Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Journalists and Twitter redux


Ain’t no fun when the bunny gets a gun

Farhad Manjoo of the NY Times is having second thoughts about Twitter.

How Twitter Is Being Gamed to Feed Misinformation
It’s an interesting read, but much of its interest lies in what it ignores and excuses, not in what it analyzes or indicts.

For instance, Manjoo wants to blame Twitter for elevating the stupid over the serious:

It prizes pundit-ready quips over substantive debate, and it tends to elevate the silly over the serious for several sleepless hours this week it was captivated by “covfefe,” which was essentially a brouhaha over a typo.
What he never mentions is that “serious” news organizations like CNN happily covered the “covfefe” crisis on their news programs. Manjoo really cannot explain why it is Twitter’s fault that CNN wasted time on “a brouhaha over a typo.”

A large part of this article is a sly attempt to excuse and coverup the moral and intellectual failings of professional journalists and established news organizations.

When journalists see a story getting big on Twitter, they consider it a kind of responsibility to cover it, even if the story may be an alternate frame or a conspiracy theory,” said Alice Marwick, who was co-author of a recent report on the mechanics of media manipulation for the Data & Society Research Institute. “That’s because if they don’t, they may get accused of bias.”
Note how neatly this absolves the legacy media. They are forced to cover these stupid Twitter-generated stories because they bend over backwards to avoid even the appearance of bias.

Here’s an alternative explanation that Manjoo conveniently ignores.:

Covering a Twitter-centric story is cheap and easy. The journalist never has to get out of his chair. As such, this content is catnip for penny-pinching editors as well as lazy, ill-informed reporters.

I am a journalist and so am vastly ignorant of many things, but because I am a journalist I write and talk about them all.”--G. K. Chesterton

"A typical reporter on deadline calls a couple of people and slaps something into the paper the next day."--Scott Shane (New York Times reporter)
[Related: Cable news, vox populi, and professional sleaze]

In previous posts I’ve argued that journalists were early adopters of Twitter because it strengthened their control of “explanation space”.

Why do journalists love twitter and hate blogging?

Why twitter?
The huge BOTS! RUSSIANS!! CONSPIRACY THEORIES!!! freak-out now underway is simply another battle in that war to control the Narrative.

A few years ago Twitter was praised for the way it empowered and energized the Black Lives Matter movement. The MSM was singularly uninterested in the role conspiracy theories played in that movement and the fake facts promulgated to support the favored Narrative (“Hands up. Don’t shoot”)

DeRay McKesson: Leader, Activist, and Unrepentant Conspiracy-Monger
Other curious omissions

Manjoo and his editors cast this piece as an even-handed look at how a technology can be exploited to disseminate lies and misinformation. Oddly enough, he chooses his examples from Trump supporters and the populist Right. Sean Hannnity and Seth Rich get a lot of attention. Louise Mensch, extravagant and misleading claims that “Russians hacked the election“, and flat charges that “Trump committed treason” are largely ignored.

Outside of Twitter in message boards or Facebook groups a group will decide on a particular message to push. Then the deluge begins. Bots flood the network, tweeting and retweeting thousands or hundreds of thousands of messages in support of the story, often accompanied by a branding hashtag #pizzagate, or, a few weeks ago, #sethrich.
If it is mostly bots retweeting bots, just how many people are reading the tweets let alone the underlying stories?

The passage quoted reminded me of something else-- an earlier conspiracy to frame the narrative and shift debate during a presidential election.

Journolist.

In that case, though, journalists and activists were not creating trending hashtags for a small audience on Twitter. Instead, they were injecting them right into the MSM.

And the defenders of truth and honest journalism did not care.

Because, in the end, facts and truth are not a major concern for them. It is simply Narrative Uber Alles.


Saturday, June 03, 2017

Thought for the day



One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It's simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we've been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.
Carl Sagan




Saturday, May 27, 2017

The 100 billion dollar idea


Another interesting point from Ross Anderson:

Back in the early 1990s, for example, if you visited the Microsoft campus in Redmond and you pointed out that something people were working on had a flaw or could be done better, they’d say, “No, we’re going to ship it Tuesday and get it right by version three.” And that’s what everybody said: “Ship it Tuesday. Get it right by version three.” It was the philosophy. IBM and the other established companies were really down on this. They were saying, “These guys at Microsoft are just a bunch of hackers. They don’t know how to write proper software.”

But Bill had understood that in a world where markets tip because of network effects, it’s absolutely all-important to be first. And that’s why Microsoft software is so insecure, and why everything that prevails in the marketplace starts off by being insecure. People race to get that market position, and in the process they made it really easy for people to write software for their platform. They didn’t let boring things like access controls or proper cryptography get in the way.

Once you have the dominant position, you then put the security on later, but you do it in a way that serves your corporate interests rather than the interests of your customers or your users Bill Gate’s most brilliant coup was to export the ethos of a hobbyist sub-culture over to the business and consumer marketplaces.
What other product has customers lining up to pay for something which will almost certainly NOT work at the time of purchase? And when it fails to work expects the customer to assume the initial responsibility for fixing the problem? (Just another example of companies outsourcing labor costs to the customers. See here)

If i buy a hot water heater I have great confidence that it will NOT disable my car’s air bags.* Yet, every time I add a new device to my wireless network or update some piece of software on one of my computers, I fully expect that I will have to trouble-shoot new problems on other devises or with other pieces of software.

*This confidence may no longer be warranted given Anderson’s discussion of the risks of the Internet of Everything. (Here)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The frightening implications of the Internet of Everything


Maybe the most important thing you can read today.

The Threat
A Conversation With Ross Anderson

If you get a safety flaw in a traditional car—say, the A-Class Mercedes, which would roll if you braked and swerved too hard to avoid an elk, they fixed that—they shipped a service pack and changed the steering geometry. Nobody died, so that’s okay. But if you’ve got a flaw that can be exploited remotely over the Internet—if you can reach out and put malware in ten million different Jeeps—then that’s serious stuff. This happened for the first time in public a couple of years ago when a couple of guys drove a Jeep Cherokee off the road. Then the industry started to sit up and pay attention.

That can also be used as a diplomatic weapon. You want sanctions on Zimbabwe? Just stop all the black Mercedes motor cars that Mr. Mugabe hands out to his henchmen as payment. We raised that with the German government. What would your reaction be to an American demand to do that? Well, it was absolute outrage! So diplomacy comes in here.

Conflict also comes in. If I’m, let’s say, the Chinese government, and I’m involved in a standoff with the American government over some islands in the South China Sea, it’s nice if I’ve got things I can threaten to do short of a nuclear exchange.

If I can threaten to cause millions of cars in America to turn right and accelerate sharply into the nearest building, causing the biggest gridlock you’ve ever seen in every American city simultaneously, maybe only killing a few hundred or a few thousand people but totally bringing traffic to a standstill in all American cities—isn’t that an interesting weapon worth developing if you’re the Chinese Armed Forces R&D lab? There’s no doubt that such weapons can be developed.

All of a sudden you start having all sorts of implications. If you’ve got a vulnerability that can be exploited remotely, it can be exploited at scale. We’ve seen this being done by criminals. We’ve seen 200,000 CCTV cameras being taken over remotely by the Mirai botnet in order to bring down Twitter for a few hours. And that’s one guy doing it in order to impress his girlfriend or boyfriend or whatever. Can you imagine what you can do if a nation-state puts its back into it?

All of a sudden safety becomes front and center. And that, in turn, changes the policy debate. At present, the debate about access to keys that we’ve had with Jim Comey’s grumblings in the USA and with our own Investigatory Powers Act here in Britain has been about whether the FBI or the British Security Service should be able to tap your iPhone—for example, by putting malware on it. People might say, “Well, there’s no real harm if the FBI goes and gets a warrant and taps John Gotti’s phone. I’m not going to lose any sleep over that.” But if the FBI can crash your car? Do you still want to give the FBI a golden backdoor key to all the computers in the world? Even if it’s kept by the NSA, then the next Snowden maybe doesn’t sell the golden key to The Guardian, maybe he sells it to the Russian FSB.

We suddenly get into a very different policy terrain where the debates over who gets access to whom, and when, and how, and why, are suddenly sharp. It’s not just your privacy that’s on the line anymore, it’s your life.
Call me paranoid, but i could not help but think of the death of Michael Hastings

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In war, #hashtags are no substitute for victory


From Williamson and Millett's A War to Be Won:

Moral righteousness alone does not win battles. Evil causes do not necessarily carry the seeds of their own destruction. Once engaged, even just wars have to be won-- or lost-- on the battlefield.
John Keegan, Intelligence in War:

A wise opinion would be that intelligence, while necessary, is not a sufficient means to victory. Decision in war is always the result of a fight, and in combat willpower always counts for more than foreknowledge.



Thursday, May 18, 2017

The MacArthur enigma


Fresh assessments of one of America’a most controversial generals.

What did the British see?

The author of a recent book on Gen. Douglas MacArthur spoke at the Army War College AHEC this month. His book MacArthur at War presents a balanced and nuanced assessment of MacArthur’s WWII campaigns.


At the end of his talk, he was asked a question that has long intrigued me: Why did the British hold MacArthur in such high esteem? (1:00:00 mark)

Field Marshall Alan Brooke, Churchill’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was clear in his assessment. His biographer Arthur Bryant writes that “Brooke regarded MacArthur as the greatest strategists of the war and his campaign in the Southwest Pacific as a masterpiece"

The Field Marshall himself wrote that “I have often wondered since the war how different matters might have been if I had had MacArthur instead of Marshall to deal with. From everything I saw of him I put him down as the greatest general of the last war. He certainly showed a far greater strategic grasp than Marshall”

Maybe, as Borneman theorized, Brooke was just being peevish. Or, maybe MacArthur looked good to him because he was far away while Brooke butted heads with Ike and Marshall and King on a regular basis.

There, are, however, other reasons why Alan Brooke might have reached this conclusion.

1. MacArthur and the British high command were both more attuned to the post-war consequences of wartime strategic decisions. Marshall and his European commanders were very much of the Prussian school: Generals make decisions based on military necessity and then, after the war is won, politicians and diplomats takeover.

Churchill and his generals believed that to draw such a stark dividing line was absurd. The post-war settlement was bound to reflect, in part, the military dispositions at the time of the armistice and the campaigns that led up to it. MacArthur shared this view as shown by his insistence that the Philippines not be by-passed on the road to Tokyo clearly.

To Brooke, this meant that MacArthur grasped alevel of strategy that Marshall and his protégés were oblivious to.

2. MacArthur and his commanders also were more innovative and more willing to adjust their operational plans than the commanders Marshall sent to Europe.

The one marked weakness among the top Allied officers lay in the commander of American ground forces, General Omar Bradley. Bradley was an unimaginative and uninspiring commander, who had already proven to possess a streak of jealousy for subordinates more competent than he was...

Even worse, Bradley, who had no experience with amphibious landings, did not take advice from officers who had seen service in the Pacific. Moreover, he disliked the Navy and was uninterested in their work on fire support and ship to shore movements under enemy fire. At Tarawa the Marines learned that amphibian tractors were worth their weight in gold. Bradley left 300 amtracs in England. Nor did Bradley see the value in the specialized engineering vehicles developed by Gen. Sir Percy Hobart to overcome the extraordinary challenges presented by the German beach defenses

Lacey and Murray, Moment of Battle
When Operation COBRA smashed the German defenses in Normandy, Bradley and Eisenhower were slow to recognize the great opportunity in front of them. They held fast to the existing plans and timetables even as an epic opportunity was in their grasp.

MacArthur’s forces, in contrast, revised plans on the fly to take advantages of opportunities when they presented themselves. (The capture of Hollandia, which Borneman cites as perhaps MacArthur’s greatest triumph, is just one example of this opportunistic improvisation).

2 (a) The Brits and MacArthur shared a blindspot. They both had a tenuous grasp of the industrial planning that was required for the type of war America waged in WWII.

The British Chiefs, especially Sir Alan Brooke, never could seem to understand why the Americans had to have commitments well in advance. They accused us of being rigid and inflexible, not realizing the terrific job of procurement, shipbuilding, troop training and supply necessary to place a million and a half troops in England, with armor, tanks and troop-lift, ready to invade the Continent.

S. E. Morison


Friday, May 05, 2017

Making strategy in the real world


Williamson Murray:

Several general points about the making of strategy bear repeating. The first is that those involved, whether statesmen or military leaders, live in a world of incomplete information. They do not know, in most cases, the strategic intentions and purposes of other powers, except in the most general sense, and their knowledge of their own side is often deficient. Second, circumstances often force them to work under the most intense pressures. When a crisis occurs they have little time for reflection. As a result they often focus on narrow issues without looking at large long-term choices; in other words, they will see some of the trees but miss the forest. Few can express their ideas in a logical or through fashion, either on paper or face to face. Most merely react to events rather than mold them to their purposes. Like politics, strategy is the art of the possible, but few can discern what is possible.
Henry Kissinger:

Any statesman is in part the prisoner of necessity. He is confronted with an environment he did not create, and is shaped by a personal history he can no longer change. It is an illusion to believe that leaders gain in profundity while they gain experience. As I have said, the convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital they will consume as long as they continue in office. There is little time for leaders to reflect. They are locked in an endless battle in which the urgent constantly gains on the important. The public life of every political figure is a continual struggle to rescue an element of choice from the pressure of circumstances.
Sir Edward Grey, British foreign secretary in the decade before World War One:

A minister beset with the administrative work of a great office must often be astounded to read of the carefully laid plans, the deep, unrealed motives that critics and admirers attribute to him. Onlookers free from responsibility have time to invent, and they attribute to Ministers many things that Ministers have no time to invent for themselves, even if they are clever enough to be able to do it. If all secrets were known it would probably be found that British Foreign Ministers have been guided by what seemed to them to be the immediate interest of this country without making elaborate calculations for the future.
John Lewis Gaddis:

[Political scientist Alexander] George has suggested that there exists, for political leaders, something he calls an 'operational code'-a set of assumptions about the world, formed early in one's career, that tend to govern without much subsequent variations the way one responds to crises afterwards.
Field-Marshal Earl Wavell

Now for his mental qualities. The most important is what the French call le sens du praticable, and we call common sense, knowledge of what is and what is not possible. It must be based on a really sound knowledge of the "mechanism of war", i.e. topography, movement, and supply. These are the real foundations of military knowledge, not strategy and tactics as most people think. It is the lack of this knowledge of the principles and practice of military movement and administration-the "logistics" of war, some people call it-which puts what we call amateur strategists wrong, not the principles of strategy themselves, which can be apprehended in a very short time by any reasonable intelligence.
...
Unfortunately, in most military books strategy and tactics are emphasised at the expense of the administrative factors. For instance, there are ten military students who can tell you how Blenheim was won for one who has any knowledge at all of the administrative preparations that made the march to Blenheim possible.
Samuel Eliot Morison::

The British Chiefs, especially Sir Alan Brooke, never could seem to understand why the Americans had to have commitments well in advance. They accused us of being rigid and inflexible, not realizing the terrific job of procurement, shipbuilding, troop training and supply necessary to place a million and a half troops in England, with armor, tanks and troop-lift, ready to invade the Continent.



Thursday, May 04, 2017

"Irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas"


This warning from Lionel Trilling (written in 1950) is even more relevant today:

When we say that a movement is 'bankrupt of ideas' we are likely to suppose that it is at the end of its powers. But this is not so, and it is dangerous for us to suppose that it is so, as the experience of of Europe in the last quarter-century suggests, for in the modern situation it is just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology.
Although i guess it should be updated. Maybe something like this:

When a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology and #hashtags
Walker Percy:

Ideological words have a way of wearing thin and then, having lost their meanings, being used like switchblades against the enemy of the moment.



Wednesday, May 03, 2017

On Andrew Jackson


Robert Remini:

There was a time when the United States had heroes and reveled in them. There was a time when Andrew Jackson was one of those heroes, along with the men and women who stood with him at New Orleans and drove an invading British army back into the sea.
...
Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century did believe that January 8 would be remembered like July 4-- both dates representing the nation's first and second declaration of independence from Great Britain. Indeed some called the War of 1812 the Second War for Independence. Generally speaking, widespread observance of January 8 as a day of national celebration continued for the next fifty years.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Reconsidering "Anti-intellectualism in American Life"


On Richard Hofstadter: Part Two


i

Anti-intellectalism in American Life (AIiAL) may be Hofstadter's most famous work. It is especially popular with pundits who love to name-check the book when they disparage the sort people who vote for Trump and Brexit.

The book may have appeared in the 1960s but its origin story goes back to 1952. Hofstadter was not just disappointed in the victory of Dwight Eisenhower, he was traumatized. He went so Madly for Adlai that he saw the election result in stark, apocalyptic terms:

a repudiation by plebiscite of American intellectuals and of intellect itself.

The campaign of 1952 dramatized the contrast between intellect and philistinism in the opposing candidates. On one side was Adlai Stevenson, a politician of uncommon mind and style, whose appeal to intellectuals overshadowed anything in recent history. On the other was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Conventional in mind, relatively inarticulate, harnessed to the unpalatable Nixon.

Eisenhower's decisive victory was taken both by the intellectuals themselves and by their critics as a measure of their repudiation by America.
According to Sam Tannenhaus, the 1952 election gave Hofstatdter his central thesis for AIiAL:

The fundamental division within America was not between Democrats and Republicans, nor between liberals and conservatives, but between clear-eyed intellectuals and benighted philistines, between the rational elite and the impassioned mob.
Hofstadter's reaction to Ike's victory epitomizes the most egregious blunders and blindspots of the Intellectual-Yet-Idiot when they write about most things intellectual.

1. They really aren't very good at identifying intelligence in other people.
2. The I-Y-Is are seduced by style and self-referential biases.
3. Moral outrage is never far below the surface of their detached dispassionate analysis.

As of consequence…..

4 (a) They over-value the capabilities of people who talk and act like them and who share their political views
4 (b) They are blind to the abilities of those who are not like them or who disagree with them. They cannot believe that 'those people' act in good faith or have valid arguments or intellectual heft.
ii

For Hofstadter, the 1952 election was a titanic struggle between the Army of Intellect and the Forces of Ignorance.

Representing Intellect was a New Deal lawyer who became a governor thanks to the Cook County Democratic machine. Everyone knew he was brilliant because he gave witty speeches and made self-decrecating jokes. Arrayed against this Hero of the Intellectuals was the man who commanded:

1. The largest army in US history.
2. The most complex and high-stakes military operation in history.
3. The most successful wartime coalition since Marlborough in the War of the Spanish Succession.
It was this absurd false dichotomy - smart Adlai and dumb Ike - that was the genesis for AIiAL.

Stevenson knew how to sprinkle aphorisms and wry observations into his speeches. Adlai the politician was a lot like Hofstadter the historian. But that wasn't the only reason Hofstadter was moved to political activism during the campaign. In 1952 he was pro-Stevenson because he was convinced that the survival of liberalism depended on defeating Eisenhower. And for him the survival of liberalism was synonymous with the survival of America.

Over the next ten years the names changed but the melodramatic struggle remained central to Hofstadter's narrative. Leftwing politics morphed into Intellect; Ike's brand of moderate Republicanism became Ignorance and Resentment.

What remained constant was that Richard Hofstadter and people like him were always the heroes in the stories Richard Hofstadter wrote.

And who could contest that narrative? Hofstadter was a celebrated historian and esteemed public intellectual. He was the expert's expert. Only a budding Know Nothing would be so gauche as to question his dicta.

Not to mention-his narrative was useful to the IYIs in the press and academia. It is always easier to name-check Hofstadter than to formulate coherent arguments. It takes a lot of energy, intelligence, and integrity to rebut an opponent in the manner of St. Thomas Aquinas. It is child's play to toss around "paranoid style" and "anti-intellectualism."

Related:

Richard Hofstadter: The I-Y-I's intellectual for all seasons

Half-blind experts and the straw men they create


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Nixon's the One


This speech by Ben Stein at the Nixon Library is well worth watching. Stein has always been a defender of RN and here he gives a passionate, full-throated defense of the man and his presidency.


Two especially interesting points in this speech. 1. Stein defends RN against the accusations of anti-Semitism. 2.) He has an interesting theory about the role sadism played in the attacks on Nixon.

Also interesting is this talk by Geoff Shepard on how the Watergate investigation went off the rails.


Related:

Watergate and history



Friday, April 21, 2017

Poets and Kommissars


Chekisty and poets were drawn to each other like stoats and rabbits-- often with fatal consequences for the latter. They found common ground: the need for fame, an image of themselves as crusaders, creative frustration, membership of a vanguard, scorn for the bourgeoisie, an inability to discuss their work with common mortals. There was an easily bridged gap between between the symbolist poet who aimed to epater le bourgeois and the checkist who stood the bourgeois up against the wall.
Donald Rayfield

Auden was not eccentric. The poets of the thirties were intoxicated with the idea of violence. You could not be sincere unless you were prepared to have blood on your hands. For Day Lewis it was the hour of the knife, for Spender light was to be brought to life by bringing death to the age-long exploiters. 'We're much ruder,' boasted Day Lewis writing to his scavenger press baron, 'and we're learning to shoot.'
Noel Annan



First, last, and always, the real politics of Bloomsbury was a search for elite cultural power in England.
Stephen Koch

Civil liberties, shit. Are you with us or are you against us.
Ernest Hemingway to John Dos Passos


Thursday, April 20, 2017


"If I find you doing something, I will help you, but if I find you doing nothing, only God will help you."
Gen. George C. Marshall


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rejoice! He is risen!


Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.

And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre.

And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.

And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments:

And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead?

He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee,

Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.

And they remembered his words,

And returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest.

It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.

And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not.

Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulchre; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.

Luke 24: 1-12


Friday, April 14, 2017

"Wood and nails and colored eggs"

First Posted 22 March 2005

This passage from Martin Bell's remarkable little book The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images seems especially timely this Easter season.


God raised Jesus from the dead to the end that we should be clear-once and for all-that there is nothing more important than being human. Our lives have eternal significance. And no one-absolutely no one-is expendable.

Colored Eggs

Some human beings are fortunate enough to be able to color eggs on Easter. If you have a pair of hands to hold the eggs, or if you are fortunate enough to be able to see the brilliant colors, then you are twice blessed.

This Easter some of us cannot hold the eggs, others of us cannot see the colors, many of us are unable to move at all-and so it will be necessary to color the eggs in our hearts.

This Easter there is a hydrocephalic child lying very still in a hospital bed nearby with a head the size of his pillow and vacant, unmoving eyes, and he will not be able to color Easter eggs, and he will not be able to color Easter eggs in his heart, and so God will have to color eggs for him.

And God will color eggs for him. You can bet your life and the life of the created universe on that.

At the cross of Calvary God reconsecrated and sanctified wood and nails and absurdity and helplessness to be continuing vehicles of his love. And then he simply raised Jesus from the dead. And they both went home and colored eggs
.



Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Richard Hofstadter: The I-Y-I’s intellectual for all seasons


Part One

In his essay on the death of expertise Tom Nichols quotes Richard Hofstadter. This is not surprising. Ever since Hofstadter wrote Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963) he has been the go-to expert for pundits and partisans when lamenting America’s short-comings in all things cultural.

Hofstadter’s career and writings have a great deal to say about the role of intellectuals and experts in modern America. As is often the case, the real lesson is not the message that Hofstadter and his fans meant to send.

II

This is the Hofstadter quote that Nichols uses to launch his Kulturekampf on Trumpian America:

In the original American populistic dream, the omnicompetence of the common man was fundamental and indispensable. It was believed that he could, without much special preparation, pursue the professions and run the government. Today he knows that he cannot even make his breakfast without using devices, more or less mysterious to him, which expertise has put at his disposal; and when he sits down to breakfast and looks at his morning newspaper, he reads about a whole range of vital and intricate issues and acknowledges, if he is candid with himself, that he has not acquired competence to judge most of them.
Two things stand out about Hofstadter’s “argument”. First, it showcases his go-to move: Hofstadter never debates when he can denigrate and dismiss. (We’ll return to this point shortly.)

Even more striking is the rhetorical legerdemain he uses to set up his straw man. The common man is helpless without the magical gifts of technology that the intellectual elites of have given him. The toaster and the coffee pot are mysteries beyond his comprehension so therefore he is not competent to judge the major issues of the day.

Hofstadter expects us to believe that the folks at Vox and the Atlantic are competent to rule over the rest of American because they have expertise and are not baffled modern technology.

Seriously, does anyone really think that Ta-Nehisi Coates can explain multi-port electronic fuel injection? How many writers at Vox can even change the oil in their cars?

Victor Davis Hanson:

Technology has deluded the modern West. We equate widespread knowledge of how to use an iPad with collective wisdom. Because a rare, brilliantly inventive mind from Caltech or MIT can craft a device undreamed of in the age of Einstein, we assume that we all warrant a share in his genius, as if our generation has trumped Einstein’s. We deserve no such kudos unless animals at the zoo that find delight in their rote enjoyment of their hoops and bars can be credited with the architect’s sophisticated zoological design.

We don’t need more technocrats who fool us that their Ivy League law degrees are synonymous with wisdom. They can be, but now are more likely not much more than tickets that allow an Eric Holder or Timothy Geithner into the first-class seating.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

These self-described members of the “intelligenzia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities but their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them. With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.
James Kwak:

Yale Law School is undeniably an elite institution, the undisputed number one school in a field that is intensely (and toxically) hierarchical. Also, because it is a law schoolas opposed to other elite institutions such as West Point or the UConn women’s basketball teamit is filled with people who have never had any idea of what they wanted to do other than be successful and gain access to the best opportunities out there.

III

Hofstadter is remembered as a prose stylist of distinction. His mode of argument is also distinctive and much copied. He was one of the leading practioners of the “I’m smartyou are crazy and stupid” polemical style. It’s a style is still beloved by I-Y-Is even to this day and a style that sometimes appears in Nichol’s writing and twitter feed.

RH relied heavily on sociology, psychology, and other social science. To some extent, this was a mark of his restless mind and intellectual curiosity. It also reflects a lazy, perhaps agoraphobic historian. (We’ll get to this later.) But those fields also gave Hofstadter a vocabulary with which to malign opponents rather than engage them.

Fred Siegel:

History and events could be bathed in the certainties that came from dismissing one's opponents as insufficiently deferential and psychologically stunted.
Christopher Lasch, a student of Hofstadter, noted of his teacher and his allies, “instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds.”

This is a rhetorical trick still beloved by I-Y-Is. It is the antithesis of the rigorous, intellectually honest mode of argument Taleb discusses here:

The Facts are True, the News is Fake
It is also a form of argument that has roots in totalitarianism.

Jacques Barzun:

To deprecate an idea or explain it away by finding (i.e. guessing) the reason why it is held is the prevailing form of polemics in the twentieth century. We owe it to the popularity of Freud and Marx, whose systems imply that any resistance to them proves how right they are. Agree or disagree, it is all one; dispute a Freudian interpretation of Nietzsche and the act shows your 'defense mechanism' at work. Similarly, any opinion contrary to Marxism-Leninism reveals only the fraudulent bourgeois thought. This perversion of the sense in which ideas are instrumental to the new obscurantism in the garb of high theory.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

Hannah Arendt had it right. She said one of the great advantages of the totalitarian elites of the Twenties and Thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive.
Milan Kundera:

In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.



Part two: Reconsidering "Anti-intellectualism in American Life"




Sunday, April 09, 2017

One hundred years ago


Gary Sheffield:

At 5.30 a.m. on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917, the British and Canadian infantry ‘hopped the bags’ and advanced through a snowstorm. Fifteen minutes earlier German batteries had been bombarded with poison gas. Like artillery, machine gun tactics had increased in sophistication since the beginning of the war.[414] Massed machine guns fired a barrage over the heads of the attacking infantry, while forty tanks rumbled into action alongside. The first day of Arras was highly successful. At Vimy Ridge, with the support of nine Heavy Artillery Groups (seven of them British) the Canadians captured most of this formidable position with little difficulty, although at the cost of 11,000 casualties.
Cyril Falls, the author of the British official history of the battle (and an officer in the war) wrote:"‘Easter Monday of the year 1917 must be accounted from the British point of view one of the great days of the War" The first day of the Battle of Arras was, in his view, "among the heaviest blows struck by British arms in the Western theatre of war."

As with everything on the Western Front, the cost in casualties was high.

Sheffield:

The BEF’s daily loss rate of 4,076 at Arras was greater than the Somme (2,943), Passchendaele (2,323), or the Hundred Days battles of 1918 (3,645)

Related:

THE BATTLE OF ARRAS, 9 APRIL-16 MAY 1917




Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Tolstoy, Netflix, and the Intellectual-Yet-Idiot


Reading books still matters.

From Gracey Olmstead in the Federalist:

Why It’s A Problem That Reading Is At 30-Year Lows

Americans' interest in literature has dropped to a three-decade low. The fact is, many don’t know what they are missing and they don’t care

Reading Is Work, In a Way Other Pastimes Aren’t

Why is it that the busy working professional will turn off his or her computer to binge-watch a season of “The Walking Dead,” but not to read Tolstoy? To most, the answer is immediately obvious: reading is “work,” to a degree that television is not. Tolstoy requires intense focus, careful reading. But television offers us a sedentary respite, both mentally and physically. It dulls the whirring tension of our brains. Films are often interesting and insightfulbut even the detailed artistry of “The Crown” doesn’t require the focus and diligence that a reading of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” would require.
As Chesterton might have said*: “People have not traded reading for Netflix because Netflix is better; they prefer Netflix because reading is hard.”*

Victor Davis Hanson reminds us why reading remains fundamental:

The mind is a muscle. Without exercise, it reverts to mush. Watching most TV or using the normal electronic gadgetry does not tax us much indeed that is by design the very purpose: to eliminate effort, worry, unease, and afterthought. None of us thinks back a year ago to a great video game session. Few off-hand can recall the Super Bowl winner of 2001. I remember the scenes in a Shane or Casablanca,  but not many others in the other thousand of movies that I have watched.

By nature, our ways of expression and even thinking always fossilize and are withering away with age and monotony a process accelerated by the modern electronic age and the neglect of replenishment through reading.

II

David Gelernter:

“Good is hard, temptation is a given; therefore, a healthy society talks to itself.”

“Goodness is unnatural, and we need to cheer one another on.”
We’ve stopped encouraging each other to read serious things. Forty years ago a serious person did not demonstrate their seriousness by babbling on about “Dallas” or “Charlie’s Angels”. Those were seen, at best, as harmless, guilty pleasures. ** (The were guilty pleasures precisely because they were unserious.)

Now, preening thought-leaders and self-styled experts prattle on about House of Cards and The Americans as though these soap operas are significant cultural milestones and sources of wisdom akin to Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or Solzhenitsyn.

As Instapundit said, the “death of expertise” was more suicide than murder.

-----------------------------

*The original: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

** How harmless? Jacques Barzun represents one POV: "Love of what is fine should not make one finicky." Schopenhauer , at the other extreme, puts the GUILT in guilty pleasure. See:

Schopenhauer on the Dangers of Clickbait


Friday, March 24, 2017

World War One: Getting past the myths


Richard Holmes:

As far as Britain and her dominions were concerned the Western Front was the most costly event of modern history, and we remain touched by its long cold shadow.
Gary Sheffield:

The image of the British army of 1914-18 as being inept, ‘lions led by donkeys’, is highly misleading. In fact, against a background of revolutionary changes in the nature of war, the British army underwent a bloody learning curve and emerged as a formidable force. In 1918 this much-maligned army won the greatest series of victories in British military history.
Two good lectures on this subject on Youtube:

Brian Bond


Stephen Badsey


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Virginia Woolf: Nietzsche on the fainting couch


Is there a more absurd progressive icon in the Age of Intersectionality?

The Unbearable Burden of Being a Special Snowflake

G. K. Chesterton:

Fastidiousness is the most pardonable of of vices; but it is the most unpardonable of virtues. Nietzsche, who represents most prominently this pretentious claim of the fastidious, has a description somewhere-- a very powerful description in a purely literary sense-- of the disgust and disdain which consume him at the sight of the common people with their common faces, common voices, and their common minds. As I have said, this attitude is almost beautiful if we may regard it as pathetic. Nietzsche's aristocracy has about it all the sacredness that belongs to the weak. When he makes us feel that he cannot endure the innumerable faces, the incessant voices, the overpowering omnipresence which belongs to the mob, he will have the sympathy of anybody who has ever been sick on a steamer or tired in a crowded omnibus. Every man has hated mankind when he was less than a man. Every man has had humanity in his eyes like a blinding fog, humanity in his nostrils like a suffocating smell. But when Nietzsche has the incredible lack of humour and lack of imagination to ask us to believe that his aristocracy is an aristocracy of strong muscles or an aristocracy of strong wills, it is necessary to point out the truth. It is an aristocracy of weak nerves.
In our age, Nietzsche is no longer the most prominent exemplar of the pretentious claims of fastidiousness. That honor has to belong to Virginia Woolf.

Nietzsche had to hide his weakness as he paraded his “disgust and disdain” for humanity; the Ubermensch can’t very well be a trembling, feverish invalid. Woolf, on the other hand, pulled off a feat of daring rhetorical jujutsu: She justified her Will to Power with her weakness and “oppression.”

As Theodore Dalrymple points out, the great theme of Woolf’s work can be summarized as “How to Be Privileged and Yet Feel Extremely Aggrieved.”

Woolf’s solipsistic whining is absurd when examined in the hard light of reason. Yet it is irresistible academic catnip for Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Intellectual-Yet-Idiots.

Dalrymple:

Her historiography was very modern: she scoured the records to justify the backward projection of her current resentments. For her, there was no such thing as the human condition, with its inevitable discontent and limitations. She thought that all the things she desired were reconcilable, so that freedom and security, for example, or artistic effort and complete selflessness, might abide in perpetual harmony. As a female member of the British upper middle class and one of what she called “the daughters of educated men,” she felt both socially superior to the rest of the world and peculiarly, indeed uniquely, put upon. The very locution, “the daughters of educated men,” is an odd one, capturing her oscillation between grandiosity and self-pity: she meant by it that class of women who, by virtue of their gentle birth and hereditarily superior minds, could not be expected to perform physical labor of any kind, but who were prevented by the injustice of “the system” from participating fully in public and intellectual affairs.

For those who actually know anything about the hardships endured by the British working class, male and female, during the years of the Depression, statements that insinuate an equality, or even a superiority, of suffering on the part of the daughters of educated men are little short of nauseating: but they would clearly appeal to the pampered resentful, a class that was to grow exponentially in the postwar years of sustained prosperity.

Had Mrs. Woolf survived to our time, however, she would at least have had the satisfaction of observing that her cast of mindshallow, dishonest, resentful, envious, snobbish, self-absorbed, trivial, philistine, and ultimately brutalhad triumphed among the elites of the Western world.
I think Dalrymple cut to the heart of the matter here:

It comes as no surprise that a thinker (or perhaps I should say a feeler) such as Mrs. Woolf, with her emotional and intellectual dishonesty, should collapse all relevant moral distinctions, a technique vital to all schools of resentment. Time and again we find her misappropriating the connotation of one thing and attaching it to another, by insinuating a false analogy: that since both the British policeman and the Nazi stormtrooper wore a uniform, the British policeman was a brute. It is one of the chief characteristics of modern rhetoric, designed not so much to find the truth as (in the words of former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam) to “maintain your rage.”
This explains Woolf’s “thinking” (and by “explain” I guess I mean “demolish and destroy”) while also helping us to see why she has become an icon to the “pampered resentful class”, the special snowflakes who make up the I-Y-Is. “Maintain the rage” becomes “righteous indignation” and that fire is vital to modern intellectuals:

From the outset the eminence of this new creature, the intellectual, who was to play such a tremendous role in the history of the twentieth century, was inseperable from his necessary indignation. It was his indignation that elevated him to a plateau of moral superiority. Once up there, he was in a position to look down on the rest of humanity. And it did not cost him any effort, intellectual or otherwise. As Marshall McLuhan would put it years later: 'Moral indignation is a technique used to endow the idiot with dignity
Tom Wolfe, Hooking Up

Related:

Variations of a theme

Steak, ketchup, and Trump Derangement Disorder

Who was John Galt?


Monday, March 20, 2017

Steak, ketchup, and Trump Derangement Disorder


Really insightful piece by Matthew Continetti:

Freedom Is Eating Steak Well Done With Ketchup
Over the last year however the press has fixated on the steak and its accompaniment, returned to them again and again, fetishized them, contorted them into a metaphor for the childishness and vulgarity and gaucheness that Trump's opponents so despise. "Putting ketchup on his $54 steak drives a wedge between Trump and his fans," reports Marketwatch.com, citing a silly PPP poll in order to expel Trump from the in-group. Does Trump put "Bernaise? Chimichurri? Peppercorn?" on his steak? Negative. "Instead, Trump went with ketchup, that most pedestrian of all condiments." Lock him up!

I am fascinated by the condescending use of "pedestrian," with its connotations of déclassement, to describe one of America's most popular condiments. What it suggests is that the fixation with Trump's manner of eating is in reality a fixation with the persistence of habits and attitudes and trends that the over-schooled and undereducated metropolitan producers of news and opinion do not like, deem retrograde, wish would recede into the past as humanity progresses toward its gender-neutral, multicultural, borderless, medium-rare steak au poivre future. "For real, Mr. President?" asks the Washington Post‘s food critic when confronted with Trump's menu choices.
The heart of the matter:

It is hard to read stories like these without coming to the conclusion that so much of our elite's abhorrence of Trump is a matter of aesthetics, of his not fitting in, of his stubborn devotion to practices and ideas deemed retrograde by opinion leaders but that still appeal to, oh, about half the country.
G. K. Chesterton:

The modern world will not distinguish between matters of opinion and matters of principle and it ends up treating them all as matters of taste.
GKC did not regard this as an advance for civilization. Instead he described “good taste” as “the last and vilest of human superstitions”

The history of the 20th century shows that it was a superstition that could be exploited for the worst ends. England and its Bloomsbury group should serve as a warning. Ostensibly concerned with Taste and Art and Higher Things, the reality was far different.

Stephen Koch:

Even by the ungentle standards of most literary cliques, Bloomsbury was exceptionally malicious within its own ranks, and with outsiders cruel to the point of systematic sadism. All the talk of 'friendship' concealed quite different interests,

First, last, and always, the real politics of Bloomsbury was a search for elite cultural power in England.
Lytton Strachey and his “friends” might mock the middle classes and their conventional heroes but their disdain was not disinterested:

Within Strachey's supercilious view of the British middle class was encoded an assumed right to rule that class “Taste” for Bloomsbury, as Chesterton saw clearly, became an elastic standard which swallowed up all aspects of life.
Upper class sensibilities trumped left-wing solidarity with the laboring classes:

And my God how workmen smell. The Whole house stinks of them. How I hate the proletariat. (vita Sackville-West)
To Virginia Woolf, there were things more important than feminist solidarity or professional accomplishment. Things like a good manicure:

Woolf withdrew from West’s very presence, preferring to dismiss Rebecca because she had dirty fingernails. Bloomsbury was Woolf’s safe haven, but Westcertainly just as enamored of creature comforts as Woolf wasjourneyed to the Balkans and beyond, to Lebanon and South Africa, in order to understand the nature of the modern world. She was not, in short, afraid of dirtying herself by reporting on great events and movements of the twentieth century.
The politics of taste, as practiced by Bloomsbury, was totalitarian in both scope and practice.

As Paul Johnson noted of Strachey:

From the Apostles he grasped the principles of group power: The ability not merely to exclude but to be seen to exclude. He perfected the art of inapproachability and rejection.
Virginia Woolf:

I have just had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.
Here we see the fatuous absurdity of the Bloomsbury worldview. They begin by cultivating Higher Feelings and Refined Tastes while seeking companions who share those tastes. They end up excluding the great poets and writers of their age because those people are not up to the high standards of Bloomsbury.

Koch:

Following Strachey's lead, the coterie remained far too preoccupied with questions of mere taste to touch real greatness  .
Except it doesn’t end there.

In the film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the unmasked traitor Bill Haydon offers an explanation for going over to the Soviets:

It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so very ugly.
Haydon is seemingly based on Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Spies. As Koch reminds us, Bloomsbury and the Cambridge Ring are not separate phenomena.:

The Cambridge spies were Bloomsbury's heirs by direct line of descent. The crucible for both was the 'Cambridge Conversation Club', the Apostles, a long-established campus secret society for aristocratic young intellectuals. Tennyson and Hallam had been members, Strachey and Leonard Woolf had taken over the Apostles for their own political purposes before the war, and a generation later Blunt and Burgess remade it for theirs.
One generation mocks the conventional heroes and holds their countrymen in contempt and views her allies with disdain. The next generation betrays their country in the service of a murderous tyrant.

Related:

Sometimes it seems that all worthwhile social commentary is really just elaborations on G. K. Chesterton

Variations on a theme