.com

So apparently I found out via Salon that James Cameron won some kind of “Molten Glob” or some shit for Avatar. Over The Hurt Locker, which is apparently directed by his ex-wife Katherine Bigelow. Ok, sure. I haven’t seen The Hurt Locker, which I am told is very good. I have however seen Avatar, and I have this to say to anyone who voted for that movie over… well, anything else:

Please, just off yourselves right now. Are you even trying here? Are there two functional neurons firing within your skull? Avatar is an overblown, ridiculously pretty movie with a plot and direction that could have been conceived by a 10-year old, and probably better executed. It’s not a movie so much as it is a tech demo. If you voted for Cameron to win a best director award for this nonsense, just drink some bleach, put the gun in your mouth and pull the trigger, and make sure you do this on top of a diving board positioned off the edge of the Grand Canyon.

Or alternately, put your fucking thinking hats on for just a goddamn second and stop being so goddamn stupid. Avatar? You’ve got to be shitting me.

When I’m King Shit of Hollywood Mountain, I’m going to disband all the award shows. Few things are more annoying than watching a gaggle of morons pretend that shitty movies are masterpieces. This is why we can’t have nice things, America.

Is there anything stupider than lifestyle articles?

When Chocolate and Chakras Collide – NYTimes.com

I’m sure you can guess that the answer is “no.”

Look at this dumb fucking bullshit. Every time someone gets paid a full reporter’s wage to write about this inconsequential crap, another important story on science, or policy, or international news goes uncovered. At a time when newspapers, including the Times, are already cutting their reporting staff, to maintain a division that writes about this nonsense is not just a bad idea; I would allege that it’s downright unethical. Who gives a flying fuck about the dominant humor of yogis and how that affects their eating habits? First, it affects a tiny fraction of people even in New York City, mostly the kind of upper-class woo-devotee with expendable income to spend on pursuits of faux-Eastern “teachings” commercialized for the American market. Second, it’s, like, not true! I mean, consider this:

“A pure yogic diet is one that is only calming: no garlic, onions or chili peppers, nothing heavy or oily,” said Ms. Grubler. “Steamed vegetables, salads and fresh juices are really the ideal.” Yogic food choices can also influenced by ayurveda, a traditional Indian way of eating to keep the body healthy and in balance. Some yogis determine their dosha, or dominant humor, vata (wind/air), pitta (bile) or kapha (phlegm), and eat accordingly. Foods are invested with properties like warming or cooling, heavy or light, moist or dry.

Mr. Romanelli says that such ideas about food are aspects of yoga that most Americans find forbidding, unrealistic and generally, as he puts it, “woo-woo.”

One man’s woo-woo, of course, is another’s deeply held belief system.

Gosh, if only we had some kind of system that would allow us to verify whether or not things like “humors” were, you know, real and stuff. Some kind of methodology that would perhaps try and check these ideas against the real world. That’s so fucking crazy and Western though! How could we, simple reporters that we are, possibly know if anything is true? It would be so judgmental of us! Better just report that as “one man’s X is another man’s Y,” which must be, like, the laziest cliche ever.

Also: are you kidding me with this anti-onion, anti-garlic bullshit? These are things that are pretty much unambiguously good for you, and you’re telling me not to eat them? Garlic is fucking delicious, and if it were socially acceptable I would eat cloves of it every day. Anyone who desires a diet bereft of garlic and onions doesn’t want food, they want sustenance. These are people who demand mortification of the flesh in the service of a nonsensical and false doctrine, even when that food is actually healthy to consume. A life lived without garlic is almost not a life worth living.

In conclusion: fuck hippies, especially rich hippies who can afford to indulge their stupid tastes and thereby make those stupid tastes somehow attractive to report on. And fuck the Times for devoting even an iota of its finite resources to this worthless task instead of doing actual reporting.

On Bankers and Bailouts

What’s a Bailed-Out Banker Really Worth? – NYTimes.com

A dude named Steven Brill (more on him later) wrote a long article for the New York Times Magazine about the actual worth of the various companies that received bailout money (mostly it’s about AIG), and about Kenneth Feinberg’s role in negotiating the various bonus compensations that are going to be doled out to executives at AIG, BofA, and various other institutions.

Now, so much ink, digital and otherwise, has been spilled about these compensations that nothing I could possibly say would shed any interesting light on this. But what’s interesting to me is that in an essay that’s ostensibly devoted to a journalistic explanation of what went down, we find this paragraph:

While it’s understandable that the A.I.G. bonuses fueled that firestorm, there’s an argument that they were not as outrageous as they seemed, and that they were not even bonuses. I’m going to let a friend — a longtime A.I.G. employee who received one of the multimillion dollar payouts — make the case. It’s worth considering if only to understand the distance between Wall Street and Main Street.

My friend (who did not want his name used because, he says, “being associated with A.I.G. is not safe for my family”) is a mild-mannered math whiz who worked at a unit of A.I.G. Financial Products that, he says, had nothing to do with the small London-based credit-default-swaps group that sank the company. Over the last half-decade, he made millions every year from a bonus pool composed of the profits supposedly made by Financial Products. But he had to leave roughly half of his bonuses in the pool for five years so that the payouts could be adjusted for any subsequent gains or losses from Financial Products’ trades. (That’s an extreme version of what’s called a “claw back,” another reform that Feinberg’s guidelines would require.) When the credit-default-swaps unit went bust, he personally lost tens of millions in that pool. (Which would also mean that he took home tens of millions over those five years.)

In early 2008, he and his colleagues were offered “retention contracts,” he says, because it was becoming clear that “one business within our firm had issues that could kill the entire bonus pool. . . . They needed us to stay, because we were still making them lots of money, and we had the kind of business we could take to any competitor or, if they wanted, that we could wind down profitably.” Thus, the retention agreement, which was actually a contract, not literally a bonus payment, guaranteed that in 2008 and 2009 he would make 75 percent of what he had made in 2007 regardless of the amount of the bonus pool for those years, and that he would be paid those bonuses in March 2009 and 2010 (for work done in 2008 and 2009).

“Why should I simply walk away from a contract?” he now argues. “I earned that money, and I had nothing to do with all of the bad things that happened at A.I.G.”

“The people who make these companies go work really hard,” adds one of my friend’s former colleagues. “They think: I’m making lots of money to support my family, but I’m not with my family. I can’t go to the soccer games or the dance recitals. Stop paying them well, and they’ll leave.”

Now, in fairness, Brill does immediately follow the preceding paragraphs with a quote from Chris Dodd expressing some pretty justified outrage (“What do I tell a guy who worked in an auto dealership in Bridgeport — who can now go to all of his kid’s soccer games, because he’s lost his job and his health insurance and his 401(k)?”). I mean, the sheer lack of any kind of social awareness required to even make the above statements in light of the massive shit your company (if not your department) took on the economy is bad enough as it is (and this from a dude that actually grossed millions from the system before the bottom fell out of it). But what is that nonsense doing in a supposed piece of journalism?! Why is Steven Brill’s friend getting massive column inches, much more than any rebuttal to his sociopathic sentiments is allowed? And why did the Times allow it?

It’s one of these little vignettes that perfectly illustrates the extent to which journalism is in bed with moneyed interests and how inoccuous the process begins. It’s not that Brill wants to shill for AIG execs, it’s just that he’s got this friend, you see, and the friend is a really nice guy who works so hard and just wants to go to his kids’ soccer games.

And who is Brill anyway, with his high-powered executive friends? The blurb at the end of the article is unhelpful:

Steven Brill, the author of “After: The Rebuilding and Defending of America in the September 12 Era,” is the co-founder of Journalism Online.

Fortunately the magic of Wikipedia tells that Steven Brill is a Yale-educated lawyer and an entrepreneur, the founder of CourtTV and various other journalistic-type ventures, some of which have succeeded and many of which have not. None of this disqualifies Brill from writing for the Times, but it’s pretty clear he’s not just some random journalist who’s written about security issues or what have you, he’s a well-connected operator at the higher levels of finance. He’s got friends in the industry that he’s reporting on and he’s letting those friends have non-negligible space in his article to defend their position.

You’d think the conflict of interest would be pretty clear here. You’d think that articles about sensitive topics such as these might be commissioned from actual working financial journalists who don’t have friends in the industry they want to protect. You’d think.

The New York Times discovers online magazines

The Medium – Articles of Faith – The Existential Crisis of Magazines Online – NYTimes.com

Way to join us in the 21st century, New York Times. Slate and Salon are online magazines? You don’t say! The Huffington Post is a liberal website and aggregates news and opinions? Tell me more! And there’s this lovely bit of cultural sensitivity to boot:

Like a Congo encampment with damask and silverware, Feed served as an outpost where people could get their cultural bearings.

How does anyone get paid to write this nonsense?