ocschwar: (Default)
Reading the news about how this country (and to varying degrees, many other countries) is descending into a quagmire of madness and stupidity, I was wondering whether I should just take up heavier drinking or to try to read up enough about the forces that are pushing this hand basket to its destination. Then I realized, most wonderfully, that I could do both. But I also re-read Susan Jacoby's The Age Of American Unreason. I recommend you all do the same, and if you live near Boston you can borrow my copy.

It starts from the very beginning, i.e. the colonization of the East Coast, and goes to explain the trends in religious movements in the US from the Revolution onwards. Lots of explanations on why the North, founded by religious fanatics, produced the Unitarian and Universalist movements, in the heady aftermath of the Revolution, while the South, a secular minded enterprise of the Crown, became the center for fundamentalist religion: because the social order in the South was untenable and could only be maintained if people believed in a literal interpretation of Scripture, one that legitimized slavery. And that goes a long way towards explaining how Boston became the epicenter for scholarship in America, and how the first intellectual refugees to arrive here were Southerners, including the founder of MIT. That same period was also when the oligarchs running in the show in the South established the region's malign neglect of education, purposely, to maintain a paternalistic relationship between the plantation owners and their workers, both white and black.

At the same time, Ms. Jacoby is kind enough to cover the tide of stupid that overcame the secular side of the United States starting shortly after the Civil War: social darwinism. She has a whole chapter. And it's not pretty. The nation's academic elite, with the noble exception of William James, swallowed a particularly ugly ideology justifying the unjust state of affairs in the US during the Gilded Age, and gave the religious side ample justification for regarding secular intellectuals with suspicion from then on.

Then come several chapters about, in short, the Culture Wars. That is, about the actions of intellectuals from William James (the last intellectual not to disgrace himself, it seems) onwards through the 20th Century, their involvement in the Cold War, and how it continues to provide both the National Review and The Nation with fodder for their readers about the long track record of wickedness/foolishness of the other side and why it continues to be important for the rank and file to vote Republican/Democrat to keep the other party at bay. And I'm guilty of falling into the same trap. I have a copy of the Closing of the American Mind on my bookshelf, with a bookmark at about page 80, as far as I got last time I opened it, but really, as Ms. Jacoby ably points out: the 60s should matter this much. That Allan Bloom had an uncivil encounter with some self righteous student activists in 1967 is no reason for an undergrad today to want to join the Campus Republicans. All that pointless drama is pointless.

Jacoby covers the other side of what developed in the 60's: the Moral Majority and the Republican machine that brought Ronald Reagan into office and continues to run the GOP today, and along with all the historical exposition, goes her take on the title of the book: American Un-Reason. Time for a little blockquote action. Page 216:

What can be said with a fair degree of certainty is that anti-rational junk thought has gained social respectability in the United States during the past half century, that it interacts toxically with the most credulous elements in both secular and religious ideologies, and that it has proved resistant to the vast expansion of scientific knowledge that has taken place during the same period. Since the late Sixties, there has been a growing acceptance of social and psychological theories in which great weight is accorded the passionate emotional convictions of believers. In this realm of emotion, absolute value is placed on personal testimony based on personal experience.

It's the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer mentality. And I challenge you to find an appearance on C-Span where a politician speaks for a half hour or more and doesn't pander to it. It's pretty telling that the politician who least embodies the UFL brand of junk thought is Barack Obama, and that's because his Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer schtick is all about how he believes deep down that he needs to find a middle ground in how he seets policy, and try to deal with actual issues. It's a sweet head fake from a man who clearly disdains political theater (and I do admire him for that), but it's a crying shame that a man has to play this ridiculous game to get elected president.

The closing end of the book is what I found most depressing of all. Susan Jacoby picks up where Neal Postman left off. He decided not to write at all about the Internet, retired, and passed away, having written well thought arguments about where the ubiquity of television is taking us, and leaving his readers to hope that the Internet would be a force in the reverse direction. Jacboy takes that hope and crushes it. And, unfortunately, she's right. As things stand right now the Internet has only moved us deeper into the Age of Unreason. I need a drink.

(*) So nice I can console myself by walking down with Emily to the Ebisuya Japanese market. O tempura. O more. Origato.
ocschwar: (Default)
"Debating" on the Web is good for one thing, and one thing only, which is it's an opportunity to blow off steam by throwing contempt and bile on somebody who probably deserves it, instead of throwing it at someone who might not deserve it, and who might know where you sleep.

I've learned this, and so even though I am right about everything, and so many people are wrong about so many things, I let the humanity continue to wallow in the error of its ways, and continue to be wrong. Even on the Internet. Because I really don't like sleeping on the couch.

But every once in a while, you (well, I) may encounter a person whom you care about, and you you really do want to knock/slap/massage/tickle/inject some sense into. For me, it's one person who has descended into 9/11 troofery, and a high school friend who just moved, with two little completely unvaccinated daughters, right into Oregon's pertussis pandemic area.

In both cases, you have an Internet debate between one crowd dominated by nutjobs and charlatans seeking to profit from them, and a crowd that is in the right, but is made of people who clearly have too much free time, and too quick a tendency to flame. (I know, I know. I live in a glass house there.) Those people in the latter crowd have amassed the information you need to prove your case, all of it readily available from the Google Cache. You just need to figure out how to tap into that resource and use it to sway this one person whom you happen to know. In the latter case, I happen to have a strong motive. Whooping cough kills. And when it doesn't kill, it still sucks. But in both cases, I'm constrained by the simple fact that when people are presented with evidence against a deeply held belief, they tend to reinforce their adherence too that belief defensively.

The approach I took in both cases was to be as gentle as possible about this, and to attack their believes on one thing and one thing only, in hope that it might lead eventually to an unraveling. In the 9/11 case, I pointed out that the Troofer site he/she cited claims to want a debate but is in fact assiduous about censoring any attempt at same. In the antivaccine case, she gave me a rant about how it's not right that a baby should be "bombarded" with multiple vaccines before even leaving the hospital, I pointed out that in fact the US vaccine schedule has only one vaccine for the newborns, and waits for 2 months before starting on any others.

Might work. Might not. I just really hope not to check Facebook some evening and find out that a friend of mine is now tending to a kid with the fucking whooping cough. I was born in Israel. I had classmates whose parents lost siblings to disease like whooping cough, because until about the time I was born, Israel was a desparately poor country, full of refugee camps for Jews from places like Iraq and Yemen. Not something I would wish on an enemy, let alone a friend.

In the vaccine "controversy", one of the main speakers for the bullshit side was Jenny McCarthy, whose education on vaccines came from what she called the "University of Google." If I were a Google employee, my personal project would be exactly that. The University of Google, meaning algorithms that would help Google sway search results on matters of fake controversy, and sway them towards material that is not only on the right side, but that is effective rather than strident and bilious.
ocschwar: (Carp)
Troll if I want to..
Troll if I want to..

What do Jim Kunstler, Madeleine Bunting, Chuck Palahniuk, and the morons who try to live his book all have in common?

A grain of truth, which is almost unspeakable, but not unspeakable to Fred Reed.
He of course lays on considerable nonsense of his own. (Do there actually exist women who think "metrosexuals" are desirable?)
ocschwar: (Doggie)
Peak Oil anxiety and Apocalypctic anxiety sure are two great tastes that taste great together. So I must rant, especially since I just did more reading on that era.

Recall that whole Number of the Beast thing? How it's 666 in some manuscripts and 616 in others? Here's a funny thing: you can't casually mess up and change from 666 to 616 if you're spelling it out in Greek words, on papyrus. It has to be on purpose. While you're copying an important manuscript, one that happens to close with For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. That ought to beat any MD5 hash, no? So why on earth would someone change a detail in a letter that says "do not tamper with the contents!" ? Most likely, it's because the change does not count as tampering. A funny little detail of the time is that Nero Caesar, whose rule was crumbling into civil war at the time Revalation was written, was called Neron Caesar by the not-so-Hellenized Jews. In Jewish gematria, "Neron Caesar" (NIRON QISR) adds to 666 and "Nero Caesar" (NIRO QISR) adds to 616. Kind of like taking the King James version and changing "colour" to "color."

Apropos, Rosebud's a sled.

So, semiotically speaking, to us Revalation is a long description of a bunch of signifiers beating bloody hell out of each other, and that does leave room for interpretation, since you really can't tell the players without a scorecard. But at the time the people copying this scroll and passing it around the Empire felt it was important that their readers understand that the Beast is Nero. And since his control of Rome was slipping away, they felt it important that people should know that they should not make public allegiance with Nero, lest they regret it after he goes down hard. But today, you can make up your own scorecard and see how many people will buy it. It's a lucrative market. But I do have to wonder about the people who buy into this kind of stuff.

I mean, never mind the details. If Revalation is an account of the future's End Times, and they really are nigh, then whatever the signifieds are that attach to the battling signifiers, what we are facing is the moment when the Lord says Ahem. It appears I was a little too subtle. And the moment that happens, religion ceases being a matter of faith. You stop believing and start knowing. All responsibility for your actions goes away in a flash. You know pretty damn well what will happen and what you must do about it, because by the closing act you want to be stage right, not stage left. So in essence, free will goes poof.

I'd rather be hit by a bus. Theologically speaking the implications are exactly the same, but handled much more concisely. Let another generation worry about the End Times. I believe it's peace in our time. --ocschwar out.


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