Toxic garbage dumpsters

Katie Herzog argues that call-out culture is a toxic garbage dumpster fire of trash:

There’s a name for this behavior: witch hunts. Someone is accused, judged, and condemned for an alleged or apparent transgression, and the townspeople on Facebook and Twitter grab their pitchforks and rush to the burn pile. There may be little evidence to support the prevailing narrative, but that hardly matters. […]

In a recent Wired piece, techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote about contemporary censorship, which comes not from governments but from our own social networks. “The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself,” she wrote. “As a result, they don’t look much like the old forms of censorship at all. They look like viral or coordinated harassment campaigns, which harness the dynamics of viral outrage to impose an unbearable and disproportionate cost on the act of speaking out.”

Marginalize the university, revive the café

David Adler asks if it’s time to return universities to their proper cultural place:

It is time for a better approach, with the university returning to more of a supporting – rather than domineering – economic and cultural role. Reining in universities’ cultural hegemony has many advantages. Consider: What is the contemporary version of “academic art” (and literature)? What are its concerns, its vision, its impact?

Universal basic income

Andrew Flowers of Five Thirty Eight on universal basic income:

The idea is as simple as it is radical: Rather than concern itself with managing myriad social welfare and unemployment insurance programs, the government would instead regularly cut a no-strings-attached check to each citizen. No conditions. No questions. Everyone, rich or poor, employed or out of work would get the same amount of money. This arrangement would provide a path toward a new way of living: If people no longer had to worry about making ends meet, they could pursue the lives they want to live.

[…]

Basic income has attracted a motley crew of supporters, spanning the ideological spectrum. Efficiency-minded libertarians like the idea of streamlining the bureaucracy of the welfare state. Silicon Valley techies hope a guaranteed income would cushion the blow as automation replaces human jobs. Those with a more utopian bent, such as the organizers of the Swiss referendum, want to open up more options, to let people create art and free the world of … “bullshit jobs.”

Via Matt.

On conversation

James Radcliffe on conversation:

At its best the act of conversation can be many things; connection, communion, truth-finding, enlightenment, inspiration, a healing…  I do not overstate when I say that I have participated in conversations that have bordered on spiritual awakenings.  […]

The thing that I love about a great conversation is the same thing that I love about being part of a great gig, about making love, or participating in the creative process.  All these things are capable of rendering up jewels of light.  This is the truly good stuff; this is what makes life worth living; this is what balances the chaotic fury of flying blind thru the ever-storm of a darkening experience.

I’ve thought something of the sort recently. How my very favorite thing in the world might just be conversation, and how seldom we might consider this a possible answer.

Our understanding of human nature

Noam Chomsky on our implicit understanding of human nature1:

[A]ny stance that one takes with regard to social issues … assuming that it has any moral basis at all and is not simply based on personal self-interest, is ultimately based on some conception of human nature. That is, if you suggest things should be reformed in this or that fashion and there’s a moral basis for it, you are in effect saying: “Human beings are so constituted that this change is to their benefit. It somehow relates to their essential human needs.”

The underlying concept of human nature is rarely articulated. It’s more or less passive and implicit and nobody thinks about it very much. But if the study of humans were ever to reach the point of a discipline with significant intellectual content (and we’re very far from this), this concept would have to be understood and articulated.

If we search our souls we find that we do have a concept, and it’s probably based on some ideas about the underlying and essential human need for freedom from external arbitrary constraints and controls, a concept of human dignity which would regard it as an infringement of fundamental human rights to be enslaved, owned by others, in my view even to be rented by others, as in capitalist societies, and so on.

  1. From Language and Politics, 2004.

Delinquent lemonade peddlers

A local station in East Texas reports that cops have put a child’s lemonade stand out of business. The seven-year-old delinquent is still trying to peddle her contraband:

We had kettle corn and lemonade. The lemonade was for 50 cents and the kettle corn was a dollar, but if you got both it was a dollar.

Of course, her mother is standing by the miscreant daughter:

A code enforcement officer and the chief, she called me to the side and said we needed a permit […] I think that’s ridiculous. I think they’re 7 and 8 and they’re just trying to make money for their own cause.

Chief Clyde Carter, who earned the worst score in the Milgram experiment, defends the police action:

It is a lemonade stand but they also have a permit that they are required to get. […] We have to follow by the state health guidelines. They have to have a permit if they’re going to do the lemonade stands.

As does the erudite drudge, Matt Novak, who helpfully points out that people contracted polio from a lemonade stand once eighty fucking years ago1:

I did a quick search through newspaper archives and found examples of lemonade stands getting shut down as early as the 1960s. There was even one case in the 1940s where a young girl was giving the whole neighborhood polio by the cup. Caveat emptor, amirite kids?

I’m not saying that you’re going to get polio if you buy lemonade from kids in your neighborhood, but you’re probably going to get polio if you buy lemonade from kids in your neighborhood.

True to Gawker style, he concludes that you shouldn’t really care too much because “[e]verything’s always been bad”, and anyway fashionable cynicism is more fun than thinking about stuff, a deeply profound argument that is not literally meaningless. He also manages to incorporate the illuminating Thanks Obama! doubly-ironic apology, helpfully defending someone who hasn’t killed that many people from a charge that virtually no one ever made.

  1. Linking to Gawker is about as bad as unpasteurized juice, so no.

In defense of pasteurization

I recently purchased a bottle of juice from Whole Foods, only to begin vomiting profusely several hours after drinking it. The juice, it turns out, was not pasteurized.

At first, I imagined that I had somehow found myself transported to an earlier century, where we lacked knowledge of the benefits of pasteurization, but the fact that my surroundings remained in full color disproved this hypothesis.

I then imagined that some catastrophic event had occurred and that fire itself could no longer be conjured. I ruled out this possibility once I successfully burned myself on a candle, which proved a useful distraction from the greater pain of discovering that my juice was left unpasteurized intentionally, and that this is evidently not a felony.

It turns out that there are people who prefer non-pasteurized beverages, and that I know (and even like) some of these people! I am unsure why they have such peculiar and masochistic preferences, but it appears that some people prefer non-pasteurized beverages because they supposedly taste better or because they contain certain nutrients that would otherwise be destroyed in the process of pasteurization.

Perhaps my tastes are unsophisticated, but it seems that pursuing a marginally better tasting juice at the cost of unnecessarily exposing oneself to a wealth of pathogens is ill-advised. Similarly, a minor nutritional benefit that may be obtained by drinking non-pasteurized beverages would seem somewhat outweighed by the mass presence of said pathogens.

I can only conclude, therefore, that those who prefer non-pasteurized beverages either actively enjoy pathogens, or live their lives in pursuit of taste and vitamins above all else. Perhaps more charitably, I can conclude they doubt the existence of pathogens altogether, and therefore believe pasteurization can have no beneficial effect, a position that is consistent if nothing else.

For my own part, I’ll keep to pasteurized beverages, which I generally enjoy, on the naïve assumptions that pathogens exist, that vomiting is undesirable, and that things originating from soil or teats are not always ready for consumption.

This post is dedicated to Louis Pasteur in the hope that wherever he is, he does not regret having saved lives with his superfluous process.

I can’t even

Amanda Hess writes on contemporary can’t-even-ing:

For those who grew up when teenagers didn’t “can’t,” the phrase might register as a whimper, as if millennials have spun their inability to climb the staircase out of the parental basement into a mantra. At least the Valley Girls of the 1980s and ’90s, who turned every statement into a question, and the vocal-fried pop tarts of the early 2000s, who growled almost inaudibly, had the decency to finish their sentences. Kids today, it seems, are so mindless that they can’t even complete their verb phrases.

But if you really believe that teenage girls (and boys) don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s more likely that they just don’t want you to know what they’re talking about. Teenagers may not be able to drive or vote or stay out past curfew or use the bathroom during school hours without permission, but they can talk. Their speech is the site of rebellion, and their slang provides shelter from adult scrutiny.

Hess’s history of the phrase is interesting, but her explanation of its purpose — to shield its meaning from parents — is completely inaccurate.

As obfuscation goes, can’t even ranks as a fairly transparent colloquialism. I can’t even [believe it], I can’t even [comprehend that] — these are not profoundly difficult exclamations to decipher. A parent that’s unable to do so might benefit from laying off the Strunk & White.

The notion also reveals the self-importance of many parents. I concealed fairly little from my parents, and know many who did the same. It wasn’t because we were particularly virtuous; rather it was because parents — bless them — are largely oblivious to their children’s actual lives, and so we didn’t need to.

Hess portrays the neurotic parent who faithfully spies on their children, but as everyone suspects the kids always come out ahead.

Excuses, excuses, excuses

Alex Micek on excuses and turning thirty:

I’ve been taught to avoid excuses, first by my parents and then later in the wisdom of those I read. It was the latter that taught me an excuse for many things should never be offered when this a better explanation: “I didn’t care enough to produce the outcome you were looking for.” This is especially true when one is late. For years, if I was late, I would compose the reason in my head, what the extenuating circumstances were, why this was unusual, how I would correct it in the future.

Then, with embarrassment, I realized these thoughtfully-composed reasons skirted reality: they were simply another way to say I hadn’t cared enough to be on time. So, while I have many interesting reasons (excuses) why I haven’t written here lately, it is quite simply because I haven’t cared enough to do it. But, I can’t let my birthday weekend come and go without listing the details of it. And also, I should write here more frequently.

On the purported oppression of writers

Chris Weigl on why being a writer is dreadful:

There are times where being a writer sucks. In fact, tell me when I get to the good part. You struggle your whole life to fight for an idea that needs validation from someone in a position of authority to succeed. It’s nearly impossible for writers to earn a living and by that I mean earn a mediocre living wage so we can live in some of the most expensive cities in the world. You can’t get a job because just about every job feels unfulfilling compared to writing. In essence one cannot get a job because they would lose their will to keep on writing. That’s where society’s values are at. […]

If you believe the right-wing lie about makers vs. takers though writers would be the worst offenders as most of us can’t afford to pay our bills, can’t afford health insurance, and depend on government services to be doing things that corporations should be paying us for. The issue isn’t makers vs. takers at all. If it were writers would be sitting on the upper triage of society along with teachers, engineers, architects and construction workers. We’re the people who really make shit. Yet, most writers are at the mercy of corporate America and we get screwed every time. Our skills are de-valued for reasons passing understanding while those who prop up said corporations decry America’s moral decay. […]

Journalists are viewed as parasites, but it’s their job to keep people in power honest because passive voters sure as hell aren’t doing it.

As much as I appreciate “creative” people, and fully support a guaranteed minimum income, I’m weary of the kinds of arguments that “creatives” often make with respect to their work and its devaluation.

My uneasiness stems from two facts: The simple truth that all people are profoundly creative, and that designating a particular class of individuals as “creative”, only serves to devalue the great majority who don’t have the luxury of living a life of the mind—a luxury despite the financial difficulties of “creatives”. One who has a couple children, a mortgage, and a car or two isn’t necessarily living high on the hog, yet for them the option to join this “creative” class essentially doesn’t exist. Presumably they are to be considered deficient in some way.

The second reason resembles the first in its arrogance: Even if we accept that “creatives” are a distinct class of people, virtually every difficulty that Weigl mentions applies doubly to many people in the United States, let alone the forgotten non-people stuck in the Third World.

Indeed, one can quite literally replace “writers” with “people” in Weigl’s post, and achieve a fairly accurate picture of the world. The failure of many writers to acknowledge this or engage with ordinary people—people often ridiculed as “passive”, members of the teeming masses, the bewildered herd, and so on—can’t be discounted as a source of their financial woes. More importantly, however, such egoism is perfectly compatible with the social stratification and oppression that Weigl regrets.

One way to oppress others is to stomp them with your boot. Another is to form a kind of vanguard, anointing oneself to lead the ignorant masses to salvation. Both should be avoided.

Comedians and truth

Jerry Seinfeld on advertisers at an awards ceremony for advertising:

I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy. Because a brief moment of happiness is pretty good.

Seinfeld has a real talent for observing human behavior, locating the absurdity that often underlies it, and distilling it in almost clinical terms. If an anthropologist from Mars landed on earth and studied us, their conclusions would probably be indistinguishable from Seinfeld’s. Our reaction to them, however, would be quite different.

After Seinfeld made the remarks, the audience — largely made up of advertising professionals — laughed uproariously. People don’t ordinarily laugh when someone expresses contempt for their being, unless that person is insane or a comedian.

I wonder what that means. Do we laugh because the truth makes us feel uncomfortable? Or do we laugh because we think comedians are harmless liars?

I think the latter would be a mistake. Many comedians seem to me our greatest truth-tellers.

The Herd of Independent Minds

From Harold Rosenberg’s essay, The Herd of Independent Minds (1948):

The mass-culture maker, who takes his start from the experience of others, is essentially a reflector of myths, and is without experience to communicate. To him man is an object seen from the outside. Indeed it could be demonstrated that the modern mass-culture élite […] actually has less experience than the rest of humanity, less even than the consumers of its products.

To the professional of mass culture, knowledge is the knowledge of what is going on in other people; he alone trades his experience for the experience of experience. Everyone has met those culture-conscious “responsibles” who think a book or movie or magazine wonderful not because it illuminates or pleases them but because it tells “the people” what they “ought to know.”

I think the principle here extends beyond the mass-culture maker to include many mass-culture consumers. It’s a common sport to talk about what “the masses” think, feel, or do — often to the exclusion of what one’s self thinks, feels, or does.

Self-censorship and social media

Everyone has an experience of not saying what’s on their mind. We censor ourselves when we praise a friend’s terrible cooking, and also when we remain silent on matters of social injustice. Some people believe self-censorship to be in itself roughly neutral, having both positive and negative uses. On the other hand, I think it’s usually quite negative and should be exercised sparingly, only where telling the truth would have a harmful consequence, and where the underlying issue is trivial.

A couple of recent studies1 examined how self-censorship manifests itself in social media. The results aren’t very surprising: About 70% of Facebook users censor themselves. (We might imagine that the study’s methods are insufficiently precise to register the remaining users’ tendencies.)

Self-censorship appears most prevalent in cases where the user’s audience is broad or vague. For example, a person may be less likely to share radical political beliefs if they fear that their conservative uncle will stumble upon the post. The studies advocate relieving such worries by allowing users to more precisely target their speech.

It seems a very strange tack, if the goal is to alleviate harmful self-censorship. If self-censorship involves crafting some persona for social approval, this approach only seems to encourage people to construct ever more elaborate personae for the praise of ever narrower circles.

There is an alternative. The studies seem to assume the existence of the audience as a salient fact. When you compose a post, it’s assumed that you’re considering that it will be read by someone or some audience. This assumption seems harmless enough, and it’s probably fair in an environment so saturated by likes, comments, and pictures of your friends. However, there are kinds of social media where the existence of an audience is not very salient.

As I write this, I’m only reminded of an audience by consciously and deliberately thinking of that audience. Their faces aren’t plastered all over the place, and if I’m not preoccupied with my site’s stats, I could plausibly deny to myself that I have any audience at all.

Even if I accept that I have some audience, my audience here would seem to demonstrate some interest in what I have to say, as they must be somewhat more deliberate about finding these words at all. If I wrote this on Facebook, my audience would practically be forced to read what I say. As such, I can feel a bit more comfortable about sharing my actual self here, as it seems something my entirely hypothetical audience (you understand) just might want.

And here lies, as far as I’m concerned, the beauty of weblogs and blogging. The weblog carries with it hardly any more assumptions than paper. You’re completely free to turn it into what you like: A socially aware Facebook analogue, or a plausibly private and only incidentally public notebook. Or anything in between.

It’s part of social and antisocial media alike, and Facebook could learn a thing or two from this.

The ritual performance of democracy

From Lewis H. Lapham’s Feast of Fools, a fiery and honest essay on the “ritual performance of the legend of democracy”:

On political campaigns:

They stay on message with their parsing of democracy as the ancient Greek name for the American Express card, picturing the great, good American place as a Florida resort hotel wherein all present receive the privileges and comforts owed to their status as valued customers, invited to convert the practice of citizenship into the art of shopping, to select wisely from the campaign advertisements, texting A for Yes, B for No.

On faux-dissent:

The cable-news networks meanwhile package dissent as tabloid entertainment, a commodity so clearly labeled as pasteurized ideology that it is rendered harmless and threatens nobody with the awful prospect of having to learn something they didn’t already know. Comedians on the order of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher respond with jokes offered as consolation prizes for the acceptance of things as they are and the loss of hope in things as they might become. As soporifics, not, God forbid, as incitements to revolution or the setting up of guillotines in Yankee Stadium and the Staples Center.

On the most expensive dramatic productions ever:

Happily, at least for the moment, the society is rich enough to afford the staging of the fiction of democracy as a means of quieting the suspicions of a potentially riotous mob with the telling of a fairy tale. The rising cost of the production—the pointless nominating conventions decorated with 15,000 journalists as backdrop for the 150,000 balloons reflects the ever-increasing rarity of the demonstrable fact. The country is being asked to vote in November for television commercials because only in the fanciful time-zone of a television commercial can the American democracy still be said to exist.