Open Letter to Sam Harris

Sam, I’m having a problem with your otherwise wonderful and excellent app, Waking Up. It’s that when I’m on Twitter and I see these frankly rather silly arguments between you and various Muslims, the animosity and playground jabs stay in my mind and make it hard to focus on the contents of my consciousness.

So, a couple of suggestions: first, if you’re going to be a meditation guide, then maybe lay off the arguing-with-Muslims side business. You have to know (being smart) that that goes nowhere. All you’re accomplishing is being a source of energy for genuine Islamophobes. But (you might respond, were we at a coffee shop drinking élitist lattés) what about the conversation? What about the marketplace of ideas? And I would respond… oh, Sam. You’re smarter, harder working, and probably more athletic than I am, you should know that is a crock. When conversations happen about topics not linked to identity, people might be persuaded. When they are linked to identity, though, the words are reduced to a background hum, wayyy drowned out by identity signals. (You should listen to David McRaney’s podcast, You Are Not So Smart; he goes into this stuff in detail.)

Second, here’s the true thing behind what I call the Jihadi Problem. It’s not about Islam (go a couple of paragraphs down to find out what it is about) – Islam is tremendously varied in many dimensions; you have your whirling dervishes, your Sufi mystics, your sophisticated urbane atheists who only do the occasional prayers to keep their moms from crying, your rustic peasants for whom Islam provides lifecycle rituals and structure for their community. You have your American Black Muslims getting away from the slavemasters’ religion, your hippie and hipster Muslims for whom the appeal is that nobody else in their circle does it, and they can lord it over them as some kind of expert. And of course your Indian Muslims, living as a minority and watching their step around emboldened and occasionally murderous nationalist Hindus. Many, many more…

The problem is not Indonesian fishermen or community organizers in Harlem. The problem is not even Iranian Shias (though they do have the neuroses of anyone with a glorious imperialist past, hankering for past glory and needing to blame others for its loss). The problem is the Gulf Sunni royal families, using their petrodollars to fund Wahhabi imams throughout the world, to advance their ideology fueled by imperial golden-agism and rich-guy perverted sociopathy.

Islam’s collection of texts is not that different from any other shelf of sacred texts. Remember The Bible Code? Very silly book about how you could do a sort of cryptographic treatment of the Hebrew Bible and extract prophesy. Some mathematician showed you could the same thing with Moby Dick, or indeed any big-enough book. The night sky will show you whatever you want, as will a Tarot spread. Randomness contains all stories if it features a sufficient number of items.

The funders of Wahhabism are propagating a particular story drawn from Islam’s texts to promote a bellicose, murderous, death-relishing machismo, which is highly appealing to shiftless, underemployed young men (and the ambitious young women who love them) and frustrated engineers. What good does this do? I think it is a power fantasy for the Gulf petrocrats. They get no material benefit. They’re not past wanting things, but they have every material thing imaginable, including sex and power. All that’s left is the perverted desire to make everyone pay for their not having the one thing they can’t have – an Arab Empire, from Morocco through Malaysia, bowing toward them. Just like any good supervillain, they Want to Rule the World. I’m sure they even pet their kitten as they fantasize about 9/11.

What can be done about it? The elimination of oil would return the Gulf Arab states to depending on colorful local costumes and pearl divers for tourist Euros. Gulf Arab attempts to move beyond the inevitable (but distant) end of oil seem (ironically) ham-handed to me. Buying a Louvre and a Guggenheim? Buying American universities? Dubai and real estate? Have you been there? It’s horrible! It’s quite pathetic, for a people who invented algebra.

So, aside from eliminating oil or reducing its price to a point where the petrocrats have to spend their time governing or something productive instead of fomenting apocalyptic mayhem, what can you do?

Eliminate US support for them. But that would mean finding something to replace all those fighter plane jobs lost.

Maybe it could be strengthening Iran carefully, in such a way as to enhance democracy there and weaken theocracy. I think Obama was trying to do that.

I don’t know! You’ve got a podcast, maybe invite some guests who can address this, instead of whining about how college kids yell at them for saying Islam is so wicked. My eye-rolling muscles are so sore…

Anyway, thanks for the great meditation app. I doubt I could have strung these thoughts together before I started using it! So, see? This letter is all your fault.

Thanks for the app, Peter Basch

Racism and anti-Semitism vs. personal animus and prejudice

There is a national conversation about racism – what it is, is it different from prejudice, or personal animus against a group. The whole “some of my best friends” trope is based on the rejection of the accusation of personal animus, when the problem might not be that at all. You might – well, not be blind to color or gender or gender expression, because nobody is – but, all in all, a pretty good person and get along perfectly well with all kinds of people; but you might defend systems and policies that oppress people differentially by color, gender, gender expression, ethnicity, language, or other criteria. And that might be painful to confront, because while you may be a good person, and good to others, you might be benefiting from and supporting a system that is not.

We could use a similar approach to anti-Semitism. You may have many good, Jewish friends. They might agree with you on a range of opinions, from which TV you like to which politicians you support. But, as Rep Omar has discovered, if you play into anti-Semitic tropes – of which there are quite a few – you may be supporting an anti-Semitic mindset even if you are not the least bit anti-Semitic yourself.

Here’s one: Jews are particularly good with, or care about, money. Or Jews’ loyalty is suspect – they are “rootless cosmopolitans,” or “globalists,” or “care more about Israel than…” something. It might not be a blood libel (killing Christian children and using their blood in sacraments, for instance), and it might not be casually insulting or stereotyping, like Jewish women are (somehow) both frigid and licentious.

How do we distinguish a legitimate criticism from anti-Semitism? Take a recent example: of all the countries that lobby the US government for favorable treatment, if you single out Israel, that’s anti-Semitism. South Korea, for instance, spends more on lobbying Congress than Israel does. There may be good arguments for banning all foreign government lobbying. It might be tricky, given that lobbying is political speech, but it would be an interesting conversation.

Saying that Israel should be eliminated is anti-Semitic, unless you say all states formed under certain conditions, e.g., by colonizing countries, should be rethought. Should Saudi Arabia return to being Arabia? What about a nice country, like Canada, that is a settler colony? That would be an interesting conversation. But when it is only about Israel, that is anti-Semitic.

But here’s an important point. Just as with racism, supporting an anti-Semitic argument does not mean you hate Jews (necessarily). It might just mean you have absorbed biases and opinions, and they feel right, even though your friends and family and colleagues might be Jewish and you might really like them.

Just as we are asking people to examine their privilege and examine how they might be supporting systems and policies that oppress the poor or women or brown people or other “others,” we should ask people to check why they hold onto certain opinions – is it a general opinion that covers all people, or are they focusing in on Jews because… Well, because they’ve never given much thought to how their position might apply to many other people and nations.

PS: Interesting how stereotypes are deployed in a favorable way, too. Jews may not like to be portrayed as stingy, but they don’t mind being thought of as good at business. They may not like being portrayed as physically weak, but they seem to enjoy the image of not being able to fix things. So it does get even more complicated.

The Land of Steady Habits and Mary Poppins Returns: Two Terrible Movies

Oh, boy. I have to take a pill. Just sat through The Land of Steady Habits and Mary Poppins Returns. Two terrible movies about upper middle-class white men who can’t keep their paperwork straight and can’t pay their mortgages but whose real estate is rescued at the last minute by a deus ex machina.

No, seriously, it’s the same movie. One is a machine-tooled case-hardened  Whimsy™ delivery system, engineered to provide maximum return to shareholders with minimum risk, the other is a sloppy, badly acted, badly written, banal bag of boring. In fact, Ben Mendelsohn is so incredibly bad that, though I have been long reconciled to my acting career never having taken off, now I’m bitter because I’m so much better than him.

Ben Mendelsohn does a thing with his mouth… He is so determined not to be too expressive (because, you know, the camera is right there) that I think he had his mouth botoxed. It is eerily inexpressive. I mean, try to talk without any mouth tension. It’s hard! He manages. It’s like he’s some kind of CGI doll. He’s a live, human actor, but he’s in the uncanny valley.

And poor Lin-Manuel Miranda. He must have dimple cramps. To be fair to him, there was no character written, he’s just a walking wink, so I can hardly blame him for the non-performance.

And the idea of making the banker the villain, in a weirdly Great Recession of 2008 plot where they profit from foreclosures, is so completely and purely cynical on Disney’s part… If corporations are legal persons, this movie was written, scored, shot and acted by one.

Don’t worry about my sharing these DVDs. I shredded them.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – a Guarded Appreciation

If you grew up in a white, middle-class family in the 50s and 60s, you probably had some gorgeous children’s storybooks with beautifully rendered “color plates”. If the books were a certain vintage, they’d have translucent pages to protect the color illustrations. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is very explicitly a take on these books, not a take on the actual history of American expansion westward.

These books could have been fairy tales (as they were in my case) or they could have been historical fiction. Maybe tales of the sea, or of the Wild West, or of the African or Indian jungle, or of exotic “Oriental” places… Whichever they were, they were tales of white dominance over the Other. Not to say that the enemy couldn’t be white also and often was. Foreign white, but white. Or maybe morally Other – those who play by different, worse, rules. While there may have been some diversity among the villains, there was none among the heroes.

And if those books were a wonderful part of your childhood, you might appreciate seeing those stories rendered through a cynical adult lens. This is what Los Bros Coen have brought us with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The actual history of the conquest of the West, filtered through vintage storybooks, filtered again through a nihilistic artistic imagination. What is emphasized in this reimagining is meaningless death, poisonous betrayal, victory and defeat through sheer dumb luck, good intentions defeated or, worse, irrelevant…

Some of it is funny, some of it is horrible. All of it is gorgeous, in the mold of those old color plates, as shot by the amazing cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Even if you have no patience for another take on the comfortable childhood myths of the Whites, you could turn the sound down and let this play on your 4k screen, and your mind will be blown by the beauty and detail and artistry. The scenery, in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nebraska (and, I suppose, processed in New York, because the NY Dept of Film and TV gets a credit at the end), is heart-rendingly beautiful.

It’s telling that Delbonnel also shot films for Julie Taymor and Tim Burton, who also take childhood characters such as Alice, and give them a sort-of grownup (or at least older adolescent) slant.

I was reminded of other takes of childhood stories seen from an adult angle, either made cynical or sexed up or violenced up to a degree not acceptable in those old books. Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for instance, is a parade of these (often secondary) characters, such as Mina Harker (from Dracula), to Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, to Mycroft Holmes. Another parallel is Warren Ellis’s and John Cassaday’s Planetary, which puts pulp and comic characters through the mangle and mashes them all together into a new comic “universe”. On TV we have the vogue of fairytale series, Grimm and Once Upon a Time. In other words, this is a Thing.

Let it be said that, from the point of view of diversity, this movie is a complete disappointment. I suppose you have Methodists and Episcopalians (in The Gal Who Got Rattled). But the first filter mentioned above, taking the actual history of American expansion and filtering it through a 20th century children’s book mentality, got rid of the blacks, Jews, Asians, and even many Hispanos. Native Americans are purely wordless threats. Though in this movie, they are rendered far more archeologically correctly, as opposed to, say, Winnetou, who was a crazy mashup of native Americans, with Cherokee headresses, Inuit totem poles, and Sioux tipis.

Anyone who is just dead tired of more White Folk Foundational Mythology, will likely find this movie simply irritating. For them, I suggest turning the sound down and just enjoying the gorgeous images.

Callister and gamers

I don’t know any gamers.

I played only two games: Doom (I’m including all variants under that title; they’re not separate games) and Arkanoid, Revenge of Doh, which is a brick-breaking game. These are both DOS-era games… In fact, I keep a bootable stick with DOS and those games.

I also played Neuromancer (and have it on the stick). So call it three games.

But I haven’t played a game (other than Solitaire or Minesweeper… occasionally Scrabble – but those aren’t “computer games” really, they’re meatspace games on a computer) more than once or twice a year for about 20 years.

Of course, we all know a kind of gamer, the kind that’s a jerk on the web. Those seem to range from stoic, polite, libertarian wannabes who are seriously concerned – Concerned! – about freedom for their white male cohorts… to tantrum-queen manboys (maybe boyboys… who can know) hurling abuse from the safety of their recliners (or Aerons… there are flavors and dialects of this type), who are using the freedom so carefully protected by their stoic, serious cohorts.

What about other kinds of gamers? Fun-loving people who love the game, the game world, the game market; they love the hardware and tweak it continuously. Eke out those extra gigahertz! But that kind? They’re kind of busy, so they’re not all over the various channels and forums.

So here’s a thought – for every polite, fun, pleasant, rollicking gamer on the web, there are a dozen more who are not on the web.

But for every complete and total jerk, the true villains… it’s them. They’re all on the web all the time. So the number you see on the web? That’s all of them.

It may be a lot, but it’s not that much. They are vastly outnumbered by more decent folk. Because what makes them decent is society, and for that to happen they have to be out there in society.

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

But about Callister. It’s a pretty damning portrait of someone from a conqueror culture, who has nothing to conquer… or is simply too cowardly, when in meatspace, to take the risk of conquering. And what even is “conquering” in our society?

Aggressive investment schemes and the destruction of America

In the sentimental vision of America, Main St of a small town, the businesses are locally owned, staffed locally, and local people brought their custom. The businesses and staff reflected the local culture. (For better and for worse, but still.)

A business owner might hire on the local slow kid. They might contribute toward the local smart kid going to college. They might give a break to the local widow. They might notice local environmental damage, and because they hunt or fish or hike, or just live, locally, they might care.

How inefficient! What suckers! Now we have hedge funds who come in and have no local ties, who just see costs and profits. Stakeholders? Pfui. They’ve got to pay executives and shareholders. Period. Employees and staff become human resources. They can charge more for less up until we lose customers, then pull back a tiny bit so the customers feel like they’re getting a deal. They use marketers with neuroscience degrees to leverage biases and convert them into sales. They use biologists to figure out how to double the size of our customers’ stomachs so we can sell them more cheap crap. They poison the land because that saves money that can go into executives’ and shareholders’ pockets (in that order), and the local people will be so poor and desperate and unhealthy at that point that they will fight to the death for the right to sell their birthright.

I have no idea how to stop this. Wish I did. You might be able to stop private equity firms by figuring out how to restrict their ability to saddle their vassal companies with debt; these companies used to be in the business of whatever their business was, but now their only purpose is to pay the PE firms. How to stop hedge funds ruining communities is harder. Certainly beyond me.

PS: I am excited about Warren’s presidential bid because I think she is especially able to focus on this domain. I don’t think anyone else can figure out how to rein in Private Equity or hedge funds.

Feelings about death

I can’t say I’m terrified of death, but I feel I have a lot more work to do. I don’t believe in an afterlife, and I don’t think death will be especially painful. I suspect it will feel like passing out.

My feeling about consciousness is that it is something the brain does. Asking what happens to consciousness after death is like asking what happens to movement after a car is trashed. Nothing happens to it – it just doesn’t … happen any more. Movement is something a car does, and consciousness is something a brain does. When the brain is broken, when the car is cubed, consciousness simply isn’t around, just as movement down the freeway is not a thing that happens any more.

But my family needs me, and while I suppose they’ll figure out how to get on without me, still, it will be hard. There are things I do that make their lives easier. I want to be useful that way.

The importance of the neck

I dreamed last night that I had some kind of callous or skin-thing on my neck, and kept picking at it until I cut all the way through and separated my head from my body. The wound healed over nicely and quickly, and the space between my shoulders was quite bare and smooth, and my head mostly floated where it was supposed to be. I could, if I wanted, hold it in my hands, but I had some trouble pointing where I wanted to look. It was certainly harder to maneuver than it had been, with a traditional neck.

I wanted to ask Ellen to knit me a sweater with no neck hole, but worried about giving her more to do; she’s always so busy. I also wanted to build a kind of metal framework that would serve as a sort of artificial neck, just to hold my head still. I have quite a backlog of DIY projects as it is. Ellen wants a guest coat rack that can be folded up and put away, and an outdoor table. These are all steel pipe plus pipe fittings types of projects – not very hard, but you have to go out and buy the pipe and fittings. Without a neck, these things become tricky. Being able to focus your vision is very important for even a simple DIY project.

I thought I might do a standup routine, about having no neck. I did it, and heard people in the audience say, What is he, 75? And I thought, no, I’m just past 60… I know, my beard is quite white, but I don’t look 75, do I? I’m told I look like Santa’s IT guy. I thought that would be a laugh line, but it wasn’t. I haven’t done standup for many years. Last time, it was when I took that class with Lewis Black. He’s pretty famous now.

I had a little more trouble breathing than before, especially when I thought about it. I could feel my chest breathing, but pulling air through the skin that had grown over the wound was a little more difficult. I thought briefly about how strange it was that I could still speak and breathe with my mouth, but it seemed to work, so I decided not to worry.

All in all, given that it featured some pretty massive self-mutilation, the dream was refreshingly free of anxiety. I’ve had much more frightening dreams where I am completely healthy, but perhaps experiencing social anxiety.

I wondered if there would be a movie about that saint who is pictured holding his head. Turns out it is St. Denis, the bishop of Paris. Then I thought, no, they would use an established actor and CGI. It’s that kind of defeatist thinking that limited my acting career.

So I put some St Denis references into the comedy routine, but hagiographic references are a little obscure for most audiences. Same goes for heraldic references. Most people just don’t get heraldry. Or hagiography. Even though I discovered that there are two saints who are represented as holding their heads in their hands: St Denis and St Firmin. And there’s a word for that: cephalophore. I like finding cool words.

I was experiencing some regret, toward the end of the dream, for having removed my neck. The upsides, it seemed were few.

Promethea vs Watchmen

I just finished re-reading the entire Promethea opus (thanks Hoopla!), and it is simply amazing. I love Watchmen as much as anybody, but this is a greater work, with more depth, better art, and truly touching. I can’t speak to the metaphysics, but this is clearly closer to Alan Moore’s heart. I read his (incredibly long) novel, Jerusalem, and he deals with similar issues of time, the soul, human destiny, angels, demons, Christianity’s place in humanity’s collected mythology, and, above all, the crucial role of storytelling at the core of being human.

I would say there’s no comparison in the art, but there is: J.H. Williams III is by far the greater artist than Dave Gibbons. Gibbons is a wonderful comics artist. J.H. Williams III is a wonderful artist who works in comics. To me, there’s a difference. His virtuosity in different media and styles, the varied characterizations… To be fair, Gibbons, too, is capable of presenting people of different shapes and ages and kinds. But Williams III is just more like a window onto humanity.

One last fanboy note. Especially now, looking at the imbroglio of the 5 Swell Guys, doesn’t the conflict between Stan and Marv seem like a classic case of white rage? It’s not stated that way explicitly, but Stan sees Marv as being in competition with him, and this is utterly unacceptable for him. You could also, of course, take Stan at his word, that it is simply that his and Marv’s roles have some overlap (genius vs. builder), and that is the cause of his hatred and jealousy. But I don’t think Marv’s being “the black guy” has nothing to do with it.

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. Those who feel that the blurring of gender boundaries threatens their very identity, engage in toughness signaling to confirm 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” or “lynching.” It has to be a very dramatic threat, after all, to justify the level of toughness signaling they feel they need to perform.

Here is a UN document on atrocity crimes. Heavy reading.

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! A post-hoc rationalization. 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 all on its own.