Never attribute to strategic thought what can be adequately explained by mindless impulse

In the USA, physical attacks on such right-wing figures as Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Gavin McInnes and their supporters have brought those men so much publicity, and have done so much to embarrass and divide their left-wing opponents, that many suspect that the ostensible targets of these attacks in fact arranged them. Former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has expounded this theory on his blog and on television:

Many degrees to Mr Reich’s left, Mike Whitney of Counterpunch considers the theory that the Berkeley incident was a set-up and is more cautious. Mr Whitney’s concern is that these events, whatever their origin, may provide just the cover our new philosopher-king needs to install an authoritarian state:

Trump’s governing style… is geared to deepen divisions, increase social unrest, and create enemies, real or imagined.  In this view, Berkeley was just a dry run, an experiment in perception management orchestrated to sharpen Trump’s image as the hair-trigger Biblical father who will intercede whenever necessary and who is always ready to impose justice with an iron fist.

So the masked rioters actually did Trump a favor, didn’t they? They created a justification for presidential intervention backed by the prospect of direct involvement. One can only wonder how many similar experiments will transpire before Trump puts his foot down and bans demonstrations altogether?

Of course, that may very well be the objective.

It is true that Mr Yiannopoulos, as an editor of the website for which Don John of Astoria’s Chief Strategist was for several years the Executive Chairman, is associated with people whose favorite tactic is tricking left of center types into saying horrible things, and plenty of left of center types have responded to these events by going on social media to gloat about a woman being pepper-sprayed in the face, a Starbucks being demolished, etc. So there is at least a measure of plausibility to the idea that the masked men who did those things when Mr Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak may have been his agents, and even to the idea that they may have been dirty tricksters with links to the White House. Plausibility isn’t evidence, so we oughtn’t to get excited, but it’s an idea to take note of.

As for Richard Spencer, someone who will do and say the kinds of things he has been doing and saying for the last nine years might do pretty nearly anything to get attention. Arranging to have himself punched in the face on television might be a pathetic cry for help, but a considerably less extreme version of the pathetic cry for help than was, for example, his decision to publish articles dwelling on the potential upsides of killing all black people. And Mr Spencer was also rewarded with vast publicity and confusion among his opponents for his minor discomfort. So again, while there may not be evidence or even presumption of evidence that Mr Spencer and his assailant may have been acting in collusion, neither is there a strong prima facie case against the idea.

I would put Gavin McInnes is a different category than Mr Yiannopoulos or Mr Spencer. Despite his efforts to market the phrase “Proud Boys” as a label for his followers, I do not believe that Mr McInnes actually has any followers. Readers, yes, he has many of those; I regularly read him myself, since he’s as funny as he is nasty (that makes him very funny.) But 11 people were arrested last week at the scene of the disturbance at New York University where Mr McInnes was pepper-sprayed in the face and several other people were assaulted; none of those people seems to have been likely to take direction from him, or for that matter from Mr Yiannopoulos or any other right-wing trickster, and I do not believe for one second that there are 11 people in the world who would agree to be arrested for Mr McInnes’ sake, let alone that he could assemble that number in one place.

If the goal of those who perpetrated these acts of violence was to trick left-leaning people into cheering them on, thereby making them look ridiculous and disgusting, they succeeded. Video of Kiara Robles being pepper-sprayed in the face while she tried to assemble her thoughts in defense of Mr Yiannopoulos’ appearance was shared many thousands of times on social media, often with gloating remarks. I’ve been surprised at people I know, who last year were lecturing everyone in sight about the terrible dangers that would face the social order if we rejected the preferred presidential candidate of Goldman Sachs and the CIA and embraced such wild-eyed revolutionaries as Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein, who today are extolling the virtues of the Black Bloc and jeering at those who doubt the necessity of political violence.

Nor is it only those on the left who are willing to believe that these actions will damage the causes that men like Mr Yiannopoulos, Mr Spencer, and Mr McInnes promote. As those who openly gloat over this violence and call for more of it are showing us the power of the hormonal rush that comes to fans when they watch their team attack the opposing team in their favorite sport, so there are those on the far right who believe that their failure to make the world work the way they think it ought to work is a symptom of the left’s use of such tactics. Steve Sailer has catered to this sort of thinking in several blog posts (for example, here and here,) though he himself has been careful to limit the number of factual claims to which he commits himself.

Paul Gottfried, a distinguished scholar who had the misfortune to be associated with Richard Spencer before Mr Spencer decided to go Nazi, suspects that violent efforts to suppress far-right speech may succeed, not in ending the careers of its ostensible targets, but in creating a general sense that the country is going out of control and thereby undermining confidence in its elected leaders, most of whom are right of center. While Mr Gottfried, unlike his least-favorite former student, is someone to be taken seriously, I would argue that he too has fallen prey to the thrills of partisanship. There was far more unrest on college campuses in the USA during Richard Nixon’s first term as president than there was during the Johnson-Humphrey administration; that unrest not only failed to stop Mr Nixon gaining a second term in one of the most lopsided election results in history, but it may well have contributed to that win. Indeed, incumbent governors and mayors whose jurisdictions saw heavy unrest did well throughout those years, provided they were seen as taking the toughest possible law and order stand. California governor Ronald Reagan, Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty, Chicago mayor Richard Daley, and Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo all benefited enormously from this kind of thing. Mr Gottfried knows this history well, and I can only suspect that his wish to cheerlead for dynamic action by his side has blinded him to its lessons.

If there are thousands, even millions, of people who are so caught up in the Go Blue! Go Red! cheering match to think that these actions somehow hurt the far right, then it is hard to doubt that there are a couple of dozen who are ready to put their fists and their Bear Mace where their Retweet buttons are. I am reminded of “Hanlon’s Razor,” the rule of analysis dictating that we should “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.” Of course the acts of violence against Ms Robles, Mr McInnes, etc, are malicious deeds, but we are not justified in assuming that the people who perpetrated those deeds were thinking strategically. Therefore we are not justified in believing that those perpetrators realized that their actions would help the far right and harm those whom the far right targets, however obvious that fact may be to everyone who isn’t carried away with left/ right team spirit. That’s why, in the title of this post, I rephrase Hanlon’s Razor as “Never attribute to strategic thought what can be adequately explained by mindless impulse.”

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What is a “political opinion”?

On the radio yesterday, I heard a man interviewed who had recently lost his job at the US Department of State. The man said that “It is not the job of the State Department to give political opinions.”This struck me as an odd thing to say; after all, the State Department’s primary function is to provide channels of communication between US policymakers and their counterparts in other countries and to augment its reports to US policymakers with expert knowledge preparing them to respond to decisions their counterparts are likely to make. That sounds like activity that falls entirely within the realm of “giving political opinions.”

Now in fairness, it is the case that the phrase “political opinion” has several senses. I’ve divided these into a few subcategories and listed several under each subcategory:

A. Affiliation signals:

  1. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to intimidate members of other groups into silence.
  2. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to persuade members of other groups to join that group.
  3. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to invite members of other groups to negotiate a new relationship between the groups.
  4. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to reassure members of other groups that the speaker is content with the existing relationship between the groups.
  5. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to confront members of other groups with the speaker’s willingness to support increased hostility towards their groups.
  6. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to offer that group’s surrender to another group.
  7. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to request membership in another group.
  8. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to offer him/herself as a mediator between that group and another group.
  9. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to indicate that s/he would like to be recruited for membership by multiple other groups.

B. Ideological confessions

  1. A statement meant to explain the speaker’s ideological commitments to an audience who may not be aware of them.
  2. A statement meant to persuade the speaker’s audience to adopt the speaker’s ideological commitments.
  3. A statement made by a person who is unaware that his or her ideological commitments are specific to people of his or her historical description, and who believes that the statement is just plain common sense.

C. Game analysis

  1. A statement forecasting the likely outcomes of a given conflict.
  2. A statement listing the considerations that votes or policymakers are likely to take into account as they reach their decisions, and predicting the relative importance they are likely to attach to each of these considerations.

D. Historical discussion

  1. A statement identifying one past situation as a better analogy than another for illuminating a given situation in the present.
  2. A statement affirming the familiar interpretation of a past situation that has been admitted as an analogy for illuminating a given situation in the present.
  3. A statement challenging the familiar interpretation of a past situation that has been admitted as an analogy for illuminating a given situation in the present.

What I first thought of when I was listening to the recently unemployed career diplomat were political opinions in categories C and D. If the State Department isn’t giving policymakers opinions of those kinds, it’s time to wind the whole thing down and save the taxpayers a lot of money.

I suspect what the man had in mind were categories A and B. Indeed, category A statements should never be necessary; any policymaker worth his or her salt should be able, in  a few minutes, to discern without being told what group affiliations and ideological commitments are likely to inform a given speaker’s thinking, especially if that speaker belongs to a type that is as familiar as the career foreign service officer.

Category B statements should be necessary only in those cases where the world situation is changing so rapidly and comprehensively that the established doctrines have become irrelevant and new doctrines are needed in short order; the classic example would be the “Long Telegrams” that George Kennan and Frank Roberts sent at the inception of the Cold War.

What I couldn’t help but suspect, however, is that the man on the radio had been on the job too long. I’m sure the leaders of the new administration in Washington thought so. While those leaders are people in whose judgment I would normally place absolutely no confidence whatever, the longer I listened to him the more strongly I found myself wondering whether they might be right in this case, whether he might be offering statements of type B3 (“A statement made by a person who is unaware that his or her ideological commitments are specific to people of his or her historical description, and who believes that the statement is just plain common sense.”) If, as it seemed, he had spent his entire youth preparing to work in the foreign service, then had spent his entire adult life actually in the foreign service, it would hardly be surprising if he were to believe that he was expressing the common sense of humanity when he was in fact presenting views peculiar to that profession.

 

 

 

At war with the Gray Goo

Several days ago, a man named Richard Spencer was on camera, finding artful ways to respond to questions as to whether he is an advocate of genocidal violence against black people (by the way, he is very much an advocate of genocidal violence against black people.)  While he did his shtick, a masked person ran up, punched him in the face, and ran off.

punch.gif

You might think that a minor physical assault on a minor public nuisance would figure in the news as, at most, a single line on the police blotter. Yet people are still talking about it. Today, Freddie deBoer, Rod Dreher, and The Nation magazine all weighed in on this incident.

I tweeted about it the other day:

And pretty healthy odds at that; Spencer’s only job is to get publicity, and with this incident he has gained a tremendous amount of that, as he recently gloated when reached for comment by The Independent.

Since people are still talking about this, I’ll add a bit to that tweet. Street-fighting is one area where Nazis have consistently enjoyed success. To meet them on that ground is to play to their strengths.

That isn’t to say that Spencer commands a street-fighting force; he doesn’t. His followers are guys on the internet, the proverbial fat guy living in his mother’s basement.  “Failsons,” as Chapo Trap House calls them.   Those guys aren’t likely to be much use in a street fight. Nor can they attract support from people who have not already given up on life.

The threat they pose is like the danger people used to talk about regarding nanotechnology.  One tiny machine might impose only a very small ecological cost, but as the number of these in use multiplies, it becomes conceivable that they might collectively cause a very large amount of environmental damage.  In a worst case scenario, a vast number of nanobots might coalesce into a “Gray Goo” that would render the surface of the earth uninhabitable. The Failsons at their keyboards have, figuratively speaking, coalesced into blobs of destructive goo.

Failson blobs floating around a bloodthirsty racist like Spencer stink up the comments sections of blogs and other social media platforms. That isn’t such a problem in itself; it’s easy enough to ban commenters, as I have had occasion to demonstrate to some of you.  Where Spencer’s following has the most potential to do harm is illustrated by something like Gamergate. A few years ago a Failson blob of gamers set out to harass three or four women who had been making a marginal living writing online about video-games. They succeeded in making their lives miserable, and probably did a great deal to discourage other women from getting into gaming journalism. Spencer’s crowd would certainly be capable of targeting particular members of groups they don’t like (blacks, Jews, women, Muslims, etc, etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseam) and doing the same damage to their lives that the gamers did to Zoë Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian, while intimidating other members of the same groups into silence.

To stick with the Gamergate analogy a moment longer, “Gray Goo” isn’t just a pejorative in discussing them. Supporters of the harassment of Quinn, Wu. and Sarkeesian called themselves a variety of names, including “the Grey Rebellion” and, most commonly, “Shitlords.” So if I were talking only about them, I might use the phrase “Gray Shit” rather than “Gray Goo.”

Punching people in the street isn’t going to drive the Failsons into hiding; as the trope about them living in their mothers’ basements indicates, they have been in hiding their entire lives. However, it will give Spencer and people like him an opportunity to recruit guys who like to express their hostilities, not by persecuting people from behind a computer screen, but in physical combat. Once they get a group of street-fighters going, that’s a whole new population from which they can draw support. And while street-fighters are as much a low-status population as are the couch-bound Failsons, physically violent people attract a following in ways that people whose aggressions are electronic do not. That’s why skinheads were a thing thirty years ago, to the point where there were anti-Nazi skinheads who would spend Friday nights fighting pro-Nazi skinheads.

The original Nazis, remember, kept going throughout all their electoral ups and downs in the 1920s as a street-fighting group. When the global economy collapsed at the end of that decade, Germany’s elite found that the only way they could restore public order and keep their positions was to put Hitler in charge. Hitler’s ascent had many pre-conditions; Germany’s defeat in World War War One, the mindlessly vengeful policies the victorious powers inflicted on Germany from November 1918 to January 1933, and the Great Depression were all bigger contributors to his rise than was the fact that he had an effective street-fighting force at his disposal. But that street-fighting force was certainly one of the contributors, and when I see leftists expressing pleasure at an event which, if it to have any consequence at all, can only have the consequence of building a street-fighting force loyal to Richard Spencer, I hope that the Trump years will not bring the kind of misery to the USA that the years of the Weimar Republic brought to Germany.

Tyrannos

A tweet from this morning:

Here’s the video I’m talking about:

The biggest howler comes right at the beginning, when he says that Plato’s Republic is “the first book about politics ever written.” In fact, The Republic wasn’t even Plato’s first book about politics, never mind the first one ever written. That’s an ironic mistake, since the passage of the Republic summarized in this video includes a significant reworking of material from a political tract that predates the Republic by at least 40 and more probably 60 years, the so-called “Constitution of the Athenians” by an unknown author who may or may not have been named Xenophon (though he certainly was not the famous Xenophon, as once was thought.)  The text and its author are customarily referred to as “the Old Oligarch.” The Old Oligarch is very probably oldest surviving specimen of Greek prose, though even it is very unlikely to be “the first book about politics ever written”- the vast majority of written works produced in the mid-fifth century BCE must have been lost sometime before the fourth century BCE. The likelihood that any given work written in those days would survive until 2017 CE is trivial.

At any rate, the Old Oligarch is a quick read; it takes about 10-15 minutes to read the whole thing. When I was in school, my Greek professors were at something of a loss to think of a contemporary critic of democracy with whom they could compare him, someone who combined his extreme opposition to popular government with his concise and witty writing. They usually ended up going back several decades and comparing him to H. L. Mencken.  Nowadays the internet has brought us the anti-democratic bloggers who call themselves “Neoreactionaries” or “the Dark Enlightenment”; those writers may sometimes be witty, but they are rarely concise.  And frankly, few of them have much to say that the Old Oligarch didn’t say in those 15 minutes sometime around 445 BCE.

 

Illuminating the Dim Enlightenment

Looking through my archives, I see that I’ve been aware of “The Dark Enlightenment” or the Neoreactionary (“NRx”) movement since at least September 2007, when I slogged through a Mencius Moldbug post and selected some key quotations from it.  I read another post by MM in February 2009 and complained about it.

The September 2007 and February 2009 posts mark the boundaries of a time when I was spending a fair bit of time trying to get a handle on NRx thought. I’d largely lost interest in it by the spring of 2009, though I did bring the movement up again in 2014 in order to mention the snappy nickname for it I’d come up with,”The Dim Enlightenment.” During last year’s US election campaign, the prominence of Peter Thiel in Donald J. Trump’s campaign and Hillary Clinton’s decision to give a speech accusing Don John of Astoria of involvement with the “Alt-Right” brought the Neoreactionaries a significant amount of public attention.  The idea that Don John himself is directly influenced by NRx writings is risible, as the Hated Steve Sailer pointed out:

Nonetheless, I have had the vague sense that I ought to take another look at that stuff.

Heaven knows I’m not going to dig my way through another 35,000 words of unedited ramblings by Mencius Moldbug.  Fortunately, I remembered that in 2013 Scott Alexander had written a summary of NRx thought. I hadn’t read it when it was new; the title, “Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell,” had turned me away, since “enormous” and “planet-sized” are two things NRx writers consistently do themselves. As it turns out, Dr Alexander’s post is actually rather concise. And it is admirable in its fair-mindedness. Dr Alexander labors mightily to present the best possible case for NRx views, especially those with which he most strenuously disagrees. I chuckled when I saw the point at which his imaginative sympathy finally broke down: “Reactionaries also seem to be really into metaphysics, especially of the scholastic variety, but I have yet to be able to understand this. Blatant racism, attempts to clone long-dead monarchs, and giving a gold-obsessed alien absolute power all seem like they could sort of make sense in the right light, but why anyone would want more metaphysics is honestly completely beyond me.”

Dr Alexander followed this post up with an “Anti-Reactionary FAQ,” which by March of 2014 he was saying he no longer fully endorsed. Still, unless you’re planning to make an academic study of the Neoreactionaries or to engage in an exhaustive public debate with them, I think Dr Alexander’s posts should tell you just about all you really need to know about them.

Christ, Marx, Wood, and Wei

 

fawcettthisperfectdaybyiralevin565About a year ago, I was browsing in a used bookstore and saw an old paperback copy of something I’d never before heard of: This Perfect Day, a dystopian novel by Ira Levin. It looked interesting enough that I paid my 85 cents and took it home.

As soon as I finished it, I started writing a blog post about it. I abandoned that post when I realized that the plot is full of so many ingenious twists, and so much of what gives the book its enduring interest, can be explained only by describing events that take place after the most surprising of those twists, that it would be impossible to review it without ruining the story.

Those who have read the novel will recognize the title of this post as the first line of a rhyme that members of the society depicted in the novel habitually recite:

Christ, Marx, Wood and Wei,

       Led us to this perfect day.

Marx, Wood, Wei and Christ,

       All but Wei were sacrificed.

Wood, Wei, Christ and Marx,

       Gave us lovely schools and parks.

Wei, Christ, Marx and Wood,

       Made us humble, made us good.

Recently two bloggers whom I read regularly both reminded me of This Perfect Day. Regular visitors to this blog know that I like to get all points of view; I’m something of a leftie myself, and to check my biases I read, among others, Peter Hitchens, who is on the right regarding matters of sex and sexuality, and Steve Sailer, who is on the right regarding race and nationality. The other day, Mr Hitchens mentioned that he had read This Perfect Day and thought that it was a much-underappreciated book. I offered a comment saying what I said above, that perhaps the reason it is underappreciated is that it is difficult to review it without giving away too many surprises, and so it hasn’t been widely enough recommended. I suspect Mr Hitchens dislikes the pseudonym “Acilius”; he doesn’t seem inclined to approve my comments, so that one has not appeared at the site. I’m Acilius on so many platforms that it would seem wrong to adopt another pseudonym, and for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere I prefer not to use my legal name. So I suppose I won’t be contributing to his combox.

Today Mr Sailer posted an item about a New York Times story in which was hidden an implicit retraction of some reporting that had previously appeared in the Times; his remarks about it included this sentence:

That’s one of the joys of holding the Megaphone: You can redefine your behavior as Not Fake News in that you gave extremely curious and industrious readers a path to the truth without troubling the majority who like their News Fake.

Now, I am about to give away some of the very cleverest plot twists in This Perfect Day, but so as to ruin the story for as few people as possible, I will put it after the jump.  Read the full post »

Celebrity deaths in 2016, revisited

On 21 April 2016, I posted a list of celebrities whose deaths during the first 112 days of the year had been noted on Wikipedia and whose names I recognized.*  As the year has gone on, more and more people have remarked on the number of well-known people who have died in 2016. Maybe that’s because television and transistor radios became widespread in the 1960s, making a larger than usual number of people famous who are now in their old age. Or maybe it is because social media has led people to share more news about the deaths of their favorite celebrities. Or maybe it’s an illusion, and the sheer act of complaining about celebrity deaths has become a fashion. Or maybe something else is going on altogether.

I suppose one way to figure out if 2016 really has been deadlier for the famous than most years would be to take the number of people born in the last 80 years who have articles devoted to them on Wikipedia, divide by 80, and compare the result with the number of “Deaths in 2016” on the site.  Repeat that procedure for each of the previous 20 years; for example, you would compare the number of “Deaths in 1996” to the number of people born between 1916 and 1996. I’m not going to do that, but someone could.

That might be better than just comparing the length of “Deaths in 2016” to the length of Wikipedia’s other necrology sections, for two reasons. First, the rate at which Wikipedia acquires new articles is not constant from year to year; for example, it seems that the site used to be much stricter about its “notability” requirements. A person still alive in, let’s say, 2016 might have been much likelier to qualify to be the subject of an article than would an equally notable person who died in 2009.  Second, just because the “Come ON, 2016!” thing has been so widespread, obituaries have been getting a lot of attention, so more people than usual might have had articles added immediately after their deaths. For example, master chef Peng Chang-kuei’s Wikipedia article was created the day after his obituary appeared in the papers, as was art historian Yuri Bychkov‘s.

Anyway, here’s the list from April. Some of the links lead to obituaries, some lead to still photos, some to videos of them at work, some to other kinds of things:

  1. Prince, musician
  2. Guy Hamilton, filmmaker known for the James Bond films
  3. Victoria Wood, comedian
  4. Chyna, professional wrestler
  5. Milt Pappas, baseball player
  6. Billy Redmayne, motorcycle racer
  7. Pete Zorn, musician
  8. Duane Clarridge, highly publicized secret agent
  9. Yuri Bychkov, art historian with a name that makes teenage boys laugh
  10. Doris Roberts, actor who appeared frequently on Barney Milleramong other things
  11. David Gest, man who married Liza Minnelli
  12. Ed Snider, hockey team owner
  13. Howard Marks, marijuana smuggler
  14. William Hamilton, cartoonist
  15. Jimmie Van Zant, musician
  16. Merle Haggard, musician
  17. Ogden Phipps, horse breeder
  18. Antonin Scalia, jurist
  19. Henry Harpending, anthropologist
  20. Patty Duke, actor
  21. James Noble, actor who was in the movie 1776
  22. Winston Moseley, serial killer
  23. Mother Angelica, nun
  24. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, military strongman
  25. Lester Thurow, economist
  26. Garry Shandling, comedian
  27. Nicholas Scoppetta, civil servant
  28. Tibor Machan, philosopher
  29. Earl Hamner, screenwriter
  30. Maggie Blye, actor whose films included 1969’s The Italian Job
  31. Tom Whedon, screenwriter
  32. Ken Howard, actor who was in the movie 1776
  33. Joe Garagiola, baseball player, media personality
  34. Rob Ford, mayor who openly committed crimes while in office
  35. Joe Santos, actor
  36. Bandar bin Saud bin Abdulaziz al Saud, nobleman
  37. Ralph Abernathy III, politician and son of a more famous man
  38. Frank Sinatra Jr., musician and son of a more famous man
  39. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, musician
  40. Martin Olav Sabo, politician
  41. Hilary Putnam, philosopher
  42. Louise Plowright, actor
  43. Pat Conroy, novelist
  44. Ben Bagdikian, reporter
  45. Anita Brookner, writer
  46. Ken Adam, set designer known for, among many other things, Guy Hamilton’s Bond films
  47. Sir George Martin, record producer
  48. Wally Bragg, footballer
  49. Paul Ryan, cartoonist
  50. Nancy Reagan, political spouse
  51. George Kennedy, actor
  52. Douglas Slocombe, cinematographer whose films included 1969’s The Italian Job
  53. Peter Mondavi, wine mogul
  54. Harper Lee, novelist
  55. Umberto Eco, philosopher and novelist
  56. Humbert Allen Astredo, actor known for parts in Dark Shadows
  57. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, diplomat
  58. Edgar Mitchell, astronaut turned crazy person
  59. Bob Elliott, comedian
  60. Buddy Cianci, mayor who openly committed crimes while in office
  61. Abe Vigoda, actor known for parts in Dark Shadows (where he played a character named “Ezra Braithwaite,” no relation to Guyanese diplomat/ author E. R. Braithwaite or Grenadian statesman Nicholas Braithwaite, both of whom also died this year,) and Barney Miller, among many other things
  62. Marvin Minsky, prophet of AI
  63. Cecil Parkinson, politician
  64. Dan Haggerty, actor
  65. Sylvan Barnet, art critic
  66. Richard Libertini, actor known for parts in Barney Miller, among others
  67. Kitty Kallen, singer
  68. Judith Kaye, jurist
  69. Florence King, writer
  70. Pat Harrington, actor
  71. Pierre Boulez, musician
  72. Helmut Koester, historian
  73. Dale Bumpers, politician
  74. Guido Westerwelle, politician
  75. Ronnie Corbett, comedian
  76. Cliff Michelmore, whom I miss every election night
  77. David Bowie, musician
  78. Carolyn D. Wright, poet
  79. Alan Rickman, actor
  80. Glenn Frey, musician
  81. Forrest McDonald, historian

And here are some notables who have died since, in no particular order:

  1. Drew Lewis, the archenemy of American organized labor
  2. Billy Paul, who sang “Me and Mrs Jones”
  3. Jenny Diski, novelist and critic
  4. Daniel Berrigan, priest and antiwar activist
  5. Abel Fernandez, actor
  6. Candye Kane, musician and sex worker
  7. Mark Laneeminence grise of the “Who Killed Kennedy?” industry
  8. Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, symbol of a forlorn hope
  9. Julius LaRosa, singer, actor
  10. Fritz Stern, historian
  11. Morley Safer, newsman
  12. Burt Kwouk, actor
  13. Mell Lazarus, cartoonist
  14. Ivor Robinson, physicist
  15. Morton White, philosopher, intellectual historian
  16. Muhammad Ali, boxer
  17. Theresa Saldana, actor
  18. George Voinovich, politician
  19. Ann Morgan Guilbert, actor
  20. Jo Cox, politician
  21. Anton Yelchin, actor
  22. Ralph Stanley, musician
  23. Bud Spencer, actor
  24. Alan Young, actor
  25. Michael Cimino, filmmaker
  26. William Armstrong, former US Senator from Colorado who moved to Maryland and explored the idea of running for US Senator from there
  27. Alvin Toffler, futurist
  28. Yves Bonnefoy, poet
  29. Elie Wiesel, writer and activist
  30. Noel Neill, the real Lois Lane, and apparently part of the visual inspiration for Lisa Simpson
  31. Abbas Kiarostami, filmmaker, central figure of the Iranian New Wave of the 1990s
  32. Abner Mikva, politician and jurist
  33. John McMartin, actor
  34. Norman Abbott, pioneering television director
  35. Sydney Schanberg, who told us about the killing fields of Cambodia, then kept telling us other things we didn’t want to know
  36. John Brademas, politician and educator
  37. Carolyn See, novelist and educator
  38. Billy Name, photographer and eccentric
  39. Garry Marshall, film-maker
  40. Elaine Fantham, classical scholar
  41. Mari Gilbert, who campaigned to make us remember homicide victims, dead as the result of a homicide
  42. Tim LaHaye, fantasy novelist
  43. Jack Davis, cartoonist and writer for Mad magazine
  44. Piet de Jong, onetime Dutch premier
  45. Patrice Munsel, singer
  46. Pete Fountain, clarinetist
  47. Marni Nixon, singer
  48. Gloria deHaven, actor who so perfectly embodied Old Hollywood as to have been cast in her first major part because Charlie Chaplin had the hots for her (no apparent relation to Bruce deHaven, a football coach who also died this year)
  49. Kenny Baker, who was often inside R2D2 when they were making Star Wars, and who acted in a number of films
  50. Fyvush Finkel, actor
  51. Ernst Nolte, historian
  52. Jack Riley, actor
  53. Antony Jay, co-creator of Yes, Minister
  54. Toots Thielemans, musician
  55. Steven Hill, actor
  56. Rudy Van Gelder, recording engineer
  57. Gene Wilder, actor
  58. Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan
  59. Phyllis Schlafly, arch-nemesis of American feminism and all allied movements
  60. Robert Timberg, journalist
  61. Edward Albee, playwright
  62. His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, a.k.a. Rama IX, King of Thailand
  63. Dario Fo, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature for reasons that have never been explained
  64. W. P. Kinsella, novelist
  65. Charmian Carr, actor
  66. Buckwheat Zydeco, musician
  67. Herschell Gordon Lewis, film-maker
  68. Curtis Roosevelt, author
  69. Gloria Naylor, novelist
  70. Irving Moskowitz, doctor turned businessman turned well-meaning menace
  71. Agnes Nixon, soap opera mastermind (no apparent relation to Marni Nixon)
  72. Shimon Peres, statesman
  73. Jim Zapp, baseball player
  74. Lowell Thomas, junior, film-maker and politician
  75. Arnold Palmer, golfer
  76. Neville Marriner, conductor
  77. Peter Allen, announcer of the Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcasts
  78. Jacob Neusner, the most-published scholar in the world
  79. Andrzej Wajda, film-maker
  80. Patricia Barry, actor
  81. Phil Chess, record producer
  82. Robert Weber, cartoonist
  83. Donald Henderson, who led the project that eliminated smallpox (who died shortly after I mentioned that his portrait ought someday to adorn US currency)
  84. Jack Chick, cartoonist, crackpot
  85. Tom Hayden, activist, politician
  86. Bobby Vee, singer
  87. Nicholas Braithwaite, onetime Grenadian premier
  88. Tammy Grimes, actor, star of a show that was on opposite Star Trek in 1966
  89. Don Marshall, actor, one-time guest star on Star Trek (after Tammy Grimes’ show was off the air)
  90. Natalie Babbitt, children’s author
  91. Gene LaRocque, naval officer, antiwar activist
  92. Clive Derby-Lewis, pro-Apartheid politician and murderer (but I repeat myself…)
  93. Kay Starr, singer
  94. Leonard Cohen, poet, songwriter, singer
  95. Janet Reno, politician
  96. Robert Vaughan, actor, political scientist
  97. Pat Summitt, basketball coach
  98. Maurice White, musician
  99. Gordie Howe, hockey player
  100. John McLaughlin, Jesuit priest turned Washington pundit
  101. Leon Russell, musician
  102. Gwen Ifill, journalist
  103. Mose Allison, singer, songwriter
  104. Melvin Laird, politician
  105. Ralph Branca, baseball player
  106. Denton Cooley, heart surgeon
  107. Florence Henderson, actor
  108. Fidel Castro, tyrant
  109. Ron Glass, actor known for a part on Barney Miller, among other things
  110. Fritz Weaver, actor
  111. Van Williams, actor, star of a TV series spoofed by Burt Kwouk
  112. Bruce Mazlish, historian
  113. Grant Tinker, television executive
  114. Mark Taimanov, chess champion and concert pianist
  115. Don Calfa, actor known for parts on Barney Miller, among other things
  116. Peng Chang-kuei, the inventor of General Tso’s Chicken
  117. Philip Knightley, writer
  118. John Glenn, on two separate occasions holder of the record as the oldest man to visit outer space
  119. A. A. Gill, writer
  120. Jim Prior, politician (not to be confused with hockey announcer Jim Prior, who also died in 2016)
  121. Ralph Raico, economist and staunch disciple of Murray Rothbard
  122. Shirley Hazzard, author of The Transit of Venus
  123. Alan Thicke, entertainment personality
  124. Thomas Schelling, economist and geopolitiker
  125. Bernard Fox, actor best known as Colonel Crittendon from Hogan’s Heroes
  126. E. R. Braithwaite, diplomat and author of To Sir, With Love and Honorary White, among other excellent books
  127. Henry Heimlich, lifesaver extraordinaire
  128. Benjamin Gilman, politician who helped get people out of jail
  129. William Hudnut, former mayor of Indianapolis who moved to Maryland, and did William Armstrong one better by actually getting elected to a mayoralty there
  130. Zsa Zsa Gabor, who pioneered the art of being well-known for one’s well-knownness
  131. Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, dutiful grandson
  132. Louis Harris, king of the pollsters
  133. Lawrence Colburn, one of the helicopter men who stopped the My Lai massacre, saving hundreds of lives and preserving the honor of the American military
  134. George Michael, singer and songwriter
  135. Vera Rubin, astronomer who played a key role in the discovery of most matter
  136. George Irving, actor whose name I noticed for the first time just a day before he died. He played the Heat Miser in 1974’s “Year Without a Santa Claus.”  On Christmas I happened to be in a room where that was playing, the voice struck me as familiar, so I looked at the credits to see if it was associated with a recognizable name.
  137. Hans Tietmeyer, central banker who saw better than anyone what the Euro would mean
  138. Carrie Fisher, actor and writer, who had hilarious roles in both of the two good movies to come from Saturday Night Live.
  139. Richard Adams, novelist
  140. Duck Edwing, cartoonist and writer for Mad Magazine
  141. Debbie Reynolds, actor, mother of Carrie Fisher, whose most famous ovie role often reminds people of Marni Nixon
  142. Joyce Appleby, historian
  143. Chris Cannizarro, baseball player
  144. Edwin Goldwasser, physicist and administrator
  145. William Christopher, actor who appeared in TV military comedies such as Hogan’s Heroes and M*A*S*H

So that averages out to a little more than one person I’d heard of dying every 36 hours. That doesn’t really sound like all that high a rate of death, since the total number of people whose names I would recognize must run into six figures.

*Not including people whose names I didn’t recognize, but who became famous after death. So for example, Ambassador Andrei Karlov and his assassin were household names by the end of 2016, but I’d never heard of either of them until they were both dead.

 

 

Miscellaneous Christmas Gleanings

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain routinely gives little gifts to their fans at Christmastime in the form of particularly generous postings on their (already very generous) website; this year they’ve posted a series of videos under the title “Christmas Playalong.”  Here’s one of them:

Also, our old friend Al Wood has posted his usual excellent Christmas things at Ukulele Hunt, including the Christmas UkeToob.

I remember Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fondly, or perhaps I should say I am of the age of people who remember that show fondly. I didn’t have a TV when it was on. Anyway, I don’t think I’d ever heard this one before.

Here‘s a holiday favorite:

And a great classic from the 1980s:

Thanks to theologian Alastair Roberts, I found a new favorite Christmas song just this morning, as I said on Twitter:

This has been making the rounds today:

Psychologist James Thompson engages in one of the most venerable of all Anglican religious traditions, publicly declaring that Anglicanism is doomed and wondering whether it deserves to die. I can’t explain why we do that, I can only say that it’s our way.

Jacobin magazine has a brief summary of how the Christian Left in the USA tends to think of Christmas, which picks up where James Brown left off a few decades ago:

I allowed myself a little scholarly musing on Twitter this morning, in response to a remark by Tom Holland:

As to who should do what with which holiday at this many-festivalled time of the year, here‘s a view from Mya Gosling:

Asked on tumblr whether it’s okay for Gentiles to celebrate Hanukkah, Scott Alexander writes:

To stick with stuff on tumblr for a minute, here’s a cartoon in which Gahan Wilson expresses irritation that various holidays, including Christmas and Halloween, run together in the USA:

This is kind of neat:

The Comics Curmudgeon has taken a vacation over the holiday, and it looks like Rebecca Watson is missing him as much as I am:

Ross Pearsall has put together a nice concept cover for a Christmas comic book that ought to exist:

calvin-and-snoopy

So, Merry Christmas, everybody.   And:

The dead end above us

A recent note on Slate about Tom Gauld’s Mooncop discusses Mr Gauld’s vision of life in a decrepit and soon-to-be-abandoned lunar colony as “the residue of an older fantasy,” of the Cold War-era dream of thriving human settlements on other planetary bodies.

No doubt there is an element of this at work in Mr Gauld’s imagination, and in other visions of a future in which settlements and stations in outer space are decaying, forgotten remnants of failed enterprises of expansion. Films such as Moon (2009) and The Martian (2015,) with individual space travelers alone on the surface of alien worlds, play to the image of outer space as a realm of abandonment. Yet such visions were part of science fiction before the end, or even the beginning, of the US-Soviet Space Race. Even the founding text of space travel-themed science fiction, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865,) ends tragically, with its heroes forever separated from the rest of humanity, dying pointlessly in a metal ball orbiting the Moon. A work like Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men (1930) is steeped in an overwhelming sense of decline, introducing one species after another descended from humans, each of which meets extinction in its own way.  

Some of the most prominent science fiction productions of the Cold War days also represent space travel as a dead end. Robert Altman’s film Countdown (1968) depicts a US project to land a man on the Moon. The film ends with a lone astronaut wandering the lunar surface, finding a crashed Soviet space-craft and the corpses of the cosmonauts. The final moments of the film are ambiguous, as the astronaut finds a device that may or may not enable him to escape back to the Earth. The overall sense of loss and futility is the same as that with which Verne’s novel ends. The relationship between the cosmonaut and the planetary being in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) develops the same feeling of isolation and helplessness, though where Altman contrasts the isolation his astronaut suffers on the Moon with the professional camaraderie and relatively satisfactory married life he had enjoyed in his life in Texas, Tarkovsky’s film is openly critical of the Soviet Union as a place where the kind of social isolation his cosmonaut suffers in space is commonplace on Earth.

Arthur Clarke, a novelist strongly influenced by Olaf Stapledon’s work, returned throughout his career to a story set a thousand million years in the future. He turned this story into novels twice, as Against the Fall of Night (1953) and The City and the Stars (1956,) and explored it in many of the unfinished tales published in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2001.)  The heart of the story is that humans had once created a vast stellar empire, an empire fragments of which perhaps still existed in some remote corners of space, but that the Earth had been separated from this empire, and its people had forgotten the major points of the empire’s history.  The abandoned empire, the isolated Earth, and the forgotten history of the conquest of space are also the background of a much more famous series, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels (1942-1993.)

The two most familiar products of Cold War science fiction are Star Trek (1966-1969) and Star Wars (1977.) The image of outer space as a realm of unkept promises figures in those as well.

The background of Star Wars is a fight, not to claim new territory or develop new settlements, but to restore the liberties of a lost Republic. We meet the hero, a young man unaware of his true parentage and his lofty destiny, in the grubby place of exile which he has grown up regarding as his home. Using battered ships, antique weapons, and a plotline recycled from 1930s movie serials, the good guys score a victory for their nostalgic cause.

While Star Trek is set in the early days of an expanding interstellar federation, in many episodes our heroes encounter the ruins of lost civilizations and other traces of abandoned developments. The initial pilot, “The Cage”(produced in 1964-1965,) shows us the ship’s captain as the prisoner of a species who have retreated underground after a war found millennia before, and while there have lost so completely lost their technological skills that they can no longer “even repair the machines left behind by their ancestors” and are faced with inevitable extinction.

Many other episodes show societies that have declined from extraordinary heights of technological development into primitive conditions, conditions that suggest either control of the population by a computer mistaken for a deity (for example, “Return of the Archons,” “The Apple,” and “For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky,”) impending doom (for example, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?,” “Miri,” and “The Paradise Syndrome,”) or disconnection between intellectual and carnal satisfactions, resulting in a society of casual sadism and implied cannibalism (for example, “The Man Trap,” “Return to Tomorrow,” “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “Spock’s Brain,” and “Turnabout Intruder.”)

Nor does Star Trek present decline and abandonment as things that happen only in alien cultures. We meet such luminaries from the history of the Earth as a former ruler of India (“Space Seed,”) the inventor of faster-than-light travel (“Metamorphosis,”) the god Apollo (“Who Mourns for Adonais?,”) and Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan (“The Savage Curtain,”) all forgotten and imprisoned in the infinite void of deep space.  Our heroes encounter nightmarish doppelganger versions of political entities such as the Roman Empire (“Bread and Circuses,”) the United States of America (“A Piece of the Action” and “The Omega Glory,”) and Nazi Germany (“Patterns of Force,”)  showing that space is a realm in which not only individual humans can become isolated and powerless, but that whole human societies can be cut off, condemned to stagnation and historical irrelevance, by a misconceived response to technological development.

In developing an image of outer space as a realm of isolation, abandonment, decline, and helplessness, this line of science fiction writers from Jules Verne to Tom Gauld may be harking back quite far into literary history. It is often said that Lucian (circa 125-circa 180 CE)’s “True History,” a satirical tale recounting a journey to the Moon, is the first science fiction story. Lucian’s story is itself more than a little reminiscent of two plays by Aristophanes (circa 450 BCE- circa 386 BCE,) The Birds (414 BCE) and Peace (421 BCE.)  In each of those plays, disreputable characters fly to the heavens and pull off unlikely schemes.

Particularly relevant to our discussion is the scene in Peace when Trygaeus, a poor farmer, arrives in the heavens, having flown there on the back of a giant dung-beetle. Trygaeus’ goal is to arrest Zeus and prosecute him in the courts of Athens for having allowed the wars among the Greek states to go on so long that Greece is weakened and in danger of a takeover by the Persian Empire.  Once in the heavens, Trygaeus finds that Zeus and almost all of the other gods have abandoned their usual realm, going off deeper into space in their disgust at the warlike habits of the Greeks.  Only Hermes remains in his usual spot, and he is a degraded figure, so impoverished that that Trygaeus can easily bribe him with a small bag of meat, so powerless that when the god of war and some of his minions come through, Hermes hides from them.  The lower heaven from which the rest of the gods have departed is as much a realm of isolation, abandonment, decline, and helplessness for Hermes as any of the heavenly bodies are for the characters of the gloomier sort of science fiction.

A conversation

I was recently issued a new computer at my job. The one it replaced was a hand-me-down from someone more senior than me, and I’d had it for almost five years, so it was a bit of an antique. The new machine is brand new. It is also noticeably slower than the old one.

Not only is the machine slow, but its mouse is poorly designed. Left-click is a tiny portion in the corner, right-click is approximately 99.99999999% of the surface. It’s like the Cosmic Calendar in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos where the whole of human history is an infinitesimal square at the end representing the last couple of seconds before midnight on the night of 31 December. cosmiccalendar

So it’s frustrating to have to use the thing. I find myself doing a lot more work at home now so that I don’t have to fight with it.

Anyway, one day I left my office to eat lunch in a food court across the street. The only thing that looked edible was an egg salad sandwich. It cost $4.50, showing a poor grasp of the concept of an egg salad sandwich, the whole point of which is its inexpensiveness, but I was too hungry not to get anything. So I bought the sandwich and sat down at one of the tables.

An old friend of mine showed up and sat with me.  By this point, I had discovered that the sandwich was not only inappropriately priced, but was disgusting. The egg salad included fresh onions, creating the illusion that the eggs were rotten. It was a struggle to eat, but by the time I made that discovery I was no less hungry and much less wealthy than I had been when I decided to buy the sandwich, so I was stuck with trying to eat the accursed thing.

We started chatting. I told him about the sandwich’s price and disgustingness. He works as member of the university’s staff, in a position where a wide variety of researchers tell him about their work, so he always has something interesting to say. He told me that the price of the sandwich might very well reflect a change in the way foodstuffs are priced, a change that is connected in some way to global warming which is in fact an even worse problem than is generally realized. He began explaining, further, that the idea of mixing fresh onions with egg may be connected to the collapse of production in other crops that are traditional in egg salad, but that was so depressing we quickly changed the subject.

I mentioned the weird slowness of my new computer. He explained that computer hardware makers have now reached the limits of Moore’s Law, while software makers keep adding new functions, so that we can expect computers in general to get slower, not faster, for the foreseeable future. The awkward mouse is apparently the consequence of some other ineluctable trend in the decline of the technological age.

This was getting too grim. I made some remark about what a sunny day it was; that brought him back to global warming, which by the way is acidifying the oceans and triggering a mass extinction event that may yet be the greatest in the earth’s history. I mentioned something about packing my lunch in the future, to avoid inedible food and save money. The reference to saving money reminded him of a researcher who had told him about his findings that people our age (we’re now in our mid-40s) are far more likely than were people in days gone by to spend their retirement years living on the street.

By now I had choked down that entire sandwich. A supremely gloomy conversation was just the thing to take my mind off its loathsomeness. I wanted to close our conversation with something that would not lead him to share depressing information, but couldn’t think of anything. He excused himself, saying he had a meeting in a few minutes. We left it there.