Saturday, April 27, 2019

On John Rhys-Davies' Tantrum

Recently I chanced upon John Rhys-Davies' nasty behavior toward Green Party MP Caroline Lucas on the BBC's Question Time. In particular the bit where he responded to her questioning of Donald Trump's legitimacy through reference to his having lost the popular vote by a wide margin with "Oh woman! Have you not read Kenneth Arrow and the Arrow's theorem? Any system has its problems."

As far as I can tell the criticism of his behavior has generally focused on his rudeness and sexism. I do not dispute any of that, but am in this post more interested in the manner in which he argued, or appeared to argue. In not only citing Kenneth Arrow's "impossibility theorem," but presuming that his work was common knowledge which he could expect anyone he meets to know (it is not), he implied (unsubtly) that he is not only vastly more knowledgeable, but altogether on a higher intellectual plane than his opponent.

However, he also gave away his superficiality. Arrow's theorem is a piece of neoclassical economics, after all--the same neoclassical economics that for the last century and a half has been an exercise in physics envy, Scholasticism, and the dressing up of simple-minded but ideologically convenient (read: extreme-right wing) ideas in mathematical symbols and language (hence, "theorem") to lend them the illusion of having all the force and immutability of physical law (and of course, intimidate the callow). Its value has been virtually nil where understanding actual economic life (you know, an economists's job) is concerned--and naturally the approach in general, and Arrow's theorem (vulnerable to every one of the criticisms listed here) is, at the least, rather more open to question than Rhys-Davies implied (that reading it one could not but accept the matter as settled now and forever). It certainly is not a mike-dropping answer to a specific criticism of the outcome of a specific election.

The best that one could say for Rhys-Davies was that he answered Lucas' criticism with a platitude ("You can't have everything!" "You can't please everyone!") passed off as not being a platitude by its being dressed up with a famous name and the aforementioned mathematical language. The ungenerous would suggest that Rhys-Davies' answer was the non-sequitur of a bully who substitutes name-dropping for genuine thought and argument, and that brings me to something I have had much occasion to think about recently, how Internet trolls behave.

Bluntly put, how Rhys-Davies spoke is not how intelligent people speak but rather how stupid people imagine intelligent people speaking.

Why People With High IQs Don't Go Around Bragging About Their High IQs

I have been struck time and again by the number of trolls who claim to be intellectually superior to anyone they are likely to meet in their profiles and handles. One claimed in his profile to have a "top IQ," and insisted that "you won't find anyone who knows more about life than me." Another, less subtle, incorporated the word "genius" into her handle.

Anyone who has spent time among actual "high IQ" people would recognize these people as fakes instantly, simply for their having done so--as people who actually have high IQs do not go around telling people they have a high IQ.

I think one reason is that they know how little IQ really means. By that I do not necessarily mean that they think the test is meaningless (even if they are likely to realize that a test administered on a single occasion which attempts to offer a general estimate of the extremely complex phenomenon that is intelligence is apt to offer a result more precise than accurate), but that they know how little it counts for in real life. I recall, for example, that when his reported IQ of 170 came up in an interview, Herbert Stempel remarked that that "and two dollars can get you on the subway."

It is a reminder that in real life, however much addicts of the propaganda for meritocracy insist upon it, society is not ruled by the smartest, nor inclined to lavish its rewards upon them. Picking your parents well, playing the dirty game of getting ahead, stands one in far, far better stead there.

They know how little it means even where purely intellectual life is concerned. I doubt a high IQ has completely saved anyone from the painful experiences of working harder than they should for longer than they should, making mistakes, getting frustrated, and outright failing. (Often high intelligence is an obstacle to getting good grades in a school system more concerned with students being able to take direction well than think for themselves; get good scores on standardized tests than acquire deeper capability.)

Even the highest intelligence ever possessed by a human being is not automatic, effortless omnicompetence, a free pass to a life of Faustian adventure in which one gets to do and to be everything. Quite the contrary, where the stupid have the Dunning-Kreuger effect to insulate their egos, they have a fairly good idea of the limits of their competence, even where they are competent--even when a narrow specialist, all too alert to how little they know about that, and how much less they know about the rest, the bar higher for them. In fact, that capacity for self-criticism, without which they would have accomplished little, can leave them underestimating themselves.

Because they have worked, they have known burn-out (and the deflation of confidence that goes with it). Because they have been recognized as something, they have wondered if they have not been impostors (the more so in the wake of those inevitable frustrations and failures). Because people have seen potential in them, they have wondered if they have lived up to it. (You have a high IQ, you say? Well, what did you do with it?)

This is also the more poignant as they are likely to have spent much of their life around other, similarly intelligent individuals, whose failings and insecurities are less visible to them than their own, who may seem the more formidable than they. They know there is always someone "better" out there. And they are smart enough to know that no one likes a braggart, not least because they, like everyone else, have had to endure someone else's bragging.

Indeed, in that particular milieu most closely identified with conspicuous intellectual demands and achievement, they are, far from the super-individualist so beloved of bad science fiction, all too aware that they "stand on the shoulders of giants," and manage that only with the help of others. (Never mind winning Nobel Prizes--publishing a run-of-the-mill paper is likely to be a highly collaborative effort.) Robert Merton put it well, the more so for how provocative the term sounds to the ears of the conventional--"communism" is a cornerstone of the ethos of the scientific enterprise.

Does this mean that the intelligent are incapable of arrogance, whether in their taking an exaggerated view of their powers, or their possession of a sense of superiority to others? Of course not. Indeed, one can picture all the sources of insecurity described here driving them overcompensating. But at the least it makes the IQ test score-flogging crudity of bad fiction and much inane real-life personal behavior by the fakers a rarity among "the real thing."

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Review: The Chimera Vector, by Nathan Farrugia

Nathan Farrugia's The Chimera Vector being the sort of thriller where plot twists and "big reveals" are critical to the entertainment, it is difficult to discuss in spoiler-free fashion. Without giving away much, though, I can say that the essentials are familiar--a covert operative betrayed and forced on the run to survive, resulting in their trotting the globe with the enemy close behind them and discovering behind the mysteries of their own past, and the dangers they face in the present, a conspiracy of global proportions.

However, Farrugia's handling of the material makes it feel fresh, helped by his clean, crisp prose--a far cry from, for example, Robert Ludlum's often bombastic verbosity. It seems significant, too, that while action-packed for the most part Farrugia eschews over-the-top, physics-defying set pieces (as exemplified by Matthew Reilly) in favor of relatively brief, relatively grounded fight and chase scenes that fit in well with his narrative style. (For all the gunplay, I didn't catch myself pausing and backtracking to work out what is going on at that level--which was especially handy given that the edition supplied for review was an e-book rather than a print work.) It helps, too, that there is more than the usual canniness and substance in the thinking about the reasons behind it all. (Indeed, a good many will come away from this book feeling that behind the science fiction trappings, the story is fairly close to the truth about the times in which we live.)

High-Speed Pulp Writing: How Did People Do It?

Those who delve into the history of the more commercial kinds of fiction--the old pulps and paperbacks and so on--encounter what seem like extraordinary feats on the part of writers from the standpoint of sheer volume of output, authors cranking out whole novels in days (a Lester Dent, for example, particularly famous for this approach).

The prospect of being able to do the same is, for many, enormously appealing. After all, who hasn't wanted to finish a piece of writing more quickly? Who doesn't dream of being more productive?

Just how did they do it? The answer is that there were several enabling factors, not least in regard to the sort of books they were writing:

1. They were shooting for short works--50,000 words or so.
2. Those short books tended to be formulaic--the writer simply coming up with different factors to plug in rather than thinking up a narrative arc from scratch.
3. These short, formulaic books were also simple books, with relatively straightforward structures and straightforward prose, and minimalist in such respects as detail. This meant that they didn't have to do so much fleshing out of their scenes, which was another time-saver.
4. There was a certain tolerance for roughness and repetitiveness in the product--like a good deal of serviceable but awkward phrasing.

There was, too, the manner in which they worked.

1. They had to be able to work without interruption, with working through the night, and the next day, a common feature of the approach.
2. They had someone ready to take the work off their hands when they were done, so that they could move on to the next thing, rather than being stuck poring over what they'd finished.
3. They had the opportunity to do this again and again and again, putting such work out as much as they were physically capable, building up experience at this kind of endeavor.

The combination of the kind of project with its particular demands (and the things it didn't demand), their opportunity to work without interruption and then let go of a project to start a new one of a similar type over and over and over again, are a very far cry from how today's aspiring novelist is likely to work. They are expected to shoot for works of 100,000 words or more, books which are not just longer but more complex. Producing this longer, more complex book they are apt to hold down a day job, which by itself not just commands a large and perhaps critical part of their time and energy, but chops the rest to pieces, with fatal consequences for any sort of intuitive flow. And they are, of course, very unlikely to have a publisher waiting to take a work off their hands as soon as they are done. (Especially if they are unpublished and unagented, they might have it on their hands for years, and maybe forever.) If a writer feels that they must strive for originality, get the facts right, polish their prose; if they have been subjected to lots and lots of form rejection letters that wound enormously while teaching nothing, leaving them insecure and self-conscious; then the approach of a Dent is that much further outside their reach.

Those of us who would find their seemingly unselfconscious, spontaneous, intuitive approach a relief, or even liberating, can only breathe a sigh; but it may be some comfort to consider the reality that in today's market we would have a very tough time selling the result.

The '80s Never Ended

Recently reading David Sirota's Back to Our Future I thought again that the 1980s do define our decade, though the explanation I find satisfying, I dare say, runs somewhat deeper than his--specifically that it was the time when the right-wing cultural counter-offensive underway since the 1940s (an adjunct to the more central political-economic counteroffensive we think of as neoliberalism) finally dominated the mainstream.

Why then and not earlier? Simply put, as the stimulus of post-war reconstruction and automobile culture ran their courses, as the war economy ground down the economic machinery sustaining it (the Cold War killed the gold standard and the Great Society together), as Europe and Japan's assimilating American-style mass-manufacturing made the world market very crowded; and the pace of technological innovation and its associated productivity increases slowed, while the old resource profligacy proved unsustainable; Big Business already felt its profits squeezed in the 1960s. In the 1970s post-war boom altogether turned to post-war bust, worsening matters, while inflation may have made manufacturers uneasy but was positively toxic for finance. Meanwhile the leftward shift of society was felt as intensely threatening, even in the core, Western, industrialized nations. (Remember, for instance, the hysteria of British right-wingers about some imminent union/leftist takeover of the country that had them cooking up coup plots against Harold Wilson?)

At the same time, amid danger there was also opportunity, the decay of the post-war consensus making their going on the offensive seem not only more urgent, but like it had a chance--as by getting the public to think the trouble was that things had gone too far left, rather than not left enough. Meanwhile, both sides of the counterculture provided material to work with--not just the much ballyhooed backlash against it, which, in a demonstration of the validity not of the horseshoe theory by which they set so much store but the fishhook theory they have marginalized, shifted ever-shaky "liberal" centrists right into its ranks in practice and even in name, but the counterculture itself (certainly, as it appeared in the U.S.). More emotional than intellectual in its foundations, strongly inclined to individualism, never very strong on the issues of economics and class, it was possible to exploit its impulses on behalf of not just consumerism (as Thomas Frank has made all too clear), but the full-blown neoliberal economic agenda--turning the hippies into yippies and just plain yuppies.

What we have lived through in the last four decades has been the epilogue. But, perhaps, also the prologue to a new story . . .

Why Was Hollywood So Slow to Capitalize on the Action Film?

The original, EON-produced James Bond movies of the early 1960s are generally regarded as the starting point for the modern action film--the movies that established their characteristic filmic structure, its range and density of set pieces, and its cinematographic and editorial techniques (and even the "blockbuster" mode of releasing them). Yet, Hollywood seems to have only properly begun to assimilate this practice in the mid-1970s, while it seems that it was another decade before they really became a staple product for the industry. In other words, a full generation seems to have passed between those foundational Bond films, and the rise of the Hollywood action film. Just why was that?

One might imagine that such a question had already been asked and answered numerous times, but so far as I can tell, this is very far from being the case. One reason, I suppose, is that the sorts of serious, rigorous scholars of film who would do the hard work of tracing the development have little time for action-oriented blockbusters, whose rise many of them even seem to regard as an annoying aberration, or even a disaster for film. Another would seem to be the extent to which action films are defined by form rather than the kind of content to which they prefer to devote their analytical energies, in part because it is easier to talk about themes than it is the subtleties of cinematic technique--while the fact that the form is of a kind they do not respect does not encourage them in such efforts.

The question is a tough one, too, because it raises the question of why something was not done, a necessarily trickier matter than explaining why something was. Still, the well-known history of Hollywood, and the Bond films, offers a possible explanation.

When the early Bond films came along they were thrillers tinged with science fiction--at a time when thrillers and science fiction were both B-movie stuff, and B-movies looked like they were dying. It might be added, too, that spy films were a relative exoticism for American culture--a genre rather less well-established than, for example, hard-boiled crime. A survey of the reviews written about the films at the time also makes it clear that observers were not so sure about what to make of them--not so sure that they were looking at the rise of a new kind of film. Rather it seemed to them that they were looking at merely a parody of existing material--a parody of Hitchcock, a parody of science fiction, with such a view the more understandable because of the illogic and self-parody that was part of the warp and woof of those movies from the start.

None of this stopped Hollywood from imitating the Bond films. Yet, the imitation was for the most part superficial, and lightweight. The movies imitated the theme of the globe-trotting, gadget-packing superspy, for the most part parodically, rather than displaying a real grasp of the action movie mechanics, because the former was all that could be done with the slight understanding of or interest in those movies. The superficial, parodic route was also much less expensive. After all, in less than half a decade the Bond films upped their budgets tenfold, You Only Live Twice running a hefty near $10 million--and it would have cost Hollywood far more to make such a production at home. It is safe to assume that this was rather more than it was ready to risk in trying to compete head to head with the Bond brand by making a glorified B-movie with the kind of A-movie budget they were used to spending on other, very different kinds of film.* Finally, the reality is that in the mid-1960s the Bond films were already passing the peak of their popularity, and by the 1970s looking increasingly repetitive, derivative of other material and outright decadent, lessening the interest in the movies and what they may have had to offer (that still unmastered action movie form), turning attention from them toward other directions.

And even before that point there were two other trends that galvanized Hollywood's attention, one more natural given its history, the other more radical. The first was an extension of the turn to splashy musicals evident in the '50s, with the years of Bond's greatest successes in America overshadowed each year by a hugely successful film of the type. In 1964 Goldfinger was #2 at the American box office, and From Russia With Love #5, but My Fair Lady was #1. In 1965 Thunderball proved the series' biggest ever success, but wound up at only #3, overshadowed by, above all, the biggest box office phenomenon of the whole decade--The Sound of Music, which took in twice as much in America and globally. In the next several years Hollywood sunk much of its money into trying to repeat that success, and never quite accomplishing it, Camelot doing all right, Oliver! better than all right, but 1969's Sweet Charity, Hello Dolly! and Paint Your Wagon a trio of big-budget ($20 million) letdowns that largely ended the trend.

The other trend was, of course, the "New Hollywood." Pioneered by directors less habituated to Hollywood tradition, they had relatively little interest in the kind of movie the Bond films represented. Their sensibility, after all, was oriented toward the arthouse, toward youth and the counterculture, toward social criticism and urban grit, toward aesthetically and politically edgier fare, rather than Bond-style crowd pleasers, even if, eventually, it was a New Hollywood director who brought the action film to Hollywood--George Lucas, in Star Wars, for which the Bond films had been an influence.

At that point Hollywood repeated the pattern of superficial imitativeness with Star Wars, imitating the space theme more than grasping the mechanics of action moviemaking, such that the Alien and Star Trek franchises did not began as action movie series', and only became such over the course of the '80s. The original Star Wars trilogy ran its course in 1983, and by then the larger fashion for space operatic movies was waning (few such appearing until the mid-'90s), but by then Hollywood had had the chance to pick up the pattern, routinize it in a period when it might have been more open, because it was more prepared to learn from its own successes than those of others, because B-movies were becoming the new A-movies, because "high concept" had become king and even if it was not yet closely identified with action-adventure, Lucas and his cohorts had given the studio heads the strongest foundation for high concept success of all.

* The 1967 Casino Royale wound up pricier than any Bond movie made to date with a $12 million budget, but this was the result of a chaotic production process that led to cost overruns; and in any event, that film very much an exception.

Darko Suvin and H.G. Wells

Darko Suvin's collection Metamorphoses of Science Fiction includes such classics of his criticism as "Estrangement and Cognition" (available at Strange Horizons).

It also includes a piece dealing with "Wells As the Turning Point of the SF Tradition." In it Suvin remarked that Wells was the "first significant writer who started to write SF from within the world of science, and not merely facing it" (220); whose scientific romances were the "privileged form in which SF was admitted into an official culture that rejected socialist utopianism" (220); and "endowed later SF with a basically materialist look back at human life and a rebelliousness against its entropic closure" (221). "For such reasons," he declares, all subsequent significant SF can be said to have sprung from Wells' Time Machine" (221).

Others are often credited with founding the genre, sometimes Mary Shelley, sometimes Jules Verne, but when one considers science fiction from the standpoint of what made it really unique within twentieth century fiction, from the standpoint of what might be considered its cultural niche or even its special purposes that it alone and not other kinds of fiction could perform, it seems to me inarguable that, as Suvin contends, Wells was by far the most important of these three.

Of Assholes and Bullshit

The last time I checked one still could not say the words "asshole" or "bullshit" on network television. Yet, academics have been writing books about these titles. Aaron James recently published Assholes: A Theory. Even before that, Harry G. Frankfurt paved the way with On Bullshit.

This may seem like a matter of writers trying to sell books by grabbing attention with a few swear words where, in even this vulgarized era, they might be least expected. However, that strikes me as not just ungenerous but inaccurate. The plain and simple truth is that these words have no precise synonyms in the English language.

James contends in his book that an "asshole" is a person whose sense of entitlement translates to their immunity to others' criticisms, reflected, not least, in their systematically exploiting advantages they may have over others--an idea no other word in English captures equally well.

This is even more the case with "bullshit." Bullshit, as Frankfurt makes clear, is not a lie. A liar, after all, is attentive to the truth, enough to know it and for some reason wish to conceal it. For all their faults, they at least know what the truth is and in some way respond to reality. The bullshitter, by contrast, is indifferent to the truth or falsity of what they say. They simply do not care. It is a whole other level of bad faith--and again, no other word captures this equally well.

All that being the case, these terms have been used in serious social science analysis. James applied what he discussed in Assholes: A Theory to the analysis of a then-presidential candidate in Assholes: A Theory of Trump, while David Graeber successfully used the concept of "bullshit" to offer one of the most original and significant critiques of the neoliberal economy in decades, Bullshit Jobs.

All that being the case, will these "dirty" words gain greater acceptance within daily usage? Somehow, I doubt it will happen anytime soon. Still, they seem to me indispensable, and unless we come up with satisfactory equivalents usable in polite society, we will have no choice but to go on speaking of assholes, and bullshit--especially in an age that has made an idol of the asshole, and unavoidably seems in danger of being buried in bullshit as a result.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Politics of Trolling: A Few Reflections

It seems to me that the label "troll" is much misused. Certain lazy writers will apply it to any criticism. Straightforward political commentary, or satire, are routinely mislabeled this way.

A troll is not merely someone who disagrees with you, or who even happens to annoy or offend you in their disagreement. A troll is someone who makes it their business to annoy you or offend you with disagreement. They do not address themselves to the world at large, but make a point of going specifically where they are not wanted. They enter other peoples' civil conversations in uncivil fashion. "Stop your talking among yourselves and address me!" they demand, putting others on the spot, and often demanding they answer absurdities and irrelevancies, often absurdities and irrelevancies which the troll themselves recognizes as such, or otherwise endure their attacks (though in fairness, they also mean to go on attacking you regardless of what you say).

This is because they are uninterested in an exchange of ideas. They are not even interested in persuading others. Rather they are the self-appointed police of what is acceptable, meting out punishment to those they see as unacceptable, or even disrupting it. They cannot shut other people down by command, but they can waste their time, and still more, make them miserable. They can confuse and distract, disgust and offend, embarrass and wound. They can, in short, harass them, sabotage them, bully them.

That last word is critical. Bullying is something those with more power do to those with less; something those who feel less inhibited do to those who feel more inhibited. The exploitation of the asymmetry is critical. And the asymmetry itself points to a reality not often owned to which is that, in practice, bullying tends to go from right to left.

Writing those words, I could almost see the right-wingers foaming at the mouth with rage.

I remind them, however, of the way I have defined trolling here--not simply any critical or satirical statement, but a statement presented in this particular way, for this particular effect.

I remind them, too (or explain to those who have not read this blog before) that not everyone they think of as left really is of the left--with many an "identitarian," for example, really a right-wing nationalist whose nationalism simply happens to attach to a traditionally marginalized group.

Finally I remind them that, as a rereading should suffice to confirm, my statement is not absolute. I do not say here that bullying can never go from left to right, just that it is less common (I suspect, much, much less common), because it so much less consistent with their values, and so much more dissonant with them; while their practical situation reinforces this.

The reason is that it is those on the left who value reason, freedom, openness, fairness. Many a conservative insists that they are all about these things, but conservatism is, at bottom, defined by a more guarded attitude toward them. Conservatism is founded on a skepticism about reason, especially in the realm of human affairs. Its respect for freedom is limited by its fear of what "too much" freedom might mean. It is, accordingly, more concerned with order--with enforcing rules for the sake of enforcing rules--and more accommodating of irrational bases for action, not least authority and prejudice (in the broad sense of the term), and the sacrifice of openness and fairness to them.

Moreover, those on the left feel are convinced that they have reason and fairness on their side. They want, need, to persuade others of their rightness. At the same time, those hostile to them can and do exploit their commitment to dialogue and fairness by sucking them into exactly the position where they wind up trying to defend themselves in a legitimate fashion against the unfair tactics of a troll.

One can go still further and consider certain attitudes, certain kinds of behavior--an admiration of self-assertion and aggression for their own sake, even when, or because, this goes along with callousness and meanness, with inegalitarian and even anti-egalitarian sentiments or presumptions. Being an "asshole" is hardly a deep or sophisticated basis for a political ideology, but there seems no shortage of those who treat it as if it were that, and it would be tough to argue that the "cult of the asshole" is not something more prevalent on the right, much of which, in the age of "greed is good," status politics and the rest, positively revels in such attitudes.

There is, too, the not insignificant reality of who actually has power. We live in a profoundly unequal society, with regard to wealth and status, and it is those who are on top, those who are comfortable with things as they are and ferociously hostile to those who would have them another way, who determine what is allowably respectable and mainstream in speech and expression. By and large, the further to the right one is, however much they may complain (and do they ever complain!), the safer and more secure they can feel; the further to the left one is, the greater the risk they take when they express themselves, the more easily are they put on the defensive and faced with the outrage of a mob. (Bill Maher may pal around on his show with degenerates like Steve Bannon and the rest of the Breitbart crowd. Can you picture him similarly paling around with genuine Marxists? Of course not.)

There seems every reason to think that this does make a difference with regard to how often a person will act out in this way, whether they end up aggressor--or victim. And it seems pointless to deny this all in the name of that pseudo-fairness which assumes that both sides must be equally guilty or equally blameless in a given situation.

On the Word "Entitlement"

As James Cairns observes in his recent book The Myth of the Age of Entitlement, the term "entitlement" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "a legal right or just claim to do, receive or possess something"--and this is its usual, conventional meaning. However, as he also points out, psychologists' different use of the word equates it with false claims to such rights and claims, reflective of narcissism--extreme selfishness and grandiose views of oneself to which they expect others to pander. "You are acting very entitled" one might chide another individual they think needs a "reality check" and a "privilege check"; someone who needs to "get over themselves"; someone they think needs to be brought "down from the clouds," and "welcomed" back "to the REAL world" (awful, awful phrase, which will probably one day get its own post here).

The second usage is not a description of a matter of fact, but an accusation. And that second, accusatory usage would seem to raise the danger of turning the first usage, any usage, into such an accusation; of turning a mere report or acknowledgment of legal rights or just claims into a way of undermining or denying such rights and claims by declaring the claimant of an entitlement to be a selfish, deluded narcissist. Moreover, given the way in which society misuses and abuses the language of "moralistic" scolding to legitimate inequality and injustice and worse (evident in the manner in which people use the word "deserve"), it would seem in danger of systematically misusing and abusing the word in exactly this way.

And indeed, that is exactly what has happened.

Consider how we in the United States refer to our social safety net--to the Social Security that provides a measure of protection to the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled. This are all other such programs are consistently called "entitlements" in common usage, and the double-meaning is all too evident. They are undeniably legal rights to those for whom they are intended. Sane people would recognize that they are a just claim as well--not only because society is obligated to provide for its most vulnerable members, but because everyone pays into the system in the expectation that if and when they need this program, it will be there for them.

However, from the very start a significant and influential swath of opinion has been fiercely opposed to the existence of any such program, and even the principle of mutual aid underlying it--begrudging the contributions they make, and even the idea that human beings have any obligations to each other (with the frothing-at-the-mouth meanness-wrapped-in-pseudointellectualism of the Ayn Rand-loving "libertarians" who befoul the Internet and every other public space only the most blatant such expression).

Of course, this swath of opinion has only grown more vocal and influential as the country has continued its rightward march from the 1970s to the present. And this, too, is at least as evident in every usage of the word "entitlement" in reference to a program like Social Security. In fact, the attitude, and the usage, have progressed so far that ostensible progessives use the word "entitlement" to beat down working class discontent with the erosion of their social protections, wages, benefits and prospects in the neoliberal era--as New York Times film critic A.O. Scott so shamefully does in his review of 2016's Manchester by the Sea (in which he "accuses" figures like the film's protagonist Lee Chandler with a sense of entitlement as "white working men" to a "working man's paradise").

What is as notable as such usages of the word "entitlement" is the ways in which the word is not used. Working class people, especially working class people whose ethnic background makes it clear that they are disadvantaged by class and not race in a society and a discourse neurotically hostile to acknowledging class at all, are charged with being "entitled" in this way--with being unreasonable narcissists for expecting to be able to find work, and then when putting in their hours on the job, live in something better than abject poverty.

However, those whose sense of entitlement is arguably greatest in terms of their expectation that society really will cater to their needs above all others, and press hardest and most successfully for it are, it is difficult to deny, not those who have least, but those who have most. In the neoliberal age that tells the poorest and weakest that they are "entitled" narcissists for having any expectations at all from life, the economic conventional wisdom is that all economic and social policy, all political life, must revolve around creating the good "business climate" conducive to profits. Which, in practice, means that the needs of wants of business (low or nonexistent taxes, massive subsidies, weak and nonexistent regulation) come before the wants and even the needs of everyone else (be it tax equity, public services, the protection of consumers, labor, the environment).

Yet, "no one" considers neoliberalism to be an expression of the sense of "entitlement" of the affluent.

In the 2008 financial crisis, as bailout followed after bailout, transferring the consequences of institutional behavior by banks and brokerages whose stupidity and irresponsibility beggar description from private balance sheets to public, government balance sheets, and in turn precipitated fiscal crisis and economic crisis that rocked the political system to its foundation with consequences we are still witnessing today, there was much criticism--but few thought, or dared, to say that the financial institutions which demanded these bailouts "acted entitled." (Indeed, in the seven hundred and twenty pages he devoted to this revolting history, Tooze did not use the word, or any synonym for it, even once.)

Of course, those who hate welfare for working people have innumerable excuses for the corporate kind. Much of it, they would argue, is not corporate welfare at all--pointing to such things as the risibly lame "Tax breaks are not subsidies" argument (debunked here). Where such dodges are insufficient, they contend that, well, those corporate types getting the welfare--or as they prefer to call them, the entrepreneurs--are the "wealth creators," the ONLY wealth creators (the natural world on which we rely, the working people who actually staff their companies by the thousand and million, the public services supporting their activity are not wealth creators, only parasitic scum in contrast with the "God on Earth" that is the wealth-creating entrepreneur), and they have to do what they have to do.1 In any event, There Is No Alternative.

But don't you DARE call them entitled you entitled plebs!

1. It does not seem excessive to say that the neoliberal's attitude toward the "entrepreneur" is a near-parody of Hegel's attitude toward the state in The Philosophy of Right--God on Earth.

The Writing Life in an Age of Bullshit Jobs

"What does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet musicians but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law?" David Graeber asked in Bullshit Jobs.

One can equally ask--why so little demand for novelists and filmmakers, painters and sculptors, dancers and musicians?

My first thought regarding this issue was the answer C.P. Snow and John K. Galbraith gave to that question--that it reflects elite priorities in an industrial society, which are, above all, "growth," for which read profits, and have more confidence the "shock troops of capitalism" will deliver them than any arts types.1 More recently I considered the possibility that the explosion in the range and convenience of electronic, digital media was the key factor, bringing on a "post-scarcity" age in regard to word, and image, and sound, at the very time that readership collapsed--all as ours has been an age of scarcity in every other area.

Both these ideas still seem persuasive to me. Yet, reading Bullshit Jobs Graeber had me rethinking the matter yet again, not least the possibility that this may be another instance of that perverse tendency he identified in our economic stage at this curious stage in its development, its rewarding people in inverse relation to the actual value of their work to other people.

"But artists aren't useful people!" you protest?

Okay, perform this simple thought experiment, the next time you think of artists and the arts as somehow "unimportant"--a world without them. For the moment, let us not concern with the fine arts and high culture that, it must be admitted, are enjoyed by a comparative few and think of what even the "cultureless" many have. Picture the aesthetic element removed from every article we use, from our consumer electronics to our cityscapes. Picture your life without every note of music you have ever heard, every film or TV show you have ever watched, every video game you have ever played.

Would you not feel that your life has been impoverished, perhaps gravely so? So much so as to diminish the value of the technological achievements of which we make so much? Those worshipping at the Church of Apple foam at the mouth and reach for their torches and pitchforks if someone tells them their iPhone is not the telos of five billion years of evolution, but would people value their phones so much without the content they access through them--content created overwhelmingly by artists?

Does the existence of corporate law as such mean as much to you as what would have just been lost?

1.Anyone not taken in by the silly Edisonade propaganda and the idiot cult of the tech billionaires so beloved of the libertarian/neoliberal right (Atari Democrats as well as Reagan Republicans) knows that in real life the vast majority of working engineers and researchers are poorly treated. However, when that is how "late capitalism" treats what it supposedly regards as its most precious workers, one can well imagine how much more shabbily it treats artists.

Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road--The First Great Novel About Bullshit Jobs?

Time and again I have been struck by the absence of fiction in any medium--print literature, film, television, anything--which even makes a serious attempt to depict work. People have jobs, we hear about them incessantly, but where what they do is concerned, we either get glamorized, sensationalized nonsense (as with the cops, lawyers and doctors that a visitor from another planet might think are ninety-five percent of the work force), or nothing at all.

Some respond by saying that the reality of work is simply not entertaining. We get legal dramas where lawyers' work seems to consist entirely of dramatic courtroom speeches and confrontations in high-profile murder cases because what lawyers really do is just not all that interesting. I do not dispute that this is at least partly the case. But I think it falls far, far short of a complete answer. After all, even if writers might not necessarily write whole works about that reality, there would be some acknowledgment, here and there, in the occasional popular work, something more in those films which are fewer than they used to be but which still get made that aspire to art.

One explanation to which I have long inclined is the view that the avoidance of work is a matter of those who write the novels and films and television shows simply do not know very much about the world of work as the vast majority of people experience it, with Hollywood an obvious case.As David Graeber remarks in his book Bullshit Jobs,
Look at a list of the lead actors of a major motion picture nowadays and you are likely to find barely a single one that can't boast at least two generations of Hollywood actors, writers, producers, and directors in their family tree. The film industry has come to be dominated by an in-marrying caste.
Take, for an example, Joss Whedon-- hailed the world's "first third-generation television writer" a generation ago. Only a slightly more extreme version of the culture industry as a whole, virtually monopolized by the "liberal" elite of the coastal big cities, it is inconceivable that this kind of thing cannot have consequences for their frame of reference.

However, some fiction indicates that the problem isn't that writers don't know (even if this surely goes for a good many of them), but that there isn't so very much for the writers or anyone else to know--because (even if this is admittedly worth knowing in itself) work has substantially become a matter of bullshit jobs, not least the sort of bullshit job in which the apparently gainfully employed person does little to no work, to little to no useful end. There are not many such works, but they do exist, with the single most striking example in my mind Richard Yates' novel Revolutionary Road, which contains a scene reminiscent of the cocktail party anecdotes with which Graeber begins his book. John Givings (Michael Shannon, to those of you who only saw the movie), visiting with the couple living next door to his parents, the Wheelers, asksFrank Wheeler (Leonardo diCaprio) about his work at Knox Business Machines--"Whaddaya do you there? You design the machines, or make them, or sell them, or repair them, or what?"

Frank lamely responds
"Sort of help sell them, I guess. I don't really have much to do with the machines themselves; I work in the office. Actually, it's sort of a stupid job. I mean there's nothing--you know, nothing interesting about it, or anything."
And from what we see of Wheeler at his actual workplace, his description of his duties in the company's "Sales Promotion" department ("where nobody worked very hard except old Bandy") seems accurate enough. He and his colleagues come into work and then do not do very much but take up space in the office, drink and attempt affairs on their lunch hour, and sometimes cover for their colleagues' more extreme dysfunction, like Jack Ordway, representative of what happens to those who have been here too long, moving "from one glass cubicle to another," his career "distinguished by an almost flawless lack of work," and, save for those days "when a really bad hangover laid him low," walking around the office, charming others and making them laugh. Still short of that point, Frank nonetheless suffers from vague but severe discontents that threaten to tear him and his wife and his family apart, leading to a half-baked plan to relocate to Paris, and in the end domestic disaster.

The outcome is extreme, but far from inconceivable, and overall Yates' novel so powerfully dramatizes the dynamics Graeber's book discusses that I think it merits recognition as the first great novel first great novel about work in an age of bullshit jobs.

Moreover, it would seem that its accomplishment exerted an influence even before the novel was rescued from obscurity by Sam Mendes' film adaptation. While little read in the half century between its original publication and the screen version, those who did pay attention to it seem, disproportionately, to have been writers, while Yates had an interesting personal connection to one of the bigger (and more work-inclined) pop cultural phenomena of our time, Seinfeld. The show's cocreator, Larry David, dated Yates' daughter Monica for a time, and even wrote a Yates-like figure into the early episode "The Jacket."

Looking back, I am struck time and again by George Costanza's experience of work--how much of the time he does nothing, how he is constantly befuddled regarding his bosses' expectations of him. In "The Barber," after taking that job from Mr. Tuttle, the mystery of the Penske file is opaque, the broader situation Kafkaesque. Later, working for the New York Yankees, George makes a point of looking annoyed so as to create the illusion that he is busy, and builds a shelf under his desk so that he can discretely take naps during the work day. I never took it all that seriously. But it strikes me that Seinfeld, perhaps thanks to Yates' influence, had at least something to say about bullshit jobs as well.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A Note on Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

In his classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life Richard Hofstadter pointed to four principal sources--business, organized religion, "Jacksonian democracy" and "progressive education."

It was easy enough to understand business, religion, and even Jacksonian democracy being listed, but I couldn't help wondering, why put progressive education on a level with them? Certainly no one would consider what he meant by progressive education (the Rousseau-Dewey tradition) as at all comparable in its effect as those other forces even on education, let alone American life.

A significant clue lay in the ideological characterization of these four forces. Hofstadter identified two of those forces with the right--business and religion--and two others with the left--Jacksonian democracy and progressive education. Such an identification seems to me awkward. Others (myself included) read Jacksonian democracy as right-wing populism, not the other kind. Additionally the progressive education of Hofstadter's time was not without conservative roots--not least, in its accommodating students' expectations with regard to career to an economic system which cannot give everyone "the good job."

The strain involved in putting progressive education into this grouping as if it were somehow equivalent to the others, the problematic characterization of these four forces, gives me the impression that in line with the liberal centrism toward which he was tending by this time Hofstadter wished to create an image of ideological balance. He ended up with a false balance, as the centrist version of balance so often tends to be, obscuring the reality that anti-intellectualism, at least where it has counted, has overwhelmingly come from the right.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Review: Armada, by Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline followed up the success of Ready Player One with Armada, in which he clearly meant to produce another work of the same kind without too ostentatiously repeating himself. And so once more we receive a young adult novel about an IRL loser who goes on a virtual action-adventure that might change everything for him, and everyone else, drenched in '80s geek culture nostalgia-flavored pop cultural references (often, the same references), our hero's useless knowledge about which actually proves helpful to him and the rest of the good guys.

Still, he takes considerable pains to differentiate the assembly of those elements. Instead of an ill-treated, impoverished orphan in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, the protagonist, Zack Lightman, is a present-day suburban kid raised by a loving mother who, despite being a single parent working as a nurse, and cut off from her own family, is well enough off that he doesn't have to worry about paying for college; while he identifies closely with his deceased father, the mystery of whose death obsesses him, and proves central to the story's course.1 (It seems that dad might have been onto something, just before he lost him . . .) Zack is also not the overweight, virginal social outcast of the first book. He has real-life friends, and has even had a girlfriend with whom he has been intimate. (No wondering if doing it with a robot counts as a first time, here.) Instead of a struggle of the little guy against corporate power it is humanity vs. the aliens, and rather than a scavenger hunt across a virtual world, he, and all of us, prove to have been fighting in the real world all along.

As one might guess from what has been changed, and how it has been changed, and the fact that Armada appeared in 2015 rather than 2011, Armada is the product of what, at least to go by what one saw in the mainstream, was a more complacent time, with the recession declared officially over, and the public shrugging off the energy shock--and a complacent book.2 Discovering what was really going on Zack thinks to himself that humanity's seeming disregard for all its grave environmental problems--the exhaustion of the fossil fuel supplies, the wrecking of the climate and the rest--was not self-destructiveness after all, but the necessary price of a grand plan to meet an alien menace, and considering it declares that it "filled me with a strange new sense of pride in my own species." (I repeat: forty years of neoliberal-neoconservative-postmodernist disaster and all the grief and despair they have wrought were really just us getting those nasty aliens right where we wanted them!3 The irresponsibility of making such a claim at a moment like this cannot be overstated.)

As one might guess from all this, too, it is also a less original work, with the premise making for a less fluid integration of pop cultural homage and action-adventure. Ready Player One's mix of nostalgia and adventure was rooted in the reality that its quest was a monument to its maker's obsessions. There is an extent to which such nostalgia is connected with the mystery of his father's passing, and what he became part of, but this is not a puzzle the hero puts together significantly, but rather a collection of clues that remain as just clues until others reveal the truth to him, and which become quickly overshadowed by that other, far bigger mystery--"Just what do the aliens want?" In all that it seems less evocative of its pop cultural references than derivative of them (not least, Wargames and The Last Starfighter), while the freighting of the dialogue with generally more obvious references making it sound like a geekier version of the writing for Gilmore Girls, and no less grating (at perhaps its most painful in the first meeting of Zack and Alex).

Alas, even on an action-adventure level it did not quite equal the first. While Armada's space battles are consistently well-written, fast-paced, dense, coherent, the elements of them seem generic rather than evocative, nothing coming close to the wacky extravagance of the climax of Ready Player One; or its intensity, the more so because of the enemy's facelessness, and the point made early on that it was not all as it seemed, which made it clear to me that this was not really going to be settled by fighting. Indeed, reading the battle comprising the last quarter of the book I was simply impatient for the story to get on with the explanation of what that was instead.

Ultimately the answers Zack gets raise still more questions, opening the door to a sequel. A story that followed Zack's pursuit of their answers has its potential, but I suspect that making it really work--making it ascend above the serviceable but generally generic book he produced this time around--will not be easily reconcilable with a desire to give the reader more Ready Player One. Perhaps it is for that reason that a direct sequel to his 2011 hit is reportedly what we can next expect from Cline.

1. Yes, the protagonist was named after the hero of Wargames, because apparently Cline didn't give us enough of it the last time, and yes, this is not wholly irrelevant given the decision that has to be made at the climax.
2. Alas, watching politics grow increasingly radicalized in the three years since, it is clearer than ever that the complacency was a luxury of the privileged and sheltered.
3. This aspect of the story was a reminder that, despite Ready Player One's post-energy shock, post-Great Recession angst and appeal to the masses against a corporate villain, it was not a sophisticated political critique, actually being quite conventional and conformist in many a respect, not least in the biography of James Halliday. In the early '80s fewer than a tenth of American households had personal computers. That the son of a machine operator and a waitress had one, and so many other of the day's electronic goodies, is not impossible, but certainly less common than one might think. That a kid from a blue collar Rust Belt family, while still far from the tech hubs of the day, without social connections or capital or even a high school education, managed to launch a gaming empire at that relatively late date (this is long past the moment when Gates and Jobs were getting their start), is little more than the fantasy of tech-entrepreneurship so beloved of libertarians and their fellow travelers pushed to its outermost limit--pure right-wing economic propaganda.

An Anorak's Thoughts On Ready Player One (Film Adaptation)


As a bestselling pop culture-soaked and action-packed young adult sci-fi novel set in a safely near future on Earth, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One at first glance looks like obvious material for a Hollywood blockbuster. On closer inspection, however, one sees that it lends itself less easily to adaptation to a blockbuster movie than one might guess.

The book's looseness is certainly a factor, with its numerous incidents, the sometimes significant lapse of time between key events, and general sprawl. The way the book is written is still a greater factor in this. Narrated by the protagonist (Wade Watts), the story is substantially told rather than shown (as is so often the case when the first-person point-of-view is employed), not a minor point given the significance of the characters' back stories, and the world building. There is the associated fact that we spend so much time in Wade's head, sharing his considerable angst, and watching him work his way through the intricate puzzles--by way of which, we indirectly share OASIS creator James Halliday's own angst as well. All this is also bound up with two key traits of the book that make it problematic from the standpoint of content as well as form, its bleakness and its gleeful, almost Baroque geekiness of certain very distinct flavors--the challenges Watts having to overcome deeply based in '80s era geek culture.

The thick detailing of all this gives the story its emotional charge, and none of it translates easily to the screen, especially within the framework of a fast-paced action film (even one drawn out to a 140 minute length). Much of the content is not the sort of thing a major studio picture would convey even if it could. Bleakness did not stop the Hunger Games series from being one of the most successful franchises of all time, but the mass audience's appetite for dystopia is finite, and was already waning well before shooting started on this movie.

It is worth noting, too, that the Hunger Games saga offered a more grounded vision, rather lighter on the science fiction trappings, arguably easing much of the audience into absorption in the events on screen. (Indeed, this seems to me sufficiently the case that I used it as a reference point in discussing alienation effects in Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry--or more precisely, discussing the minimization of such effects for the sake of dramatic interest.) The extent to which the book is utterly saturated with (often obscure) geek nostalgia, and how central the minutiae of that nostalgia is to the puzzles the hero spends so much of the book unraveling, is even less forgivable. Halliday was an anorak par excellence, with the quest he laid out for his successor itself an extreme realization of the geek fantasy of others' coming to share one's obsessions rather than treating one as an awkward bore because of them (and along with it, the fantasy of one's "useless" knowledge changing and even saving the world), and it is hard to picture a commercial film treating anything like that faithfully. It is harder still to picture a major film having the hero play through one retro video game after another, reenact one old classic of geek cinema after another--dramatizing to any extent the portion where Wade Watts has to act out the role of Zack Lightman in a Wargames simulation, completing the task by remembering every beat and line of the movie.

Naturally it is implausible that it could have been a purist's film, and indeed it was not. It seems predictable enough that the quest was scaled down to conveniently fit in a two hour movie, and the events of the narrative played out over days rather than months.

It is only slightly less predictable that the back story and world-building are also trimmed--in this case, to the minimum necessary for minimal coherence, with the inevitable voice-over confined to an expository beginning and the conclusion. The film downplays the bleakness of the scenario considerably in the process. The ruin of the world is only briefly and vaguely alluded to. The combination of energy scarcity, environmental collapse and economic crash, the Mad Max-ish condition of much of the country, are not mentioned at all. Our first glimpse of the Stacks, so vividly horrible in its poverty and ugliness and harrowing danger in the book, instead presents them in images so bright and vibrant and colorful it actually looks like a fun place to visit, even if one would not want to live there--and despite putting more images of graffiti-covered urban decay on the screen than any comparable film of this century, the film practically shrugs it off. Likewise the villainy of Innovative Online Industries, its ambitions for OASIS, its reduction of human beings to serfs; the resentment felt toward it and opposition engendered toward it; are treated slightly. (Even the more personal aspects of their anguish are downplayed, with the aunt Wade lives with made to seem less horrible, and the tensions of Halliday's home life when he was growing up in the '80s elided.)

The same goes for the geekiness. In the challenges Wade had to face the film emphasized grandiose action-adventure set pieces over puzzle-solving. In what remains of the mystery the film privileges a Citizen Kane-like pursuit of "Rosebud" (the characters actually use the term more than once in the film), which is, alas, Halliday's failed romance, over the pop cultural obsessions in which Halliday so immersed himself. All of this helps the film keep the pop cultural references easy, marginal to the mechanics of the quest, and usually both, while being less '80s geek oriented. (We get, for instance, a Saturday Night Fever-themed dance scene at one point, which is quite the divergence from the matter of the original.)

Ultimately the spareness with the information so abundant in the narrative, the strategic changes so critical to turning a cult book into a mass-appeal entertainment, took its toll not just on the book's sense of immersion in the virtual world of the OASIS, and the pop culture of a bygone time, but that more conventional matter, characterization. Simply put, Wade, Halliday and the rest are less troubled and less interesting figures. Art3mis' motivation is reduced to simple revenge for the destruction of her father (about which we know only because of a few lines), a less compelling motive than her original, grander aspirations, and less compelling, too, than the revenge narrative of the character who originally acted on such motives in the novel. For all the lush CGI the film does not quite do justice to the vastness and variety of the OASIS as conceived in the book, while the "real world" outside it seems insubstantial, along with the stakes in the competition--which, after the revision of the puzzles and the compression of the time frame, felt easier than it ought to have done.

The movie does improve as it goes on. At the climax the film becomes more faithful to the source material, not quite attaining the visually spectacular hyper-geekiness of the final battle, the movie version scaled down by comparison, but still very recognizable and about as satisfying as one might hope for from the Hollywood version. As one who enjoyed the book on its own terms this was some compensation. Still, while Ready Player One is considerably better than average as blockbusters go these days, not only proving fast and slick and visually flashy, but a bit more original and with a bit more sense of fun than most, it falls well short of matching the oddity and extravagance, the texture and tension, and the epic feel of the first, print, version of Wade's adventure.

Reading Ready Player One: A Few Thoughts

When Ernest Cline's Ready Player One first came out (2011) I was pretty much burned out on science fiction. (This was about the time when I put together the first edition of After the New Wave, thinking of it as an act of closure, which it really proved to be for a while.)

And even before I decided to take a break from it I was paying little attention to the young adult-oriented work that was getting so much press then, because my glances at it gave me the impression (accurate, I think) that it did not offer those things that most attracted me to science fiction--conceptual originality and audacity, elaborate world-building, political teeth. And as Cline's book got rather less media attention than, for example, Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games saga (or even Veronica Roth's Divergent), it was easy for me to forget about it until the movie came out and got people talking about it again.

Yet, looking back it seems to me that Ready Player One is a quintessential piece of early twenty-first century fiction, because of the way it draws together so many of the prevailing tendencies of the period so far.

There is post-cyberpunk--by which I mean that what we have come to think of as cyberpunk tropes (extremes of wealth and poverty in a decaying society, super-corporations, exploding information technology) were presented without the ostentatiously avant garde narration and prose style once associated with the original, '80s-era cyberpunk fiction, making for a more straightforward and accessible (and for most of us, more appealing) narrative.

However, reflecting that it was 2011 and not 2003 or 1997, this particular post-cyberpunk work's bleakness is informed by the experience of the 2006-2008 energy crisis, the Great Recession, the element of apocalypse and dystopia so fashionable in those years; while similarly fashionable the protagonist is a young adult.

And of course, there is the sense of nostalgia, the density of pop cultural reference, that had so come to suffuse popular culture in general and science fiction in particular by that point, with in both cases an emphasis on the things of childhood in the '80s, and especially the geekier things of childhood, like video games.

There is even a nostalgic element in the centrality of virtual reality in Cline's world that those with short memories may find it difficult to appreciate today. In the '90s, after all, we were all promised that immersive virtual reality, and indeed immersive virtual reality as our primary manner of engagement with the Internet, was just around the corner, but then it wasn't, and when Cline wrote his book it still wasn't, instead looking like a flying car of the digital age, one of many. (Only years after, circa 2014, did VR seem to get its second wind, and even with the number of VR users in the U.S. expected to approach 40 million this year, it remains far from certain that the technology has truly arrived.)

Reading the book I found that where the pop cultural invocations had only a faint charge for me, or none at all, Cline's enthusiasm comes through, and it can be infectious. Cline's book, however, impressed me as more than just a reflection of the pop cultural and science fiction zeitgeist of the time. Some aspects of his future are fairly well thought-out, especially but not solely its VR technology. (Just what will happen to hotels in a world where no one travels, for example?) The book also impressed me with its sense of humor, containing as it did some laugh out loud funny bits. And after the mid-point I had to force myself to put it down when I needed to, something I haven't been able to say about a work of fiction in far too long.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Toby Young, Again

Initially I was surprised to find that Toby Young was a real person--in the sense of the film How to Lose Friends and Alienate People having been (loosely) based on the true story he recounted in his memoir and its sequel. I happened to read it, and found Young an amusing, even mildly interesting figure given his particular set of quirky experiences on the fringes of wealth and celebrity, and his candid discussion of the hungers that drove him, rare enough that it seemed worth note. (Who doesn't want a good time? Who doesn't know that a good time is mainly had by the rich in our profoundly unequal social order, and that for scrawny, nerdy-looking types like Young, getting rich and famous is pretty much only their shot at that? Being an intellectual--even to the slight degree to which he could claim that--doesn't mean one is without such desires.) His sociological eye was no match for his famous father's (indeed, he was surprisingly clueless on some points, not least just how extraordinarily privileged he has been), but that he had one at all seemed something.

Reading those works it was clear that Young had opted for a different path from his accomplished parents' extraordinary lives of public service and intellectual inquiry, favoring a crass, hedonistic individualism instead. At the end of How to Lose Friends, though, it seemed he had recognized that path's shallowness (as well as its futility for him) and moved on.

The years since have made it clear that he has not--and in a most unfortunate way. Instead of a life devoted to chasing wealth and glamour and sex, he continued his rebellion against mom and dad by endlessly and often viciously championing the most backward, reactionary politics around--attacking wheelchair ramps, mocking the appearances of the working-class kids who defy the odds to go to Oxbridge, championing eugenics--and like pampered idiots who have no idea how good they have it since the beginning of time, whining about how "You can't find good help these days," while being awfully smug about being "politically incorrect" in that way that has become so tiresomely standard for the pathetic yet utterly loathsome people who become alt-right trolls (and bullies in general).

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