Is it really any wonder?

We are an evangelical people. How we ever got a reputation for practicality and common sense is a mystery historians will one day have to unravel. Facing up to problems, gauging their significance, gathering evidence, consulting with others, and testing out new approaches is not our thing. We much prefer to ignore problems until they become crises, undergo an inner conversion, write a gospel, preach it at the top of our lungs, cultivate disciples, demand repentance, predict the apocalypse, beat our plowshares into swords, and expect paradise as a reward. And we wonder why our system is dysfunctional…

–Mark Lilla, from an interview by Rod Dreher

“…with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed.”

Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist — those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.

–Hannah Black, ‘The Painting Must Go’

From “The Mark Manifesto”

With a community of almost two billion people, it is less feasible to have a single set of standards to govern the entire community so we need to evolve towards a system of more local governance.

–Mark Zuckerberg, Building Global Community [via Recode]

There’s so much in the manifesto that smarter people than me will hash over, but this stood out to me, appearing as it does about three-quarters of the way through a polemic advocating for Facebook’s centrality to the building of a truly global community. I’ve no idea how this claim will be translated into algorithmic practice. The general tenor of that section of the manifesto gives the impression that what Zuckerberg means is that individuals will still (sort of) control what they see, but those settings will be refined by Facebook’s programmers to set regional norms for community standards. But in a global community, how are locality and region going to be defined? In a digital space where people choose their associations, how will Facebook determine boundaries? To what extent will cookies, likes, and reposts determine new forms of subcommunity identity? If Facebook is successful in its global agenda, will nation-states morph into digitally-facilitated forms of groupthink? Zuckerberg seems determined not to contribute to the atomization of society via his particular social media platform (and it’s clear that he’s wrestled with this issue pretty extensively), but what checks and balances do Zuckerberg and his army of programmers intend to build into the code? Zuckerberg also intends to grow the Facebook community; if 2 billion makes it “less feasible to have a single set of standards,” what happens when Facebook hits 3 billion? Zuckerberg claims at the outset of the manifesto that the goal is “building the long term social infrastructure to bring humanity together.” I feel like there’s a lot of slippage between terms like “community,” “government,” “standards,” and “infrastructure” throughout–as there tends to be in any extended political conversation–but very little acknowledgement of who or what comprises this infrastructure. It’s fine and dandy to insist that the sociability of people is the nucleus of Facebook. And that’s sort of true. But it’s also true that Facebook remains a private company whose product is a patented digital system whose language is known only to Zuckerberg and his employees. Facebook is infrastructure, even social infrastructure in a capacious sense of the word. But Zuckerberg seems to entertain seriously the idea that it’s the users who are driving the formation of the community even as he promotes the role of the Facebook corporate entity in giving it shape and function. What does locality look like in a global village whose infrastructure is house in Silicon Valley, yet whose fiberoptic materials and electronic signals remain almost literally invisible to the eye of the people who “live” there?

A formless, mute, infant and terrifying form of monstrosity called the future

In the accounts given by philosophers like Bernard Stiegler, the human stands on the point of vanishing entirely; we become something incidental to a total technological system. As he points out, a human being without any technological prostheses is nothing, an unsteady sac of flesh defined only by what it doesn’t have: no shelter, no protection, no society. We create tools, but technical apparatuses and their milieus advance according to their own logic, and these non-living objects have their own strange form of life. Our brains developed to control our hands; human consciousness itself was only the by-product of a technical evolution that moved from flint-knapping to the hammer to the virtual bartender; its real job isn’t to perform any particular task but to perpetuate itself.  “Robots,” he writes, are “seemingly designed no longer to free humanity from work but to consign it either to poverty or stress.” Whatever illusion of predominance we had is fading: For others, like Benjamin Bratton, the real political subject is no longer a human individual but a “user,” which can be any kind of biological or digital assemblage. With production automated according to algorithmically generated targets, with the vast majority of all written language taking the form of spam and junk code, this system has less and less use for us—even as a moving part—with every passing day.

Web Summit is where humanity rushes towards its extinction.

–Sam Kriss, Watching the World Rot at the World’s Largest Tech Conference

I already wonder what Prof. Jacobs would have to say about Kriss’s provocative essay. This particular passage reeks of techno-determinism, albeit a pessimistic one. Kriss spends an entire paragraph laying out the case that “non-living objects” — our tools — “have their own strange form of life,” and that these tools have evolved (somehow) into an increasingly autonomous system with “less and less use for us–even as a moving part.” All of this suggests to me that Kriss views humanity as extraordinarily deprived of agency by its technological infrastructure.

Yet the following sentence–more of an aphorism, really–declares simply, “Web Summit is where humanity rushes towards its extinction.” I emphasize those words because they suggest that we are actively moving–as opposed to being moved–toward self-annhilation.

To me, this rhetorical confusion is pretty significant. At the end of the essay, Kriss documents a meet-and-greet at a local watering hole. He laments that human sociality has been transmogrified into ever more affective labor.

A human enjoyment as basic as getting drunk together had been transformed into something else; everyone was still at work, being pulled along by the logic of whatever it is that they’d collectively invented. In a corner of one bar, a muted TV was showing the presidential election on CNN: state by state slowly turning red, a grinning goblin creeping closer to the brink of power. People around me were worried; they thought that a nuclear-armed Donald Trump might lead to the end of humanity. For all the tech industry’s claims to be the leading edge of tomorrow, these people were still thinking in terms of a very old world. The end of humanity had already arrived; it was everywhere around us.

But what or who, exactly, had done the transforming? The “logic of whatever it is that they’d collectively invented”? Kriss’s refusal to name names makes a sort of sense, given that a main theme of his essay is the way our society is increasingly a “system terrifyingly self-sustaining and utterly opaque.” This systemic opacity makes it impossible or difficult. Or perhaps, for his rhetorical purposes, it’s rhetorically undesirable to name openly and clearly. Look at that passage again. States, one by one, turn red, apparently of their own accord, as if the vote tallies themselves are “a grinning goblin.” Is Donald Trump the goblin? Or does Kriss simply fear to name the agent that is actually responsible for turning those states red: humanity? States don’t just turn red of their own accord, even on CNN election maps. Voters vote, and the color reflects their choice.

I honestly can’t tell if Kriss is being imprecise as a matter of rhetorical strategy or because he’s not carefully thinking through the implications of his premise. In a lot of ways, it seems politically easier to say, “The end of humanity had already arrived.” It lets us off the hook for having to take responsibility and a measure of control over our technosphere. It also gives people like Kriss persmission to dismiss and demean those people whose goals and purposes are opaque to him.

Kriss can’t understand why tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists would choose to congregate in such a chaotic way. He doesn’t get the appeal of running a 90% chance of failure as an app innovator. The idea of using a social occasion as a milieu for professional networking appears vaguely insidious. Lurking behind it all is some Illuminati-esque entity called Technology (or maybe the Tech Industry?), whose agency and motives are obscure and sinister, possibly apocalyptic. And: surely real people could not choose to vote for Trump of their own volition. There must be something compelling them. Kriss (willfully?) ignores the fact that people and their choices remain utterly central to the maintenance of any and all tools that comprise our systems.

I’m largely sympathetic to Kriss’s critique, I think. Most of the systems that hold our social world together mystify me in many profound ways. People themselves constantly disappoint and mystify me, too. But I do think it’s a categorical error to ascribe agential vitality to “systems” or “technology” without doing at least minimal definitional work. Where does human agency end and systemic agency begin? What is the nature of this “strange form of life” posessed by non-living objects? Are all non-living objects possessed by the same, strange life-force, and do they all exert it the same way upon humanity? Is Kriss overwhelmed by The Tech Industry at the Web Summit, or is he primarily overwhelmed by the apparently chaotic society of its attendees–the people who’ve chosen to work there?

Most importantly, doesn’t Kriss fall into the ancient trap of self-fulfilling prophecy? Non-living systems built by people enervate human societies precisely to the extent that humanity cedes agential authority to its tools. When the crash happens, it’s often because people start thinking that their tools will take care of themselves. Worse, cataclysms often happen because people start confusing other people with tools. Kriss seems to lament that transformation; he also empowers and perpetuates it. Instead of trying to understand how and why people would be so gung-ho about valorizing their tools (rightly or wrongly), he speculates that the tools have simply gotten the better of their masters. And instead of trying to understand how and why people would choose to vote for a grinning goblin (rightly or wrongly), he intimates that they’ve simply already sacrificed their humanity. “Web Summit is a hyper-concentrated image of our entire world, and the panic and confusion that is to come,” Kriss says, because society’s “structure is one of increasing chaos.” Perhaps. Probably. Or there’s a pattern there that Kriss can’t see because he refuses recognize it as an extension of his own humanity.

A Dadaist time in one’s life

“We’ve made everything into a game show,” he said, “and now we’re reaping the consequences of it.” Some of this may be Beck’s own doing. Trump’s conspiracy-peddling and doomsaying? That’s vintage Beck, who said that the Fourth of July used to move him to tears. But now, he said, our politicians and bankers have become crooks, our wars meaningless, and our values lost. “I’m at a Dadaist time in my life,” he said. “So much of what I used to believe was either always a sham or has been made into a sham. There’s nothing deep.”

–Nicholas Schmidle, Glenn Beck Tries Out Decency

Alt-Left: the next generation?

A couple observations pulled from Michael J. Totten’s coverage of this year’s Democratic National Convention:

Sanders activists weren’t the only ones taking to the streets that week, hoping for coverage from the journalist hordes. Even more extreme leftist demonstrators gathered as close as they could to the delegates. They screamed, “Go home, F*** Hillary,” and burned American and Israeli flags. Some shouted “Long live the Intifada!,” referring to the wave of Palestinian suicide-bombers who exploded themselves on Israeli buses and in Israeli cafés in the early 2000s.

Philadelphia native Erica Mines led a protest march against police brutality, yelling, “Hillary Clinton has blood on her hands.” One of the signs in her rally read, “Hillary, Delete Yourself.” “Hillary, you’re not welcome here,” read another. “I need all white people to move to the back!” Mines thundered. “This is a black and brown resistance march! If you are for this march and you are here to support, you will take your appropriate place in the back!”

Bern feeling the burn:

His own delegates booed him.

Sanders seemed bewildered by the forces he had unleashed. He hadn’t just railed against Clinton during the primary campaign. He had told everyone in America that the economy is rigged, that they’re getting screwed by the system, that Clinton is a part of that system, and that what America needs is a socialist revolution. Perhaps for him, this was just rhetoric, but his most ardent supporters and delegates took it seriously. They will continue fighting without him, no matter what happens this year.

Outside the DNC police state:

I had dinner with six Sanders delegates from my home state of Oregon. They were friendly but suspicious of me, believing that most journalists are in the tank for Clinton. None wanted to be quoted by name, not only because they don’t trust the media but also because they don’t trust the Democratic establishment, which they feared would punish them for speaking their minds. “We’ll lose our credentials if we complain too much to the media,” one woman said. “We were told to just talk about unity.” I don’t know if she was right, but I did notice that the DNC made it easier to remove a delegate’s credentials than a journalist’s. I had a press pass that gave me access to the Convention Center and the Wells Fargo Center for the whole week, but the delegates had to get brand-new passes each morning. Pulling their credentials wouldn’t have been difficult.

“When any of us got up to use the bathroom, paid Hillary shills took our seats,” a woman said. “They want to push us so hard that we won’t come back.” She teared up at one point. I gently tried to steer the conversation toward something else.

“I don’t know how to talk about anything else.”

I asked them to tell me the biggest problem they had with Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment, to narrow it down to one or two things. I got a variety of answers.

“Our biggest problem,” a young man said, “is her lack of integrity.” Everyone nodded. They had other complaints, though, that set them far apart from Clinton and the party’s establishment and placed them firmly in the camp of the alt-Left.

“The Democratic Party hasn’t gotten rid of patriotism yet.” This was a complaint.

“Chants of USA, USA were disturbing. I felt like I was in Germany in the 1930s.”

“They brought out the flag and sang the national anthem.”

“You have a problem with the national anthem?” I asked.

“It makes me uncomfortable.”

“Every country in the world has a national anthem,” I said. “It’s perfectly normal.”

“Just because something is normal doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.”

Some surprised me again by agreeing with Trump’s lambasting of NATO. “These entangling alliances are going to get us into World War III.” At least two of these Sanders delegates said that the United States should completely disarm and have no military at all, like Costa Rica.

On the younger generation’s attitudes:

According to an exhaustive report by political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk in the Journal of Democracy, young people today are considerably more authoritarian and antidemocratic by attitude and temperament than any other generational cohort, especially baby boomers. Only 30 percent think that it’s “essential” to live in a country with a democratic system of government, and a terrifying 24 percent actually think that a democratic system of government is a bad thing. Only 32 percent of millennials think that it’s “absolutely essential” that “civil rights protect people’s liberty.” According to a Pew Research Center report, 40 percent of millennials want the government to ban “offensive” speech.

“The decline in support for democracy,” Foa and Mounk write, “is not just a story of the young being more critical than the old; it is, in the language of survey research, owed to a ‘cohort’ effect rather than an ‘age’ effect.” In other words, millennials are likely to carry these ideas and attitudes with them for the rest of their lives. Their contempt for free speech is a stunning reversal of the Free Speech Movement on university campuses in the 1960s led by young boomers who fought hard to topple institutional censorship. Many of today’s young adults, by contrast, want to impose institutional censorship—not just on college campuses but across the nation.

It can happen here.

By Andy Marlette.
By Andy Marlette.

Clinton was always going to have a tough time governing. Yes, the 2016 election gave her a narrow three-seat Democratic majority in the Senate, but the GOP held the House — and once Paul Ryan was deposed as speaker in a post-election coup and replaced by pro-Trump firebrand Dana Rohrabacher, there was no chance the incoming president would get anything done. Still, few predicted that people would look back at the inside-the-beltway dysfunction of the Obama years as a golden age of governing.

With three federal government shutdowns and a (failed) presidential impeachment trial in the last two and a half years, there has been no time to address the nation’s problems — above all the slow-motion collapse of the Affordable Care Act. With Trump and his on-air talent railing nightly against President Clinton and her Republican “lap dogs” for trying to fix HillaryCare (nee ObamaCare) rather than letting it die, Congress did nothing as hundreds of thousands and then millions were dropped from health insurance or faced a choice of devastating rate hikes or tax penalties for failing to maintain coverage.

It’s been appalling but also unsurprising. Republicans first experienced this kind of thing back in the 1990s, when Rush Limbaugh began to use his radio show to motivate thousands of listeners to barrage their representatives in Congress with phone calls and faxes, keeping them in line and ensuring they never compromised with Democrats. With Trump TV leading the charge every night of the week (with ratings double what the now-flagging Fox News once brought in), congressional Republicans have felt their feet held to a white-hot roaring fire. No wonder no one has dared to break from the lockstep march to bring down Crooked Hillary.
–Damon Linker, After Trump loses: An ominous American future imagined

Kluwe on “locker room talk”

I was in an NFL locker room for eight years, the very definition of the macho, alpha male environment you’re so feebly trying to evoke to protect yourself, and not once did anyone approach your breathtaking depths of arrogant imbecility. Oh, sure, we had some dumb guys, and some guys I wouldn’t want to hang out with on any sort of regular basis, but we never had anyone say anything as foul and demeaning as you did on that tape, and, hell, I played a couple years with a guy who later turned out to be a serial rapist. Even he never talked like that.

[…]

In a professional sports environment, all of us are accountable to each other. We’re a team. If one of us messes up on the field, it affects everyone. Just like if a president makes a bad decision, it affects everyone. And do you know, Donald, the only way the team wins games? The only way we win is if, in the locker room, we’re willing to accept that accountability, address our mistakes, and work as hard as we possibly can to make sure those mistakes don’t happen again.

We don’t double down on a shitty play simply because a small portion of the fan base got excited by it. We don’t try to carve the team apart from the inside to appease a certain position group. We don’t blame our mistakes on something someone else did, because if we do any of those things, we lose, something you’ve become intimately familiar with on a personal, financial, and political level, and I’m not having too many difficulties reviewing how that happened to you on the game film.

–Chris Kluwe, Dear Donald Trump: I played in the NFL. Here’s what we really talk about in the locker room.

Three categories: American and Muslim and normal

While these clips may be designed to give Muslims a face and voice, they do so in a way that can undermine their aim.The videos include few traditional or conservative Muslims whose dress, accents, or descriptors are far from the norm. The implication that these Muslims are “normal” by American standards allows little space for Muslims who are not “normal”—even if that just means they don’t like Christmas movies. The Americanness of Muslims should not be predicated on their ability to blend in.

One of several response videos, which itself went viral, specifically critiques the mollifying aspect of these videos, preferring to assert political differences many Muslims may have. One participant sums up the response well: “I’m Muslim, but I don’t need to prove my loyalty to you or anyone else.”

That seems to be the fate of all Muslims’ efforts to blend in: rejection. These efforts can only bring exhaustion, along with the loss of distinctive elements of Muslim culture. Only by organizing politically, asserting themselves in the most American way of all, can they hope to make their true voice heard and eventually ensure their relative safety. They should not be afraid of displaying their customs, views, or practices that may appear different.

Muslims should not shy away from the fact that their religion is different from the norm of their supposedly secular country. Rather, they must demand that their country accepts them as they are, for all the contributions they make, even if that means failing to look, sound, and act like what America has deemed “normal”.

–Nafisa Eltahir, Muslim Americans Should Reject Respectability Politics

Speak their names.

If you follow the news at all, you’ve probably heard of the terror attack that claimed the lives of 49 people this last weekend. You probably have opinions on what the political response to it should be. Maybe not. That’s fine.

Before you begin making your opinions known to any and all who will listen, do one thing, please. Click here. That link takes you to a list issued by the city of Orlando of the victims’ names and ages. Next, take a deep breath. Then start reading their names aloud.

With every name you speak aloud, you are giving of yourself something that has been taken from the fallen. Every breath we take brings us closer to death. Speaking their names lends the dead one breath more than they possessed in life. It is the giving of your own breath, your time—your life—so that they might, however briefly, however metaphorically, live again.

If you intend to advocate social change in the name of the dead, honor them first with a tithing of your life. Honor them regardless. Unless you are one of the loved ones left behind by their loss, it is likely that these names will not live on in your memory, even if the sense of injustice does.

As I age and witness more of human history unfold before me, I find it easier and easier to withdraw into abstraction. Doing so shields me from grief and fuels my outrage. Outrage has its use. It burns hot, but it does burn out. The sense of injustice remains, shorn of the sense of loss.

Loss is not an abstraction, and positive, lasting change must be built for living, breathing people, not founded on the dead weight of past injustice. Take a deep breath. Speak their names. Then—then—set to work.