Archive

Monthly Archives: February 2014

Consider the Baldwin.

So, Alec Baldwin – a wonderful actor, a man with a deeply charismatic personality, impeccable comic timing and, apparently, some non-trivial anger management issues – has landed himself in hot water. He’s been rightly and thoroughly taken to town for anti-gay hate speech. And has now had to withdraw himself – he claims – from public life in a big defense interview at Vulture.

His being taken to town has proven difficult to Certain Parties of the Left who have found it hard to take Baldwin, a card-carrying Democrat and liberal (by US standards), to town for saying things like:

“George Stark, you lying little bitch. I am gonna fuck you up … I want all of my followers and beyond to straighten out this fucking little bitch, George Stark. @MailOnline … My wife and I attend a funeral to pay our respects to an old friend, and some toxic Brit writes this fucking trash … If put my foot up your fucking ass, George Stark, but I’m sure you’d dig it too much … I’m gonna find you, George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I’m gonna fuck … you … up.”

That’s a problem for the left. And the other people who like hearing Alec Baldwin say things like:

God, I love that. “What am I, a farmer?” Ha! I also love Alec Baldwin’s big, dramatic performances. Who can forget The Big Speech in Glengarry Glen RossHoly star power, Batman! Remember that? And then remember how he said homophobic assholery like “cocksucking fag” to a bunch of scumbag paparazzi from TMZ (which I hate, so I’m not going to link it)? Yeah, that was awful. And bigoted! And it’s like there doesn’t even have to be a tension between acknowledging that the guy did good things professionally and bad things personally. And yet there’s a special kind of apologetics going on for Baldwin in which the left has problems entirely embracing the criticism of Baldwin.

A few things need to be noted. First off, Baldwin is threatening violence and using hate speech-language. The photographers and “journalists” here are doing stuff which in my book clearly counts as harassment and invasion of privacy, and in quite a few of my favourite countries, this would be illegal. So I get that he’s angry. I do. There’s quite simply nothing to defend about the awful behaviour of the waste-of-space people he has these confrontations with. But while there may be more than a little bit of what Louis CK has so admirably described in this part of his schtick …

… there’s still something really uncomfortable about the rush to forgive someone who’s on Team Left for things that are unacceptable. He’s threatening violence, which we should universally shun, and he’s using hate speech. Those should be non-starters. And the fact that Baldwin actively supports gay rights helps, but doesn’t amend the harm of hate speech, to use a term borrowed from the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron. Especially when used by a powerful and influential person. These terms are a kind of poison which seep into the groundwater of our discourse, and they need to be inexcusable in a certain sense.

And yet, and yet. While the situation does not condone the use of hate speech, there is something interesting in Baldwin’s defence which opens up some really important continuations of the debate.

I’m talking about the way in which this gets continually attached to Baldwin’s identity.

A string of really successful blog posts by Andrew Sullivan and Ta Nehisi Coates also do this move. Sullivan says: “Just as Mel Gibson revealed his true feelings about Jews in his drunken rant, so Baldwin keeps revealing his own anti-gay bigotry. These outbursts reveal who he actually is.” 

Ta Nehisi Coates is closer to the mark, I think, but also misses a crucial point:

This is bigotry. And it is not complicated by the fact that Baldwin supports marriage equality. One need not believe that LGBTQ human beings are equal to support their right to marry, any more than one needed to be an anti-racist to support abolition, or an anti-sexist to support women’s suffrage.

This is all true. But we need to bring a whole different level of nuance and understanding to these kinds of situations, even when we hate and oppose the people who are in trouble.

I think the person who has gotten the furthest into thinking about this issue is Wes Alwan.

These condemnations are grounded in a number of highly implausible theses that amount to a very flimsy moral psychology. The first is the extremely inhumane idea that we ought to make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves: that what people do or say when they’re most angry or incited reveals a kind of essential truth about them. The second is that we are to condemn human beings merely for having certain impulses, regardless of their behaviors and beliefs. The third is that people’s darkest and most irrational thoughts and feelings trump their considered beliefs: Baldwin can’t possibly really believe in gay rights, according to Coates, if he has any negative feelings about homosexuality whatsoever. The fourth, implied premise here – one that comes out in the comical comments section following Coates’ post – is that we are to take no account whatsoever of the possibility of psychological conflict. We refuse to allow ourselves to imagine that a single human being might have a whole host of conflicted thoughts and feelings about homosexuality: that they might be both attracted to it and repelled by it. That they might associate it with weakness and submission on the one hand, and on the other with the strength and courage required to face discrimination and disapproval. That they might be personally repelled by homosexuality yet be ashamed of that feeling, and meanwhile an ardent supporter of gay rights. They might have all of these feelings, incidentally, while themselves being gay. These sorts of mixed emotions – not merely about homosexuality, but about everything – are in fact the psychological norm. Our impulses are often at war with each other and with our considered beliefs: we do not have shiny, neatly-structured spirits in which our rational and irrational natures happily collaborate.

This is exactly right. And that’s why precisely we need to move away from the idea that people are bigots. I think that both Coates and Sullivan see this criticism now, because they have walked back some of their criticisms (Sullivan somewhat dubiously, I think. He now appears to be denying he ever implied that Baldwin is a homophobic bigot when that was, in fact, right in the title of his posts: “Alec Baldwin Is A Homophobic Bigot”.)

Obviously, some people are bigots. For some people, bigotry really is a global identity, suffusing their perceptual landscape, shaping the world in which they breathe, the ideas they cultivate and live by. For, say, Ku Klux Klan ideologues; for deeply homophobic, old preachers;  for nazi party members, for islamophobic racists who think of every political event in terms of Muslims coming to take over Western civilization: these are all structured, unreformed bigots. People who will most likely never change. (Except that some of them will. We hear of road to Damascus-moments all the time.)

But most people with bigoted ideas – in most developed countries, I would say a clear supermajority – are just people with conflicted and unreflective ideologies. People with not enough knowledge about the gays, the Muslims, the Romani, the Jews. People who have not had to face up to the hard, lived realities of The Other. Who have not had to collapse the wave function of his conflicting ideas into a single one.

So we need to move away from bigotry as a total identity and instead move towards addressing bigoted actions, racist words, unconscious discriminations against women, the word “faggot” shouted in anger.

We can start by thinking this: you don’t suddenly “reveal your true self” when you shout something in anger. You reveal what you are like when you are angry. I have shouted homophobic slurs in anger, and I have been momentarily squicked out by the idea of gay sex and said inappropriate things about that as much as the next white, heterosexual, privileged, middle class asshole. I’m not there anymore. In a sense, was never there. I was one of those conflicted people who had to face up to the conflicts in him.

Baldwin is, apparently, starting to address some of these issues, according to what he says in the Vulture piece. And I believe him, as I believe in the fact that he campaigns for LGBT rights. What comes across in an unflattering way is the pettiness of his character in interpersonal and professional relations. I’m a little disappointed that the warm, humanist intellect that I saw behind the heartless overachiever Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock is not the unconflicted mind I hoped he was. But the point is that I have no right to be. He is what he is. I can’t quite condemn him for it, and I have no right to expect things of him. In this, his indictment of celebrity culture seems to be spot-on. As does Alwan’s finishing note on the idea that the obsession with celebrities is “tragic”. That’s a well-chosen word. It’s a tragedy for the people involved, and it is degrading to the culture that it takes part in.

And it is very much degrading to the quality of the dialogue on cultural politics. Eventually we should get to a point where these things stop being entirely about the character of the people who do them, and start being about the structural causes that move them to do wrong actions.

And at the very least we should move beyond talking about who people are. Best said by the video blogger Jay Smooth, so let’s end on this constructive note.

Advertisements

Herodotus. 4th century Roman sculpture, based on 3rd century Greek.

… I have no doubt whatever that Cambyses was completely out of his mind; it is the only possible explanation of his assault upon, and mockery of, everything which ancient law and custom have made sacred in Egypt. For if anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably, after careful consideration of their relative merits, choose those of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so, it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one’s country.

One might recall, in particular, an account told of Darius. When he was king of Persia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was being said, he asked some Indians, of the tribe called Callatiae, who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing. One can by this what custom can do, and Pindar, in my opinion, was right when he called [custom] “king of all”.

Herodotus, The Histories, book III, section 38. (Transl. by Aubrey de Sélincourt)

This is an absolutely magnificent passage. It was written sometime in the middle of the 3rd century BC by “the first historian”, Herodotus. But it is doing intellectual work to get at ideas which were not easily available at the time. Although we tend to think of the Greek as a globetrotting, sea-faring people, this is a period where exposure to multiple cultures was a very rare thing. And for someone to both be a serious intellectual and a traveler was an unlikely combination. But Herodotus was. Though it’s a phrase I don’t like to use, because it’s completely nonsensical, he was, in this sense, a man ahead of his time. (Which, for a historian, you have to admit is kind of funny.)

The work which is being done here is what the poststructuralist philosophers called “decentering”. It means looking the norms and values which are so normal as to be almost invisible — marxists call this the “hegemonic” values and norms — from an entirely different point of view. A classic example is for a Christian, heterosexual, upper class white man to try seeing the world from the perspective of (say) an atheist, middle class, lesbian black woman. Or of a Romani beggar, or an Islamic terrorist. And for middle class, educated, leftists to think like a conservative Christian.

What changes when you try to see other people’s lives from their point of view? Everything. You see the radical contingency of your life, and of theirs. You see better what similiarities you share, and you see better what things impose on both your lives. It is hard, unfinishing work to see that the other ways of living are valid and meaningful when seen from the position in which it is lived.

Living this kind of decentred life is a constant challenge. It makes you think hard about what is really important and why, and it forces you to rethink your position on values you hold dear. But it also makes it possible to find the values which are really important to hold fast to. The stuff that you should never, ever let slip.

Another word for this way of thinking is relativism. Or sometimes cultural relativism. It is both a practice and a set of beliefs. Relativism has for many reasons — some well-deserved, many not — come to be a dirty word. This post is hemming and hawing and by way of introduction to saying: I want to try to defend that word, and that way of thinking, in a couple of posts, maybe over the next few weeks.

*

The Pindar fragment that Herodotus refers to is this one:

Custom, the king of all
of mortals and immortals
leads, justifying that which is most violent
by its very powerful hand.

Oh, God: where has this amazing hit-job portrait of Donald Trump been all my life? It’s been out for a week already. People, you have to tell me these things! Oh, I do love to hate him. Thinking of his “career” in politics (“in” … “politics”) as a long con is just perfect:

The notion that he is simply too big — too presidential — for a measly job in the Albany Statehouse has temporarily quelled his insecurity. But after this morning, Trump can no longer escape the fact that his political “career” — a long con that the blustery billionaire has perpetrated on the country for 25 years by repeatedly pretending to consider various runs for office, only to bail out after generating hundreds of headlines — finally appears to be on the brink of collapse.

It’s a rare and special quality in a man, being easy to hate. There are very few that totally manage to bring it out in me. For the truly evil, I usually feel hatred mixed with pity. They tend to be damaged in some way. But true hatred is for the vile who are also somehow too self-important and self-absorbed to fully comprehend the depths of their own depravity, while simultaneously not being interesting and decisively monstrous to be obviously evil. Something about Trump’s naked and unabashed desire to be permanently in the spotlight and high on himself combined with his utter lack of decency and common sense hits some sweet spot of loathing for me. I have trouble even articulating it. But this piece came close.

Anne Applebaum runs through the Soviet-era vocabulary of the current conflict in Ukraine. She makes this important point:

In fact, this is not an ethnic conflict at all. It is a political conflict and — despite the current opacity — at base not that hard to understand. It pits Ukrainians (both Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking) who want to live in a “European” democracy with human rights and the rule of law, against Ukrainians (also both Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking) — who support an undemocratic, oligarchic capitalist regime that is politically and economically dependent on Russia. Some of the regime’s supporters may well believe they are fighting fascists and militant European homosexuals; others may simply fear that deep reforms will cost them their paychecks.

Either way, this is not a fight over which language to speak or which church to attend. It is a deep, fundamental disagreement about the nature of the state, the country’s international allegiances, its legal system, its economy, its future. Given how much Ukrainians have at stake, the least we outsiders can do is avoid foolish stereotypes when discussing their fate.

 

Photo: Christiaan Triebert (CC BY 2.0)

I’m devastated and grief-stricken by the violence on the Maidan in Ukraine. An outburst of political violence in the core of the old Soviet bloc reminiscent of Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968. The administration has completely renounced its responsibility to the citizenry, and pursues its fruitless policy of confrontation and escalation. Scores are dead or dying. Blood, cobblestones and ashes cover the streets. Molotov cocktails and bullets fly. Hotel lobbies have been converted to makeshift medical centres or morgues.

In a blistering piece in the New York Review of Books today, Timothy Snyder – the historian and author of Bloodlands – describes the situation leading up to the clashes:

On January 16, the Ukrainian government, headed by President Yanukovych, tried to put an end to Ukrainian civil society. A series of laws passed hastily and without following normal procedure did away with freedom of speech and assembly, and removed the few remaining checks on executive authority. This was intended to turn Ukraine into a dictatorship and to make all participants in the Maidan, by then probably numbering in the low millions, into criminals. The result was that the protests, until then entirely peaceful, became violent. Yanukovych lost support, even in his political base in the southeast, near the Russian border.

I urge you to read the whole piece. It’s remarkably clear, and the best I’ve read so far on the situation in Ukraine and the new Russian power dynamic.

*

While the impetus is on the dominant, government forces to back down from their undemocratic attempt to quash dissent, we should also acknowledge that the protesters who are fighting the police are also perpetrating political violence which should be condemned. The riot, as Martin Luther King said, is the language of the unheard. And it is quite clear whose fault the clashes are.

As much as our thoughts should go to the dead, the wounded and the afflicted, we should be as concerned with the precipitous decline in the political and democratic culture. Not just of Ukraine, but of what the shift in the Ukraine signals for the region.

In the past weeks, with the Sochi Olympics simultaneously revealing and obscuring the vast, authoritarian bulk of the darker Russia, I’ve become aware of how intensely the geopolitical dynamics of our relationship to Russia is shifting. While the sheer, jackbooted absurdity of someone being beaten by paramilitary goon squads for singing a song in public in neat outfits is in a way almost funny, we should be chilled to the bone by what we are seeing.

As Russia descends faster and faster into authoritarianism, it grows its own, independent sphere of culture, values, flows and economies that separate it and its peoples from democracy and human rights. It begins to demand a more undiluted loyalty from its neighbours, which gradually grow more like satellite states. We are seeing the Putin administration trying to organically reconstitute its sphere of influence in a way reminiscent of what the Soviet Union once did.

A protester plays the piano in the Maidan, before the current clusterfuck began. Photo: Christiaan Triebert (CC-BY 2.0)

Timothy Snyder aptly portrays the new situation in his piece:

The future of this protest movement will be decided by Ukrainians. And yet it began with the hope that Ukraine could one day join the European Union …The course of the protest has very much been influenced by the presence of a rival project, based in Moscow, called the Eurasian Union. This is an international commercial and political union that does not yet exist but that is to come into being in January 2015. The Eurasian Union, unlike the European Union, is not based on the principles of the equality and democracy of member states, the rule of law, or human rights.

On the contrary, it is a hierarchical organization, which by its nature seems unlikely to admit any members that are democracies with the rule of law and human rights. Any democracy within the Eurasian Union would pose a threat to Putin’s rule in Russia. Putin wants Ukraine in his Eurasian Union, which means that Ukraine must be authoritarian, which means that the Maidan must be crushed.

*

The new dynamics which particularly concern me are these two:

First, that loyalty to the Soviet Union has become a zero-sum game. Either Ukraine orients towards the EU, or it orients towards Russia. There is no middle ground. You are either with Putin, or you are with Merkel. You are oriented towards Moscow or towards Berlin, Paris and London. This is a frightening and polarising dynamic.

The second, related change is a shift towards the ideological. Towards “value politics” and trying to create a “value bloc” in the Russian sphere of influence.

Suddenly homosexuality, religion, abortion, minorities and tolerance have become politically supercharged. Putin’s Russia used to be a machiavellian affair, completely predictable in classic realist models of foreign policy thought. The new Russia which we see emerging has found a new voice as a traditional values power.

This is major, increasingly and newly dominant political theme from a Putin increasingly dependent on the church and the conservative population to rule. The new ideology emerges if you read between the lines in the following three paragraphs in his State of the Nation address in December, where Putin sketches out a role as a world leader in “values”:

We have always been proud of our nation. But we do not claim to be any sort of superpower with a claim to global or regional hegemony; we do not encroach on anyone’s interests, impose our patronage onto anyone, or try to teach others how to live their lives. But we will strive to be leaders, defending international law, striving for respect and national sovereignty and peoples’ independence and identityThis is absolutely objective and understandable for a state like Russia, with its great history and culture, with many centuries of experience, not so-called tolerance, neutered and barren, but the actual common, natural life of different peoples within the framework of a single state.

Today, many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures. Society is now required not only to recognise everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning. This destruction of traditional values from above not only leads to negative consequences for society, but is also essentially anti-democratic, since it is carried out on the basis of abstract, speculative ideas, contrary to the will of the majority, which does not accept the changes occurring or the proposed revision of values.

We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilisation in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.

[bolding mine]

Someone I met once said: when fascism finally comes it won’t be wearing jackboots and brown shirts. It will come as a change in the weather, something barely noticeable, like the wind shifting in October. We’re seeing a similar kind of political shift happening to the East of Europe now. The new dynamic reminds me of the early days of the Cold War. If the current dynamic in Russia isn’t altered, we might very well end up seeing the democratic culture of the region overpowered by the corrosive forces and eventually overrun.

Profoundly troubling news on the changes to the Facebook algorithm: Upworthy’s traffic spiked in November, and then following a change to the news feed algorithm, suffered a 46 % traffic decline over two months. Business Insider:  

The drop raises a few questions.

  • Did Facebook’s algorithm change wipe out half of Upworthy’s traffic?

  • Was it designed to?

  • In other words, are the people at Facebook set on preventing Upworthy stories from dominating the News Feed, as has been reported?

Those are some great questions. And while I hate the She Did Something, Then He Did Something. What happened next will make your eyeballs literally explode-type headlines as much as — or, judging by my Facebook feed, more than — most people, this is really unsettling. 

Why? Because this is clear evidence of two things:

First, a shift in Facebook away from a more “net neutrality”, people-driven virality in which all content gets roughly the same kind of treatment towards a business-driven, money-buys-access virality. That means that Facebook is transitioning away from being a tool for people towards people being tools for Facebook. 

Second, of how difficult it is, now, to do business online without Facebook on your side. The viral content producers are not your average kind of website, in that they are completely dependent on social media. But they are canaries in the coalmine for changes which might, eventually hit everyone who uses Facebook for activism or any other kind of social activity involving more than a few people. That’s fine when you’re sharing videos of cute marriage proposals, but imagine trying to run something important, like, say, the revolution in Egypt while having to pay for sponsored content on Facebook. 

In fact, I think the general point may be better put that Facebook has quite simply become a part of the infrastructure of being alive. A central part in the exchanges that make up our life. When that conduit of who we are starts to shift towards being more for-money instead of being for-people, we should be deeply concerned. 

Via Verso Books today, I found a beautiful conversation between the recently deceased Philip Seymour Hoffman and philosopher Simon Critchley. Critchley, while occasionally full of it, is a really interesting philosopher and Hoffman and him complement each other in surprising and interesting ways.

The conversation, in light of Hoffman’s death, is a raw and distressing one, conducted with surprising warmth, humour and affability. Critchey’s will to examine existential dilemmas – a central research topic for him – gets right at the knots which we now know to have been at the centre of Seymour Hoffman’s life. They sincerely dig into the problem of happiness, Seymour Hoffman with his honesty and self-diagnostics, Critchley with his probing, analytic and literary intelligence.

I would definitely say that pleasure’s not happiness. I kill pleasure, you know? I take too much of it … there’s no pleasure that I haven’t made myself sick on. … I think I’m happy when I’m with [my three children], and they’re okay.

This was just a few days after the Newtown shooting, so the comment was particularly painful then. And it is particularly painful now. The conversation is 45 minutes long, and I can’t really think of a better way to remember Philip Seymour Hoffman the person. It’s a nice prelude to remembering him as an artist for decades to come.