Saturday, December 31, 2016

The ferocity of hope

By Pete Souza
via Wikimedia Commons
Eight years ago Americans and Canadians celebrated the audacity of hope in the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States. This year, a film called Arrival introduced me to the ferocity of hope: its tenaciousness, its endurance. If optimism is defined as the hope of getting dealt a good hand, hope is the willingness to play the hand, however lousy it seems to be, or is.

Indignation and punishment

Woodworking tools (1910) By Takkk
By Takkk
 via Wikimedia Commons
Audre Lorde's well known quote, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," derives much of its power and appeal from its flexibility. Interpreted one way, it rebukes those with too great a focus on practical politics, since the dominant parties of the existing order have by definition mastered its practice. Looked at another way, it calls us to leave behind the specific tools of domination, the tools shaped by the needs of a house of bondage and designed to create and maintain it. Genuine liberation, opposed to changing the hand that holds the whip, requires us to reject the habits of thought and action developed to wield power.

When I attempt to identify the "master's tools" in my own habits and in ways of thinking I take for granted, experience tells me to look for contradictions. I look out for contradictions between the ways I think, the way I imagine the world, and the way I live in it. If a way of thinking doesn't serve its intended purpose, that doesn't mean it has no purpose. It makes sense to ask what purpose such a way of thinking does serve. Sometimes, the ways of thinking that serve no useful function turn out to serve the desire for power, the wish to dominate. Once I see them clearly, I can eliminate them, because I know them as the master's tools: the tool of the ones who hold the whip, and the part of me that wants not justice but power.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The sales force for war is out

...and experience suggests we can expect another round of trashing for Neville Chamberlain. That guy. Every hawk with a war to sell, or a conflict to stoke, or a peace initiative to shut down, drags out the same carpet beater and flogs the very dead horse of Neville Chamberlain's unavailing concessions at Munich. Even ones who can't say exactly what Chamberlain did at Munich.

Neville Chamberlain died in November of 1940: Winston Churchill gave the eulogy at his funeral, and even with bombs raining on London, could say of Chamberlain's policy:
But it is also a help to our country and to our whole Empire... [that] we were guiltless of the bloodshed, terror and misery which have engulfed so many lands and peoples, and yet seek new victims still. Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has only desired peace. What do these ravings and outpourings count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain's tomb? Long, hard, and hazardous years lie before us, but at least we entered upon them united and with clean hearts.
Many people in the present day who know far less than Churchill take a far less charitable view. Why does this matter? Do I really intend to waste time defending an old, white man whose maintenance of the imperial system undoubtedly fed the great conflicts of the 20th century?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The value of a tell

Della Porta, Giambattista — Magiae naturalis sive de miraculis rerum naturalium (title page, detail chaos)I have seen a number of comments about the movement calling themselves the "alt-right"; these comments argue we should not accept these peoples' name for their movement, but rather call them fascists, racists, national socialists, misogynists, and plain haters. An Internet activist has written a Google Chrome plug-in that renames "alt-right" to White Supremacy or neo-Nazi. The Associated Press has also updated their style guide to require quotes and a full definition whenever writers use the term "alt-right".

I sympathize with the impulse, but if we reject the name "alt right" we stand to lose potentially useful information. The name a person or a group gives themselves is always a "tell"; it gives away more about the people who take the name than they intend.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

What's in a name?

Atlas Obscura had an article on the Canadian raising, a peculiarity in the way Canadians pronounce certain vowel sounds, most notably the word "about". The article seeks to explain why we pronounce this word the way we do, and why Americans don't hear the way we actually say this particular word. The article says:
Canadians also have a diphthong there, but a much weirder one than ours. Instead of starting with “agh,” they start with a vowel that’s mapped in a mid-range place, but one that is, bizarrely, not represented in American linguistics, period. This is an exclusively Canadian sound, one that the vast majority of Americans not only don’t use where Canadians use it, they don’t use it at all. It’s completely foreign.
As a linguistic analysis, this works: it explains more clearly than any other analysis I have read not only how we actually pronounce "about" but why the Americans have trouble hearing the sounds we actually use. The word choices in the article reveal some interesting assumptions on the author's part: the word "weirder" and "bizarrely", in this context, appear as synonyms for "foreign".

Reading this article put me in mind of one of my early memories: at the age of five or six, my great aunt taught me to say my last name.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Reasons to Worry, Reasons Not To

Donald Trump by By Gage Skidmorevia Wikimedia Commons
 By Gage Skidmore
via Wikimedia Commons
Right after the election in which a minority of American voters put Donald Trump in the White House, I began to see online articles suggesting Mr. Trump and his supporters have a brilliant agenda for working the end of American democracy. Some articles I have read suggest Mr. Trump's intellectual incoherence actually has a brilliant covert purpose, and his operatives have a plan of such speed and subtlety that Americans standing up for tolerance and freedom can only hope to watch helplessly as Mr. Trump and his minions construct a fascist state.

I wish I knew these articles grossly overestimated Mr. Trump's native abilities.

Homeland Security photo
I wish even more that the best outcome of Mr. Trump's coming administration looked less chaotic and miserable. Donald Trump and his friends on the right wing of the Republican party may not have a brilliant plan. They still can, and probably will, inflict four years of absolute misery on the poor and dispossessed in the United States. We have already seen an appalling increase in bullying and harassment throughout the United States and even in other countries. The Republican Congress looks set to dismantle even the minimal social safety net in place in the United States. The next four years look set for more catering to the wealthy few at the expense of children going to school hungry. Unless the course of the incoming administration changes, the leadership they provide will reward the worst behaviour by police and public officials at every level.

At best, a man who has paraded his ignorance and prejudices will soon have the ability to give orders to the most powerful and destructive military on the planet. He will also control the world's most sophisticated surveillance apparatus. This frightens me. It frightens a great many people. It should.