Why Is Your Racist Uncle So Popular?

Following the GOP primary process is an exhausting feat best left to professional masochists. If I ever feel the need to submerge myself in a sea of collective idiocy, I think I’ll head down to one of the clubs on Pittsburgh’s South Side; at least the stupidity there is physically contained instead of being broadcast nationwide. There is exactly one interesting thing about this whole circus, and that’s the attention being garnered (again and still) by Ron Paul. I’m not terribly interested in debating his merits as such; if you’re the kind of person who reads this blog, you already know my feelings concerning the good doctor, and in any case, you can pretty much peruse any number of sources, from Mr. Destructo’s three-part Vice series to Paul’s own voting record, to figure out why he’s not really an acceptable candidate. What’s interesting to me is why the guy who is basically your racist, homophobic, anti-choice uncle is incredibly popular (especially with people who should know better) and what that says about the generally fucked-up state of our political discourse.

I think there are two major reasons for Paul’s popularity; these reasons are somewhat intertwined, but they involve two separate aspects of Paul’s personality. The first of these is his general on-screen demeanor (as opposed to, say, the shit printed in his newsletters): it can’t be emphasized enough that Paul is essentially the only candidate who doesn’t look like a raving lunatic on stage. He’s always composed, always calm, and always on-message. He doesn’t forget his lines like Perry, he doesn’t have flecks of foam around his mouth like Newt, and he doesn’t look like he’s just adopted whatever stupidity is most recently popular with the Republican base like Romney. It wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if the three aforementioneds engaged in a Muslim baby-eating contest on stage, but Paul comes across as genuinely concerned about the effects of the American war machine on both our diplomatic standing in the world and its effects on actual, living human beings. In a sea of candidates trying to outdo each other in callousness, it’s quite a bizarre sight. I think Paul’s telegenic image and ability to sound like a relatively reasonable human being half the time goes a long way towards explaining his appeal to people who, most likely, would never otherwise consider voting for a Republican, including a fair number of young-uns from my generation.

But there’s another aspect to Paul’s appeal which I think is equally important: it’s his deft use of classic conspiracist thinking. In this way, he’s different in degree if not in kind from the rest of the Republican pack, but the difference is key. Whereas the other candidates tend to focus on fairly traditional conservative bugbears (e.g. liberals, feminists, gays, socialists, elites, Muslims, atheists, and all plausible and implausible permutations of the above), Paul tends to direct his ire towards the Federal Reserve, a seemingly anodyne policy point that nevertheless has gained great traction among a certain libertarian fringe. This would seem to be a weird hill to choose to die on, but it makes sense in the following way: since the Fed is an institution that exists mostly orthogonally to the culture war issues, you don’t end up alienating anyone over a contentious social issue. Feminists aren’t likely to vote for Paul due to his anti-choice views, but there’s nothing in feminism to dispose a person one way or the other on questions of monetary policy, and people whose commitment to reproductive rights isn’t nearly as strong (e.g. a whole lot of dudes) are probably going to be more readily swayed by abstract arguments over the merits of fractional reserve banking. In any case, by keeping the focus on these technical issues and keeping his retrograde views on homosexuality, race, and women behind the scenes, Paul maintains a loose coalition of moonbats obsessed with one particular aspect of American governance that might otherwise be torn apart over social issues.

The reason why the focus on the Fed is such a great example of conspiracism is because it addresses a key psychological need of the people who participate in this kind of magical thinking: the need to feel that you know something special that no one else does. It would typically not occur to any reasonable person to attribute all the ills of the world to a single banking mechanism coupled with a fiat currency. There are certainly legitimate criticisms to be made of the Federal Reserve, but these criticisms are grounded in accusations that its actions are often seen to be more to the benefit of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Still, this is no more a condemnation of fiat currency than the existence of identity theft is a condemnation of having bank accounts. It is precisely because these views are counterintuitive that they are so attractive to conspiracists. After all, if the answer were obvious, then others would have probably figured it out by now, but this way, the conspiracists feel as though they possess a sort special knowledge that others do not (witness how often Paul’s defenders drop “sheeple” or any of its variants in [online] discussion). I think this is a huge part of what attracts people to Paul, despite the fact that it doesn’t happen to be accurate in the slightest.

Doubtless many will protest that I have failed to mention Paul’s anti-war views or his views on the drug war as reasons to support him. I certainly support the positions he takes on those subjects, but I don’t think these things alone can quite account for the depth of his support. After all, there are presumably plenty of people who could be found to run on those positions on, say, the Libertarian ticket, who have neither Paul’s history of noxious racism nor his gold-bug tendencies. I’m sure Reason could come up with more than a few such candidates, some of whom might even try their hand at the Republican primaries (as, indeed, Gary Johnson has done). I don’t believe it’s coincidental that the strongest support is going to the candidate of the conspiracist fringe. When confronted with the disastrous methodology for accomplishing his stated goals (End the drug war… BY DISMANTLING THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. End the war on terror… BY DISMANTLING THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT), Paul’s supporters are apt to engage in dismal mental contortions that involve a careful explanation of why Paul will be able to, as president, accomplish exactly those things that you like about him and none of those things that you don’t like. The cult of personal infallibility, the invention of just-so stories and ad hoc explanations for any and all criticisms, and the all-encompassing nature of the theory of Ron Paul governance are all classic signatures of magical thinking that brooks no counterexamples, a technique which puts at its users disposal an explanation for virtually all aspects of politics in digestible form.

Nevertheless, Paul’s candidacy is terribly important in one way, and that simply has to do with what it says about the liberal/progressive wing of the electorate. It should be both stunning and embarassing to liberals that the one guy who actually seems genuinely opposed to American militarism is vying for the presidential nomination from the party that practically has “bombing brown people” as one of its platform planks. Over at Naked Capitalism, Matt Stoller has written up an interesting piece about the challenge that Paul presents to liberals, but while I think his main thesis is correct (well, the challenge part is), his details are wrong. Stoller alleges that Paul attacks liberal thought by focusing on the nexus between central banking and war financing, but this really isn’t a problem for any liberal at all, unless one mistakently believes that wars didn’t happen on the gold standard. The truth, I think, is much, much simpler: Paul presents a challenge because it’s embarassing that liberals have not been able to field a genuinely anti-(terror/drug)-war candidate who doesn’t come with a horrible social platform and thinks that the solution to all ills is to shatter the country into small pieces. There were people (myself included) who thought that Barack Obama could be that candidate, but… well, you can see how that worked out.

That is the real challenge that Paul presents to liberals: the existence of his candidacy exposes the complete failure of Democratic Party politics to produce anything like the stated goals of the liberals who routinely cast votes for that party. Paul is riding a wave of disaffection with the standard political narratives by offering a conspiracist alternative that aims to explain every aspect of politcs via a simple (and obviously incorrect) theory. The fact that he is able to do this by advocating anti-war positions should be taken by all liberals as a direct condemnation of our failed politics and of our failed expectations of our own (alleged) ideological allies. If anything, Paul is a hell of a lot braver than any Democratic presidential candidate of the last 12 years: he’s willing to take his viewpoint to an obviously hostile constituency, while virtually every Democratic aspirant to the Oval Office has been competing with their party-mates to see how many hippies they could throw under the bus.

I’m not voting for Ron Paul; he sucks, even if he’s right about some things, even some very important things. But a lot of liberals should think about how it came about that the only person willing to say something even remotely sensible about our foreign adventures is doing so in ideological opposition to virtually his entire party. And how it came to be that our own (supposed) political allies can’t muster a tenth of that kind of spine, and may not even want to do so.

how do i awarded prize

I don’t know when I stopped paying attention to the National Book Awards because I’m not sure I ever paid attention to them in the first place. I suppose “National Book Award Winner” is some additional motivation for acquiring reading material, but it ranks pretty low on the list of criteria that I care to look at when making my decisions. Does anyone outside the publishing industry really care that much about them?

One person who does care about the awards is Laura Miller, Salon‘s book critic. And a few weeks ago, she published in Salon what I think is a really bizarre analysis of this year’s slate of nominees. Before I start in, I just want to say that I haven’t read any of the books up for the award this year nor do I have any opinion whatsoever regarding their quality or lack thereof. My reaction here is solely to Miller’s confusing and poorly-reasoned article. Take it away, Miller:

Over the next day or two, expect to see observers pointing out the absence of two widely praised fall novels — “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach and “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides — and the fact that four of the five shortlisted titles are by women. (Those with longer memories will hearken back to the much-discussed all-female short list of 2004.) However, two prominent new novels by women, Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder” and Amy Waldman’s “The Submission,” were passed over, as well.

Again, maybe The Marriage Plot (book titles in italics, damn it!) belongs on the list of nominees. I have been hearing great things about it. But it’s not clear to me why the fact that four of the five novels are by women needs explaining. Miller seems to think it does, but if it does, she doesn’t explain it, and if it doesn’t, why bother mentioning it? It’s a weird “some people might say X” formulation without bothering to check if X is important or relevant in any way. It’s also not clear whether “prominent” is supposed to mean “good” in this paragraph. Are the novels by Patchett and Waldman any good? I have no idea, and it would seem to be at least concomitant with a book critics responsibility to inform her readers regarding their quality.

Although the judges for the NBAs change every year, the sense that the fiction jury is locked in a frustrating impasse with the press and the public is eternal. (One notable recent exception: the selection of Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin” as the winner two years ago.) The press, assuming that the amount of media coverage a novel gets is a reliable indicator of its merit, expresses bafflement. The judges, if they respond at all, defend their choices as simply the best books submitted.

There’s a “sense” here of something, but Miller is so thin on evidence that it’s impossible to tell whether that sense is actually supported by anything that transpires in the world. Who is “the press” in this context? Is it book critics like Miller, who, presumably, have the capacity to make independent evaluations of the various books out there? Or is it someone else? I read “the press” every day, and so far as I can tell, no one outside the actual circle of literary reviewers seems to devote any real time or energy to writing about books. The one article per year in the arts section about who won what prize might count as “press,” I suppose, but that’s almost always just straight reporting (see the Times article about the awards from last year). There’s no real “bafflement” on evidence. As one might expect, the judges don’t really feel obligated to justify themselves to “the press” (or in any case they shouldn’t), but with regard to their (supposed, Miller gives no evidence for this) defense of their choisces as “simply the best books submitted,” Miller asserts,

Neither view is entirely persuasive.

Why is Miller unpersuaded of this? It remains a mystery because she doesn’t say. What she does say is,

While it’s certainly true that celebrated novels are not necessarily good, it’s also true that they aren’t necessarily bad, either.

Wait, what? What is the argument here, exactly? Celebrated novels aren’t necessarily bad, therefore… more celebrated novels should be picked? How is that in any way contradictory to the judges’ (imagined by Miller) defense of their choices? If I tell you that Book X is better than Book Y, that doesn’t mean Book Y is trash; it just means that I think Book X is better and should… I don’t know, win a prize or something? The bafflement here is all Miller-generated.

Whatever policy each panel of judges embraces, over the years, the impression has arisen that already-successful titles are automatically sidelined in favor of books that the judges feel deserve an extra boost of attention. The NBA for fiction often comes across as a Hail Mary pass on behalf of “writer’s writers,” authors respected within a small community of literary devotees but largely unknown outside.

“The impression has arisen that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.” I mean, is there some evidence for this impression? Is this all a play being staged within the Cartesian theater of Miller’s mind? Who knows?! But even if this “impression” is accurate, what of it? Given several novels of putatively equal quality, there’s nothing wrong with giving the award to the less successful novel on the grounds that the bestseller doesn’t need the exposure. Why not promote a “writer’s writer” who might also become a reader’s writer? Miller seems to think that this is a problem, but it’s not clear what the problem actually is. Miller seems to think that “the reading public has… proven recalcitrant” to picking up these books, and offers this gem:

If you categorically rule out books that a lot of people like, you shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of people don’t like the books you end up with. This is especially common when the nominated books exhibit qualities — a poetic prose style, elliptical or fragmented storytelling — that either don’t matter much to nonprofessional readers, or even put them off.

I don’t know if Miller (unlike me) actually intends to insult the reading public, but this has got to be the most backhanded compliment ever. Hey reading public: Laura Miller thinks you’re too stupid for a poetic prose style!

And what the fuck is a “professional reader?” I mean, I know what the answer is: it’s a book critic. But that’s a really dumb and insulting way of phrasing things. Because here’s the thing: either the “reading public” actually consists of literate people capable of forming their own opinions about books and working their way through challenging literature (in which case they aren’t likely to complain about it in the first place, so why is Miller doing it for them?) or the reading public is a bunch of children who get put off by such oh-so-complicated literary innovations as… a poetic prose style! or elliptical and fragmented storytelling! in which case, fuck the reading public. I don’t ask a buch of 15-year olds about their literary opinions, because their literary opinions are shit; they probably think Ender’s Game is the apogee of the literary canon. If that’s the level of the American reading public’s opinions, then to hell with their opinions.

What’s really, really awful about this is that in the next paragraph Miller basically undermines her entire thesis:

If outsiders fail to sympathize with the judges’ perspective, the judges often have a distorted sense of the role literature plays in the lives of ordinary readers. People who can find time for only two or three new novels per year (if that) want to make sure that they’re reading something significant. Chances are they barely notice media coverage of books — certainly not enough to see some titles as “overexposed” — and instead rely on personal recommendations, bookstore browsing and Amazon rankings.

So let’s look back on the path of this argument: there’s a “sense” or possibly an “impression” that the awards are somehow hostile to ordinary readers, who actually don’t follow press coverage (so where does this “sense” come from?) and want to read “something significant” in their limited spare time. Ok, ordinary readers, well, we’ve convened this panel of critics to hand out an “award” to the best “book” published “nationally” this year. What’s that? You’d rather make your selection from Amazon rankings? Uh, go fuck yourselves.

Jesus Christ, I know that critics don’t always get it right and all that, but if you really care about reading the one or two most important books of the year, you could do a lot worse than consult a group of people who read books for a living. Which in fact Miller acknowledges, if somewhat obliquely and reluctantly:

Prizes are one part of this mix, if an influential one, and the public mostly wants the major awards to help them sort out the most important books of the year, not to point them toward overlooked gems with a specialized appeal.

Simple logic, people: an “overlooked gem” can in fact be one of the most important books of the year. The word “important” is doing a lot of work in this sentence; it’s being used as a sort of code for “popular.” The prize panel is telling you, “read this book, because we think it’s great,” not “read this book because it will flatter your own limited capacity for aesthetic appreciation.”

All this reminds me of a joke that was popular among Russian Jews. So two Jews meet and are talking about their lives and one of them says, “Hey, are you going to see the new production of Aida?” and the other one says, “Nah, my friend sang it to me over the phone, and it sounded terrible!”

It wouldn’t be any fun if Miller’s incoherent article didn’t conclude with a “Fuck you, Dad! I won’t do what you tell me!”

For these reasons, the National Book Award in fiction, more than any other American literary prize, illustrates the ever-broadening cultural gap between the literary community and the reading public. The former believes that everyone reads as much as they do and that they still have the authority to shape readers’ tastes, while the latter increasingly suspects that it’s being served the literary equivalent of spinach. Like the Newbery Medal for children’s literature, awarded by librarians, the NBA has come to indicate a book that somebody else thinks you ought to read, whether you like it or not.

Ok, number-fucking-one: the next asshole who insults vegetables should have their fingers broken so they can never type this bullshit again. Seriously, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli are:

1. Delicious
2. Good for you

This is entirely analogous to when conservative man-children throw fits about the promotion of nutrition in schools; if it ain’t meat and potatoes, it’s socialism. That’s some good company you’re keeping there, Laura Miller. I’m gonna go out on a limb here: if the most creative food you can imagine consuming can be obtained at Steak ‘n Shake, you probably have horrible taste in food. Analogously, if the most sophisticated literature you’re capable of consuming involves nothing more complex than droning monosyllables, you probably have horrible taste in literature and shouldn’t be listened to in discussions concerning the same.

Yes, the NBA (hehe) indicates a book that “somebody else thinks you ought to read.” That is the whole point of the fucking award! That’s how literary awards work! Someone reads a bunch of books, then picks the one that they think is best, and then says, “We think this book is the bees’ knees! You should read it!” Apparently in Miller-world, awards are supposed to just reinforce the pre-existing prejudices of the reader; their job would seem to be to say, “Hey, you’re doing good!” even if what you’re really doing is drooling all over yourself.

The coup de grace is the “proof by childhood reminiscence”:

As a kid, after several such medicinal reading experiences (“… And Now Miguel” by Joseph Krumgold was a particular chore to get through), I took to avoiding books with that gold Newbery badge stamped on their covers. If it weren’t for a desperate lack of alternatives one afternoon, I’d never have resorted to E. L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” which became one of my favorites. Today’s adult readers, with millions of titles a mere click away, are unlikely to find themselves in such straits.

That’s fucking right: Laura Miller got so tired of reading all that shit that librarians want you to read so much that they give it a Newberry Award that she went out and read… 1968 Newberry Award-winning book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. You can’t make this shit up.

I am shocked, shocked to find that libertarians are misogynistic assholes!

I was going to write something a little more serious today but fuck it, it’s Friday and I’ve been engaged in a really stupid Facebook argument for the last day or so that’s made me pretty pissed off. So here we go.

If you are a breathing human being who has any interest in politics, you probably know who Elizabeth Warren is; I don’t need to sing her accolades because she’s awesome and she’s running against Scott Brown for a seat in the Senate from Massachussetts in the 2012 election. So here’s Warren, campaigning, and in the course of doing so gives what in saner times would have been a completely uncontroversial defense of the democratic social contract:

I hear all this, oh this is class warfare, no! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God Bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Keep in mind that this is a campaign stump speech given to supporters and not an academic treatise explaining why the social contract is justified (although I have no doubt that Warren could produce one of those too, given the time and inclination). It’s a statement of a sort of basic reciprocity that was once a fundamental pillar of civic life in this country, namely, that when you benefit (disproportionately, one might add) from the existence of public goods, it is incumbent on you to share in the upkeep of those goods. That’s how things work in countries that haven’t lost their fucking minds.

Now of course libertarians and Republicans (two groups which for political purposes are nearly identical in American political life; if you want to talk to me about No True Libertarians, kindly fuck right off) have worked themselves up into a lather over this because being forced to pay taxes is a whisker’s breadth short of being castrated and thrown in a Soviet gulag (i.e. because they are idiots). And while one could make (incorrect but at least) consistent arguments against Warren’s assertion, that simply won’t do for some people because that’s hard and requires thinking and it’s just easier all around to call Warren an uppity bitch and feel very smug about yourself.

And of course that’s pretty much what happens. There’s a picture floating around the web in which a photograph of Warren speaking (it’s a close-up photo that basically has nothing but her face and hands in it) has been image-macro’d (is that a word? is now!) to contain the following text:

There is no woman in this country who got hot on her own. You have a really nice ass and a great boob job? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You got to the gym on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired a plastic surgeon the rest of us paid to educate. You’re safe from hotter, foreign women because of INS agents and boarder [sic] security the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that Colombian or Polish women would come and steal your boyfriend. Now look. You work out and wear nice makeup and look fantastic – good for you. A big chunk of the sex you have should be with people you choose. But part of the underlying social contract is that you take a chunk of the sex you have had and have that sex with people the government chooses.

Contemplate for a second, if you will, the sheer level of assholitude and general hatred of women that is required to write something like this.

It doesn’t take a Socrates to see why this doesn’t hold up analogically, and we’ll get to that, later. For now, I just want to point out how horribly misogynistic this is for anyone who is too dumb to read and understand the meanings of words. The first major red flag here is at word #4; it’s quite telling that in this example, it’s the hot woman who somehow owes sex to others (presumably men, though that’s a tacit assumption). This is of course entirely in line with the male libertarian ethos of entitlement, whether it be to money or to sex (but especially sex). Of course it would never occur to a self-declared Randian paragon of rationality that the reason women don’t want to fuck him is because he tends to treat them like objects and not like people (as one might surmise from seeing someone share this image on Facebook, say). The reference to boob jobs and a great ass further reinforces this point: women are eye candy and must conform to pornified male standards of beauty to be desirable (the implicit reading being: shut up bitch, we’ll judge your social worth by whether you’re hot or not). Also interesting is the implication that somehow the INS is responsible for keeping hot foreign women out of the country because otherwise all you oh-so-smart American women would be replaced by the submissive foreigners of our masturbatory fantasies who would never do such un-womanly things as engage you in political debate or run for public office or refuse to have sex with you because you’re a jerk; this of course is a common trope one finds among so-called men’s rights advocates, a group that tends to intersect fairly heavily with libertarians and Republicans. And of course the most egregious part of the whole thing being that if you’re hot, you owe people sex, because paying taxes, which people do all over the civilized world, is the same as being raped (because that’s what it means when you’re forced to have sex with people you don’t want to have sex with, you guys).

Now of course, upon being called out on their misogynistic behavior, people who share this image start moving goalposts. It’s all just a joke! It’s an analogy to what Warren is saying about taxes! It’s an argument about “legitimate interests” that “should not be arbitrarily taken away” (that one is something that was actually written!). These are all abusrd and easily dismissable, the last two first: Warren has never argued to the best of my knowledge that arbitrary confiscation of property was an unalloyed good. Taxes are not, in fact, arbitrary confiscation; one can reasonably debate what level of taxes we should be paying (or even whether we should be paying them at all) but that’s a debate that’s had by laying your philosophical assumptions on the table and making the actual argument, not by twisting the original into a stupid non-analogy about government allocating sex. Yes, of course you have legitimate interests in property, and in your bodily autonomy. Thankfully, most reasonable people realize that your interest in not being raped is a lot stronger than your interest in not paying taxes (or really, pretty much any other material property interest). On these grounds, the analogic argument fails entirely.

As for the joke, well: if you find this funny, then you find degrading women funny, and that makes you a misogynistic asshole. Yeah, chances are you don’t go around actively beating or raping women, but you’re still an asshole because you’re perpetuating the attitude that bitches ain’t shit, that women’s social worth is to be judged by the size of their tits, and that equating taxes and rape constitutes a valid political argument. When pointed to these facts, the response is always “waaaaah you called me a mean name!” Oh, you don’t want to be called mean names? Then don’t do mean things, you ass! There’s nothing about this image that in any way refutes any point that Warren makes and its distribution is nothing more than an attempt to put a woman in her place by means of sexist remarks and implications.

ADDENDUM: Secondary to the above is the fact that the analogy fails even if you accept its basic premises. Consider this: Ryan Gosling is hot (I would have used Diego Forlan as my example but not enough people will know who that is; Diego, if you ever read this, you know how to find me). First, it doesn’t follow from this fact that Gosling has in any way acquired his hotness by means of any contribution from me or from anyone else. It’s much more probable that Gosling has simply won the genetic lottery and that his favorable genes combined with a bit of exercise (or possibly even without it) make his career possible (I guess he also knows how to act, but whatever, that’s not the point). But ok, let’s accept the fact that we as a society have made some contribution to Gosling’s hotness; we have certainly made a contribution to his overall success because not only did he drive to the gym on public roads, but he also went to work on public roads and there was a whole infrastructure in place that made his career possible. The logical end-point of this argument is not that Ryan Gosling owes you or me sex, any more than my being educated in public schools obligates me to become a school teacher; the logical end-point is that we as a society, having made Gosling’s success possible, have a legitimate interest in reclaiming the fruits of that success in the form of taxes. So even given the basic assumptions of the “argument” we still wind up with the conclusion that what we’re really after is not fucking Ryan Gosling (well, not as a society anyway) but rather the resources (i.e. taxes) that make it possible to maintain the public infrastructure.

Fuck your numbers, hippie

tThere’s a stupid and disturbing trope that arises again and again in much American commentary, whether dedicated to sport, art, or politics. That trope is contrarianism; in one variety, it takes the form of locating a generally derided specimen from one of the above categories and making the case that said specimen is actually great. Or if not great, at least not irredeemably awful. You can see this trope at work amongst people who try to defend Michael Bay or insist that Michelle Bachmann is a credible presidential candidate. The converse form of contrarianism is to locate a concept of some merit or utility and try to argue that it sucks donkey balls. In general, this is actually generally more defensible; people love a lot of stupid shit and once in a while it’s great to have someone come along and remind people that the shit is stupid. But when you make a charge of this nature, you have to be prepared to back it up. Preferably with facts.

Few places is the contrarian impulse of the second kind more prevalent than in writing about sports and its relation to statistics. If there’s one thing that sportswriters hate, it’s numbers; yes, John Hollinger is tolerated at ESPN (although if I were looking for statistical wizards to trumpet Hollinger would hardly be my example) but for the most part sportswriters treat numbers like they are invading aliens from an alternate universe, when they dare acknowledge their existence at all. In baseball, it’s pretty hard to escape the importance of advanced statistics, what with Moneyball and what have you, although old and stupid writers don’t give a shit about that. In basketball, advanced metrics are relatively less well established, basketball being a more dynamic game with more possibilities and ways to assess a player’s value. And that of course gives idiots an opening because when someone tries to figure out how good a player is using statistical methods, you can just throw a tantrum about INTANGIBLES and perhaps dribble applesauce down the front of your shirt.

This is all expected from old and stupid people; it’s a lot less expected from someone my age, someone who has a scientific background, someone who was a Rhodes Scholar. Enter into this “debate” (I put that in quotes because there is no debate here, just as there’s no debate about the validity of evolution; there are people who are right and people who don’t understand how evidence works) a dude by the name of Jonah Lehrer.

You may remember Lehrer from such fiascos as this article in which he bemoans how hard it is to prove things in science and how can we really know anything is true, really? (note: I am aware that Lehrer has posted a followup to the article attempting to explain what he was going for, but it’s not much better than the original). Of course upon reading this a whole bunch of professional scientists jumped all over him, explaining that his understanding of science (or at least his rendering of that understanding for popular consumption) was hopelessly flawed and sounded a lot like freshman philosophy “What is truth anyway, man?”-type discussions.

Ok, whatever, Lehrer doesn’t get science. But he also doesn’t get numbers. Or basketball.

A few days ago, this article by Lehrer appeared on Bill Simmons’ new venture, Grantland. I like Grantland; a lot of good stuff has appeared there in the scant few weeks of its existence, some of which was even written by Simmons himself. I don’t know how Lehrer got on there; presumably his celebrity as a “science writer” catapulted him to such heady heights, although what his qualifications are for opining on basketball or math is unclear (presumably a Rhodes Scholar would know at least some basic math, you know, division, addition, basic stats, that kind of shit). The basic premise of Lehrer’s piece is: aren’t numbers terrible and haven’t they ruined sports? Naturally Lehrer answers these questions in the affirmative (spoiler: the correct answers are “No.” and “No.”) and he gets where he’s going by way of some of the most convoluted, ignorant, and just plain incorrect reasoning that I have ever had the displeasure to see in writing outside of conservative blogs.

Lehrer starts his discussion with an analogy to buying a car and pointing out that some variables you would think are important when purchasing a car (horsepower, fuel consumption) are less important to owner satisfaction than various amenities (reliability, comfortable seats). Right off the bat this should raise some red flags. For one, while sports teams certainly value fan satisfaction, that satisfaction is primarily correlated to an objectively measureable metric of performance; namely, winning. Fans are satisfied when their team wins and not when it loses, and that’s quite a bit different than being satisfied with a car. Secondarily, it is truly bizarre to try and make the case against advanced metrics, which seek to find ways beyond the obvious box score numbers to measure player performance, by drawing on the example of obvious metrics providing less satisfaction than less obvious ones. If Lehrer wanted to make the argument for advanced metrics, it would have made sense to start with this analogy; as it stands, his example is simply incoherent. (It’s worth noting here that Lehrer uses the term “sabermetrics” to encompass all advanced metrics, which is wrong).

What follows is garden-variety idiocy which could have been lifted straight from the nursing home about how, sure, numbers might help here and there but THEY HAVE RUINED THE GAME AND WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE INTANGIBLES. I mean, Lehrer literally trots out the “what about things that can’t be quantified” argument, which is so stupid that it doesn’t really deserve a response. As arguments go, it’s on par with the guy on the bus trying to talk to you about UFOs in Roswell or ranting about how science can’t prove he loves his wife; there are only two valid responses, backing away slowly or ridicule (and you can tell which route I’m taking here). And what about having playoff experience you guys?!

But sabermetrics comes with an important drawback. Because it translates sports into a list of statistics, the tool can also lead coaches and executives to neglect those variables that can’t be quantified. They become so obsessed with the power of base runs that they undervalue the importance of not being an asshole, or having playoff experience, or listening to the coach. Such variables are the sporting equivalent of a nice dashboard. They can’t be quantified, but they still count.

Yeah, there it is, right on schedule. Wait, Jonah Lehrer, are you sure you’re not missing some key sports cliches?

But that’s not what happens. Instead, coaches and fans use the numbers as an excuse to ignore everything else, which is why our obsession with sabermetrics can lead to such shortsighted personnel decisions. After all, there is no way to quantify the fierce attitude of a team that feels slighted, or the way even the best players can be undone by the burden of expectations, or how Kendrick Perkins meant more to the Celtics than his rebounding stats might suggest.

Ok, there we go.

It’s rather beside the point that the “excessive” focus on numbers is something that Lehrer simply made up for the purpose of setting fire to some straw statisticians (Deadspin has a more eloquent summary). It’s not even the greatest offense Lehrer commits in his article, since this is just garden-variety invention and mendacity, hardly rising to the level of egregiousness. No, Lehrer greatest mistake is to draw “evidence” for his moderately idiotic position by making a really idiotic argument, one that happens to be very much in my wheelhouse to refute.

This is the moral of the Dallas Mavericks.

Let me tell you something. I have watched somewhere in the vicinity of 50-60% of Mavs games this year during the regular season. Other than a few post-season games I missed due to travel, I have watched every game of their postseason run. I have also watched the majority of the games in the other series starting with the second round. So I’ve probably watched more NBA ball in the last three months than Lehrer has ever seen, and I’m absolutely sure I’ve watched more Mavericks games in that time than he has. All that is to say, I have some basis for talking when I talk about the Dallas Mavericks, a team I’ve been a fan of for years and that I follow pretty closely. And let me tell you, using the Mavs as an example of a team that won despite the numbers is so unbelievably wrong that it’s like trotting out the fossil record to prove that evolution is a hoax. Thanks for doing my work for me, chump!

The fact is that the Mavericks are one of the most notorious teams in the NBA (other than perhaps the Rockets) for their reliance on advanced metrics. The Mavericks are coached by Rick Carlisle, hired very much for his willingness to rely on statistics and for his remarkable track record of fielding the statistically best five players available in any situation. The Dallas coaches’ bench is home to Roland Beech, only the guy who started 82games.com. Mark Cuban chaired the motherfucking Sloan Conference on Sports Analytics, for fuck’s sake! This is the team that, more than any other team, is defined by their scrupulous adherence to the optimal lineup and performance!

And to compound the stupidity, Lehrer cites none other than… J.J. Barea? Apparently, Barea got the start because Carlisle “saw something” in him that couldn’t be captured by stats; just loved his grit and hustle, you know? It can’t possibly be because Barea destroyed Mike Bibby in the matchup battle; or because he was able to get his shot against two seven-footers who were unable to keep up with his speed; or because he could run a devastating pick-and-roll with Tyson Chandler, using Nowitzki as a decoy. None of those things (all quantifiable via matchup analysis and points-per-play and so on) could possibly have made Carlisle change his lineup! It must have been Barea’s monster intangibles and hella hustle!

These are not grand mysteries of the cosmos; the facts in the above paragraph are known to any basketball-competent observer of the finals (so, you know, not Jonah Lehrer) and certainly to me, as someone who has watched Barea all season. To make everything even worse (you didn’t think it was possible, but you were wrong), Lehrer actually undermines his own earlier car analogy by pointing to Barea’s shooting stats to claim that his introduction was not statistically motivated since he didn’t perform particularly well in the playoffs as opposed to the regular season. But if your claim is that the most obvious statistics (horsepower, mileage; shooting percentage, PPG) don’t tell the whole tale, but supplemental statistics do, you can’t then go and say that it wasn’t statistics but intangibles that made the Barea substitution logical, because you’re explicitly ignoring those same supplemental statistics you said were needed for a complete view earlier.

The patronizing anecdote from Philip Roth at the end is only the final dingleberry on the shit sandwich that is Lehrer’s article. All I have to say to people who think like that is: go fuck yourselves. I will enjoy my sports however I want, you sanctimonious assholes; in fact, I will enjoy them even more if I can make ignorant fools like you madder about my enjoyment.

Lehrer’s phobia of numbers is all too sadly representative not only of conversations that we have about sports but conversations that we have in general. It’s not that things that are unquantifiable (which exist) are not worthy of consideration; it’s rather that instead of figuring out which statistics are useful in which contexts and what they tell us, we have these worthless screeds against those horrible nerds who are taking all the fun out of life or something like that. Instead of trying to understand the usefulness of the data we have available to us, we cut ourselves off from that avenue of knowledge by inventing things that are ex hypothesi unquantifiable and then claiming that numbers are worthless because they can’t quantify those things (even when it turns out that numbers can quantify them). And worst of all, ostensibly intelligent people who should know better take these contrarian positions without bothering to collect even the most rudimentary evidence for their arguments. Lehrer’s entire article is almost as wrong as one could possibly be when discussing basketball, and yet he’s given national exposure with minimal fact-checking to air his stupidity. Turn him into a right-winger and you’ve got pretty much everyone at Fox news. The rot goes deep, and Lehrer is only its most superficial manifestation.

A meditation upon buses

This morning, I decided instead of walking or driving to take the bus to work. It should surprise no one that this was a major mistake on my part, but it did give me time to do some thinking.

Consider: I left my house at a quarter past 9, and arrived at just about 10:15 in my office. That means that door-to-door my trip, which is about 1 mile and change in distance, took just under an hour. When I arrived at the bus stop 3 minutes after leaving my house, there were already 4 or 5 people there, which meant that I hadn’t just missed the bus. We waited for about 20 minutes before a fully loaded 61C passed us by without stopping, and I was treated to the wholly depressing sight of an elderly woman futilely banging on the bus doors as the bus driver basically ignored her (although it’s not clear what he could have done, since people were packed into the bus literally up to the very door itself). Then another 20 minute or so wait until a 61D picked us up and took about 10 minutes to get to the stop where I exited, and from which it’s about a 5-ish minute walk to the office.

This is clearly completely fucking stupid. I realize not many people know Pittsburgh’s layout, but the 61C and 61D traverse the Murray-Forbes corridor, which is a major artery that not only links residential areas to the two major universities (Pitt and CMU) but also takes people all the way into downtown. It makes zero sense to run buses through this corridor in such a way that people have to wait 40 minutes just to get on. What makes it worse is the total lack of coordination between the buses; last night, trying to travel essentially the reverse of this route, I was passed by 3 fully loaded buses before I managed to catch one, with buses showing up within minutes of each other followed by long stretches (usually a good 20 minutes) without any bus at all.

When I compare this with the time it would have taken me to drive to work (5 minutes to clear my car of snow, less than 5 minutes for the drive proper, 10 minutes walk from parking to office) it makes no sense for me not to drive. I don’t want to drive, and I don’t mind paying a 10-minute premium in time for not driving, but I don’t want to pay a 40-minute premium. That’s just absurd. Hell, I could walk that distance in less time than it took me to catch the bus today, although walking in the snow sucks.

But this isn’t really about me so much as it is about that grandma who was banging on the bus doors. Me, I’ve got options. For me this was an annoying inconvenience, but one that I can get around if I so choose. After all, I’ve got a car, and I’m also young and healthy so I can just hoof it if I want to. Grandma can’t, and shouldn’t have to. And when public officials undermine the transit system, those are the people that are going to get hurt the most: the people who can’t afford to drive or for whatever reason can’t walk.

I see this as a pernicious consequence of public transit being viewed by many Americans as something that exists “for other people.” Poor people ride buses; real Americans drive. And this leads to the creation of a public transit system that’s stupid and inefficient, and then that stupidity and inefficiency is used as an excuse to destroy the same system (which is still better than no system at all). Instead of having an efficient system that everyone can use in lieu of driving, we have a crappy system that no one really wants to use and which isn’t competitive with driving when viewed from the standpoint of time-efficiency.

How not to talk about LeBron James

Ok, let’s start with something light. As some of you may or may not know, there’s this guy, his name is LeBron James, and he’s pretty ok at this whole basket-ball game. Cool. You might also know that James used to play for a certain Midwestern team but then decided after becoming a free agent to take his talents to Miami. That’s ok too.

What’s not ok, in fact what’s really stupid, is the conversation surrounding James. I don’t mean the whole “OMG HOW COULD YOU LEAVE US” bit that Cleveland was doing, which is the equivalent of a guy who lives in his parents’ basement and schedules his showers to coincide with the full moon wondering why his girlfriend left him. I also don’t mean the part of the James conversation that goes “OMG HOW TACKY” because, shit, you media people have been all but fellating him for 7 years and you wonder why he thinks he’s god allmighty? No, what I’m referring to is the pernicious strain of commentary that alleges that LeBron James will never be “great,” and specifically that he will never be as good as Michael Jordan.

Now it goes without saying that most sports commentators are idiots. We’re talking here about people whose job it is to take what Alvy Singer’s second wife referred to as “a bunch of pituitary cases trying to stuff a ball through a hoop,” and finding something to say about it other than “that one guy is really great at stuffing a ball through a hoop.” It turns out that watching this hoop-stuffing is a lot of fun for many people, and if you’re smart like Bethlehem Shoals or a small number of other worthwhile writers, you’ll find something interesting to say about the game that goes beyond the stupid and formulaic (apologies for the redundancy). Maybe you might write about what basketball tells us about the state of economic or race relations in the country, or about how the game has evolved over the decades, or about some interesting statistical metric (FORESHADOWING) that tells you something you didn’t know before.

But chances are, if you’re a sportswriter, you’re an idiot who has trouble dressing themselves. So of course you’re never going to write anything interesting because that would require you to have interesting and novel thoughts; much easier to simply pick up a common thread (“LEBRON WILL NEVER BE JORDAN”), add your own contribution (“I AGREE”), and laugh all the way to the bank while people who actually know what they’re talking about weep into their gin. It’s not only an easy thing to do, but it’s also an easy way to score points off cheap moralism. Of course you can never go back and implicate yourself and your ilk in promoting James to the skies, but you sure can turn around and scoff and pass cheap, stupid judgments that make you feel good about yourself.

This all would just be par for the course except for one problem: LeBron James is really great. It doesn’t matter how you feel about him personally; the guy is an absolute monster on the court, excelling in almost every statistical category for his position. He scores, he assists, he rebounds. He’s nearly unstoppable in the open court, an insane combination of speed, power, and accuracy. He is clearly the best player in the NBA today, and the LeBron-Kobe comparisons are simply laughable: Kobe wasn’t even the best player of the decade in his prime, and he’s in no way better now than James, who just has more of everything. Given these unarguable points, Jordan, as the universally acknowledged best player of all time, remains the only real point of comparison for James.

But that comparison cannot be made by talking heads on TV divorced from the facts. There is one thing, and one thing only, that will determine James’ status in the basketball hierarchy, and that is his performance on the court. And that performance can be measured, across many dimensions. It’s measured by some obvious metrics like points scored, field goal percentage, rebounds, and assists, and some non-obvious ones like PER and win shares. How do we know that Jordan was great? We know this because he leads the NBA in all time win shares per 48 games with an astounding 0.28 in that category (incidentally, Jordan led both the 80s and 90s in that stat; it also happens to be what James is averaging for the 2010-2011 season in the same category). We know this because he’s third on the all-time scoring list, and could have easily been first if he hadn’t missed two seasons. We don’t, incidentally, know this because Jordan has 6 titles (a statistic which means nothing for assessing individual greatness). But what we do know, and the reason why we’re justified in putting Jordan on top of the pyramid, is that he really was a great performer as quantified by just about any objective measure of basketball excellence.

For the same reasons, we can be nearly sure that barring catastrophic injury, James will finish his career (which I suspect has a good decade left in it) as one of the best players of all time. Simply projecting his career arc forward and integrating with respect to time allows us to confidently conclude this. And again, we know that this is so (or, for future events, have good reason to believe it) because we possess multiple statistical tools indicating this. We don’t need “intangibles” or “hunger” or “will to win” or any of this other bullshit that gets talked about year after year by the sports media, which reflexively in the absence of any semblance of original content will reach for tried and tired cliches. All we need to know is: what is James doing on the court? And we have the information that allows us to evaluate his performance and that’s all that matters. He could never win a championship in his life and conceivably end up being a better player than Jordan if he plays better as measured by the relevant indicators.

Of course, being better than Jordan would be incredible because Jordan is every bit the statistical monster that James is and then some. But so what? If we’re being honest assessors of basketball excellence, then we should admit that there is a possible (indeed, even plausible) combination of statistical indicators that would amount to a player who is better than Jordan. Maybe James will be that player and maybe he won’t, but the final judgment can’t be rendered without the relevant information. To simply declare Jordan the best by fiat and then assert that James can never measure up is not only to belittle James’ skills, but Jordan’s too. It is the recourse of the lazy and the stupid, not of anyone who is interested in evaluating the game with open eyes.

Edit: The main thesis here, just to avoid confusion, is that statistical methodology trumps “gut feeling,” when it comes to evaluating players. If at the end of the day you like Jordan better than James because of certain aesthetic preferences, that’s fine; what matters is that any initial degeneracy is broken by reference to some objective factors rather than “I like player x/I don’t like player y.”

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.

Who needs facts?

Not John McWhorter. In his review of Amy Wax’s book, Race, Wrongs, and Remedies, McWhorter waxes (ho ho) poetic about the persuasiveness of the argument, but completely fails to relate just what it is that makes it persuasive. The review begins, as such things so often do, with a complete strawman:

There is a school of thought in America which argues that the government must be the main force that provides help to the black community.

Notice the unspoken assumptions smuggled into this sentence. First, it is simply assumed that such a “school of thought” exists, although none of its representatives are even identified, much less given a voice. The second assumption is that this school (whatever it is, if it even exists) believes that government must be the “main force,” in helping the black community; is there even a metric that allows one to compare who or what is a “main” force and what is an auxillary? I would suppose that if one actually spoke to people who study issues of this sort, one would discover a much more nuanced view on the role of government in bringing about racial equality.

The review, and, I must assume from the text, Wax’s book itself, contains one of those horrible appeals to analogy which is neither illuminating nor valid. McWhorter paraphrases it thus:

Wax appeals to a parable in which a pedestrian is run over by a truck and must learn to walk again. The truck driver pays the pedestrian’s medical bills, but the only way the pedestrian will walk again is through his own efforts. The pedestrian may insist that the driver do more, that justice has not occurred until the driver has himself made the pedestrian learn to walk again. But the sad fact is that justice, under this analysis, is impossible.

How this is supposed to teach us anything about the history of African-Americans is unclear. Justice is “impossible,” under this analysis because the framework of the “parable” is structured to prevent it from being possible. Even internally the example isn’t particularly coherent; we might well ask what happens if the truck driver has paralyzed the pedestrian, which would seem to be a reasonable question given the analogy. Now, the pedestrian can’t learn to walk, no matter how hard he tries! What kind of justice does the pedestrian, now crippled for life, deserve in this case?

Of course, to even begin to make this counter-argument is already a problem because it implies the acceptance of the analogy, which is in no way legitimate. Collisions between truck drivers and pedestrians are individual processes; the condition of blacks in America is not an individual process but a historic one. Truck drivers didn’t create structural conditions that continuously result in pedestrians being run over, whereas white America unquestionably did create (and continues to perpetuate) structural conditions that leave blacks at a disadvantage.

McWhorter goes on:

The legal theory about remedies, Wax points out, grapples with this inconvenience—and the history of the descendants of African slaves, no matter how horrific, cannot upend its implacable logic. As she puts it, “That blacks did not, in an important sense, cause their current predicament does not preclude charging them with alleviating it if nothing else will work.

The italics in the quotation are mine. Let me first object to the use of the word “implacable” here as a mean rhetorical trick designed to move the faulty analogy out of the realm of debate. In fact, as is clear after minimal reflection, nothing about this logic is implacable at all; it’s actually quite faulty and not at all applicable to the situation in question, which in any case ought to be treated on its own merits. But even granting this false analogy, I still have to wonder by what mechanism of elimination Wax has concluded that “nothing else will work.” Does Wax’s book contain a thorough examination of various social programs together with an analysis of their performance? I don’t have the book, but I suspect that it’s not something you can do in 190 pages (and anyway, Wax is a lawyer, not a sociologist, so likely such an analysis would be beyond her expertise anyway). In fact, one might suppose that there are lots of things we haven’t tried that could certainly alleviate the difficulties that blacks face in America; for example, we could end the ludicrous and patently racist “war on drugs,” which locks up young black men at unprecedented rates. I doubt that this would solve every problem ever, but it sure would help. In the next paragraph, McWhorter’s argument (really, Wax’s argument, but McWhorter seems to agree with it) gets downright weird:

Wax is well aware that past discrimination created black-white disparities in education, wealth, and employment. Still, she argues that discrimination today is no longer the “brick wall” obstacle it once was, and that the main problems for poor and working-class blacks today are cultural ones that they alone can fix. Not that they alone should fix—Wax is making no moral argument—but that they alone can fix.

Let’s grant for a moment Wax’s argument that discrimination today isn’t a “brick wall.” I don’t believe it’s true, but for the sake of argument I’ll allow it. It still remains true that the people alive today are the victims of actual discrimination from decades past. Since I assume that no one would make the argument that racism just disappeared abruptly, even if one believes it doesn’t really exist today, then certainly one must grant that blacks were, in fact, discriminated against in the past. What that means, for those of you who are adept at following causation, is that blacks today are living with the end product of that discrimination. Wax clearly acknowledges this, but wants to pretend that in this brave new world, that doesn’t really matter. I can’t see how this is a coherent position. Those structural deficiencies created by explicitly and implicitly discriminatory policies still exist. I’ve already mentioned  the war on drugs, but you can just as easily look at the difference in funding between urban and suburban school districts. When I was a high school student in California, I was lucky enough to attend a very rich school whose tax base was La Jolla, one of the wealthiest communities in the state. But I also had the chance to see numerous other campuses, which were decrepit by comparison. So long as such stark and undisputed inequalities persist, it’s hard to see how Wax’s apparent belief that we have done all we can could possibly stand up under scrutiny.

McWhorter acknowledges these difficulties at the end of the article, though in a rather oblique manner. Before he gets there, he throws out a couple of studies without a lot of context: that completing high school and delaying having kids is conducive to success, that the IAT is not the best indicator of discriminatory behavior (this is asserted and nothing is cited in support, but let’s roll with it), and that poor women don’t marry the fathers of their children not because the fathers are unemployed but because they are not dependable. The obvious question that arises here is how those factors are disentangled; wouldn’t someone who is undependable be likely to be unemployed? Potshots are thrown at random “black radicals” (who, I’m guessing, are probably of little relevance to the overall struggles of day-to-day life in black communities anyway) for failing to address out-of-wedlock births and Jeremiah Wright is trotted out to complete the parade of horribles.

What’s disappointing about all of this is that at the end, it’s not like McWhorter doesn’t understand that government has a role to play. Having thrown out some pretty categorical statements early on, he effectively backtracks to admit that government can in fact do things like improve educational equality, ease the transition of felons back into society, and enforce civil rights violations. And that it should be doing those things. Still, he can’t help but sign on to this paragraph from Wax:

The government cannot make people watch less television, talk to their children, or read more books. It cannot ordain domestic order, harmony, tranquility, stability, or other conditions conducive to academic success and the development of sound character. Nor can it determine how families structure their interactions and routines or how family resources—including time and money—are expended. Large-scale programs are especially ineffective in changing attitudes and values toward learning, work, and marriage.

Government can certainly not do any of those things by fiat (although the last sentence seems of dubious validity). But it can, and should, try to create conditions in which those kinds of attitudes will flourish. Poverty, as I suspect McWhorter would acknowledge, has a logic of its own that has little to do intrinsically with whether one is black or white. For historical reasons, we have a black underclass in this country, but being black doesn’t somehow cause you to adopt the “wrong culture.” On the other hand, there is a clear causal connection between being black and finding yourself the persistent victim of structural inequalities predicated, in the not-too-distant past, on racial discrimination. Once you find yourself a member of that underclass, with the corresponding limited horizons and substantially greater day-to-day travails, you can’t just will yourself out of it. Well, maybe if you’re really good, you can, but the average person, black or white or anything in between, is going to struggle, and understandably so. To think otherwise is just fantasy. It’s especially bizarre for Wax to ask,

Is it possible to pursue an arduous program of self-improvement while simultaneously thinking of oneself as a victim of grievous mistreatment and of one’s shortcomings as a product of external forces?

Well, is it? It would seem that Wax believes the answer to this question is negative, though this isn’t stated anywhere. But more importantly, what if one really is a victim of grievous mistreatment and one’s shortcomings (a loaded term in and of itself) are actually a product of external forces?

McWhorter concludes his review with the suggestion that saying that government and personal choices both have a role to play is like having your cake and eating it too. But I would counter that such a statement is simply a truism, and that Wax is playing a dishonest shell game. On the one hand, it’s impossible to not acknowledge the great injustices perpetrated against blacks over the course of this country’s history; on the other hand, such an acknowledgment leads naturally to the conclusion that this isn’t just a private problem but a social problem that can and should be addressed in policy. And that’s not acceptable to Wax for whatever reason, so she quickly has to swap in the idea that we’ve already done all we can and the rest is the responsibility of the black community. Nevermind that this isn’t supported by any real evidence and that so much more can actually be done. And this is why discussions of culture never really get you anywhere; they simply serve to redirect the discourse from the actual, useful things we as a society can do to blaming black people for not being committed enough to not being poor. McWhorter is right when he says that “the bulk of today’s discussion of black America is performance art,” but not in the way he thinks.

More Apple fuckery

Blah blah my shit does not work no one cares. Ok then.

Here’s the thing: I’m used to having to hack things to get them to work. As such, I think that package managers like apt-get have come a long, long way. Nowadays, I just don’t even think, I apt-get and forget about it. 99% of the time that just works and I am a happy camper. Sometimes there’s some weird thing that doesn’t but ever since probably Ubuntu 8.10 or so, the number of package issues I’ve had could probably be counted on one hand.

So now I am using this fancy pants MacBook Pro for work and it’s a pretty sweet machine all things considered. That said, it’s a huge pain in the ass because I want pretty emacs like what comes standard on pretty much all Linux distros and I can’t get pretty emacs. Instead I have something called Aquamacs which is ok too, I guess, but NOT THE SAME. Not the same because unlike the emacs in Linux I can’t figure out how to make this one run slime, which is a Lisp thing. That’s fine though; what’s irritating is the inability to run X applications in general. Ok, you want me to do Macports, I’ll do Macports. What’s that, Macports crashed trying to install X?! FUUUUUUCK. The existing Python that comes with the OS is weird and won’t do anything right; gotta install the images from python.org to get numpy and scipy and matplotlib to work nicely together. Also, for some reason this laptop refuses to read a perfectly cromulent disk that was burned on my home machine and reads just fine in my cheap-ass car stereo.

WHAT I AM SAYING: yeah, some things are easy in OS X, that’s cool. Some things are not so easy. Also this fucking magic mouse is a piece of shit and I want to punch whoever came up with this idea. I don’t even have colossal bear paws or anything but hey, I’m an adult male which means this tiny fucking mouse (which, by the way, is never pictured near an actual human hand to give you a sense of scale, all the pictures make it look really huge like it’s the size of a fucking house or something) is way too small for my hand. Thanks for the carpal tunnel syndrome, Apple! I should have asked for the ergonomic logitech which for some reason was like $100 at the apple store even though I bought almost the same goddamn mouse for $35 on Newegg.

And then the worst part is that you are like, ok, how do I use this thing and you read reviews of it and some dude is all like, “maybe this isn’t the greatest idea on the face of the earth,” and of course a bazillion Apple fanboys and fangirls and fangoats and fanjellyfish all jump into this thread and are like “NO YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND,” even though this guy totally gets why this mouse sucks. Stop being so devoted to some stupid fucking company, you assholes. They’re not your fucking saviors, and they make shitty products sometimes, like this stupid fucking mouse which is too small for my hands that are apparently larger than any hand of any person at Apple development HQ.

I like that little dock in OS X though. That’s nice. Also when the Adium duck hops up and down to let you know someone IM’ed you. Adorable.

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.