Instapun*** Archive Listing

Archive Listing
April 20, 2012 - April 13, 2012

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I don't know why this is
relevant today...but it is.

Oppressed minority? Slave? Or cultural keystone.

LADIES. I've been blogging for a long time now, an eternity in Internet terms. Last week I had reason to cite an early post that dated to pre-Internet times. In the process I stumbled on a 2003 entry from this blog's precursor site, and when I finally reread it today I knew I had to post it again here in 2011. I don't know why. I'm counting on you guys to tell me the reason for my sense of compulsion.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

The Dinosaur Perspective

This latest entry requires a bit of setup because it began as a dialogue across the divide between conservatives and liberals. I discovered, on a "right-wing" website, a link to 'Pussification,' a deliberately outrageous satirical essay by one Kim du Toit (, who delights in playing the unreconstructed male chauvinist gun nut. I found the piece funny, sharp and, in the way of good satire, incisively true in many essentials. Du Toit had also created a link to an extended dissenting opinion at a website called Philosoraptor ( I read this essay as well and had a mixed reaction to it. The prose resonated with the usual liberal tone of superiority, and much of the argument marched down the predictable dogmatic path of secular egalitarian orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I sensed here and there an intent, an aspiration even, to be fair and even-handed: Philosoraptor went so far as to allow that du Toit's argument included elements that in less 'neanderthal' hands might be worthy of further thought. I also suspected that the attempt at even-handedness was being undermined by youth, naivete, or both. For example, he began his argument thus:

"I’m torn about Kim du Toit’s essay about, as I’ll put it, avoiding his gratuitous crudity, the wimpification of the Western male. I’m inclined to ignore it, since it’s unlikely that anyone who found the essay insightful will listen to anything I have to say about it; but du Toit is full of shit, and that, combined with the apparent popularity of the essay on the right wing of the web makes it hard to ignore. I’m torn about it also because… I do think that the threat of wimpification is worth discussing. That’s why it’s too bad that du Toit’s essay is such a piece of crap--the wimpification point gets lost in a torrent of bigotry, falsehoods, and right-wing fantasies."

I thought it laudable that he would consider up front the possibility that "wimpification is worth discussing." I thought it very X-gen that he would haughtily shrink from the word "pussification" and then use the word "shit" in the very next sentence. As he proceeded with his extended denunciation of anti-feminist reaction, I also found myself doing a double-take at a few of his assumptions:

"Conservatism is currently the Colossus of American politics. Extremist conservatives control the Presidency and both houses of Congress, and conservatives exercise virtually unchallenged control of the political agenda… Never in my lifetime has one end of the political spectrum so dominated American public life."

Let's see: the last time one party held the presidency and both houses of Congress was… 1992? And then there was this:

"Here’s another textbook fallacy (note: sounds like “phallus,” but means something different. And, although I know you think that using a phallus makes you smart, using a fallacy does the opposite.) This fallacy is called the “post hoc fallacy” from post hoc ergo propter hoc. That’s Latin, which is an old language that smart people used to use. It means after this, therefore because of this. See, what you are saying is that government got bad after we foolishly started treating women as if they were human beings, letting them vote and suchlike. So, since it happened after women got the vote, it must have been women’s voting that caused it. Textbook fallacy. Oops...I meant: textbook fallacy, dumbass. First, government has probably gotten less intrusive since women got the vote. The government has, since then, become less likely to interfere with sex acts between adults, abortion, and contraceptive use. It was, until recently, less likely to tell us what we could and couldn’t read. But, far more importantly, the country has become far more just and fair since women got the vote—think about the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the early ‘60’s. Since these were passed after women got the vote, should women get the credit for them? You know, men did have al little something to do with ‘em. Especially Lyndon Johnson. You should like Johnson—he’s a little like W. He’s from Texas, and he lied to get us into a war. But he cared about civil rights, so he's different, too."

Government less intrusive since 1920? (Time out for head scratching.) I was convinced I was reading the work of a youngster, and so, looking past the actual subject of his diatribe, I sent Philosoraptor an email in which I suggested that his perceptions were distorted by ignorance attributable to his youth. I was somewhat patronizing but not hostile. I suggested that he suspend his automatic assumption of superiority over dinosaurs such as Du Toit and (by implication) me.

I promptly received a courteous reply from Philosoraptor. He told me I was mistaken in my assessment of his youth. He told me he was 40 years old. (More head scratching.) He shared some particulars of his background and upbringing. He reemphasized his scorn for du Toit but conceded he might have been wrong in his assertions about a trend toward less intrusive government. He also allowed that there were extremists at both ends of the political spectrum but opined that the extreme left had been effectively marginalized, while the extreme right had contrived to capture the center of political debate. He thanked me for writing.

Thereupon, I was moved to write the following:

Dear Philosoraptor,

I grant that 40 isn't a kid anymore, and I was initially surprised when you clocked in at that age, but it has caused me to rediscover an idea I've considered in the past. I am 50, older than you but only moderately so in chronological terms. Yet the idea I'll share with you is that the particular ten years of difference between us amount to a whole world of experience and perspective that is critically important.

I am not insulting the character of your youth and upbringing. I accept that they are as you say they are. Why, then, do you still strike me as naïve? For example, your email statement that the far right is now taking over the center, while the far left is marginalized sounds to me, well, ludicrous. Why?

The ten years I have over you takes in the American culture and politics of the late 1950s, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK, the mounting protests against the Vietnam War, the sudden arrival of drugs, the semi-revolutionary generation gap between teenagers and parents, SDS, the Black Panthers, the RFK/MLK assassinations, feminism, Woodstock, Altamont, Kent State, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Watergate. Granted, you were also alive during some of this, but you were not witness to the extraordinary transformation of the country that happened in this short period of time, and you cannot know with real emotional conviction the "before" that gave way to the "after" we have all inherited.

Before the transformation, liberal Democrats were JFK and LBJ. They differed from conservatives in believing that government should be more activist in trying to ameliorate inequities in the population. They wanted bigger government, more federal controls of business, more federal law in areas such as civil rights. Republicans wanted less of all these things. Both Democrats and Republicans were united in their defense of the nation against foreign threats. Democrats wanted, perhaps, to spend less on defense, not because they wanted to undermine the military, but because they wanted more to spend on social programs.

It is popular now to regard the "before" era as a repressive, stultified dark age. For some percentage of the population, every age is a dark age. In every age, some constituencies suffer more injustices than others. This does not mean that every age is inherently without value and virtue. So it is with the "before" I remember that you cannot.

In the context of that time, your assertion that the far right has occupied the center is absurd. What happened in the 1960s was that the entire nation lurched, or was hijacked, left. What used to be a leftism so secret that it often accompanied membership in the Communist Party became the accepted left wing of the Democratic Party, which re-engineered the party's nominating process so that Democrats strong on national defense could never again be nominated. The influence of this part of the Democratic Party combined their reflexive responses to Vietnam and Watergate into a permanent hostility to the use of American military power overseas and to the executive branch, especially in matters of foreign policy and especially when Republicans held office.

In the "before" era, the current posture of the Democratic presidential candidates toward the president and his foreign policy would have been unthinkable. Harry Truman faced at least as difficult a situation in Korea as George Bush does now, with far fewer immediate national security issues at stake, and while he faced political opposition to his war policy, he was not accused of lying, cronyism, imperialism, self-aggrandizement, and fraud. JFK brought us so close to nuclear war that I can still remember days of direct, continuous cold fear, but in the aftermath, no one sought to turn his government inside out for the purpose of ridiculing his decision making and his honesty. I know you are itching to leap in here with your current events expertise to make the usual liberal case for why all these charges are true, but bear with me for a moment. Regardless of what merit you believe your case holds, what you cannot see is that the whole context in which it is socially acceptable to hate George Bush with the open venom you (or your colleagues, if I'm being presumptuous about you) display is a function of "after" -- after Vietnam, after Watergate. These events gave the permission for the politics of personal destruction, a kind of total war that could bring down even the President of the United States. That's right. It didn't start with Nixon. Or with Clinton. It started with demonstrators outside the White House in 1966: "Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?"

You can argue all you want that it's better now, that the transformation was justified. I will contend that it wasn't, while allowing for opposing views. What I insist on is that much that was good has been lost. My father loathed JFK; during that president's term in office my father spent almost half his time overseas on business. And when he was on foreign soil, he refused ever to say a word against Kennedy or the policy of the U.S. government. Neither did his fellow Americans.

Many rank-and-file Republicans were bitterly disappointed that Nixon refused to contest what appeared to be flagrant voting irregularities in Mayor Daley's Chicago, which represented the county that gave JFK Illinois and the election. Nixon refused to turn the presidential election into a partisan legal battle because of the dangerous precedent it would set. Before. Politics at both the citizen and candidate level had some standards of decorum.

Other things have been lost as well, notably quality of life for the overwhelming majority of Americans. In the 1970s, this country embarked on the most radical social experiment ever attempted by a human society, without even allowing itself to recognize that it was an experiment. I'm referring to feminism. Five thousand years of accumulated traditions and roles were almost immediately junked. If you never knew the "before" it's easy to see why all this seems like it must represent all that is best in humanity -- justice, freedom, equality, and so on. Yet it also seems that no one is counting the cost. The divorce rate has skyrocketed, illegitimate births have risen to astonishing levels, juvenile encounters with drugs, crime, and sex have moved from virtually nonexistent to epidemic, educational achievement has plummeted to near ruin, and a new statistic called "abortions per year" was developed, computed into the millions, and then banished from the pages of the almanac because we don't like counting it anymore. Do women at least seem happier to those of us who remember the "before"? No. They don't seem happier. Their marriages crumble, the new equality deprives them of the protections they used to enjoy in the event of divorce, their children are too often unsupervised, too often kidnapped by their unsupervised peers into addiction, sexual promiscuity, and premature cynicism. Further, women feel obligated to pursue careers that turn out to be -- surprise! -- tedious, stressful, wearying, and debasing (whether in the factory or the boardroom, the "Company's" most universal motive is debasement). They abandon age-old protections of dress, behavior, and speech, and -- surprise! -- they pay for it with date rape, violent assaults, the need for abortions, and worse.

And for some of us "before" dinosaurs, these kinds of unintended consequences aren't even the worst ones. What we failed to take into account in our unacknowledged experiment was the real socio-political role the nuclear family played in the culture -- in every culture above the hunter-gatherer level known to recorded history. The few years a child has in the home with its mother and father before reaching serious school age, 6 or 7, is the only time when the goodness latent in that child can be developed without countervailing influences from institutional culture. It's a brief window during which parents can instill curiosity, manners, awareness of right and wrong, the meaning of responsibility, altruism, and honesty.

We have failed to understand that every organization in which we become members, all our lives, will exert amoral pressures that benefit the organization and work, directly or indirectly, to mold the identity of a person into a shape different from its initial individuality and humanity. That we have good and virtuous people who are ever proof against corruption, seduction, and greed is a function of what happens in those first six or seven years of life.

Now, we have enticed mother out of the house, away from her children (and please don't preach to me about economic necessity: there is absolutely no need for the exorbitant number of parentless households we now tolerate), and we have attempted to plug the ugly holes in the fundament of our culture with -- what else? -- new, more intrusive institutions of government, which reach deeply into that once private preserve of the home to monitor the children's welfare and begin the process of absorbing them into institutional identities at an earlier age than any society has ever attempted.

Perhaps the change in the children is not sinister or even detectable if you weren't there before. A close friend of mine has spent the last six years living in a household with a contemporary American teenager of good reputation and recognized academic and personal merit. He told me in a recent letter, "I have no doubt she has been trained so well in accordance with the accepted standards that if she chanced to become a junior executive, fresh out of B-school, with the Final Solution Corporation, she'd have no trouble managing the day-to-day schedules and operations reports of the divisional crematory. As long as she didn't have to work too much overtime and could phone in sick pretty often after an all-nighter with her current boyfriend."

Some of us, including "bigoted idiots" like du Toit, can't help remembering ladies. They were our mothers and grandmothers, our friends' mothers and grandmothers, and they had no idea they were prisoners of a vicious sexist culture. They knew how to smile, how to make strangers and shy ones feel welcome, they knew how to dress up for a party, how to dance to ballroom music, how to practice countless skills that made houses into cheery homes, and we loved them. In every possible way they exemplified the essential human virtues and mediated their children's vulnerability through their own. They were playing a life-and-death role, especially in those first six years, and one that fathers couldn't play because their role back then was different. Fathers weren't second-string mommies, always playing catch-up on the sensitivities not born into men. They were, when all was said and done, judges -- the ones charged with preparing the children to be strong against the institutional temptations and corruptions that were coming after the time of safe haven was over. Their job was not to be taken in the way mother could be by an artful grin or pleading. Their job was to say no, to describe the consequences, to levy the punishment so that the lesson would be learned in the home, not in the dangerous realms of the outside world.

"Before" there were fathers and mothers. "After" we have "deadbeat dads" and a plethora of lawyers, doctors, journalists, executives, and bureaucrats, all with ticking biological clocks and an enduring confusion about the difference between home and government. If they can't be in the home, then they want the world as a whole made as safe as a home. They want more laws, more protections, more services. They beg the government to come deeper into the home, inside the car, into the chemistry of their children's brains. Your post hoc ergo propter hoc analysis is dead wrong. The women's vote has played a pivotal role in the rise of nanny government precisely because they're always looking back in the direction of a home that is no longer what it was.

And as I've said, you're perfectly welcome to prefer the "after" to the "before." It is just that the certitude you display about your preference for what has been a very recent drastic change is as shallow as it is rigid. The so-called return of the right-wing has not rolled back the clock in any material way in any part of the culture. GW Bush is proposing and signing levels of entitlement spending that would have made him a leftwing Democrat "before," and in his domestic policies generally he can only be called conservative by a contemporary leftist. Your apparent blindness to these contradictions in terms is what makes you seem naïve. And to some of us, probably, you also seem presumptuous in your automatic assumptions about the world reactionaries would like to have back, at least in part.

Doctors made housecalls. People who went out to dinner at nice restaurants dressed up for the occasion. Fathers were as stern about the importance of being a "gentleman" as they were about the importance of being a man. To hit a girl or to swear in public was not just wrong. It shamed you.

Shame was apparently a function of class oppression, because now there is no shame. Why did so many of us rightwingers hate Clinton so much? Because he was obviously no gentleman, and the president should always be a gentleman (or a lady). Then he proved it and shamed the nation before the whole world. What did we rightwingers really want to happen with the Lewinski scandal? What we couldn't ever have. We wanted him to resign because that would have been the right and gracious thing to do. A fanciful archaic throwback of a notion? Maybe. But if Clinton had resigned, then perhaps President Gore might have focused more national attention on a certain piece of violent Arab street trash and prevented a few thousand deaths.

Funny how being a gentleman can sometimes also be a pragmatic and positive act. If Al Gore had been a gentleman like Nixon (!) before him, he would have disdained to contest the results in Florida. He would still have won his popular vote victory, despite the electoral defeat, and he would have been well positioned, even admired, as a candidate for 2004. (Pause: Compare this scenario with the erratic hide-and-seek irrelevancy Gore has since become.) Meanwhile Bush might have been spared the rancor and bile of the Democrats, and the new "tone" everybody had hoped for might have been achieved. And by the time foreign policy decisions became so horrendously critical, the Democrats might have had a respected advisory role to play. Hell, they might even have played a respectable role. Instead of seething on the sidelines, characterizing every single presidential decision as a new low in corrupt right wing power politics. If a few more of our leaders had behaved like gentlemen, in fact, our foreign policy might be more successful at this very moment.

"Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?" That's our tone. It's been our tone ever since. It was the tone of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. It's the tone of civil rights leaders since the assassination of Martin Luther King (though it wasn't his tone). It was the tone of the Watergate scandal. It was the tone of about 2,000 book-length feminist screeds about men and the unfairness of being born with a uterus. It was the tone of the Reagan haters. It's the tone of both sides of the abortion debate. It was the tone of the Thomas and Bork hearings. It was the tone of the impeachment debate. It was the tone of the 2000 presidential election aftermath. It's the tone now. And some of us are tired of that tone precisely because we remember the time before it was there.

It's the tone of spoiled kids, boys and girls, who are just plain pissed at not getting their way, at not having every obstacle removed from their path by someone else. They should get their way because they're entitled. And we have made that principle the basis of our great secular religion, the religion of "after." Never mind the consequences. Even though the economics is slam-dunk against women in divorce, never mind that. Fire them up about their freedom to throw the bum out if he has an affair. Never mind that she, and her kids, will be paying for his affair forever. And by the way, don't teach the boys about being a gentleman -- even in courtship and marriage -- because that's an elitist term, and if we start talking about gentlemen, then somebody else might be tempted to start talking about ladies, and everyone knows that women have to be free to do whatever in hell they want, regardless, damn the consequences, because that's what equality is all about. And if they want, they can dress like sluts from grade school on, and talk like sluts from grade school on, and act like sluts from grade school on, and do all the drugs that any slut might want to do, and have as many abortions as any slut would want to have,.and marry the first idiot who asks, and divorce him when he cheats, and marry the next one, and maybe do some cheating herself, and have a kid, and divorce the next one, and then set up shop as a bitter single mother who has it on good authority that all men are no-good bums. Now, how about all those government programs she'll need to get by as a single working mother…? And isn't this absolute paradise compared to the days when women weren't free, and men weren't permitted -- by their fathers or each other -- to be total, irresponsible slobs?

In fact it's all working so well that we can try another experiment, and start bringing the boys up to be more like girls, so that they can dress like sluts from grade school on, and talk like sluts from grade school on, and act like sluts from grade school on, and do all the drugs that any slut might want to do, etc etc. After all, the only difference is that girls have sockets and boys have plugs, and they can start connecting to one another (and calling each other slut and ho and bitch) from grade school on, because that's what freedom and self esteem are all about. And look at all the other progress we get with this approach: no more toy guns, double the cologne sales, and a fantastic new growth market in condoms.

Of course it's better. That's how we can be absolutely sure it's okay to sneer at the idiot Republicans who hearken back to the evil racist sexist "before," because we all know what they really miss is being able to use the N-Word on the servants, and commit secret incest with their daughters, and treat their wives like slaves, blah, blah, blah.

And because we also know that it's very very dangerous to allow ourselves to consider, for even a moment, that maybe most women were better suited to the old way, and maybe only a small percentage actually belong out here in the nasty rough-and-tumble, and maybe our kids and all our home lives would be better, happier, if we could admit that the nuclear family is the indispensable foundation stone of an entire civilization, and that dynamiting it away without a single forethought might have been a criminally stupid thing to do.

But no. It's always been this way. For everyone 40 and younger. It's the right way. The conservatives are stupid, bigoted, immoral, and wrong. "Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today? Not as many as we're going to kill in the next 50 years…"

Forgive me. Yes, we get heated. That's because we're so stupid. And wrong. And immoral. Maybe you could bear that in mind, and treat us dinosaurs with a little kindness. Like a gentleman.


So tell me. Why am I thinking of all this right now?

P.S. My better half reminds me that the archetype of the women I'm remembering was Jackie Kennedy, who wasn't typical by any means, but she was an ultimate lady of the time, and she's as much a part of the Camelot legend as her husband was.

Slave? Or power behind the throne. Regardless. She was a lady.

If you can, forget the horrifying image of her climbing across the trunk of the presidential Lincoln trying to retrieve a piece of her husband's skull. (What the "weaker" sex can do in crisis is flat-out astonishing.) Forget the historically iconic instruction she gave John-John to salute his father's casket. Forget the pain of losing a baby in the full glare of worldwide publicity. Forget her constant valor, dignity, and lifelong grace. Remember instead that she was a good sport about the political back-and-forth of the day, which used to be something like, well, humor:

Back when even liberals had a sense of humor. Instead of veins filled with cobra venom. But women with a sense of humor have become like liberals with a sense of humor: a vanishing, vanishing breed.

I miss them. The ladies, not the liberals. I have one, but one is a very small number.

Monday, January 10, 2011



One definition of 'stupid' is 'dyslexic logic.' A tidal wave
intended to create the earthquake that causes it. Weak.

"BANDE DE ZOUAVES" (SEE COMMENTS). Bad enough that we have another pointless mass murder by an obvious lunatic. Worse that the so-called intelligentsia immediately presume to make sense of it as an expression of the politics of their own political enemies. A senseless act cannot be forced to make sense because some species of rationality is applied to it after the fact. The irony is that the most highly educated liberals would agree with this statement wholeheartedly if the context were different. For example, if I were discussing the Creationist interpretation of the Big Bang, they would be cheering me on and congratulating me for my sagacity and impeccable logic.

But we're not talking about the Big Bang. We're talking about the bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang in Tucson, Arizona. Which can be retroactively imbued with all kinds of sense even though the perpetrator -- who, thanks to MySpace, is abundantly on record with his 'writings' -- has never expressed a sensible thought in his short, ignorant, drug-addled life. He's simply a living, breathing oxymoron, with the emphasis on moron.

Ironically, that's where the emphasis should usually be placed when this term is applicable. Except in the hands of (a handful of truly talented) poets, an oxymoron is an impossible contradiction: an illiterate who rails about the illiteracy of others, a fan of Mein Kampf who lists the Communist Manifesto as one of his favorite books, a sadly unformed -- even stillborn -- mind that fears the societal dangers of mind control. This isn't poetry or a metaphorical indictment of a nation that quarrels sharply about sharp differences in political philosophy. It's insanity.

The poetic resonances aren't attributable to the event itself or its perpetrator. They're attributable to the phony wave of meanings imposed afterwards in order to justify (or somehow leverage) what came before. And the operative literary term isn't oxymoron but irony. Of which there are almost too many instances to count. The sudden rush to condemn military metaphors in politics because a military reject who doesn't know enough about language to discern the difference between 'grammar' and 'diction' picks up a gun and shoots 20 of his fellow citizens indiscriminately. The equally sudden rush by Democrats (the people's party, don't forget) to constrain freedom of political speech because a high-school dropout incapable of articulate speech of any kind resorted, in his frustration, to gunfire instead. The instantaneous equation between this deviant advocate of incoherent, atheistic anarchy and the predominantly Christian Palin/Tea Party/Constitutionalist faction in American politics which has just demonstrated the most effective use of grass-roots free speech in the New Media yet seen in an electoral campaign.

I could go on. But you get the picture. Any conversation which employs an act of insanity as a basis for political analysis, criticism, or reform is itself insane. And I fault everyone in the MSM, specifically including Fox News, for even giving such conversations house room. There's a term in the law known as "fruit of the poisoned tree." In courts it means that inferences drawn from illegitimate sources are impermissible as bases for argument.

Every word you hear about the Tucson shootings that somehow indicts or questions the rest of us is the fruit of a poisoned tree. Unless you personally happen to be a psychotic high-school dropout with a history of irrational/violent eruptions in public places, a grandiloquent MySpace page that begs for unearned attention, an obscure prejudice against Jews and all mind-control-oriented governments that are neither Nazi nor Communist, and own a gun with a big enough magazine to shoot 20 people at random.

In that case, you should probably pay attention.

Me? I'm just waiting for the ultimately impotent Stupid Wave to subside. And praying for the people who were shot and their families. They're the ones who deserve our thoughts, empathy, and other higher human faculties right now.

No comment about the above. I just thought of it today (actually, truthfully, last week) and can't (couldn't) get it out of my head or my dreams. The sound quality isn't good, so I'm just gleaming the original stream to a mind we know is still fighting hard to come back to us. Come back from the snow and cold. No matter how beckoning the beyond might be. We pray...


Friday, January 07, 2011

Zouaves & Other
Mixed Metaphors

POOEY. Ever heard about the first Union casualty of the Civil War? He was a New York Zouave, like the ones pictured above.

Elmer Ellsworth was a hero in the North even before the first shots of the Civil War. Born in Saratoga Springs, NY, Ellsworth moved to Chicago to study law. It was here that Ellsworth was introduced to the Zouaves - colorful military units outfitted in pantalooned uniforms based on those worn by French colonial troops in Algeria.

Pomp and Puffinstance

Ellsworth formed his own Zouave unit and molded it into a crack drill team.

In the summer of 1860, Ellsworth and his Zouaves toured the North performing precision drills before awed audiences in 20 cities. At the end of the summer, Ellsworth joined Abraham Lincoln's law practice in Springfield, IL as a law clerk. Impressed with his hard-working, enthusiastic clerk, Lincoln invited Ellsworth to join his campaign for president. Following his victory, Lincoln asked Ellsworth to join him in Washington.

As tensions between the North and South states intensified, Ellsworth moved to New York City. He formed a Zouave unit made up of volunteers from among the city's firemen - the New York Fire Zouaves - and became its colonel.

May 1861 found Ellsworth and his Zouaves stationed in Washington, DC. On the 23rd of that month the Virginia legislature voted to secede from the Union. Before the sun rose the next morning, Ellsworth, anxious to see some action, led his Zouaves across the Potomac River as part of an eleven-regiment Union invasion of Virginia. Ellsworth's objective was to secure the port of Alexandria.

The Zouave's landing at Alexandria was uncontested, and they quickly spread through the town securing important targets such as the telegraph office and rail station. As Ellsworth led his men through the streets his eye caught sight of a Confederate flag waving from the top of the Marshall House Inn. Followed by four of his men, Ellsworth rushed into the building, ran up its stairs and cut down the offensive symbol. Descending the stairs, Ellsworth was confronted by the inn's proprietor, James W. Jackson, armed with a double-barrel shotgun. Firing at point-blank range, the inn keeper ended the life of the twenty-four-year-old and conferred upon him the distinction of being the first Union officer killed in the war. Almost instantaneously, Jackson was cut down by Ellsworth's men.

There are short, spectacular wars and long, dark, punishing wars. They both tend to begin the same way, with fanfare, lofty rhetoric, and grandiose symbolic gestures. Today, nobody remembers that there were Union troops who wore red pantaloons. Just as nobody remembers that the first battle of Manassas was treated as a picnic outing by Washington, DC, social elites who camped on a hillside to watch the ceremonial showdown between north and south, with plovers' eggs and fine wine as accoutrements. The subsequent rout of Union troops may have been the first indication to those elites that the unfolding war would be less strutting and cheers than stinking charnel house.

I was not inspired by the idea of reading the Constitution on the floor of the new congress. I understood the sentiment, but sentiment is, well, sentiment, not strategy. For me it highlighted the quandary of the new Republican majority: how do you transform a mix of hardened survivalist politicians and idealistic Tea Partiers into an effective political force?

Where all the mixed metaphors come into play. The remaining Democrats in the House of Representatives are clever, experienced politicians. Combat-proven veterans. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, chewing nails and plotting ambushes. The Republicans are a Pro-Am crowd. (Think of Pros vs Joes.) The Tea Partiers are definitely the Zouaves of the early days of the Civil War, all puffed up with pride in their red-white-and-blue pantaloons. They may be accomplished at constitutional drilling, but they're lambs to the slaughter in congressional trench warfare unless they learn very damn fast that their mission can't be accomplished with a few symbolic votes and an air of intransigent patriotic virtue.

There's still no sign of a Republican Ulysses Grant, let alone a Lincoln, and the best we can hope for right now is that John Boehner is, gulp, George McClellan, the general famous for refusing to fight who nevertheless succeeded in creating the modern, disciplined, professional military his country would need to win a very very long and very very very bloody war.

The Tea Party members of congress aren't going to roll back the Obama offensive on liberty any more than the Zouaves won an easy early victory in the War between the States. We will see plenty of them become quick casualties of the infantry slugfests in Washington.

Importantly, though, we can't lose heart. There will be many letdowns, defeats, and even some disasters to come. A Gettysburg may make us doubt our own will to continue. But we have to remember -- even those of us from the South -- that Sherman did march to the sea, Grant did take Richmond, and Lincoln did free the slaves. Preserving the union is not easy, and we will all be or know casualties before the war is won.

P.S. A quick thank you to 'DorkvsMaximvs,' whose quick response gently corrected an IP brain fart I wouldn't want to get in the way of the post. I'll document my error in a day or so.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

System Consciousness

The Ghost in the Machine

WAY BACK WHEN.  I was going to write today about the Republican legislative calendar and the need for patience. I've been slow getting off the mark in the new year, and I don't mind admitting that it's largely because of the topic of my first 2011 post. I found the experience described there and lightly responded to unutterably depressing. I didn't contend with my friend because I recognize impenetrable armor when I see it. For gifted people to be wrapped in such armor makes me come close to despair. Which is why my frail resolve to write about politics was torpedoed by an interesting late comment on that post:

J. W. Helkenberg  2011-01-05 10:40:00
Micro: It could be an altogether different reality than anyone has imagined is beginning to take hold, where concepts such as waste, inefficiency and small-mindedness are to be replaced with automation, total information awareness and, of course, total-mindedness. This would imply that no boomer, indeed no human being whatsoever, is in charge of any aspect of our daily lives at all, rather the illusion of personal responsibility is just that, an illusion, and rather than working toward small personal goals, we are being pulled toward an inevitable climax over which no person exercises any control whatsoever. This is not to say that the appearance of incontrovertible evidence regarding human involvement in health care can be denied, it is just to say that whether it is accepted or denied is of no consequence to the inescapable arrival of a system over which no human exercises any authority. I look at the continuing expansion of the federal bureaucracy as evidence that soon the system will be so overwrought with specialized rules and regulations that it will be more complex than many organisms. This trend cannot continue indefinitely simply due to the restrictions placed upon physical memory, which is to say that human minds are just memory devices that instantiate a particular rule, when it is deemed necessary by the government, which in this case is the only sentient life on Earth.

Macro: It would seem that the continuous erosion of the abductive logical faculties humans have relied upon for the formation of hypothesis is steadily making the scenario related above more and more plausible, the conclusion being that humans are to become little more than cells in an organism we can loosely define as a corporate-state. This then would lead me to conclude that any sentiments contrary to the formation of the conscious corporate-state would be bad. Possibly very very bad. Apoptosis aside, the corporate-state might deem a systematic elimination of those cells that are "rogue" to be a necessary step in the ongoing process of health care reform.

And nothing is worth dying for, especially if you are already immortal.  [boldface added]

The term "conscious corporate state" is what snagged my attention. Shortly before I left corporate consulting in the early 1990s, I had become convinced that the 'corporate change processes' I was hired to facilitate were being defeated not by human resistance but by a kind of organizational consciousness nobody could contend with because they couldn't even detect its existence. Even though all of us have encountered it directly in every corporate conference room where nominal allies suddenly sell out every important principle without ever acknowledging, even to themselves, what have they done. I wasnt't thinking of it in terms of groupthink or moral cowardice and selfishness. I was thinking of it as an active consciousness made of the pieces it owned of thousands of human brains or, if you will, organizational brain cells.

I even wrote about it in somewhat guarded terms, nearly fifteen years ago. Here's what I said in July 1997:

Movies came up. Patrick and I share an interest in bad action movies of both the 'A' and 'B' varieties. While I was giving in to the temptation to see Under Siege II again, he was falling victim once more to Executive Decision Andrew hadn't seen it, so we recapped the plot for him. In the telling, it's almost the same as Under Siege II -- a secret U.S. military technology falls into the hands of terrorists, threatening the passengers on a train/plane as well as the residents of Washington, DC. What to do? Send in Steven Seagal to kill the terrorists, rescue the passengers, and, if there's time, DC too. The only thing different about Executive Decision is the twist about killing off Seagal before he can save the day, which means that bookish Kurt Russell has to do it -- ve-e-e-ery slowly -- with the help of a brave and beautiful flight attendant. There's a Marx Brothers quality about the piece, with Russell constantly popping up inside cupboards and service panels and elevators to ask one more dangerous favor of the flight attendant before the heavily armed commandos can make their appearance.

After a good laugh about the special effects in Seagal's death scene, we returned to a subject Patrick and I have discussed many times before -- "the possibility that there is a collective meaning to the clicheed plots used in bad popular entertainment. I once read a theory -- "I wish I could remember whose -- "that popular culture becomes a kind of underground railroad for archetypal themes that are being ignored or censored by highbrow culture. Such themes may appear in a badly degenerated form, but at the least their most rudimentary essence is being preserved for the day when the official culture rediscovers their value. This made enormous sense to me, and I started watching bad movies in a new way, almost in aggregate, as if they were unconsciously designed pieces of a puzzle that could indeed be fitted together into a coherent picture.
For example, the Under Siege/Executive Decision plot can be read as a cartoonish treatment of two themes that are being ignored by intellectual culture. First, there is the implicit awareness that the U.S. government is a runaway leviathan, with no one fully in charge or capable of controlling its appetite for predation. The terrorists are themselves a by-product of that predation, having been servants or victims of it or both. Whatever ambiguities may be present in terms of our expected response have generally to do with these villains. At times they could be proxies for us, tough and ruthless enough to break the eggs for a wickedly delicious omelet we dare not order from the menu. At others they seem more like the face behind the mask of power, the unabashed willingness to use the high-tech killer toys that must have sponsored their creation in the first place. In either case, they display a knife-edged decisiveness which mocks the gassy committee response of a government that makes easy choices hard because it must pretend to care equally about everyone and everything.

The good intentions of individuals within the government -- and even within the military -- are represented, but these are shown to be impotent under the weight of the obese monstrosity the government has become. Note that this is not a liberal view -- it expressly undermines the notion that serious problems can be solved politically by caring legislators. When elected politicians make an appearance, they are depicted as selfish, stupid, and hypocritical fools who are themselves destined to become victims -- the U.S. Senator on the plane in Executive Decision gets killed trying to make personal political hay out of the hijacking.

Overlaid on this theme is the archetype of the hero, which has been banished from serious literature for most of this century. He is preserved in the movies as a caricature -- racing from one impossibly dangerous situation to another with near-miraculous impunity. Almost invariably he is depicted as a loner, a rule breaker, a man natively at odds with authority. The caption seems to be that we need exactly this kind of hero, although the odds against his success are incredibly long.

There are, of course, endless variations of this particular plot combination -- the Rambo movies add the image of the hero as a specifically targeted victim of the U.S. leviathan, although he nevertheless saves the day -- a comic book Christ figure. John Carpenter's Snake Plisskin flicks, Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., cloak the same basic formula in confused political innuendo but offer the same image of the persecuted hero who must be induced to rescue a mindlessly authoritarian political system. In fact, Escape from L.A. ends with Snake Plisskin pulling the plug on all of technological civilization, upping the ante to a level worthy of the Una-Bomber. The Die Hard movies downplay the complicity of the leviathan in the crisis being addressed, but go out of their way to depict the bullying impotence of federal law enforcement organizations and, to a lesser degree, their state and municipal counterparts.

Scores of cheaper, slapped-together movies that make their appearance on late-night cable also give us this same story again and again and again. One could argue that the David and Goliath theme obviously makes for a good story, but the appeal to the American public may very well include the subliminal awareness that there is something fundamentally true about the premise which does not quite come across in the analyses offered by journalists, pundits, and politicians.

Is this plot significant or meaningful? Hard to tell, I grant, but contrast it with the westerns of a generation or two ago. The hero is present -- still a loner and a rule breaker -- but even he is grateful when the cavalry arrives, and when the government makes mistakes and causes problems in an old western, it is still not presented as any kind of impersonal intractable ogre.

There's another stereotypical movie plot that I believe may be groping toward a concealed and very real problem in the American culture. This is the 'Cyborg' theme, which has been worked and reworked in probably hundreds of different ways--ranging from such critically acclaimed efforts as Blade Runner, RoboCop, and Terminator to junky ripoffs like The Demolitionist (female RoboCop), American Cyborg, Johnny Mnemonic, and, most recently, Screamers. What's interesting to me about these is that they have been interpreted by critics as addressing a deep-seated human fear. I suspect, however, that the fear being addressed goes considerably deeper than the one usually cited.

The standard explanation is that we're afraid of the advances in genetics and computer technology which may one day soon blur the line between human being and machine. Thus, we are given the plight of RoboCop, a human being turned into a microprocessor-controlled cyborg by a ruthlessly exploitative corporation. Can his humanity survive the deliberate technological attempt to destroy it? In much the same vein, we are given Johnny Mnemonic, most of whose memory has been erased to permit his brain to be used as a mass storage device for computer data. Can he regain his life and his humanity even as he saves the rest of mankind from the paralyzing AIDS-reminiscent disease caused by overexposure to information technology? In much the same vein. we are given the near-perfect 'replicants' of Blade Runner, who inspire pathos with their desire to be human even though they are artificially created pieces of organic machinery. What will be the difference in the future between humanity and technology? Interestingly, there is also a later release of Blade Runner, captioned 'the director's cut,' in which the hero, a professional killer of replicants, is shown to be--quite possibly--a replicant himself.

Reinforcing this 'fear of technology' theme is the strain of movies inspired by Terminator, in which the cyborg is decidedly more powerful and predatory than any human being. The standard plot shows the pathetic inadequacy of flesh and blood beings burdened by conscience and other baggage when the creature after them is exquisitely designed and programmed to eradicate them. Hints of this are also to be found in the movies already cited. Johnny Mnemonic features a Terminator-like religious(?) cyborg, and the hero of Blade Runner is really no match for the replicant 'superman' played by Rutger Hauer. Completing the circle, Terminator II offers us a killer cyborg acquiring humanity in the process of protecting a 12-year-old human boy.

And so, the reviewers would have it, we're afraid of the possibility of corporate abuses of technology that will become dangerous to us both physically and mentally. They'll create artificial beings to control us, and they'll replace pieces of our bodies to the point where our original identity may be imperiled. It's an interpretation that's plausible enough, as far as it goes. But what if it doesn't go far enough?

Yes, there's an obvious entertainment value in science fiction and its designer-future images. And, yes, people may find sufficient appeal in the prospect of some 2lst century cyborg threat to make hits of such fare. But these movies are just as popular as the Under Siege/Executive Decision genre, which suggests to me that there may be a much more immediate fear embedded in them that hasn't been brought to light.

Movies personify abstractions. They have to because film is a visual medium. The villainous CEO stands in for the anonymous greed of Corporate America. The conniving, amoral CIA executive stands in for the vast, intrusive intelligence bureaucracy. And so on. Why is it therefore the case that the title characters of Terminator, RoboCop, and Johnny Mnemonic must be taken literally, as specific human-machine combinations that could be implemented to our detriment? What if they are also stand-ins?

I believe they are. What's more, I believe that computer technology is also functioning in these movies as a kind of stand-in. The fear being recorded in these movies is a genuine and well-founded fear of essentially the same leviathan depicted in the Under Siege/ Executive Decision genre. The cyborgs are a way of putting a face on the vast faceless system which presses harder on us every day. In Terminator, we are given the nightmare vision of a war between technology--i.e., the system--and humanity, which we humans can win only by turning back the clock and undoing what has already been done. In other words, the war is well underway and we are losing it.

In RoboCop and Johnny Mnemonic, we're given symbolic representations of what we are becoming, nominal human beings who have been invaded, incorporated into an inhuman scheme that is turning us into robots. At some deep level, we feel that this is already happening and that we may already have lost our souls to it. Hence the odd circumstance of two Blade Runners--the first giving us a human being in conflict with an impenetrable power structure that annihilates its own creations, the second revealing that the human being was lost before he even realized there was a conflict.

There's an additional possibility in here. What if these movies, with their cinematic requirement to personify every abstraction, have accidentally captured the deepest fear of all? That this vast overarching system has acquired its own consciousness and knows full well what it is doing. That we are being deliberately transformed, by an authentically superhuman power, into automaton slaves of the system. That the Terminator is here and is stalking us.

Yes, I know. It's all idiotic. Couldn't be. We talked about it anyway, and then I went home. [boldface added]

Idiotic. So I'm posting this and then I'm going home for the night. Tomorrow is supposed to be another day.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Illuminating Anomaly
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The real story. They hate women. The Nanny State is pure guilt.

FAITH. I told you I got streaming Netflix as an early Christmas present. Mrs. CP thought it would inspire me somehow. What do women know? As it turns out, everything. Why I haven't been paying much attention to domestic political developments. I've been too busy watching British TV shows on Netflix. They do have the best shows by far. As of this moment, I'm surfeited with the superiority of such series as Touch of Frost, Wire in the Blood, Waking the Dead, and a truly landmark trilogy called Red Riding. The writing is extraordinary, the acting superb. And unlike the old BBC, the production values range from competitive with American shows to cinematic.

All of which leaves me in a quandary. You have a nation that is clearly imploding on itself, day by day and month by month, yet its dramatic output remains the best in the world by far. Their writers are better. Their actors are better. And not by just a little. They're a lot better than we are. The tempting answer is the old Greek-Roman thing -- the Greeks were cultured while the Romans were, uh, er, dominant somehow. But I have a different theory in this case. One that might actually shed some light rather than muddy the waters.

Some of you aren't going to like this theory. Bear with me. I'm not arguing politics. I'm pursuing human nature. I think what we're looking at is the biggest disconnect ever between the soul of a people and its contemporary cultural assumptions. The result is absolutely stupendous irony that is nevertheless revealing and potentially healing, if people weren't so determined to be blind.

A case in point. American TV shows love the premise of unresolved sexual tension between a male and female lead. In American hands, the result is invariably irritating and strained to the point of making intelligent viewers want to vomit. (You Bones and Warehouse 13 fans know who you are...You're morons.) The Brits can get away with it. For two reasons. First, their idea of a TV series is a lot shorter than American producers insist on. And, second, everyone in Britain is actually severely repressed, regardless of deep-down sexual preference. And they're all impotent or frigid. Nobody in Britain has had sex in a generation. But they think about sex a lot. Artificial insemination is the national pastime. Along with Manchester United soccer.

When you watch enough Brit TV shows, you realize that emotionally, every female is actually male, with tits she'll show you (desultorily) if you ask. It's just that the women are dumber somehow. Because the U.K. is the single most masculine culture on earth. Why their writing is better than everyone else's, for example. But when you watch their dramas, it turns out that all the women are really men. And increasingly, all the authority figures are women who are, uh, men. Which is why their female dramatic characters are still interesting even when they're not beauties and why there are still always parts for Helen Mirren and all the other non-beautiful, naturally aging female actors who get the best parts in even Hollywood movies.

Except that Britain is dying. Day by day and month by month. How comes it? This is how. The Brits have become the ultimate nanny state because they hate their own masculinity and are looking for women who are no longer women to save them.

Ya know, they never were women. All Brit women turn into men as they age. Even Mrs. Peel. Their voices get deeper, they get more frank and technical about sex. Their increasing sophistication about life and the tea lines in their faces makes you dread the possibility of accidentally seeing their breasts. It might hurt somehow, that contrast between stern authoritarian face and smooth bosom. Some of them were never women in the first place. Just Brits with vaginas. "Cheerio. Saddle up. Afterwards we can trim the hedge."

Something about empire. Something about Rome. About now, the Brits are trying to save themselves from what they believe is excessive masculinity. Hence, the nanny state. I'm thinking the problem is exactly the reverse. A nation without women. And therefore no blood, fertility, or reason for living. Fitzgerald said something about "making love to dry loins." How many hundreds of years can one nation survive on such a diet?

In the meantime, the rest of us get great writing, and the women actors get to be all the man they always wanted to be.

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