Pity Ukraine:

So close to Russia… So far from God…

Pity may rank near the bottom of what Ukrainians need right now, but savvy readers might notice the above is derived from what Mexicans have been saying about Mexico and the United States. Some will be offended because the same savvy readers, being hip to the ways of polemics, will anticipate a tantrum of what-about-isms, so let’s get that out of the way: Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico… I could toss in Hawaii and more, but you should have gotten the idea. If not, you have homework to do. Some might say these offenses are ancient history… Surely there is a statute of limitations that has passed? Well then, need I mention “weapons of mass destruction” and two recent U.S. Presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, who had no respect whatsoever for international institutions unless occasionally as a fig leaf to be discarded when convenient.

I do not present these as a means of deflecting or obfuscating: Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is wrong. And it is dangerous, at one extreme leading to World War III and at another extreme leading to the break-up of Russia and at another extreme an endless parade of resource wars and accelerating arms races, including nuclear weapons for all. But our own sins are worth remembering because beyond individual behavior, moral arguments are mostly just useful to entertain those who need to pass judgements, and maybe for morale and winning elections.

Sanctions will not save Ukraine and any meaningful outside intervention runs a very real risk of a wider war — though if the Russian military is stalemated for a while, the threat of such intervention might inspire diplomacy… maybe. I don’t know. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

(Belarus is already more or less a part of Russia through its 2000 “Union State” treaty with Russia. Lukashenko, however, had best watch his back as those Russian troops are likely to remain in Belarus for As Long As Necessary. Now smile!)

What I do know is that here in the States, the political left is screwed. Again. Just as after the 9/11 attack, there will be money for weapons and fear will veto much of anything else, not to mention the unfortunate tendency among some parts of the left to imagine imperialism to be a behavior manifest exclusively by United States. Ideologues know how to win arguments but not much else.

I really don’t want to get back to doing political activism. Would you care to do it for me? Please?

As If Shading Its Eyes

in search of…

Photo by Roman.

This was back in the paleodigital…

The volunteer coordinator briefed me: “She’s odd; she’s a medium.”

When I called for Madame N., there was a long silence on the line.

Then she replied: “Don’t worry. Someday you’ll find her.”

Alas. I wanted only her vote.

–Yip

Insurrection

This is an outstanding and thought-provoking piece of work by the New York Times. It deserves to be circulated. Spread it around.

After watching this, I was left uncertain about my reaction to it and what I might want to say about it. So I’ll limit myself to a tangential observation. I’m not a pacifist so I hope I’m not sounding sanctimonious about this, but unless you have some ideological commitment to violent revolution, this is headed in the wrong direction. Whatever else this video is, it is a warning about how violence in politics feeds on itself.

Coup de Idiots

C’est pire qu’un crime. C’est une faute.

— attributed to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (disputed)

The attempted coup on January 6 should not have been much of a surprise to anyone but maybe the most naive. As I wrote back in 2016, Night of the Living Trumps:

“A geezer I am. I have lived through Nixon, Reagan and Dubya. Should I mention LBJ? One might think of this as yet another spell of really bad weather and verily the sun also rises. But there is a stink of existential threat from Trump that hasn’t been so strong in the air since Nixon.

“Part of it is Trump’s so nakedly disordered personality. Nearly everyone who aspires to be President is likely to be a bit insane, but until now most have been able to simulate normality. Part of it is the enthusiastic bigotry used to motivate Trump’s electorate; there’s no putting that back in the bottle while Trump holds office and the Republican caucuses control the legislature. Part of it is the solid wall of chaotic uncertainty about just what a governing Trump actually means in terms of policy.”

This post is written in early days post-riot, but my impression from a great distance is that the riot was essentially a clusterfuck, to use a bureaucratic term of art: The organizers had no plan beyond yelling and marching and consequently people went where anger and hysteria led them or the organizers had no plan beyond yelling and marching but others at the rally did have a plan or some (or all) of the organizers had a plan but it wasn’t shared with everyone. You might think of additional possibilities but regardless, people did bring young children, infants in fact, to the rally and march. What expectations do you think they had?

One ongoing discussion that I find particularly interesting is the examination of conspiracy theories as role-playing games. A good introduction to this (lots of links) is Reed Berkowitz’ A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon, posted back in September of 2020 at the curiouserinstitute. Berkowitz begins his analysis with:

“When I saw QAnon, I knew exactly what it was and what it was doing. I had seen it before. I had almost built it before. It was gaming’s evil twin. A game that plays people. (cue ominous music)

“QAnon has often been compared to ARGs and LARPs and rightly so. It uses many of the same gaming mechanisms and rewards. It has a game-like feel to it that is evident to anyone who has ever played an ARG, online role-play (RP) or LARP before. The similarities are so striking that it has often been referred to as a LARP or ARG. However this beast is very very different from a game.

“It is the differences that shed the light on how QAnon works and many of them are hard to see if you’re not involved in game development. QAnon is like the reflection of a game in a mirror, it looks just like one, but it is inverted.”

While the technology Berkowitz writes about is ideologically neutral (like Alinsky’s organizing techniques), this particular exercise was targeted:

“Another major difference between QAnon and an actual game, is that Q is almost pure propaganda. That IS the sole purpose of this. It’s not advertising a product, it’s not for fun, and it’s not an art project. There is no doubt about the political nature of the propaganda either. From ancient tropes about Jews and Democrats eating babies (blood-libel re-booted) to anti-science hysteria, this is all the solid reliable stuff of authoritarianism. This is the internet’s re-purposing of hatred’s oldest hits. The messaging is spot on. The “drops” implanted in an aspic of anti-Semitic, misogynist, and grotesque posts on posting boards that, indeed, have been implicated in many of the things the fake conspiracy is supposed to be guilty of!”

If Berkowitz’ analysis is even approximately accurate, it has important and existential implications for democracy, media, journalism, and politics generally. Yet that isn’t quite what got my attention. Berkowitz’ description of the QAnon phenomenon (“A game that plays people.”) suggests that it is a genuine meme, the first that I’ve actually heard of.

Wait. Meme? Don’t we see these every day, those graphical and sometimes comical little factoids that people trade back and forth? Well, yes and no. Richard Dawkins gets credit for coining the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. As Wikipedia helpfully explains:

“Dawkins wrote that evolution depended not on the particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a self-replicating unit of transmission — in the case of biological evolution, the gene. For Dawkins, the meme exemplified another self-replicating unit with potential significance in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.”

So “yes” in that an internet factoid could be a trivial example of the concept, “no” in the sense that some folks felt that these “replicating cultural entities” could do much more than entertain. They could conceivably warp human history, indeed even human evolution, as part of their process of natural selection. So if conspiracy explanations on the internet are in fact “memes,” QAnon is a research opportunity of major importance.

Alas, the study of memes hasn’t prospered, has failed to be naturally selected if you will for obvious (to me anyway) reasons: How do you operationalize the concept? How do you define and measure a meme so that it is possible to trace its ecology, evolution and spread? Also IMHO the concept carries an alarming burden of social Darwinism.

But if, conceptually, “meme” has such social Darwinist baggage, is discounting it as social science so unfortunate? Well, maybe, because there are analogous phenomena in the physical sciences: “quasiparticles” and “collective excitations.” These “are emergent phenomena that occur when a microscopically complicated system such as a solid behaves as if it contained different weakly interacting particles in vacuum.” Yeah, your computer and phone and any electronic solid state thing depend on an “emergent phenomenon.” Human consciousness is sometimes speculatively described as an emergent phenomena, a consequence of neural size and complexity. It may be that mass culture has emergent properties as well.

I think we’re in the process of finding out, through experience rather than research.


Postscript: Among the people who took memes seriously is the science fiction author John Barnes. He wrote a series of speculative novels around memes, wherein he turned memes into something resembling computer viruses. All of the books are good albeit some are seriously depressing. I’d recommend (in order) Candle and The Sky So Big and Black. Barnes has gotten favorable cover blurbs from both Poul Anderson and Steven Brust…

“Portland’s Burning Heart”

Portland’s Burning Heart uses a combination of iPhone footage, on-the-ground photography and haunting voice over to tell the story of Portland’s ongoing street protests from the perspective of a woman who knows them well: Emmy-winning photojournalist Beth Nakamura of The Oregonian. Beth is the burning heart at the center of the film, and over the course of its 13 minutes we watch as she evolves from local reporter to teargas-dodging, stab-vest-wearing conflict journalist.

“Commissioned by the Dutch public network HUMAN in anticipation of the 2020 US elections, the film is a collaboration between Nakamura and the Tim Hetherington Visionary Award-winning filmmaking team Jongsma + O’Neill.”

I’ve been wondering if sending Federal “law enforcement” to Portland was an attempt, in a general sort of way, for Trump (or perhaps his minions) to emulate Ronald Reagan and Peoples Park. Just asking for a friend…

Gold Water

Photo by Roman.

Yes, this was actually a thing back in 1964, a soft drink named for the Republican nominee for President, Barry Goldwater. It was the brainstorm of some Georgia lawyer. It was not an official campaign product, and I recall reading that Senator Goldwater was not happy about it but only commented publicly that he hoped the name didn’t hurt their business prospects. News reports from the day, including the New York Times, variously described the flavor as “lemon lime” or “ginger-ale” or “citrus” when in fact it had no taste whatsoever. The can contents show that it was no more than food coloring and carbonated water… much like what passes for U.S. conservatism for most of the past 100 years.

dsc03944
Gold Water: the right drink for the conservative taste. Contents and distribution. Photo by Roman.

Note that the can is a steel “tin” can, and it shows its age with a bit of rust. If you should acquire one of these, unopened, in pristine condition, you might reasonably pay as much as $40 for it. Repurposed as a pencil holder, maybe $10. My parents paid less than 10¢ per can for a case of the stuff… immediately after the 1964 election. At that price, they were still ripped off.

And that, my friend, is a fable for our times.

The Crisis in Economic Theory

1980-3
Michael Harrington (podium) at the 1980 Thomas – Debs Dinner in Chicago. Seated to his right is that year’s honoree, Rosemary Ruether. Seated to his left are Rev. Jim Gorman and Crystal Lee Sutton. Photo by Syd Harris.

This is another of the cassette tapes from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) national office. While I found the content interesting, it also had some mild historical interest, being a presentation by Michael Harrington to a gathering of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) [update] on June 16 of 1980. I’d guess it was the DSOC Youth Section’s annual summer conference. DSOC was one of the predecessors to DSA, the other being the New American Movement.

The quality of the recording is adequate, especially as it may have been done from the audience. It is missing the first minute of the program, and there is another more irritating section of really dead air about two-thirds in. I don’t know who the person recording this was and any specific venue would be but a guess.

I found the presentation interesting in two ways. One is that apparently Keynesian economic policy has not always worked as advertised. Harrington nominates business cycles as a possible explanation. Maybe, though I don’t find that idea particularly exciting. An institutional or even academic memory of this misfire of Keynesianism of a sort, however, is of interest. IMHO. The other thing is: what a topic to present to an organizational meeting of a political group. That leaves a bit, good and bad, to unpack.

(Length — 56:41)

The Norman Thomas v Barry Goldwater Debate

This debate between Norman Thomas and Barry Goldwater took place on a college campus in Tucson, Arizona in November of 1961. The event is mentioned in W.A. Swanberg’s biography of Norman Thomas, Norman Thomas: the Last Idealist, on page 436. There’s no indication in the notes whether Swanberg had listened to a recording of the debate or if he had cribbed from a written account of the event. The December 8, 1961 (Volume 2, Number 3) issue of the Socialist Party’s newspaper, New America, had this account:

Norman Thomas addressed a series of successful meetings in Arizona in late November. In Phoenix he spoke at the Phoenix Public Library on Conservatism and the Anti-Communist Craze. The sponsor of the meeting was the New America Forum. In Tucson, he debated Senator Barry Goldwater, and spoke at a dinner of the Tucson local of the SP-SDF. A drive to organize SP-SDF locals and YPSL chapters at Phoenix and Tempe is now taking place. New America readers in those areas are invited to participate. Contact George Papeun, 1628 N. Tyndall, Tucson, Arizona.

The opening statements and rebuttals were followed by a question and answer session. The question and answer session was not included in the copy that I digitized, unfortunately. Norman Thomas speaks first, then Senator Goldwater.

Length — 1:03:25

While this is one of the recordings I had posted on the Chicago DSA web site back when I was its web master, it is not one of the recordings from Carl Shier’s basement. Sometime in the early 21st Century, Frank Llewellyn, then DSA’s National Director, sent me a pile of cassette tapes that had been stashed in the DSA National Office. He asked that I let him know if there were any of interest. There were, and this was one of them.

(I still have the tapes, incidentally.)

The tape itself is of interest. In 1961, this program would not have been recorded on a cassette tape, not even an 8-track; the tape itself is a copy. A return address was taped to the cassette shell: Ben G. Levy of Houston, Texas. I do believe this is the late Ben Levy who made his name as a civil liberties / civil rights lawyer, including in his list of accomplishments being a co-founder of the Houston, Texas, chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union… in 1957.

Around the turn of the century, the ACLU honored Levy for his work, and Allan Turner in the Houston Chronicle began his story of the award with drama:

“The bullets always were fired at night, but the threats, curses and social snubs came at any hour of the day. Houston’s early American Civil Liberties Union members often found themselves in conflict with groups willing to use unsavory means to maintain the status quo.”

Given the state of the nation in 2020, it’s worth remembering how frequent political violence has been in our nation’s history. It’s hard to figure just what one is to do with that observation, but it does need to be part of the mix in judging our current mess, including the acknowledgement that, over time, violence has come from all parts of the political spectrum.

When I listened to this program again before reposting it on Yip Abides, I was generally disappointed. On the face of it, the idea of a Thomas – Goldwater debate is very cool, and it’s understandable why both Thomas and Goldwater took the opportunity to do it. How this program came to be has to be an interesting story, but I don’t count on ever hearing it. Yet there were three serious difficulties that seem to have escaped the event planners.

First, while both Thomas and Goldwater were iconic public representatives for their ideologies in the U.S., both of them were intellectual welterweights, more political than ideological. It’s interesting that in the debate Thomas aims at the politics and Goldwater at the ideology. While that still leaves the possibility for plenty of fireworks, it was never going to be the clash of ideological titans.

Second, both Thomas and Goldwater were representing severely damaged political movements. That may seem obvious enough with Thomas, what with the Socialist Party reduced to a ghost of its former self, and socialism, in any case, no more than just barely qualifying as a U.S. “mass movement” at the best of times. This is apparent in the way Thomas preferred the political over the ideological and the way Thomas had by that time bought into some aspects of Cold War liberalism. Goldwater, on the other hand, was a Senator. The power imbalance is stark. But even as late as the early 1960s, Republican conservatism was still suffering the aftereffects from becoming highly unpopular during Great Depression. And if McCarthyism in the early 1950s did all manner of useful damage to conservatism’s opponents, McCarthy (and by association, conservatism) was ultimately discredited and defeated. Consequently, Goldwater’s advocacy of libertarian conservatism comes across as oddly tentative if not downright milquetoast: We won’t change much; we’ll just nibble around the edges.

Third, Thomas was a very old man. I’m an old guy too. Maybe that made Thomas’ obvious difficulty in articulating his thoughts quickly or his difficulty in pivoting to a new rhetorical opportunity without stumbling so much more painful to listen to. This was not a new public speaking problem for Thomas as a senior, but he could cope well enough when he simply remembered to slow down.

So who won the debate without the question and answer session? I’d like to declare a tie, but I have to give the debate to Goldwater on points, mostly accrued during Goldwater’s final rebuttal. It’s not a victory that would change any minds, but I could see it motivating some already-believers to action.