Issues: Preamble

Before I dive into the mosh pit of American and worldwide events I feel it is important to state my starting position. This will provide context for my positions on topics like politics, religion, economics, environmentalism, and so on.

I am a straight Caucasian male. I was born in June of 1969, which makes me a member of Generation X. Politically, I am a hodge-podge of liberal, socialist, anarchist and Green. Religiously I am predominantly Buddhist, with a strong dash of Taoism and sprinklings of Eastern Orthodox mysticism. I have a college degree and a good job as a programmer. My life is stable enough for me to occasionally feel genuinely bored.

As a straight white dude I am overwhelmingly on the side of hegemony in the United States. Every benefit it is possible to accrue simply by being born white and straight and a dude, I have accrued. In the past twenty years and eight jobs I have only *really* had to fill out a resume once. The only way I could more closely hew to the current odious version of the American Dream would be for me to be conservative and Christian.

Those last two points? Never gonna happen.

I recognize how privileged my life is, and how little I have had to work, comparatively, to make it so. The system is set up specifically for people like me, and specifically against people who are not like me. And that fact nauseates me.

As a nerdy kid in a small farm town I was bullied regularly. Not badly, compared to the suicide-inducing standards of today, but consistently. That led directly to my lifelong practice of martial arts, and to my lifelong–and steadily increasing–hatred of bullies and bullying. For the purpose of any discussion along those lines, I will define bullying simply as punching down from a position of strength. And since this is my blog, I will be the sole determiner in these discussions as to what constitutes punching down.

To go along with that definition, I also have three general rules or guidelines or aphorisms that I try to keep front-and-center:

  1. There is no such thing as an over-reaction to being bullied.
  2. In any particular situation, if you take the side of hegemony, the only direction you can punch is down.
  3. When in doubt, err on the side of compassion.

I agree that the third point is incongruous with the first two. So be it. I contain multitudes. And sometimes pie.

Issues: Preamble

Drowning 2016 in the Bathtub

Events good and bad happen all the time and follow no particular cosmic order, but the calendar allows us to group them into convenient clusters around which we can allow narrative to congeal. A great many influential artists of all genres passed away during 2016. They were perhaps particularly influential for people my age because the artists were at the height of their power when we fans were at our most receptive ages. I became a fan of David Bowie, Prince, Umberto Eco, Jim Harrison, Elie Wiesel, Carrie Fisher, Harper Lee and Leonard Cohen all in about a ten year period.

This is a small sampling of the “notable deaths” of 2016. These were the ones who had the greatest emotion impact for me. Though the circumstances of their deaths varied, none of them were young, and none of them died in any unusual fashion. The world was better for their contributions, and though I never met any of them–though Jim Harrison glared at me briefly at a book signing in 2009–I miss their presence in the world.

That being said:

2016 sucked, and I am glad it is over. Politically it marked a gigantic step backward as bigots and bullies and dominionists convinced foolish people to vote for a fool. And the fool will be president for the next four years, or until he is impeached or otherwise loses his office. I would cheer wholeheartedly at the prospect of Trump losing the office before his term is up, were it not for the fact that Pence is markedly worse. All possible forms of Christian dominionist rule of this country are no different from fascism.

It is pure coincidence that all of these notable people died in the same year that Donald Trump was elected. But they did all happen in a single calendar year, and the narrative that has built around 2016 is that it sucked. Hardcore. If our calendar went from, say, November 1 to October 31, we could say that 2016 sucked and then 2017 got worse in its first week. It would not change the level of suckage. And since one of the first notable planned events for 2017 is Trump’s inauguration, we can safely assume that 2017 is going to totally blow chunks.

Pinning the bad mojo on 2016 is voodoo of a sort. When 2016 recedes into the past it will take its load of shit with it, and leave the slate clear for a fresh start in 2017. We are human beings. Going with the flow of narrative is what gives us meaning in our day to day lives. If 2016 ending means things will get better, then so be it. There’s a reason placebos work so well. That they are placebos does not diminish their importance or their potency.

With about six hours remaining in 2016 (EST) and the positive feedback loop of zeitgeist in full effect, now would be an excellent time to make some New Year’s resolutions. For me, it will be a pledge–to the best of my ability I will protect those who are being punched down upon. And if you are on the side of hegemony on any particular issue, and are punching down on those not, I will do my level best to make sure you have a very bad time of it.

Selah.

Drowning 2016 in the Bathtub

All Media is Mainstream Media

The title of this post sums up everything which is to follow.

All media sources which have internet access are mainstream. Full stop. Any story which appears virally on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or Instagram or any of the other click-bait aggregators, even if the original outlet was created only an hour earlier, is at that moment mainstream.

Post 2016 election, much hay has been made of “fake news” and how to distinguish the real from the unreal. Without falling into the rabbit hole of implicit vs. explicit bias–which is about as useful in this context as debating free will vs. determinism–let us agree that there is news which is deliberately false in its entirety, and news which is true from a certain point of view.

The news which is deliberately false is that in which the headline serves as click-bait, ESPECIALLY when the headline in question imparts no information about the content of the story. These are headlines which are in the form of a question, or are followed by a listicle. These are headlines meant to drive traffic rather than impart information. With this filter in place approximately 75% of all social media noise can immediately be ignored. For the rest, the next filter requires a little more thought.

Deliberately false news also includes everything which falls under the category of “opinion” or “editorial”. Here we can safely dismiss everything from Fox News and Breitbart, and all right-wing hatriot hives like World Net Daily, InfoWars, The Blaze, Focus on the Family, StormFront, Red State, and so forth.

This is not to say the left-leaning news and information sites don’t have similar problems, but “the liberal media”, to the extent that it ever existed, is responsible for only a tiny fraction of all noise generated by American outlets.

Oh: Fair warning–my political sensibilities fall fairly far to the left by American standards, which by rational world standards would make me ever so slightly to the left of center on most issues.

The entirety of mainstream American political though is skewed severely to the right side of the global political spectrum. Our Democrats are, in the main, to the right of where Reagan stood when we were engaged in nuclear brinkmanship with the USSR. Our Republicans are somewhere far down a slope along which lies plutocracy, corporatocracy, neo-feudalism, Dominionism and straight up reactionary sensibilities. And the Democrats are fast on their heels. Thus the center of American political conversation is substantially to the right of center. And thus any “compromise” between political parties moves the entire local spectrum farther to the right.

All of which is to say, any American media outlet which deliberately brands itself as “conservative” can be dismissed out of hand. The output of these outlets can be ignored for the same reason that fish have no words for “water.”

With these filters in place, recognize that whatever news media remains is driven first and foremost by the profit motive, and (distantly) second by journalistic integrity. This is a subtle form of regulatory capture which has always existed, but came to prominence when the Fairness Doctrine was revoked during the Reagan presidency.

So when someone on social media posts a story which includes a headline hinting of some grand conspiracy of silence, it can be safely assumed that the originator of the underlying story or meme is simply looking for attention. Or a quick buck. Not that there is much difference between the two.

Sometime soon, I’ll discuss the difference between “media” and “journalism.”

All Media is Mainstream Media

Implicit and Explicit Boundaries

We now live, as some of the snarkier pundits would have it, it a post-truth world. Given the sorting of world views which led to the recent election results I can’t find a specific argument to counter that statement. However, I would call it incomplete. The world isn’t so much post-truth as post-narrative, or even post-objectivity.

All of the dominant narratives are collapsing under the weight of the democratization of information. No new visions of the future have yet sprung up. Or rather, too many visions of the future have sprung up, and no one or few of these has asserted itself sufficiently to allow the random disconnected threads of attention coalesce.

This is an oversimplified view of an extremely complex process which has been ongoing since the mobile phone – which is in reality a pocket computer – became the dominant means by which humans access information and communicate with each other. Free access to information untethers people from the narratives into which they were born and allows a new kind of tribalism based on common beliefs or aesthetics. A tribe need lo longer be bound to proximity in a three-dimensional or even a four-dimensional space. Family roles need no longer be predicated on blood relations.

What we are seeing now, and have been seeing for the past two decades, is the exploration of boundaries which we did not even know existed at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And we are discovering exactly how arbitrary were the tacit boundaries which have guided and constrained the evolution of civilizations and societies over the past ten thousand years.

Implicit and Explicit Boundaries

On Narrative, and the Threading Thereof

Many years ago I read Interface by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George. It was a decent techno-thriller, most notable for being written in part by Neal Stephenson. In it was a brief passage explaining how the substrate of American politics had evolved over the years:

In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much character as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam…We are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media…The President is the ultimate public figure and must stand up under ultimate scrutiny; he is like a man stretched out on a rack in the public square in some medieval shithole of a town, undergoing the rigors of the Inquisition. Like the medieval trial by ordeal, the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are deceptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond.

A few years after reading the book I had the good fortune to attend a signing event for Stephenson’s book Anathem. At that signing I attempted to ask him about this quote, and what he felt would be the next Age after Scrutiny. Of course I was struck dumb by fanboy nerves and couldn’t get the question out, so I never got my answer.

But, in the process of exploration and research and simply living my life here in modern America, I think I am sneaking up on an answer.

We are now in the Age of Narrative. Scrutiny became fractured fractal panopticon empowered by the extreme density of global information systems. The signal has become so ubiquitous and strong that the structure of stories breaks down under the weight of ten million self-referential and cross-connected media sources. Within this undifferentiated mass swim the billion threads of narratives, no one of any intrinsically greater value than any other. We are no longer bound to the stories into which we are born. We can choose to align ourselves to any narrative, or invent new narratives out of the pseudo-random bits of information in which we are immersed in every waking moment of our lives.

We are in the age of narrative because there is no objective overriding story by which we are compelled to live our lives. Both prediction and reminiscence have become democratized and made subjective, and if one story line proves inadequate we can easily align ourselves with another.

But thanks to the proliferation of both signal and noise, we are already nearing the end of the Age of Narrative and are seeing the first glimpses of a new tribalism, where the non-physical borders and boundaries of the last five thousand years become increasingly tenuous, and all allegiances will be by consent instead of by tradition.

And won’t that be an interesting time to be alive?

 

On Narrative, and the Threading Thereof