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March 12, 2011

laurie penny on the new morality

This is Laurie Penny in the New Statesman, setting up her argument against the New Amorality:
At what point did the denial of compassion become a morally righteous act? When homeless people are criminalised and single parents left destitute "for their own good", it's a question we need to start asking.

She's not kidding around.

She's writing about the United Kingdom, which has it very different from here — imagine Gov. Scott Walker not just imposing his will on Wisconsin unions, but on the entire country.  Truck-sized holes in the social safety net, a business/wealthy friendly tax structure, all in the name of some hypothetical moral virtue that sounds a lot more Calvinist that Utopian, and a one-sided Calvinism at that: in order to placate industry and their industrialists, you poor, you have-nots need to take some hits.  David Brooks calls this "shared sacrifice".

And it's not just the David Camerons and the Scott Walkers of the world that are espousing this counter-intuitive nonsense — a decade of Fox News and generations of "public policy" work by organizations like Americans for Prosperity and the Cato Institute have produced a whole new generation of young-'uns who repeat free-marketeer cant like it was programed into their heads.  (Like this brave but misinformed young lady here.)

It's viciousness hiding behind a veil of forthrightness, at least in the case of the great unwashed.  Heads of state are doing it because that's what heads of state in this iteration of civilization do.  Through education, through the realities of electoral politics, they have been engineered to do this, and perhaps they do see some eugenic morality in redistributing wealth upwards, of defining success of a society by the monolithic entrenched-ness of the top one percent of one percent.  But the hate-the-unions, hate-the-teachers types?  It is naked jealousy, resenting the only-marginally better off.  Or worse, it's politics as sports-fandom, as in it does not matter what they say as long as their side wins.  This is why the GOP has reinvented itself as the Party of Winners and refers to the opposition of Losers, generally — it's the new dogwhistle to convince the small-minded to vote against their own self-interest.

Back to Penny: I hate to spoil it, but her kicker is very rousing:

Bigotry has a moral framework in 2011, and we must comprehend it to dismantle it. We need to redefine our collective morality, insisting, for example, that it is unjust for financiers to award themselves £10m bonuses while deprived schoolchildren finance their debts. It is not enough simply to chant "Tory scum". We must confront the pious rich into with the hollowness of their smug morality.

I'll cosign that.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:04 AM

March 11, 2011

that's one big earthquake

So there were more than two current events yesterday that left me sputteringly incensed, incapable of talking about.  I was waiting to sleep on it, put some distance in, and then try to say something, because saying something is still a thing I believe in for a number of reasons.  So I wake up on this morning with some hopefully cogent thoughts, and I flick the little information machine on and see that it's one of Those Days, a day where a real big freaking thing happened of a tragic nature and your first (and second and third) instinct is just to shut the hell up for a second and stop your partisan snark and try to remember who you know that lives in the affected areas.

There has to be a word for that.  Is it maybe "flabbergasted"?  Is that too whimsical of a word to apply?

Anyhow, it's a couple of hours later on and I'm still not feeling very outrage-y, even though Rep. Peter King is the sexxxiest gin-blossom hater since Joe McCarthy, and even though Gov. Scott Walker is a crossed-eyed bald-faced liar.

So: hope to those who need it, and condolences to those who need that.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:48 AM

March 10, 2011


I gotta say that the comments in the latest piece I've written for The Awl (on the "why write about that?" topic of seasteading) make having written the thing worthwhile — thoughtful and informed, and illuminated by various IRL experience.  Nice job, dudes.

And best is this abridged version of a China Mieville essay on pretty much the same subject (which essay I was totally unfamiliar with), which a commenter offered up:

It is a lunatic syllogism: “I dislike the state: The state is made of land: Therefore I dislike the land.” Water is a solvent, dissolving “political” (state) power, leaving only “economics” behind.

Hate to be the guy who says, "I wish I wrote that," but here I am.

Not only do I honestly think that seasteading is a pretty silly idea, both in practice and in light of the instinct from which it is born (as described by Mieville above), but I also think that there is about a zero chance that it will ever be implemented.  The scale's too big, and there's just not a lot of room for "MEGA" inside a Galt's Gulch.  But I do find Peter Thiel to be a fascinating figure, just for the breadth of ideas he's willing to stand behind, and for his faith in technology.  He does have a couple of very odious ideas, too, also brought up in the comments, but he's easier to stomach than America's Sweetheart, David Koch.

Posted by mrbrent at 5:15 PM

March 9, 2011

david brooks' new words!

Credit where credit is due — yesterday's David Brooks column was a little bit of a mind-blower.  Where ordinarily you would expect to lay the evils of mankind at the feet of hygiene or punctuality, Brooks instead dips his toe into some science with which I'm not familiar:
Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.

Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.

Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.

Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.

Three of those words I swear I've never heard of, which is a feeling I like very much.  In fact I would like it just as much if Brooks just made those words up because they sound smart.

And I have no idea how deep the body of science is behind these concepts, but I will surely look into it when I have half a second.

Ultimately: new words!

Posted by mrbrent at 10:56 AM

just quit it npr

I am very seriously disappointed in NPR.  First of all, for changing their name from National Public Radio to NPR (following in the footsteps of the fast food industry is never a good idea.)  And second of all, more importantly, for forcing their CEO Vivian Schiller to resign because an ex-staffer was duped into saying mean things about Republicans into a hidden camera.

I suppose that by the laws of the false equivalency any perceived slander against the right a head must roll, but considering the number of times a Fox News bigwig walked the plank because an anchor called liberals traitors, I don't see them as laws that necessarily be followed.  The dude who said that Tea Partiers were "seriously, seriously racist" no longer works for the company — how much more contrition is necessary?  How far backwards does NPR have to bend to please a bunch of idiots that will not be satisfied until NPR is out of business?

It's just a dumb dumb move, and it just keeps the non-story in the headlines.  (And on the last day of the winter pledge drive, no less!)  Maybe Schiller's exit is unrelated, but if it is, it's unquestionably stupid timing.

And ultimately how is it a bad thing to call the Tea Party racist?  They don't get to redefine that word.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:20 AM

March 8, 2011

banks want to take away your debit cards!

The Bureaucrats Want To Take Away Your Debit Card manufactured outrage scam/blackmail finally got a little front page play in the paper of record, and along with it, a nice write-up from Hamilton Nolan, who breaks down the logic of the financial industry lobbyists:
A cut in fees charged by banks= Retailers reaping "unfair profits." Welcome to banking industry PR 101! Anything that profits anyone outside a bank is an "unfair profit." Also, anything that threatens to erode or even slow down the current profits of banks must be accompanied by head-shaking insinuations that you, the consumer, will be charged higher fees if this happens.

Also keep in mind that this is not a fight about fees charged to customers (like, say, ATM fees) — this is a charge charged to the retailer who is accepting the debit card payment.  So the conflict here is not between the banks and the consumer, but rather the banks and the retailers.  Or, say, Citibank and Walmart.  And it's really hard to pick who you want to win that fight!

But I do resent being told that I need to be outraged on behalf of the banks because of some regulation that will cost the banks literally a fraction of the kajillions they make.  (The banks are jumping up and down over the fact that Home Depot stands to make $33 million dollars if the regulation stands, which is, by my reckoning, not even the upper limit of a year-end executive bonus.)  No, that is not the way that my outrage concerning the banks tends.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:36 AM

sticking up for the big guy

The NYT ran an article on David Koch last week, and, no, it's not what you'd expect.  Though he's been in the news a lot in the past weeks, this piece is a "profile", what could be ironically referred to as a "blowjob".

Koch has been in the news, of course, because of his secret financing of fake-grassroots movements, and, most infamously, because of the prank call in which the governor of Wisconsin spoke on the phone for twenty minutes with someone doing a bad impersonation of Koch.  But the article more elides this fact than focuses on it; Koch is a philanthropist, you see, and somehow this fact is newsworthy.  "Why, I'm so busy improving the art and medical world with my billions, I hardly have any memory of funding the Tea Party!" is the sense that comes, not just from subject Koch, but as the hook of the article.

This is a concept that I was dancing around when writing a piece that turned into something else: at what point is philanthropy smart public relations?  Or, better yet, can you buy your way out of questionable moral acts?  Just to use Koch as an example (and surely he is not the only possible example out there), does the fact that he is trying to cure cancer and is the primary name-sponsor of the New York City Ballet somehow make him an OK guy, even though he is bent to create some Ayn-Rand utopia in which the gulf between rich and poor is extensive and permanent by paying poor people to lobby against their own self-interest?

Probably the answer (to the extent that there's such a thing) would end up being that the world is an unknowably complex place and why can't he be both asshole and hero?  That would be the generous take.

Personally, I think that it's his odiousness that taints his good works.  I'd be happy to take his money (were I a medical research outfit, or a ballet corps), but I would be very leery of slapping his name on something.

Posted by mrbrent at 8:55 AM

March 7, 2011

on being on fire for god

This is the last line of a little fluff from the NYT concerning a charismatic Christian organization that is reaching out to campus Greek organizations:
Of the Indianapolis conference, Mr. Siegal said, “It’s fun and it’s inspiring for me to see other people on fire for God.”

Having once (briefly and naively) been what you would call Born Again, I think that the second or third most dangerous thing about the charismatic Christians is the recklessness with which they employ metaphor, usually in conjunction with "God/Christ".  Yes, they do end up sounding like the archetypal dad trying to talk "cool" to his child, but whereas the dad sounds awkward and sitcom-y, the charismatic Christian sounds intent (hell-bent, even) on dropping neologisms to combat the coarseness and casual obscenity of the common parlance.  "On fire for God" is not only supposed to be a morale-raiser ("We're not quiet churchgoers; we're on fire for God) that tracks with the current trend of repurposing the witnessing to have a dollop more testosterone, it's also supposed to be a bit of flash, of razzle dazzle.  "This is not your father's Oldsmobile," is what these brave new Christians would have you know, as they ride around in your father's Oldsmobile.

And maybe it's a smart turn of phrase, considering what people who have set themselves on fire have wrought in the past two months.  But there is still part of me that wants to steal that dude's lunch money, after having mine stolen so many times.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:15 AM