wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: americana

The morning bath.

Wake up, open the laptop, and if Twitter is open (or the compulsion to open it kicks in as usual before good sense takes over) you get your daily reminder that the current president of the USA is the stupidest man ever to hold that office — and strongly favoured to be, by the end of his disastrous time in office, the worst president in our nation’s history.

Every morning.

Today we find that he made this claim in an interview with pretend-journalist Sean Hannity:

The country, we took it over, the last eight years they borrowed more than it did in the whole history of our country. So they borrowed More than $10 trillion. Right? We picked up $5.2 trillion just in the stock market. Possibly picked up the whole thing in terms of the first nine months. In terms of value. You can say in one sense, we are really increasing values and may be in the sense, we are reducing debt. We are very honored by it and very, very happy by what’s happening in Wall Street.

He can’t help but lie — and make elementary mistakes. He makes the mistakes because he’s catastrophically stupid, stupider than George W Bush; he lies because unlike Bush he has no moral compass, no sense of responsibility or service.

People don’t talk enough about his stupidity. I go on about it because it will matter long after he’s gone: he is conditioning tens of millions of gullible, scared people — many of them idiots themselves, but not all — to expect nothing from the office of the president but a kind of ongoing pro-wrestling schtick, devoid of higher thought (systemic thought, rational inquiry, self-correction). I believe this is in no small measure a resentful reaction to Obama, one of the great models of the ‘life of the mind’ in our lifetime, who for all his failings as a chief executive demonstrated the enormous moral value of debate, dialectic, curiosity.

Our current idiot president doesn’t believe in any of those things; he doesn’t think they’re possible. But while he seems to be devoid of empathy, and he’s too stupid to have any kind of rich inner life himself, he could understand his predecessor — he could understand those of us who love to think — if he had even a shred of imagination, moral or otherwise.

Have you seen the pictures of the bedroom he shared with his first wife, whom he betrayed with his second-wife-to-be? With all the money in the world, the best this idiot real-estate heir could come up with was to drape every square inch of the room in gold. That’s not a failure of taste, but of imagination: in this idiot’s mind, the best use of all that money was to see gold when he woke up, went to bed, and (according to her own sworn deposition) raped his wife.

Which is terrible — the raped-his-wife bit, I mean, I don’t care about the gold — but it all speaks to a deeper failure of imagination. He can’t comprehend systems: witness his ludicrous misunderstanding in the Hannity quote. He can’t imagine that the center of a system could be anywhere but the spot where he stands, and he definitely can’t imagine that a system might lack a center, that lawmaking in the USA might involve a public/private/secret apparatus vastly more complex than any he’s had to deal with in private life. He can’t conceive of decisions except in terms of their ‘optics,’ can’t understand history except as a just-so story about how he came to feel as he does today. His myopia is absolute, crippling, because he’s unable to know anything but what’s in front of him. Comey hurt my feelings, fire him. But that would have terrible cost. But that cost is in the future, which does not matter. (And why would it? Nothing I’ve done has ever mattered, really mattered, before.)

His moral failings, his intellectual failings, would be less crippling if he had any imagination at all — if, say, he could imagine Barack Obama as having had his own life with its own compromises and challenges and strokes of good fortune, having arrived at his position(s) honestly. Our idiot president doesn’t seem to have any principles at all; he sees the world as full of (1) people like him and (2) subjects because he can’t imagine any other world. He doesn’t read, he doesn’t study, might never have studied anything in any depth in his entire life. He just stares at the television waiting for them to talk about him, and now there’s an entire ‘news’ channel devoted not only to talking about his every utterance but to glorifying him as a world-historical agent of change, which he manifestly doesn’t understand but it must be pretty great because he keeps hearing his name over and over and over…

The USA is too vast (geographically, demographically, conceptually) for anyone to know all of it, so those charged with its care need vivid imaginations. He has none. For many reasons, this included, he is unfit to hold the office of the president.

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The tower.

The tower touches the ground a couple of blocks away but we live beneath it all the same. The entire neighbourhood does. It’s like some Silicon Valley sociopath’s ‘disruption’ of the Eiffel Tower: of course they’d paint it alternating strips of red and white, of course they’d stick blinking lights every few feet. Of course it would double as communications infrastructure and tool of surveillance, transmitting the Unique Numeric ID and occasional bursts of thought or word from every area phone ‘user’ to wherever the monsters are.

‘Text messages’ are transmitted in place of dummy data that your phone would send to the tower anyway — they require no additional bandwidth, only a miniscule amount of additional processing power in the monster room. They used to charge $0.05 apiece for text messages, because they can’t live without your blood, and they want to live. Now we’re permitted to send ‘unlimited’ text messages. We’re grateful for no limits. We’re grateful for permission. We’re grateful. We’re grateful.

Men, man.

Attention conservation notice: Drafty outboard note-taking, of neither use nor interest to other humans, unless you wanna laugh at some dweebs.

The phrase ‘everyday carry’ has apparently come to mean ‘things you buy to pretend to be a real man, y’know, like your grandpa,’ which is a sad thing — when I first heard the phrase it just meant ‘a useful all-purpose knife,’ and the guys using it weren’t styleboy wankers. Here’s the founder of the site everydaycarry.com guest-posting at a site called, I shit you not, ‘The Art of Manliness‘:

At the most literal level, your everyday carry is the collection of items you carry with you in your pockets or in your bag on a daily basis.

You don’t say!

Like the ‘hipster PDA’ i.e. notecards held together with a binder clip, the ‘everyday carry’ kit (penlight, keyring, knife/multitool, wallet, watch, and of course your expensive smartphone — y’know, ‘what’s in your pocket’) is a dumb affectation; unlike the hipster PDA, it’s also a moneymaking opportunity for the kind of guys who carry moustache wax and wear $200 watches to their coffeeshop jobs. The ‘hipster PDA’ was mostly a moneymaking opportunity for Merlin Mann of 43folders.com, but only for about ten seconds.

Which reminds me, as so many things do because I’m wired wrong, of Susan Faludi, whose still-excellent book Stiffed came out around the same time as Fight Club and leveled a related critique of contemporary ‘ornamental masculinity,’ though her hangups are different from Palahniuk’s thank Christ. Faludi holds up the WWII-era G.I. (hey when was your grandfather born again?) as a lost ideal of manliness: stout of heart, simple of tongue, off liberating Auschwitz one day and back to work at the high-rise the next. In her telling as I remember it, a toxic stew of advertising dollars, economic disempowerment, the collapse of ancient social mores, rapid heedless postwar technologization, and good ol’ fashioned late-patriarchy led to the replacement of manliness as community service by, well, The Art of Manliness.

(The Sopranos tells a particularly nasty, ironic version of this story.)

I look at the EDC fetishists and see guys playing dressup. Which is fine, I’ve got nothing against dressup. But you have to acknowledge what you’re doing — and you ought to think a moment about why.

The EDC club use the word ‘functionality’ when they mean ‘style’ which means, basically, game over.

All seeing is seeing-as, or, Why Trump thinks you’re stupid.

I’ve said it before: stupidity is the problem.

Trump assumes that everyone is as ignorant as he is, lies as much as he does, hates as he does, precisely because he’s stupid — and he’s stupid because he’s apparently never, not even for a second, made any kind of intellectual or emotional effort in his life. He’s a xenophobe: he fears difference, newness. He believes himself historically unique, so everyone and everything is the Other, and he hates the Other. Which is why he’s infamously disloyal, a petty backstabbing coward, when it comes to anyone he doesn’t see as an extension of himself/his will.

Trump’s stupidity means that, as far as he knows, he occupies a stupid world — so why shouldn’t he rule it? He doesn’t know how to spot climate change, so climate change isn’t real. He doesn’t have any real relationships with women, so women are trash. Nazis make him feel good by puffing him up on Twitter and at rallies, so Nazis must be good.

Of course he relished a chest-puffing contest with the witless nepotist Kim Jong-Un. I imagine it made him feel less alone.

One of the saddest things I know is that more than 1/4 of Americans don’t read at all.1 Trump is, by his own admission, one of them. He might be a psychopath or a narcissist, but the reason he has such a dangerously, unfunnily narrow conception of the good — the reason he goes on endlessly about ‘deals’ but is incompetent to discuss the content, the meaning, of any of his business — is that he has no intellectual bulwark against the stupidity of the world he alone lives in. He fills up every day with the idiot stories he sees on Fox News because he doesn’t know how to find anything deeper in the world.

Trump can’t see, he can only see-as — not in the phenomenological sense, but in the coarse psychological one. He thinks you and I are idiots because he’s an idiot; he thinks he alone possesses The Whole Truth about this or that issue (the ‘climate change hoax,’ say, or ‘black-on-black crime’) because he can’t imagine anyone having an inner life that’s richer than his. He’s a ‘transactional’ being because any other kind of existence is literally impossible, and you’re stupid for thinking otherwise. (Look at how he treats his wives, at the obvious contempt he and Melania have for one another.)

I feel sorry for Donald Trump the boy, semiliterate, unloved, allowed by teachers and parents to remain forever angry and dumb. I suspect he’s wired wrong, but I’m certain he didn’t need to end up as he did. I feel no sympathy for the cruel ignorant coward he became.

Please, please, please: make sure your children love learning, which is to say, love life.


  1. Some are illiterate. Some can read but find it taxing. Some will tell you they don’t have the time — though I’ll bet you $5 that all but a vanishing minority of our non-readers make the time to watch television… 

Difference and indifference.

The ‘Google guy’ was fired, which should worry anyone who cares about reasoned discourse (don’t worry, you are exempt), but since I can’t really affect Google hiring/training practices, I’ll stick to a small observation. The science about sex difference is settled, but not the way you probably think: meta-analyses of sex-difference studies going back decades suggest, unsurprisingly, that there are very large differences (link goes to Slate Star Codex) between physiological males and females in a host of areas relevant to the Google diversity discussion (e.g. people- vs thing-orientation), and very small differences in a host of areas where people might expect strong divergence.

In other words, the ‘Google guy’ wasn’t spouting pseudoscience in his ‘screed,’ he was spouting at least some actual science. If you used the word ‘pseudoscience’ to piss on him from your soapbox, consider the possibility that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Now, I’m sticking with links to/via Scott here, because he’s good at finding/collecting the kind of analysis I’m interested in, and I’m not. Your mileage, as they say, may vary — but only if you actually hit the road.

Sidebar: Scott (SSC’s author) points out that ‘Big Five’ sex differences are magnified by increased economic prosperity. Funny. No, not actually funny.

Scott also links to a piece by Freddie deBoer (who blocked me on Twitter when I pointed out that he’d cut short his mental-health Twitter break after like a day) called ‘Why selection bias is the most powerful force in education’ and you should read it:

Tell me how your students are getting assigned to your school, and I can predict your outcomes – not perfectly, but well enough that it calls into question many of our core presumptions about how education works.

The SSC post closes with an aggressive attack on the prevailing narrative that the lack of women in Silicon Valley (or ‘tech’ writ large) is solely about entrenched sexism. Before he gets to the data, which is damning, Scott unspools a funny little rhetorical gambit:

In the year 1850, women were locked out of almost every major field, with a few exceptions like nursing and teaching. The average man of the day would have been equally confident that women were unfit for law, unfit for medicine, unfit for mathematics, unfit for linguistics, unfit for engineering, unfit for journalism, unfit for psychology, and unfit for biology. He would have had various sexist justifications – women shouldn’t be in law because it’s too competitive and high-pressure; women shouldn’t be in medicine because they’re fragile and will faint at the sight of blood; et cetera.

As the feminist movement gradually took hold, women conquered one of these fields after another. 51% of law students are now female. So are 49.8% of medical students, 45% of math majors, 60% of linguistics majors, 60% of journalism majors, 75% of psychology majors, and 60% of biology postdocs. Yet for some reason, engineering remains only about 20% female.

And everyone says “Aha! I bet it’s because of negative stereotypes!”

This makes no sense. There were negative stereotypes about everything! Somebody has to explain why the equal and greater negative stereotypes against women in law, medicine, etc were completely powerless, yet for some reason the negative stereotypes in engineering were the ones that took hold and prevented women from succeeding there…

Turns out the difficulty in getting women interested in programming kicks in by elementary school. Why is that? Hint: Scott links to the paper about prenatal androgen that you might’ve seen floating around this week.

(I’ll add a bit of handwavey, marginal speculation: it’s also worth looking specifically at differences in TV/videogame interest in very young kids; the videogame revolution does seem to correlate with the moment the undergrad CS enrollment starting tilting heavily toward boys…)

In the middle of talking about people/thing interest, Scott veers back to medicine, points out male/female variation between subfields, and offers these two graphs…

NewImage

NewImage

…which suggest that ludicrous people/things difference, y’know, the one some cultural-politics blogger told you was ‘pseudoscience.’

Reasoned discourse

The best thing about Scott’s post: it started out as a response to a piece by Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant (scare quotes only because I don’t know what precisely that job title means), and Professor Grant responded to the post — with Scott responding in turn. This is what actual grownup conversations look like, people.

One of Grant’s essential points — if sex/gender disparities in tech are about ‘interest, not ability,’ then we mustn’t forget that interests can be changed — is a very important one. Pushing back against dumb blankslateism isn’t the same thing as saying there’s no entrenched systemic sexism or just societal influence on development; that would be literally insane.

But what’s in our shared interest, culturewide? At the moment, one of the clear correlates of our elite/coastal push for equitable hiring everywhere is the literal suppression of basic scientific research (in popular discourse). Do you feel it’s worth it, on balance, to have twice as many female coders at Google, if one of the costs (not ‘effects’) is a marked increase in willful scientific illiteracy, which is already sky-high? Could we have it both ways? Yes — but that means letting go of ideologies which demand that we dismiss, or ‘merely’ aggressively cherrypick, basic science.

Scott’s last response to Grant (so far) closes like so:

If we continue to insist that, no, women really want to do tech, but stereotypes and sexists are pushing them out, we’ll end up with constantly increasing social engineering to prevent stereotypes, and constantly increasing purges to ferret out sexists (and “benevolent sexists”, and “unconscious sexists”, and people who are progressive but not progressive enough, and so on). Since these will never work (or even have paradoxical effects for the reasons mentioned above), we’ll just ramp these up more and more forever. I’m saying we don’t have to do this. We can fight any stereotypes and sexists we find, but understand we’re doing this in a context where even 100% success won’t achieve perfect gender balance.

We’re talking here about competing notions of freedom and of fulfillment, and I worry that the better, more sustainable such notions are being throttled. But don’t take my word for it.

Ritual and control (systems): freewrite.

The word ‘ritual’ is overloaded w/judgment because the 20th century was horrible. We have a screwy notion of what time is — the body’s relationship to time, and the mind’s.

Neonates’ hearts have to be taught to beat in time. Ever wonder why they respond so well to bouncing at ~80bpm? Their hearts are learning how to keep a beat. They’re learning how to live.

Technologies collapse space and time, can we agree? One major effect of the Internet is that all libraries are local. My car lets me be 60 miles away in an hour; traveling five miles takes ‘no time at all,’ a unit of time so small I don’t notice it unless I’m in a hurry. Benedict Anderson wrote about this already — the psychic effects of 19C mass media. James Scott as well, in another register. Manovich, Kittler — yr Media Studies 101 reading list, basically.

(The Language of New Media put me off when I read it in grad school; I wonder how I’d feel about it today, where my almost unreadably marked-up copy is…)

What’s ritual? Programmatic action to imbue a moment with meaning: to change the relationship of the mind/body to spacetime. Ritual differs from habit by intention. It differs from ‘process’ in its metaphoricity — rituals aren’t always representational but the action/effect mapping passes through metaphor, which isn’t true of a functional process. How do you make scrambled eggs? Crack, whisk, milk, heat, scramble, no need to pour a ring of salt around yourself in the kitchen. Each step of the process accomplishes something physical, obvious; each step in the ritual (the crimson shawl, the ring of salt, the prayer to Pelor) accomplishes psychotropism.

Psycho+tropism: mind+changing. ‘Learning.’ I’ve been making this point (well it’s not a ‘point’ exactly) in writing for 15 years now.

Science — or no not ‘science’ but whatever hip idiots mean when they say ‘Yay, let’s do science!‘ — is supposed by now to’ve freed us from the Terrible Shackles of ritual. We no longer evoke or imbue or incant or call down the ______ but rather we ‘boot up’ and ‘lifehack’ and oh God it’s too stupid to write down. Point being we’ve replaced magical metaphors with technological ones and have failed to register the implied insult, i.e. that you and I are the same kinds of machines as the ones we serve all day. (On the other hand, given this subservience, maybe calling ourselves ‘computers’ is meant as a compliment? Well: I don’t take it as one.) The idea that you can pop a nootropic or microdose and unlock the awesome power of the human mind isn’t even wrong, it’s a betrayal on another conceptual register altogether — of dignity. The idea, I mean, that there’s nothing else to be gained by taking human time: time at a biological scale.

What am I angry about now. What am I going on about. Please, please look: Western minds have shifted over the last few decades toward a resentment/rejection of ritual, languor, symbol, secret, time as pleasure, mind as space — magic, basically. Magical thought. I mean even the phrase ‘magical thinking’ is a denigration now, as if magic hasn’t been a way of working (in) the world since the dawn of the species, as if ‘magic’ referred simply to the incorrect belief that a fingersnap can make a hated enemy feel pain and not to, oh, the years-long process of careful ego-thinning and -reshaping by which minds open up to an ecstatically imaginative (sur)reality.

Or from another angle: if you drink your stupid burnt Dunkin Donuts coffee-sludge in a hurry on the drive into work, the caffeine will make you somewhat more productive for a short time. There are better habits and worse ones. But you should know that in another world, that drink was part of an inexpressibly more potent behavioural psychotropic, a (don’t tell the boss) ritual of movement from hanging-at-home mode to whatever mode you need to get into to work for those predators at the top of the org chart — and billions of dollars are spent every year to convince you that you don’t need it, that there’s no time for that sort of New Age frippery. For those five minutes of generative peace and wonder and focused consciousness.

So: life gets faster and worse. And the other world, which was only ever within you, a metaphor of unspeakable power, gets smaller and emptier and harder to find.

Four things to read.

Not ‘news,’ still timely:

B.R. Myers on North Korean propaganda, internal and external:

It’s an undiplomatic point to make, but the inconvenient truth is that most North Korea-watchers in the United States don’t speak Korean and don’t read Korean. They’re not able to read even the legend on a North Korean propaganda poster. So they, for decades, have had to depend on secondary sources of information, primarily in English. When they read North Korean materials, they have to read the so-called Juche Thought, because the regime has been careful to put this pseudo-ideology, this sham ideology, into English. So when foreigners want to read about North Korean ideology, they have to turn to these books on Juche thought, which really decoy them away from the true ideology.

Juche Thought is a jumble of humanist cliches like “Man is the master of all things.” This fake doctrine has absolutely no bearing on North Korean policymaking. While people are wasting their time trying to make sense of Juche Thought, the regime is propagating this race-based nationalism. Another problem we have in the United States, a little bit, is political correctness, inasmuch as we are uncomfortable attributing racist views to non-white people.

Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex) on motte-and-bailey arguments:

Post-modernists sometimes say things like “reality is socially constructed”, and there’s an uncontroversially correct meaning there. We don’t experience the world directly, but through the categories and prejudices implicit to our society; for example, I might view a certain shade of bluish-green as blue, and someone raised in a different culture might view it as green. Okay.

Then post-modernists go on to say that if someone in a different culture thinks that the sun is light glinting off the horns of the Sky Ox, that’s just as real as our own culture’s theory that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas a great big nuclear furnace. If you challenge them, they’ll say that you’re denying reality is socially constructed, which means you’re clearly very naive and think you have perfect objectivity and the senses perceive reality directly.

The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along…

John Holbo’s (nearly 15-years-old!!) critique of David Frum’s conservatism:

The funny thing about this book is: it isn’t nearly as bad I just made it sound. I don’t think Frum is obsessed with beards or anything, actually. He sometimes seems like a pretty sharp guy. The middle chapters – full of history and policy detail, so forth – are quite cogent. Just the main chapters have problems. Frum has written a book about the need for a reflective, conservative philosophy. And: that’s the one thing he hasn’t got. He just has no clue why he is a conservative, or why being one might be a good idea – or even what ‘conservatism’ ought to mean. Whenever he starts trying to talk about that stuff, his mind just goes blank and he fantasizes about shaving beards and the Donner party.

Daniel Davies’s ‘One Minute MBA,’, which may possess more value-per-word than any other blogpost yet written:

Anyway, the secret to every analysis I’ve ever done of contemporary politics has been, more or less, my expensive business school education (I would write a book entitled “Everything I Know I Learned At A Very Expensive University”, but I doubt it would sell). About half of what they say about business schools and their graduates is probably true, and they do often feel like the most collossal [sic] waste of time and money, but they occasionally teach you the odd thing which is very useful indeed. Here’s a few of the ones I learned which I considered relevant to judging the advisability of the Second Iraq War.

The founders were people, but The Founders aren’t people.

Idle, irresponsible, testy thoughts, unedited and unfiltered and (to be frank) probably un-thought-through.

Problem: The world of the Founders seems impossibly distant from our own, and Americans are pig-ignorant about our history.

Bad solution: Pretend the Founders were essentially modern Americans, somewhat abstracted perhaps, and try to draw political/cultural lessons from them on those terms. (This is known amongst historians of the era as ‘Founders Chic,’ and is popular for boring reasons — cf. Wall Street reporter Ron Chernow’s laudatory book on Hamilton, or the current backlash against Thomas Jefferson.)

Better solution: Treat them as fallible human beings while acknowledging the historical specificity of their time and place — i.e. maintain their status as historical figures rather than mythic characters.

In my family we’ve been listening basically nonstop to Hamilton, which is a great success on its own terms but seems, based on what little guilt-motivated research I’ve done, to be bad history. The play’s full of anachronisms, which don’t bother me because (1) they’re groovy and (2) I’m not a priggish asshole, but the specific recasting of the Hamilton/Jefferson conflict (Hamilton married into a family of slaveowners and himself rented slaves, yet he gets a number of abolitionist applause lines; Jefferson’s genuinely radical democratic ideals are laughed off as aristocratic hypocrisy) damages the history for no damn reason except, I think, to pander to Miranda’s ‘progressive’ audience.

(Testy aside about Miranda’s own background goes here, but I can’t be bothered.)

It’s dangerously distorting to portray humans of hundreds of years ago as basically modern in their outlooks — though I can see why you’d do so; no one would give a shit about Alexander Hamilton today if Miranda hadn’t made that choice. It works, and you’ve got to put asses in seats. Hamilton is a multimillion-dollar business. Yet the cost of that distortion is the audience’s cheaply acquired false certainty, which leads to recklessness:

Casting black and Latino actors as the founders effectively writes nonwhite people into the story, [Chernow] said, in ways that audiences have powerfully responded to.

Sadly, no! It just substitutes a fashionable interpretive matrix for, y’know, actual historical understanding, and piggybacks the noble and correct idea that ‘Anything You Can Dream, You Can Be’ on a sugarcoated misreading of history that shuts down further inquiry. It slots the Founders into contemporary conversations too easily, and the cost to our collective historical imagination will far outlast any tactical gains that one or another side might make in the culture wars. (‘Culture wars’: rather a grand name for local proxy conflicts whose chief purpose seems to be distraction from, among other things, actual wars…)

The Founders don’t need to be mythic embodiments of Good and Evil to be useful to us today — quite the opposite, if they’re to be sustainably useful and meaningful. Our inability to admit that the Founders were complex human beings is part of the reason we have such a childish relationship to our national history. The idea of America is an ongoing conversation, a history of debate between complexly invested humans. We go back to Colonial history wanting it to illustrate a point or settle an argument. But that’s not what historical inquiry does — the past doesn’t settle our arguments, we have to do that for ourselves. And we’re best able to handle our own business when we know where we’ve really come from.

Anyhow, the upshot here is twofold:

  1. You should listen to (or see) Hamilton, which is a great musical on its own terms.
  2. You should ignore the people who tell you it ‘brings the history to life.’ For ‘history,’ there, read ‘mythology.’ Hamilton settles for being a passion play when it could have been something so much more interesting: a problem play.

The problem is stupidity.

There are evil people in the White House, sure, but they’re outnumbered by the deeply stupid ones — dilettantes and pseudointellectuals like Bannon (who seems to be both), empty suits like Priebus, and of course the president himself, who by all accounts is too dumb to sit through briefings or comprehend ideas beyond grade-school level.

‘Ohhh you elitist jerk! Intelligence and goodness are orthogonal!’

Too-easy response: would you want a stupid doctor examining your daughter, or a stupid contractor building your house? These people need to be smart in order to do complicated things well — ‘goodly,’ as they say (I hope).

Let’s go further, though.

Intelligent people can be betrayed by their feelings, their ‘cognitive biases,’ same as anyone else. Obviously! And equally obviously, ‘smart’ folks can’t claim moral superiority — you can start with little more than the Golden Rule and live a good life, and the road’s littered with corpses left behind by ‘intellectuals.’ But intelligent folks, folks who can read critically and argue, who can handle irony and work through complex lines of reasoning and think dialectically, are much less susceptible (on average) to bad ideas.

Racism, for instance, is stupid — but you can learn that racism is stupid, and more importantly make yourself robust against it. Not through tribal-identitarian rituals (which just teach a kneejerk response to unfashionable forms of bigotry while blinding you to fashionable ones) but by introspecting about your racist beliefs and thinking through their consequences.

Censorship’s stupid too: morality aside, it doesn’t work (censored ideas grow more potent), and since the power to censor changes hands regularly, it’s short sighted to boot — next time around it’ll the other side silencing you. Those who advocate for censorship do so because they can’t think beyond the satisfactions of the moment, and can’t reason their way out of distaste. Empathy at a distance is a learned skill, and by developing that skill you begin to make yourself robust against your terror at unwelcome thoughts and expressions.

Why do intellectuals fall for bad ideas? Because they’re scared to make use of their faculties — they crave status, fear exposure, succumb to parochialism, or are just lazy.

The stupidity of the Trump White House bothers me because, even if Trump’s people are exactly as (im/a)moral as Obama’s, high-level thought can’t survive in that environment. Their organization is dysfunctional because so many people in it are too stupid to work together, for the future, at short-term cost to themselves. The best opportunity for the Republican/conservative agenda in more than a decade has been pissed away because the White House can’t play smart.

Which is merely quite bad right now, but will be a disaster when an actual external crisis hits. That’s the risk: the White House, the federal government, is not robust against calamity. You look at it the wrong way and it wobbles and falls.

Ignorance is our natural state, but willful ignorance is a sin. The president trusts Fox News and the Breitbart mis/disinformation machine for his daily news, even though he’s got the entire intelligence community ready to do that work for him. Why?

Because actually doing his job is too hard. Because he’s too stupid and too scared to keep up with the work.

So was GW Bush, of course — but Bush had principles, a compass (however faulty), and a deeply held sense of noblesse oblige. He was a cretin but he knew what the job was, more or less, and seemed to know his limitations. And like Obama, Bush was a voracious reader — you don’t suppose that’s a coincidence, do you?

Stupidity makes you cruel because it keeps you afraid. It makes you violent because it blinds you to better solutions. Stupidity makes you weak, because it keeps you from seeking out the interesting challenges that make you strong. It makes you boring because it shuts out all but the most obvious desires.

Lionel Trilling spoke of a ‘moral obligation to be intelligent.’ I look at Trump and his gang of second-raters and for a second I know just what he means.

‘Design philosophy’ is a smokescreen: initial point.

A habitual point-misser at rpg.net — a guy who was banned for threadshitting about a game he doesn’t seem to play, returned weeks later, and still can’t resist the urge to insert himself into every thread on that subject — said this in a thread about D&D 5th edition:

I just feel like there is a really deep, philosophical difference between what 4e does, within its niche, and what 5e does, within that same niche, and that it’s unusual for someone to like such significantly different takes within such a narrow space.

Maybe my issue is more that I see “I like 4e” as saying more than simply “when I play 4e, I have fun.” I see it as affirming support for a thing behind the game–hence my repeated references to design philosophy, and my comparison to a philosophical difference in literature. Because, by the latter definition, I literally like all TTRPGs I’ve ever played, because I’ve had fun while playing them. Even games I would never actually say I like.

He talked about Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Game of Thrones, and about C.S. Lewis and Ayn Rand, and how he doesn’t understand how someone could claim to like both paired terms, for ‘philosophical’ reasons.

And I think this in response:

4e and 5e don’t do the same thing. They don’t really try. This is one source of your confusion. One is an anime-superpowers ‘cinematic’ fighty minis game, one is a streamlined modernish take on 80s D&D.

But even if they aimed at the same genre, there’s this: almost no one cares about ‘design philosophy,’ and talking about it (even on nerd fora) is often a smokescreen. The stable sensible adults I know don’t find it unusual at all to like very different takes on the same material. When I read Game of Thrones, I dig its vastness, its human-scale history, its grim postapocalyptic antiwar outlook, its conspiratorial complications. when I watch Disney’s Sleeping Beauty with my son, I dig its grand primary-coloured good’n’evil story, its desperation, the courage and terror and childlike wonder of it. I like The Wasp Factory and Catcher in the Rye (‘sourly funny adolescent works through emotional issues’ stories), I like Tolkien and Moorcock (and both understand and disagree with Moorcock’s ‘kill mommy’ bashing of Tolkien), I like Pynchon and the faintly embarrassing sub-Pynchon pretentious sex-comedy of Illuminatus!, I learn something from Tony Judt’s Euro-cosmopolitanism and John Gaddis’s unabashed USA-triumphalism, and none of the philosophical ‘contradictions’ between these works are as important as what I (you) take from them in the moment.

Justifying your affection for some popcult thing by talking about the ‘principles’ it embodies is the same lazy identitarian bullshit that

POLITICAL/ACADEMIC/CULTURAL RANT REDACTED

and if you can’t stretch yourself a tiny bit to see and enjoy things on their own terms, and to empathize with others doing the same even with texts you ‘don’t get,’ then don’t be surprised when sane sensible adults politely show you the door.


The deeper point here is that consumers who talk about ‘design philosophy’ are for the most part just borrowing hip terminology to mark themselves as above the material they don’t like. You get the same from the dilettantes and status-seekers in ‘Apple punditry’ and the gadget press, acting as if they’ve intuited the deeply admirable design principles behind a gadget which (coincidence!) happens to fill a need for them.

Fear of pleasure, lack of empathy, and ignorance about process: these are, you will hopefully be unsurprised to hear, problems. We will talk.