wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: December, 2020


I once declared to a friend — in my twenties I ‘declared’ a lot — that terrible art was better value-for-money than a good one. The casuistry went like this:

  • With good art, your level of pleasure is determined by how good it is. You come out of the movie theater and if you saw a great movie you feel great, and have a great time talking about it. But you can only say ‘It was great’ in so many ways
  • With bad art, your level of pleasure depends on your own expressions of distaste. If you can go on for several days about the shittiness of a movie or the banality of a gallery installation or how insipid all of XYZ’s music is, if you can find novel ways to run down your own experiences (and the work of others), then you win, baby! Bad art is the gift that takes a little then keeps on giving

Everything about this is stupid. Twenty years on, though, I note that this really is how a shockingly large people feel about life — but instead of depending on ‘good/bad art’ they build an entire (un)imaginative life on ever more elaborate evasions of direct experience in general.

This is ‘sophistication.’

The scare quotes are there because actual sophistication is something like reserve of judgment, complex reasoning, subtlety of understanding, passionate learning serving dispassionate analysis — grownup thinking. The cultural pose known as ‘sophistication’ is a refusal to invest, risk, immerse; sophists dissociate themselves from ‘common’ experience, and the fact that this wish is doomed to be thwarted doesn’t make it less cowardly or contemptible.

Last night I tweeted this:

the people who deride stories like THE MATRIX as ‘freshman dorm room’ stuff are just wankers who peaked in their freshman dorm rooms

pick a challenging text. enjoy confronting it. think through its implications. if you think it’s shallow, dig deeper. you’re probably wrong.

Someone once wrote this:

Fascination Creates Content

Finding meaning in any art is like finding geology in any ground–you dig, you’ll get it. Fictions don’t explore issues–people explore fictions and then find issues there. When you invest hard enough you get an inevitability: the evidence left when complete, complicated humans contrive to find new ways to speak to as-yet-untapped parts of other complete, complicated humans.

‘Sophistication,’ so called, is anxious avoidance. It’s standing with a shovel in hand, looking at the ground, desperately envying those who dig, convinced that you can’t and so insisting — pretending — that you mustn’t.


Revisiting unpublished 2016 thoughts on Trump and the election.

On the eve of the 2016 election I wrote and didn’t publish a couple of essays on the campaign. I wrote this the week before the election:

As I’ve said and written over and over for the last year, Trump’s candidacy is an ongoing media phenomenon manifesting as a political event rather than a primarily political phenomenon, and the most worrying thing about his candidacy isn’t the old problem of ‘white nationalism’ but rather the more recent catastrophic devaluation of democracy and political participation. Bernie Sanders ran against politics-as-usual, but Trump has harnessed Americans’ disgust with politics of any sort — which is why Hillary Clinton, who was handed a Senate seat by the DNC (who promised that she would face no primary challenge in 2000) and is perceived by many to’ve been given the Secretary of State job as a résumé-booster, is in a sense the best possible opponent from Trump’s point of view, the living embodiment of D.C. insider political scheming. The straightforward corruption of the Democrats’ 2016 primary process is catnip not only for Republicans but for any voter who loathes what Trump refers to as a ‘rigged system,’ and confirms their sense that voting can’t fundamentally change anything. The fact that Trump is a pig-ignorant TV game-show host rather than a person with any knowledge of government or policy isn’t a weakness in his supporters’ minds; the whole point of voting for Trump is to reject the rapidly transforming cultural mainstream. The best possible inoculation against the dangerous ignorance of Trump and his hardcore supporters is more robust community ties and more open communication between individuals and groups across cultural/political/identitarian lines. But while fulfilling and healthy, that’s not as satisfying as the tribal combat which has powered the Trumpist movement.


From the same essay:

Though I saw clearly the threat Trump posed to the conventional (not necessarily to say ‘mainstream’) candidates — who were forbidden by systemic norms from responding in kind to Trump’s stinging criticisms of their various hypocrisies and inadequacies, and who in any case were and remain every bit as corrupt and/or feckless as Trump said — I wrongly assumed that the GOP continued to have decisive influence over its own nomination process, and didn’t realize that the massive field of GOP wannabes would work so strongly in Trump’s favour, or that the loser candidates would commit so many unforced errors. Still, I think I got the big points right: Trump’s candidacy will shape not only the content but the form of future campaigns, and (as has been clear for a decade) the GOP’s tenuous political arrangement of kowtowing to multinational corporations while buying working-class votes with culture-warfare is no longer sustainable.

Partly correct. I’m ashamed to have fallen for the ‘Party decides’ determinist stuff that — what a coincidence — Nate Silver explicitly cited as the latest, and therefore most important, thing he’d read.

My last claim, about the GOP coalition no longer holding, might be wrong — it doesn’t take into account demographic/cultural realignment, and probably overestimates Democratic seriousness. And it failed to take into account the creeping authoritarian ideology of an ascendant hypercapitalist ‘Left’ that hates democratic compromise as much as the protofascists do. In other words: the post-Trump GOP coalition might itself be big enough without the GOP ceasing to be, as a national Party, straightforwardly evil. (I believe a sane conservatism is possible and indeed desirable, essential; the Republican Party simply isn’t that.)

From the same essay:

A lot’s been written since 2004 about the end of middle-class white Christian hegemony. The election of a black president and the full integration of women into the workforce have only sped up the transformation, as has the immiseration of millions by two decades of deepening corporatization and a decade of economic crisis, not to mention the rapid (and closely related) decline of Christianity as a political force after its last gasp under Bush. ‘White nationalism’ is in no small measure a rear-guard action against this transformation — and I use that violent/military metaphor quite deliberately, as people will die from what will be a generation-long conflict between cultural dead-enders and the rest of America. But the outcome is foreordained: an ideology that leaves its adherents less able to survive and thrive in the world as it merely is, must adapt or collapse, and the immovability of fundamentalists ends up rendering them immobile. Which, by the way, is why radical theocratic Islam is doomed in the long run: isolationism, which is baked into such stupid reactionary religious fundamentalisms, is unsustainable in the world as it is.

We’ll see. I’m unsure about that last sentence, indeed I wonder if I haven’t gotten it precisely backward: reactionary isolationism is more appealing than ever in This Of All Stupid Worlds. My guess, or bet, was that deepening interconnection would make fundamentalist isolation impossible despite its obvious attractiveness. The trouble is, I won’t know whether I’ve gotten that claim right for several decades. Let’s hope so — though there’ll be loads of bad news to come, either way.

Unfortunately, I also wrote this:

Clinton will win; I’ve assumed this since 2008 and have never doubted it.

The bothersome thing about this claim is that the first bit’s wrong but the self-reinforcing second bit’s true: I didn’t doubt Clinton would win, in no small part because I’d assumed it for so long. I believed the polls, and the poll-aggregators and ‘analysts,’ and massively overestimated the Clinton campaign’s competence even as I was appropriate distrustful of her/its motives and outlook.

Excerpt from an unpublished first-draft essay about Trump as a participatory media phenomenon

I wrote the following in April 2016. The third paragraph is missing a logical step: the Trump campaign was an effective critique of the political system, and supporting him was partly about hitting back at that system, analogous to (but also different from) supporting Sanders. Well, it is what it is.

Donald Trump is easy to make fun of: he’s a friendless gated-community xenophobe of George W Bush levels of rodentine intelligence, who looks to the ‘little guy’ for validation when none of his peers will take him seriously. He babbles like an aphasic TV pitchman, is fetishistically obsessed with his receding hairline, and (for flavour!) is running for president of the United States despite lacking even the most basic qualifications for the position. He’s such a bad candidate that even the dainty authoritarians at National Review had to repudiate him, not that there were any readers left to notice — so bad, so witless, so obviously without principle or percipience, that the priced-to-sell uplifted tortoise Mitch McConnell can’t imagine a way to work with him.

He will lose the general election. Serious People will act as if virtue has prevailed (though our new Madame President, waiting impatiently for Her Turn since 2008, will be a neoliberal wolf in bourgeois pseudoprogressive clothing with a dangerous sociopath for a First Lad). And On January 20th, hundreds of millions of voters will go right back to where they are now, with no prospect of economic betterment and no major party willing to take even the slightest risk to help them.

The popularity of Trump’s candidacy is easy to explain: in a time of massive and rapidly growing inequality, at an unstable moment of profitable secularization and viscerally exciting fundamentalist reaction, with the passing of simple white male hegemony (Obama’s presidency, Hamilton‘s Pulitzer), as gay couples marry and transgender Americans queue distressingly for the bathroom and Prince is celebrated as the modern Ellington, while mere human empathy is phased out through a mix of predatory corporatism and the extraordinary communications technologies those corporate predators sell us — in a world, by the way, where the first of hundreds of millions of victims of anthropogenic climate change have already begun dying, fortunately far from the TV cameras, and only a vanishingly small number of people have even the faintest idea why their ability to read this essay online has actual existing armageddon as its cost — it’s no surprise that a billionaire TV gameshow host with a private jet and a trophy wife and absolutely no scruples would do well. Trump candidly points out what’s wrong with Washington (money) and lets his supporters know they’re not alone in feeling like the country is moving away from them.

[‘…lets his supporters know’ should’ve been ‘makes his supporters feel.’ –wa.]

It is. Has been for ages. This is only news if you’ve deliberately insulated yourself from very obvious long-term trends, by (for instance) watching the costume dramedy called ‘TV news,’ in which actors portraying journalists nod ‘sagely’ while paid operatives yell non sequiturs and everyone involved pretends the boot on America’s throat isn’t theirs. Trump is running as a Republican because that’s where he’ll do well, but there’s nothing ‘conservative’ or indeed particularly Republican about his appeal to voters. Trump’s vibe, a mix of self-pitying authoritarianism and careful image control, is aimed at the gossip pages, which is to say ‘TV journalists’; he doesn’t talk policy because his campaign isn’t about policy at any level. He doesn’t need to ‘play politics’ to win the nomination because Americans don’t particularly care about politics (and care even less about governance) — we understand ‘Washington’ as a distant, abstract villain who pops up periodically on TV to twirl its moustache, deliver monologues about its big world-changing plans, and occasionally wage war on the darkies. (This is true even of ‘sophisticated’ types who only ever talk to a Trump supporter when he’s writing them a speeding ticket.) Trump’s appeal isn’t about governance, and it’s not really about politics. He’s the media figure, the character actor, that his media-obsessed supporters (and their better educated but otherwise essentially identical media-obsessed opponents) crave and indeed deserve.

Trump and the monstrously vapid Kardashian family are, to borrow a phrase, two cheeks of the same derriere.

As such, when it comes to Trump, it’s a mistake to look to politics for precedent and illumination. When you see craven veterans sucker-punching protesters at Trump rallies, you shouldn’t be thinking of the event as ‘political’ in the sense that you’re used to.

[I’ve cut some material that links this setup to the ostensible meat of the essay, which I’m not sharing.]

What is your involvement in politics and governance? Don’t answer glibly: think for a second, and sit with your answer. Be honest. No points for reading this essay, by the way.

How do you stay informed about politics? Do you read primary sources — laws, treaties, the actual words and written instruments of the people in power — or even aspirationally neutral journalism? Or (much more likely) do you rely mostly on ideologically friendly pundits and ‘news analysts’ (read: pundits) to digest your information for you? Do you vote in off-year elections? Are you annoyed by my use of the casually dismissive term ‘off-year’ in that sentence? Have you ever read the platform of a major political party — or a minor one? Do you attend or even pay attention to debates? When you watch a debate, do you go in rooting for one side and always come out confirmed in your belief that your side is right?

Do you know the names of your City Councillors? Do you know how your city’s budget has worked out over the last few years or decades? If your town does participatory budgeting, do you participate? Do you vote in school board elections? Have you ever written a letter to your representatives in congress? Have you ever demanded accountability for your political donations?

One of the reasons Donald Trump has locked up the Republican nomination is that, if we’re being honest, nearly every voting-age American’s answer to most of these questions is something along the lines of ‘I just can’t.’

[The next bit, about ‘turn up every four years to vote in elections where our votes don’t really matter, and can’t be bothered to vote in the ones where they really really do,’ has been cut because you get the point.]


I give myself partial credit and am comfortable with that.

Scattered thoughts on WARGAMES (1983).

WarGames is a paper-thin antinuclear polemic, strongly indebted to Dr Strangelove, hiding behind an extraordinarily affectionate young-hacker-and-his-girlfriend caper. All the production values of a TV movie. The attractive fantasy is in the titular games, and Broderick’s traversal of ‘Falken’s maze’ and casually confident mischief will warm the heart of people like me who grew up on this film, Goonies, Sneakers — but the goings-on at NORAD have a totally different (jumbled) tone, and suggest a satiric intent that the closely observed, relatable young-folks scenes never go for.

Much the best thing about the movie is its excitement about personal computing (however briskly it moves through its computer-related plotstuff), and its biggest surprise is a brief exchange between the slovenly hacker and his autistic compatriot at the computer lab. David brings a printout to the Computer Nerds:

MALVIN: Hey what’s that.
DAVID: I wanted Jim to see that.
MALVIN: Wow! Where’d you get this?
DAVID: Protovision. I wanted to see the program for their new games.
JIM: Can I have this back?
MALVIN: I’m not through yet.
[After a brief tug-of-war, Jim — visibly annoyed — gets the paper back from Malvin.]
JIM: Remember you told me to tell you when you were acting rudely and insensitively?
[Malvin nods, an expression of furious concentration on his face.]
JIM: You are doing it right now.

Three extraordinary things about this scene:

  1. David isn’t actually bothered by Malvin’s behaviour. His reprimand is gentle.
  2. Jim is bothered, but he helps Malvin correct his behaviour — unjudgmentally if ungently.
  3. Ally Sheedy, as Jennifer, is forced to stay away from the male nerds — and does so with an obvious mix of envy, resigned acceptance, and eager curiosity. This very definitely isn’t her world, but she’s into it; her relationship to David and the others is complicated. A modern movie would have commented on the whole dynamic, because modern movies treat viewers as idiots.

That brief scene is, I think, a sharp evocation of a complex relationship between a person with undiagnosed autism, a grandstanding hacker-dude, and their unprepossessing but sharp apprentice-acquaintance — the bright high-schooler who hangs out to learn from the older guys. And the girl watches, not of their world but not therefore wanting to destroy it.

Different times.

The Falken material, like the War Room shenanigans, makes for a weird tonal contrast with David and Jennifer’s adventures. Falken’s dreamy film-presentation on the island has that ‘writers letting themselves flex a bit’ feeling that makes me feel right at home. ‘Futility…there’s a time when we should just give up.’ And of course the surrogant children convince The Reclusive Genius to confront his ghosts (demons! in the machine).

The War Room scenes, in contrast to the cheeky kid stuff and dreamy Falken stuff, are just unbelievable broadly comic nonsense. David lives in a ‘fantasy’ world of computer games, but Dabney Coleman and company are the ones living a cartoon. Note that this does not mark WarGames as a children’s movie…

The ‘moral’ — ‘The only way to win is not to play’ — wasn’t a call to disengagement, in those days in that context. It fascinates me, with ‘2020 hindsight,’ to see a film about USA/Soviet Mutually Assured Destruction depicting, at its margins, proto-cyberwarfare conducted by a runaway AI trained on video games.

This is so forward-thinking as to be, now, somewhat creepy.

Ready Player One is a very stupid story that owes (and catastrophically fails to repay) a great debt to this film. It has nothing to say beyond its premise, which is why so many story-illiterate young people seem to love it — because why would you ever abandon a ‘fun’ premise? Why leave home?

The TV adaptation of Westworld should have been called Falken’s Maze.

The character of Rust on True Detective takes an entire season to follow the same character arc that Falken traces in a half-hour.

Doomed to repeat.

Sy Hersh’s 1983 account of Ford’s pardon of Nixon is essential reading, here in the middle of the Trumpist era.

Gerald Ford was a familiar, if not widely known, fixture in high-level Republican politics in October of 1973, when he was nominated to replace the disgraced Spiro T. Agnew as Richard Nixon’s Vice President. He had served in Congress since 1948, representing a heavily Republican district in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His conservatism on foreign-policy issues and his hard-line stance against communism won him an appointment in 1956 to the House Appropriations subcommittee that controlled CIA funding and monitored, to a limited degree, CIA activities abroad. In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Ford as one of two members of the House to serve on the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Ford was elected minority leader of the House the next year. During these years, Ford acquired a reputation as an amiable politician who followed his party’s dogma with enthusiasm but with no malice; Democrats perceived him as a nice guy.

Richard Nixon and his men had evidence that there was another side to Ford. “In my opinion, he was a tough guy who knew how to play the game,” Charles W. Colson, one of Nixon’s closest advisers on political matters, recalled in a recent interview. “Nixon knew that Ford was a team player and understood how to work with a wink and a nod.” Ford had led a much-criticized attempt in 1970 to impeach Justice William 0. Douglas of the Supreme Court. It was not a coincidence that Ford’s campaign against Douglas began in the weeks following the Senate’s rejection of Nixon’s second nominee for the Supreme Court. Nixon’s choices, Clement F. Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, were the first presidential nominees to be rejected by the Senate since 1959. In the aftermath of the June 17, 1972, Watergate break-in, and before the November presidential elections, Ford was instrumental—at the urging of the White House—in disrupting an inquiry by the House Banking and Currency Committee, whose iconoclastic chairman, Wright Patman, a Democrat from Texas, was outspoken in his insistence that the financing of the break-in had its origins at the top of the Nixon Administration.

“Ford was the consummate politician,” says [Chuck] Colson, and was aware that the White House was always willing to repay its loyal helpers. Ford once approached Colson on behalf of Paul Hall, the president of the Seafarers International Union, who was indicted in 1970 with seven other senior union officials—none of whom was ever prosecuted—for making more than $750,000 in illegal campaign contributions between 1964 and 1968. The indictment charged that extortion was committed in raising the money from union members. Hall was a contributor to Ford’s campaign; more important, he had arranged for others to contribute, according to a Ford associate. He was, as Ford wrote in his 1979 memoir, A Time To Heal, a longtime personal friend. (There is no evidence that Hall, who died in 1980, asked Ford to approach the White House.) “The Justice Department is screwing Paul Hall,” Colson recalls Ford complaining. “You’ve got to take care of it.”

Charles Colson says that Nixon, in their private talks in the Oval Office, would literally “design” the sort of law practices he thought Colson and Connally should have after they retired from public life. (After Colson left the White House staff, in early 1973, Nixon urged him to bring his potential law clients to the Oval Office, so that they would be impressed by Colson’s close relationship with the President. Colson says that in one chat, Nixon complained about his years as Vice President under Dwight D. Eisenhower. “After eight years, Chuck, I left the White House with $38,000 in my savings account and a four-year-old Oldsmobile. Don’t you make that mistake.”)

In the second volume of his memoirs, Years of Upheaval, Henry Kissinger wrote of a meeting with Haig on August 2: “He told me that Nixon was digging in his heels [in terms of immediate resignation]; it might be necessary to put the 82nd Airborne Division around the White House to protect the President. This I said was nonsense; a Presidency could not be conducted from a White House ringed with bayonets. Haig said he agreed completely; as a military man it made him heartsick to think of the Army in that role; he simply wanted me to have a feel for the kinds of ideas being canvassed.”

On December 22, 1973, a few weeks after Gerald Ford’s swearing-in as Vice President, Richard Nixon held his annual ceremonial meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One member of the Joint Chiefs, a four-star officer, recalled in a recent interview that the President’s performance was bizarre and alarming. “He kept on referring to the fact that he may be the last hope, the eastern elite was out to get him. He kept saying, ‘This is our last and best hope. The last chance to resist the fascists [of the left].’ His words brought me straight up out of my chair. I felt the President, without the words having been said, was trying to sound us out to see if we would support him in some extra-constitutional action. He was trying to find out whether in a crunch there was support to keep him in power . . . .” The senior officer decided after the meeting, he recalled, that the other members of the Joint Chiefs did not seem to share his fears. He made it a point to discuss the meeting with James Schlesinger, the Rand Corporation economist and defense analyst, who had been named secretary of defense by Nixon in May of 1973, in the first Watergate-inspired Cabinet shake-up. Schlesinger had also been upset by Nixon’s language, but he was noncommittal.

Anyone who insists Trump was an unprecedented break with tradition is a child. The stupidest criminal President ever is just a criminal President, and we’ve had a few of those.

And don’t let anyone launder Nixon’s reputation in your hearing — or George W Bush’s, while we’re at it. We were right to condemn Bush as a corrupt warmongering imbecile, and our parents and grandparents were right to condemn Nixon as a corrupt warmongering snake.


Spent the morning reading about digital knowledge management, which is a different task (or rather, concern) at my age than it was 20 years ago — not only because the information-environment and available tools have evolved, but crucially because I’m a very different organism than I was, in terms of my own information-consumption and -processing and -storage. Having lost the prodigious memory (and free time for experimentation) that made my various largely improvisatory creative methods possible, I need tools that gently bring me back to my thoughts: ‘surfacing’ in the ugly modern term.

I’m reminded of Cosma Shalizi’s online notebooks, how much I envied not their (dis)organization but how long he’d been at them. A record of his thinking. My relationship to this cluster of ‘personal productivity’ ideas is coloured with regret.

I don’t need much, really: just ‘ubiquitous capture’ (a popular term from the idiotic productivity-porn days) and an automatic filing system. Loads of tools exist to automate these tasks; I even use several of them.

So what I actually need is for better habits of mind and practice to stick, i.e. I need to treat behaviour-modification as a project with knowable goals and measurable progress, and abandon the ‘download and hope’ approach that got me into this mess.

The usual further realizations.

I realize that I’m not willing to back up everything I want to say on Twitter with research — ‘receipts’ in the current demotic — nor able to spend the time given the way I tend to tweet; and I can’t tolerate the stupidity of Twitter discourse in general. The thing I want people to do, I don’t have the time or strong desire to do myself.

Unfortunately, double standards bother me.

It does feel strongly like there’s no point to having a Twitter account anymore. It faintly resembles sane discourse, superficially so, but it is a genuinely deranged and diseased place — rhetorically, ideologically, (anti)socially. Twitter, like Facebook and Reddit, tends to be fucking disgusting.

The felt ‘need’ to keep up with Twitter discourse leads to the worst possible habits of mind. As anything other than a daily-writing-starter, it’s solely bad for you.