Friday, October 12, 2012

Postmodern Stress Disorder

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
                         - Orwell, Politics and the English Language.

Mitt Romney’s dominance over the President’s inexcusable nap during the first debate was certainly one of conduct, but his win was also reliant on a litany of untruths and whiplashing reversals. He denied that his plan to slash cross-bracket tax rates by 20% would indeed be the 4.8 trillion dollar cut which the independent Tax Policy Center calculated based on the Governor’s own unwillingness to name closeable expenditures. With many words of little substance, Romney re-morphed into a seeming advocate for government regulation of the financial sector after two years campaigning on the opposite. Perhaps most jarring was the facility with which Romney lied that his healthcare plan would cover those with pre-existing conditions. Aside from the fact that there has been no specific health care plan to come out of the campaign, such a guarantee is made practically impossible without the broadening of the insurance pool accomplished by the individual mandate provision within the Affordable Care Act, legislation Romney vows to repeal as a first order of business. The following day the campaign corrected their own candidate to admit that, in fact, only those continuously insured would be so protected under the Romney “plan.” Of course those who are already insured, are already insured.

Deceit is of course unsurprising to anyone following Republican campaign strategy this year, what with race-laced untruths that a foreign-born, “food stamp” president has done away with welfare work-requirements in what time he managed to spare from sympathizing with terrorists on his global apology tour. But this decade has seen Republican political discourse game its way past the zone of “post-truth” politics and into something worse, something more like postmodern politics. It’s a strategy that has for the most part gone unpenalized by a media which
seems resigned to playing sportscaster when its real duty is referee, having manacled itself with the irrelevance that comes in the service of “balance.”

Since I’ve used the term, I should explain postmodernism as an effort by mostly discardable French Marxists to counter the hegemony of Western culture, and the modern privileging of the scientific method and objective truth. Defining the term too rigorously is difficult and possibly undoable — a blur for which it has only itself to blame. So here I use the term in reference to postmodern politics, which borrow from academic postmodernism its three most common faults: a startling ability to obscure language and its meaning, a rejection of objective truth, and the delegitimization of established institutions.

Consider the following assault on conceivable reality, committed by the overgrown child who the Republican party considers its intellectual head:

“I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time [my grandchildren are] my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”

So Newt Gingrich campaigned on an invented threat from an unspecified other, threatening a logically strained, atheistic nation somehow dominated by Islamists, not because he is stupid per se, but because the allowances of the Republican party are now so postmodern that it doesn’t matter whether his statements track with the universe. Gingrich knowingly fused discrepant fears in order to fuel hatred of an allegedly alien president, because he could. Once a party can manufacture and swallow statements like the one above, in course with the likes of death panels, brownshirt analogies, racial dog-whistles, preternatural shapeshifting and crimes against history, it might be fairly accused of having read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a manual instead of a warning. Indeed the party has nearly perfected a language of doublespeak and historical manipulation.

It hasn’t been easy fitting into this dress. Traditional Republican deference to authority and the legitimacy of institution does not fit effortlessly under a philosophy that is somewhat anarchic and radically skeptical of institutions in principle. But utility Trumped fidelity, and Republicans have, in fact, abandoned a number of moral/political convictions.

Fiscal balance, due process, proscriptions against torture, cautious use of the military and defense against the state’s penchant to overpolice, are traditionally conservative principles which have surrendered to the Bush tax cuts, careless warmindedness, the normativity of torture, and the Patriot Act.

In May 2012, House Republicans defeated a bill affirming the Due Process Clause and ending indefinite military detentions without trial with a 219 Republican majority against 189 Democrats supporting. That neither party has well defended American values as they pertain to civil liberties is incontrovertible, and the Obama Administration deserves condemnation for signing the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (its having issued a waiver abrogating the most egregious Fifth Amendment infringements is small consolation), but the difference is one of scale and severity.

The GOP’s delegitimization of governmental institutions is more aggressive than ever. The standing filibuster on the most routine functions of the Senate has fixed the body in a broken state.In an utterly irrational tantrum which cost the U.S. one of its triple-A credit ratings, House Republicans wantonly kidnapped and threatened to flush the full faith and credit of the United States, went their demands unmet. And in a sort of self-serving feedback, the resulting gridlock infects voters with a hatred of government to which Republicans kindly offer the cure of its dismantling.

More comically, during the hissy fit otherwise known as his presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich suggested, in what would be a radical fusing of powers, that justices with whose rulings he disagreed should be subpoenaed before Congress and jailed if they failed to report. Mercifully, Gingrich will never be in a position to try this, though if he ever were he’d be rudely sobered by the neutering that congressional subpoena power underwent during the Bush Presidency. Oh, and when it comes to the office of the presidency, you must have heard by now: a black man holds it illegitimately.

Everybody knows that the French only exist to be mocked, so it may seem ironic that the right has adopted a baby conceived by midcentury French philosophes and raised it to speak in a way that would, did afterlives exist, wake Orwell from the grave. But perhaps it shouldn’t come as a great shock that the right has taken so long to see the benefits of a postmodern approach. For half a century, postmodernism was rightly seen as the domain of an academic left having long availed itself of “contextualizing” cultural practices, and hungering for any luddism that could hysterically permute the words rape, earth, capitalism and industry into some sort of lament over the virus of Western culture. Not anymore. The unempirical wind typically blown by the arugula-gorged high priests of the humanities has a stronger countervail on the right, where broad scale rejection of fact is default, as reconfirmed last week with the outright dismissals of polling data, and likewise with the outrageous libeling of the BLS statistics showing unemployment down to 7.8%.

So as not to leave them unpunished, the left also convinces itself with unevidenced scaremongering over the safety of vaccines and genetically modified foods. But these sorts of wrong are neither as widespread nor as dangerous as the broad scale denials of fact by the right pertaining to anthropogenic climate change and the rejection of knowledge hard won by science. There is simply no intellectually honest way to equate the strength and consequence of mainstream support for denialism between the two parties. And it is not disqualifyingly biased to point out that the dysfunction of one party’s relationship with reality objectively eclipses another’s.

Sometimes, nonsense can make sense. Empirical immunity and doublespeak can work as indispensable armour for a party that manages at once to be both rigidly and infideliously ideological. Unembarrassed by reality, political language can be freed entirely for utility to power. It’s how one can with a straight face claim to “protect the vote” by suppressing the vote and support “family values” by promoting bigotry. It’s how one can in the age of the Higgs field and the human genome, deny scientific consensus and maintain that both climate change and evolution are liberal hoaxes, while preserving their social views in the permafrost they deny is melting.

This is dangerous, but unsustainable. Take for instance the venom with which ever more powerful minority blocs are treated, alienating demographics that will decide electoral outcomes in the near to foreseeable future. Republicans seem content to march themselves blindfolded to the gallows of harsh reality for one last taste of the power of white fright. Among the inner party, there must be either a resignation to this fate or, more probably, a plan to expediently change color, the model for which could be, rather conveniently, the chameleon candidate himself.

Perhaps the best nose to detect the first whiffs of a decaying modernism belonged to George Orwell, who urged that the preservation of objectivity and reason was dependent on sincerity in language. I think it would even be right to say that the control of politics through the erasure of fact, manipulation of history, and distortion of language is the true antagonist in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Throughout the book, a list of slogans doublespeaking the party line reappears:


That same decay can be smelled today, with Romney its mere simulacrum:

  • Freedom is warrantless wiretaps.

  • Freedom is indefinite detention.

  • Equal rights are only for those that are more equal than others.

  • Religious freedom is absolute unless invoked by Muslims or the godless.
  • The fact of anthropogenic climate change is fiction.

  • The American innovation of the separation of church and state is un-American.

  • Spending doesn’t create jobs. Defense spending does.

  • It is racist to suggest that someone or some view might be understood as racist.

  • The fact of evolution is fiction.

  • Torturing is our right to protect ourselves from those who hate human rights.

  • Family values is denying families to others.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Problems with Infinities

John D. Barrow in +plus magazine:
So infinities in modern physics have become separate from the study of infinities in mathematics. One area in physics where infinities are sometimes predicted to arise is aerodynamics or fluid mechanics. For example, you might have a wave becoming very, very steep and non-linear and then forming a shock. In the equations that describe the shock wave formation some quantities may become infinite. But when this happens you usually assume that it's just a failure of your model. You might have neglected to take account of friction or viscosity and once you include that into your equations the velocity gradient becomes finite — it might still be very steep, but the viscosity smoothes over the infinity in reality. In most areas of science, if you see an infinity, you assume that it's down to an inaccuracy or incompleteness of your model.
string diagram
Two particles meeting form a sharp corner (left) but two loops coming together are like two pairs of trousers sown together. (The trouser diagram has time going downwards and space horizontal.)
In particle physics there has been a much longer-standing and more subtle problem. Quantum electrodynamics is the best theory in the whole of science, its predictions are more accurate than anything else that we know about the Universe. Yet extracting those predictions presented an awkward problem: when you did a calculation to see what you should observe in an experiment you always seemed to get an infinite answer with an extra finite bit added on. If you then subtracted off the infinity, the finite part that you were left with was the prediction you expected to see in the lab. And this always matched experiment fantastically accurately. This process of removing the infinities was called renormalisation. Many famous physicists found it deeply unsatisfactory. They thought it might just be a symptom of a theory that could be improved.
This is why string theory created great excitement in the 1980s and why it suddenly became investigated by a huge number of physicists. It was the first time that particle physicists found a finite theory, a theory which didn't have these infinities popping up. The way it did it was to replace the traditional notion that the most basic entities in the theory (for example photons or electrons) should be point-like objects that move through space and time and so trace out lines in spacetime. Instead, string theory considers the most basic entities to be lines, or little loops, which trace out tubes as they move. When you have two point-like particles moving through space and interacting, it's like two lines hitting one another and forming a sharp corner at the place where they meet. It's that sharp corner in the picture that's the source of the infinities in the description. But if you have two loops coming together, it's rather like two legs of a pair of trousers. Then two more loops move out from the interaction — that's like sewing another pair of trousers onto the first pair. What you get is a smooth transition. This was the reason why string theory was so appealing, it was the first finite theory of particle physics. (h/t 3qd)


is slow, but it looks like this.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


"As a local GOP official after President Obama’s election, I had a front-row seat as it became infected by a dangerous and virulent form of political rabies. 

In the grip of this contagion, the Republican Party has come unhinged. Its fevered hallucinations involve threats from imaginary communists and socialists who, seemingly, lurk around every corner. Climate change- a reality recognized by every single significant scientific body and academy in the world- is a liberal conspiracy conjured up by Al Gore and other leftists who want to destroy America. Large numbers of Republicans- the notorious birthers- believe that the President was not born in the United States. Even worse, few figures in the GOP have the courage to confront them...

Ultimately, leaving the GOP was necessary in order to maintain my own integrity." - The newly ex-Republican from Delaware, Michael Stafford.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Section 13 Is Doomed

I'd never even heard of Section 13 until last week when, mercifully, Canadian Tories killed the provision allowing single complainants to criminalize ostensibly offensive speech (let's be honest - those with fringe or politically incorrect views were most likely of all to be caught up in 13's tuna net). Here's Jonathan Kay, eulogizing the speech-stifling subsection of the Canadian Human Rights Act:
Five years ago, during testimony in the case of Warman v. Lemire, Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) investigator Dean Steacy was asked “What value do you give freedom of speech when you investigate?” His response: “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.”
Those words produced outrage. But there was a grain of truth to what Mr. Steacy said: For decades, Canadians had meekly submitted to a system of administrative law that potentially made de facto criminals out of anyone with politically incorrect views about women, gays, or racial and religious minority groups. All that was required was a complainant (often someone with professional ties to the CHRC itself) willing to sign his name to a piece of paper, claim he was offended, and then collect his cash winnings at the end of the process. The system was bogus and corrupt. But very few Canadians wanted to be seen as posturing against policies that were branded under the aegis of “human rights.”
That was then. Now, Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, the enabling legislation that permits federal human-rights complaints regarding “the communication of hate messages by telephone or on the Internet,” is doomed.
Good fucking riddance.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Spanish Artist Prosecuted for Blasphemy

Add Spain to the disturbing trend of Western countries cowering to religious bullying. The long working Spanish artist Javier Krahe "has been taken to court by a Catholic legal association… for "offending religious feelings" - a little known offense. The Catholic association says the law has never before been applied in Spanish legal history."

And so again the supposedly established liberal value of free speech is eroded by this familiar acid, and the bullies are rewarded with propitiations and deference while the victims are punished.

Any law allowing for the prosecution of "offending religious feelings" sets up a de-facto privileged class, consisting primarily, at least in the Western world, of the two monotheisms Islam and Christianity (one cannot easily recall a blasphemy charge led by Jews).  Inevitably, that power will be abused by the faithful to threaten their way to ever more robust inoculations from challenge and insult, all the while backed and legitimized by the state. 

I'm offended by a good portion of Catholic doctrine, and perhaps even more of Islamic doctrine, but I can't sue the clergy for any offense caused to me. Nor can a rights activist sue a racist (at least not in the U.S., and rightly so), nor a capitalist a marxist.

What's obvious of the religious interests pushing for an internationally enforceable blasphemy resolution at the U.N. is one of two things. Either they don't foresee any complications by the fact that much of the three major religions are, definitionally, blasphemies against one another (will they be taking each other to court, en masse?); or that otherwise, with a wink and a nod, they agree to a sort of absurd mutual immunity to each other's "crimes."

There simply is no freedom of speech without license to offend. And the most important protections are those afforded to the offenders of Dogmas, be they of state or church. 

There exists no human right to unhurt feelings. Grow up.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Sagan, Malick

Watching, or rather meditating, through the breathtaking Tree of Life, I could almost hear Sagan narrating the sublime, spine-crawling beauty and loneliness of the facts of our creation. Now, someone's gone ahead and made explicit what Malick's unrushed opening sequence implies, by pairing those five minutes with their equally visionary filmmaker soulmate.

Monday, March 26, 2012


I apologize for having conflated these things in your mind, forever.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

I'm Not Holy

A running thread Andrew Sullivan has on the phenomenon of glories reminded me to share this truly awesome shot I managed to catch of myself inside of one.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Storming the Citadel

From KulturFilms.

That Fraud, Julian Assange, Ctd

AFP Photo / Geoff Caddick
The indispensable Nick Cohen keeps a focus on the hypocrisies with which the megalomaniac continually soils himself and all who unthinkingly embrace him:
Assange allowed Israel Shamir, a genuinely sinister Holocaust denier, to take unredacted US State Department cables to Belarus. These were pure gold for Lukashenko’s KGB because they contained the names of opposition figures who had spoken to American officials. 
Shamir boasted in the far-left US magazine Counterpunch that Wikileaks had ‘revealed how… undeclared cash flows from the US coffers to the Belarus “opposition”.’ (His scare quotes.)
Lukashenko’s goons could not have been more appreciative. Shamir arrived in Belarus shortly after street protests against the dictator’s theft of the rigged 2010 general election. The KGB beat, arrested and imprisoned hundreds of demonstrators. The Belarusian state media said that Shamir had allowed the KGB to ‘show the background of what happened, to name the organizers, instigators and rioters, including foreign ones, without compromise, as well as to disclose the financing scheme of the destructive organizations’.
Among the figures the state press said Wikileaks had ‘exposed’ as America’s collaborators were Andrei Sannikov, widely regarded as the true winner of the election; Oleg Bebenin, Sannikov’s press secretary, who died in suspicious circumstances, as Lukashenko’s opponents are wont to do; and Vladimir Neklyayev, a writer and former president of Belarus PEN, who is now under house arrest.
Shamir’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theories clearly did not bother Assange — in a furious phone call to the editor of Private Eye Assange claimed that Jewish journalists in Britain, several of whom weren’t Jews at all, were conspiring against him. He has also proved himself a loyal friend to post-communist autocrats — as he showed when he took a job on Russia Today — Putin’s English-language propaganda station.
Meanwhile Wikileaks’ grassing up of the Belarusian opposition is hardly a secret, although Assange tried to cover it up. When reporters and rebellious staff inside Wikileaks protested, Assange tried to pretend that Shamir had never worked for him. Privately Assange told Shamir that he could avoid embarrassment by working under an assumed name. When the BBC’s Panorama revealed Assange’s double-dealing, his lawyers accused the BBC of using stolen documents to expose their client — a priceless accusation for the apostle of openness to level after he had received 250,000 stolen US cables.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Thursday, February 9, 2012


“I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom. I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rights—freedom of expression and thought—so nothing was done in vain,” he says. “I believe I’m just a scapegoat for a larger conflict. There are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are fighting for their rights.” Hamza Kashgari, having fled Saudi Arabia to escape the death-sentence awaiting him after a few relatively vanilla tweets referencing Mohammed.
Read the whole disgrace here.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Rushdie Threatened by Thugs, 21st Century Redux

That Fraud, Julian Assange

Image by espenmoe
 Jeff Bercovici in Forbes:
How foolish of me it was to question whether Wikileaks founder Julian Assange really had a deal to distribute his new talk show to hundreds of millions of viewers. It turns out he does: with Russia Today, the English-language news network launched by the Russian government to massage its international image.
That’s right: Assange, self-styled foe of government secrets and conspiracies of the powerful, is going to be a star on a TV network backed by the Kremlin. The same Kremlin that has done suspiciously little to investigate or prevent the killings and beatings of journalists that have plagued Russia for more than a decade. The same Kremlin accused of blatant fraud in December’s parliamentary elections. The same Kremlin whose control of the country’s broadcast media allowed it to suppress coverage of the massive protests mounted in response to that fraud. The same Kremlin whose embrace of corruption led to Russia being named “the world’s most corrupt major economy” by Transparency International in 2011.
Why am I completely unsurprised? Well, there's this, this, this, this, and this, for a start.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Who's Bowing to Foreign Leaders?

      Ever louder and more mainstream is the alarm over one of America's great parties becoming prostrate before Netanyahu.

Image: AP Photos

      Republicans love few lines more than their mockery of an American president "bowing to a Saudi king," a mistake that, granted, was likely made in some misguided deference to supposed royal protocol but was nevertheless close to meaningless. Now consider into what the GOP's own position on the Middle-East has mutated: complete deference in U.S. policy to the head of a foreign, right-wing coalition governing a small nation in the Middle East - a country which has historically been a strong ally, but one whose current leader has taken every opportunity to undermine and embarrass the President of the United States.
      Disagreement over foreign policy, it was once said, stopped at our borders. Not anymore.
      The RNC unanimously adopted a resolution seemingly aborting support for their own president's conception of a two-state solution.
      David Bromwich, in a long-form piece at the New York Review of Books, examines the candidates' positions regarding same:
...the most belligerent Republican on Israel and Iran has turned out to be Santorum: he asserted, in a recorded conversation with a voter on November 21, that “all the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis, they’re not Palestinians. There is no ‘Palestinian.’” A few days earlier, Santorum had said about the threat of Iran: “A country that is developing a weapon of mass destruction to use it to destroy another country must be stopped in a preemptive strike.” And on Meet the Press on January 1 he affirmed his view in different words: Iranian leaders must open their facilities to inspection and begin to dismantle their advanced equipment, or the US will attack. 
This statement comes at a moment of enormous tension—heightened by Israel’s warmest supporters in Congress. The Iran Threat Reductions Act, proposed by the Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, passed in the House of Representatives on December 14 by a vote of 410–11. This crudely assertive and possibly unconstitutional bill would prohibit all contact between Iranian and American officials without fifteen days’ prior notice to Congress. Bill Clinton, in 1996, complained of the “scandalous electioneering” practiced by Benjamin Netanyahu from abroad. 
Fifteen years later, ever since his visit to Congress in May, Benjamin Netanyahu has been working to intimidate the president and pull from Republican candidates and from Congress at large professions of loyalty to his project of bombing Iran to reduce its possible nuclear capability. 
There has been a change, however, since 1996. Clinton’s anger was registered in private. But it was Thomas Friedman, the American opinion-maker most highly regarded in Israel, who wrote in a column of December 13 that Netanyahu’s standing ovation in Congress last May “was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” And five days later, there occurred a remarkable exchange on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN programGlobal Public Square. The subject was how the Republicans try to outbid each other in submissive postures of unconditional loyalty to Israel; the immediate pretext was Gingrich’s having said on December 9 to an interviewer for the Jewish Channel (a cable station) that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. Zakaria and his guests then passed on to the broader subject of avowals of love for Israel and unquestioning support for Likud policies: 
 Zakaria: Michele Bachmann trumps them all by saying, “I went to a kibbutz when I was 18 years old.”
David Remnick: A socialist experiment, I might remind her. A socialist experiment. You know, as a Jewish American I find it disgusting. And I know what he’s going after. He’s going after—he’s going after a small slice of Jewish Americans who donate to political funds—to campaigns and also to Christian Evangelicals. It’s—the signaling is obvious. What they’re doing is obvious. But what they’re describing in terms of the, say, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has no bearing on reality whatsoever. It’s ignorance combined with cynical politics and irrelevance. It’s really awful. It’s really awful.
Zakaria: Do you agree? 
Peggy Noonan: Yes, I do.
Zakaria: Gillian?
Gillian Tett [of the Financial Times]: I do. And I think that actually given the current moves in Iran at the moment and what’s happening elsewhere in the region, that kind of rhetoric is likely to become more and more relevant going forward.
Zakaria: And then the other place where I noticed that there is some traction is Iran. There’s this feeling, again, I think somewhat unrealistically that we’re going to be tougher on Iran. We’re going to be, so that Gingrich says he wouldn’t bomb Iran, but he would effect regime change. Good luck, you know?
This was a breakthrough. Remnick’s comment is especially notable because it gives up the euphemism “Jewish voters” and refers frankly to Jewish donors. It is millions of dollars and not just a few thousand votes that the pandering Republicans are trawling for. Meanwhile, Israel itself has witnessed a development germane to the Republican pledges in Iowa of implicit support for any action by Israel. The majority of Israel’s intelligence establishment has actively argued against or publicly spoken to oppose the adventurist policy of Netanyahu and his description of Iran as an “existential threat.” These last words have been discountenanced by the present director of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, and, more sternly, by the retired director Meir Dagan, as well as by the former head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate, Amos Yadlin, the former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, Gabi Ashkenazi, and the former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin. Opposition within Israel apparently succeeded in thwarting an initiative by Netanyahu to attack Iran in 2010. It remains to be seen whether it can do so again. 
Probably none of the Republicans who clocked in at the Iowa debates to back aggressive US support of Israel against Iran was aware of this internal division—easily discoverable in recent stories in Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. Such an uprising from the military and intelligence establishment itself, against an intended military action by an elected government, is exceedingly rare in the history of democracies. So we are at a strange crossroads. The right-wing coalition government of Israel is trying to secure support, with the help of an American party in an election year, for an act of war that it could not hope to accomplish unassisted; while an American opposition party complies with the demand of support by a foreign power, in an election year, to gain financial backing and popular leverage that it could not acquire unassisted.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012