Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson 1958-2009

The rest of the internet has had their say, so why shouldn't I?

I think this Obit on Daily Kos gets a lot of things right.

Some have wondered if the allegations that Jackson was guilty of child abuse should be playing a larger role in our collective remembering of the man's life.

I think that, in a way, Jackson epitomized the obsession with the pedophile as monster in America at the turn of the millennium. A monster at once genuinely evil and completely pathetic. An evil so queer, so far from ourselves that we can hate it without any reservation. Without ever seeing the monster in the mirror. And weak. Jackson's frail frame assuring us that this is a creature that could only feed on children, that we ourselves could confront it safely and easily.

I am reminded of a certain creepy hanger-on to my group of friends when I was an undergraduate, a poor, broken thing with an unfortunate habit of leering at other people's girlfriends. I confronted him once, brandishing a baseball bat. Oh, the supreme confidence I felt, assured of moral righteousness and an easy victory.

How easy it was, in that moment, to forget my own monstrosity, my own violence...

Oh, but of course some will protest, "that is not at all the same, a pedophile's crimes are far worse."

True enough. But is our response, the space they hold in our collective unconscious really proportional to their crime? Or are we propelled by the same impulse that lead me to that ridiculous confrontation in a dormitory parking lot (and ultimately an anti-climactic one, as the creepy little man held his ground! I stormed off frustrated) the impulse to find someone both weak and evil, the better to forget the evil lurking in our own souls, and the evils committed by those strong enough that we fear to confront them (knowing, of course, that it is our cowardice that allows those evils to continue).

Jackson was a brilliant artist and, as the Kos eulogist puts in so beautifully,a dismembered soul. We, of course, held the knives. To what extent does that make us complicit in any crimes he might have committed?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

I didn't get to be an Astronaut when I grew up

But now I can exchange 140 character or less messages with them!

Some of you may remember this post from awhile ago, wherein I speculated on the possibility of using a spacecraft on a suborbital trajectory to make a super-fast trans-Atlantic flight.

Of course, once I found an actual shuttle astronaut on twitter I had to see if he could confirm my idea. The shuttle, you see, has the ability to glide to a landing at emergency landing strips in Spain and Africa if something goes wrong with the main engines during liftoff. That's a fairly similar flight plan to the one I speculated about in my post. Not quite exactly the same, but probably the closest thing anyone has ever planned for or simulated (no shuttle mission has ever had to actually use the emergency landing option).

So I asked him in a tweet how long it the flight would take, lift-off to landing.

His response, "Roughly 30 minutes"

Which was my prediction! Go me!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Andy's Rules of Networked Subjectivity

Rule 1 - The Phenomenology of Memetic Epidemiology: When the nodes of a given network are richly interconnected, and the connections between nodes are very fast, any new phenomenon spreading through the network will, from the point of view of any one node, seem to appear nearly simultaneously from several points of origin.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Missing the Point

There was a time I had a great deal of sympathy for the Libertarians. Those days are waning.

It doesn't help when they trot out bits of flimsy argument like this article by Brendan O'Neill posted today on Reason Online.

In it, O'Neill criticizes what he sees as the unfair treatment of Bill O'Reilly and other right-wing talking heads who, he writes, have been implicated in the recent murder of George Tiller "in the kangaroo court of liberal opinion." O'Neill argues that, "rather than seeing this dreadful killing as the action of a probably crazed individual, too many liberal commentators are discussing it as the logical outcome of the "dangerous" words and images propagated by O'Reilly and others." O'Neill makes the case that this represents a liberal version of the "'"effects theory,' the idea that certain of speech are so irresponsible and inflammatory that they can easily provoke unhinged individuals to take unhinged actions." This serves, in O'Neill's view, to improperly shift responsibility for violence away from individuals who actually commit violent acts, where he believes it belongs, and onto individuals who, like O'Reilly have merely expressed their opinion on a controversial matter "vividly." Attempting to hold speakers, rather than actors, responsible is unacceptable to O'Neill as it blurs, "the distinction between words and actions" and, in his mind, threatens to create an environment of pervasive censorship. He writes,

To seek to restrict a broadcaster's speech on the basis that it might inflame viewers to do something awful is an insult to all of us, since we're treated as little more than dumb attack dogs that hear "orders" and then carry them out. And to seek to restrict speech on the basis that it might coax one or two unhinged loners to do something awful would be turn society into the equivalent of a lunatic asylum, where everyone watches their words and controls their tone of voice just in case they give a madman the wrong impression.

It is in his repeated invocation of that essential libertarian figure, the individual, that Mr. O'Neill misses the point.

Th danger is not that Bill O'Reilly's rhetoric will somehow turn otherwise safe individuals into killers through the sheer power of its language alone, as if by magic. Nor is it that we must restrict O'Reilly's language because it is dangerous if individual members of some class of people imagined as being especially susceptible to outside influence, like children or people suffering from mental illness, should happen to be exposed to it.

Rather, the problem is that Bill O'Reilly, and many of his fellow "mainstream" public opinion makers on the Right are part of a larger right-wing movement, one that includes violent, extremest elements. Glenn Greenwald and David Neiwart, among others, have done painstaking, remarkable work documenting this movement and how it functions. It is not that O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh et. al. are all part of some literal conspiracy along with men such as Scott Roeder (Dr. Tiller's assassin), or more organized violent elements of the right-wing such as the Militia movement, the Minutemen, or the Klu Klux Klan. Rather, "mainstream" right wing talk TV and talk radio cultivate a sense of shared cultural and social identity with these groups. By adopting the violent rhetoric of these groups, as O'Reilly did when he called Tiller a "Baby Killer" and ranted that the Democratic Governor of Kansas had "blood on her hands," these "mainstream" pundits become part of a larger social formation. They benefit from their participation, as extremists and their fellow travelers make lucrative and devoted fans for their programs. Extremist movements also benefit when national media figures like O'Reilly co-opt their ideas since they gain ideological cover for their positions, and access to huge national audiences.

To put it more briefly, it is not that Mr. O'Reilly's program is the equivalent of Grand Theft Auto, it is that his program is analogous to Radio Hutu.

Thus it is neither Scott Roeder, alleged murderer, nor Bill O'Reilly, public speaker, who are the whole story as individuals, though clearly the law will and should find Mr. Roeder legally accountable for his actions. Rather it is the ways in which the two of them are linked in a larger cultural formation. Doubtless Mr. O'Neill would find this entire line of argument ludicrous and distasteful. For him, the individual is the end all and be all of decision making and agency, whereas I believe human beings exist in cultures that fundamentally shape their actions and beliefs. I leave it to the reader to decide which of our models of human nature he or she finds more plausible.

I will, however, agree with O'Neill about this. O'Reilly should not be censored. Not because it would somehow be unethical, but because it would not work. Using the blunt instrument of the law to drive a movement like this underground without building a strong, broadly based coalition against it would simply leave it to fester, and return even more dangerous. Instead, what is crucial is to make ever more public the links Greenwald, Neiwert and others have found between "mainstream" right wing thought and racism, violence, and other broadly unappealing forms of action, to force those within the movement uncomfortable with murder and hate to reconsider their actions, and to galvanize public opinion against these hateful and ultimately self-defeating ideas.