Dec 07

Spelunking the alt-right

Recently, on a mailing list I frequent, one of the regulars uttered the following sentence: “I’m told Breitbart is the preferred news source for the ‘alt-right’ (KKK and neo-nazis)”.

That was a pretty glaring error, there.

I was interviewed on Breitbart Tech once. I visit the site occasionally. I am not affiliated with the alt-right, but I’ve been researching the recent claims about it. So I can supply some observations from the ground.

First, while I’m not entirely sure of everything the alt-right is (it’s a rather amorphous phenomenon) it is not the KKK and neo-Nazis. The most that can truthfully be said is that ‘alt-right’ serves as a recent flag of convenience to which some old-fashioned white supremacists are busily trying to attach themselves.

Also, the alt-right is not Donald Trump and his Trumpkins, either. He’s an equally old-fashioned populist continuous with Willam Jennings Bryan and Huey Long. If you tossed a bunch of alt-right memes at him, I doubt he’d even understand them, let alone agree.

The defining characteristic of the alt-right is, really, corrosive snarkiness. To the extent an origin can be identified, it was as a series of message-board pranks on 4chan. There’s no actual ideological core to it – it’s a kind of oppositional attitude-copping without a program, mordantly nasty but unserious.

There’s also some weird occultism attached – the half-serious cult of KEK, aka Pepe, who may or may not be an ancient Egyptian frog-god who speaks to his followers via numerological coincidences. (Donald Trump really wouldn’t get that part.)

Some elements of the alt-right are in fact racist (and misogynist, and homophobic, and other bad words) a la KKK/Nazi, but that’s not a defining characteristic and it’s anyway difficult to tell the genuine haters from those for whom posing as haters is a form of what 4chan types call “griefing”. That’s social disruption for the hell of it.

It is worth noting that another part of what is going on here is a visceral rejection of politically-correct leftism, one which deliberately inverts its premises. The griefers pose as racists and misogynists because they think it’s the most oppositional stance they can take to bullies and rage-mobbers who position themselves as anti-racists and feminists.

My sense is that the true haters are a tiny minority compared to the griefers and anti-PC rejectionists, but the griefers are entertained by others’ confusion on this score and don’t intend to clear it up.

Whether the alt-right even exists in any meaningful sense is questionable. To my anthropologist’s eye it has the aspect of a hoax (or a linked collection of hoaxes) being worked by 4chan griefers and handful of more visible provocateurs – Milo Yiannopolous, Mike Cernovich, Vox Day – who have noticed how readily the mainstream media buys inflated right-wing-conspiracy narratives and are working this one for the lulz. There’s no actual mass movement behind their posturing, unless you think a thousand or so basement-dwelling otaku are a mass movement.

I know Milo Yannopolous slightly – he is who interviewed me for Beitbart – and we have enough merry-prankster tendency in common that I think I get how his mind works. I’m certain that he, at any rate, is privately laughing his ass off at everyone who is going “alt-right BOOGA BOOGA!”

And there are a lot of such people. What these provocateurs are exploiting is media hysteria – the alt-right looms largest in the minds of self-panickers who project their fears on it. And of course in the minds of Hillary Clinton’s hangers-on, who would rather attribute her loss to a shadowy evil conspiracy than to a weak candidate and a plain-old bungled campaign.

I’m worried, however, that that the alt-right may not remain a loose-knit collection of hoaxes – that the self-panickers are actually creating what they fear.

For there is a deep vein of anti-establishment anger out there (see Donald Trump, election of). The alt-right (to the limited and conditional extent it now exists) could capture that anger, and its provocateurs are doing their best to make you think it already has, but they’re scamming you – they’re fucking with your head. The entire on-line ‘alt-right’ probably musters fewer people than the Trumpster’s last victory rally.

It’s a kind of dark-side Discordian hack in progress, and I’m concerned that it might succeed. Vox Day is trying to ideologize the alt-right, actually assemble something coherent from the hoaxes. He might succeed, or someone else might. Draw some comfort that it won’t be the Neo-Nazis or KKK – they’re real fanatics of the sort the alt-right defines itself by mocking. Mein Kampf and ironic nihilism don’t mix well.

The best way to beat the “alt-right” is not to overestimate it, not to feed it with your fear. If you keep doing that, the vast majority of the rootless and disaffected who have never heard of it might decide there’s a strong horse there and sign on.

Oh, and a coda about Breitbart: anyone who thinks Breitbart is far right needs to get out of their mainstream-media bubble more. Compared to sites like WorldNetDaily or FreeRepublic or TakiMag or even American Thinker, Breitbart is pretty mild stuff.

All those fake-news allegations against Breitbart are pretty rich coming from a media establishment that gave us Rathergate and the “Jackie” false-rape story and was quite recently exchanging coordination emails with the Clinton campaign. Breitbart isn’t any more propagandistic than CBS or Rolling Stone, it’s just differently propagandistic.

Mar 09

Bravery and biology

I just read a very well-intentioned, heartwarming talk about girls who code that, sadly, I think, is missing the biological forest for the cultural trees.

It’s this: Teach girls bravery, not perfection. Read it, It’s short

I like the woman who voiced those thoughts in that way. Well, except for the part about growing up to be Hillary Clinton; do we really want to encourage girls to sleep their way to power and then cover up for their husband’s serial rapes?

That’s not the big problem with teaching girls to be brave rather than seeking perfection, though. That’d be nice if it could be done, but I think it will run smack into an evo-bio buzzsaw.

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Jan 30

Wicked River: the movie

Some years ago I happened across a fascinating book titled Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild. If you have any fondness for Mark Twain (as I do – I own and have read the complete works), you need to read this book. The book is an extended argument that Twain’s late-Victorian portraits of river life were a form of rosy-filtered nostalgia for a pre-Civil-War reality that was quite a bit more wild, colorful, squalid, violent, and bizarre.

The river is tamed now, corseted by locks and levees, surrounded by a settled society. It was already nearly thus when Twain was writing. But in and before Huck Finn’s time (roughly the 1840s) it had been a frontier full of strivers, mad men, bad men, and epic disasters like the New Madrid earthquakes.

Random evocative detail: there was a river pirate named John Murrell who operated out of a section of the river called Nine Mile Reach and often masqueraded as a traveling preacher; his gang was called the “Mystic Clan”, and it was for years believed that he had a master plan to foment a general slave insurrection. But that last bit may have been fabrication by a con man with a book to sell. Whether true or not, it led to riots in various cities and a mob attempt to expel all gamblers from Vicksburg based on a rumor that some of them had been part of the plot.

The book is full of you couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up stories like that. And then, much more recently, I learned about Abe Lincoln’s flatboat voyage.

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May 05

Sometimes progress diminishes

It’s not news to long-time followers of this blog that I love listening to virtuoso guitarists. Once, long ago in the 1980s I went to see a guitarist named Michael Hedges who astonished the crap out of me. The guy made sounds come out of a wooden flattop that were like nothing else on Earth.

Hedges died a few years later in a car crash, tragically young, and is no longer very well remembered. But I was on IRC yesterday taking music with a friend who mentioned a harmonica and a whistler doing Jimi Hendrix in a “laid back, measured, acoustic style”, and I brought up Hedges because I remembered his cover of All Along The Watchtower as an utterly amazing thing.

Afterwards, in a mood of gentle nostalgia, I searched YouTube for a recording of it. Found one, from the Wolf Trap festival in ’86, and got a surprise.

It was undoubtedly very similar to the performance I heard at around the same time, but…it just didn’t sound that interesting. Technically accomplished, yes, but it didn’t produce the feeling of wonder and awe I experienced then. His original Because It’s There followed on the playlist, and held up better, but…huh?

It didn’t take me long to figure this out. It’s because in 2015 I’m surrounded by guitarists doing what Hedges was doing in the late 1980s. It even has a name these days: “percussive fingerstyle”, Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour, Erik Mongrain, Tommy Emmanuel; players like these come up on my Pandora feed a lot, intermixed with the jazz fusion and progressive metal.

Sometimes progress diminishes its pioneers. It can be difficult to remember how bold an artistic innovation was once we’ve become used to its consequences. Especially when the followers exceed the originator; I must concede that Andy McKee, for example, does Hedges’s thing better than Hedges himself did. It may take memories like mine, acting as a kind of time capsule, to remind us how special the moment of creation was.

(And somwhere out there, some people who made it to Jimi Hendrix concerts when they were very young are nodding at this.)

I’m here to speak up for you, Michel Hedges. Hm..I see Wikipedia doesn’t link him to percussive fingerstyle. I think I’ll fix that.

Jul 30

SF and the damaging effects of literary status envy

I’ve been aware for some time of a culture war simmering in the SF world. And trying to ignore it, as I believed it was largely irrelevant to any of my concerns and I have friends on both sides of the divide. Recently, for a number of reasons I may go into in a later post, I’ve been forced to take a closer look at it. And now I’m going to have to weigh in, because it seems to me that the side I might otherwise be most sympathetic to has made a rather basic error in its analysis. That error bears on something I do very much care about, which is the health of the SF genre as a whole.

Both sides in this war believe they’re fighting about politics. I consider this evaluation a serious mistake by at least one of the sides.

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Mar 13

Country-music hell and fake accents

A few months back I had to do a two-hour road trip with A&D regular Susan Sons, aka HedgeMage, who is an interesting and estimable person in almost all ways except that she actually … likes … country music.

I tried to be stoic when stupid syrupy goo began pouring out of the car radio, but I didn’t do a good enough job of hiding my discomfort to prevent her from noticing within three minutes flat. “If I leave this on,” she observed accurately to the 11-year-old in the back seat, “Eric is going to go insane.”

Since said 11-year more or less required music to prevent him from becoming hideously bored and restive, all three of us were caught between two fires. Susan, ever the pragmatist, went looking through her repertoire for pieces I would find relatively inoffensive.

After a while this turned into a sort of calibration exercise – she’d put something on, assay my reaction to see where in the range it fell between mere spasmodic twitching and piteous pleas to make it stop, and try to figure what the actual drive-Eric-insane factors in the piece were.

After a while a curious and interesting pattern emerged…

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Mar 23

Michael Meets Mozart

I love classical music. It was my first musical vocabulary; I didn’t start listening to popular music until I was 14. When I grew up enough to notice that I was listening to a collection of museum pieces and not a living genre, that realization made me very sad.

But go listen to this: Michael Meets Mozart.

Now, if you’re a typical classical purist, you may be thinking something like this: “Big deal. It’s just a couple of guys posing like rock stars, even if there’s some Mozart in the DNA. Electric cello and a backbeat is just tacky. Feh.”

I’m here to argue that this attitude is tragically wrong – not only is it bad for what’s left of the classical-music tradition today, but that it’s false to the way classical music was conceived by its composers and received by its audiences back when it was a living genre.

Mozart didn’t think he was writing museum pieces…

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Sep 10

Not Eliminating The Middleman

So, we’re at a some friends’ place for barbecue this afternoon, and friends say “We know you don’t watch much TV, but you need to see this…”

“This” turns out to be the pilot of The Middleman a peculiar and unusually intelligent TV series that ran for only 12 episodes in 2008 before being canceled. The protagonist is a tough-minded female art student who gets recruited into a sort of “Men In Black” organization that deals with exotic problems – mad scientists, invading aliens, supernatural threats, that sort of thing. Yeah, I know, yet another spin on Nick Pollotta’s Bureau 13 novels – but this version has a sharp, surrealistic edge and the kind of script where no word in it is filler or wasted.

The writing style of The Middleman kind of got into my head. Here’s how I know this: afterwards, we’re disrobing to go to the hot tub, and I looked at my piles of clothes and stuff and thought this:

“I carry a smartphone, a Swiss-Army knife, and a gun. What kind of problem do you want solved?”

Aug 17

A flash at the heart of the West

I have just seen something lovely and hope-inducing.

It’s a video of a performance of Ravel’s Bolero by the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra – manifesting as a flash mob at a train station. Go see it now; I’ll wait.

What is truly wonderful about this is not the music itself. Oh, the Bolero is pleasant enough, and this performance is competent. What was marvelous was to see classical music crack its way out of the dessicated, ritual-bound environment of the concert hall and reclaim a place in ordinary life. Musicians in jeans and sweaters and running shoes (and one kettledrummer with a silly fishing hat), smiling at children while they played. No boundary from the audience – there were train sounds and crowd noise in the background and that was good, dammit!

And the audience – respectful, but not because the setting told them they were supposed to be. Delight spreading outwards in waves as the onlookers gradually comprehended the hack in progress. Parents pointing things out to their kids. Hassled businesspeople pausing, coffees in hand, to relax into something that wasn’t on the schedule. It was alive in a way that no performance from a lofty stage could ever be.

But there was an even more beautiful level of meaning than that.

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May 09

The Uses of Cliche

I’ve done a lot of writing for the game Battle For Wesnoth. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned, and now teach others, is this: genre cliches are your friend. Too much originality can badly disrupt the gameplay experience. This is so at variance with our expectations about ‘good’ art that I think it deserves some explanation and exploration.

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Jan 09

Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers: on language boundaries

Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers. It’s an interesting indication of how popular culture has evolved in the last quarter-century that the scope and boundaries of these terms are now of increasing interest to people who don’t think they belong in any of those categories — from language columnists for major newspapers to ordinary folks who have relatives they suspect might fall somewhere in the Venn diagram those terms define.

I’ve been watching these terms shift and move in and out of prominence since the early 1970s. Over time, distinctions among them that were once blurred have tended to sharpen. This is not happening at random; it accompanies the changes in “mainstream” culture that I noted in The Revenge of the Nerds is Living Well. As groups who were one marginalized erupt into mainstream visibility, everybody’s functional need for language that puts a handle on their social identities becomes more pressing.

Here’s a report on the state of play in early 2011, with some history intended to illuminate it.

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Jul 15

Women in computing: first, get the problem right

Every few months I trip over another earnest attempt to rectify the gender imbalance in software and computing fields. Very few women opt to become programmers, system administrators, or hardware/software engineers. Indeed, the number of women who try seems to be falling rather than rising. This observation is invariably accompanied by a lot of hand-wringing and proposals for elaborate and (too often) coercive schemes to achieve “gender parity” – all doomed, because the actual problem is misdiagnosed.

I’m writing about this because I think the misdiagnosis arises largely from a refusal to speak uncomfortable truths. Discussion of the problem is nearly suffocated under a cloud of political correctness, cant, and willful blindness to the actual conditions of working in this field. Honesty won’t automatically fix the problems, but it’s a prerequisite to fixing the problems.

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Apr 15

Pandora’s Biases

Back in February I experimented with Pandora Radio and loved it…enough that I bought a subscription within a few days. It’s my background music now; I might never own an analog radio again.

For a while I ran around telling all my friends about how Pandora was the greatest thing! since sliced bread! you should try it! But I’ve stopped doing that, because I’ve learned that it doesn’t work as well for other people…starting with my wife. I think I know why, and it reveals an interesting failure mode of all such systems.

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Mar 23

Victimology bites

Dr. Richard Friedman’s Sabotaging Success, but to What End?, published 2010-03-22 in the New York Times, is about an instantly recognizable pattern — people who sabotage themselves so they can feel like martyred victims of an uncaring world.

The piece is insightful and even funny in a bleak sort of way, but as I read through it I felt an increasing sense that there was something missing from this story. I was nearly at the end before I realized what had been lurking unspoken in Dr. Friedman’s account. But the crucial clue had been there from the beginning, when he writes of one patient “In fact, her status as an injured party afforded her a psychological advantage: she felt morally superior to everyone she felt had mistreated her. This was a role she had no intention of giving up.” Where…now, where had I heard that song before?

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Feb 07

Opening Pandora’s Music box

I’ve been meaning to experiment with Pandora Radio for a while, and finally got to it today. It’s based on something called the “Music Genome Project” that categorizes music by how it expresses a large number of “genes” — traits that describe features like song structure, instrumentation, genre influences, and so forth. According to Wikipedia these are used to construct a vector, and similarity between tunes is measured by a simple distance function. You give Pandora a seed artist; it then apparently random-walks you through tunes and artists similar to that artist’s style.

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Jan 19

Jews and the tragedy of universalism

One of my commenters recently pointed me at the work of Kevin McDonald, and academic who has studied the adaptive strategies of diaspora Jewry in great historical depth, largely drawing from Jewish historians as his sources.

I have yet to read his actual books, but I’ve found a great deal of review and discussion and analysis of them on the Web, and he makes some interesting cases. Through reading about his work, I’ve found a possible answer to a historical question that has troubled me for a couple of decades. That answer implies a terrible, bloody irony near the heart of the last few centuries of Jewish history.

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Jan 18

Reading racism into pulp fiction

I have a scholarly interest in the historical roots of science fiction and related genres. For this reason, I sometimes seek out and read late 19th and early 20th-century fiction, both classic and “pulp”, that I have reason to believe was formative for these genres. Nowadays I read such books critically, trying to understand what they reveal about the assumptions and world-views of the authors as well as appreciating what the authors were intending as artists.

My recent readings in this category have have included some rediscovery of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs (which I read much less critically as a child). I’m presently reading for the first time the Cossack stories of Harold Lamb, rousing tales of battle and derring-do set in Russia and India and Northern Asia around the turn of the 17th century that are at least as well constructed as anything Robert Louis Stevenson or Alexandre Dumas ever wrote. As I’ve been reading, I’ve been comparing Burroughs and Lamb to Rudyard Kipling’s tales of India, and H. Rider Haggard’s lost-worlds tales of Africa, and to Talbot Mundy’s adventure stories also set in India.

One of the obligatory features of modern reactions to these books is to tut-tut at racist and colonialist stereotyping in them. This Wall Street Journal review of Lamb is typical, waxing a bit sententious about “brushes with anti-semitism” in the Cossack stories. But I’m learning to be critical about that sort of reaction, too — because, in rereading Burroughs, I began to understand that ascriptions of “racism” are an oversimplification of Burroughs every bit as crude as the stereotypes he’s often accused of trafficking in. And now, reading Lamb, I find that these “brushes with anti-Semitism” are raising more questions in my mind about the comfortable prejudices of my own time than they are about Harold Lamb’s.

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Dec 30

A no-shit Sherlock

Instapundit and John Nolte are quite right: the new Sherlock Holmes movie was better than we had a right to expect from the trailers. We were led to anticipate a fun, mindless action comedy – a sort of reprise of Iron Man in Victorian drag, with Robert Downey Jr. in full scenery-chewing mode.

I would have enjoyed watching that movie just fine, thank you. I’ve read the entire Holmes canon, but I don’t worship it any more than Arthur Conan Doyle did, and having Guy Ritchie reprocess it into a mere popcorn flick wouldn’t particularly have bothered me. But…to my pleased surprise, Ritchie aimed for — and achieved — something much better.

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