Friday, December 30, 2016

Protest (III)

I wrote a previous post with a few notes about a FEMA training manual for police that Unicorn Riot turned up. Here are a few notes about another, older one (from 2008):

From here:

"Last week, after filing a Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) request, Unicorn Riot received a heavily redacted copy of the Denver Police Crowd Control Manual. Most sections of the manual relevant to the policing of protests (our primary interest) were redacted. One redaction was 15 pages long!

Since then, an anonymous source provided Unicorn Riot with an unredacted copy of the manual. This version is dated May 2008, while the redacted version via CORA request is dated October 2011."

This one doesn't have as much useful information as the FEMA one, but there are a few points of interest. From the "Denver Police Department Crowd Management Matrix":

* If you use passive resistance (towards police), i.e. going limp or remaining in a prone position, it is official policy that police are justified in using pain compliance techniques against you. What these are is not spelled out -- a strange or perhaps not so strange omission in a document that spells out a lot of other things. But basically, if you go limp, police are authorized to torture you into compliance by causing pain to move you along.

* If you use "Defensive resistance" (towards police), i.e. actions that do not attempt to harm an officer but instead are actions like attempting to flee, police are authorized to shoot you with a pepper ball. Additional text helpfully explains that people can be shot with pepper balls if they have climbed up trees, walls, signs etc. to get them to come down "when their elevated position or actions pose a threat to the field force".

* If someone is passively resisting, police aren't supposed to hit them with batons. They can use batons in "escort techniques" i.e. come-alongs. That isn't even considered to be a use of force and doesn't even trigger the paperwork of having to fill out a use of force report.

* There are the usual mentions of Shadow Teams to pick people out of crowds and of Cut Teams, which are groups of police specifically trained in how to cut peaceful protestors out of devices where they chain themselves to things or to each other in order to block something. People usually think of specialized police training as being in detective work or in how to handle various kinds of violent criminals, but some of it is in how to make people move along more quickly because they are in some business's way (complete with the above mentioned pain compliance).

This is the reality of peaceful protest in America, long before Donald Trump.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Partisanship is no substitute for values

Today, Obama wrote in an official statement that "All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions." That is what Obama ran on, after all, hope and change and universal alarm.

It goes without saying that Russian interference -- if Russia was indeed behind the DNC hacks, which is far from proven -- amounted to releasing true but embarrassing Emails. Unauthorized journalism, in other words.

Since the election, the American center-left has shown itself as completely incapable of resistance to anything. Resistance requires integrity and solidarity and the guidance of strongly held values. There is no left value that says that embarrassing Emails from politicians should not be released. On the contrary, there are -- or should be -- strong left values against mindless war fever and unthinking trust in the security apparatus, and in favor of openness in the political process. Imagine that the Russians were responsible for the hacks. OK, then what? What kind of left idea says that the response should be escalation, tough-guy posturing, and ratcheting up tensions with a nuclear power that we have no essential grievance with? Defense of American institutions, even when those institutions are corrupt? Because the DNC certainly was corrupt: it used the Hillary Victory Fund among other means to slant the primary in favor of one candidate (thereby hurting the party in the general election). Should we retrospectively condemn Daniel Ellsberg for releasing the Pentagon Papers and harming America's defense forces?

Partisanship can not substitute for having some kind of basic idea -- both for oneself and for simple communication with others -- about what you do and don't support. The left can not be the party of trust-the-CIA and war posturing when that is convenient. The whole concept is sickening and should shame any putative center-left person who once mumbled something about what a shame it was, what the US did in Central America. Death squads then, trust now, all because of an election that the left legitimately lost according to the completely ridiculous but fixed rules of the US political process.

Since then the center-left has done almost everything that it accused the right of. Not accepting the election results and attempting to overturn the election with the "Hamilton Electors" foolishness. Believing in every fake news story that flatters their preconceptions. Accusing journalists of being Russian agents if they write non-approved stories. Allowing their party to be taken over by grifters (most of them ex-Republicans looking for easy pickings) who tell them whatever they want to hear. The main difference is that the center-left is ineffectual and when it does these things that doesn't even bring any results.

Both central American parties and tendencies are tottering, hollowed out and ready to collapse. What's going to come next? Something from the margins, from people who have the courage of their convictions, good or bad.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Anonymous sources are more credible than named ones

I'm doing some eldercare this week, so NPR has been on. A day or so back there was an earnest interview with someone who said that unnamed sources in the CIA assured them that Russia had interfered in the US election. Today there was a followup. They had gotten some kind of listener feedback about anonymous sources so they brought people back to say that all was well. We were given a kind of child's first reader of CIA reporting.

The text for this is probably up on the Internet somewhere, so someone who cares can impeach my memory. But what I remember being told is:

* Reporters assess anonymous sources carefully for why they are saying what they are saying (institutional interests, etc.)

* We should actually trust anonymous sources more than named sources (!). Whenever we hear a reporter citing an anonymous source from an intelligence service, that means that the reporter has done the utmost checking on whether the person is credible, has knowledge, and has a good reason to tell us

* Pretty much all reporting from intelligence services is from anonymous sources, because one of their rules is that they are not supposed to talk to reporters

* In fact, they take periodic polygraph tests where they are asked whether they have talked to reporters. The interviewer mused that anonymous sources must have to lie and hope that they pass the polygraph.

This is ridiculous, and no one who thinks about it for two minutes could not find it ridiculous. If everyone is given periodic polygraph tests where they are asked whether they have talked to reporters, then polygraph tests must not work. I find that pretty believable that they don't work well at all, but security services keep using them. Is it really credible that all of these "leaks" that favor the CIA's favored story really are from truth-tellers half-assedly hoping that they pass their next polygraph?

There's a much more credible story. All of these "leaks" -- the only things that reporters get -- are officially authorized leaks meant to tell a story that the CIA wants to be told. The people doing the leaking don't have to fear their next polygraph, because they were told to leak the information to the reporter. The reporters have every motive to play along, because if they don't, they don't get any news from this beat at all.

It's self-serving twaddle all around: from the CIA, from the reporters, from the listeners who want to believe the latest story that flatters their prejudices.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

First they came for Boeing

In between choosing supervillain names for members of his cabinet, Trump sends out tweets. One of these read "Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!"

All of the implicit claims in this tweet are pretty much true. Air Force One is more than one plane, and the project really is projected to cost something like $4 billion. It's also probably true that Trump tweeted this because the CEO of Boeing said something mean about him -- as far as I can tell, it was something in support of the TPP.

So cue all sorts of approach-of-fascism, this-is-the-end things from the center left. Trump was "tearing up a contract". (Well, actually, no. The President saying that a contract should be cancelled does not cancel the contract.) He tanked Boeing's stock and should be sued for that. (The stock was back to its previous value by the end of the day.) He was deluding his brainless followers, who wouldn't even check the blatant lies in his tweet. (Actually, of course, the people who were saying that the tweet was crazy hadn't checked for themselves at all.) He was calling the whole capitalist system into question by thuggishly pressuring a company using the leverage of government contracts.

Boeing is the second largest defense contractor in the world. It's the military-industrial complex. I was unaware that being on the left meant defending the sanctity of contract for big military business, or defending stock prices, or that we should leap to defend the TPP because Trump is against it. Pity poor Boeing's lobbyists who are being silenced as they try to speak truth to power! Of course Trump and Boeing patched this up in short order.

Trump's next target (there's probably going to be one every couple of days) was Chuck Jones, a Steelworkers union leader, and that was bad for Chuck Jones who got a lot of threatening phone calls from Trump supporters, but at least this Trump target was a) a person, not a giant corporation, b) telling the truth, not speaking out for the TPP, c) one of a group that is a traditional first target of the right and that people really should support.

That lasted a little while. Then Trump attacked the most important target ever, apparently: the CIA. And the reaction was "how dare he attack the CIA". Pity the poor deep state! They only want to speak the truth, which they have tortured out of a succession of innocent black site prisoners. They could not possibly be lying about nebulous evidence of Russian involvement in releasing DNC Emails. And how dare a foreign country interfere in some other country's election. The CIA's entire history shows that they are the guardians who stand strongly against that.

I know that I've written this a lot, but there is no anti-Trump alliance. The center left or whatever you want to call it does not share the left's values: they are motivated strictly by partisanship, and will instantly throw the left overboard as soon as they return to power or really whenever it's convenient, such as when they think they'll get a better deal out of Trump. They won't support us: they won't defend us: they don't even really want anything from us or have any use for us. They won't even defend their own voters or their own base. That's the first and most salient fact about the Trump era.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The twilight of neoliberalism (II): the free trade bait and switch

The support of mainstream economists (think, say, Brad DeLong or Larry Summers) for free trade agreements goes something like this:

1. Economists say that free trade mathematically helps everyone -- makes everyone richer.

2. But if hurts certain sub-populations within countries who work in certain industries. Center-left economists will then say that the "losers" of globalization or free trade should be compensated, helped or supported in some way.

3. But this hardly ever actually happens. Even though it doesn't happen, economists continue to call for free trade.

4. The losers of free trade revolt at the ballot box.

Why does it work this way? "Free trade" agreements are not simply agreements that countries will hold down tariffs. They are bundled in with all sorts of items that favor global elites and the global financial system: intellectual property, restrictions on regulation, restrictions on support of national industries. They are a vehicle for the managerial/professional class, negotiated in secret and without public input. These elites never will spend money on compensating the losers of free trade. For them to do so, these agreements would have to arise from popular politics, the product of organizations that would demand that vulnerable segments of the public not lose out. That is not the class background or ideology that produces free trade agreements, and that is not the power that backs them.

Mainstream economists have a dual function (or perhaps a singular function) as the ideologues of the global managerial class. That is why they will never cease supporting free trade even as the compensation of losers that they say should happen never does.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The twilight of neoliberalism

As one European country after another falls to right-wing populism, people in the U.S. should stop treating Trump as if he is a total outlier, or thinking that his supporters are a peculiarly American phenomenon. The election was very close, and I'm not writing that the result was preordained, but that something larger than U.S. politics is going on. If you accept that all of these elections are part of an international pattern, you have to explain them in large part as due to some international cause. And that brings us back to neoliberalism. I don't think it's credible that all of these countries turned more nativist at the same time as part of some cultural syndrome unrelated to a world system that features austerity and ever increasing capture of wealth by elites.

I agree with a lot of this article by Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen, but I'm even more interested in what Ian Welsh has to say about it. Ian Welsh has, for a while, been making the very simple point that people will not put up with neoliberalism indefinitely and if the left can't stop it, people will turn to the right.

There is no mass base for neoliberalism, no group of people beyond perhaps a couple of percent of any population who really want free trade agreements, austerity, privatization, monetization, and all the rest. Neoliberalism depended on there being no alternative, and now that it appears that there is an alternative it's starting to come crashing down everywhere. The alternative isn't a left alternative, because the left was destroyed by the failure of left statisms. The right-wing alternative that is emerging is going to be worse than neoliberalism, but that always was a predicted problem with neoliberalism, because neoliberalism can't solve certain problems and always was unstable.

The first article linked above talks about coalitions and movements coming together. I hope so, but from my American vantage point the most salient fact about recent history is that when left movements spring up, they are destroyed by police. And the role of theory is not so easily replaced by evolutionary praxis. The strength of state repression requires horizontalism in organizing, but horizontalism in turn requires some kind of widespread basic understanding of common purpose. The last American election revolved on the center-left around a deliberate attempt to discredit leftists as racist or sexist (the whole Bernie Bro trope, cynically created by the HRC camp) and on a larger scale the left has never really fully incorporated ecological value into its basic economics, or (from my point of view) incorporated an anarchist critique.

No one really knows what will emerge from this era. But I think that it's time for people to stop trying to put everything back just as it was. Like it or not, I think that neoliberalism is not simply the natural center-left and waiting to return in the next electoral cycle.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The horrible politics of Recount 2016 scolding

Jill Stein and the Green Party have embarked on an effort, Recount 2016, to recount the Presidential votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. As of yesterday, they'd raised more than $6 million in small donations, and are on track to raise about twice what they raised in the campaign itself. And predictably, this effort has been greeted by a wave of scolding. I'll take this article by bmaz as the reference case, although as another example Rich Yeselson tweeted about how the recount effort was a scam or "mass grifting". From the bmaz post: the effort is "folly", "cynical", "a crass vanity project at the last second by a bit player glomming on for self promotion". John Cole is shorter: grifter, idiot, or attention seeking diva.

Before I describe why this is probably the worst possible reaction, I'll clarify a few things: I don't expect the recount effort to find any evidence of hacking, and I don't expect it to change the results of the election in any way. The most likely direct effect is a shift of a few hundred votes, although there is a small chance of a major scandal of some kind which I'll address below. So why is this kind of scolding bad?

1. Democratic Party won't fight for you

It's clear that this recount is being funded by money from Democratic Party small donors, not Green Party ones -- given that the amount raised in the actual election was much smaller. So they want to continue to fight. What is everyone saying about the coming age of Trump and possible neo-fascism? Don't give in, don't preemptively surrender, don't normalize, resist. OK, so why isn't the Democratic Party doing this? They are doing what they always do, which is to preemptively give in. Why aren't they supporting what their base wants to do?

The answer to this is presumably that this is a bad fight because it's doomed to failure. But that's a horrible political lesson even if it's realistic. Resistance to a more powerful opponent (i.e. one with the Presidency, Senate, House and SC) means that you resist whenever and wherever you can. And it isn't doomed to failure: there's a small but significant chance of some kind of scandal that will get turned up, because when people look at American election machinery in depth, it's badly maintained.

The second answer is that we *shouldn't* want this scandal to be turned up -- that we have to defend the legitimacy of American elections. Why? I'm an anarchist so maybe I'm constitutionally incapable of understanding this, but we just had an election won by the popular vote loser, with extensive voter suppression efforts. Maybe people shouldn't be told that they have to believe in the system as it is?

2. Technocratic lectures are just what we need right now

Foolish donor base, wasting your money on efforts that will fail because of complicated election law issues that you can't begin to understand! Don't you know that the experts know better? Get back in your box.

3. Insulting your way into an alliance

Now it's time for all of us to come together against Trump, so you leftists are fools / scammers / grifters / vanity cases. That lecture may have had some success against susceptible people back when you were selling the Democratic Party as the lesser evil, but guess what you lost big. If you're going to lose, you have no value as the lesser evil.

There's a big difference between a scam and a foolish project. One that you haven't observed, so why should people listen to you when you say that Trump is scamming? By the way, it is perfectly fine for the Green Party to promote themselves as political actors through activities like this: they are not your adjunct.

4. Blaming people for their marginalization

It's common knowledge that the Democratic and Republican parties have cooperated to make it very difficult for third parties in the American system. Most of the barriers are unheard of in almost any other advanced democracy. So now that you've helped to ensure that the Green Party is marginal, you're blaming them for not having the best election law experts and not being entirely up to speed on the mechanics involved. OK, why is that? The Democratic Party could have done this if they'd wanted to, with all of the expertise that they have.

5. The left /liberal alliance, redux

What, exactly, do people want this supposed alliance to do? What role is the left supposed to have? However you define the left as opposed to the center-left, it's numerically very small in America. The natural role would seem to be protest leadership and radical resistance in general: as the post below mentions, the tiny number of anarchists in America are encountered by police as 1/3 of their 3-part categorization of protestors.

But protest for what, and resistance for what? If it's to return neoliberalism to power, then no thanks! Serious protest is dangerous under Obama and will remain so or become more so under Trump. Are liberals going to support and defend protestors? Of course not. People can already hear the first rumblings of "they're too impolite, they have to not challenge American institutions".

So the message now is back off, crazy scamming vanity-driven hippies, we've got this. Is that really what you want to go with?

Monday, November 28, 2016

Current results of global warming activism

Activism against anthropogenic global warming is an unusual case. Almost all left activism opposes powerful interests, but few issues are so scientifically well supported and dire in potential effect as this one. And it has a fairly simple goal: decarbonization.

So it's possible to ask: how successful has activism around global warming been? This has two sub-questions: 1) is the world on track towards decarbonization, 2) if so, did activism bring this about or speed the process up. As far as I can tell, the answers are equivocally yes to the first and no to the second.

In a sense there were always two basic models of how decarbonization might happen. The first is the activist, or political model, in which people respond to science by organizing themselves and effectively demanding political change. The second is the technocratic, or techno-optimist, one in which experts respond to science by investing more and more money into development of renewable power sources so that they become cheaper than fossil, after which fossil gets replaced by the planners who actually control critical infrastructure. We appear to be on track for the second: renewable power is now cheaper than coal without subsidies and without even pricing in coal's externalities. Once it gets even more cheap, and with another round of battery development, I think it's on track to replace gasoline in cars as well.

How did this happen? Part of it is physics and engineering: it turned out to be technically possible. Part of it is that activists were never able to overcome resistance by elites and by national populations for whom this never became a core political issue. Neither one of these was inevitable. The history of this is waiting to be written, but I suspect that important turning points are going to be:

1. Formation of the IPCC. For experts to respond to science, science has to be very well founded. The IPCC reports are pretty much inarguable, scientifically.

2. Poor elite resistance to subsidies. It's easy for elites to stop an industry from being shut down, but it's difficult for them to prevent subsidies for new industries from being added. The machinery of local interest, political set-asides and so on has purposefully been made easy to run because it normally favors elites, and ways of stopping it were made difficult. This resulted in the early round of funding for renewable power.

3. China's investment in solar panels. To make new technologies cheap you have to ramp up production. This was done by Chinese state fiat -- as with almost all energy infrastructure, the market really had little to do with it. The Chinese state had the capital to do this and the ability to take speculative risks that, in actuality, capitalist multinationals are almost never willing to take. Someone who knows more than I do will have to figure out whether this was primarily due to industrial policy / support for national industry, as a way of combating Chinese coal air pollution, as an actual way to address this problem, or whatever.

4. Possibly, the Paris Agreements. Not that they actually agreed to do anything definitive, but they agreed on something more important: that the science was settled and the problem had to be addressed. It was pretty much the death knell of international denialism.

Why did activism, broadly speaking, fail? Part of it was industry support for denialism, and the concomitant tribal adoption of it as a position of the right wing in the U.S. But this is a huge, international problem, and the left in the neoliberal era really didn't have an international presence. There was no organization that was critical to people's lives for them to accrete around on this issue.

Look at what is happening now in the U.S.: both one of the more conservative countries on the planet and one of the most influential. We just had an election in which global warming policy was one of the clearest differences between the candidates, and it wasn't important. And right now if the left is unified around anything, it's unified in support of the DAPL protests, but this protest is highly fragile -- I recognize the current state of it from the Occupy days. Once people who will support a protest are all in, that defines the boundary of who will respond to a protest being quashed. If the state fully comes in and destroys the protest, there will not be an uprising of additional support from people angered by the police action, there will only be resistance from the people who are already supporters. More generally, Obama's neoliberal era resulted in a lot of incremental, executive-power advances with no popular organization backing them, and when Trump takes power, there are no effective barriers to them being reversed, whether it's lowering car fleet mileage requirements, using the Clean Air Act, or starting up Keystone XL again. There are also ongoing efforts at "inside game" activism: pressuring corporations to make changes, divestment focussed on energy companies, and so on, which seem to me to have some effect but not yet a large one.

Activism is, of course, ongoing. It can't be dropped: the final results of how much warming we get are highly dependent on how soon decarbonization happens and the decisions made in the next decade. If activism can speed that up at all, it has to be done. And protests like #NoDAPL are local and have very important local effects that can't be abandoned. But both the elites and the general public have made activism around this quite difficult, and I think that it's likely that it's going to be one of those things that had to be tried but that in the end didn't have a critical effect.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Protest (II)

Unicorn Riot has obtained a federal training manual, Field Force Operations, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP). The federal government uses this document to train local law enforcement in techniques for quelling protests. It was acquired during our reporting on direct actions against the Dakota Access Pipeline when we filed a records request to the North Dakota Department of Corrections.
(From here)

This is a great find, and I encourage anyone planning protests in the U.S. to read it. If I have the energy I may do a series on it here. A few initial things to note:

* Why FEMA? You think of FEMA and you think of planning responses for natural disasters, mostly. But FEMA is part of Homeland Security now, and this training manual segues easily from methods for handling riots (arguably a kind of disaster) to methods for getting rid of nonviolent protestors who are blocking something. Essentially, riots and nonviolent planned protest are treated as two points along a kind of continuum of similar types of events, which allows for justification of a continuum of the same techniques used to suppress both.

* The three types of protestors. The Unicorn Riot article mentions this, but I'll repeat it: the document models all protestors as belonging to one of three basic types: everyday citizens, professional protestors, and anarchists. That says a whole lot about both the police and the left in the U.S. First, there may be "professional protestors" -- it's a big country -- but I've never met one. I've met a lot of committed activists, but "professional" implies protest for pay, and more than that, hiring yourself out for any kind of protest whose organizers will pay you. I think that this is projection on the part of the security services, who imagine that people have to be paid to do something they believe in just as they are. Second, given the numerically low number of anarchists, it's revealing that the police encounter them as a distinct category and don't have one for any other part of the left.

* The war-propaganda element. There are items scattered throughout the document that attempt to immunize the trainee against natural human feeling in favor of "professionalism" or "controlling the situation". According to the document, people screaming in pain may not really be hurt, they may just be trying to fool you into letting them go. If they say something like "We're peaceful protestors, why are you doing this?" they're just trying to make you feel bad. If protestor medics come in and try to gain access to protestors who they say need help, those medics may just be trying to disrupt your operations and are subject to arrest. Every natural reaction that people might have to police using violence against them is pre-explained as potentially part of a protestor plan. Needless to say, this is a very dangerous way to train police if the purpose of the training is to do anything but defend property (but of course see the NoDAPL protests for an illustration of what the real purpose of this training is).

* Maybe I missed out on the really well planned protests, but the document assumes that some protests are planned out to a level that seems greater than any actual protest that I've been to. What they seem to have done is taken all of the best planned out elements of any protest that ever happened and merged them into one big potential protest plan. If actual protests were this well organized, protestors would be in great shape. But they generally aren't, and as a result police are largely planning for the wrong thing (if we were going to take the goals of the document seriously) or using these imaginary superprotestors as an excuse for their own increasingly militarized operations (and see above).

Edited to add: the UK is even further along.

ETA (2): "Some protesters will attempt to design fictitious media credentials to gain access to events or special consideration by law enforcement." Unless you work for the NYT or Washington Post, I'm guessing that your press pass is going to be a "fictitious media credential".

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


One of my daughter's close friends, a 13 year old, is at the DAPL protest: her parent is volunteering there as a medic / healer. They arrived on the same day that water protectors tried to clear the highway and were attacked by various police and security forces with rubber bullets, concussion grenades, tear gas, and a fire hose wetting them down in below-zero weather. More than a hundred people were injured; one person had her arm severely injured by a grenade.

News reports called the person whose arm was injured an activist, a perfectly good word for what she was on that day. Around the same time, an article by Astra Taylor in _The Baffler_ informed people that "Activists are types who, by some quirk of personality, enjoy long meetings, shouting slogans, and spending a night or two in jail" and "Activists seem to relish their marginalization, interpreting their small numbers as evidence of their specialness."

When Trump started to win in the primaries, some people brought up violence against anti-Trump protestors at his rallies as unprecedented, as something that signaled a kind of proto-fascism that hadn't been seen in recent America. And they didn't want to hear about the end of Occupy, about the people arrested for wearing the wrong T-shirt at George W Bush rallies, about how almost every protest in America that ever made a difference has involved violence by security forces. That was official violence and, I guess, not as scary to some people as unofficial violence, even though official violence usually additionally results in the victim being arrested and charged.

People in America, in general, reflexively dislike protest and support authority. That's as true for most of the putative left as it is for the right. Liberals are already starting to denounce the anti-Trump protests as violent or just ill-mannered, old-style leftists are eager to denounce protest movements for "individualism", and the right is, of course, bringing out old standards about professional protestors.

The people injured in the #NoDAPL protests are not being injured by fascist brownshirts: they are being injured by traditional American use of state and local security forces. Those forces are just as unimpeded by Obama as they would be by Trump. Maybe Trump will be even worse. But what's happening at the DAPL protests is fully in keeping with American history, especially the history of what happens to native people when their land has some kind of resource.

Protest strategy in the Trump era is going to be difficult to work out. The people newly encouraging protests are the worst kind of fair weather friends: when someone like Jonathan Chait writes "The day after the election, protesters swarmed the streets of major cities shouting that Trump was 'not my president.' Good for them." you know that this good-for-them is going to last about a month before Chait gets alarmed and returns to form.

I'm not encouraged by the recent, brief upsurge in support for protest against Trump. It's not being generalized to cases like the DAPL protests where shocking abuses by security forces are ongoing, because that would involve condemning the system as a whole instead of just half of it. People are too eager to return the system to a nonexistent age in which stability and safety meant that protests really were bad for everybody.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Scott Eric Kaufman

Anyone who knew him will have heard the news already.

I really didn't know him. I only corresponded with him for a while.

I'm evidently going to have the Clash's Stay Free running through my head until I find some way to think about this, so here it is: I once, at his invitation, wrote an extended doggerel / drinking song about his death, adding on to an earlier one about the mishaps that he chronicled. That will have to be it.

[Begin chorus]

They tell of a man from Californiay
Who thought that his diss would be done some day
The Devil looked up, said "I'll make him pay"
So drink one for the troubles of SEK

[end chorus]

Now SEK's list of trials is long
And we'll see who's still standing after this song
He was beat up in high school, he didn't belong
But it was in grad school that things went wrong


And when his thesis had just begun
He turned against Theory, said that wasn't fun
The New Historicism is the one
He's stuck reading and re-reading Jack London


The doctor told him about his thyroid
He didn't want his wife to be annoyed
"If I hide it from everyone I'll stay employed"
So four months of concealment he enjoyed


Now SEK came to his office door
And found two students going at it on the floor
"This will make a good story" he thought before
The Sexual Harassment Office sent letters galore


And when he was down, and his thoughts were thick
His gloom was interrupted by Honda Civic
The car slammed into him and was gone in a lick
At least six months of rehab went by quick


But the most annoying were Internet trolls
Threats of bodily harm will take their toll
They sent letters to his boss, and to every soul
They could find in the whole county's Email roll


He got pictures of the husband of his friend
Having sex with a horde; he thought that was the end
Should he tell her? He went and hit "send"
Now he can't go home, or with thugs he'll contend


After all those troubles, he still wasn't drowned
Well, it was absurd, but this might be the crown
Overpayment of library fines will bring him down
He's no longer a student, just a proper noun


He told us all this when he started a blog
And how fate or the Devil made him jump like a frog
The hiring committee looked on agog
If we hire him -- then our luck will fog


The Devil looked up and laughed and laughed
The diss was done, SEK was on staff
His appointment wasn't tenure track
He'd be lecturing freshman till Hell and back


The Devil liked what he did see
"I'll make SEK live eternally
He'll crush people's souls, and turn them to me
Academics will cry as I laugh with glee"


When the Devil's plans caught up the poor sod
That brought the eye of an angry God
Volcanoes and plagues came down in turn
To stop the Devil, SEK must burn


He looked at his smoldering car in despair
SEK looked up, shook his fist in the air
"I've survived again, and as you can see
There's nothing more you can do to me"


As he raised his arm with a defiant shout
A massive lightning bolt snuffed him out
The electric charge was so whole-hog
A freak power surge erased his blog


And that was the end of SEK
To his memory we drink today
Lest we get his luck, get squashed like a bug
The rest of the bottle we now will chug

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Circular and literal firing squads

Liberals are worried, and the form of that worry is expressed as "we must all come together to fight Trump." So the trope of the circular firing squad comes out. If leftists criticize liberals for losing this election and not defeating Trump -- and for predictably leading us to more Trumps -- then they are forming a circular firing squad, metaphorically shooting at their friends, and so on.

So let's look at what's going on with Snowden. His existence is precarious, to say the least: he lives on Russia's sufferance, and if you believe that Russia wants to make nice with Trump, they could easily ship him off to America for trial, which would be a nice distraction for Trump and would get him some credits with the security state. How would that trial go? Well, Trump's pick for CIA head thinks that Snowden should be executed as a traitor. So we're talking literal firing squads, or some other method of execution.

Needless to say, Snowden is important to the left, for obvious reasons. You would think that he'd be important to people who are interested in encouraging resistance to Trump. After all, we're going to need both Snowden's past information about the security state and the future information of any new whistleblowers in Trump's Presidency who may be either encouraged or frightened by what happens to Snowden.

Obama has the power to stop this. The President can pardon anyone, for any reason, for anything. Obama has said that he doesn't want to and brought up something about Snowden not having presented himself for trial, but Snowden doesn't have to: a Presidential pardon would work anyways. But Obama is not going to, and moreover, I haven't heard anything from the people freaking out about Trump saying that he should.

We aren't allies. People on the left may defend the system, but the system will not defend them in turn. I think that this is a critical realization for everyone to have in the next few months. Keep this in mind as liberals denounce protest, as they are already doing.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Time to work for what you actually believe in

As I mention in comments to the post below, we may be nearing the end of the Sixth Party System in the U.S. The mathematics of how U.S. elections are set up create a two-party stable system, but those parties can be replaced. The same factors that make a third party challenge unviable unforgivingly destroy a second party that falls.

People have been talking about the supposed crash of the GOP for a while, but in a two-party system that is so evenly balanced, it doesn't seem very likely that one could fall and the other remain steady. Really both parties are in horrible shape, and either one of them could go, or both -- transmuted into something else with the same name or outright replaced. This raises the specter of fascism, but it's also the only chance for a sea change in left politics that I've seen in my lifetime.

What are the Democrats preparing to do? They've lost so much power that the GOP is approaching Constitutional Convention levels of possible control. At this critical moment the most visible and outspoken leader, Sanders, has gone back to the Senate as an independent -- he's no longer in the Democratic Party -- internal party politics seems to have shifted to what I think is an inconsequential contest between Keith Ellison and Howard Dean for DNC chair, and David Brock is talking about raising money from billionaires to fight Trump. Yes, the same Brock who spent millions on his organization Correct the Record to scold Sanders supporters on Twitter. Otherwise, the Democratic Party is exhausted, not even capable of thinking about what went wrong.

So at this point people on the left who are interested in electoral politics have pretty much two basic choices. They can dig in to defend the Democrats as the Democratic leadership doesn't defend them, and helplessly accept that GOP control over Supreme Court appointments means control over the law for the next couple of decades. Or they can try to change the system. That means either recapture of the Democratic Party, an institution that was already shown in this election to stack the deck against left challengers, or try to go en masse over to a third party and make it the second.

I think that it's the Green Party's time. Some people are talking about traditional socialist parties, but they aren't horizontalist and have no core commitment to ecological issues, the most important issues of our time. The Green Party also has at least minimal political infrastructure in place that no traditional socialist party has.

But really, this is a rare time when the lesser evil has dropped out and it's possible for people to make a real decision, at least for themselves. What do you actually believe in? You no longer need to give that up in favor of something practical, because the lesser evil has failed. When I write "futility is freedom", people think that it's nihilism or it's a joke, and it's at least partially a joke. But it's partially true. People now have the responsibility not of gritting their teeth and doing the responsible thing, but of deciding what they want and working with other people to bring that about, even if the chances of success are no better than they ever actually were.

Edited to add: the Intercept. I'm not impressed by the GOP's willingness to examine its errors: they ended up winning for following none of their own recommendations. Really the two parties are flailing around within a dysfunctional system.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Ignore all of the people who guided you to this point

I've been reading liberal blogs and articles, and the foolishness from all sides is too much to bear without comment. I'll go over some of the supposed solutions:

1. "Let's get rid of the Electoral College!"

Really -- how? Let's wait until the electoral left is at its lowest point of power, having lost the Presidency, Senate, House, and Supreme Court, and then push through massive changes to the political system. Maybe we could do this if there really was bipartisan agreement. Just writing that sentence makes it clear how ridiculous this is: it's the Grand Compromise all over again. Included in this category are all similar large-scale official structural solutions.

2. "It's time for us all to work together against Trump!"

Really? Why should people on the left want to work with neoliberals who through their actions created the opportunity for Trump to arise? How are we allies?

People are pointing out the horrors of an autocrat with access to mass surveillance, Presidential powers, the politicized security state, official torture, the prison system, the INS, etc. Liberals were fine with all of that as long as Obama was doing it. They have no principled objection and no real interest in removing these state structures: they only want them to be used by their side, and they were demonstrably ineffectual at doing anything about them when they were in power. Well, if liberals want to work together, maybe they can work on the left's projects, but that's difficult because the left really is not vanguardist and has no way of keeping liberals from guiding these projects back into the same tired failure.

3. "Let's do lots of small scale, virtuous things."

No -- this isn't the time to let political action be diverted into the usual personal virtue signaling and meaningless volunteerism for small scale solutions to problems that are large scale. If there was any time to turn back to large-scale politics, it's now. It doesn't really matter which American political party is the one to crack up: moving politics forwards requires that one of them does. The largest danger at the moment is that the Democratic Party gets reconstituted just as it was and then gets the inevitable win that will happen when the GOP flares out. If you're into electoral politics, join the Green Party or make a socialist one. If you're not, join or the local chapter of BLM or something else. Stop putting your personal energy into organizations that will disempower you and start putting them into ones in which your allies are your actual allies.

4. "Let's double down on scolding people."

If you spent the political season talking about the deplorables or the horrible Bernie Bro left, then you are part of the problem. Please break yourself of this before you go out into the political arena again. Do you need someone's help with something? Then don't start out by saying that they suck. You don't think that you need their help? But really you do, it turns out, if you want to do something like win an election.

I realize that there is tension between these points, of course. Figure out those contradictions for yourself. So many of our political problems are problems of scale and of choosing the right scale for organizations and efforts: what works at one scale will not if you go higher or lower. I'll write about this more later on.

Edited to add: more here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Glad to be an anarchist today

There's really one main argument for the U.S. Democratic Party: pragmatism. The lesser evil is still evil, but it is supposed to have the counterbalancing advantage that it can win, and therefore displace even worse results. Without victory, it is nothing. No large constituency loves free trade agreements, "humanitarian" wars, mass surveillance and an economy for the elites. People do have critical interests in reproductive rights, anti-racism, and feminism, but those themselves have been demoted to lesser-evil status -- no one was promising a bold new advance in reforming medical care, the prisons, immigration, or the police, but only to hold back the worst.

And now it hasn't won. On the contrary, it has lost so completely as to make it obvious that engagement with it is futile. Sanders tried what people are always (patronizingly) told to do: run within the system, pull the party to the left. He was predictably defeated by a corrupt party apparatus, and I don't see how his run is going to make any lasting difference. The groundwork for this election was laid in every respect by Obama's Presidential failure (ACA's meltdown, no good economic recovery, no pulling the bandaid off the global warming crisis quickly, no prosecutions of bankers or other action against the financial industry) and now the result is here. But of course the problem goes beyond Obama to the Democratic Party's entire political class.

I invite people to reconsider anarchism. Not because there is supposed to be some kind of blueprint for the future waiting in some dusty file somewhere. But because most peoples' thinking is wrong, and they could stand to give up on their current certainties. The left makes many errors, and has had many failures, but one thing that it generally can't do and remain the left is to dismiss large segments of the populace as racists and sexists who have to be suppressed and who have no real grievances. Try relating to people as if you are yourself and they are themselves, rather than identifying yourself with a state or a party, and then think about what this suppression really involves, who you are really trying to convince, and how. How do you get allies? What would one of the Rust Belt voters who Trump won over take from what you're saying?

The need for a left that is against all the hierarchies of unjust power is as great as ever. But the pragmatic solution of going along with the lesser evil is not actually pragmatic. It's time to toss it and go on. Political action is going to be necessary now more than ever, but people can't let that action go within the channels of a system that's failed.

Edited to add some links (not anarchist ones): Glenn Greenwald, Jeffrey St. Clair. Anarchism doesn't really have the temperament or resources for instant pundit reactions, but these will do.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Russians Are Coming

"the companies think it's time we all sit down, have a serious get-together-

And start another war” *

When I went walking, the world to see, five people came to talk with me. The first was a boy who was missing a nose. He said that the good that we do only grows. The next was a man without any hands

"Hell, Afghanistan's no fun
So whadya say?
We don't even have to win this war.” *

"We had Libya all ready to go and Colonel Khadafy's hit squad
didn't even show up. I tell ya
That man is unreliable.“ *

"He died knowing that even his soul was not safe from the hell-blade borne by the wolf-faced albino.” *

"But none of that helps now that the UK army can barely deploy a brigade of infantry, or field a working aircraft carrier, or prevent Russian war planes buzzing Dorset.” *

Who said that simple joys make no demands. The third was

Even though a loop can go on endlessly, and you can see another column right there, you'll never get there. Not in 30 years. Or maybe it's a Mobius strip and you'll get there no matter what

"Doing homework?”

"No, writing a poem”

growing up you think of your mental background as songs but write enough and there comes a time when your mental soundtrack is primarily things you've written and read

"Are you believing the morning papers?
War is coming back in style
There's generals here, advisors there
And Russians nibbling everywhere” *

"In the name of world peace
In the name of world profits
America pumps up our secret police
America wants fuel
To get it, it needs puppets
So what's ten million dead?
If it's keeping out the Russians” *

"On its cover, repeatedly displayed on the TV screens of TVO’s viewers, is the Symbol of Chaos —Dugin’s no less malevolent version of the swastika.” *

"You want me to explain to you how Europe’s Gaslighting Abusive Boyfriend is a threat to the country I happen to live in?” *

When people dream beauty, and decide to write, they write trees in glory, trees in the day. But I find my dreaming slipping away to trees in the fog and mysterious night

I lie to her too. I tell her that everything is basically going OK // postmodernism can be a jumble of quotes from low culture sources and some self reference

My friends laughed when I listened to the Dead Kennedys in 1985 it was supposed to be my youth not 2015

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Dakota Access Pipeline protests

Police actions against people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline are heating up. Pepper spray and attack dogs were used against protestors on September 3, police issued arrest warrants for reporter Amy Goodman and Presidential candidate Jill Stein, and on October 27 the National Guard was called out to clear the protest camps, using LRAD devices, tear gas, pepper spray, armored tanks, and bean bag rounds. I recommend this piece, which reminds people that this is a continuation of centuries-long violence against native people.

Many calls have been made for Obama to intervene, or for Hillary Clinton to make a statement about this other than her bland noncommittal one. I joined in these pro forma calls, but I predict that Obama will do nothing, and so will HRC when she wins. Obama did nothing as the Occupy movement had its camps destroyed by police. His last 100 days will be no different from the rest of his 8 year term. As for HRC, she will be busy wasting her first 100 days on whatever minimalist agenda she thinks she can pass.

More simply, this is how the American state handles protest -- then and now. From charges under the 1917 Espionage Act that destroyed the IWW and that are being used against Snowden, to the long history of military troops used against native people throughout the history of the U.S. and up to today.

Thursday, October 27, 2016


I just started using Twitter, and now I'm going to write the same complaints that everyone probably writes about Twitter.

1. Pictures

What does everyone know about Twitter? The 140 character limit. But of course no one can write anything worthwhile in 140 characters. So, since Twitter allows you to attach a picture as well, that is what everyone does. Not only does every nonprofit group using Twitter have to come up with a picture or cartoon or at least a graphic to put under whatever they're talking about, but other people have resorted to *taking a picture of their extra text" and putting that up.

Let's say that you want to quote something from one of these extra-text blocks. What do you do, trim the picture to make a little irregularly sized area around the words you want? Someone has typed something in and their writing was in Unicode or ASCII, which you can copy and paste as writing, and now it's in a bunch of pixels which you can't. It's the same thing that happened with old-style PDF files, and it's a Lovecraftian information-destroying horror.


OK, how much effort would it take Twitter to not show you retweets of a tweet that you've already seen? It can't be much programming effort, since every tweet has to have a unique ID floating around somewhere. But they haven't wanted to do this -- who knows why -- and as a result, when you're interested in something, you're going to see every major occurrence connected with it complete with its picture a whole lot of times. Why?

3. Ads

Since 2010 Twitter has been not-making-a-profit on its "sponsored tweets" which it jams right into your timeline whether you like it or not. Hulu now lets you pay to not see ads, which of course people do, and Web sites in general either do the obnoxious ad popup thing in which case you never go back or sullenly let you use an adblocker. There are Twitter clients with adblockers as well, but they have certain problems which make them less tenable. Twitter itself will let you opt out of ad personalization, which only means that you'll still get the same number of ads, they just will pretend that they aren't tracking you. Twitter has the same advantage as any other social media company that entrenches itself in its space, but this has to be a vulnerability.

4. Timelines

OK, let's say that you turn off the wonderful algorithmic timeline and get something that bears some relationship to Newtonian time. Then, unless I'm missing something, Twitter is apparently unable to remember where you were on your timeline if you last looked at it on some other machine. Maybe non-Euclidian timelines have to be turned off on each machine? Who programs things this way anymore?

New data blog

I've started a new blog -- creatively named Rich Puchalsky's Data Blog -- for people who want to read about environmental and financial data issues without having to read through poetry, SF criticism, non-data politics etc.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Happiness and Success! A short three act play

Every now and then I write a satirical short three act play in Crooked Timber comments. It normally takes 15 minutes to write them, so I don't save them, but this one, I think, catches the mood of the current U.S. election better than any other 15 minute piece I could write. It was originally here.


People should be warned that the levels of meaning and allusion in this play are exceptionally subtle and nuanced: I’m not sure that anyone will understand it immediately. But keep studying it and various symbol-systems may cohere.

Also: trigger warning for eyeball eating and other violence.

Happiness and Success!
A short three act play

Act I
(A WOMAN and A MAN are sitting at a picnic table).

A WOMEN: “I hate this election season. It’s so bitter this year. It’s like our whole civilization is under threat!” [She stabs a fork down into the tray in front of her, pulls out a human eyeball, and eats it.]

A MAN: “Yes, this election isn’t like any other one I’ve heard of. I’m really worried.”

A WOMAN: “I do my best to make things better… I even eat free range eyeballs. “

A MAN: “Free range *people*, honey. It’s not really correct to objectify parts of people that way.”

A WOMAN: “Oh, yes, of course. That’s what that horrible SECOND CANDIDATE does! I can’t believe that for a moment I sounded like SECOND CANDIDATE!” [She eats another eyeball.]

A MAN: “FIRST CANDIDATE will win, if only those young people vote. I don’t know what their problem is, complaining that we ate their eyes and everything.”

A WOMAN: “And they’re so nasty. They even insulted Gloria Steinem!”

Act II
(A circle of GUARDS in standing in the middle of a crowd: each GUARD is holding a leveled automatic weapon. Throughout the scene the GUARDS keep up a low, menacing chant of “KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!” A small group of NIHILISTS stands nearby holding various protest signs.)

A MAN: “He’s running away! KILL!” (A GUARD shoots a running man in the back.)

A WOMAN: “I want to feel safe! KILL!” (Another GUARD shoots three people in the crowd.)

ANOTHER MAN: “Our society is racist! We won’t protect people from dictators.”

ANOTHER WOMAN: “Eh, join in.”

ANOTHER MAN: “All right, I want to fully participate in our society! KILL! KILL!” (GUARDS mow down five more people).

ANOTHER WOMAN: “Law and order! KILL!”

ANOTHER MAN: “Responsibility 2 Protect! KILL!”

A NIHILIST (holding a placard which reads “Maybe we should kill fewer people”): “Um–“

GUARD: “Get back to the free speech zone, sir! Otherwise I will have to KILL!”

A NIHILIST: “Sorry! Going back now!”

ANOTHER MAN: “Racist!”

(the public square. There are happy people, balloons, etc.)

A MAN: “The votes are almost in. I think it’s going to go for FIRST CANDIDATE!”

A WOMAN: “I’m so happy! I love democracy!”

A MAN: “She’s going to win … I’m filled with hope!”

A WOMAN: “By working together we can all figure out how to succeed at whatever we want to do! I’m so happy and full of joy!”

A DIFFERENT MAN: “The votes are in! FIRST CANDIDATE wins!”

The CROWD cheers. FIRST CANDIDATE smilingly takes a machine gun from one of the guards and mows down ten people.

SECOND CANDIDATE: “Eh, she’s still a loser. I would have killed twenty people, because I’m a winner!”


YET ANOTHER WOMAN: “I’m so proud that she’s shown our daughters that anything is possible. Now my little girl will know that she can grow up to kill lots of people just like any man!”

The crowd starts to sing. Even A NIHILIST is pulled in.

“We’re happy and we’re right”
“And oh so polite”
“We know we can succeed”
“And darkness recede”
“Because the killing future is so bright!”

(People are swirling around, laughing, munching on eyeballs, firing weapons into the crowd.)

“Now with this great leap”
“We’ve beaten that creep”
“The election is over”
“And we’re in clover”
“And now it’s time to sleep”

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Listen, Neoliberal

Thomas Frank's book _Listen, Liberal_ has a central problem: it describes U.S. political neoliberalism in detail but never makes the jump to calling it something other than liberalism. As a result, it's never quite sure what it's recommending. Something about going back to how liberalism was during the New Deal era -- but what was it then, and can we really go back to that now, and how would we get there?

Before writing more about his book I'll give a short description of what I think neoliberalism is: neoliberalism is the ideology of the global managerial class. It encompasses leading political neoliberals such as Clinton(s), Blair, and Obama, Eurocrats, the upper management of multinationals, the management of large NGOs, higher-up Chinese Communist Party members, and everyone else who comes together to make the current world system work via characteristic international agreements and arrangements. It may more or less be held as an ideology by middle management, and by most professional economists and international functionaries, but it has no mass base as such. Neoliberalism in policy becomes free trade agreements, austerity, the inability to address income inequality, free rides for banks, and general politics under the rubric of "there is no alternative" as elites loot whatever they can loot. Neoliberalism is a liberalism, and depends on conservatism being more objectionable than it is (and the left being generally absent), but it is not left-liberalism, and it is not classical liberalism since it exists within a system that has contemporary political actors in it.

Neoliberalism obeys the dictates of the elite without, itself, being composed of a classical wealth-owning elite: neoliberals are often very wealthy, but they are managers of other people's wealth rather than capitalists as such. But there is no base anywhere that demands austerity or the TPP, so neoliberalism always pretends to be a vaguely left centrism, and adopts left ideas on racism, sexism, homophobia and so on in the sense that it ideally treats people as meritocratically chosen.

Distinguishing neoliberalism from the remnant New Deal or left-liberal base of the Democratic Party might have been a good thing for Frank's book to do, but it doesn't. Looking up "neoliberalism" in the index, first the book mentions the U.S. Neoliberals of the early 1980s, then it refers to NAFTA in 1993 as a landmark of neoliberalism, but there's nothing about how we got from one meaning of the word to the other. This is a common confusion: there are still people who insist that neoliberalism is a word that describes a U.S. movement of the early 1980s that then disappeared, or Britain under Thatcher. But the rest of the world outside the U.S. has long since settled on the word "neoliberalism" to describe a worldwide politics and a worldwide system. Using it only in its anglosphere-historical sense is parochial.

As a result of not being able to call neoliberals neoliberals, Thomas Frank has no real way to describe what happened other than by going through a lot of detail, most of which will be long familiar to any left reader in the U.S. There's a lot about Clinton, Obama, and the prospective HRC Presidency. I really didn't learn much from the bulk of the book, other than that microlending has failed and indeed is rather like a predatory payday loan scheme for people outside of the U.S. (something which I should have suspected, in retrospect). It would be a good book to read for someone who still thinks that Obama is a left-liberal and who expects that from HRC. But Frank's analysis is a bit off when he identifies professionals as "the 10%" who support contemporary-Democratic-Party politics. Professionals broadly may be sympathetic to neoliberalism and certainly to meritocracy, but they don't broadly have the power to maintain a neoliberal system or the numbers to be a voting base for it.

Frank seems to believe that the Democratic Party can return to something like a New Deal coalition, something that I think is impossible. The system has moved on and can't be glued back together. The state fundamentally doesn't need most people and is looking for ways to shed them -- ways which neoliberalism makes possible -- and labor doesn't have the power that it once did, not because of the machinations of the elites (although those certainly are happening) but because we don't need as much labor or the same kind of labor as we once did. A new party of the non-elites is going to have to be based on something other than labor power, something that Frank's analysis isn't far enough from the mainstream to guess at. That said, this will still a useful book for some people.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Pokemon Go Biodiversity

One of first things that I noticed about Pokemon Go was the "realistic" way in which the creatures that you found were like the species that predominate in a disturbed environment. If you live in a place that's mostly parking lots alternating with scrub, you're going to see generalist, opportunistic species, not highly coevolved specialists. And so it is with Pokemon Go. Wander around (in New England, anyways) and what you see is Pokemon rats, pigeons, sparrows, and weeds. Ok, Weedle is an insect larva, not a weed, but you get the idea.

Biologists have already started commenting on the Pokemon/biology fieldwork intersection and the #PokeBlitz hashtag, so hope is gamely being kept alive that this will interest people in real creatures. I think the results are going to be mixed. The game encourages a lot of stop-and-go walking in which you're looking down at your cellphone screen a lot, so you're less likely to notice anything unusual about your actual surroundings. On the other hand, it does get people outside more. I've seen people playing the game sitting inside in highly trafficked locations (when a lot of people have the app open in one place, there will be Pokemon) and you can catch Pokemon as a passenger in a car. But to hatch Pokemon eggs you have to walk (or bike) pretty significant distances: riding in a car won't do it.

Still, my son has already told me that it would be interesting if you could take pictures of real animals that you see and "capture" them as Pokemon-like virtual creatures. Even in the college town that I live in, there are actual charismatic megafauna around. (I generally see black bears once a year, hawks, and once a flock of five wild turkeys scratching their way through the woods. Even my yard has had rabbits, mice, and praying mantises living in it.) Pokemon's diminished biodiversity may be "realistic" in some sense, but I still wonder whether it's giving an impression that the biological world is in the end as limited in its variation as Pokemon is.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

You're the problem with the left

Ever wanted to tell someone that the left (however defined) would be better off without them? That they aren't simply wrong, but actually make the left worse than it would otherwise be? Here's a handy guide.

(This was originally written in blog comments somewhere. George Scialabba wrote that I should turn it into an essay, but I don't really do essays, so it's here as is. Someone else thought it was a list of "wrongthinks", and it wasn't intended to be: each of the kinds of reasons below can sometimes be true, but more often they're just rhetorical ways of amping up one's disapproval of someone.)

I’ve arranged the various types of reasons in something like what I consider to be increasing order of attempted rhetorical force, though this ordering probably tells more about me than anything else.

1. Unintended consequences. “X is a sincere revolutionary, but X can’t see that trying for a revolution is what the state wants and they’d just use it as an excuse to crush us.”

2. Structural / continuing consequences. “X believes that the left-liberal order is a good thing and I agree that left-liberals have made some progress, but X doesn’t see that preserving the liberal order is what keeps us from having real socialism.”

3. Ignorance / non-reflection. “Poor X still can’t see he writes using white male privilege. I wish that he’d take the time to educate himself before he keeps going.”

4. Personal motivation. “Yeah, X has done a lot for social democracy, but who benefits from that? Mostly social democratic bosses like X.” “If only those purists weren’t so eager to get radical cred that makes them feel good about themselves, they’d see that we have to accept the lesser evil because it does real good for people.” (the LGM special)

5. Collective motivation. “X knows what’s going on when they talk about how good the New Deal was. They’re trying to preserve a system that’s sort of on the left but really it’s mostly good for people like X.”

6. Neener neener. “X is too chickenshit to be a real radical.” “Sure, X says they’re a radical, but they’re just looking for an excuse to hurt people.”

7. Bad seed. “I’ve seen ambitious attention seekers like X, and they really want to be one of the enforcers for the ruling class.”

8. Factual. “X is a police provocateur.”

Saturday, May 7, 2016

some notes towards: four most overwritten subjects / inside and outside

some notes towards: four most overwritten subjects / inside and outside

Cats outside run through grass
Leaping, amazed at new freedom
Meow at humans, noses scratched
Appear again days later, thinner
Cats outside get admired by Charles Bukowski

Cats inside look outside
Casting glares at the rustle in the bushes
Growl as they strike down mice
Sit in laps, unlike anything else
Cats inside get ruffled up by Stevie Smith

If you take your cat on a leash
It will be both inside and outside at once
It will run up trees as you walk
Yowl when it can go no higher, leap down
Stuck in an uncomfortable third dimension

Cats are human, pretty much
House cats, we made them
Even outside wandering through our tunnels

Clouds outside make days different
From other days, in the quality of light
Or they make Rorschach shapes
Clouds outside love the pathetic fallacy
And wander around lonely

Clouds inside seep in as fog
And can't be seen, only felt on skin
You can only see them with distance
Invisible they mean sad or confused
Clouds come inside on little cat feet

Clouds high up can be inside and outside
Like a foggy hut on a mountaintop
Or when you fly in a plane through one
Though maybe only if it crashes
If the plane breaks in half, the cloud comes inside

Clouds might as well be human
We think they are so persistently
Only rarely does their real scale hit the sublime

Poetry outside happens in ovals and circles
Wind rustling pages, eyes glancing up
To check clouds for rain
There is always something blustery about it
Poetry outside is Robert Frost and freestyle

Poetry inside is where it's supposed to live
In books, or in hearts if you want to be poetic
In minds, clouded by words
In the thoughts of someone in a crashing plane
Of a childhood book with practical cats

The easiest way to resolve is go backwards
Before there were words or understanding
Before cats evolved, before there were clouds
Before the Earth formed an atmosphere
Before an inside or an outside, there was poetry

Poetry is inhuman
Everywhere the Earth from the beginning
No voices are needed

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

You have more than one vote

It's a year divisible by four, so discussions of voting in American politics are inescapable. Four years ago I wrote about how not voting can be an important social signal and about who voters are actually negotiating with. This time I'll point out that people actually have more than one vote, at least in the U.S., and fully legally -- because they can turn out other votes. So the question of what they should do with "their vote" is silly.

First, some basics. An activist is someone who takes action in order to try to cause some political effect. Activists are generally not hired to do this, which is what differentiates them from professional political operatives, but that's not important at the moment. In the U.S., there are two main paths for activism: non-electoral activism and electoral activism.

Activists generally want to have the largest effect that they can, so they usually end up looking for multipliers to their individual effort. The classic multiplier is to become an organizer of other people. So a non-electoral activist goes from participating in protests to organizing protests. An electoral activist goes from attending rallies to activities like volunteering for a candidate or party's ground turnout operation.

The U.S. has something like 40% of its eligible voters not vote, so there's a huge pool of voters to turn out. Each voter who would not have otherwise voted but whom you got to the polls produces an extra vote that would not have existed if not for your efforts. So each person potentially "has" a large number of votes. How many votes can a volunteer expect to turn out? I'm not familiar with the technical aspects of this, since I'm a non-electoral activist, but here's a sample article. I imagine that a volunteer might be able to turn out 100 votes or more.

So all of the endless agonizing about who to vote for, whether it's moral to vote or not vote, whether you have responsibility for the action of voting or the inaction of not voting, is all kind of beside the point. People who are seriously committed to having a measurable impact on this process have long since decided what to do and are doing it. If electoral activists were boasting among themselves about how many people each of them turned out, that would be fine: activists get little enough reward so that a little boasting is a good thing, and it would probably quickly turn into an exchange of technical details among the group that would help each other. But the discussions of how to use an individual vote are pointless and usually deployed simply for moral leverage. They reduce an issue to individual virtue: is someone a good person or not for doing an almost entirely symbolic act.