Quotulatiousness

September 2, 2015

Guardian writer: Terry Pratchett was a “mediocrity”

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Jonathan Jones lets all of Terry Pratchett’s fans know that they’re idiots for liking such a mediocre writer of “potboilers”:

It does not matter to me if Terry Pratchett’s final novel is a worthy epitaph or not, or if he wanted it to be pulped by a steamroller. I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to. Life’s too short.

No offence, but Pratchett is so low on my list of books to read before I die that I would have to live a million years before getting round to him. I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary.

I don’t mean to pick on this particular author, except that the huge fuss attending and following his death this year is part of a very disturbing cultural phenomenon. In the age of social media and ebooks, our concept of literary greatness is being blurred beyond recognition. A middlebrow cult of the popular is holding literature to ransom. Thus, if you judge by the emotional outpourings over their deaths, the greatest writers of recent times were Pratchett and Ray Bradbury. There was far less of an internet splurge when Gabriel García Márquez died in 2014 and Günter Grass this spring. Yet they were true titans of the novel. Their books, like all great books, can change your life, your beliefs, your perceptions. Everyone reads trash sometimes, but why are we now pretending, as a culture, that it is the same thing as literature? The two are utterly different.

But, despite never having read a single one, he’s willing to share his amazingly brilliant insight with us ignorant, barely literate troglodytes. What a prince! We should all feel honoured and all that if he’s condescended enough to point out our collective failings, shouldn’t we?

The communal WitchFinder

Filed under: Britain, Media, Politics, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Jonathan Foreman on the social media witch hunt that crashed Tim Hunt’s career and reputation:

In 1983, the British biochemist Timothy Hunt discovered cyclins, a family of proteins that help regulate the life of cells. Eighteen years later, in 2001, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. Between June 8 and June 10 of this year, the 72-year-old Hunt went from being a universally respected and even beloved figure at the top of the scientific establishment to an instant pariah, condemned everywhere for antiquated opinions about women’s role in science that he does not, in fact, hold.

In only 48 hours, he found himself compelled to resign his positions at University College London and at the august Royal Society (where Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke once fought petty battles) after being told that failure to do so would lead to his outright firing.

The Timothy Hunt affair represents more than the gratuitous eye-blink ruination of a great man’s reputation and career. It demonstrates the danger of the extraordinary, almost worshipful deference that academia, government institutions, and above all the mainstream media now accord to social media. It is yet more evidence of the way moral panic and (virtual) mob rule can be accelerated and intensified by the minimalism of Twitter, with its 140-character posts and its apparently inherent tendency to encourage snap judgments, prejudice, and cruelty.

Fortunately, the story did not end on June 10. In the weeks following the initial assault, some of Hunt’s most ardent persecutors have been exposed as liars or blinkered ideologues, abetted by cynical hacks and academic rivals on a quest to bring him down or use him as grist to a political mill. Hunt’s partial rehabilitation has largely come about thanks to the dogged investigations of Louise Mensch, the British novelist and former conservative member of parliament who lives in New York City and is herself a powerful presence on Twitter. Mensch was alarmed by what she calls ‘the ugly combination of bullying and sanctimony” in the reaction to remarks made by “an evidently sweet and kind” older man.

She did some checking on Twitter and soon found that the two main witnesses for the prosecution contradicted each other. Then she began a more thorough investigation of Hunt’s offending comments and the lack of due process involved in his punishment by various academic and media institutions. The results of her exhaustive research, published on her blog, Unfashionista.com, encouraged an existing groundswell of support for Hunt from scientists around the world but most important from Hunt’s own female colleagues and former students.

September 1, 2015

Cultural libertarians

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Allum Bokhari claims to see a rising tide of cultural libertarians in our future:

A new force is emerging in the culture wars. Authoritarians of all stripes, from religious reactionaries to left-wing “social justice warriors,” are coming under fire from a new wave of thinkers, commentators, and new media stars who reject virtually all of their political values.

From the banning of Charlie Hebdo magazine across British university campuses on the grounds that it promoted islamophobia, to the removal of the video game Grand Theft Auto V from major retailers in Australia on the grounds that it promoted sexism, threats to cultural freedom proliferate.

But a growing number of commentators, media personalities and academics reject the arguments that underpin these assaults on free expression, in particular the idea that people are either too emotionally fragile to deal with “offence” or too corruptible to be exposed to dangerous ideas.

In a recent co-authored feature for Breitbart, I coined a term to describe this new trend: cultural libertarianism. The concept was critically discussed by Daniel Pryor at the Centre for a Stateless Society, who drew attention to the increasing viciousness of cultural politics in the internet age.

There is a reason for the sound and fury. Like all insurgent movements, the emergence of cultural libertarianism is creating tensions, border skirmishes, and even the occasional war with lazy incumbent elites. Some of these rows can be breathtakingly vitriolic, as self-righteous anger from social justice types collides with mocking and occasionally caustic humour from cultural libertarians.

August 31, 2015

Ten years later – how the media covered Katrina

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

W. Joseph Campbell describes the media’s role in contributing to — and sometimes inventing — the persistent myths of what happened in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina made land-fall:

I call it the “myth of superlative reporting,” the notion that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught 10 years ago, journalists bravely held powerful officials accountable for their inept responses to a storm blamed for the deaths of 1,800 people.

Dan Rather, the former CBS News anchorman, gave voice to the “myth of superlative reporting,” describing Katrina coverage as “one of the quintessential great moments in television news,” ranking “right there with the Nixon/Kennedy debates, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate coverage, you name it.”

A quintessential great moment is was not.

The reporting of Katrina, as I wrote in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong” in describing horrors the storm supposedly unleashed across New Orleans after making landfall east of the city on August 29, 2005.

Journalists reported snipers firing at medical personnel, I noted. They reported shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center in New Orleans. They told of bodies being stacked like cordwood inside the Convention Center.

News reports also spoke of roving gangs that terrorized occupants of the Louisiana Superdome, where many people had taken shelter. The reports said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

None of those reports, as it turned out, was verified or substantiated.

“If anyone rioted,” said a bipartisan congressional report about Katrina, “it was the media.

“Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false.”

Erroneous and over-the-top reporting, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies.”

Here’s what I wrote ten years ago, based on the media reports coming out of Louisiana:

(more…)

Newspapers in the 21st century – what are they for?

Filed under: Business, Media, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Colby Cosh on the confusion even among newspaper folks themselves on their real role in today’s society:

But the newspaper is part of a different ecosystem now. A front page is a late contribution to an ongoing conversation in a way it was not in 1963, or even 2003. Editors making decisions about what images to use had heard Alison Parker’s screams; they knew many readers had heard them. That non-graphic touch made the photo of Parker with the killer’s weapon in the foreground “graphic” — too graphic for the proverbial breakfast table. (Although I would remind sensitive editors and media critics that the “breakfast table” is an incredibly outmoded way of thinking about our jobs, much like the idea that we are presenting news in a utilitarian, isolated way to readers who haven’t heard it.)

The truth is that the minds of most newspaper creators and editors are not completely clear about what these strange flat objects are good for in the year 2015. The New York Daily News, which does know what it is for, was unflinching in its front-page treatment of the WDBJ shooting. It caught immediate hell, but its confidence in its mission is a virtue. The paper knows that it exists partly because when something happens, New Yorkers can’t wait to see what those crazy-ass bastards in the tabloids will do with it.

Does the newspaper do harm with its relative sensationalism? It seems impossible to know. But it is certainly not the infliction of harm that critics and second-guessers fear most: it is the giving of offence.

QotD: Artistic memories of other futures

Filed under: History, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Two exhibitions in New York this season revisit memories of futures past: Nam June Paik’s “Becoming Robot” (which will be at the Asia Society until January 4) looks to a cybernetics-obsessed midcentury avant-garde, while the Guggenheim’s “Reconstructing the Universe” show of Italian futurist works (which has just closed) documented a movement that, while aesthetically quite distinct from Paik’s, is organized around the same essential vision: man’s aspiring to the condition of machine.

[…]

There are occasionally clever pieces: A seated Buddha contemplates a television-and-camera set-up that contemplates him back, the Buddha and his image on the screen suggesting an infinite feedback loop. A reclining Buddha stretches atop two television screens showing a video of a nude woman reclining in the same position. (Paik very often cuts to the root of the avant-garde sensibility: “How do we get some naked chicks in this?”) His robots are still interesting to look at, some of them primitive mechanical assemblages, some of them televisions and other electronic devices piled together anthropomorphically, though the contemporary commercially made robot toys on display for context are at least as interesting, their nameless creators liberated from such pressures as attend those who understand themselves as artists. Though it should be noted that the makers of the Micronaut robot toys I loved as a child were not entirely immune from the puerile sexual obsessions of the so-called avant-garde: This, for example, was on the market long before anybody ever exclaimed: “Drill, baby, drill!”

The Italian futurists, whose love for machines and violence and the machinery of violence and whose hatred of women would do so much to shape the aesthetics of fascism, foresaw a less sexy future than Paik’s, if one that was no less mechanical: Biplanes soar over the Roman Colosseum, cities are fitted together like clockworks, machinery everywhere is ascendant. By the time Mussolini makes his inevitable appearance, he, too, has been reduced to a piece of artillery, his face simply another item in the Italian arsenal, a big, fleshy cannonball.

One of the purposes of art, high or low, is to make visible the philosophical; the fascist understanding of society as one big factory or one big machine was expressed in futurist art.

Kevin D. Williamson, “Futures Trading: We are no longer thinking about the future because we believe we are there”, National Review, 2014-10-01.

August 30, 2015

The nature, faults, and virtues of Science Fiction according to Robert Heinlein

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The Library of America posted Robert Heinlein’s comments from a lecture series in 1957:

First let us decide what we mean by the term “science fiction” — or at least what we will mean by it here. Anyone wishing a scholarly discussion of the etymology of the term will find one by Sam Moskowitz in the February, 1957 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I shan’t repeat what he has said so well but will summarize for our immediate purposes. The field has existed throughout the history of literature but it used to be called by several names: speculative romance, pseudo-scientific romance (a term that sets a science fiction writer’s teeth on edge), utopian literature, fantasy — or, more frequently, given no name, simply lumped in with all other fiction.

But the term “science fiction” is now part of the language, as common as the neologism “guided missile.” We are stuck with it and I will use it … although personally I prefer the term “speculative fiction” as being more descriptive. I will use these two terms interchangeably, one being the common handle, the other being one that aids me in thinking — but with the same referent in each case.

“Science fiction” means different things to different people. “When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra” — in which case the term science fiction has piled up a lot of expensive overtime. Damon Knight, a distinguished critic in this field, argues that there is no clear distinction between fantasy and science fiction, in which opinion August Derleth seems to agree. I cannot forcefully disagree with their lines of reasoning — but I wonder if they have made their definitions so broad as to include practically all fiction? To define is to limit: a definition cannot be useful unless it limits. Certainly Mickey Spillane’s murder stories could easily be classed as fantasies, as can many or most of the love stories appearing in the big slick magazines. But I feel sure that Mr. Knight and Mr. Derleth did not intend their definitions to be quite that unbounded and in any case my difference of opinion with them is merely a matter of taste and personal convenience.

Theodore Sturgeon, a giant in this field, defines a science fiction story as one in which the story would not exist if it were not for the scientific element — an admirably sharp delimitation but one which seems to me perhaps as uncomfortably tight as the one above seems to me unusefully roomy. It would exclude from the category “science fiction” much of Mr. Sturgeon’s best work, stories which are to my mind speculative rather than fantastic. There are many stories that are lumped into the class “science fiction” in the minds of most people (and in mine) which contain only a detectable trace, or none, of science — for example, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Fritz Leiber’s great short story “Coming Attraction,” Thomas F. Tweed’s novel Gabriel Over the White House. All three stories are of manners and morals; any science in them is merely parsley trimming, not the meat. Yet each is major speculation, not fantasy, and each must be classed as science fiction as the term is commonly used.

Reginald Bretnor, author, editor and acute critic of this field, gives what is to me the most thoughtful, best reasoned, and most useful definition of science fiction. He sees it as a field of literature much broader than that most often termed “main-stream” literature — or “non-science fiction,” if you please — science fiction being that sort in which the author shows awareness of the nature and importance of the human activity known as the scientific method, shows equal awareness of the great body of human knowledge already collected through that activity, and takes into account in his stories the effects and possible future effects on human beings of scientific method and scientific fact. This indispensable three-fold awareness does not limit the science fiction author to stories about science — he need not write a gadget story; indeed a gadget story would not be science fiction under this definition if the author failed in this three-fold awareness. Any subject can be used in a science fiction story under this definition, provided (and indispensably required) that the author has the attitude comprised by the three-fold awareness and further provided that he has and uses appropriately that body of knowledge pertinent to the scope of his story. I have paraphrased in summary Mr. Bretnor’s comments and I hope he will forgive me.

Mr. Bretnor’s definition gives the science fiction author almost unlimited freedom in subject matter while requiring of him high, rigorous, and mature standards in execution.

In contrast to science fiction thus defined, non-science fiction — all other fiction including the most highly acclaimed “literary” novels — at most shows awareness of the by-products of scientific method already in existence. Non-science fiction admits the existence of the automobile, radar, polio vaccine, H-bombs, etc., but refuses to countenance starships and other such frivolities. That is to say, non-science fiction will concede that water is running down hill but refuses to admit that it might ever reach the bottom … or could ever be pumped up again. It is a static attitude, an assumption that what is now forever shall be.

August 29, 2015

We need a new publication called The Journal of Successfully Reproduced Results

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

We depend on scientific studies to provide us with valid information on so many different aspects of life … it’d be nice to know that the results of those studies actually hold up to scrutiny:

One of the bedrock assumptions of science is that for a study’s results to be valid, other researchers should be able to reproduce the study and reach the same conclusions. The ability to successfully reproduce a study and find the same results is, as much as anything, how we know that its findings are true, rather than a one-off result.

This seems obvious, but in practice, a lot more work goes into original studies designed to create interesting conclusions than into the rather less interesting work of reproducing studies that have already been done to see whether their results hold up.

Everyone wants to be part of the effort to identify new and interesting results, not the more mundane (and yet potentially career-endangering) work of reproducing the results of older studies:

Why is psychology research (and, it seems likely, social science research generally) so stuffed with dubious results? Let me suggest three likely reasons:

A bias towards research that is not only new but interesting: An interesting, counterintuitive finding that appears to come from good, solid scientific investigation gets a researcher more media coverage, more attention, more fame both inside and outside of the field. A boring and obvious result, or no result, on the other hand, even if investigated honestly and rigorously, usually does little for a researcher’s reputation. The career path for academic researchers, especially in social science, is paved with interesting but hard to replicate findings. (In a clever way, the Reproducibility Project gets around this issue by coming up with the really interesting result that lots of psychology studies have problems.)

An institutional bias against checking the work of others: This is the flipside of the first factor: Senior social science researchers often actively warn their younger colleagues — who are in many cases the best positioned to check older work—against investigating the work of established members of the field. As one psychology professor from the University of Southern California grouses to the Times, “There’s no doubt replication is important, but it’s often just an attack, a vigilante exercise.”

[…]

Small, unrepresentative sample sizes: In general, social science experiments tend to work with fairly small sample sizes — often just a few dozen people who are meant to stand in for everyone else. Researchers often have a hard time putting together truly representative samples, so they work with subjects they can access, which in a lot of cases means college students.

A couple of years ago, I linked to a story about the problem of using western university students as the default source of your statistical sample for psychological and sociological studies:

A notion that’s popped up several times in the last couple of months is that the easy access to willing test subjects (university students) introduces a strong bias to a lot of the tests, yet until recently the majority of studies disregarded the possibility that their test results were unrepresentative of the general population.

The bad news about good news

Filed under: Economics, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Strategy Page, an explanation for why most people think the world is going to hell, despite the facts pointing in all kinds of positive and hopeful directions:

One of the ironies of the post-Cold War world is that most people get the impression that things are getting worse and worse while for the majority of people on the planet life is getting better. Worldwide poverty and death rates are plummeting while income and reported (via opinion surveys) satisfaction are way up. Many major diseases (like tetanus and polio) have nearly been eliminated and malaria, the disease that has killed more people than any other throughout history, is in decline because of medical advances. War related deaths have been declining since World War II ended in 1945 and that decline continued after the Cold War eliminated most communist governments in 1991. Why do most people think otherwise? You can blame the mass media and their most effective marketing tool; FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).

Mass media first appeared in the mid-19th century with the development of the steam press, which made cheap-enough-to-reach-a-mass-audience newspapers possible. Editors quickly learned that FUD sells best. Politicians, rebels, and even advertisers found that FUD was a very effective tool to grab attention and change attitudes. Put another way, excitement sells, and the best way to excite readers is to scare them.

Modern terrorism, based on using murderous mass attacks on the public to trigger a flurry of media coverage, came out of this. The 19th century anarchists, followed by the Bolsheviks (communists), several fascist movements (like the Nazis), and many others, all used this media proclivity to jump on terrorist acts in order to scare readers into buying more newspapers, or supporting some extremist cause or another. The terrorists got the publicity and attention they wanted, which sometimes led to acquiring political power as well.

Radio appeared in the 1930s and this made it even easier to reach literate as well as illiterate populations. Combining radio and FUD allowed communism and fascism to spread far and fast in the 1930s. The sad fact is that this situation is not unknown among journalists. Many of them have been complaining about it for over a century. No one has been able to come up with a solution. Good news doesn’t sell. And the pursuit of scary headlines that do has created a race to the bottom.

It’s probably rational for mass media outlets to concentrate on the vivid, shocking bad news … because it grabs the attention and sells more newspapers and encourages more people to watch video reports. Good news? Well, it’s nice to hear, but it’s neither urgent nor compelling (except cat videos on YouTube, of course). You might like to hear it, but it’s not urgent and compelling … you can catch up on that anytime. A flood? An earthquake? A breaking story about a hostage situation? You’ll pay attention whether you want to or not. And that sells newspapers and gets ad revenue for networks.

August 28, 2015

Google and the (bullshit) European “right to be forgotten”

Filed under: Europe, Law, Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Techdirt‘s Mike Masnick points and laughs at a self-described consumerist organization’s attempt to force Google to apply EU law to the rest of the world, by way of an FTC complaint:

If you want an understanding of my general philosophy on business and economics, it’s that companies should focus on serving their customers better. That’s it. It’s a very customer-centric view of capitalism. I think companies that screw over their customers and users will have it come back to bite them, and thus it’s a better strategy for everyone if companies focus on providing good products and services to consumers, without screwing them over. And, I’m super supportive of organizations that focus on holding companies’ feet to the fire when they fail to live up to that promise. Consumerist (owned by Consumer Reports) is really fantastic at this kind of thing, for example. Consumer Watchdog, on the other hand, despite its name, appears to have very little to do with actually protecting consumers’ interests. Instead, it seems like some crazy people who absolutely hate Google, and pretend that they’re “protecting” consumers from Google by attacking the company at every opportunity. If Consumer Watchdog actually had relevant points, that might be useful, but nearly every attack on Google is so ridiculous that all it does is make Consumer Watchdog look like a complete joke and undermine whatever credibility the organization might have.

In the past, we’ve covered an anti-Google video that company put out that contained so many factual errors that it was a complete joke (and was later revealed as nothing more than a stunt to sell some books). Then there was the attempt to argue that Gmail was an illegal wiretap. It’s hard to take the organization seriously when it does that kind of thing.

Its latest, however, takes the crazy to new levels. John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s resident “old man yells at cloud” impersonator, recently filed a complaint with the FTC against Google. In it, he not only argues that Google should offer the “Right to be Forgotten” in the US, but says that the failure to do that is an “unfair and deceptive practice.” Really.

As you know by now, since an EU court ruling last year, Google has been forced to enable a right to be forgotten in the EU, in which it will “delink” certain results from the searches on certain names, if the people argue that the links are no longer “relevant.” Some in the EU have been pressing Google to make that “right to be forgotten” global — which Google refuses to do, noting that it would violate the First Amendment in the US and would allow the most restrictive, anti-free speech regime in the world to censor the global internet.

But, apparently John Simpson likes censorship and supporting free speech-destroying regimes. Because he argues Google must allow such censorship in the US. How could Google’s refusal to implement “right to be forgotten” possibly be “deceptive”? Well, in Simpson’s world, it’s because Google presents itself as “being deeply committed to privacy” but then doesn’t abide by a global right to be forgotten. Really.

August 27, 2015

The plight of the Calais migrants

At sp!ked, Brendan O’Neill talks about the situation in Calais between the migrants who want to enter the UK and the government that very much wants them to stay on the other side of the Channel:

What’s worse: treating people like animals or referring to them in animal-like language? Most normal people would say the former. Actions speak louder than words, after all. To treat someone as less than human — by denying them their rights, caging them, beating them — has a direct detrimental impact on their individual autonomy and everyday lives. In contrast, comparing someone to an animal, through your choice of words, is just unpleasant; it doesn’t physically hold that individual back. Sticks and stones can seriously impede our ability to live freely; words can only make us feel bad (if we let them).

Yet in the morally inverted world of political correctness, where speaking in the clipped morals of the new clerisy is the key and hollow duty of every citizen, words are more important than behaviour. You’re judged on how you express yourself, not on what you believe, or what you do. Take Swarmgate, the media fury over British PM David Cameron’s use of the word ‘swarm’ to refer to those few thousand migrants in Calais who long to come to Britain. When Cameron was talking about sending soldiers and barbed wire and dogs to keep these aspirant Brits out of Britain, the self-styled guardians of public decency — the Twitterati, liberal editorialists, Labourites — said little, except perhaps that he should do it more quickly. Yet as soon as he referred to the migrants as a ‘swarm of people’, these Good People became pained: they banged their fists on tables, spilt their tea, went on the telly.

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the inhumanity of political correctness, which bats not one eyelid when 5,000 human beings are reduced to the level of animals, yet which becomes wide-eyed with anger when their animal-like status is mentioned in polite society. ‘Treat them like shit, just don’t use shitty language while you do it’ — that’s the glorious motto of the PC.

Right now, nothing better captures PC’s Kafkaesque levels of dishonesty and censorious linguistic trickery than Swarmgate. This controversy has exposed that many influential people now mistake politeness for morality, linguistic temperance for decency. So it was that Harriet Harman, acting leader of the Labour Party, could go on TV and rail against Cameron for using that s-word and then in her very next breath call on him to do more to prevent these migrants from getting to Britain. ‘He should remember he’s talking about people and not insects’, she said. Then, in mere seconds, without embarrassment, she talked about the ‘nightmare’ of having all these noisy migrants at the English Channel and said Cameron should put pressure on the French to assess ‘these people’ to see which ones ‘should be deported’. Sent back to where they came from, which in some cases is Afghanistan and Iraq: nations Harman’s party helped to destroy.

August 26, 2015

QotD: When “pragmatism” is far from pragmatic

Filed under: Media, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Obama was alluding to FDR’s famous promise (at Oglethorpe University in 1932) to pursue “bold, persistent experimentation” to end the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s vow was itself a homage to the reigning philosophical pose of American liberalism at the time: pragmatism. Self-anointed champions of the “pragmatic method,” the progressives believed they were anti-ideologues, experts and technicians using the most scientifically advanced methods to replace the failed liberal-democratic capitalism of the 19th century. Words like “philosophy,” “dogma,” “principle,” and “ideology” were out, and terms like “progress,” “method,” “action,” “technique,” and “disinterestedness” were in. When Herbert Croly, founder of The New Republic and author of the progressive bible The Promise of American Life, was accused of violating liberal principles when he supported Italy’s great modernizer, Benito Mussolini, Croly replied that the flagship journal of American liberalism was in fact “not an exponent of liberal principles.” Indeed, “if there are any abstract liberal principles, we do not know how to formulate them. Nor if they are formulated by others do we recognize their authority. Liberalism, as we understand it, is an activity.”

This has been the primary disguise of liberalism ever since: “We’re not ideologues, we’re pragmatists! And if only you crazy ideologues” — “market fundamentalists,” “right-wingers,” “zealots,” “dogmatists,” etc. — “would just get out of the way and let us do what all smart people agree is the smart thing to do, we could fix all the problems facing us today.” It’s a variant of the old “scientific socialism” that exonerated the Left from the charge of ideological bias. “We’re not seizing the means of production and these great vacation homes because we want to — it’s science!” The subtext is always clear: People who disagree with liberalism do so because they are deranged, brainwashed, corrupt, selfish, or stupid. In his 1962 Yale commencement address, President Kennedy explained that “political labels and ideological approaches are irrelevant to the solution” of today’s challenges. At a press conference the previous March he had told the country, “Most of the problems … that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems.” And therefore we needed people like him and his Whiz Kids to “deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men.”

“Pragmatism” and “ideology” have themselves become clichés. Liberals are smart and realistic because they do smart and realistic things; smart and realistic things are the things liberals do. Conservatives, meanwhile, are ideologues who don’t live in the reality-based community; the things they do are by definition ideological, because conservatives do them.

Jonah Goldberg, excerpt from The Tyranny of Clichés, published by National Review, 2012-04-22.

August 24, 2015

Lois McMaster Bujold interview from Goodreads

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

I meant to post this while it was still “fresh”, but I don’t think the content of the interview has gone stale:

[Q:] How do your family and friends relate to you and your writing? I imagine they would enjoy a special understanding of your thoughts, feelings, and values from reading your work. For instance, my wife and I have both completed the Vorkosigan saga and I’ve taken to quoting to her, apropos of family matters, “all true wealth is biological”, which benefits from what we’ve both experienced in the novels.

Lois McMaster Bujold
Mm, family is difficult. My parents passed away years ago, my father when my career was only starting. From one comment he made, I gathered that my adult content was a bit dismaying to him; I think that somewhere in his head, I was still twelve. My mother was not a F&SF reader, so while the writing part seemed sort of OK to her, the genre was not something to which she related. “If you want to write, why not try writing for the local paper?” she once inquired, when I was bemoaning my early lack of progress. Leaving aside the rural benightedness of The Marion Star, the noncomprehension of this question seemed profound.

Only one of my brothers is a reader — he does like my stuff, and I think reading it has brought me into focus as a human being for him, rather than a vague fuzzball labeled “little sister”. I gather he found this rather unexpected. (He loved The Curse of Chalion.)

My kids, well, my children are rather opaque to me. Cordelia’s apparent maternal telepathy is the most wish-fulfillment part of the character, from my point of view. My daughter has read at least some of my work, and we relate to each other as adults nowadays, or at least I think we do. My son has never, as far as I know, read any of my fiction. Not sure what to make of that. (I wish he would, for just the reasons you name above, but I can hardly make my books required reading.)

My friends pretty much consist of folks who like my stuff, because there is, after all, a selection process at work there.

Ta, L.

[Q:] Any chance of the story describing the episode “more than a simple assassination” that Miles mentions in A Civil Campaign? Or the one with a tenyearold girl as courier, mentioned in Komarr? Or are they doomed to be unvoiced backstory? Thanks for all the enjoyment you’ve provided already!

Lois McMaster Bujold
I’m afraid those are doomed to stay throw-away lines, along with the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant.

I am now having a vision of an annex to L-Space, somewhere, where all those unused characters and ideas from the whole of literature sit around getting drunk and complaining to each other about how they were robbed of their rightful places in the spotlight…

Ta, L.

August 22, 2015

QotD: The ideology of social justice

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Hayek is working from the assumption that we do and, more important, should live in a free society, in the classical sense. That is the ideological prior conclusion, as it were, from which he launches his attack on the stupidity of social justice. I will stipulate that it is my ideological foundation as well (a shocking revelation, I know). So if you’re a progressive activist for social change and social justice, or for just plain goodness in the Smailsian sense, you are free to respond that the concept of social justice is worthwhile, but in order to do so, you must first concede that you are coming from a specific ideological perspective as well. To say “Social justice requires X” is to say the state is justified in compelling or coercing X.

And that’s the point. Social justice is not a non-ideological concept that simply draws on ethics or morality. No, it is a deeply ideological set of assumptions that most practitioners of social justice refuse to openly and sincerely acknowledge, preferring instead to roll their eyes and proclaim that they are on the side of goodness.

And this is where Hayek (praise be upon him) had it slightly wrong. Social justice isn’t so much a “mirage” as it is a Trojan horse, concealing a much more radical agenda. “Social justice” is a profoundly ideological term, masquerading as a generic term for goodness. In short, it is a tyrannical cliché, a seemingly benign truism that, like a pill with a pleasant protective coating, conceals a mind-altering substance within.

Jonah Goldberg, excerpt from The Tyranny of Clichés, published by National Review, 2012-04-22.

August 21, 2015

QotD: The lack of populism in Canadian politics

Filed under: Cancon, Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

For all the talk we’ve heard in recent years about Canada’s slide into supposedly “American-style” gutter politics, the sort of garish gestures described above are completely unknown north of the border. The Canadian version of a controversial “stunt” involves Stephen Harper sitting down at a piano and playing a pop song. And when Elizabeth May embarrassed herself with her Welcome Back Kotter shtick, most observers responded to this brief spasm of theatricality with stunned mortification and pity.

I suppose the closest thing that the federal Tories have to a controversial populist is Minister of Employment and Social Development Pierre Poilievre, who shocked the Canadian pundit class by, wait for it, conducting a ministerial press conference wearing a golf shirt emblazoned with the Conservative Party logo. His party is so obsessed with milking partisan advantage from their expanded Universal Child Care Benefit that Poilievre actually travelled to a Winnipeg production facility so he could pose for pictures with the freshly printed cheques. The stunt was fantastically grubby. But the least that can be said for it was that the UCCB is an actual component of government policy. Better a printing press, I suppose, than a snowball, a chainsaw, a flame-thrower, or a gun.

As Canadians, we’d like to think that Donald Trumps don’t infect our politics because we are smarter and saner than Americans. But the real reason is structural. Republicans and Democrats elect their presidential candidates through the grass roots, which means that populists do occasionally hijack the process. In our parliamentary system, on the other hand, the major parties are heavily whipped entities obsessed with brand preservation. And the party leaders who go on to become premier or prime minister are selected at convention proceedings closely supervised by risk-averse party grandees. The result is a menagerie of bland, polished, disciplined wonks and career politicians such as Stephen Harper, Christy Clark, Rachel Notley, and Kathleen Wynne. (It’s no coincidence that the most interesting and thoroughly disgraced politician in modern Canadian history, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, existed completely outside the party system.)

Most Republicans are appalled by Donald Trump, and rightly so: His comments about Mexico’s supposed criminal hordes only encourage the GOP’s reputation as a party for ageing white nativists. But his fifteen minutes of fame highlight the degree to which Americans trust ordinary yahoos to pick the person to run their country. It’s a right that our own yahoos will never ever have.

Jonathan Kay, “A Land Without Trump”, The Walrus, 2015-07-28.

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