May 24, 2015

George Orwell and the Essayist Style

I recently reread The Road to Wigan Pier, which I first read in the Peace Corps probably about five years ago. I remembered quite liking the first half of the book, particularly the vivid sections on what it's like to work as a coal miner, while disliking the second half, though I couldn't remember why. It was something about socialism and the middle class, and it seemed vaguely muddled.

This impression was confirmed on second reading. The description of coal mining indeed remains brilliant, especially in structure. Orwell maintains a great sense of pacing, carefully building up each new agony that the miners endure, so that by the end a real appreciation of the awesome difficulty of coal mining is developed, as opposed to simply reaching for analogies or hyperbole.

The second half, however, is pretty bad. On occasion, as when Orwell is describing the peculiar anxieties of having grown up middle class, and why middle-class people like himself struggle with embracing socialism, he makes some good points. But elsewhere, as in his description of machines, he's just blowing smoke. As part of a general tirade against machines civilization, here he tries for a reductio ad absurdum against the idea that people might cultivate deliberately archaic methods of production as a way of occupying themselves:
But it may be said, why not retain the machine and retain ‘creative work’? Why not cultivate anachronisms as a spare-time hobby? Many people have played with this idea; it seems to solve with such beautiful ease the problems set by the machine. The citizen of Utopia, we are told, coming home from his daily two hours of turning a handle in the tomato-canning factory, will deliberately revert to a more primitive way of life and solace his creative instincts with a bit of fretwork, pottery-glazing, or handloom-weaving. And why is this picture an absurdity—as it is, of course? Because of a principle that is not always recognized, though always acted upon: that so long as the machine is there, one is under an obligation to use it. No one draws water from the well when he can turn on the tap. One sees a good illustration of this in the matter of travel. Everyone who has travelled by primitive methods in an undeveloped country knows that the difference between that kind of travel and modern travel in trains, cars, etc., is the difference between life and death. The nomad who walks or rides, with his baggage stowed on a camel or an ox-cart, may suffer every kind of discomfort, but at least he is living while he is travelling; whereas for the passenger in an express train or a luxury liner his journey is an interregnum, a kind of temporary death. And yet so long as the railways exist, one has got to travel by train—or by car or aeroplane. Here am I, forty miles from London. When I want to go up to London why do I not pack my luggage on to a mule and set out on foot, making a two days of it? Because, with the Green Line buses whizzing past me every ten minutes, such a journey would be intolerably irksome. In order that one may enjoy primitive methods of travel, it is necessary that no other method should be available. No human being ever wants to do anything in a more cumbrous way than is necessary. Hence the absurdity of that picture of Utopians saving their souls with fretwork. In a world where everything could be done by machinery, everything would be done by machinery.
I think we can conclude he was wrong here. In fact, the hugely advanced machine age (Wigan Pier was written in 1937) has not obliterated all desire for hand work. People are not very systematic about it usually, enjoying extreme conveniences like the airplane and the Internet without much thought, and even power planers, tablesaws, angle grinders, and so forth. But a reasonable number of people, like my friend Brad, do carry out basically manual manufacturing, by picking methods which usually use a lot of mechanical conveniences but also preserve a reasonable space for skill and hand work. Some even make quite a good living at it:

The Birth Of A Tool. Part III. Damascus steel knife making (by John Neeman Tools) from John Neeman Tools on Vimeo.

Of course, that is quite apart from the idea that one could provide for large-scale production and employment through adoption of deliberately inefficient and archaic methods. But in his contention that people would not possibly do this, Orwell was just wrong, as previously in the same section when he scoffed at the idea that white-collar people would stay in shape through working out with dumbbells.

That's the danger of the classic essayist method, which relies so much on the perspicacity of insight and quality of writing. When the subject is coal mining, and Orwell is down in the mine and speaking with the workers, his aim is true. But when it comes to the general politics of socialism, or future projections about the direction of civilization, a more systematic approach is a big help, I think, either with theory or some kind of systematic evidence. Simply relying on impressions for such large-scale phenomena risks allowing prejudice to creep in (Orwell clearly despised machines) and thus undercutting the authority of the writer's voice when he puts a foot wrong.

Max Max

Is great. See it. Once you're done, read Freddie, Marie, and Leah.

Mar 31, 2015

I Did Some Journalism

It's about jails, and why 3/5ths of people inside them have not been convicted of a crime. Here's the hook:
Paxil, or paroxetine, is a powerful psychoactive drug with a short half-life in the body. Zurn had not had a dose since the day before her arrest. So when she got to the jail, she began experiencing serious withdrawal symptoms. Delirious, dizzy, paranoid, and sobbing uncontrollably, she says she was placed in solitary confinement, as is common for mentally ill people. Alone for 23 and a half hours a day, and still without toilet paper, Zurn refused to eat. After two days, she was released. It was her birthday. "It was the worst two days of my life," she told The Week.

Jan 24, 2015

Ryan Cooper on John Oliver's show

Not that Ryan Cooper, the other one. You'll have to wait till the end, though:

Jan 13, 2015

Steve Randy Waldman on Fraternal Organizations

The history alone in here blew my mind, but the rest of it is also worth a listen:

Dec 27, 2014

Torture Follow-up

Here I argued that torture does not work for intelligence gathering, basically just recapitulating a large section from Darius Rejali's excellent book Torture and Democracy. I think it gets the point across fairly well, but reading it again I think I could have done a better job framing the argument.

The argument isn't that torture never results in a prisoner divulging true information — that clearly does happen on occasion. Rather, the argument is that torture is worse than traditional interrogation and investigation techniques. (As Josiah Neeley noted on Twitter, even a Magic 8-Ball will give you "correct" information through mere chance on occasion.) Torture apologists make grandiose claims about its effectiveness, arguing that it is far more reliable than traditional techniques. Torture is a great and terrible evil, so if it can be shown that it is even simply equal to non-coercive techniques, that obviously implies its use is absolutely inexcusable under any circumstances whatsoever. 

In fact that bar is cleared by a considerable margin. Not only is torture much, much worse than traditional interrogation techniques, it also has devastating side effects both for the agencies that practice it and the nation as a whole. The CIA just got off scot-free for spying on its congressional overseers in an attempt to intimidate them into burying the Senate torture report. As Rejali shows, careering lawlessness that strikes at the heart of a nation's constitutional order is common among organizations that torture.

Torture is rat poison for a liberal democracy.

Dec 11, 2014

Mark Udall on CIA Torture

Hell of a speech:

Just devastating he lost his election. Devastating.

Nov 2, 2014

Winter Soldier and Fascism in Modern Superhero Movies

This is a pretty devastating indictment:

The implicit support of Bush-era security policy is, to my mind, the biggest political problem with modern superhero treatments. As Olson says, the logical conclusion behind most of these movies is that the rule of law and democratic oversight are luxuries we cannot afford if terrorist attacks get bad enough.

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier (I just caught this the other day) gets closest to why this is wrong, but doesn't quite grasp it. It's interesting both because it illuminates pretty starkly why the proto-fascism of the Yoo/Addington legal doctrine (that the president has no restrictions whatsoever on the use of force, and may kill, kidnap or torture whomever he wants) is so monstrous, and because the last-minute hesitation at closing the case weakened the movie considerably.

So (spoiler warning), here's the basic plot outline. Captain America and Black Widow work for SHIELD, a government agency. It turns out this agency has been infested with a Nazi-descended fifth column called Hydra. SHIELD has comprehensive dragnet surveillance, and is in the process of launching three aircraft carrier-sized floating gunships bristling with long-range guns.

Hydra has infested both these operations, and plans to use them to institute a worldwide fascist dictatorship. They have used the dragnet to construct dossiers on basically every person in the world, and after the gunships are launched, they'll use the surveillance tools to locate anyone who might be a potential threat to their new regime, and will use the long-range weapons to preemptively execute all of them en masse. The overthrow is shown to be quite specific — the president, many members of Congress, and many people in the Pentagon are seen on the targeting screen.

The heroes stop the plan at the last second, of course. But the great thing about this movie is how Captain America is shown to object to the gunships from the very beginning, when their secret construction is revealed to him. He correctly recognizes that such power is highly dangerous outside of any oversight, and insists that the gunships not just be stopped from their current course, but destroyed altogether.

But the dialogue in the movie consistently stops short of laying out exactly why this is. Nobody ever says something like "extrajudicial surveillance and force will lead to abuse" and it's a lost opportunity. It would have strengthened the logic and motivation of the protagonist, and in a way that fits very well with Captain America's old-timey ethos as a New Deal Democrat and earnest do-gooder (in this incarnation, he's been frozen since 1945). In a democracy, "authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force." Or, to quote Julian Sanchez:
The conceit at the center of all of these surveillance programs — of almost the entire idea of a secret intelligence community in a democracy — is that you have elected representatives of the people who are allowed to know what they're doing and keep checks on it, even if these things have to be kept secret from the general public. It's only under these circumstances that you can plausibly think that level of secrecy is compatible with a democratic system.
Hydra is bad not because it's descended from Nazis, but because it is the logical endpoint of the Yoo/Addington political ideology.

But instead, perhaps because this idea could equally apply to most modern superhero treatments, Winter Solider keeps getting tangled up in wishy-washy defenses of extrajudicial vigilantism. At almost the last scene in the movie, Black Widow is called to testify before some kind of congressional committee. A general whines that now they don't have infinite murder power on account of all the gunships got blowed up, and some jackoff politician says exposure of her secret past (she posted SHIELD's surveillance data online, and she used to work for the Russians) means she should be jailed. Instead of plainly explaining the stakes, Black Widow says that they'll keep her around because she and her vigilante friends are the only one competent enough to deal with terrorism:

Democratic institutions are just not up to the task, it seems. Here's how the scene should have gone:

GENERAL: Why haven't we heard from Captain Rogers?

BLACK WIDOW: Subpoena him, I dunno. What more would you like to hear?

GENERAL: He could explain how this country's supposed to maintain its national security now that he, and you, have laid waste to our intelligence apparatus.

BLACK WIDOW: General, are you a member of Hydra?

GENERAL [outraged]: Of course not, and I--

BLACK WIDOW: Then that means that you were on the Hydra kill list. If we hadn't brought down those gunships, then you would be dead, along with every non-Hydra person in this room.

I'm not certain how best to keep this country safe. But I'm certain that the very first thing you ought to do is make damn sure that "intelligence apparatus" you love so much isn't actually pointed at our own government.

POLITICIAN: Some of those on the committee here believe that your service record, both for this country and against it, mean that you should be in a penitentiary.

BLACK WIDOW [annoyed]: You people don't seem to understand the gravity of what just happened. Hydra was this close to instituting a fascist dictatorship. Did you even read the briefing books? [embarrassed coughing]

The entire power structure of this nation was moments from assassination. The president. The Congress [she makes a gun with her hand, mock shooting the politician]. The Pentagon leadership [mock shoots the general]. The press [mock shoots one of the journalists to the side].

Those gunships just might have been greatest threat this nation has ever experienced.

GENERAL: That's ridiculous--

BLACK WIDOW [on a roll]: Yes General, even to national security. Not to your fighter jet budget, or to your ability to use fancy surveillance gear with no oversight. I'm talking about the right of the regular people to be secure in their homes, to live how they choose without fear, and to elect their own government.

I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of in my life. But I've served my adopted country. And if destroying those giant floating murder palaces has so annoyed you all that you want to try and haul me up before a grand jury, take your best shot. [stunned silence]


Ideally, that would be paired with another previous scene where Cap argues for these principles, and convinces Black Widow that democracy is actually good. But you get the idea.

Oct 18, 2014

Where Can Rockstar Go After GTA V? Reconstruction

Here's something astonishing: Grand Theft Auto V has sold more than 34 million copies. That amounts to something like $2 billion in revenue. (For a point of contrast, that's a third again as much as The Avengers took in.) Late as usual, I played through it a couple weeks ago.

Was it any good? My standard these days for a good game is one that holds my attention enough that I can finish the damn thing, so I basically agree with Carolyn Petit that it was "politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic" but still quite good overall. The world-building in particular was spectacularly deep, and the set-piece heist missions featured splendid design.

My main problem with the title, aside from the sexism problems that Petit outlined, is the yawning abyss between the series' continuing underdog pose, and the reality of it as a cultural and economic colossus. The first major games in the series, GTA and GTA II, had minor sales and mixed reviews. GTA III, which established the current formula, was a surprise smash hit, so its aesthetic of riotous, gleeful violence and savage mockery of popular American culture felt fairly earned, so to speak. Like a punk band doing a show in some grungy warehouse, the message fit the venue.

But nowadays the punk band is playing to packed stadium crowds paying 150 bucks a ticket, and they're still singing the same songs about how everything in mainstream culture is all fucked up. "Dude," people vaguely think, "you are mainstream culture," and they sort of acknowledge that a little by poking fun at their own audience, but not in a full or forthright way.

As Tom Bissell wrote:
Once upon a time, playing a GTA game was like sitting next to your offensive Republican uncle at Christmas dinner. He was definitely a dick but also smart and interesting, and his heart was fundamentally in the right place. These days Uncle GTA is a billionaire with an unchanged shtick, and he seems a hell of a lot more mean-spirited than before.
Contrast GTA V to Red Dead Redemption, by my lights Rockstar's best work. This is basically a paint-by-numbers western set in 1911, but a straightforward story without the loopy antics of GTA V. Though it had plenty of shooting and murder, it was also subtle, deep, and incredibly beautiful. And while not quite such a stupendous success as most of the GTA series, it still did very well by any other standard, selling something like 13 million copies.

There will be a GTA VI, without question. But probably not for several years. In the meantime, this gap between the actually existing cultural and economic power of video games in general and Rockstar in particular, and the continuing stereotype that games are for gormless shut-in nerds (not helped by recent events) suggests that a genuine effort to make a culturally and artistically serious game wouldn't go amiss.

Here's my proposal: I'd like to see a GTA-style open world game set in Reconstruction. You'd play a slave who escapes alone towards the end of the Civil War. He joins up with the Union Army, fights in a couple battles, finds his family, and then works to secure black rights in the South against ex-Confederate terrorism.

There are a few reasons to select this period. First, it's high historical drama with real villains and heroes. A man fighting to rescue his family from slavery and secure their liberty is a classic story, and it would be a great connective thread to motivate the plot. (Imagine a mission like this one [spoilers], but defending your house from Red Shirts.) That trajectory would also make a nice twist on GTA's typical upward mobility fixation.

Second, if you made it right, it would be doing valuable cultural work. Popular American consciousness has a totally garbled version of Reconstruction largely based on racist Confederate apologia. Most people have a vague notion (if they have anything) that Reconstruction was characterized by corruption, unfair punishment of the South by carpetbaggers and scalawags, and that it collapsed of its own accord. This is total horseshit. Reconstruction was an attempt to build a true democracy in the South. It succeeded for a time, but was violently overthrown by white supremacist terrorists who probably killed more Americans than Osama bin Laden. (Aided and abetted, one should note, by racism and apathy in the North.)

Thus, if Rockstar wanted to fairly reckon with its vast cultural and economic power to critique American culture in a serious and useful way, and make a hell of a great game in the process, Reconstruction would be an excellent setting.