The New York Times:
Last year was the hottest in earth’s recorded history, scientists reported on Friday, underscoring scientific warnings about the risks of runaway emissions and undermining claims by climate-change contrarians that global warming had somehow stopped.
Extreme heat blanketed Alaska and much of the western United States last year. Several European countries set temperature records. And the ocean surface was unusually warm virtually everywhere except around Antarctica, the scientists said, providing the energy that fueled damaging Pacific storms.
Last week I asked whether or not exoplanets are real. Sure, we can learn about it through a high-tech instrument up in space, and so know that, yes, it’s out there. But how real can it be if there’s little or no chance that we’ll ever go there? In the sense of “real” that interests me, the Moon became more real when Neil Armstrong set foot on it. And Mars became more real when we landed the first instruments on it, though not as real as the Moon, or real in the same way.
Tyler Cowen’s prompted me to have similar thoughts about nuclear war. He’s posted some remarks on Elaine Scarry’s book about thermonuclear weapons, and one of his commenters posted a link to a NYTimes review of that book by Richard Rhodes. The weapons are fully real in the sense I’m exploring. We’ve created them and we’ve tested them. We know that they work.
And we’ve used atomic weapons in war, two of them on Japan at the end of World War II. But that’s it, so far. During the so-called Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union built up huge stockpiles of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, but we never used them, though we may have come close at times (I’m thinking in particular of the Cuban Missile Crisis).
Why not? asks Richard Rhodes:
Why no one has dared, so far, is probably the crux of the matter, but that is not a story Scarry chooses to tell. Why we Americans collectively agree to tolerate concentrating world-destroying power in the hands of one fallible human being is another story Scarry bypasses, though it goes a long way toward explaining the peculiar logic or illogic of accumulating weapons so destructive that our only hope of surviving them has been to prepare to strike first and destroy an enemy’s weapons before he has time to launch them against us. Why our elected leaders continue to believe that such genocidal weapons are legitimate and moral in our hands, but illegitimate and immoral in the hands of our enemies, rather than eradicating them from the earth, as we did smallpox, is yet another mystery Scarry chooses not to investigate.
That somehow strikes me as in the same zone, broadly conceived, as my questions about the reality of planets we can know about, but cannot walk upon. Continue reading
I’ve got a new post up at 3 Quarks Daily, Free-Floating Anxiety, Teens, and Security Theatre. It continues with the same theme I explored in my previous 3QD post, American Craziness: Where it Came from and Why It Won’t Work Anymore. That isn’t what I was planning when I began thinking about the post in the middle of last week, but that’s what popped up Sunday morning when I started working on it.
Over the previous week I’d been blogging about danah boyd’s study of teens and the internet, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale UP 2014). It seemed to me that she was developing an argument that intersected with the argument about displaced aggression and anxiety that I have derived from Talcott Parsons (“Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World,” 1947). On the one hand, teens have more or less been “forced” online by irrational restrictions placed on their movements on the physical world (and over-scheduling, a different phenomenon) and that adult fears about sexual predation online were exaggerated at the same time people weren’t sufficiently attentive to the real sources of sexual predation.
So, I decided to write a post that links boyd’s observations to mine on nationalist aggression and racism. In the current post I refine my statement of Parsons’ argument and use the American response to 9/11 as an example. On the one hand the nation has undertaken two destructive and expensive wars, that have failed to achieve their announced object, the elimination of terrorism, and at the same time we’ve created the Transportation Security Agency to conduct largely pointless searches of passengers boarding aircraft.
Vacuum Activity and Scapegoating
These actions strike me as being akin to what ethologists call vacuum activity: “innate, fixed action patterns of animal behaviour that are performed in the absence of the external stimuli (releaser) that normally elicit them. This type of abnormal behaviour shows that a key stimulus is not always needed to produce an activity.” In this case the issue isn’t so much the lack of an appropriate stimulus but the inability, for some reason, to identify the source of one’s aggressive impulses while at the same time feeling the need to act on them. So one chooses a convenient or culturally targeted object whether or not it is causally appropriate.
My point of course is that the possibility of such irrational action has a basis in our biology. In a sense that’s just a specific version of the truism that all behavior has some kind of biological basis; we are, after all, biological beings. But the behavioral patterns I’m examining aren’t widely appreciated, perhaps because we would prefer to continue our irrational behavior rather than dealing with real issues. In the context of such denial it is useful to point out that, really, this is how animals (can) behave. It’s not at all farfetched. Continue reading
The adoption by journalist to the phrase “EIT” is the clearest evidence of bullshit objectivity.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) December 11, 2014
Is it true that George W. Bush became President through Enhanced Vote Counting Techniques?
And I suppose that Enron was using Enhanced Accounting Techniques to keep its books.
In general, when you’re with the 1% you can Enhance your way to fame and fortune. Occupy the Enhancers!
And, you guessed it, BP was using Enhanced Drilling Techniques in the Gulf and they just got out of control.
The persistent use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” newspeak says it all to me. — Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) December 11, 2014
And then there’s the Enhanced Recovery Techniques that FEMA perfected after Katrina.
The Bush Administration: Enhancement you can count on!
What? You say it’s not rape, but Enhanced Sexual Congress?
Fox News, Enhanced Truthiness is our business.
Seriously, fellow members of the press: do NOT go along with this Orwell newspeak formulation of “EITs.” They can say it. We don’t have to.
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) December 11, 2014
I’m sure I watched I Spy a time or three back in the day, but I didn’t watch it regularly. I DID watch The Cosby Show regularly. My all time favorite bit was when the dad and the kids lip synched a Ray Charles song – “The night time, is the right time” – for mother, with little Rudy being particularly delicious. I also appreciated the fact that Cosby would have jazz musicians on the show. His father-in-law was played by a jazz musician, singer Joe Williams. He had Dizzy Gillespie on one show and, much to my delight, he had Frank Foster on another. I’d studied improvisation with Foster when he taught at UB (that is, the State University of New York at Buffalo).
As much as I am a fan of anyone – which isn’t all that much, fandom isn’t how I roll – I was a fan of Cosby’s. I was a bit startled when he started coming down hard on the lifeways of some poor black folks. Understand him, yes. But it seemed a bit harsh, especially in the overall ecology of racial attitudes and discussion. Is that how Cliff Huxtable would speak?
And then he was accused of rape. I don’t recall precisely when I first heard about that, but it was awhile ago, well before the current round of accusations. Was it before or after he’d become Mr. Public Morality? I don’t recall. The accusation certainly didn’t seem consistent with the behavior of Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable. Cliff, of course, was just a fiction, a part Cosby played. But we do tend to identify performers with the parts they play, as though that’s what they are like in real life.
Of course, I know that Cliff was just a role. As a performer myself I’m keenly aware of the difference between one’s performance persona and one’s “real” self. Give me a trumpet and put me on stage with at kick-ass rhythm section and I’m Mister Confident Superhero Sex God John the Conqueror, but in real life I’m shy, reserved, and ridiculously intellectual, though leavened with a bit of wit. So I never actually believed that Cosby played himself when playing Heathcliff, but nonetheless, Heathcliff became my default for Bill Cosby himself.
The upshot: those accusations were dissonant. At this point I don’t recall what I thought of those accusations back then. I’m pretty sure my initial reaction would have been denial. I’m also sure that I thought about it beyond that initial denial. Mostly likely I just put the accusations on a mental shelf without either denying or affirming them in my mind.
That’s not possible now. There are too many accusations. I think he did it. Continue reading
But that’s not what I titled this month’s article at 3 Quarks Daily. I gave it a somewhat more provocative title, American Craziness: Where it Came from and Why It Won’t Work Anymore. The craziness is why America has to reinvent itself.
The core of my argument somes from an article I read in my freshman year at Johns Hopkins, “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World” (full text online HERE). Parsons argues that life in Western nations generates a lot of aggressive impulses that cannot, however, be satisfied in any direct way. Why not? Because Western society is highly hierarchal and there is a great deal of aggression from superiors against inferiors, who cannot, however, respond in kind because to do so would be dangerous.
What, then, can those social inferiors do with their aggression? Well, they can let it rot their spirit and, eventually, their bodies as well. And that does happen. But they can also direct their aggression at external enemies. That happens as well.
This has certainly been the case in America. The Cold War was more of a psychic release mechanism for the nations involved – America included – than it was a collision of rational foreign policies East and West. But, as I point out in the 3QD piece, American had developed a sophisticated variation on the mechanism that was organized around slavery.
The institution of slavery in effect gave America an internal colony against which white Americans could direct their aggressive impulses. And when slavery was banished, institutionalized racism kept that colony in place. While the Civil Rights movement certainly changed the legal parameters of that social mechanism, and had real and beneficial effects in the world, the mechanism is still alive.
But, really, as I argue in the 3QD piece, this baroque contraption is ready to fall apart, hence the deadlock in America’s national politics.
I do something else in that piece, however, something of a more theoretical nature. I push Parsons’ argument a bit further than he did. As his title notes, he was arguing about Western nations, not nations in general. Yet anyone who finds his argument convincing can see that the mechanisms he describes are not confined to the West. They’re ubiquitous. Continue reading