Reflections on a Turbulent Year

by Ribbit

Another year gone. One of the longer ones in living memory, at least for me. Picking through the trash heap of events like an old crow searching for morsels of meaning, I find myself wondering what the heap implies, beyond being merely an accumulation of a year’s worth of crap. It’s way too much for me to sort through on my own. Of course, there are other crows picking at other parts of the pile, wondering much the same things.  And, like me, finding little to satisfy their hunger.

I suppose if I had to give the heap a name, it would be something like, “The year that Trump’s support should have collapsed, but didn’t.” Unfortunately, this rather unwieldy moniker applies equally well to either of the two preceding years, so it lacks a certain precision. A better name might be, “The year the Democrats took back the House, Trump completely lost his shit, and his base supported him anyway.”

I’ve become an inveterate lurker at, watching as Trump’s approval numbers hover steadily above 40%, sometimes surging a bit in response to some outrageous act, sometimes sagging in response to another, but seldom dipping below that forty percent floor. It’s like watching a brick float on air, day after day, in brazen defiance of gravity. If only we could harness this apparent violation of the Standard Model, we could snatch something truly spectacular from the wretched maw of this horrible presidency.

On a personal level, I suppose this is the year I finally came to accept the wisdom of the claim, advanced most recently by the philosopher John Gray, that the concept of moral progress is a phantom. Civilizations never truly banish social ills — those ills merely reconfigure themselves and adopt new names. I don’t think I have descended to the point of abandoning the effort to eliminate them, but I have to admit to a keener edge of cynicism in my approach to societal problems generally.

American society has an enormously high tolerance for predatory and exploitative behavior. We use every available means to excuse it; we do little, if anything, to curb it; and we blame the victim whenever it occurs. Still, one might object that we have made at least some progress since the days of chattel slavery, and that’s certainly true in some respects. For instance, today we would deem the kinds of physical abuses to which slaves were subjected horrifying and unacceptable. But in most other respects, little has changed. Look at our enormous prison population, or the plight of powerless migrant workers, many of whom are treated quite cruelly by any reasonable standard.

While it’s true we abolished slavery proper, we did so only belatedly, and only after a protracted civil war that claimed more American lives than all of our other conflicts combined. So the concept was already deeply lodged in the American psyche long before we bloodied ourselves to end it formally. It seems difficult to imagine a time when people actually defended slavery as an institution, and that fact alone certainly feels like progress. But all that has happened, really, is that slavery itself has undergone certain structural changes intended to make it more palatable to modern sensibilities. For one thing, we no longer call it slavery. But more substantially, it has evolved into something impersonal and systemic, and the ideologies that support it have grown more sophisticated. Now it is perceived as an unavoidable byproduct of the present capitalist arrangement, an arrangement that brings prosperity and poverty in equal measure, but without which — it is argued — there could be no prosperity at all. As such, there is no one to be blamed, and nothing to be done; for to question the American mode of capitalism is to question the very foundation of our way of life.

This is why I do not believe we will make substantive progress on most of the pressing issues of our time, issues like climate change, poverty, obesity, alternative energy, or the continuing lack of affordable healthcare coverage for many millions of Americans. So long as I live in a country where at least a third of the voting population continues to support a man like Trump, so long will I despair of true progress, moral or otherwise.

I hate to sound a sour note on New Year’s Eve, but honestly, is there any other way to feel?



by Ribbit

I would be remiss if I allowed the passing of Stan Lee and William Goldman to go unremarked. Each of these men, in their different ways, had a profound influence on my life, and indeed, on the culture generally. They may have moved through relatively obscure orbits in the cultural firmament, but their influence could be felt everywhere, tugging the brighter stars away from their traditional spheres and towards more complex, unsentimental modes of storytelling.

To begin with Mr. Lee: I was never much of a comic book aficionado, but I do admit to having a more than casual familiarity with the Marvel titles of my era — Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, Iron Man, and Doctor Strange. The Fantastic Four was one of my particular favorites, if for no other reason than its peculiar conceit that an unreconstructed nerd from the Sputnik era could lead a premiere team of superheroes. Popular fiction had never featured scientists who weren’t moustache-twirling villains, much less heroic leaders, so the idea that they could be more than mere helpmeets or foils to the real protagonist was truly refreshing.

The other titles were also innovative for their time. Spider-Man juggled adolescent problems while contending with some of the more idiosyncratic villains of the Marvel universe (and delivering creditable quips along the way). The X-Men were gifted but misunderstood teenagers yearning for acceptance. The Hulk was an atomic age Jekyll and Hyde story reflecting popular ambivalence about the progress of science. Iron Man explored the perils of the military industrial complex through the eyes of an alcoholic Cold Warrior. And Doctor Strange wedded New Age psychedelia to a high fantasy conceit. Comic books had never seen narratives quite like these, or taken the personal and psychological lives of its characters seriously. Stan Lee changed all that.

When all is said and done, Lee had about as much influence on popular culture as George Lucas or Stephen King. He may never have achieved their level of fame, but his characters sure did. In fact, they now comprise the bulk of the 21st century film industry, a situation that would have been unthinkable only a decade ago. His work is a testament to what can be achieved creatively even within a corporate context — at least under the right circumstances. (I suppose it is also a testament to how those same corporate structures can flog a good concept to death.)

William Goldman, by contrast, wrote many of his scripts on spec. He lived in New York and was never much of a player in Hollywood. A trenchant and pithy writer, he quickly became skeptical of the corporate studio system, whose fashions and neuroses he regarded with mordant cynicism. In his memoirs he observed that despite heroic efforts on the part of executives to discover reasons for the success or failure of particular films, no reliable formula has ever been found — a circumstance pithily expressed in what became his second-most famous epigram, “Nobody knows anything.” Nobody can predict which movies will work, and which will bomb — it’s all a kind of high stakes crapshoot. This hasn’t stopped anxious executives from slavishly imitating past successes, of course, with the result that moviegoers have come to regard themselves more as consumers than as patrons of the art.

Goldman’s most memorable films include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, and All the President’s Men. Think how different these three films are from one another: a Western featuring two charismatic stars who flee rather than fight; a sly fantasy filled with imaginative whimsy and ironic asides; and a slow political thriller about reporters uncovering a White House conspiracy. He had a way of discovering the hidden possibilities of almost any story, even the stuff he found very difficult to write:  by his own account, All the President’s Men was a horrible slog, a morass of names and dates.  Still, out of that mess of complexity he managed to pluck “Follow the money,” a phrase that has transcended its original context to become an enduring emblem of American political corruption.

Farewell, gentlemen. You will both be missed.

The Scorpion and the Frog

by Ribbit

Over the last few years, I have labored mightily to discover some governing principle, or barring that, some microscopic particle of scruple, lying beneath what might charitably be called the “conservative worldview.”  But I have failed to discern anything beyond what is plainly evident to any person of good sense; namely, a toxic compound of hatred, contempt, and lust for power.

The object of this hatred is merely an ideological expediency, and varies according to fashion.  Communists, abolitionists, pornographers, homosexuals, immigrants, progressives — the precise name matters not.  What matters is their ceremonial function within the conservative ritual of purgation:  to embody the necessary impurity whose expulsion brings about the mystical renewal of a Golden Age.  Mitch McConnell is the current high priest of this Trumpian atavism, feeding the burnt remnants of the body politic to his constituents while continuing to stoke the sacrificial fire.  And the masses devour these sacraments greedily, savoring each vicarious morsel of power with all the passion of the fetishist.

It is this fact that so perplexes and exercises the liberal mind.  Liberals cannot conceive of power as anything but an instrumentality.  They labor under the delusion that Americans are united in their respect for the institutions and organs of republican government.  They imagine, for example, that it is possible for the Supreme Court to be “tarnished” by Kavanaugh’s elevation to that august body, or that it somehow compromises the Court’s legitimacy that he advanced by means of such obvious partisan obduracy.  But this fundamentally misunderstands the Republican mentality.  To them, power is its own principle, its own end, its own justification.  Tarnishing the Supreme Court is a practical impossibility according to this system.  If your constituents do not judge you on the basis of concepts like civility, probity, or nobility of purpose, it is impossible, ipso facto, to be found wanting in respect of them.

The Kavanaugh hearings afforded Republicans a signal opportunity to exercise their power in rather stark and brutal terms.  They did this by first browbeating, and then steamrolling, their opponents.  The fact that Kavanaugh had been credibly accused of sexual assault only added to his luster.  What may have appeared merely sexist, boorish, and overbearing to liberal eyes, was for the conservative observer a titillating display of domination.  I strongly urge liberals not to misjudge the allure of this primal force, which is, I suspect, the governing animus behind the Trump cult of personality.  It cannot be bargained with, cajoled, placated, or pacified.  The sooner Democrats accept this, the sooner they can attend to the only business that really matters — winning elections.

But Democrats, recent midterm successes notwithstanding, simply do not have a plan.  They’re much too busy wringing their hands and rending their garments over the latest Trumpian outrage, or else attacking their own allies for a perceived lack of ideological purity.  This is a waste of precious energy, for it focuses much too much attention on the exigencies of the moment.  Whatever else may be said about Mitch McConnell, he is an able strategist.  Like others of his tribe, he long ago foresaw the demographic demise of the Republican coalition, and has done everything in his power to set up a store of judges against the coming winter.  In this he has succeeded, I am sure, beyond his own wildest imaginings.

It’s high time we broke the pointless cycle of liberal shock and outrage.  It’s time we took it for granted that conservatives will throw off every decent restraint to their ascendancy.  Hypocrisy, spite, and boundless prevarication are endemic to their strategy, not negotiable anomalies of an otherwise reasonable governing philosophy.  They are bent on an antidemocratic vision of enduring political dominance, a species of minority rule reinforced by nakedly partisan judicial and legislative policies they call “originalism” and “states’ rights.”  And, as recent events have shown, they are perfectly comfortable with the violence that springs from their rhetoric.

The only lasting solution is for Democrats to start winning more elections.  How this might be effected is still a matter of bitter debate, but I have a few modest observations.  Firstly, we must acknowledge that the conventional wisdom, which holds that Democrats abandoned their blue collar base, is largely correct.  Working class people have virtually no representation in the upper echelons of the party, and rightly perceive that their interests attract little attention among the wonks and technocrats.  This can only be remedied by sponsoring the election of people who actually belong to the working class — say, by setting aside five or ten percent of all open contests and recruiting the best available blue collar candidates to run for those offices.  The safest course would be to start with local elections, and cultivate the most competent and successful candidates for consideration of successively higher offices.

Adoption of such a policy would demonstrate a willingness to share political power with the working class.  It would also trigger a gradual realignment of the electorate away from cultish tribalism and towards the formation of rational coalitions oriented around shared interests.

Secondly, the Democrats need to break the conservative stranglehold on the news cycle.  Mass media is like the Eye of Mordor, darting its anxious lighthouse beam to and fro.  Trump has learned how to direct that gaze whither he will — as during the run up to the election, when he kept it firmly fixed on the migrant caravan from Central America, and away from anything of substance.  It may seem like magic, but it’s really nothing more than misdirection, the kind of sleazy sleight-of-hand practiced by shoddy charlatans since the dawn of civilization.  What makes his own particular brand of misdirection so potent is his utter lack of restraint; it isn’t just that he lies, but that he does so with such frequency and transparency.  This has the paradoxical effect of absorbing the attention of reporters and commentators, trapping them in the intoxicating urgency of Now.

Of course, the presidency and the media did not evolve independently; ever since the introduction of television, presidents have been symbols and semaphores on the world stage, their every gesture laden with hidden portents.  This has only intensified in the internet age.  Trump inherited an information network attuned to even the merest tremors of presidential syntax, so it is no surprise that he has overwhelmed that system by the sheer magnitude of his fabulism.  Journalists have been slow to recalibrate their instruments to the Trump scale, perhaps to avoid being numbed into a state of cynical stupefaction.  But their unflagging attention to his (patently absurd) speculations and his (unhinged) personal insults has only served to drown the signal in the noise.

The Democrats need to respond with discipline:  coordinated messaging, forceful rebuttals, and focused leadership.  They must distract the Eye away from Trump’s targets and towards the failures of his Administration.  They must proselytize their own policies with tireless intensity.  And most importantly, they must articulate a clear vision of the kind of country they want to create, and promote that vision by collecting and crafting narratives from the interest groups they purport to represent.  Find the right spokesmen — telegenic, quick-witted, and charismatic — and instruct them in the Great Democratic Narrative.  Enjoin them to hew to that narrative with every sinew and synapse at their disposal, what storms may come.  Over time, this narrative will begin to insinuate itself into public consciousness, and the restless Eye will settle more and more on the unaccustomed images of real suffering and injustice that have languished hitherto for want of scrutiny.

Thirdly, the fractious party of the donkey must discover hidden harmonies within their coalition.  I’m sure many qualified aspirants will emerge for the 2020 nomination, but the party leadership must ensure that the Democratic primary does not become an internecine bloodbath.  Assemble together in a smoke-filled room and whittle the candidates down to the strongest few.  Strike whatever deals you must with the disappointed wannabes, but avoid at all costs the kind of carnival atmosphere that afflicted the last several Republican primaries.

Finally, Democrats need to adopt a harder negotiation posture.  One of the many frustrations of the Obama era was the president’s tendency to assume good faith on the part of his political opponents.  Again and again he reached out his hand in fellowship, only to have it slapped away by Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan.  In perhaps the most famous instance of this practice, he abandoned single payer before ever sitting down with the opposition to hammer out a deal on healthcare.  This left many of his constituents scratching their heads at what appeared to be a policy of preemptive conciliation.  I think I speak for all such constituents when I say:  by all means, compromise; but at least start from a position of strength.

Republicans will not see placatory gestures as acts of generosity or good faith — they will see them as signs of weakness.  They will exploit whatever advantages you proffer them.  That is their nature.  Scorpions sting; crows feed on carrion; wolves howl at the moon.  Republicans prey on the weak.  Democrats would do well to remember that.

The ceremony of innocence is drowned

By Croak
I’m mostly just going to leave this here (emphasis mine).
The Second Coming
by W.B. Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I don’t know why these lines didn’t immediately surface for me on Thursday—probably because I was too depressed—and I realize that parts of this poem have been marshaled into political service so often to the brink of triteness.  But tell me, does a better caption exist for this photo of Lindsey Graham than the bolded lines above?
Come November, remember this rough face and its passionate intensity and vote him into the minority.  Come 2020, let’s vote him into a stony sleep.

The Cult of Reason

by Ribbit

One of the stranger rites of passage in American culture is the realization that our fellow citizens can sometimes be completely rational, and at the same time, utterly unreasonable.  Rational people always have reasons for what they believe — that is, in essence, what “rational” means — but some reasons are better than others.  Reasonable people know this, and have the judgment to tell the difference.

Take conspiracy theories.  These aren’t failures of ratiocination so much as lapses of common sense.  The fantasists who promote them are able to muster a veritable army of reasons for their beliefs, but lack the judgment to sort them into proper ranks.  It’s a poor general who allows certainties to mix with dubious probabilities, or who fails to banish outright absurdities from his camp.

But this is just one species of unreasonableness.  Another is to permit oneself only a narrow scope for imagining alternative explanations of acknowledged facts.

Human imagination has the power to unmoor us from ourselves.  By conjuring experiences that transcend the merely personal, it enables us to attain, if not quite a godlike perspective, at least a less parochial one. But dogmas tether the imagination to an approved radius of speculation. Over time, our tendentious interpretations lead us in a shrinking spiral around the same fixed talking points, until our decaying intellectual orbit fails to encompass any reasonable speculations at all.

This is at least part of the reason why propaganda outlets like Fox News have been so effective at sowing popular mistrust towards Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump.
For all the pretense to exposure and revelation, their “journalists” have carefully avoided asking even the most basic questions about the origin of the texts at the heart of this manufactured controversy.  Questions like, Who authorized their public release, and for what purpose?  How were the texts selected, and what do they mean?  Aren’t each of us entitled to our own political opinions, whatever our current jobs might be?  And finally, who the hell cares what some random person on Mueller’s team thinks about Donald Trump anyway?

No reasonable person could ever accuse the FBI of being a left wing organization, yet Fox News would have us believe that Mueller’s team is somehow biased against Trump out of an excess of liberal piety.  This is absurd on its face, but the gospel of Obama-era “deep state” conspiracy continues to gain adherents.  The failure of imagination here is simply staggering.  None of their readers appear inclined to wonder what all the other texts, of which there must be many thousands, might say — or to worry that the paltry few the Justice Department has seen fit to reveal were selected to provoke precisely this kind of outrage.  Neither do they seem to care that the texts themselves have been denuded of any context.

There is a profound absence of intellectual restlessness in all this, a radical incuriousness that goes beyond mere mental sloth.  Reasonable people are never completely satisfied with what they know, because they recognize, as a matter of practical experience, the provisional and uncertain nature of all knowledge, as well as their own capacity for error.  Which is to say, they have learned to doubt their own beliefs.  Doubts are what drive us forth into the wilderness of conjecture in search of new perspectives and better explanations of the facts.  The entire empiricist tradition, that vast corpus of philosophical exploration that gave rise to the scientific method and propelled us into the modern age, is founded on the observation that reason alone is sterile and insufficient.  One may rightly exclude whatever is logically untenable or inconsistent, but still fail to entertain any reasonable interpretation of events. Viewed in this light, our current retreat into ideology is less the erection of sturdy principles than it is the evacuation of our collective imagination.

Doubts are the sharpest spurs to discovery.  Those who deny them, have little incentive to venture beyond their own fixed opinions.  Libertarians are an extreme case in point.  They have instructed themselves in the very darkest of hermeneutical arts, that of finding precisely those interpretations of history that lead inexorably towards the single conclusion approved by their philosophy.  They have therefore systematically excluded the possibility that maybe, just maybe, that single conclusion is false, or that the world is more complex than they allow.  They are the arch-rationalists of the political sphere, and their peculiar style of argument makes them among the least reasonable participants in public debate.  Indeed, their self-assurance is almost cult-like in its extremity.

Sadly, they are not alone in this.  The Web has facilitated the growth of innumerable little cults, many of them reactionary movements dedicated to their own tortured interpretations of history.  The resurgence of the KKK and Nazi parties in the United States is but one manifestation of this phenomenon. The election of Donald Trump is another.  The danger this poses to the American polity is difficult to quantify, but it doesn’t take much to appreciate its scale — just look at all the transgressions being committed by the current Administration as it descends into the abyss.

This proliferation of cult-like movements springs out of something elemental in the human psyche — our collective abhorrence for the Unknown, perhaps.  It is a truism, much repeated, that the human mind cannot abide mysteries, ambiguities, and doubts.  Conservatives especially seem to regard them with an unusual degree of fear and loathing.  Perhaps fortunately, the Unknown is a thing of such incalculable vastness and wildness, it defies circumscription by any rational system.  The only alternative to containment is exclusion, which means building bulwarks against the darkness.  Without walls to mark the ambit of acceptable intellectual wandering, one is bound to encounter certain uncomfortable questions eventually.

But gather behind those walls, and you will experience both the joys of tribal fellowship, and release from the anxieties of doubt.  Imagine never again being asked to entertain an alien point of view, or having to confront one of those dirty little ambiguities that tend to creep about behind the tapestries.  Imagine everything obscure becoming as clear as air, and all the messy categories of moral feeling sorting themselves into circles as perfect and immutable as the planetary spheres.  Which is to say, imagine finally knowing exactly whom to love, and whom to hate.  These are the desiderata of the cult, and they have become as deeply lodged in the American psyche as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If you doubt it, I propose a little experiment.  Try broaching the topic of Hillary Clinton with any self-professed partisan of the American right.  They aren’t too hard to find — just follow the most stentorian voice you hear at the next wedding or family gathering you can’t get out of.  Approach carefully, invoke her name, and listen quietly as you are ushered into the scorching presence of their most sacred of sacred fires, contempt of the Other, a flame they tend to with all the seriousness of a priest arranging the sacraments.  You may even be privileged to hear that most famous inventory of implausible offenses called the Crimes of the Clintons, a litany whose recitation among conservatives has acquired the cadence of a catechism.

If that’s not a cult, I don’t know what is.

I’ve argued that basic reasonableness (or “critical thinking”, if you prefer) requires judgment and imagination.  Neither of these qualities can survive without constant cultivation.  Those who would do the hard work of this cultivation, namely high school teachers and university professors, are the very people conservatives most loudly revile.  And they reserve their harshest imprecations for the ones who have dedicated themselves to the least economically useful disciplines, subjects like literature, history, art, music — what are collectively called the humanities.

The reason for this is quite simple.  Nothing is more destructive to the foundations of ideology than the humanities.  They nourish a mental quality Keats called “negative capability,” which he defined as the capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  In other words, art and literature challenge us to recognize the essential artificiality of our rational categories, to scale their walls and wander naked in the wilderness beyond them.  The humanities stimulate imaginative sympathy, encourage awareness of alternative points of view, and promote a broader conception of what it means to be human —  broader, at least, than our meager political dogmas tend to allow.

This is broadly compatible with the empiricist tradition, in that it recognizes the primacy of experience in the formation of beliefs, and encourages skepticism of ideologies and dogmas.  Reason alone is a necessary but not sufficient condition for understanding the world, because any particular belief we form about that world can only be tested through experience.  Our political culture appears to have abandoned this insight, instead adopting the explicitly rationalist posture of building far-reaching ideological systems out of untested or untestable component beliefs.  We do this because the only real alternative requires constant exposure to the inscrutable complexities and irreducible ambiguities of political life.  Such exposure can be bracing, but it is also unsettling and inconvenient. When all is said and done, Americans prefer the comforts of ideological purity to the vulnerability and distress that attends true intellectual growth.

Perhaps the greatest irony of our age is all the ridiculous hand-wringing over the evolution of computers towards more “human” forms of intelligence.  This pointless obsession — and it is pointless — has blinded us to the real problem, that of the reduction of human intelligence to the level of the machine.  A mind that has ceased from restless striving and growth, is a mind that has yielded itself utterly to the automatisms of ideology.  These are the robots we should be fearing, not the absurd fantasies of an Elon Musk or a Steven Hawking.


By Ribbit

I have two personalities. I call them Richard Nixon and Oscar Wilde. The former is a cringing neurotic with self-destructive impulses — paranoid, sweaty, and filled with self-doubt. He has a tendency to shoot himself in the foot, and then, just when you think things couldn’t possibly get any worse, he inserts the bloody stump into his mouth. His greatest tragedy is his constant habit of yielding to one or another of his several insecurities, usually by saying something stupid at precisely the moment when simple silence would have more than sufficed. He is that hapless soul who somehow finds a way of stumbling over the single pebble that triggers an avalanche.

Oscar, on the other hand, is witty, urbane, and sophisticated, able to conjure laughter out of uncomfortable silences and turn awkward situations to his advantage. He has a free and easy manner, a quick mind, and a refreshing vividness of speech. People like Oscar. I like Oscar. The trouble is, I never know which of these two personalities is going to emerge at any given moment.

The corporate world has little tolerance for neurotics, and Richard is nothing if not neurotic. In meetings he will sometimes venture upon a sentence of such plodding complexity that the listener is hard pressed to follow him. Its conclusion coils away from him, unspooling into some distant obscurity, but instead of stopping himself right there and putting an end to everyone’s misery, he charges foolishly ahead into the quagmire, in the forlorn hope of redeeming his tortured locution with an honorable finish. Relief comes only by the intercession of a friendly change of subject or an irritated ahem. Why does he do this? What possesses this strange and squirmy man to visit such vast indignities upon my head? God only knows. Perhaps he enjoys wrestling wayward phrases into sensible sentences. Perhaps he enjoys the smell of his own flop sweat. Or perhaps he just has a special affinity for quagmires.

There are men who can fill silences. Richard is not one of them. Unfortunately, he feels their pull more than most, and can’t help flinging himself into their depths. You see, to fill a silence, you must actually distract your audience from the fact of its existence. This is not a task for amateurs — it requires a sure and steady hand on the conversational tiller. Awkwardness only exacerbates the sense of emptiness; it rings out with a tinny tentativeness that makes everyone within earshot yearn for the return of quietude. Poor Richard is something of a yodeling minstrel of mortification, always deepening the very hollowness he so desperately tries to dispel.

I could go on. I will go on, because when it comes to Richard, tediousness is its own reward.  Richard is the sort who knows all too well the fundamental truth of corporate life, that there are many, many more ways for things to go wrong, than there are for them to go right. Entropy is the constant enemy of good intentions. The fight against entropy is a worthy one that he often loses. There is no shame in this, because let’s face it, according to this principle, good intentions are always outnumbered by multitudes of errors, misinterpretations, and wrong assumptions. But Richard can’t help but feel shame over his failures, even despite what he knows. And that shame drives him to express unnecessary justifications and excuses to the very people who least want to hear them. These explanations make him look weak, which only intensifies his shame, thereby generating a vicious circle. Vicious circles are, in fact, Richard’s specialty.

So far, I’ve written more about Richard than I have Oscar. The fact is, Oscar can be fickle. In moments of Nixonian crisis, he could easily pop up to rescue his stammering doppelgänger with a winning phrase, but he just won’t do it. He’d rather recline in the smoke-bedimmed parlor of my unconscious, drinking sherry and igniting his next cigarette. He really can’t be bothered about Richard’s problems, and doesn’t have much sympathy for them. They are entirely beneath his concern. Besides, he despises the company Richard is obliged to keep. They’re boring, ill-humored, and much too sober, and they go on and on about technology and data, all while making the very smallest of talk, usually about last night’s football game. Oscar doesn’t follow sports — he’d rather peel off his own fingernails — and football is the most appalling sport of all.

And the stilted jokes, the puns, the anecdotes! They are really too much to bear.

The fact is, Oscar needs companions, people who appreciate good humor and cleverness for their own sake. My Oscar has found few enough of those in the corporate world, but their presence has been known to draw him out. And once out, the most remarkable turns of phrase pour from his lips; his audience sits amazed, alternately rapt and roaring with laughter. These showings are rare but memorable, and all too brief. I watch with amazement like all the rest, thinking, “Where in the bloody blazes is this coming from? Why won’t he do this on the regular? I’d pay him good money for that!”

But Oscar doesn’t care about money. He enjoys fellowship, art, conversation, literature; whatever is inspiring or beautiful, he adores. If there were beauties to be found in a Powerpoint slide, you can be sure he’d do his best to savor them. He plucks his pleasures wherever they bloom — but there are few of them in the desert.

In truth, there is a third personality, more central, really, than either Richard or Oscar. I don’t have a name for him. Perhaps this is because he is closer to my own true nature than the other two, so his name is really my own name, which I assure you is neither Richard nor Oscar. He is a quiet and abstracted sort, shy but charming, bookish, sometimes a little otherworldly. He is not disposed to be a raconteur, but can summon forth a modest tale or two when called upon.

Supply and Demand

By Ribbit

Americans are inclined, by nature, to want the best of everything. But there are exceptions. We have, for example, accumulated the very worst opinions in the world, and on an astonishing variety of topics, ranging from immigration policy to settled scientific fact. Since opinions happen to be America’s most abundant natural resource, we have cultivated far more of them than we actually need, and without regard for quality. Consequently, the market for our opinions has fallen to its lowest point in living memory. People who once looked to us for moral leadership, now hold us in various degrees of contempt.

I can’t say I blame them. Poisonous opinions are what elevated Donald Trump from a marginal laughingstock to the most dangerous player on the world stage. It’s why he flouts the staid traditions of presidential oration with red-faced paroxysms of hate. Sedate, anesthetic phrases and calm assurances have been replaced with wandering diatribes and ambiguous expressions of spite. These are no small things, in my estimation. Not because our traditions are especially worthy in themselves, but because their abandonment signals a disturbing sea change in American politics, away from the maintenance of any pretense of harmony, and towards the open embrace of entropy. Keeping up appearances is the last refuge of collapsing self-respect. You know to expect something sordid when Donald Draper shows up looking bedraggled and askew.

It’s tempting to look for someone to blame — perhaps some economic god our high priests failed to propitiate. So strong is this instinct, in fact, I find it difficult to consider the matter dispassionately. No mere abstractions, like “culture” or “tribalism,” will suffice; they’re much too bloodless for the wages of justice. Blame, after all, is a question of debt — the criminal borrows against the good will of the state, and must repay in kind, or forfeit his liberty. But how do we collect our proper due from something as vaporous as “culture”?

And what’s worse, the world refuses to square itself against our merely human conceptions. Its edges are too fractal for the neat Euclidean lines of atonement. If we are being honest, we must admit that opinions are not the individual products of individual minds. Minds are made to bend with the breezes of fashion; otherwise they are frail, frangible things, too easily broken by reality. This makes them susceptible to the propagation of muddled and foolish beliefs. Create enough of those and you pollute the polity, much as ours has been polluted.

Which brings me to the question of how these opinions are manufactured, and by whom, and for what purpose. One thing is certain: they are cheaply made, and cheaply bought. If people paid more for their opinions, they’d take better stock of the selection. As it is, they pocket them thoughtlessly as they would a pack of chewing gum at the checkout stand, without so much as a backward glance in the direction of reason or proportion. This is not a new phenomenon — the Wall Street Journal has been fostering its own, explicitly corporate, form of intellectual backwardness for decades — but it’s only in recent years that the conservative instinct for imitation has found such wide and practical application in politics. What I mean by this is that someone, somewhere, realized the essential truth of Marshall McLuhan’s observations about mass media, and applied them to the failing conservative brand. Examples of their success abound: Fox News disseminates obvious propaganda under the guise of Journalism; so-called “think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute ape the forms of academic discourse, but none of the substance; the National Review styles itself a kind of conservative New Yorker, complete with its own airy and affected idiom, but without any of the wit or humanity. This is not to mention conservative talk radio, that most egregious trespass against bardic tradition, whose ancient forms men like Rush Limbaugh abuse daily in such lurid fashion.

These polluters of public opinion could not have foreseen the scale and seriousness of the effect their sulphurous memes have had. What started as a bid to lend a gloss of legitimacy to conservative thought has evolved, by degrees, into a dangerous atavism, a policy of purgation. Anyone who has ever scrolled through the comments section of an article on National Review, or Breitbart News, knows precisely what I’m talking about. It must have seemed like innovation at the time, the height of cleverness. And it worked. One cannot quarrel with success.

But that success came with a price, as it often does. Mutations and metastases arose. When you appropriate the traditional signifiers of quality and candor, and put their mark on dross, you destroy them, and with them public trust. Interpretations become more important than facts, and individual judgment loses its necessary ground. The “marketplace of ideas” is flooded with cheap knock-offs and snake oil. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Perhaps the fundamental defect of democracy is that it hinges on something so trifling as opinions. Not reasons, facts, or philosophies, but opinions. The very worst of them find easy purchase in American soil — and a richer, more credulous loam you will find nowhere else on earth, as the Russians discovered, to their delight, when they sowed such mischief there in the last election.

What makes opinions so pernicious, in the end, is not their quality, but their persistence. No one thinks to revise the first draft of a prejudice. And so they linger on, inert and invisible, like items of mental furniture — comfortable enough during the reclining hours, but little pondered for their own sake. This makes them all but immutable.

Is this happening?

By Croak,

If Sean Spicer was Trump's date rape drug, where do we even begin to describe the experience of listening to Anthony Scaramucci. I don't know what it feels like to sniff glue, but it sounds weird enough to be the right metaphor for our new White House Communications Director, even if Scaramucci looks more like a Hollywood coke-head.

While I recover from the disorientation of listening to Scaramucci, I'll point you to Ryan Lizza's New Yorker piece about him, then recommend you move on to watching Scaramucci's call in to Chris Cuomo on CNN. I will say this for the man: he may come off as stupid, but he managed to score a big early point by knocking Lizza's story off the rails. First, his CNN dial-in came during a slot devoted to an interview with Lizza; Scaramucci effectively muzzled Lizza's version of events by bumping him off the air. He had some luck here because Lizza was kept from appearing in-studio because of child care duties, but if you watch the video, you'll see Scaramucci's effectiveness at absorbing all attention. He even manages to playfully slap Cuomo for not allowing co-host Alisyn Camerota to ask any questions, which lead to some on-air awkwardness (Camerota shrugged it off as being a part of a deal between Cuomo and Scaramucci). Now, some say Trump will grow jealous of the attention Scaramucci is getting, but it's probably exactly what he needs right now: a distraction. If he's smart (the smartest man in the world according to Scaramucci), he would let his little monkey dance for as long as people will watch him.

The more important point scored by by Scaramucci, in my mind, is his burying of the initial impetus for Lizza's New Yorker story. Lizza received a tip from an anonymous White House official that Trump was having a private dinner with Sean Hannity and former Fox News executive Bill Shine. Soon after the tweet went live, Scaramucci called Lizza demanding to know who was behind the leak. Lizza declined to divulge his source. Scaramucci then waxed colorfully on current White House officials including his arch-enemy Reince Preibus and auto-fellater Steve Bannon. It was this phone call that was the subject of Lizza's New Yorker piece.

Forgotten in this tale is that a sitting president had a private dinner (a strategy meeting according to some) with a prominent right-wing national news anchor. I don't know my history enough to say this definitively, but this seems out-of-the-ordinary, to say the least; imagine the conservative outrage if Obama had held a private dinner with Anderson Cooper or Rachel Maddow. I was somewhat surprised that the dinner itself got so little mention by the press. Maybe it's not that uncommon, or maybe everyone already knows Hannity is a tool, or maybe the whole thing was a trap set for Preibus, but I should think we need to register a little more shock over this dinner. And while I thought I had long lost my capacity for registering shock, sniffing just a drop of Scaramucci has a way of jolting the sympathetic nervous system.

I don't know if the man can keep up this pace. Neither Sean Spicer nor Kellyanne Conway could for very long (Sarah Huckabee Sanders may be dumb enough to keep going), but none of them seem like true apostles of Trump. Scaramucci may just be one, and he's out to purge Trumpdom of all unbelievers. Or, like his boss, he's just another New York flim-flam man all-in for himself. The scary part: both interpretations may not be mutually exclusive.

Stray observation: Scaramucci has now twice botched some numbers on air. First, he said that Trump was amazing that he sunk 3 foot putts! He altered the White House transcripts to read 30 ft putts instead. In the Cuomo interview, he talks about Trump's popularity for why he has 300, 250 social media followers; he probably meant to say million in there somewhere. Are these some kind of Freudian slips?

Critique of Pure Unreason

By Croak

If you purchased a $400 wi-fi connected juicer that squeezes $7 juice packs, which you could just squeeze by hand, you need a financial planner.  If you were a venture capitalist that invested in Juicero, you may need a professional skeptic.

Thankfully, there are philosophy consultants that can teach this now.  If you don’t want to read about yet another fad straining through the Valley, here’s the pulp of it: some tech leaders are looking to (and paying) philosophers to help them critically analyze their businesses and lives. I could leave the deliciousness of the irony here, but this paragraph is too good:

“Philosophers arrive on the scene at the moment when bullshit can no longer be tolerated,” says [a bullshitter]. “We articulate that bullshit and stop it from happening. And there’s just a whole lot of bullshit in business today.” He cites the rise of growth hackers, programming “ninjas,” and thought leaders whose job identities are invented or incoherent.

What a perfect business model: selling bullshit to people who can’t see through it themselves.  Under normal circumstances, I’d be upset over such cynicism, but I can’t sympathize with the victims getting squeezed here; they are, after all, the kind of people who would try to sell us a $400 IoT juicer.

Mount Trumpora

By Croak,

I just finished some business travel in Jakarta, a city with problems in a nation with problems.  But despite the city’s congestion, poor air quality, and pervading security state, Jakarta has its charms.  First, there’s the entrancing music of gamelan, a seemingly infinite braid of warm dancing bells that can soothe the most frayed nerves into a hypnagogic state.  Second, there’s the people, who have a gentle kindness and serenity that contrasts with the frenzied chaos of Jakarta’s roads and economic development.

In many ways, I found the chaos to be comforting, a pulse of humanity that thumps stronger than more orderly societies.  Despite Jakarta’s many troubles and inconveniences, so many people I met—both professional and menial—seemed to hold a muted optimism, as if complaints could not cross their lips.

Indonesia suffers from many social ills: poverty, inequality, corruption, and domestic terrorism.  Uniformed armed sentries are posted at building garages, hotels, access roads; they run bomb scanners over each car and inspect trunks for potential explosives.  Given that towering high rises are being erected to shadow over squat shanty towns and bare windowless concrete buildings, the social unrest is unsurprising.

I never imagined that I would one day be a “representative of the West,” entering a guarded compound to execute the dictates of business, but there I was speaking on behalf of my employer to a top executive from a large company in a developing nation.  After the meeting, one of our hosts in Indonesia, who also works for my employer, drove us back to our Jakarta headquarters, and given the snail’s pace of traffic there, we had a long opportunity to talk; let’s call the host Wendy.

Wendy had a lot to say about the struggles she faces working in Jakarta, much of which stems from the normal shit of working at a large company blind to its own operations.  But some of her talk kept drifting back towards Jakarta: its constipated traffic, its economic development, and its pervasive corruption.  Yet, when conversation turned to the US, her very first remark was “hey, things are kind of crazy there politically now, huh?”

Wendy was born and raised in Indonesia, and while I didn’t catch her age, I’d venture she is in her late 30s or early 40s, which means she is old enough to have lived through Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime and its eventual collapse; she has lived through the string of terrorist bombings in the early 2000s, which cratered Indonesia’s tourism and influx of foreign investment.  Yet, she thinks our political situation is “crazy”.

Indonesia only recently stepped from the shadow of European colonialism followed by Japanese occupation then massacres due to the purging of communism, not to mention the terrible natural disasters visited upon them.  It is rich in natural resources, but poor overall.  Countries facing such existential crises are susceptible to powerful autocrats, who, acting unilaterally, are more effective at taming chaos.  For all of our domestic troubles and political dynasties, we are no Indonesia.  So what’s our excuse for voting in an autocrat-wannbe like Trump?  Did we really end up with this fool because people in the middle of the country felt an existential threat from too many dark people crossing our borders?  Because they thought opportunity was circulated amongst a lucky few sperm?  I won’t dispute this last point much, however, Trump has only worsened the situation by resorting to outright nepotism in his administration, and we are still a long way from Indonesia.

One quirk I noticed about doing business in Jakarta was how informal it was.  In some cases, we were meeting very high level officials—at the CFO level—of billion dollar companies with almost no intermediaries and at very short notice.  In the US, you can barely reach a corporate vice president (which can number in the hundreds at a decent sized firm) without twisting through a series of bureaucratic hoops.  My theory is that Indonesia suffers from real problems that need fixing before they can enter a First World economy, one which will likely be built on tech.  Hence, business has dropped its officiousness.  The US, on the other hand, has more “artificial” problems: we have the wealth, our problems are distributional, a crisis of politics and morals.  Much of our economy is created by officiousness, problems that need solving because someone decided to create them, a kind of fiscal damn where resources are released by order of the authorities, i.e. the rich who, through lobbying and election contributions, also largely control government spending priorities (cf. military spending).

If you are wondering about the reference in the title, Indonesia hosts a number of active volcanoes, Krakatoa being the most famous.  However, Mount Tambora, to the east of Jakarta, has its own special place in history.  In 1815, Tambora erupted in an explosion that altered global weather patterns.  The ejected ash was so thick and persistent that areas as distant as the Eastern United States experienced an ever-present fog, darkening and reddening the sun to a point where sunspots were visible; some feared the sun was dying.

The Earth had already undergone a several centuries long Little Ice Age, where average global temperatures had been dropping for hundreds of years (the precise cause of which is still unknown today).  In addition, the sun was in the Dalton Minimum, when sunspot activity was lower than historical averages.  Combined with the increased volcanism in the Pacific, of which the aforementioned Tambora event was the largest, 1816 came to be known as the Year without Summer as freezing temperatures persisted into the summer months.  Crops were ruined; food prices soared; famine, disease, and war ensued.  It’s estimated that 200,000 people died in Europe alone.

Trump is the natural disaster that some desperate people were praying for, one that would shake up the economic damns that have been erected for so many years.  The ash of lies and corruption Trump spews is blocking out the dawning Enlightenment Sun that we took for granted post-World War II.  Instead of unblocking the damns, the water may be poisoned for a long time.