Thursday, August 25, 2011

J. Bradford Delong's commenters deconstruct Obama

Damn straight:

If you look at Obama as a politician, his entire MO is to look at what his political opponents are proposing, and then take a position that's one step closer to the center than theirs. It's what he did in the primaries, it's what he did in the general, and it's what he's done in office. That's the whole thing, the super-high level multi-dimensional chess that the rest of us were too dense to comprehend, the brilliant nefariousness, everything. Of course, such an approach is entirely disinterested in policy and outcomes, but that isn't really Obama's problem or interest. And also of course, if you don't really concern yourself with outcomes, your outcomes aren't likely to be all that great.

If you spend a lot of time trying to deconstruct an approach like that you end up tieing yourself in knots -- it's rather like trying to deconstruct extreme nonsense verse. Such attempts end up revealing more about the doconstructor [sic] than the subject matter itself.

This is simply the Democratic congressional election strategy transported down Pennsylvania Avenue. Everyone dives for cover and makes sure they camouflage themselves by sounding just a little more moderate than their opponent. The Republicans have become adept at exploiting this, first filling the message void Democrats have created for themselves, then moving ever further to the right, pulling the Democrats with them.

It really doesn't matter how many seats we win, the Republicans win the future. We have been arguing who has the better approach to supply-side economics for the last thirty years. We have done nothing to change that conversation, even when the evidence was plain that supply-side was a sham. This was the President's responsibility and his biggest failure to date.

I mean, am I the only one to find Obamapologistas relentlessly, tiresomely Panglossian? "He did it the best way he could, and no other way could have possible led to a better outcome [in this, the best of all possible worlds]". Or the similar tune, "Maybe it could've been done better, but considering everything, it maybe wasn't the best but it was the most you could expect given the opposition [in this, the best of all possible worlds]."

I understand the impulse to avoid the fallacy of "If X had just done Y, we wouldn't have all these problems." Yet at the same time, it's senseless and anti-logic to insist that nothing could have happened in any other way, or that every other possible way for Obama et al. to have played things in the past 3 years would've been a) worse or b) IMPOSSIBLE.

Ugh and argh. Might I toot my own horn a bit here and say that a number of friends have found my old/previous posts on Obama to have been borne out, in essence? Though most of them, at the same time, don't want to spend too much time thinking about that because it's too disillusioning... Somehow my happy bubble of pessimistic optimism... cynical happy-realism... um, whatever it is I have, I still have. But as for a while now, it doesn't include much confidence, happiness, or willingness to vote for centrist Democrats.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Shit from the Vaults: BSG

So, a little something from my files. I expect I may get some comments from friends on this. I'm hoping I'm able to ignore them -- I'm behind in about 15 things, most of them annoying :-/ But I still wanted to put this up here so it could be squeezed out of my mind grapes.

Warning: SPOILERS.


“I’m not going to live in it. Captain, I’m a monster.”
--The Operative, Serenity

Although I found the series quite affecting and effective—high production values, sharp writing, great characters that drew you in, suspenseful action—there is one thing perhaps that so galled me about BSG (Battlestar Galactica) that it took me out of the series completely and made me basically, care less for whether our heroes, our species, survived. I repeatedly came back, because of the factors I mentioned before—it was an extremely good series. But each time I came back, my excitement eventually waned and I plowed through episodes, hoping for the sweet release of conclusion, again swept up into individual scenes or episodes but left empty on the whole. The thing about this incredibly gritty show, full of emotional-political verisimilitude, vast constellations of moral gray, constant compromises and moral vicissitudes, the thing that eventually overcame the excellent characters in my mind and made their convincing emoting tedious was that eventually, all was overhelmed to me by the question “Do we (they) deserve to survive?” Is there a bridge too far such that, as a species, you no longer deserve to live? Is there any compromise that must not be made, else we’ve lost ourselves in the breach? To me, the interesting question may not necessarily be if there’s such a line, but rather, where it is. But BSG seemed to so constantly answer that there was no such line, or if there was, it was understandable, even admirable, to cross it. (And for the sake of narrative continuation, to assume that the line re-set somewhere afterwards; otherwise, if the idea that there was no line was truly embraced, the moral anguish and grittiness disappears, robbing the weighty episodes somewhat of their heft because if anything goes, without remorse or question, there is much less dramatic tension.) Such dynamics may be quite interesting to watch, and even may again reflect the complexities of reality, yet it felt to me like this larger question (Are we truly damned if we do this?) was time after time ignored, forgotten, never raised or sort of waved away by an affecting scene reuniting friends or lovers, or more often distracted from by a new tragedy to be wrought on our characters in order to once again make them sympathetic.

Within this gray moral universe, all of the characters, at some point, became monsters to me, monsters who, like Whedon’s Operative, had no place in the “better world,” no place in a world that once again knew peace, no place being the founding patrons of the continuation of our race. If one admits this, as The Operative did, there are a number of possibly interesting ways to explore it—perhaps no compromise is to far, because survival means the ability to try and make amends or do better next time, and without survival there is no next time. Perhaps survival means continuing on in the hope that your descendants can reach a place where they can make more sophisticated moral choices—again, echoing The Operative’s idea of founding a brave new world that would have no place for those such as we. Or perhaps morality only matters when you can afford to indulge in it without jeopardizing the existence of your species. If so, however, such a message goes against the cultural tropes we’re brought up in (though it fits rather well into the realpolitik world where it’s said that “The Constitution is not a suicide pact”).

We’re well-versed in the idea that some things are worth dying for, and the characters in BSG are no different, constantly risking their lives for each other, for the species, for life, for love, for faith, for loyalty (and for craven self-interest in Baltar’s case, time and again)—but the thing is, all of these came into conflict with each other time after time, and it seems like pretty much all of the characters violated one in favor of the other at some point. A case in point, to me, was the quite excellent episode where Adama pater refused to jump (that is, leave the area at effectively faster-than-light) the Galactica because he wouldn’t leave Kara Thrace behind. (He later said to his son that had it been him, they would never have left.) An excellent, affecting episode—yet it seemed to me that the show (or more accurately the writers) never fully grappled with what this meant in real terms. That is, Adama was willing to risk the ship, and by extension the fleet, and by further extension the human race, to recover Kara (essentially, his adoptive daughter). At no point does this, which is essentially a dereliction of his duty on multiple levels, come back to bite him directly (though this trait manifests itself in other ways and causes other crises throughout the series). Co-occurring with this is the recurring evidence of his crew’s devotion to him. This devotion decays, frays, and re-forms throughout the series, and its tattering does have its roots in his devotion to personal loyalty over larger duties (for example, standing by his closest friends even after rather startling revelations about them [SPOILER] i.e. that his first officer and old friend Tyrol is actually a Cylon, the human race’s enemy throughout the series, responsible for the genocide of billions at the series’ start [/SPOILER]). But time and again he is able to draw on his moral authority, both narratively in the form of taking the part of “hero” in a number of stories, and within the plot, such as various grunts, non-comms and officers staying devoted to him through thick and thin and his actions in guiding, commanding, and occasionally taking over the fleet of human survivors. Perhaps, one thinks, they respect his personal loyalty and see it as representing his loyalty to all of them as individuals—yet this loyalty to individuals is a liability for the human race itself, something that tended to be voiced only by villainous or characters of darkly-tinged morality. Further, it seems clearly selfish—he pushed the envelope for his adoptive daughter, yet he tells his biological son that he would’ve pushed even further had it been him. He clearly is able to sacrifice the lives of others of his crew—not just on the line, in battle, where he does indeed endure his children putting themselves in danger’s way, but in leaving behind, arresting, overthrowing or executing those who expediency or necessity requires. Again, there is much to admire for such loyalty, but it made it hard for me to take credibly when the show and characters demanded certain sacrifices must be made for the sake of humanity—excusing torture, rape and extra-judicial execution, justifying the suspension of democracy or secretly rigging the stakes against it, sublimating personal feelings or desires, etc. etc. etc. Yet for our main characters, risking our survival was ok, even admirable when they did it. This is what I mean by our characters nobly putting their lives on the line for their principles—but what principles they were doing so for that week depended. Thus in the end no line couldn’t be crossed for some reason, and no value was sacrosanct in the face of whatever plot-relevant value we were worried about this week.

This created characters of incredible moral complexity, but that’s another manifestation of this problem—people with this much emotional damage just wouldn’t function any more. I suppose that’s often true, it’s a bit of the reality of all action-packed fiction, but BSG plumbed new levels of moral ambiguity, constantly, and this is reason #eleventy the finale didn’t work for me. There would not be a happily ever after for people so scarred—PTSD has nothing on them. Further, I didn’t want there to be a happily ever after—they had become so compromised, so “gray” that I didn’t care for them as human beings. They/we did not, in my opinion, still deserve to live. Nor deserve to die, per se, I’m just saying my empathy for the characters had left me. The show’s genius, or one of them, was the ability to keep thrusting us into the characters’ inner conflicts and make us care, but it feels rather like being a fan of your college sports team—at some point, you’re probably cheering on at least one alleged date-rapist or so, but when they pull a touchdown out of a difficult situation, get that surprise interception, you cheer as loud as anyone. Only later, perhaps, (maybe after the conviction) does the victory taste of ash.

Baltar is the incredible example of this. Ron Moore has said, I think, that the two-faced and morally ambiguous doctor (something like BSG’s own Snape) is his favorite character, and he is a character of exquisite ambiguity, falling climbing and jumping from one dilemma to the next, betraying people and saving them at somewhat unpredictable intervals. But the one constant in the series was that he always, always, always ran away from personal danger—if he could save his craven life, he would do it in whatever craven way available to him. (Ok, two constants: he also couldn’t and wouldn’t say no to sex, for any reason, at any time, with an attractive woman of whatever species it seemed. Sex ranked perhaps one and a half steps below survival in his driving passions, though his extreme lack of foresight often meant that he was surprised by unwise sex endangering his survival.) This man gets a happy ending at the end, seemingly redeemed in the series’ eyes—and seemingly for essentially one or two acts of non-cravenness, for standing up for once for what was right, and charging into battle guns blasting, with luck saving him more than anything else. One act of bravery, conducted stupidly and impulsively, excuses years of bad acts? For fucks’ sake, show.

Bottom line for me was that BSG refused to face the simple idea put forward in Joss Whedon’s Firefly: that perhaps sometimes the sacrifice one must make to make a “better world” compromises the possibility of making such a world in the first place. Perhaps survival—interestingly, pursued relentlessly and at all costs by the creator’s favorite character, still to be forgiven in the end—does break all ties, yet when it was narratively convenient, it didn’t. But it seems that the show didn’t want to completely admit this—that some lines, once crossed, bar a peaceful end. Oh sure, people suffered for their choices, but in the end those who survived were effectively fêted as heroes, given a musical-emotional tongue bath by the beautiful, but to me hollow, ending. One who had made the darkest act, an act of passion that doomed reconciliation between two races and caused the near-annhilation of one of them, wandered off, apparently too broken inside to stay in society, yet the fact that he nearly caused the end of two races in his rage wasn’t really broached. Again, it’s one thing for a protagonist to do such a thing; it’s another for him to do it and the show pull our heartstrings for him nonetheless (and to have spent so long convincing us that survival was paramount and anything could be betrayed in its service for most characters).

I believe that some lines, once crossed, do all but preclude redemption. I say “all but”, because perhaps, given enough time, enough good acts, enough work and regret, redemption can be conceived of for nigh anything. But BSG didn’t just sometimes ignore the question of how much redemption was enough; it was very fond of forgetting the idea that redemption was necessary in the first place. It wanted to be dark and gritty, nigh-nihilistic, while asking us to believe in fate and some kind of loving God or something. But in reality, neither the Cylons, nor the One True God, nor Moore or anyone else had a Real Plan. The God that, apparently, actually exists, in the end, and sent Head Six, Head Baltar, and [SPOILER] Reincarnated Thrace [/SPOILER] had a plan that inexplicably included the near genocide of the human race, in order to teach the human race… what? Nothing? Should we be comforted, tolerant, or even terribly interested in a God that apparently can intervene enough to send Angels directly into people’s heads and guide them ‘round a merry chase, but chooses to either abet or not to prevent a genocide? What lesson were we supposed to learn from that? The God crossed a line right there in the very beginning of the series, wiping out (or allowing to be wiped out) billions, and spending a disproportionate amount of time inside the mind of one of the least morally scrupulous characters, without seeming to do much to truly redeem him until a futile, moronic gesture crosses him over.

I’m not annoyed that BSG asked or posed or created such questions. I just continue to be annoyed that it didn’t even seem to realize that it HAD done so.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Return of the mack

Ok, this actually has nothing to do with Mark Morrison or being ostentatious to attract members of the opposite sex. It's simply the return of my oh-so-typical situation of getting sucked into reading news and commentary instead of getting things done that are due imminently.

But I'm using bits of Scott's Seeing Like a State in my course, and got sucked in to reading Brad DeLong's review of it from some years ago, and then a much better (in my opinion) response to his review and long discussion thread at Crooked Timber. If you have any interest in market-state debates and other fiddly detailed arguments on human governance systems, a solid reference (the comments as much so as the original post). There's something interesting to be said, I think, about the separation between many "pop" or run-of-the-mill libertarians and the dedicated academic libertarians that engage in the much more interesting (imho) and complicated debates the deal with all sorts of complications and refinements and imbroglios with markets, ideology, institutions, and government (like the interesting idea that markets can only ever be instantiated by the presence of government, or at least, effective markets of a given scale, and of course the fact that markets are always constituted contextually, not abstractly, and as such abstract rules about their efficiency or rectitude can't be applied a priori... and now I'm boring even myself) (ok, I'm not, but probably all of you). I'm sure this is common not just in the academic/pop libertarian circles (cf. any other philosophy) but I find it most interesting perhaps in libertarianism (perhaps because of its somewhat unique claims to a sort of intellectual purity and certitude)--
"'Will governments or market actors figure that out first and harness the proper skills first? Almost certainly the market will find out first.' No. There’s never a guarantee, and you have no data to show there is. The pretense that there could be either way is the ideology of modernism, and libertarianism is the last of the modernist ideologies, mostly as parody.--Seth Edenbaum

For a final bit of procrastinatory pretentiousness: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Friday, March 18, 2011

Placeholder Post: "Free Will" is undefined

Hello all -- haven't been here for a dog's age, for a number of reasons. But my semi-regular mid-morning splurge of reading a backlog of news, blogs, emails, etc. brought me to some folks cynical on the future of human survival and one dude cynical on conservation or sustainability, period (conservation being the propping up of things found unfit to survive, seeming to be his point). For one thing, it occurred to me that both of these dudes (one immensely annoying, one that I simply disagree with--and who is one of the few folks linking to this blog) seem rather certain of their conclusions. They both, to be sure, use critical thinking processes and scientific evidence to reach their conclusions. But they seem to evince a certainty in things I neither a) share, b) find productive, or c) find utility-maximizing. That is to say, if we know anything from patterns from history (which both thinkers rely on extensively, with good reason), we know that certainty that you have reasoned correctly has very little, if any, correlation with the odds that you have reasoned correctly. Many people who are certain are wrong, and many who are tentative have been proven right. So their certainty in their pronouncements I find annoying (says the guy with enough certainty to declare things on blogs).

But this spiraled into a series of other thoughts in the shower (few enough of which had to do with the papers that I need to grade, others I need write, or the breakfast I need to eat, sigh), and led me back to an idea I had the other day:

Free Will is undefinable.

I've had this thought before (though I'm not going to be arsed with finding a link for yeh), but my thought before was more that you could not put into precise words what you mean by free will. This is true for a certain number of people, but Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) among others have simply summed it up as this: the ability to make choices that don't originate purely from material causes (i.e. it can't be traced through physical causes and changes in the brain and environment, i.e. it has a supra-natural--supernatural, if you will--origination). In other words, if there is no soul or manifest self beyond biology, there cannot be free will, because biology, like everything else, is subject to deterministic laws. (For our purposes here, I define even chaotic results are deterministic, in that their outcomes are still determined by physical laws, there is just room for multiple outcomes under the determined constraints. Philosophy Bro briefly broaches some of this under indeterminism.) But it occurred to me a bit ago: a soul is undefined.

Ok, so this is turning into a post, not a placeholder. But: the soul. Let's stick with Christian conceits--if Hell were unending torment, or Heaven unending pleasure, what would that mean? It occurred to me--the human brain is configured in such a way that it would eventually just stop registering pain if it went on forever; you'd become inured to it. If you didn't, or if it kept escalating, you'd go some form of crazy--you would no longer be yourself. And once you've lost your mind, can you keep losing it, some more? Same with unending heavenly bliss--novelty is important to human satisfaction. If you just get the same pleasure again and again, you again become inured to it (see: hard drugs) and need "higher highs". And again, if they keep going higher ad infinitum, well, we're back to insanity in the membranity.

But it's all heavenly and shit, right? It defies the laws of physical reality. Ok -- so -- imagine you, but it's a you with no maximum capacity for pleasure or pain. You can keep getting "higher" or "lower" forever. And ever. Like, not years, decades. Centuries. Millennia. Eons. Umm... no. "You" would no longer be "you", at least, not in any way you recognize--are you the same person you were as a newborn? No? Well imagine that level of change... times infinity. But, if it's your soul, it's something that's *more* you than *you*, right? It's your *essence*. Well, if our essence is something so essential that it's the same from when we're a newborn (imagine here, for example, newborn Jesus, Hitler, Buddha, Stalin, Gandhi, Mandela, and MLK--and imagine that at birth, somehow, their essences are as different or distinct from each other as they were at any other point in their life), then our essence is something that is essentially unknowable, un-understandable to us, ourselves.

Ok -- all of this is to say that all that we know of ourselves is grounded in material reality. If free will is defined as the ability to make decisions outside of physical causes, well--imagine what that means. What does it mean to make a choice unconstrained by anything? If we had a "soul" unconstrained by our biology, how would our choices differ? "Well," one could say, "They would be rational." Ok--rational according to what metric or goal? That is to say, would they be rational at maximizing our own "well-being", at maximizing the world's, at pure logic, at what? And what reason would "they", this soul, have to maximize any of those things if it wasn't constrained by biology and physics et al.? Without human subjectivity, as I've been telling my students, there is no reason to prefer existence to non-existence, good to bad, life to death, justice to injustice, fairness to unfairness.

This all changes, of course, if one presumes the universe is set up in some way to achieve some transcendental good of which we are only dimly aware (or any other transcendental goal, I guess). I would argue that "good" is undefinable outside of our experience, but it cannot be proven that there is not some ultimate "good" or "bad" we're stretching to in the very fabric of being (in the same way that it cannot be proven that my carpet is not made of infinitely many ingeniously disguised Timorese Leprachauns).