Demophobia; or, fear of the rabble

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I recently had an interesting conversation with a young friend of mine — ‘young’, in this case, meaning less than half my age. My friend and I started off by agreeing that the recent referendum in Ireland, endorsing same-sex marriage by a rather amazing 60% margin, was excellent and gratifying news. But then my young friend gobsmacked me by saying that he wished this result had been achieved by some other means than a popular vote. Unless I misunderstood him, which is possible, he seemed to believe that a court decision, based ostensibly on some text like the US constitution, would have been preferable, as offering a more secure foundation for the right so obtained than the fickle whimsies of… 60% of the people. In Ireland!

I don’t think my friend is a particularly political guy — at least, the topic has never come up before — but I would be amazed if he were a right-winger. In fact, I would bet he isn’t.

I think what he may have been exhibiting is something very American, namely a dislike and distrust of the rabble, cherished even by many of the rabble themselves (a category to which I certainly belong; perhaps my friend has a trust fund I don’t know about, but I suspect he’s rabble too).

This is a pretty extraordinary phenomenon, when you think about it. Of course it’s not surprising that the ‘founding fathers’ hated and distrusted the people; they were a thoroughly elite body. But it’s pretty remarkable that this mentality has been able to reproduce itself so well for so long, among people who are anything but elite, and have had plenty of opportunities to figure out what the elites are really up to. My friend, for example, has certainly lived long enough to see the Supreme Court in action for a while now, and might have drawn some conclusions about what that sorry row of scarecrows is all about. But unless I misunderstood him, he would be happier with his rights in their custody than in the custody of his fellow-citizens.

Is this just the tyranny of received opinion? Or does it reflect a certain factitious sense of elite status among relatively educated liberal folks?

Or am I just over-interpreting? A very insightful former girlfriend of mine once said that I was the sort of guy who would show up for a friendly backyard game of touch football, all kitted out in cleats, shoulder pads, and a regulation helmet.

Obie covers the waterfront

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The unspeakable Jeffrey Goldberg, cruelly but accurately caricatured above, was recently granted an audience with the God-Emperor Obie, and made such hay of it as he could in a lengthy but rather predictable piece in the Atlantic magazine. Obsequious, of course, as befits a kicker of heels in the corridors of power, but also tendentious — the piece is mostly devoted to keeping us all very worried about Iran, a thankless and probably fruitless undertaking. Nobody much, or nobody without a vested interest, is buying that bill of goods any more, so one has to admire Jeffrey’s determination to keep the vaudeville going even as the audience is bolting for the exits.

Now Obie, of course, has presided, willingly or not, over two rather sharp kicks in the teeth to the Israel lobby. First there was the refusal to attack Syria back in 2013, though the lobby had dialed the noise machine up to 11 on this topic; and more recently, the tentative nuke deal with Iran, against much the same kind of alarums and excursions upstage.

Since I don’t like Obie, personally, I would prefer to believe that he was dragged kicking and screaming to these decisions; that the consensus of the foreign policy elites has begun to shift against Israel — not a minute too soon — and that Obie, good organization man that he is, had to go along. But who knows? They don’t invite me to these meetings. Maybe he’s more of a leader than he appears to be. If so, good on him, up to a point.

Of course, he felt obliged to give voice to the usual nonsensical incoherencies:

There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law….

It is true to Israel’s traditions and its values—its founding principles—that it has to care about those Palestinian kids….

The bedrock security relationships between our two countries—these are sacrosanct….

The core strategic relationship that exists between the United States and Israel… will continue until the end of time….

A Jewish-majority democracy. And I care deeply about preserving that Jewish democracy….

Kibbutzim, and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir….

I think a good baseline is: Do you think that Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, and are you aware of the particular circumstances of Jewish history that might prompt that need and desire? And if your answer is no, if your notion is somehow that that history doesn’t matter, then that’s a problem, in my mind.

Sacrosanct? Until the end of time? Jewish democracy? This is all word salad, of course, and the idea that the Zionist cause and the American civil rights movement have anything in common is simply an obscenity. Not to mention that caring about Palestinian kids is a founding principle of Israel. Well, in a sense it is, no doubt. Getting rid of them is certainly a founding principle of Israel.

Much has been made, in the pro-Israel blogotweetosphere, about that last bit — the connection between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. The God-Emperor has been cited as endorsing an equivalence between the two, and this has been much hailed here and there among the Zionist arriere-garde. In fact Obie’s language, on close inspection, offers a bit less comfort to the Thought Police than they would like to have.

I daresay Obie will leave us all guessing. Does he really believe this nonsense, insofar as anyone can be said to believe anything that makes no sense? Or is he just saying it, to protect his flank, and not embarrass Bloody Hillary too much in her own progress to the Iron Throne?

Wouldn’t it be nice if he actually wrote a truthful memoir, once he’s out of office? Not that I expect it. He’s too well-trained, I think. But I continue to believe that he’s not actually a fool, and hey, a guy can dream.

Hate speech?

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Parse the title as you will — analogous to ‘string cheese’ or ‘got milk?’

Our neighbors in the Great White North lately seem determined to beat us USniks at our own crazy game:

The Harper government is signaling its intention to use hate crime laws against Canadian advocacy groups that encourage boycotts of Israel.

Such a move could target a range of civil society organizations, from the United Church of Canada and the Canadian Quakers to campus protest groups and labour unions.

If they really mean it this would imply that advocating BDS constitutes ‘hate speech’.

Now there are two ways we could go with this. One would be to comment on the absurdity of considering BDS advocacy as ‘hate speech’, a preposterous notion on its face, even if you think that the notion of ‘hate speech’ is a useful construct.

But the other, more sweeping and naturally therefore more appealing to me, is to suggest that this ‘abuse’ of hate-speech legislation was certain to happen, as certain as God made little green apples, and for this reason among others, the idea of outlawing hate speech — indeed, the concept of hate crimes in general — is a disastrously bad one.

Going further still, there is, of course, an even more principled basis for resisting the notion of hate crimes: namely, that they are essentially thought crimes. If you beat somebody up because he’s gay, this is worse than beating him up because he’s a Red Sox fan. Why? Nobody deserves to get beaten up because of his tastes. Even Red Sox fans.

The underlying intent, I suppose, is to discourage people from beating up gay guys, which is certainly a desirable outcome. But assault and battery is already a crime, and has been for a long time. To the extent that law can assist in protecting gay guys from beatings, the law is already there, and it has the additional effect, also desirable, of protecting everybody else from beatings too — again, to the extent that a law can. (Enforcement and prosecution are another matter, of course, since they occur or don’t at the whim of the cops and the DA. But that remains the case with or without specific legislation about hate crimes.)

The larger purpose, perhaps, is to persuade haters to hate a little less. Also a desirable outcome. But might one suggest that creating new categories of crime, hinging on subjective feelings and attitudes, is an ill-advised way to go about that admirable project?

I am afraid we are dealing here with a déformation professionnelle of liberalism: namely that the proper response to any problem is to outlaw something not previously outlawed, and dial up the penalties for it. So the only way a liberal has to signal his solidarity with gay guys is to offer them an expansion of the criminal code, and a shiny new pair of pincers in the prosecutor’s arbitrary toolkit.

This reflects, at the very least, an impoverished repertoire of self-expression. It’s like being the driver of a car: all you can do to make your feelings known is to honk the horn.

Wedgie

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Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities“, the New York Times notes with alarm.

Starting with the headline, this is a very odd piece. Not least because, last I heard, Jews were a minority, in every sense of the term I understand. Either Jewish moms have recently been very busy in the maternity wards of the great Republic, or some rather special, non-obvious sense of ‘minority’ is intended here.

But why waste time on these ponderous drolleries? Of course we all know what this means. ‘Minority’ is decent Times-speak for what Jackie Mason once referred to as the ‘schvartzers’.

Even with this scilicet understood, the headline is a lie. There’s a wedge, certainly, but it’s not between Jews and ‘minorities’. It’s between defenders of Israel and ‘minorities’. As is well known — though the Times piece barely adverts to the fact — an increasing number of Jews, particularly young Jews, have little or no use for Israel.

It’s a fine old Times hatchet job, in the grand tradition, softly phrased, magisterial and objective in tone, a virtuoso exercise in suggestio falsi and suppressio veri. Well worth reading on that basis alone, as an object lesson in how the Times recycles ideology and manufactures news out of it.

But what particularly tickled me about it was its account of the way this polemic was being conducted on campus — namely, in the plushy Care Bear terms discussed here just a few days ago. Discomfort. Check your privilege. Empowered. Aggressive. Hostility. Sensitivity. Feeling threatened. Divisive. Identity (a word which would make me reach for my revolver, if I owned a revolver. Fortunately, I do not).

Some of the kiddywinks ‘felt uncomfortable expressing their support for Israel.’ Well, no bloody wonder. I’d feel uncomfortable too, in their place. It’s a bit like expressing support for the Confederate States of America. I mean, family connections and all, one can understand, but still… This is a kind of discomfort we need more of.

(Of course, I think we need more discomfort on campus generally, and certainly a lot less fear of discomfort, but that’s a different topic.)

Before declaring her candidacy, Ms. Horwitz felt compelled to remove pro-Israel references from her Facebook page before she ran for the student senate.

So Ms Horwitz is a Zionist, but thank God she’s also an opportunist. She will do well in life, one way or the other. I don’t see that anyone’s heart need break over this sad story, or any like it.

Giddyup, Trigger

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Above, a notorious child molester. That dirty old bird would be on a police registry these days.

Ovid tells his story, and a number of other equally appalling ones, in the Metamorphoses, a text continually read and immensely loved since Ovid’s own day. Ovid is omnipresent in Dante, and Shakespeare, and… everywhere, really; or at least was, until the the fashion came in for illiterate writers.

Mean old Ovid, however, is too strong for the stomachs of certain sensitive souls at Columbia University:

During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, [a] student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape … [T]he student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text… [T]he student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class.

I feel very grateful to have bailed out of Academe when I did. My idea of a classroom is one in which nobody ever feels safe — least of all, the teacher.

The piece linked above deploys just about every buzzword associated with the current cult of hysterical hypersensitivity: safe, self-preservation, triggered, survivor, share, concerns, offensive, marginalize, identity, intervention, transgression (this one not at all in a good sense, but an unambiguously bad one); insensitive, traumatize, silence, facilitate, support, training, best practice, framing, engage, effective, feedback, addressing (‘issues’, not letters). The only one missing is ‘inappropriate’.

In general, the impression one receives is that Columbia undergraduates are hagridden, traumatized, oppressed, disadvantaged, suffering souls, shying from a trigger a minute like a skittish pony in rattlesnake country; easily intimidated and silenced, and so distressed by the coarseness of their teachers that they can barely force themselves through the classroom door.

I must say they do not make this impression in the places, numerous in my neighborhood, where they customarily resort. There, they comport themselves with an assurance bordering on insolence, and a very conspicuous air of self-satisfaction and entitlement.

Perhaps initiatives like the one quoted above are best regarded as a kind of consumer advocacy. The kids are shopping in the Columbia mall, and somebody is going to foot a pretty hefty bill for it. There is therefore every reason why they shouldn’t be inconvenienced or aggrieved by the clerks behind the counter. The customer is always right. If they find Ovid yucky and out of date, they shouldn’t have to read him.

Of course it’s overdetermined. There’s also the elite-as-victim angle. Columbia and all the Ivies are very much in the business of credentialling the future management cadre of the empire; these are people many or most of whom will be dishing out a lot more shit in their future managerial or professional lives than they will ever have to eat. No doubt there’s an element of self-absolution for them in seeing themselves as suffering, ill-used victims.

King Billy; or, The Way Of All Democrats

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Great White Hope Bill de Blasio, like all his predecessors in recent years, has become a mere tool of the Police Department:

Mayor Bill de Blasio, facing an uproar over arrests at a Manhattan rally to protest strong-armed policing, offered a spirited defense of law enforcement on Thursday, brushing off concerns that demonstrators had been mistreated even as he insisted on his own commitment to reform.

The whole piece is well worth reading, if you have a strong stomach.

It’s a classic case of liberal evolution: the insurgent outsider, after a year or two in office, cements his relationship with the Old Oligarchs, embraces the nightstick, and scolds his former comrades.

Of course they’re human, these people — in a sense; and so they have to justify themselves to themselves. King Billy exhibits the classic approach:

“I’ve participated in plenty of protests, on plenty of issues,” the mayor said…. But, he added: “When the police give you instruction, you follow the instruction. It’s not debatable.”

…. The result was a strained, and at times testy display by a mayor trying to balance liberal sympathies with the burdens of overseeing a police force whose tactics he once criticized….

Mr. de Blasio grew visibly frustrated at the notion that the police in Union Square had been too aggressive with protesters, telling reporters, “If you guys want to sensationalize, if you think that’s your contribution to society, feel free.”

Citing the former activist resume in support of the cops — that’s a Democrat for ya.

Wotta riot

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In connection with recent events in Baltimore, a number of my friends, both real 3-D friends and the facebunk variety, have observed, in more or less this form of words, “Of course I don’t condone riots, but…”

Since most of my friends are sensible and fair-minded people, what follows the ‘but’ is usually some fairly intelligent observation on the order of ‘Whaddya expect, you treat people like this? Of course they’re gonna riot.’

I began to wonder why we feel obliged to issue this pre-emptive caveat about not ‘condoning’ something. What danger are we guarding against by saying that? The observation is nonsensical on its face, of course; what we ‘condone’ or don’t condone has absolutely no effect in the world. It’s like saying ‘I don’t condone hurricanes.’ To say that you don’t ‘condone’ something that’s inevitable and under no one’s control is just incoherent.

Does the language of ‘condoning’ suggest some sort of unitary agency, some single collective will we can blame for bad decisions? (Zionists, by the way, love this line of argument: The Palestinians collectively fucked up back in 1933, or whenever, so therefore….) Or are we preserving our liberal bona fides by suggesting, implicitly, that some kind of Gandhi schtick or (worse yet) electoral activity would be better?

Let the record show that for what it’s worth, I do condone riots. They’re not my first choice, of course. What I would prefer is a well-armed and well-organized insurrection, led by relentless, bloody-minded Bolsheviks. But until that comes along, riots are a great deal better than acquiescence.

The twittering of the Munchkins

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And now for something completely different.

I’ve spent the last forty — not quite, but almost — years of my life paying the rent by writing computer code. It hasn’t been a bad living, and I can’t complain. It’s also been more fun than not: nothing deep about it, really, but intellectually interesting enough to make the days pass quickly.

I always tell people that it’s like solving crossword puzzles for a living, which is not exactly right but isn’t too far off, at least as regards the hour-by-hour texture of the work. It’s very finical. A letter out of place spoils the whole thing.

The element that isn’t captured by that description is that there’s a certain very modest scope for creativity. A crossword puzzle, after all, has only one right answer, but any programming problem has many, and coders, like Talmudists, dearly love to wrangle about why solution A is better than solution B. There’s such a thing as elegant code, and such a thing as ugly, clunky code, and we all aspire to write the former.

This too is fun. People who don’t appear macho at all suddenly become very assertive. And people who you would think have no taste at all — judging by the way they dress, and the books they read — suddenly come out as aesthetes, and make good their claim to the title.

Alas, that’s all gone now. At least in the corporate world where I still have to make a living. I bet it’s still alive in the open-source world — in fact, I know it is. But in the sweatshops where most of us coders earn our bread, the glory has departed. It’s mere drudgery now: Taylorized and overmanaged. One of the chief villains is something called ‘Agile methodology’, nicely satirized in the TV series ‘Silicon Valley’ as ‘scrum’. ‘Agile’ is a horrible neocult, and it has become the bane of my existence.

If you read the Agile manifesto or the Wikipedia entry it doesn’t sound too unreasonable, though the smarminess of the prose ought to ring alarm bells in any reasonably alert and cautious person’s mind.

But what it has led to in practice is an extraordinary bureaucratization of programming, accompanied by an extraordinary proliferation of cult-speak. For example, there really are ‘scrums’. In fact there’s one every day, usually in the morning. Scrums are presided over by ‘scrum masters’. I am not making this up.

I believe it is now possible to get some kind of credential as a scrum master. Scrum masters are usually people who don’t write code, and don’t know how to write code, but presumably understand scrums.

One is expected to stand during scrums, and they really do consist of moving post-it notes around on a whiteboard. This is very important. The post-it notes must also be color-coded, which is a sore trial to color-blind me. I always use a note of the wrong color, and must be called sharply to order, usually by a scrum master who is younger than some of my own children.

These things are referred to as ‘scrum ceremonies’. Again, I assure you: I am not making this up.

There are other picturesquely-named personages too, besides the scrum master: stakeholders and advocates and what not. But as the old proverb has it, shit rolls downhill, and all the shit ends up on the heads of the coders. Coders are supposed to be able to push back, but in practice they can’t, and so they get stuck with whimsical arbitrary deadlines for code whose behavior has never been clearly specified. Then somebody changes his mind about the expected behavior halfway through the development process. It’s a case of bricks without straw, Pharaoh!

It’s a testimony to the decency of human nature, and perhaps to a certain vestigial sense of Munchkin solidarity, that the coders seldom turn on each other and try to shift the blame when the preposterous deadlines are missed. (Though there are exceptions, may they burn in Hell.) The usual excuse, often true enough, is that some emergency supervened because the last delivery of crummy code failed in production, and a fire had to be fought.

One could go on and on — really, somebody ought to write a book about it — but perhaps this gives you some idea.

All this has of course made the programming workplace a much more anxious, unpleasant setting. The sense of solidarity, though it’s not entirely gone, is much impaired. We all used to make merciless fun of the boss, among ourselves. No more. Every so often an easily-disavowed emoji will turn up in some chat application. That’s about the extent of it.

Much of this work is done by contractors rather than regular employees. I’m one of that mercenary army myself, these days. Contractors don’t ordinarily stick around very long — and for that matter regular employees don’t either. There is, of course, no such thing as job security for either category of prole.

One of the sad consequences of this transience and casuality, combined with the nutty deadlines and the absence of specification, is that one really ceases to care about writing good code. It will probably never go into production anyway, and if it does, you’ll be long gone by the time it blows up and exposes the bank to a billion-dollar lawsuit or public disgrace. Or both. And if it does, they will richly deserve it.

Not that I would ever deliberately leave a time bomb in some odious employer’s code base. Oh no. As Richard Nixon once memorably said, That would be wrong. Retro me, Sathanas!

But I write shit code these days. I used to care about error handling. I used to make no assumptions at all about the validity and canonicality of the data feed I was working with. I used to spend a lot of effort making sure that my code worked with improbable but possible edge cases. I used to care about optimization and thread and socket pooling and re-use and short execution paths and compact footprints. I used to care whether threads really bought you anything, or just made the code easier to write.

Admittedly, I was never very good at including comments. I have gotten better at that, because after all, they’re much easier to write than code.

I haven’t quite descended to the Skid Row of coding yet, which is what I call ‘cut-and-paste code.’ You take a block of four or five lines, and in your editor you replicate it a dozen times, from top of screen to bottom, with one or two variable names changed in each copied block. This is a sin against God and man. What you ought to do is factor out the repeated common logic into a function or macro or something, and call it repeatedly with different parameters.

But you see the cut-and-paste approach a lot these days, created by people who certainly know better. A couple of years back I had a boss at a big American bank — one that you love to hate; trust me — who insisted that I ought to take the cut-and-paste approach. Why? Because it was easier for him to read the code that way.

It hasn’t gotten quite that bad for me yet; the cut-and-paste gig didn’t last, and the bad boss is now a more or less distant memory. (God, how I hated him at the time, though.) But my product is crap these days, even without that particular descent to the Ninth Circle.

And it seems that really, this is what my employers want. Or rather, as Madeline Albright once said, it’s a price they’re willing to pay for turning an eccentric, artisanic occupation into assembly-line work.

The swarm

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Facebook has become Hillaryland, and no doubt will be for the next year and a half. Many of my so-called friends are busy ‘liking’ and re-posting inane, jejune meme-wannabes, most of which presumably originate from some eager intern at the Hillmill itself, or from junior-woodchuck auxiliaries like Daily Kos. The facebook S/N ratio, never very impressive, is now zero to three decimal places, with this superadded outpouring of imbecile campaign chaff.

They’re damn nasty, too, these people, if you show any inclination to demur. Here’s an example:

Okay, so what do you plan to DO about the imminent future of the world? Not vote? Vote for a candidate that is manifestly unable to actually win? Wow, yeah, way to stick it to “The Man” (or The Woman, as the case may be). I’m sure your unrealized principles are going to create great change in the world as you bash your head against the Republican regime. And please, stop with the straw man arguments; my unconditional support of HRC’s campaign =/= unconditional support of every decision she has or will make. Politics — like life — is more complicated than that. If you don’t like what is off the table now, just wait until we get a Republican president back in office. At least with a Dem in office we’d have a *chance* to get those topics back on the table. But I suppose basking in moral superiority is more rewarding than taking a hit to make real change happen.

Anklebiters of my friend’s ilk are now in full swarm. It reminds me of a famous scene from the movie Barbarella, darkly hinted at in the image above. Those who haven’t seen the movie can check out the scene here, though perhaps not at the office.

Incoherencies abound in all this, of course — interspersed in the overall texture of cliche, like raisins in tapioca. For example, just what sort of a ‘hit’ does my correspondent anticipate taking as a result of her vote for ‘HRC'(*)?

And of course ‘imminent future’ is irresistible.

But the incoherence is less interesting to me, these days, than the obvious intensity of feeling that provokes stuff like this. Where does it come from?

Needless to say, I have a theory.

My theory is that folks like my correspondent recognize, on some level perhaps not fully conscious, that they are entirely the objects of politics rather than the subjects. They have no place at the table, as a current buzzphrase runs. They have no influence on events. No one among our rulers cares what they think or consults them.

The only way they have to feel like agents rather than patients is the empty quadrennial ritual of a Presidential horserace. Hence this hollow mummery must actually be quite important; and anybody who says otherwise has dissed them.

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(*) Initials which always reminds me of a chain of gyms that used to exist here, and maybe still does: the ‘Health and Racquet Club’. Note the precious Anglophile orthography. There is signs and correspondences in all things, as Fluellyn says. No pain no gain. And then you might have the pain without the gain, which is perhaps more to the point with Hillary.