Thursday, March 10, 2005

Move On

Today I attended a MoveOn meeting. I was somewhat disappointed, though it was a good opportunity to meet people.
I arrived as the earliest person. As people trickled in, I found I was the only person below 20 in the room. This isn't new to me, of course, but it is infuriating to see how little privileged college students care about the world that subsidizes them.
Harry Reid, Senator from Nevada and minority whip, came on and began to rally the troops. He said that the Democrats simply sought to "discuss at length" when they tried to filibuster. A filibuster is never taken seriously; that's why Huey Long read the phone book. The point is that it forces debate and does not allow a bill to be voted on. If a bill can be blocked for long enough, it becomes such a harassment that the backers of the bill are forced to make compromises. It's a way for a large minority to hold back a small majority on important issues, and it's entirely appropriate when used in a limited manner, but it's not a matter of discussion.
We then heard from Howard Dean, MoveOn members, etc. A MoveOn head honcho said that our work was like a "revolution". And that brings me to my most serious objection.
MoveOn's work is important, but its commitment extends to once a month doing things like calling representatives. It seems like very little actual street-pounding or direct action is called for, simply the most reformist of reformists... Maybe that's why Howard Dean got pummeled by traditional corporate candidates.
Whatever you think, calling your representative isn't a revolution.
So I'm going to stick with working in such a group, but frankly, I'm going to continue my own work elsewhere and hope members of my team come along.

And, Something Disgusting,0,7971675.story?coll=sfla-news-fringe
Read it. Done reading it? Good. Now vomit. Done with that? Good.
Now, if I were a dumb liberal intellectual, I may moan about how bad of a movie Van Wilder is. Me personally, I thought Van Wilder was hilarious, though the semen part of it didn't do it for me (too much of a disgusting prank gag for me). But since I'm a radical, what drew me was this: "They said the 17-year-old Coeur d'Alene High School student was upset after a prank in which the other student put peanut butter in his cheese sandwich days before. He told a school resource officer that "he hated peanut butter and it made him more mad than he could explain," according to the police report."
In other words, this disgusting and potentially dangerous prank was in response to a mildly disgusting and completely innocuous one. I'd be willing to bet 2 bucks that said kid was a relatively privileged white kid. After all, it is Idaho. Further, according to, "As of the census of 2000, there are 34,514 people, 13,985 households, and 8,852 families residing in the city. The population density is 1,014.9/km². There are 14,929 housing units at an average density of 439.0/km². The racial makeup of the city is 95.80% White, 0.22% African American, 0.77% Native American, 0.61% Asian, 0.09% Pacific Islander, 0.63% from other races, and 1.88% from two or more races. 2.70% of the population are Hispanic or Latino of any race." So I'm 96% likely to guess right.
Why is this important? It's been noticed that there's a lot of difficulties with stress in white communities. Despite absolute levels of stress being lower (i.e. the kid ain't in the ghetto, though the community ain't doing too well, "The median income for a household in the city is $33,001, and the median income for a family is $39,491. Males have a median income of $31,915 versus $21,092 for females. The per capita income for the city is $17,454."), RELATIVE levels of stress are higher precisely because white kids are sheltered and don't learn to cope with stress. So, if someone pisses them off, they go out and shoot up schools: Hence most of the school shooters being white. They go out and commit dangerous pranks and even crimes.

Response to RickyLoo

I thought this was good enough to warrant putting it here.
Ricky Loo asked:
"Last night I was thinking about this question:
Are all living things evolving to a more intelligent state?
Thought it was sort of on topic."
My response:
It depends on what you mean.
Are we living beings? By any biologist's definition of living, yes.
Are we physiologically evolving? Not really. There's a few key reasons. We're most played out biologically. To increase intelligence typically involves increasing the size of the head and brain relative to the body. Already, the large human head is what causes most of the pain of childbirth. Furthermore, there's no biological incentive to evolve. There's nothing that's needed to break punctuated equilibrium (that is, the state of relative stasis that goes on for hundreds of thousands of years or more before a very brief period of very rapid change): no geographical isolation, no crisis-impetus to evolve, etc. etc.
Are we evolving spiritually? Individuals certainly are; some people achieve mastery of innate spiritual, creative, physical, what have you ability. The human body continues to amaze scientists: When analysis is done of the physics behind such "mundane" activities as baseball or football, scientists are amazed by the incredible complexity involved in the motions and in the control over the motion by, say, the pitcher and the batter. Consider: The exercise of baseball is to play with rapid moving, powerful forces. A baseball is accelerated through sheer muscular force; a baseball is struck by a long object, with all that momentum turned back and possibly increased by upper body strength combined with torque generated by the hips and legs; and a baseball is caught by catchers who learn to hold their arms with the precise combination of rigidity and give.
However, on a macro-human or broad societal level, while I personally believe that there are promising gains and that the general trend is towards justice, that is only my parochial belief. To justify it would require analyzing so many different complex strands that I think it may be impossible to satisfactorily do. There is one thing I can confidently say: Humankind can generate Buddha, Jesus and Gandhi, as well as Hitler, Stalin and the mad bombers who killed untold numbers of people in Vietnam, as well as Bush, Clinton and Jerry Falwell. On one level, perhaps we can use genetic engineering to enhance all people to new levels of ability; but this will not be rooted in justice if it is not equally available to all. On another level, the institutions we design, the science and discoveries we create, etc. all strongly order our possibilities and offer us abilities beyond our wildest dreams. Mathematicians say that more good math has been done in the last fifty years than in all human civilization. Breakthroughs in science are allowing us to understand seemingly the very fabric of creation while simultaneously telling us how incredibly complex and unique everything from a butterfly to a person to a star is. Unfortunately, we are beginning to hit limits. To be able to specialize to the degree necessary to make further advancement is to sacrifice a lot, and the intrinsic blockages are beginning to be daunting.
Once, Noam Chomsky pointed out that we have to believe that a new world is possible because, if we are wrong, no one will be around to tell us that we're wrong. I think that's the vein to take your question.

A Flaw of Reasoning in the Original Matrix

The original Matrix was a masterpiece of cyber-punk action and philosophy, but there's one argument in it that I think appears in Ishmael as well. It is the argument that humankind is like a virus or a disease biologically, and is not mammalian. There are four fundamental flaws with this reasoning.

1) The definition of an organism that expands endlessly is not necessarily mutually exclusive with a mammal. The word mammal is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as, "Any of various warm-blooded vertebrate animals of the class Mammalia, including humans, characterized by a covering of hair on the skin and, in the female, milk-producing mammary glands for nourishing the young." That could include an animal that expands and consumes endlessly.

2) Anyone who has had rabbits, dogs, cats, etc. knows that animals, especially not mammals, do not "instinctually" arrive at equilibrium with their environment; that is, there is no innate programming that makes them do so. Rather, they fuck a lot and eat a lot, and other things eat them or kill them (other animals, extraordinary weather conditions, a lack of food, etc). Humans simply have worked out how to defer the costs of not being at equilibrium for quite some time.

3) Viruses also arrive at some form of equilibrium. A virus that kills its host is not evolutionarily successful: it does not continue on in a desirable fashion, but dies with its host. Viruses thus breed themselves to success by REDUCING their virulence, not increasing it.

4) The implication that this is somehow bad and disgusting is an anthropomorphic ethical leap. To be a disease might be positively good; it sure isn't a prima facia logical condition that it is bad.

Ripples of Change

A worthwhile comment by Mahir Ali:

"IT IS not hard to discern the equivalent of a spring in the step in the recent output of the commentators and analysts who either supported the American aggression against Iraq, or criticized it desultorily only after they saw it developing into a what looked like an unmitigated disaster. Through the nearly two years of bomb blasts and bloodshed, many of them kept their eyes trained on the unrelieved gloom of the clouds overhead. Their motivated patience has lately been rewarded: they have espied a silver lining.

Many of them were never quite convinced by the argument (even while offering it themselves) that the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime - which was undeniably brutal but possessed no weapons of mass destruction, had no links with Osama bin Laden’s outfit, and posed no military threat even to its neighbours let alone to any Western power - was sufficient justification for a war that claimed casualties in the hundreds of thousands and destroyed what remained of Iraq’s infrastructure. The war of attrition that followed the invasion, the indiscriminate assaults on population centres such as Najaf and Fallujah, the sordid tales of what went on at Abu Ghraib and so many other detention centres, inclined some of them towards questioning their own enthusiasm for the new century’s first major conflict.

Lately, however, a seemingly propitious set of circumstances has persuaded them to renew their faith in the foresight of the neo-conservatives who accompanied George W. Bush into power in 2001, and whose influence in Washington has grown with the advent of his second administration. After all, didn’t these neo-cons claim that all they wanted was to spread democracy (never mind the fact that the in the documents they produced, they seldom bothered to disguise their hegemonistic intent)? And aren’t there signs that a wave of democracy is about to crash through the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt and beyond, taking its cue from the elections in Iraq?

So, even if the attack on Iraq violated international law and the elaborate excuses offered for it were largely fictitious, hasn’t some good come of it after all?

Well, there can be little question that the Middle East could do with a lot more democracy - provided the dispensation translates into high levels of popular participation and representation, rather than ersatz electoral exercises designed to replace one set of oligarchs with another, chiefly on the basis that the latter are expected to be more sensitive to Washington’s whims.

One doesn’t have to be embedded in a conservative American think tank to recognize that the region is awash with mediocre despots, and that large numbers of Arabs are hungry for change. Almost none of them, however, would be willing to countenance a fraction of the price paid by Iraqis for the privilege of regime change. Besides, the fate of Iraq isn’t the only reason for being wary of US motives and designs. Even a perfunctory glance at 20th-century Middle Eastern history serves as a reminder that some of the least defensible Arab regimes have owed their longevity, if not their very existence, to crutches made in the USA.

Let bygones be bygones, argue some of the apologists; Washington’s record in the region is indeed murky, but now behold the new, improved United States, the harbinger of democracy and liberal virtues.

Even if this illusion had some basis in fact, there would be cause to question the American method of exporting these ideals. But the fact is that liberal values are under attack in the US itself - a phenomenon witnessed under every recent Republican administration, although this time around it has adopted a more virulent form than during the Nixon or Reagan years. And democracy has suffered setbacks across many of the nations involved in the assault on Iraq, where governments either symbolically or more substantially contributed to the neo-con project in the face of overwhelming popular disapproval.

What’s more, double standards are still rife in the Middle East. There’s Israel, of course - a systematic violator of human rights that ignores UN resolutions with impunity, sanctions terrorist attacks on foreign soil and almost certainly harbours arsenals of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, yet rarely attracts anything other than love letters (and unlimited largesse) from Washington. But even if Israel is left out of the equation, it would be impossible to claim with an iota of credibility that the US is even-handed in its regional approach. To take but one instance, Iran and Syria have been branded outposts of tyranny. However, even those inclined to accept that description, perhaps with a quibble here and a tiny reservation there, are left wondering why the most repressive and regressive state in the region is conspicuously spared such epithets, while a paltry degree of participation in virtually meaningless Saudi municipal polls is hailed as a symbolically significant concession.

This isn’t the only strand of hypocrisy. And there is particular cause for alarm when it finds expression unwittingly. When George W. Bush declared last week, “I don’t think you can have fair elections [in Lebanon] with Syrian troops there”, what are the chances that he paused even momentarily to wonder why that should be so, given that in his view it’s clearly possible to hold fair, free and groundbreaking elections in Iraq amid a vastly larger US military presence?

But then, perhaps that’s an unfair question. If Bush were capable of sorting such matters out in his head, chances are he wouldn’t have revelled in his role as chief recruitment officer for all manner of Islamists terrorists. It is nonetheless somewhat strange to hear the strongest demands for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon coming from the only two countries with occupation forces on Arab lands: the US and Israel.

However, notwithstanding this shameless display of pharisaism, conditions within Lebanon appear to suggest that if a Syrian military role in that country was ever necessary or desirable, that is no longer the case. Locally, the movement for a withdrawal gained momentum following the unfortunate assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut on February 14th. The US and Israel immediately pointed their fingers at Damascus, and large numbers of Lebanese appeared to concur, despite the absence of any evidence implicating Syria in the crime.

Although Hariri resigned as head of government last October in protest against Syrian interference and may have been instrumental in instigating the much-cited UN Security Council resolution calling for a withdrawal (albeit without naming Syria), he wasn’t on exceptionally bad terms with the government of Bashar Al Assad. At the same time, it is hard to believe anyone in Damascus could have been in any doubt about what such a spectacular “hit” on the streets of Beirut would portend for Syria. It is not inconceivable, of course, that some wing of Syrian military intelligence hatched the plot without referring it to the government - and, if so, it has done its nation a monumental disservice. But there are other suspects who may have had a clearer motive not so much for targeting Hariri in particular, but for sparking unrest in Lebanon and, perhaps, destabilising Syria. It has been suggested that Iraqi insurgents may have hoped to widen the war by embroiling Syria. Again, that’s not impossible, but it seems a bit far-fetched; besides, the operation required a sophistication of which such perpetrators are unlikely to be capable. It is equally unlikely that any US agency would risk direct involvement in such a deed. Israel, on the other hand, had even more to gain than the US from an event that would inexorably increase pressure on its Syrian foe, and in the longer term may even lead to a loss of sponsorship for the Hizbollah militia - the only Arab force to have inflicted defeat on the Israeli army. And Mossad has considerable experience in targeted assassinations.

But that doesn’t add up to proof of culpability: it’s only speculation, and it must be hoped that an independent international investigation will nail the culprits.

Despite having presided over a deeply flawed administration, Hariri is associated in the popular view with Lebanon’s reconstruction, however lopsided, following the dastardly 1975-90 civil war. His death, it is said, could lead to a more profound Lebanese rebirth. Last week the protests in Beirut forced the resignation of Omar Karami’s pro-Syrian government. At the weekend, Assad announced the pullback of Syria’s 14,000 troops; although the US State Department reacted with characteristic impetuosity, almost everyone else heaved a sigh of relief.

Assad has invariably gone out of his way to placate American concerns, while at the same time trying not to antagonize the so-called hardliners in his government, whose mindset probably harks back to the days of a more radical Syria. Like almost every other Arab state, the country cries out for reform and rejuvenation. But the consequences of external coercion could prove unpalatable for everyone. The impetus for change must come from within, and Syrians alone must decide the shape it takes.

That holds true also for all other countries in the region, from Iran to Sudan. And although it must be hoped that democratisation will gather momentum, on present evidence - a passing nod to pluralism from Hosni Mubarak, limited franchise local polls in Saudi Arabia, minor concessions in other Gulf states, the inconclusive “cedar revolution” in Lebanon - the region is experiencing ripples of change rather than a tsunami. One could argue endlessly over the precise correlation between each ripple and developments in Baghdad, but even the wholesale relegation of despotism within the next few years wouldn’t add up to post hoc justification of Iraq’s devastation. Nothing can change the fact that the war was a criminal act. And wishful thinking alone cannot transform a silver lining into a rainbow."

To add onto that: Even if, after an illegal and unjust colonial war designed to install a puppet regime, there are some kinds of moves in the region to democracy, that doesn't imply any kind of causal link between the war and the democratic effects. After all, the Middle East has had its share of recent democratic reform governments. Further, if these attempts accidentally lead to peace/democracy, that's essentially picking up after our mess, and that's not something that should be applauded in adult affairs. It's amazing how intellectuals consider it to be some kind of saintly moralism when tepid, ambiguous and destructive moves lead to events that could have happened far earlier and more drastically given any kind of real concern.

(Article is available at

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Conservatism: A Bundle of Contradictions Wrapped in Golden Wire.

Conservatism as an ideology long ago lost the credibility it had earned. Like a tree rotting from the inside, only recently has its long-time rot become clear.. Conservatives like to argue that they are “reasonable” and “realistic”, yet their arguments are riddled with internal contradictions, putting aside their lack of empirical basis. Further, they accuse the Left of most of the things they actually do in practice.

Even this claim of “reasonability” and “realism” is in stark contrast with conservative behavior and ideology. When the issue is the continued institutional oppression of minorities or support for dictators and anti-democratic forces, conservative forces argue that we must be prudent and pragmatic, sticking to simple cost-benefit analysis. Yet when the issue is abortion or affirmative action or intervention abroad, suddenly cost-benefit analysis is discarded and we are told that a strong government role is needed to stop immoral behavior irrespective of any other considerations.

Conservatives also betray a lack of commitment to “realism” in their own rhetoric. Bush's foreign policy is compared to Wilsonian idealism, an ideology rhetorically committed to “freedom” whatever the cost. (The substantive character of that freedom is a different question for a different day). The idea that massive force can be used to adjust an entire country to a particular economic and political system despite complex issues in the region smacks of idealism, yet elsewhere, conservatives wholeheartedly advocate Morgenthau's international conception. When the behavior of enemy states are viewed, the concept of irrational “rogue nations” is openly discussed; yet the implication of non-rational states on their favored international framework or the idea that this conception might also apply at home is considered so absurd as to require no refutation or analysis.

Conservatives say that Marxism is a failed ideology and that it focuses too much on the economy, yet their blustery claims that “the market” will solve everything from racial and gender inequity to ecological devastation smacks of the worst form of Marxist economism.
Conservativism wants “government out of our lives”, except when “we” are gay, drug users, black, pregnant women, or anybody who the state has labeled “terrorist”.

Conservatism speaks of deregulation of industry yet puts into place decency restrictions on media that carry penalties far beyond any lesser crime such as defrauding innocents for billions of dollars or destroying coral reefs and thus threatening the food supply for billions.

Conservatives want to reduce subsidies yet support increased Pentagon budgets, the leading form of state intervention in the economy.

Conservatives complain about too high of taxes, yet complain loudly about the inefficacy of government and how things are falling apart when the money that's not there doesn't get where it needs to be. They support lower taxes yet pay through the ears for prisons and defense.

Conservatives say that there is no class or race war, yet their own dialogue is filled with references, often not-so-subtle, to the “underclass” and the “cultural” problems of blacks. They can simultaneously proclaim “The End of Racism” and then make a book founded on the idea that blacks are genetically inferior a best-seller. They can even buy that book, The Bell Curve, in complete disregard for the fact that its own author ten years earlier eschewed any genetic analysis and focused on cultural issues.

Conservatives can say “Blacks [or the poor, or women] have it so good in this country.”, yet if someone says, “We have far lower tax rates than Europe”, conservatives will be the first to spew vitriol about how one should view a society based on its policies and not look abroad for relative conditions. Were someone to say “The rich have it so good in this country, look at Sweden.”, conservatives would shit a brick, yet when blacks have the same response, it is viewed as another reason why their opponents are “too emotional”.

Conservatives view themselves as detached observers, yet they are perfectly willing to make death threats in a way few liberals or radicals do.

Conservatives stake out a position on the rights of fetuses that is absolute... until Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's may be cured or explored through fetal stem cell research.
What's truly interesting about the conservative movement is the basic assumption political scholarship has. The Democrats are a coalition, the Republicans speak with one voice. Yet the Republican party contains civil libertarians and unabashed religious fundamentalist statists, Pat Buchanan-style isolationists and Zalmay Khalilzad-style rabid unilateral interventionists, people who profess God first and people who profess America first, big business and small business, and those who want power back to the states and those who want more power for the federal government, while the Democrats have people who are at least alike in that most of them suffer from some sort of oppression (aside from the powerful corporate constituency in the party). The gays, blacks and minorities, workers and women who comprise the grassroots Democratic support have common class interests of some kind, whereas in the Republican party there are people arguing for diametrically opposite things. But the Republicans manage to form a unified front in doctrine, by appealing to an idyllic 50s America and by constructing some kind of unified concept of a liberal conspiracy to destroy the cherished institutions of society.

Further, the right's audacity in their accusations about the left is amazing considering their own outlooks.

The Right accuses the Left of accomodation towards fascism, ignoring that the earliest and most committed fighters against fascism were precisely members of the left: liberals, Communists, and (most especially) anarchists in Spain, the socialists in Germany, etc. Further, the left was fighting the Fascists precisely at the time that FDR and Texaco, among others, were going out of their way to support fascists. Not only was the left fighting the fascists before the full breakout of war, the partisans and resistance movements were also overwhelmingly leftist and thus had to be blocked by American power after the war (which included reviving the Mafia and supporting fascist elements). “Fascism is corporatism”, to use Mussolini's phrase, and is fundamentally a rightist ideology, typically associated with the type of racism that characterizes the right. To paraphrase Huey Long, fascism has come to this country wrapped in an American flag, as it always does.

The right even has the audacity to argue that fascism was an anti-capitalist ideology and to imply that this discredits the left. They point out that Nazism was “National Socialism”, but the fascists also claimed to be democratic, as did the Soviet Union, yet none of these hacks argue against democracy based on their own logic. Yes, fascism included anti-capitalist sentiment, but it was viciously anti-Communist and, as a matter of practice, used racism and anti-capitalist tendencies to reify a disgusting form of state capitalism.

The right accuses the left of being jingoist and ignoring the benefits of international integration as relates to the economy, yet when it comes to internationalism in the political sphere, we are suddenly anti-American and want the UN to rule the country. To paraphrase Chomsky, it's not like the word “international” is alien to the left's history. They seem to think that critiquing the “Third World kleptocracies” and the corrupt states in the UN is somehow relevant, even though all the left is doing is applying the right's own critique honestly to the state that they happen to live in, whereas the right closes their eyes and pretends that the US is somehow historically unique. Further, when we say that it's necessary to comply with the law insofar as is sane, we are accused of suicidally tying America's hands, yet when we critique domestic law, suddenly we are told that no matter what we think, it's the law. (Of course, we're often critiquing illegal things happening here that are being done in the name of the law, and these rightists ignore that violating international treaties is a violation of domestic law as well given the Constitution). If we argue that the US eagerly supported and planted these Third World corrupt countries and corrupt institutions in the industrialized countries, we are ranting lunatics, yet the right thinks nothing of making infinitely more maniacal claims about the Communists or the Muslims or whoever.

The right accuses the left of being reductivist in focusing on US crimes, yet they think nothing of finding conspiracies emanating from the UN or (in terms of historical discussion) from the Soviet Union, even though the latter claims are uncontroversially less initially plausible and less morally relevant.

The right argues that the left has been “disproven” by the many flaws in the Soviet Union, yet they ignore that people like Orwell were courageously confronting the Soviet Union despite being committed libertarian socialists far before the right. They ignore that Bakunin, Luxembourg, Goldman, etc. were attacking Leninist-style “vanguard party” politics far more cogently and completely than rightists. Further, the implication that one experiment that may have been ostensibly socialist failed is blown far out of proportion, but the implication that hundreds of experiments with various rightist insanities have ended in disaster is brushed aside.
The right accuses the left of supporting massive bureaucracy, ignoring that the left critiques bureaucracy and technocrats far more consistently than rightists do, and also ignoring the severe bureaucratic elements of their favored institutions (corporations, the military, etc.)
The right accuses the left of ignoring national security, yet when leftists point out that the Pentagon wastes money like Paris Hilton, we are accused of being paranoid and seeking to find conspiracies, despite the fact that such claims, if they are true, would indicate a commitment to national security that is far more reaching than the rightists.

I can continue on like this almost endlessly. On seemingly every issue, not only is the right flatly wrong, but they also ignore that elsewhere they are making claims that are the direct opposite of what they said in another arena. In the case of the activists on the ground, I think this is a matter of not having thought through the issues. Further, I think that there are many worthwhile things to analyze from a relatively conservative perspective, and that conservativism can bring something to the table. My aim has not been to caricature the right or the people in it (except for the leadership, who I think are perfectly aware of their contradictions and audaciously cover them up), but to sketch the outline of a movement that is beginning to show its own internal conflict. When I went to Christmas dinner with family, my conservative grandpa spent a good amount of time decrying the takeover of his party by Christian fundamentalists. There will be a reckoning in the right, and it is up to the left to support the more reasonable members of the right against their increasingly fascist former brethren.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Police State Counter: 70%.

A scary comment on our democracy from""It's truly amazing", [Senator Henry] Waxman said, "that so many people still think that this place is on the level". He explained that ever since the Republicans gained the maioritv in the House in 1994. the House leadership had been changing Rules -- eliminating the possibility of debate when one of their own bills comes to the floor for a vote, routinely giving the Democrats as little as twelve hours to read 800 pages of small and treacherous print. No Democrats were invited to the House and Senate conference considering last year's intelligence bill; nor were any Democrats allowed to propose an amendment to the medical prescription bill. Congressional requests for information from the executive agencies of government -- from the Pentagon about the cost of weapons, from the Justice Department with regard to its policies on torture and the detention of "enemy combatants" -- may or may not receive the courtesy of a reply. In the absence of answers to their questions, Congressional Democrats lately have been forced to file lawsuits in order to discover how the government for which they're held responsible conducts itself behind soundproofed doors.As an instance of the strong-arm methods deployed by the Republican leadership in the House, also of the majority's contempt for the due process of law, Nancy Pelosi mentioned the new rule, passed with no chance of amendment on the first day of the 109th Congress, that rendered meaningless the name and purpose of the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct. Evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, the Committee henceforth will investigate no charge of moral or financial wrongdoing unless at least one of the Republicans present provides the enabling vote, an event as unlikely as a descent on Washington by the armies of Napoleon."

To be fair, the Democrats have run their share of tight ships and even tighter key subcommittees, but I think there's something qualitatively new here in terms of the sheer audacity of the neo-cons...

Iron Chef America SE107 This Weekend

The second Morimoto match is on Sunday on the Food Network, and frankly, I want Morimoto to wail on Roberto Donna. Bobby Flay has gone 2-1, pummeling Armstrong and triumphing over Bayless (but being humiliated by Ming Tsai... understandably given that it was a Duck battle against an Asian chef who had 6 years of experience going his direction). Mario, my favored star, is 2-0. What's been even more amazing about Mario's performance is that he has won in Spiny Lobster v. Morimoto, in Catfish v. Trevino, and in Chocolate and Coconut v. Laiskonis. The latter victory was incredible not just because of the wide berth that Mario swept through the scores, but because Mario doesn't use chocolate or coconut that often (or, for that matter, Catfish). Frankly, Mario's chocolate churros with the hot chocolate sauce made me dream chocolate, and his duck bisteeya (Egg McMuffin on steroids) looked positively orgasmic. Meanwhile, Morimoto is... 1-2. He lost to Mario, won against Mario and Sakai in the Tag Team match, and lost a completely illegit battle v. Robert Feenie (lots of Bobs/Roberts, eh?) How can I say it's completely illegitimate if it's a fundamentally subjective scoring structure?Each Iron Chef is graded 10 points for taste, 5 points for creativity, and 5 points for plating from 3 judges. That amounts to 60 points. The end score was 45 to 39, with Feenie scoring 19 Taste/13 Plating/13 Originality and Morimoto scoring 18 Taste/12 Plating/9 Originality. I want you to focus on 9 Originality for just a moment. (You may also notice that two world class chefs are both scoring in the C to D range, but that's covered in my previous entries on how spoiled Americans are). Let me list the five dishes offered by each chef.Morimoto:Crab consomee gelee filled into a charentais melon.A positively seductive and respledant buttermilk crab croquette.Crab fondue with crab naan bread. Let me repeat that: A fondue with crab in it, with Indian-style naan baked with crab inside of it. Made in an hour. Goddamn incredible.Black pepper-infused crab meat served in a crab shell.Crab fried rice with a baked crab miso on a wooden spoon and with a broth.Feenie:Two crab maki rolls, one with tuna/mango/cucumber and one with smoked salmon/cucumber/mango, with a creme fraiche/uzu and a mustard/soy/sherry vinegar sauce.Sablefish and dungeness crab in a tom yum broth.Lump crabmeat ravioli with a reduced blue crab sauce and a white truffle sauce.Roasted veal loin with a lump crabmeat hollandaise and mushrooms, that was admitted to be a very basic surf and turf presentation and also to be not the best as showcasing the crab.A peekytoe crab panna cotta.All right. The fucking crab naan fondue alone beats out three of Feenie's dishes in creativity combined, and when you add in a crab consomee gelee (as a first dish, nonetheless), miso paste baked on a wooden spoon, and black pepper crab plated with a foam-like sauce, you have a clear victory in that category. The only thing characterizing Feenie's plating was saucing: he used no special bowls (like Morimoto's Asian fondue bowl and his melon to hold the gelee). At worst, Morimoto should have won by 1 point in plating (or perhaps tied), lost the 1 point he did lose in taste, and won by 2 points in creativity. Instead, he lost in every category. At the very least, he did not deserve to lose by the WIDEST margin in creativity.I'm willing to bet, given what I've seen, that this upcoming battle is scallops or some similar type of sea food, so GO MORIMOTO! Show gaijin pigs what you're really made of!

And, Speaking Of...

A beautiful September 2003 Tim Wise article, available in its original form at"Overclass Blues: Reflections on the Ironies of Privilege By Tim Wise The first word of this article’s title does not exist according to the spell check program on my computer and the dictionary on my desk. Underclass? Yes, both sources recognize and can define that term. Yet neither acknowledges that any word with the prefix “under” is by definition relative, and that there must be an “over” with which it can be contrasted. As such, while Webster’s informs us that the underclass refers to those who are “below subsistence level” in terms of income (we used to call them poor), they don’t seem to think that if those with too little constitute an underclass, perhaps those with too much constitute an overclass. This is likely because there is no such thing as “too much” in the U.S., where excess is applauded and sought out with reckless abandon. The underclass, social scientists tell us, is made up not merely of the poor, but those trapped in a cycle of poverty, pathology, addiction and dependence, particularly on welfare programs, drugs, or both. They are to be pitied, perhaps, feared always, regulated and controlled to be sure. The underclass supposedly have different values than the rest of us: they live for the moment (this is called having a “short-term orientation”); they engage in destructive behaviors at alarming rates (things like substance abuse, violence or other criminal endeavors); they take a lackadaisical attitude towards school; they don’t want to work hard and prefer government handouts to honest labor; their families are a tangle of dysfunction. Yet many of these things are quite common, not only among those struggling to survive, but also among those who don’t struggle for much of anything; those who, if our dictionaries reflected basic intellectual honesty, would be called the overclass: those of privilege in the upper echelons of the nation’s class structure. The wealthy and specifically their corporations rely heavily on government handouts--subsidies totaling more than $100 billion annually: far more than all the money spent on poor folks. Without these taxpayer-funded gifts, these companies and entire industries would not be able to remain competitive in the so-called free market, the meaning of which apparently means “free money,” at least for them. As for laziness and an aversion to work, one really can’t find better examples of that than among the rich heirs to family fortunes: take Paris and Nicki Hilton for example, whose paparazzi-covered lives seem to consist of nothing but one party after another, interrupted occasionally by a seemingly low-stress photo shoot. Poor folks who don’t work are parasites; rich people who don’t work are cover story material for glamour magazines. More broadly, the wealthiest Americans get at least half of their income not from work at all, but from the money they already have, in the form of rent, dividends and interest payments. Yet few people would be willing to suggest the obvious: namely, that these folks are less hard-working by definition, than the typical waitress, hospital orderly, housekeeper, garbage man or even mother on “welfare,” trying to keep a roof over the heads of herself and her kids. As for short-term orientations, what could be more short-term than a corporation’s quarterly profit and loss statement, and the mindset that places short-term profits ahead of long-term fiscal stability? bust, anyone? That sure as hell wasn’t underclass twenty-something youth from the so-called ghetto setting up sweetheart compensation packages and golden parachutes for themselves, without regard for a long-range business plan. Short-term orientation is supposedly why the poor squander money on lottery tickets, preferring the long-shot opportunity of striking it rich to the daily grind of steady employment. But when William Bennett blows several million dollars in casinos it’s just a hobby, passing the time, or entertainment, not viewed as evidence of a flawed value system. The fact that the wealthy who gamble could spend their money feeding hungry people instead of amusing themselves at slot machines is not apparently proof of their narcissism, but if the poor engage in the same behavior, they are viewed as “different” than the rich, rather than mimicking them. Likewise, if the rich gamble with other people’s money via speculative investments, junk bonds, Savings and Loan rip-off schemes or shady accounting a la Enron, this is not seen as evidence of a class flaw, and it isn’t usually punished nearly as harshly as the typical food stamp fraudster. As for devaluing education, wasn’t it President Bush--he of the privileged prep-school and Yale set--who bragged to graduates of his alma mater that he had been a C student, and that there was nothing wrong with such mediocrity? Destructive behavior? Well let’s see: it isn’t the poor who start wars, incinerate cities, or pollute the environment with toxic waste. It is those with power--by definition not the “underclass”--who develop weapons of mass destruction, or impose deadly sanctions on countries they don’t like. Even closer to home, the well-off engage in more than their fair share of destructive activity. Suburban schools have higher rates of violent and property crime annually than urban schools according to the Departments of Education and Justice, even though the former tend to be doubly privileged: mostly white and mostly affluent. Whites (the group with racial privilege in the U.S.) are far more likely to drive drunk, have a rate of child molestation and sexual violence against children that is 75 percent higher than that for blacks, and are equally or more likely to use drugs than blacks or Latinos. In fact, white high schoolers are more likely to use every category of drug than blacks. It also isn’t poor folks of color creating computer viruses that have caused over $65 billion in damages worldwide, but almost always upper middle class white suburbanites. Yet, as a recent AP story on the latest Internet meltdown noted, criminal prosecutions of the hi-tech thugs wreaking all this havoc are few, penalties are minimal and only a few people have been imprisoned for such behavior. Interesting, considering how utterly premeditated virus creation is--far more so than typical street violence, which regularly lands its perpetrators in jail for long stretches, even when the damage is miniscule by comparison. Our unwillingness to label destructive behaviors by whites and those in the upper classes as a character flaw typical of the group as a whole, while we readily do so for people of color and the poor, speaks to our insipient racism and classism, both of which are so endemic to the national culture. And our lack of an adequate language to critically examine the behaviors of the society’s haves, also leads us to ignore the warning signs or potential dangers posed by such persons, to themselves and others. It is blindness to the concept of the overclass that explains in large part the inability of most commentators to properly analyze a just-released study from Columbia University. According to the report, from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, the key risk factors for drug, alcohol and tobacco use among teens are too much stress, boredom, and too much money. As for too much money, well, that’s obviously not an underclass problem. And boredom too is more common among those in sterile, uninspiring suburbs, at least if one believes what an awful lot of youth say about their own lives. Which brings us to the issue of stress. On the one hand, one would think that dealing with poverty, racism, crumbling schools and dilapidated housing--as is common for the stereotypical member of the underclass--would be pretty stressful. Yet, all data indicates it is whites and those with money who are more likely to drink alcohol, use drugs, or smoke cigarettes. So what’s going on, and what really explains the findings of the Columbia study? Clearly it is not absolute levels of stress that correlate with these self-destructive behaviors, since it makes little sense to believe that kids driving their own Acuras and SUV’s deal with more pressure than those who are homeless, or desperately poor, or simply black for that matter. Rather, it must be the relative inability of the affluent--the overclass--to deal with their stress that is to blame. Perhaps it is the lack of coping skills among those with resources that gets them into trouble. Whereas those who face oppressive conditions must, as a matter of survival, learn to deal with these conditions from an early age, those who have been pampered and provided for at every turn often don’t learn the same lessons because they never have to. If their grades drop, they pay for tutors; if they wreck their car, they get it fixed or get another one; when they screw up, someone is usually there to bail them out, whether through drug rehab, anger management counseling or other forms of expensive therapy. But all that cushioning also leaves them strangely vulnerable to dysfunction. Not to romanticize suffering or oppression, of course, but what studies like that from Columbia indicate is that the folks we have been taught to fear and loathe often have more self control than those in our own families. So even though blacks and Latinos are more likely than whites to report having been offered drugs in the past thirty days, or having had drugs made available to them, they are less likely to actually use drugs than their white counterparts. Even though persons who are in marginal economic conditions would have every reason to try and anesthetize themselves via alcohol, persons at the bottom of the economic pyramid are half as likely to drink as those with incomes above $75,000 and more than twice as likely to completely abstain. Among youth, despite targeted liquor and tobacco advertising in poor communities and communities of color, whites are three times more likely than blacks to binge drink, and 3.5 times more likely to smoke cigarettes regularly. Despite the oppressive conditions of racism and economic marginalization, the poor are less likely to commit suicide, as are people of color, and indeed studies going back fifty years have found that suicide is linked more to having one’s previously high status threatened than to absolute hardship. In other words, unemployment and suffering are correlated with self-destructive tendencies, but not so much for the poor or people of color as for whites and those who are affluent, and who find themselves unable to deal with temporary setback. So before we go casting about for evidence of social pathology among those at the bottom, we would do well to recognize the factors, environmental and cultural, that exist among those at the top, and which also are likely to correlate with dysfunction: too much money, too much power, and a mentality of entitlement and expectation that can leave a person dangerously ill-equipped to deal with the real world. Privilege is dysfunctional, in other words, just as surely as its polar opposite. To be the favored, the top dog, the one who always gets what one wants is to create unrealistic expectations that often can’t be sustained, and a kind of self-centeredness that can eclipse whatever personality disorders some folks claim to find among the poor. This kind of narcissism breeds excessive risk-taking, lack of empathy, delusions of grandeur and the kinds of abuses of power that only those on top can possibly manifest. None of this is to say that we should now pity the rich, or cry tears for the racially-privileged, or men who reap the benefits of patriarchy, or any other dominant group. It is merely to say that if we are going to truthfully analyze what is wrong with our culture, and the environmental influences on certain behaviors, we should begin with the folks at the top, not the bottom, for as the old saying goes, the fish tends to rot from the head down."

Places I Get My Sources

Many people I talk to seem impressed by the things I know. There's no special talent involved, simply knowing where to look, something I acquired during debate. Here's a cursory list of places where people like me get information.Roughly speaking, there are a few levels of sources. There's first level information like newspapers and investigative reporters. They try to evenhandedly report the information as they perceive it, putting aside their political beliefs as much as possible. Then there are filtered sources, things like newspapers and magazines appealing to a particular audience. These often try to be objective but are unabashed about writing assuming particular things. Finally, there are think tanks, people who do analyses of what is going on. If you want to make an argument, it helps to have both more objective councils/think tanks/reports and editorializing sources.Z Magazine Available online at Z Mag is a classic left newspaper run by Michael Albert. They have voluminous archives of speeches, audio debates, articles, etc. I can't even imagine the material I have yet to read on this site. Go on a frenzy here. I should warn the prospective reader that it is an explicitly and unapologetically leftist website. This is where you can find mostly secondary material, though there's definitely a lot of very good stuff linked off of here and on the corresponding blog system, There are even whole Chomsky books archived.Counterpunch Available online at A similarly leftist periodical, though the attitude is somewhat different here. It's run by Alexander Cockburn.Wall Street Journal. Partially available online at This is a very conservative newspaper, but it does some of the most serious work in the country. I personally hold my nose when I read this, but I do it anyways for research projects.Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Great stuff for people concerned about nuclear weapon and war issues. According to the Bulletin, "The mission of the Bulletin is to educate citizens about global security issues, especially the continuing dangers posed by nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, and the appropriate roles of nuclear technology." Great source of information from the people whose jobs are on the line in this field.RAND Corporation. One of the more objective think tanks, RAND is a great source for a variety of things... but they don't always say the things you'd want them to. Like all think tanks, they have a general partisan outlook that comes out in the aggregate, but there are gems.CATO Institute. These guys are a bit more complex. CATO is the place where libertarian capitalists go to grow up. Their reports give a veneer of objectivity to policies I find repugnant. Nonetheless, there's great stuff here too. And, if anyone cites CATO against you, you can laugh and say "Might as well cite Ayn Rand, buddy". They're a double-edged sword: They're maniacs who occasionally say really useful things, but... they're maniacs.Brookings Institution. According to the Brookingsers themselves, "An independent research and policy institute. Web site contains briefing papers, analyses, and other resources related to many current political issues." Another great source for ostensibly unbiased information.New York Times. People may wonder why I put the New York Times so late in a list of sources of information. Frankly, I don't think the Paper of Record is that serious of a paper - it's urbane New York pseudo-liberal bullshit, mostly. Nonetheless, this is where the history is made. The New York Times Book Review, on the other hand, is a great source, and I quote it on one of my earlier articles about big pharma.The Progressive. Another classic leftist periodical.Mother Jones And another.Anarchy Archives. Sorry, just had to include this. :) Anarchy. Why not throw this in? By the way, there's a lot of distinctions and divisions in the anarchist movement... International Information Service. More fun stuff.Institute for Social Ecology. Founded by Murray Bookchin, someone very familiar to an old high school policy hack like myself. Murray's the classic green anarchistGreg Greg Palast is one of the few serious investigative journalists left - he's so muckraking that he's not published in America often, but has had to be published in the Guardian in Britain.The Guardian. A British liberal newspaper.Associated Press. One of the main newswire services. These guys are essential: newswires are where the real stories are published before they go through the corporate-propaganda filtering process. There's still a residue here, but if an AP article doesn't make it to the NYT, there's a good chance I can tell you why.Reuters. Another major newswire service, more focused on financial matters.By the way: I almost never go to libraries and I sure as hell don't pay through my nose for subscriptions to periodicals. Furthermore, I never did in debate, and neither did my team. (We had a TIME subscription for awhile as part of those free credit card deals, actually, and Larry had a Progressive and Newsweek sub, but hey). The Internet is a simply massive archive of almost anything you could want, which is pissing off high school teachers who want their kids to stay in the Stone Age, going to dismal libraries. I say, onto the future! Save some gas and some trees, read the New York Times online and copy the articles to a Word document.So, that's a cursory list. There's plenty more good stuff, and if anyone has any question, you can drop me a line at or If you ever need to find out something about the world, that combined with the major search engines (Yahoo, MSN and Google) will let you get where you need to go. And if you have to visit a library, by all means do. Libraries are there for a reason.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Literature, Writing and Adventure Games

For those of you who don't know about the Monkey Island series of adventure games... learn about them immediately. For those who do, the creator's blog is Some of his posts and responses to them made me begin to think about some things about gaming.What defines the video game as an activity/art form? A clue is that I had to put the slash in there. When one looks at art, there's a whole range of experiences one is having simultaneously (the look of the Picasso, the feel of the floor, the fact that you haven't eaten anything and have been walking around for an hour, the smell of the museum, a crying little kid, the disgusting white of the walls or perhaps the bad lighting, the adjacent pictures, etc.) All of these things help form connotations and impressions, but they aren't implied or controlled by either the artist or the art form. The point of a museum is to make art somewhat of an activity, by eliminating as much extraneous sensory bombardment as possible and by arranging the art in some sort of way that enhances the experience. You then can have a full day being in the museum, having the coffee and buying their overpriced trinkets and T-shirts, seeing the pictures, taking the tours, listening to the lecture, and going home educated for a nominal fee.

A video game, instead, makes viewing the art/story interactive. By its very nature, it combines increasingly scintillating graphics and story with a keyboard and a mouse. To make this analysis a little more concrete, let's go through the various aspects of what defines the video game.

FRAME: A TV or monitor, usually. This immediately makes the art fundamentally two-dimensional - an illusion of 3-D has to be created (sometimes through obtuse means, like the Visual Boy... ugh.) Of course, this will change, but as of now, people have the uncomfortable feeling of being in a life and death battle in Quake III and not having peripheral vision.

INPUT DEVICES: Keyboard/mouse or joypad/controller. Some games, of course, have their complex pads, either to make DDR or that mech game that was way hyped because you had to buy a ludicrously expensive peripheral.

THEMES: Anything and everything. Don't believe me? Let me list some things games have been about: Simulating real-life activities as diverse as poker and football; a Marine wandering through the abandoned halls of installations on the moons of Mars fighting demons; a US agent fighting Nazi super science; a rag tag group of adventurers saving the world from a comet/an effeminate genetic experiment with a gigantic phallic implement/some other shit; dancing to a rhythm and style determined by arrows on a screen; a plumber who becomes stronger when he swallows mysterious mushrooms procured by slamming his fist into question mark cubes who is determined to save a beautiful princess from a turtle-like lizard beast; etc. etc.

The key point to understanding video games is that they are a synthesis of game/interactivity and story/static....icity. You have games that are basically board games put onto a screen. You also have games (say, hentai games) where the real payoff is not clicking through the screens of dialogue but the cheaply animated pr0n and (if you're stupid enough to read through some of this garbage) the dialogue. Now, how do we balance this out?The reason I mentioned Ron Gilbert is because he mentioned something about cut scenes, striking a long conversation about the nature of the video game as media. Where would I like to see games going?

1) Increased depth of control. By this I mean the idea that we should be able to not simply click to get through a sword fight, but have a complex series of interactions like what a real sword fight of such a epic nature would be like. I want there to be parries, feints, thrusts, slashes. I even want someone to be able to develop a new ability in the game just by logically messing around with their avatar's body positioning and motion. This may be a technology problem, of course, and if that's the case it'll be insuperable until the technology gets better... but I wonder.

2) Quality of story-telling. I actually think that the Final Fantasy and Metal Gear stories rank up with very good Hollywood story-telling, but to some extent I think that the modern cut scene dynamic has made it so someone feels like there's punctuated equilibrium in terms of interactivity. At certain points, someone has tons of options and can do all sorts of things, but then the game builds up with all these FMVs and finally you as a player can do only one or two things. The problem is that the game right now is a closed box: you can't go anywhere the game hasn't fit into its world. What needs to be done is to create authentic worlds that have a culture, political strife, etc. that is key for the story building but can be discovered in millions of ways, and I'm fairly confident that this is also a technology problem.

3) Eventually, games will run a gamut from two poles. One will be essentially the ultimate interactive movie, where the character will be able to view every part of the movie, get into different character's heads, be a fly on the wall AND a neuron in the brain AND someone else's tongue AND the villain, and piece together a story that has incredible complexity (the incredible complexity that is underneath the surface of real experience). The other will be the classic pen-and-paper paradigm: throwing players into complex and rich worlds where they can form their objectives and interests and even identities on their own, but nonetheless where they may be things being built up to.


This is a horrible segue, so forgive me. I often refer to people's writing or stories as their children. You spend quite some time with these things burgeoning in your mind, absorbing from your fallopian tube (I hope that's the right part of the anatomy) of imagination, until finally you make a finished product, a product that becomes increasingly distant and modified by and affecting all sorts of people who are very alien to you, but somewhere deep within you still have a deep attachment to them. The metaphor works on many levels, and I think it helps to explain the dynamic of originality v. unoriginality.To me, something that is unoriginal is pretending to be something it's not; it is a ghost caught replaying the most vivid parts of some lost dream, losing most of the vividness and richness in the process. Something that is original, on the other hand, rises from its zeitgeist, its spirit of time, but nonetheless has a very unique voice. An original piece can make references to and hearken to older material and use that to STRENGTHEN the work by giving it context. To offer an example: An original story could be one written in base 16 numbers that are decoded to make gibberish, but it'd be almost guaranteed to be awful.An unoriginal story is like a kid who adopts the mannerisms of the popular kid in school, whereas an original story is like the child to makes fun of those mannerisms.