Category Archives: Uncategorized

Toughness Signalling

I’m continually amazed at people’s hunger for toughness signaling. I’m going to hazard that the modern American form of it started with professional wrestlers, who are basically anger clowns, like Ann Coulter. They have these pretend rivalries, and the villains are so very villainous. Also see comic books, where villains are “bad guys” and heroes are “good guys.” And Westerns.

Toughness signaling has to do with strict gender dimorphism. So I understand that those who feel that the blurring of gender boundaries threatens their very identity engage in toughness signaling, just to show off their manhood.

Of course, toughness in a vacuum is idiotic. You need a threat. That’s why Trump needed to claim that there was “carnage,” and why some folk claim there is “white genocide.” It has to be a very dramatic threat to justify the level of toughness signaling they feel they need to perform.

I am reminded of a domestic situation (let’s leave it at that level of detail) in which one party is irritated at what the other party does, and reacts angrily. It just feels right to be angry. And that seductive feeling ramps up to even more operatic, greater expression of anger. Then the reasoning brain kicks in, and says, “you need a bigger threat to justify all that yelling.” So the angry person decides that what the other person did was not merely irritating but truly mean and horrible. Then the anger is totally justified! They retroactively redefine (or “retcon”, to use comic book jargon) what the other person did, so that they’d be doormats if they didn’t express that much anger, and more, even! Because not only was the other person terrible and mean, but that is evidence of their total contempt for, not just you, but whatever class of people you belong to!

And the spiral continues until the anger burns itself out.

Everything wrong with America, in light of Amazon buying WF

So, maybe Amazon’s growing ubiquity will be great! Big Box stores will suffer, which might be good, we won’t spend as much time driving, which is certainly good, and we won’t even see each other in the soulless, fluorescent-lit, ad-choked Gehenna that is a mall store. Is that good?

Maybe this is part of what will make America Great. I don’t know. But here’s a different story, one of cultural dissolution and etiolation (hey, it’s my blog which nobody reads; I can use Buckley verbiage).

Due to investors’ and Wall St’s inexorable downward pressure on wages since the 70s, facilitated by cultural changes in the white community which caused them to abandon unionization, people abandoned their neighbors’ businesses (and thus their neighbors’ welfare) for vast publicly-owned “big box” enterprises (not just stores; megachurches are big-box phenomena), thereby erasing whatever small-town local culture they had.

The resulting anomie and soullessness of their community fed into the dissolution of any sense of togetherness or combined destiny. Initially innocent celebrations of ethnic identity (Kiss Me, I’m Irish, or even claiming to be German-American, as I do) led to other, more marginalized citizens claiming and brandishing their ethnic identities, leading those who imagine themselves as ethnically “American” (a meaningless designation, unless you’re of the First People) to panic further. This results in balkanization, segregation, and fantasies about walls and safety.

Small town, white working class and suburban America has shed its wholesome post WWII identity, under the financial pressure exerted by the investor community, embodied in Wall St. Because our politicians have to protect their clients from anti-trust, regulation, and taxation, private unelected entities now control many aspects of our society.

The Slants copyright case and reclaiming slurs

Saw a comment on Slashdot, about SCOTUS permitting the band The Slants to copyright their name, that it’s great to take ownership of a slur, to defang it. But if you do that (the commenter wrote) you have to permit anyone to use it. The example they gave was “nerd”, which I think is charming. So, basically, they want to lose “intent” as a consideration.

I’m inclined to argue, based on that most-hated-by-people-with-social-power argument, that there are people with social power who should have more restrictions on them than those with less social power. By that logic, nerds could use the words, but jocks (for ex) ought not.

Of course, people with social power deny that any such thing as social power exists; that they are treated any differently by gov’tal agencies, police, or institutions such as banking, for instance. This is coupled with the myth that, until Obama, we lived in a “color-blind” society. That myth enabled whites to maintain privilege while preventing non-whites from complaining about it, because then they were playing the “race card.”

Emboldened by Obama’s presidency, non-whites began to be more vociferous about negative treatment, including, say, being shot to death for being scary to white cops. This began to be called “identity politics,” and frowned upon. After all, the rule under the “color blind” regime was one ought not discuss racial things, and if you just said “please and thank you” enough, everything would be fine.

I am often reminded that for many Americans, this is a nation of a proud defiant white people, and a careful, patient, endlessly polite, obsequious brown people. White people with foreign accents will be taken on a case-by-case basis and they should watch their step.

My position on abortion (should I ever run for office)

  1. If it doesn’t have a brain, it isn’t a person
  2. Anybody should be able to terminate a pregnancy at any time
  3. Let the abortions be done in such a way that the issue of the abortion (be it a blastocyst, fetus or anything in between) be saved, and be brought to term. And let the science to make that happen be paid for by those in the pro-life movement who care the most.

Surely there are enough pro-life billionaires out there who can do this.

Further… In any of the debates about at which point personhood begins, be it when it “feels pain” or whatever, (let’s call that point T0, or T sub zero) let it be made explicit that whenever T0 is chosen to be, before that time, all bets are off and women’s right to end pregnancies shall have no hindrance whatsoever. I never hear that part of the conversation.

One more thing… if it so happens that an artificial womb is created and any babies can be brought to term, adopters should have no choice in which ones they adopt. First-come-first-served, and randomly. They don’t get to pick the white, healthy ones. They get what they asked for – life.

Manly Coal vs. Feminizing Solar

There’s a cultural component to energy opinions. Coal seems a masculine endeavor, whereas solar/wind is feminine. Coal is masculine because of iconography involving dirty, muscular miners, and because it’s dangerous — physical injury is a marker of masculinity; see Heidelberg University scarring. Solar/wind is feminine because it is clean, less physically dangerous to workers, and because the story used to sell it involves caring for people. This is also true of any anti-pollution activism.

With the religious right, there is an additional twist: environmental activism is interpreted as some kind of Gaia worship. I heard a very sweet, well-meaning commentator, Katharine Hayhoe, on Warren Olney’s To the Point say that because some people say they “believe” in global warming/climate change, that gets read as a kind of pagan religious statement. Ms. Hayhoe tries to pitch environmentalism as Biblical “stewardship” – that may work because it invokes images of rulers. Call it “husbandry” and maybe the masculinization is complete… but I think it’s a hard sell. Caring for the weak (except for immediate infant and female family, and maybe domesticated farm animals) just rings so feminine, however much you try to reframe it.

I’m reminded of a New Yorker story about Uranium mining in Colorado, and the pride the former miners took in their cancers. Yes, they were preventable by the company’s spending money on safety gear, but the illness represents their protection of their family and devotion to their employer. Boss-worship… If only that could be interpreted as “pagan idolatry”!

It’s also a masculine marker to have less education; insistence on book-learning, and accompanying socialization, is feminizing — echoes involve women dressing boys with uncomfortable collars and tight shoes. We still see the resonances of those mythic thought patterns in the “boys being left behind by schools” narrative, and indeed in the latest election. I suspect that a lot of people, men and women both, worry that voting for a woman will soften (as it were) the rigid gender dimorphism and render us all into an undifferentiated non-gendered soup. Presumably this would make us ripe for invasion or decadence or… something. Myths don’t need an ending to force choice – just a beginning and middle. Every action we take is an attempt to provide a dramatic ending to our personal myth.

The myths from the frontier were old when the West was Old, and die hard. See “kirche, küche, kinder” for powerful gender-role cultural mythic imagery. You can find mythic vibrations around men being religious — it’s okay as long as they’re using it to dominate, but sissy-ish if they don’t. I think that mythic structure may be responsible, in part, for the struggle within Islam to be dominionist or not, and also for the early success of Christianity in wooing women away from both Judaism and Olympianism, offering them a path, independent of men, toward glory. This may only have been possible for a new religion without political power — where dominion had not yet been established.

The follow up question is, Is the word “misogyny” correct here, for the American attitude of suspicion toward policies that have “feminine” mythic resonance? On the one hand, obviously: feminine images, when combined with images of control, are repellant to many Americans, and not just men. On the other hand, not so fast: is it misogynistic to insist that men protect women? After all, we decry men who abandon their families. How does that square with saying men do not have a unique role as protectors? Do they leave because they are denied a unique role? Is it enough to say that they leave because they refuse to abandon an adolescent mythos of freedom from responsibility?

This cultural/semiotic chess game keeps going – if we try to reframe the mythos so that people (of no particular gender) must protect weaker people (of no particular gender), is that emasculating? Is raising a family with an equal partner sufficiently gratifying for men who feel subjugated by the larger world? Do men need to feel dominant somewhere, anywhere, or they rebel? Interesting questions. I don’t know. I expect there’s a wide range.

A final note – none of the above has anything at all to do with actual energy policy in the phenomenal world (I don’t say “real world”, because our mythic world is just as real, if not more, than the phenomenal world where you can stub your toe). In fact, good energy policy probably involves every kind of energy source. As with smart financial policy, diversification is key.

Thoughts about nice people who say, “I’m sick of Identity Politics”

So, first we (for centuries) had “identity politics” that favored the white (whatever that was… did it include the Irish? the Italians? Jews? Only with lots of $$$, and then only provisionally; there were always “court Jews”, for instance, allowed to live in gentile neighborhoods and given a coat of arms, at least until a scapegoat was needed), with unchecked brutal police power backing it. Then with Emancipation, some of that police power was removed, but not all, and it was reinforced by  heavily armed posses, who operated with a wink and the government looking the other way (or participating actively, if sometimes disguised with white hoods).

Then, thanks to integration of the armed forces in WWII and the advent of the civil rights movement, the idea of identity politics was mostly disfavored, and the ideal became a color-blind, we’re all just a bunch of individuals with no group affiliation at all. This was accepted as the new bien-pensant (see definition #2), nice liberal well-mannered ideal. But that subtly turned into code for continuing with milder versions of the previous identity politics favoring whites. And the onus continued to weigh on the non-whites to earn toleration and freedom from battery by behaving obsequiously. See the Blue Danube segment of the cartoon, Corny Concerto. It always struck me as unfair that the little black duck had to be heroic to get what the little cygnets got just by being cygnets.

So then, since the 70s or 80s or so, I guess, the inevitability of some kind of identity politics was accepted as part of human nature, but now each group could have their own identity and they could jockey in society with other identity groups. Then Obama was elected. And some people who associated themselves with nice liberal bien-pensant ideals felt betrayed — they had rejected identity politics with the understanding that racism and identity politics were conjoined, and that by rejecting the latter, they could be rid of the former. Since it didn’t, they had the wonderful feeling of rejecting a bad thing, but continuing to benefit (however subtly) from that bad thing’s fruits.

That stings, being told that if you benefit from a bad thing, that you must no longer support a nice, liberal ideal that subtly supports that bad thing, even though it, on the surface, rejects it.

I know. Confusing.

The debate and my stomach…

I’m having a strong emotional response to the upcoming HRC/DJT debate, the kind of emotion that lives in the stomach. The kind of emotion I used to feel in school, when the mean boys would see me coming and size up the room to decide what to do. Should they maybe do that thing where they swing their arm out as if to strike me, but change the gesture at the last second to smooth their hair? And I would flinch, every time, every single time.

Or would they simply say something mocking and mean?

Or, most disconcertingly, would they say nothing at all, or perhaps be perfectly nice? It was the unpredictability that gave them their power.

That’s how I feel when I see DJT.

Maybe it wouldn’t be the mean boys. Maybe it would be the smart girls. I was a little jealous about how they were always on top of their lessons. Always, always, always. They knew everything. There were maybe three or four of them – one of them was brilliant at languages, she took Greek, Latin, and Italian, in addition to the French and English we all took; one was simply top of the class in everything; and another was maybe not quite as brilliant, but certainly better than me.

They were pretty and kind, and I felt no anxiety about them at all, more a kind of wonder at their omnicompetence. If they were in charge of something, it would get done, and done well.

The genius of the mean boys were their ability to read the room in an instant – they knew the hierarchy. They knew when teachers or staff or older kids were present. They had an org chart in their head of their older brothers’ friends, who were the popular kids, who were the teachers who cared, and who were the teachers who were just there to avoid the draft.

They could see weakness and strike perfectly to exploit it. Their heart was corrupt and they reveled in others’ pain and their ability to get away with it, to find an angle. I just wanted to be out of their way – they couldn’t be stopped, they couldn’t be placated, and nothing good ever came out of them… not for anyone else, anyway.

Maybe that’s why DJT fills me with bilious dread and I really like HRC.

NPR Watch — Planet Money’s Oil Series

Dear Planet Money,

I’ve been listening to Planet Money since the beginning, so take these comments as coming from a fan.

The oil series was interesting, more so if you are a high-schooler who loves science museums. I’m a grownup who loves science museums, so it was okay, but not much of a revelation. I did not know that they could send different fractions of oil through the pipeline – that was news to me. And I didn’t know the details of the invention of Bakelite, just the rough outlines, so that was interesting.

Planet Money made one small, but I thought revealing, mistake: when mentioning the price of gasoline, they spoke about the oddness of it being priced down to the 10th of a cent, and gave, as an example, 6/10 of a cent. But, at least in my experience (mostly in SoCal), it’s never 6/10, or 4/10, or 1/10. It’s ALWAYS 9/10 of a cent. That indicates there are forces other than the cost of the supply. Perhaps they could discuss that 9/10 of a cent one day.

It made me think, though — why make that mistake? What story does 6/10 of a cent tell that might be undercut by the price always having 9/10 of a cent tacked on?

Your show has a definite voice – “Business! Ain’t it Grand?” Even when you started out, in the depths of the Great Recession, your show refused to countenance the possibility that there might be villains, or even just people making choices that, outside of a business context, would be considered sociopathic. So it serves the story your show tells that gas is priced strictly according to the price of supply (which seems reasonable) rather than some combination of supply cost and what they can get away with, even if it’s slightly dishonest. (Of course, neighboring gas stations having quite different prices is also a clue that their pricing has an opportunistic element)

Another, perhaps inadvertent, window onto the soul of your show is the segment about the descendants of Baekeland. Their less than perfect enthusiasm for plastic isn’t linked to the serious health effects of plastic, the horrible effects of plastic on the ocean environment (see Great Pacific garbage patch), or indeed anything that Big Business could or even should do anything about… that would undercut your show’s message. Instead, it’s a kind of aesthetic issue, perhaps about littering. Of course, littering was business’s way of diverting the attention of a more environmentally-minded public away from polluters and onto themselves and their neighbors. (another clue – the insistence that the only other material for a toothbrush was sterling; wow! thanks to plastic, we can all have toothbrushes! Grand! But I think there were wooden toothbrushes too, actually)

That would be an interesting show, by the way – anti-littering crusades as a way to greenwash big businesses at the beginning of the environmental era.

Finally, your finale. You could have gone two ways: a “where do we go from here” finale, about how to go into the post-fossil fuel era, or the “where would we be without fossil fuels.” Of course you picked the latter, because even though you mention pollution and global warming, you had to show them as being the necessary (and perhaps not so terrible) cost of our wonderful progress. The “where do we go from here” narrative would be much more about the downsides of fossil fuel use.

Thanks for your podcast, though. It’s often very interesting and covers material I just can’t find elsewhere. But you might listen to the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast, specifically #82, the one about Crowds. It might illuminate for you the seeming paradox that business people are perfectly nice when you talk to them face-to-face, but are still capable, in the context of their enterprise, of actions that harm a lot of people in order to enrich their managers (if we’re lucky, their shareholders, too – but more often, I suspect, just their managers).

Pays Civilisés

I told this story at the Moth last night. The theme was Jokers, and it was hosted by the lovely, hilarious Lauren Weedman. I didn’t win, but I got little fragments of adulation from the audience after I was done, including shouts of “10! 10! 10!” Sadly, the judges disagreed and gave me a 9.4 (my total was 28.7 out of a possible 30).

In 1970 I was in what you might call the tenth grade, but we called 3ème, because I went to a Lycée Français.  This is a network of international schools based on the French model. The idea, back in the 1930s, was that diplomats, for whom French was the international language, could be posted anywhere in the world – Rio to San Francisco to Beirut – and they’d have a school system where their kids would have some continuity. The same textbooks and curriculum; even the same notebooks.

It wasn’t only diplomats’ kids, of course. In my Lycée, in New York, we had UN kids and consulate kids, but there were also the kids of French business people, and expats – just regular French people living in New York. Waiters, milkmen, whatever. And, of course, snobs.

My bona fides were my mother who was French Canadian, and my father who was a German refugee. They wanted a school that combined the French language and the German practice of humiliating and terrifying children.

My best friends were Philippe and Eric. Philippe’s dad was a French translator at the UN, and Eric’s mom was a refugee from Nazi-occupied Paris.

Philippe was the arbiter of who was cool and who wasn’t. He was cute, athletic, easy around girls, and a good student but not too good.

Eric had developed a habit that, when something embarrassing happened to you, like you didn’t stop the ball from going in the goal, or you started talking to a girl and she turned away, or you raised your hand in class and the teacher slapped you down, he would say “snaaaaag!” Which, of course, made it much, much worse. Philippe loved this, and being a sporty kid who had to keep score, he would keep a record of your snags. If he liked, he could use a multiplier, so you didn’t just get a snag, you’d get a decasnag, a hectasnag, a kilosnag. When we learned the prefix mega-, things got really ugly.

I was particularly snag-prone because I was a sensitive kid who cried easily, I was bad at sports, and I was also strangely pompous. I wanted everyone to know how smart I was.

I accumulated 1.5 gigasnags.

There was one kid who had more than me, Tarek Kassem. He was the son of the Egyptian ambassador to the UN, so a rich kid. He was the first to have a calculator – the rich kid’s way to cheat. When Tarek came to the New York Lycee that year, he said his name was “Tony” – he was just trying to fit in. Of course, he was mercilessly punished. When it was discovered that his name was “Tarek,” he got a megasnag, just to start out with. That was his baseline.

Toward the end of a history class, I had raised my hand and was opining that Europeans were becoming Americanized. McDonalds had just opened up in Munich, and I said it wasn’t the fault of the McDonalds, but of the Europeans who went there – they were giving up their culture. Tarek raised his hand and said, “in Africa, we remain true to our culture. We will never become Americanized!”

I said, “Oh, well, I was talking about civilized countries.” [Je parlais des pays civilisés.] It was a dick thing to say, but the room exploded, the teacher laughed, and… the bell rang. That day, all my snags got transferred, in a bloc, to Tarek. He ended up with 4 gigasnags, and I had a clean slate.

That was the meanest thing I had ever done in school, and it was my best day.

Actors Playing Superheroes – Ben Affleck’s Batman

I saw Batman vs. Superman last night (in 3D – I like that, even though it makes my eyes water). Maybe my expectations were low because of the critiques, but I really liked it. My main beef is it could have been just a little funnier. Nobody is grim all the time. Nobody you’d want to spend time with, anyway.

Ben Affleck made a serious, violent Batman. He sold me the character as honest and obsessed, and very smart if not brilliant. But his Bruce Wayne just did not seem to be having as much fun as he should seem to be having. You need a convincingly fun-loving, dissipated Bruce Wayne to round out the Batman.

You’ll never get a fully convincing movie Batman, any more than you’ll get a convincing Wotan in a Ring Cycle. We’re just people, not fit to play gods. But Affleck did a great job.

And kudos to Michael Wilkinson for the Bat-suit! Finally a suit that comes across as not just a stupid rubber suit with molded muscles (not to mention the awful nipples of Batman and Robin!), but actual armor fit for battle. I loved the close range gunshot to the back of his head in a fight.

I feel bad for the bullshit that Ben Affleck has to go through (Sad Affleck, the awful tabloid nonsense, etc.). It’s a really solid performance and I can’t wait to see the Justice League movies.