May 05, 2012

Saturday Morning Essay: Rise of the Net Jockeys

Brought to you by Peet's Major Kong blend...

I see where Dmitry Orlov has now added "Published On Tuesday" to his masthead, which is a good sign since it probably means that this particularly insightful writer will be seen on a more regular basis.  With

James Kunstler appearing every Monday morning, rain or rain, we now have a powerful one-two punch with which to start the week off all wrong.  Maybe I should add "Published On Wednesday" to my blog and rename the whole thing "Why Go On?" just to finish people off.

One curious thing about the Internet and the accessibility of good writing available on the web in general is that we now can easily find excellent analysis of the world's problems by people who actually know what they're talking about, as opposed to the "columnist" approach to explaining what's happening.  As a result, the major newspapers have a hard time competing and have been relegated, along with almost all TV news, to infotainment and sensationalist, yellow journalism.

Glenn Greenwald, for example, is a constitutional lawyer who actually handled a lot of First Amendment and other civil liberties cases.  As a lawyer, I can tell that Glenn knows what he's talking about.  He knows how to analyze precedents, read statutes, and can describe clearly what is happening to the Bill of Rights on a real-time, case-by-case basis.  By contrast, the editorial pages of the New York Times or worse yet a column by Tom Friedman, one of its Staff Morons, can only flail around with generalities, and the usual on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand bullshit.  A column by Tom Friedman or Maureen Dowd or David Brooks has about the same level of rigor and depth as the social studies essays we used to crib from the World Book Encyclopedia circa 1959.

Worse yet for the newspapers, writers such as Kunstler, Orlov and Greenwald write much better than the columnists.  Not to pick on the New York Times, although I'm clearly picking on it, virtually every writer in its starting lineup is a terrible writer: dull, turgid prose of an almost unreadable sort.  Oddly enough, this is probably the trait that drew these journalists to the profession: they thought they could write well, so writing for a newspaper became the skill they acquired.  However, this is not actually a subject matter skill, like law or science.  So the writing, even if it's belletristic (which it's usually not - work your way through one of Paul Krugman's dirges, with half the sentences beginning with the conjunctions "And" or "But"), it's nevertheless uninformed by any real grasp of the subject about which the writer is writing.

Writing well is not actually that difficult a skill, when you get right down to it.  We don't teach it very well in our schools anymore, and the prevalence of video images as a source of information has debased the art of the written word.  The remaining value of newspapers is that they should be a source of investigative fact-finding; this is expensive, however, and with their declining revenues it is difficult for newspapers to finance such work.  As Glenn Greenwald points out on a frequent basis, most of the "big time" journalism now performed by the Washington press corps is of the "access" variety and is thoroughly corrupted.  If you watched Brian Jennings gee-whiz his way around the Situation Room with President Obama on the anniversary of taking bin Laden out, you could see this type of "reporting" at its worst.  Williams was given a plum assignment, the first reporter ever allowed a tour of this sacred White House tank, and Williams was not going to sully the occasion with a question such as, "Any thought given, Mr. President, to the idea of capturing bin Laden alive and bringing him back to the U.S. for trial?"

That wasn't in the script.  Fawning hagiography over Our Tough & Decisive Leader was the theme of the program.

So for the time being, we have a problem.  We can gain access to subject-matter experts very easily on the Web.  The problem, in terms of current events and politics, is factual investigation; who is doing that, and how does it get paid for?  The absence of an adversarial press, such as in the United States,  means that any kind of government propaganda can now hold unchallenged sway over the largely uninformed populace.  If Watergate happened today, absolutely nothing would change.  Certainly the Valerie Plame scandal was on a par with Watergate, but only one government staffer, Scooter Libby, was sacrificed to hush the whole thing up.  Monumental criminal conspiracies, such as the RICO-level crimes of Wall Street in the mortgage-backed securities frauds leading up to 2008, are forgiven cavalierly with the President's soothing assurance that maybe some bankers "misbehaved," but no crimes were committed.

Well, that's not exactly right.  Read Bill Black - on the Web - and see what I mean.

May 03, 2012

Existential Axioms

Thoreau had his simple dictum about basic necessity: one must maintain vital heat.  Thus, in our ancestral native habitat (Equatorial Africa), this amounted to finding enough food through hunting and gathering. By the time Thoreau wrote Walden (and as many do not realize, he did not write this book at the Pond - the writing was done years later, based on notes which he kept while living in his one room house), the Little Ice Age in New England presented problems of a different order.  Thus, maintaining vital heat required not only food but shelter and clothing.

I like this approach to the search for basic ideas, an Occam's Razor of ontology.  If we were to state, a priori, the essential principles of human life beyond mere survival (Thoreau covered those correctly, I think), perhaps they can be stated as two axioms:

1.  Consciousness.
2.  Existential insecurity.

Continuing in this Euclidean mode, we might be able then to derive from the axioms the basic theorems of existence.

One such derivation is this: it seems clear that human consciousness is maladaptive in evolutionary terms.  Human cognition simply went too far.  We may glory in our intellectual grandeur, but human intelligence has presented us with more problems than it has solved, and to make matters worse, it has presented us with problems of an insoluble nature.  Another way of saying this is that intelligence somewhat superior to the chimpanzee and gorilla would have been sufficient to compensate for our evolutionary degradation in terms of size, strength and speed, but our development of intelligence overshot the mark and we wound up with nuclear fission, the internal combustion engine and the integrated circuit.  These inventions are not necessary to maintain vital heat, but they do, paradoxically, practically guarantee our extinction.

Human consciousness and existential insecurity are interplaying elements.  I was remarking to a friend at lunch on Monday that I regularly read a group of writers I call "the Apocalyptics," who, in this age of all graphs going parabolic, describe their ideas with a poorly-concealed lust for the imminent collapse of this monstrosity we call modern civilization, in favor of a return to a localized, comprehensible, anodyne world where we have a sense of control.  Such writers include Richard Heinberg, Dmitry Orlov James Kunstler and many others, and whenever these highly intelligent, deeply insightful people are confronted, for example, with news that the United States might be able to convert its huge motor pool from gasoline to liquid natural gas and keep the whole car fiesta going for another one hundred years, these worthies lapse into paroxysms of outrage and scorn, denying that such a thing is possible.

Yet it is possible, unfortunately, and I suspect they know it.  Indeed, it will probably happen.  But you see, the Apocalyptics were counting on Peak Oil to act as the cavalry saving mankind (and particularly America) from itself.  We needed something out of our control to make us do the right thing.

This last sentence begs a question: why is that?  Simply put, it is because of our fundamental existential insecurity: at some point, after many years or a few, we all die.  This is the essential reason that we cannot succeed in getting the human race to react constructively to overpopulation, global warming or the threat of nuclear annihilation.  These aren't our biggest problems.  Death is. A very personal, individual death.

Thus, to derive the theorem of human impotence in the face of existential threats from the two axioms: human intelligence went so far beyond what was necessary for basic survival that it reached the point where it was not only capable of creating the conditions for its own extinction,  it also comprehended the futility of human existence itself.  Increasingly, the thrall in which our consciousness was held by comforting mythologies is giving way to this searing recognition.  As if to say, yes, it's true that homo sapiens is in mortal peril, but we all gotta go sometime.  That will be our epitaph and our legacy.