Dec 30

Susan Sontag is Dead

Imagine a writer/playwright/intellectual whose most famous single
remark was “the black race is the cancer of human history”. Who said
“The Pinochet revolution is astonishingly free of repression
and bureaucratization.” Who praised the attack on Pearl Harber as a
brave deed. Do you suppose such a person would collect laudatory
tributes and glowing obituaries on the occasion of her death?

Substitute “white” for “black”, “Cuban” for “Pinochet”, and “9/11″
for “Pearl Harbor” and you’ll have remarks Susan Sontag actually did
make, and never retracted. (She later glossed her equation of white
people with cancer as a slander on cancer patients). Her equally
abominable expressions of racism, tyrannophilia, and anti-American
hatred have either gone totally unmentioned in the New York
Times
, Philadelphia Inquirer and AP wire service
stories, or else been surrounded by exculpatory verbiage about
Sontag’s alleged devotion to high ideals.

Sontag’s willingness to say in 1982 on the occasion of the
anti-communist Polish worker’s revolution that “Communism is Fascism
with a human face” has been much feted. In fact the utter
anti-humanity of Communism had already been demonstrated by the
Kronstadt massacre and other atrocities years before Sontag was born.
Her failure to absorb that lesson forty years sooner than she did led
her to utter a great deal of toxic garbage, and should neither be
forgotten nor forgiven.

George Orwell once said that “There are some ideas so wrong that
only a very intelligent person could believe in them.” In the AP
obituary, author author Francine Prose says Sontag “represents
something that I’m afraid that’s passing, I don’t think that many
people these days say, `Oh, I want to be an intellectual when I grow
up.'” Not the least of Sontag’s crimes is that Prose is right —
by repeatedly living out Orwell’s observation throughout her lifetime,
Sontag is one of the people who taught Americans by her example to hold
intellectuals in contempt.

I have spoken ill of the dead here in order to make a point about
the living. The damage Sontag did is in the past, but the
muddleheadedness of her eulogists and their willingness to embrace
the same evils she did is a problem for the present and the future.
Only by confronting and condemning those evils can we excise the
true cancers of human history.

Dec 29

The Journalist as Herd Creature

In September 2004, well before the elections, I wrote an essay on
the collapse of
mainstream media influence
. I predicted that the Rathergate
scandal and the Swift Boat Vets would lock up the election for George
W. Bush, despite the MSM’s most determined efforts to get Kerry into
the White House. I related this to a long-term decline in MSM influence as
plunging communications costs erode its gatekeeper role, and predicted
that decline would continue.

(For anyone who came in late, “MSM” is how bloggers abbreviate the
“mainstream media”. But that term is imprecise, because the category
actually excludes the contrarian/conservative but mainstream Fox News
and includes certain niche media outlets such as National Public
Radio. What MSM really refers to is what I have sometimes called the
“dominant media culture”. The centers of this culture are the New
York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the LA Times, ABC,
CBS, NBC, and CNN. The MSM peddles news made by and for elite
bicoastal liberals. One conservative commentator has aptly described
the MSM as an “echo chamber of left and further-left scribblers and
talkers and self-reinforcing head nodders who were overwhelmingly
anti-Republican, anti-Christian, anti-military, anti-wealth,
anti-business, and even anti-middle class”, which indictment could be
dismissed as political ax-grinding if sociological studies by the Pew
Foundation and others had not consistently shown journalists and
editors to have exactly the voting and political-contribution patterns
that description would suggest.)

Two months later, my predictions appear to have been correct, and
have been repeatedly echoed in postmortems by Democratic political
analysts. The wailing and gnashing of teeth in the MSM has been loud.
The latest eruption is from Nick Coleman of the Minneapolis
Star-Tribune, in which he frenziedly
attacks
the editors of one of the blogs that helped break the
Rathergate scandal. Coleman has been quite properly slapped around
for his frothy, hysterical. ad-hominem rhetoric by both his
targets
and many other bloggers (here
is one representative shellacking).

Coleman’s anger so possesses him that he stoops to casting
aspersions on an opponent’s genital adequacy. But spare him some pity
along with your condemnation, because his rage transparently
springs from fear — the fear that he’s being beaten at his own
game of opinion-molding by amateurs, by bloggers, by (worst of all)
Republicans.

What Coleman is acting out on an individual level is the same rage
and fear that is rippling through the entire MSM. This rage and
fear has three causes, intertwined but distinct and all readily
discernable in Coleman’s rant.

First, the MSM is reacting badly to its loss of power. Few people
would claim now what Newsweek editor Evan Thomas did less
than six months ago, that the MSM can swing a national election by 15
points in the direction it wants — not when the 2004 elections
swung by at least three points in the direction it didn’t
want.

Second, the MSM is acting from a genuine fear of the social
consequences of the loss of its power. Many of its influence leaders
genuinely believe that conservatives are evil thugs bent on plunging
the world into a theocratic, imperialist dark age, and that it
is their job to fight the good fight against this.

Third, they are most terrified of all at discovering how out of
touch they are. In the past, your typical MSMer surrounded by other
MSMers has believed that he is mildly “progressive”, merely holding
the opinions that all reasonable people hold and opposed by at most a
tiny and dismissable fringe of kooks and rednecks. MSMers are more
undone than anything else by the discovery that the mainstream of the
American population is rejecting them in droves for Fox News, talk
radio, and the blogs.

The first two causes induce fear, but I think it’s the third one
that tips it over into irrational panic. Almost all the working
journalists I’ve ever met (and I’ve met boatloads of them) are herd
creatures — they may talk about individualism and subverting the
dominant paradigm, but they have a very strong need to believe that
they’re “of the people”, simply writing the things that 99% of the
people would think and write if they were capable.

It’s a short step from this belief to Coleman’s flavor of
quasi-paranoid ranting. Anybody who doesn’t think like the MSM cannot
be authentic, but must instead be a paid or suborned tool of evil
forces. Watch for this theme to show up more and more frequently in
the next year as most of the MSM sinks ever-deeper into denial.

Dec 27

Where’s Tom Wolfe when you need him?

The Ananova site brings us this little gem:

Baseball star’s wife makes ultimate threat

The wife of a top US baseball player has vowed to have sex with all of
his team mates if he ever cheats on her.

Anna Benson, a former model and stripper who was named Baseball’s
Hottest Wife by FHM, is married to Mets pitcher Kris Benson.

She told Howard Stern’s radio show: “I told him, cheat on me all
you want. If you get caught, I’m going to s***w everybody on your
entire team. Coaches, trainers, players. I would do everybody on his
whole team.”

Stern, egging her on, asked: “Even the coaches? What about, like, the
bat boys?”

“Everybody would get a turn,” Anna pledged. “If my husband cheated on
me and embarrassed me like that, I will embarrass him more than he
could ever imagine.”

Uh huh. I see that, somehow, this woman managed to have a
career as a “model and stripper” without developing the faintest shred
of a clue how men think or respond to a challenge like this.

Bet on it. Somehere, a coalition of the most unattractive
no-hopers in the Mets organization — probably organized by some
dude with a beer gut, bad breath, and a bread-dough complexion who
harbors a long-simmering lust for the wench — is now organizing
a pool with which to engage the foxiest hookers in the Big Apple to
waylay her husband. What a pitch! Throw $50 in the kitty and
“Baseball’s Hottest Wife” will bang you too!

Think of it…everywhere Kris Benson goes, hired hotties in thongs,
lingerie, and leather will be lying in wait for him. They’ll hit on
him in bars and materialize unaccountably in his hotel room after away
games. They’ll try to give him blow jobs in taxis. Confederates
with cameras will lurk nearby.

I’m not sure which would be funnier…the version in which hubby
succumbs to some soiled lily’s charms and wifey screws her way through
the team before making an “Eeeew!” of disgust at the instigator and
splitting for Cancun with the hunky batboy? Or perhaps the version in
which hubby is cornered, hands over his crotch, by a gaggle of
rapacious prostitutes who decide they’re not being paid enough for
this shit and turn on organizer-dude to rend him limb from limb like
some posse of latter-day Bacchantes.

O the humanity. O the satirical-novel possibilities!

UPDATE: My wife Cathy, who is an actual woman, comments “You have to
wonder about her motives for making a threat like this in public. Me,
I suspect that doing the whole team is her fantasy…”

Dec 26

Hacking My Way To Stardom

This is storyboard art for a movie called Nightmask, with
the interesting property that I will probably get a speaking part in it
if it’s actually produced.

“Whoa!” you may well ask. “How does a middle-aged geek with no
showbiz history beyond a few singer/songwriter coffeehouse gigs in
his college days land a part in, you know, a real movie?”

The answer, it turns out, is by hacking for a movie star. And thereby
hangs a tale.

Back in October I was the top-billed guests of honor at the first
Linucon, a convention for SF fans and Linux hackers in Austin, TX.
First night I was there, at the invitation-only dinner for con guests,
I found that I knew a lot of them. Steve Jackson, Wil Wheaton, Howard
Tayler, Eric Flint…but there was one I didn’t recognize and she was
striking enough to make an impression:


This woman’s charm was somehow only increased by the fact that at
the time she was wearing black nerd-frame glasses; she looked like a
supermodel playing a geekgirl, a guess which I discovered was nearly
correct the next day when I found her sitting in the lobby of the
hotel tapping keys on a PowerBook. I introduced myself, asked her
name, and we were soon deep in conversation about all manner of
interesting techie things. And her name? Tamara Gorski.

Yes, that would be the Tamara
Gorski
who played Rebecca Lowell in on an episode of
Angel and Morrigan the Goddess of War (looking like Lucy
Lawless’s kid sister) on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.
She’s also had parts in quite a few B movies over the last decade; she
told me later that she thinks she could get A-list parts if she pushed,
but doesn’t really want the pressure or the fishbowl existence that would
bring with it.

I had to admit to never having seen any of her stuff, as I don’t
watch TV at all and hadn’t caught any of her movies. This, however,
did not bother her in the least; in fact she seemed happy to be talking
to someone who was (a) a low risk for going all fanboy on her, and (b)
willing to teach her techie stuff, like how to program an automated
way to mail people electronic thank-you cards. I launched into writing
a Python program on her PowerBook to do exactly that.

That program took me about three hours to write, time scattered
over the next two days, most of it with Tamara looking over my
shoulder and (I kid you not) giggling with delight as I explained how
this or that bit of Python helped get the job done. Tamara, it turns
out, is (a) extremely bright, (b) by her own description, “shy and
geeky”, and (c) intensely curious. And yes, formerly a successful
model. So, not exactly a supermodel playing a geekgirl, more like one
really letting her inner geek out to play for maybe the first time
in her life.

Tamara loved discovering SF fandom; the atmosphere of Linucon
delighted her. “I think I’ve found my people!” she said to me Sunday
night. And I was her guide to the territory. By the time that program
was finished, we were friends.

Tamara had told me early on that she was interested in writing and
direction. She talked offhand at the con about casting me in her next
film, but I didn’t know how seriously to take that until she emailed me
a script and a character list and asked which ones I was interested in.

The plot is a sort of space opera with horror elements about a
multispecies galactic future in which vampirism is a scourge that
affects every species. The part she had in mind was Klaaghu, an
initially sinister-appearing alien who dies heroically bringing

evidence to the anti-vampire resistance. After reading the script, I
agreed that of the available roles, that one seemed like probably the
best fit. It’s a nice juicy bit part; Klaaghu doesn’t get a lot of
screen time, but he does get dialogue and a dramatic scene.

The big variable here is whether Tamara can get backers to produce
the movie. She’s planning the low-budget route, shooting in New
Zealand or Bulgaria. She’s got a natural market, as this is exactly
the kind of thing the Sci-Fi channel buys. Tamara says “If you know
anyone who wants to invest at all…there will be returns, and if it’s
someone who would get their kicks from being in the film and getting
screen credit as producer, that’s all cool and kosher.”

There you have it. Calling all dot.com millionaires: you wanna
be a movie producer? Have a part in an SF flick? Your shot at stardom
is waiting.

Dec 20

The Revenge of the Nerds is Living Well

Grant McCracken has argued in his book Plenitude that one of the defining characteristics of the last fifty years is an explosion of subcultural variety — people creating new lifestyles and new identities around occupations, sexual tastes, hobbies, genres of art and music, religions, and just about any other investment of time human beings have ever dreamed up.

When McCracken proposes that there is now as much divergence among individual subcultures in the life of the modern West as we can find among preindustrial tribes in the annals of anthropology he is probably exaggerating. Nevertheless, it is clear that he is onto something when he observes that the old idea of a ‘mainstream’ culture with subcultures developing in anti-conformist reaction to it is falling apart.

[S]ubcultures now come from the cultural system in place. The culture of
commotion is, as I have labored to demonstrate, dedicated to the production
of new and different subcultures.

SF fans. Skatepunks. Polyamorists. Gangsta rappers. Goths. McCracken certainly has this much right; there are now lots of voluntary subcultures out there that have the kind of adhesiveness once only associated with religious or tribal groupings. Belonging to them is not just a predilection like being a baseball fan or liking Chinese food, but a statement of identity with a whole social network and a set of myths and dreams and heroes attached to it.

Among the five groups I listed more or less at random above the culture of SF fandom is a bearded grandaddy, dating back to the late 1930s and thus predating the beginnings of the modern explosion of plenitude in the 1960s. The others are all much more recent, and illustrate how new tribes can emerge to become apparently permanent features of the landscape in less than a decade.

And this brings us to the geeks. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, there was not yet anything you could call “geek culture”. Sure, there were bright kids fascinated by computers or math or science, kids who were often poorly socialized in the jargon of the day and hung together as a defensive measure; I was one of them. But we didn’t see ourselves as having a social identity or affiliation the way the jocks or surfers or hippies did. We weren’t a subculture, nor even a community; we didn’t even have a label for ourselves.

Slowly, slowly that began to change. One key event was the eruption of science fiction into pop culture that began with the first Star Wars movie in 1977. This was our stuff and we knew it, even though most of us never joined the subculture of SF fandom proper. Personal computers made another big difference after 1980; suddenly, technology was cool and sexy in a way it hadn’t been for decades, and people who were into it started to get respect rather than (or in addition to) faint or not-so-faint scorn.

You could see the trend in movies. War Games in 1983; Revenge of the Nerds in 1984; Real Genius in 1985. To kids today Revenge of the Nerds doesn’t seem remarkable, because geek culture is more secure and confident today than a lot of older tribes like bikers or hippies. But at the time, the idea that you could have an entire fraternity of geeks — an autonomous social group with reason to be proud of itself and a recognized place in the social ecology — was funny; all by itself it was a comedy premise.

The heroes of Revenge of the Nerds were people who created a fraternity of their own, who bootstrapped a niche for themselves in Grant McCracken’s culture of plenitude. The movie was an extended joke, but it described and perhaps helped create a real phenomenon.

The term ‘geek’ didn’t emerge as a common label, displacing the older and much more sporadically-used ‘nerd’, until around the time of the Internet explosion of 1993-1994. I noticed this development because I didn’t like it; I still prefer to tell people I hang out with hackers (all hackers are geeks, but not all geeks are hackers). Another index of the success of the emerging geek culture is that around that time it stopped being an almost exclusively male phenomenon.

Yes, you catch my implication. When I was growing up we didn’t have geekgirls. Even if the label ‘geek’ had been in use at the time, the idea that women could be so into computers or games or math that they would identify with and hang out with geek guys would have struck us as sheerest fantasy. Even the small minority of geek guys who were good with women (and thus had much less reason to consider them an alien species) would have found the implications of the term ‘geekgirl’ unbelievable before 1995 or so.

(There are people who cannot read an account like the above without assuming that the author is simply projecting his own social and sexual isolation onto others. For the benefit of those people, I will report here that I had good relations with women long before this was anything but rare in my peer group. This only made the isolation of my peers easier to notice.)

What changed? Several things. One is that geek guys are, on the whole, better adjusted and healthier and more presentable today than they were when I was a teenager. Kids today have trouble believing the amount of negative social pressure on intelligent people to pass as normal and boring that was typical before 1980, the situation Revenge of the Nerds satirized and inverted. It meant that the nascent geek culture of the time attracted only the most extreme geniuses and misfits — freaks, borderline autists, obsessives, and other people in reaction against the mainstream. Women generally looked at this and went “ugh!”

But over time, geeky interests became more respectable, even high-status (thanks at least in part to the public spectacle of übergeeks making millions). The whole notion of opposition to the mainstream started to seem dated as ‘mainstream’ culture gradually effloresced into dozens of tribes freakier than geeks (two words: “body piercings”). Thus we started to attract people who were more normal, in psychology if not in talent. Women noticed this. I believe it was in 1992, at a transhumanist party in California, that I first heard a woman matter-of-factly describe the Internet hacker culture as “a source of good boyfriends”. A few years after that we started to get a noticeable intake of women who wanted to become geeks themselves, as opposed to just sleeping with or living with geeks.

The loner/obsessive/perfectionist tendencies of your archetypal geek are rare in women, who are culturally encouraged (and perhaps instinct-wired) to value social support and conformity more. Thus, women entering the geek subculture was a strong sign that it had joined the set of social identities that people think of as ‘normal’. This is still a very recent development; I can’t recall the term ‘geekgirl’ being used at all before about 1998, and I don’t think it became commonly self-applied until 2000 or so.

Interestingly, the dot.com bust does not seem to have slowed down or discredited the geek subculture at all. Websites like http://geekculture.com and http://thinkgeek.com do a flourishing business, successfully betting investment capital on the theory that there is in fact a common subculture or community embracing computer hackers, SF fans, strategy gamers, aficionados of logic puzzles, radio hams, and technology hobbyists of all sorts. Just the fact that a website can advertise The World’s Coolest Propeller Beanies! is indication of how far we’ve come.

I’ve previously observed about one large and important geek subtribe, the Internet hackers, that when people join it they tend to retrospectively re-interpret their past and after a while find it difficult to remember that they weren’t always part of this tribe. I think something similar is true of geeks in general; even those of us who lived through the emergence of geek culture have to struggle a bit to remember what it was like back when we were genuinely atomized outcasts in a culture that was dismissive and hostile.

There are even beginning to be geek families with evidence of generational transmission. I know three generations of one, starting when two computer scientists married in the late 1960s, and had four kids in the 1970s; the kids have since produced a first grandchild who at age five shows every sign of becoming just as avid a gamer/hacker/SF-fan as his parents and grandparents.

Little Isaac, bless him, will grow up in a culture that, in its plenitude, offers lots of artifacts and events designed by and for people like him. He will take the World Wide Web and the Sci-Fi Channel and Yugio and the Lord of the Rings movies and personal computers for granted. He’ll probably never be spat on by a jock, and if he can’t find a girlfriend it will be because the geekgirls and geek groupies are dating other guys like him, rather than being nonexistent.

For Isaac, Revenge of the Nerds will be a quaint period piece with very little more relevance to the social circumstances of his life than a Regency romance. And that is how we know that the nerds indeed got their revenge.

Dec 16

The Racist of Earthsea

In Slate magazine, SF author Ursula LeGuin complains that the
producers of the new Earthsea miniseries have butchered her
work
. One form of butchery that she zeroes in on is by casting
characters who she intended to be red, brown, or black as white
people.

I have mixed feelings. LeGuin has every right to be POed at how
her intentions were ignored, but on the other hand my opinion of her
has not been improved by learning that she intended the books as yet
another wearisomely PC exercise in
multiculturalism/multiracialism.

I liked those books when I read them as a teenager. I didn’t
notice any character’s skin color. I would really prefer not to have
had my experience of those characters retrospectively messed with by
LeGuin’s insistance that the race thing is important.

Note: I am not claiming that all casting should be colorblind. I
remember once watching an otherwise excellent Kenneth Branagh
production of Much Ado About Nothing that was somewhat marred for
me by Branagh’s insistance on casting an American black man as a
Renaissance Italian lord. This was wrong in exactly the same way that
casting a blue-eyed blond as Chaka Zulu or Genghis Khan would be
— it’s so anti-historical that it interferes with the suspension
of disbelief. Fantasy like LeGuin’s, however, doesn’t have this kind
of constraint. Ged and Tenar don’t become either more or less plausible
if their skin color changes.

But what really annoyed me was LeGuin’s claim that only whites have
the “privilege” of being colorblind. This is wrong and tendentious in
several different ways. Colorblindness is not a privilege of anyone,
it’s a duty of everyone — to judge people not by the color of their
skin but the content of their character, and to make race a non-issue
by whatever act of will it takes. (It doesn’t take any effort at all
for me.)

If I had produced the Earthsea miniseries or been in charge of the
art for her books, I would have both (a) respected LeGuin’s wishes
about the skin color (she is the artist), and (b) regretted that she
was so stuck on the issue.

To paraphrase one of my favorite Zen Comix punchlines “I left that
issue at the riverside. Are you still carrying it?”

Dec 08

Left2Right – a critical appraisal

I’ve been reading a new blog called
Left2Right, founded in
mid-November 2004 as an attempt by a group of left-wing intellectuals to reach
out to intelligent people on the right of the American political spectrum.
It is indeed a thought-provoking read, but the thoughts they are provoking
are not necessarily of the sort they intend.

This response is intended for the Left2Right authors, so I’ll
rehearse what will be obvious to regular Armed and
Dangerous
readers; I’m not a conservative or right-winger
myself, but a radical libertarian who finds both ends of the
conventional spectrum about
equally repugnant
. My tradition is the free-market classical liberalism of Locke and
Hayek. I utterly reject both the Marxist program and the reactionary
cultural conservatism of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and (today) the
Religious Right. Conservatism is defined by a desire to preserve
society’s existing power relationships; given a choice, I prefer
subverting them to preserving them.

One advantage my libertarianism gives me is that while I disagree
violently with a lot of right-wing thinking, I understand it much
better than most leftists do. The reverse is not quite as true; while
I do believe I understand left-wing thinking pretty well, most
right-wing intellectuals are not so ignorant of leftism that I have an
unusual advantage there. They can’t be, not after having passed
through the PC indoctrination camps that most American universities
have become.

A right-winger, noting the concentration of philosophy and
humanities professors in the Left2Right bios and the number of them
who list topics like “race and gender issues” as interest areas, would
say that the contributors are typical members of the elite that runs
those camps. But one of the things that Left2Right suggests to this
libertarian is that even these people are prisoners, locked in by
their own group-think. The toughest challenge they face in reaching
out to right-wingers is not a problem with right-wingers — it is the
unexamined premises and lacunae in their own reasoning.

The post
that is at the top of the blog as I write is a subtle but perfect
illustration of this point. J. David Velleman, writing on Bush
administration strategy about the liberation of Iraq, argues that they
fell victim to a philosophical error, believing that giving the Iraqi
people freedom would be sufficient to pacify the country. He writes
“These decisionmakers seem not to have considered the possibility that
freedom alone may not induce people to do wonderful things if they
lack a shared sense of confidence in the legitimacy of the social
order”.

This is a refreshing change from the dimmer sort of left-wing
narrative, in which Bush and Cheney head a sinister cabal who dream
of an American empire that enslaves the Iraqis and steals their oil
for Halliburton. It’s an intelligent criticism; possibly even a
correct one.

But…and this is a large ‘but’…the when Velleman goes on to
imply that “shared confidence in the legitimacy of the social order”
is one of the “values of the left” without which the “values of the
Right are simply not viable”, he reveals himself to be inhabiting some
sort of ahistorical cloud-Cuckoo land. He is making an archetypally
right-wing sort of argument here, one which would sound far more
likely from Russell Kirk or an eighteenth-century clericalist than from
anyone who purports to be part of the tradition of Karl Marx or
Mikhael Bakunin or Emma Goldman.

Velleman’s blythe unawareness of the reactionary tenor of his own
argument suggests more than just a ignorance of right-wing political
thinking that is crippling for anyone engaged in Left2Right’s project;
it suggests that Left thought has become so empty of any content of
its own, so stuck in reflexive oppositionalism, that all that remains
to it is to grab at any concept that can be used to oppose George W.
Bush.

In fact, this model of a Left stuck in reflexive oppositionalism is
exactly what conservative intellectuals believe about it. Their
narrative goes like this: once upon a time, Left thought was a genuine
world-system, a coherent if tragically mistaken competitor to
classical liberalism and capitalism. The Soviet Union used this
theory for evil purposes, to seduce the intelligentsia of the West and
foment among them anti-American, anti-capitalist hatred. When the
Soviet Union collapsed, the Left’s world-system collapsed with it.
All that remained was a catalogue of resentments clothed in the
tattered remnants of Marxist theory, but the Left intelligentsia never
let go of this. As the theory crumbled, the resentments
became the theory. So we are left with a Left that is more
hysterically anti-American than ever, and willing to suck up to
monstrous dictators like Saddam Hussein, precisely because it no
longer knows what to be for.

Now: reread the above paragraph, then ask yourself what Velleman’s
rhetoric will inevitably sound like to a conservative intellectual. You
will know you have gotten it when your hair stands on end.

We continue with a post
by Jeff McMahan on “Support our Troops” bumper stickers. McMahan
appears to mean well, but when writes as though he thinks that the
owners of SUVs and vans who bear these stickers are performing some
kind of Machiavellian calculation about oil-shock risks he is merely
proving that he is laughably out of touch with the thinking of
ordinary Americans.

A gentle hint for Mr. McMahan: People who own vans and SUVs
live in the suburbs. People who live in the suburbs
predominantly vote Republican; this is a cold demographic
fact known to almost everybody whose horizons are wider than those of
an average NPR radio-show host. The fact that you don’t know this, and
instead chase after paranoid all-about-the-oil theories, makes you the
sort of person conservatives laugh about and and point out as a
paradigmatic example of left-liberal cluelessness.

The ahistorical J. David Velleman speaks some good sense in

debunking a dead horse
. He may be dead-ignorant of right-wing thought
but he clearly isn’t stupid. Like all the contributors he radiates a
sense that he is honestly trying.

David Estlund’s The
First Data Point on Anti-Terrorism
starts as fairly standard-issue
Bush-bashing; he ignores the fact that, if the Bush administration was
culpable, the Clinton administration was even more culpable on the
same “knew or should have known” sort of argument. The intelligence
estimates that made al-Qaeda out to be imminently dangerous long
predate the 2000 elections.

The more interesting part of his post is his repetition of the meme
that Republicans won’t listen to arguments or evidence from
intellectuals like him. He is so full of self-congratulation about
the Bushies’ alleged inability to let the evidence lead them where it
will (and by implication, his own superior ability to do so) that he
completely misses the real reason conservative policy makers tune his
kind out.

Mr. Estlund, how can I break this to you gently…the Bushies ignore
advice from left-wing academics because they believe the source is poisoned.
They believe you hate America and want to destroy it. Given
that belief, it would be their duty to listen to your advice only with
the determination to do the exact opposite of anything you recommend.

Now, mind you, in pointing this out, I am not alleging that you
actually do hate America and want to destroy it. My claim is
that from the point of view of most conservatives, that is the only
model that plausibly explains your speech and behavior. They do not
merely pretend to believe your kind is evil as a matter of rhetoric or
tactical positioning, they actually do believe it. With the
best will in the world to listen to critics and weigh evidence, they
still wouldn’t take policy advice from you any more readily than you
would accept it from a Nazi.

(Allow me to contrast this with the position I think more typical of
libertarians, which is that left-wing academics are not evil per se
but have been so canalized by Marxist-derived ideology that on most
politico-economic issues they should be ignored on grounds of
irremediable incompetence.)

So, if you want to be listened to in Washington, your problem (one
which is general to left-wing intellectuals) is how to falsify
conservatives’ belief that you hate America and want to destroy it.
This is not going to be possible at all as long as you express
contempt for the values and reasoning ability of the majority of
Americans that voted for George Bush.

But your problem runs deeper than that. To be listened to, you
will need to demonstrate that you share what present-day American
conservatives think of as their core beliefs, including but not limited
to:

  • The practical and moral superiority of free-market capitalism
    over socialism and all other competing visions of political economics.
  • American exceptionalism — the belief that the U.S. is uniquely
    qualified by history and values to bring liberty to the oppressed of
    the world.
  • Islamic terrorism is an unqualified evil which cannot be explained
    or excused either by “root cause” analysis; further, that laying it
    to past failures in U.S. policy is a form of blaming the victim.

(Note that I am not endorsing these beliefs, simply pointing out that
conservatives generally hold them.)

As long as conservatives believe that you do not share these core
beliefs with them, they will conclude that your policy “help” on Iraq
or the War on Terror would be an active detriment. And — here’s
the hard part — they will be justified in that belief
(which, as you doubtless know, is not the same as the assertion that
the belief is confirmably true).

But you have yet another problem, which is not about the beliefs of
conservative intellectuals or policymaking elites. It is that in
rejecting the core beliefs I have pointed at, you are not merely
defining yourself out of the policy conversation conservatives are
ready to have, you are also out of step with the majority of the
American people. The voters. As long as that continues to be the
case, the Left will continue to lose elections.

Estlund’s posting responds to the previous one, in which Gerald Dworkin
says intelligent things about the Bush administration’s apparent success
at preventing major terrorist acts in the U.S., and the electoral ramifications
thereof. Excellent; if the Left is prepared to face reality this squarely,
there is hope for them yet.

J. David Velleman has more sensible things to say about the
politics of homosexuality. His distinction between the respect that
we owe “gay rights” and the problematic status of “gay pride” is
astute. I think leftists also need to understand that many
conservatives (and libertarians like myself) feel a deep and
principled revulsion not just against “gay pride” but against all
forms of manipulative identity politics, and are heartily fed up with
having leftists construe that revulsion as bigotry.

Stephen Darwall’s School
Resegregation and the Exurbs
, on the other hand, feels like an
attempt to force new wine into old wineskins. The Left’s tendency to
turn every policy argument into a diatribe about racism (too often,
racism that existed nowhere but in the Left’s imagination) was always
one of its least attractive traits. We could do without a
revival.

Again, I am not just discussing elite opinion here. If you go to
the voters with the argument that wanting to live in exurbs is
evidence of racism, they will stiff-arm you. Actually, I think it is
only the hothouse atmosphere of the academy that has kept racism alive
as a topic in American thought for the last fifteen years or so.

In Being
Forthright
, Seanna Shiffrin says nothing at all that has any
chance of increasing understanding between Left and Right, and does so
at some length. Her screed reads, to any conservative (and even to a
libertarian like me) as extended self-congratulation about how Left
convictions are so obviously correct that if leftists trumpet them
loudly enough the people will come.

This is a perfect example of the wages of groupthink. In fact, if the
six election cycles since 1980 demonstrate anything, it is that being
more “forthright” about left-wing positions is a recipe for electoral
disaster.

Kwame Appiah takes
the opposite tack
: “In these circumstances I think it would be
better to show up first with an offer to listen than with an offer to
talk.” A commenter correctly observes that this may be the most
useful thing we have heard a Democrat say since the elections.

Unfortunately, the rest of the posting is yet another narrative about
left-wing superiority, though Mr. Appiah gives it the novel twist of
ascribing this belief to right-wingers! For this he is quite properly
taken to the woodshed buy some conservative commenters.

Speaking as an observer who is (once again) not a
conservative, I salute the commenter who said “I think you go
profoundly astray in this understanding of why conservatives rail
against the liberal media. It isn’t about being liked. It is about
believing that the liberal media distorts the truth and manipulates
beliefs by using such distortions. They rail against the political and
social power which they believe is being corruptly used.

I’ll go further than that. I resent the way that the Left uses its
effective control of the mainstream media to manipulate belief even
when the manipulation advances causes I agree with —
for example, abortion rights. I don’t like “pro-lifers” and I don’t
agree with them — but that doesn’t stop me from noticing that
they get stigmatized as all being yahoos and routinely associated with
clinic-bombers by the same media that is very painstaking in
separating the Left’s violent crazies from allegedly more
“respectable” organizations like Greenpeace or PETA.

It is wise of Joshua Cohen to have noticed
that gay-marriage initiatives probably actually hurt Bush rather than
winning him the election. If the Left continues to comfort itself by
believing its only real problem is with Christian evangelicals, it will
slide further into denial and irrelevancy.

The American rejection of what Cohen calls “progressive values” is
much, much broader based than that. As an agnostic Wiccan who thinks
the War on Drugs was a huge toxic blunder, I am not personally
thrilled about this development, but I recognize it as fact
nevertheless. Mr. Cohen is to be commended for urging this unwelcome
news on the Left.

On the other hand, J. David Velleman’s post
on the Academic Bill of Rights does not go nearly far enough. His is
a more sophisticated form of defensive crouch than the outright denial
we usually see, but merely admitting that “large regions of the
humanities and social sciences have become increasingly ideological,” doesn’t
even come close to addressing the actual magnitude of the problem.

I am, in an important sense, an applied humanist/sociologist. My
analysis
of the anthropology and sociology of open-source software development
has a significant reputation in academia; it has been cited with the
coveted adjective “seminal” and spawned quite a number of master’s and
doctoral theses. My work has required that I enter the conceptual
world of modern “humanities and social sciences” — not merely to
theorize about these disciplines, but to use them in ways
that have helped trigger transformative changes in the software
industry.

I have immodestly set forth these qualifications here because my
experience requires an even stronger indictment than David Horowitz’s,
let alone the mild one that Mr. Velleman will admit. I have
encountered entire academic fields that have been effectively
destroyed by Left politics, in the sense that they can no
longer talk about anything other than power relations. Postmodern
literary criticism is only the most obvious example; for that matter,
postmodernist anything is reliably a nihilist swamp obsessed
with ‘agendas’ and ‘power relations’ to the exclusion of its
ostensible subject matter.

Here’s one that affects me particularly: the damage done to
cultural anthropology has been horrific, with the perverse effect of
making my amateur and tentative essays in it look far stronger than
they would have if the field were actually healthy.

I don’t have a fix for this problem. But I do know that more than any
mere housecleaning is needed. Some of these dwellings are so rotted out
that they will have to be razed and rebuilt before they are habitable
by anything but political animals.

Don Herzog is right to ask, in
Religion and politics
, exactly what conservatives want when they say
Americans should agree that we a “Christian nation”. This is exactly the
sort of question that the Left, if its continued existence is to mean
anything useful, should be pushing.

J. David Velleman makes the surprising concession
that Roe V. Wade was bad politics and bad law. As a pro-choicer who
nevertheless agrees with conservatives on this point (and largely for
the reasons Velleman states), I have been wondering when the Left
would begin to wake up on this point.

Groupthink shows up again in Gerald Dworkin’s Less
contempt; more mutual ground
. I’m thinking in particular of his claim
that “Both those who advocate gun-control and those who oppose it can
agree that trigger-locks and other safety devices are desirable.”

It is evident here that Mr. Dworkin has no idea what pro-firearms
activists like myself actually believe. It seems likely he has never
actually spoken with one; otherwise he would know that we regard
trigger locks as bad things, because they reduce the utility of
firearms for one of their principal purposes — self-defense. If
your friendly neighborhood junkie breaks into your home and menaces
your family with a knife (or, as in one recent case, a branding iron)
you need to be able to get the weapon into play fast.
Trigger locks and soi-disant “safety devices” primarily benefit
criminals by reducing their risks.

In fact, we regard the push for trigger locks as an underhanded
attempt to make self-defense impractical so that popular support for
firearms rights will lose a major prop. If Mr. Dworkin had ever discussed
this issue outside a UC Davis faculty meeting, he would probably know
this.

In Not
Too Bright
, J. David Velleman misses a central point about
American hostility to the “intelligentsia” because he falls back into
the comforting Left groupthink about the Christian evangelicals and
“moral values”.

I’m an intellectual myself, not a Christian, not a conservative.
Yet I understand the emotion Mr. Dworkin reads as
“anti-intellectualism”; I even sympathize with it to some extent. It
is a folk reaction to what Julian Benda called le trahison
des clercs
. The West’s intelligentsia — not all of it, but
enough of it to tar all of us — was a willing accomplice in the
terrible totalitarian crimes of the 20th century. Today, the same
segments of the intelligentsia that cooperated with Stalinism are
issuing apologetics for al-Qaeda. (This is not just metaphorically but
literally the case, as the pedigree of A.N.S.W.E.R. and the
“Not In Our Name” organizers shows.)

Until the academic Left faces up to the evil at the center of its
own history, it will completely fail to understand why
“anti-intellectualism” is common even anong people who find Christian
“moral values” argument as off-putting as I do.

We could ask for no better illustration of the blindness induced by
comforting groupthink than Elizabeth Anderson’s
What Hume can teach us about our partisan divisions
.

She writes “If interests were all that divided us, the Democratic
Party (what there is of the Left that has institutional power) would
enjoy an overwhelming majority, since it represents the interests of
the bulk of the population, while Republican policies favor mainly the
rich. Most people understand this, and the Left can offer sound
arguments and evidence to persuade those who disagree.”

I am not a Republican. I have never been a Republican. But claims
like this, presented as though they are unassailable fact, utterly
infuriate me. And if they infuriate me, imagine how they
would affect an actual conservative!

As a matter of political economics, I believe that the high-tax,
high-spending policies of the Democrats benefit nobody except
a small class of elite parasites and a slightly larger one of welfare
clients; the “bulk of the population” gets shafted, forced to pay the
bill for redistributive programs that wind up doing net damage to
society. Nor is there any reason, given that the Democrats now rely
more on wealthy contributors than the Republicans, to credit the
worn-out canard that Republicans are tools of the rich.

It is not, however, the factual falsity of Ms. Anderson’s claim
that is most infuriating, but its smugness, its blind arrogance,
its casual assumption that no reasonable person could possibly
disagree with the premises. Anyone who decides to reject Julian
Benda’s analysis need look no further for an explanation of
American anti-intellectualism than this. After reading it, I’m
almost ready to torch the nearest ivory tower myself.

It is a good thing that the skein finishes (actually, begins) with
David J. Velleman’s honest puzzlement about conservative notions of “absolute
evil”; otherwise, with the taste of Ms, Anderson’s purblind parochialism
in my mouth, I might have to conclude that Left2Right’s project is
unsalvageable.

What can we conclude from Left2Right’s first three weeks of
postings? My own evaluation begins with praise: comparing with what I
read elsewhere, I think these writers truly do represent the best of
the modern Left. I see more willingness than I might have expected
to honestly question some of the Left’s sacred cows.

Unfortunately, the news is far from all good. Too many smug
shibboleths are also being repeated here. There is too much talk and
not enough listening – not enough attempt to engage the Right’s
beliefs (as opposed to a comforting left-wing parody of those beliefs).

Kwame Appiah is right. If you really want to build a healthy
dialogue with the right-wing majority in America, you need to approach
them not to teach but to learn.