published by Zero Dutch on Fri, 11/30/2012 - 19:50
Last weekend, I watched Alien for the first time. My reaction? “How quaint.”
I’ll be the first person to admit that it was not an ideal viewing situation. It was immediately after a rough loss by all that is sacred and good to the forces of evil, at three o’clock in the afternoon, and I was one stiff drink short of Christopher Hitchens. Moreover, I am not Alien’s target audience. I prefer my sci-fi on the cerebral or actiony side, or better yet, one of the greatsci-fitelevisionfranchises that can throw some horror in the mix from time to time but explore other themes and genres at the same time. Long story short, with the exception of fake-blood-by-the-hogshead slasher flicks, horror is not necessarily a turn-off so much as not what I’m there to see. Horror is like Brussels sprouts. I’ll eat them if they’re put in front of me but I’m not going to look for them on a menu.
But that’s not why I was disappointed in Alien. And it’s not Alien’s fault that it comes off quaint to my eyes. Rather, it has been a victim of its own success, both in the expectations it has set and in the entire generation of sci-fi/horror it has inspired.
I’m horrified when I think about the shit I got up to online, as young as thirteen. My mother let me do things I’d never let my son do in a million fucking years, but those things were deeply formative, so I honestly don’t know who is in the right. My “peer group” then consisted largely of childless adult proto-nerds, real Mark-I models, the almost exclusively male cloister that would eventually pass the mantle to us.
I have seriously been concerned about this, namely, what degree and type of internet freedom should we offer our own progeny when the situation arises? I was pretty much untethered and unsupervised, online, as a kid; mostly, this is because my parents were still roughly at the "How do you copy-paste?" level of technological aptitude until after I departed for college, and had no idea what was "out there." I largely stayed out of trouble (in that, I did not get caught or in any way suffer consequences for the illegal shit I may have done) but that seems as much luck as skill.
Well, almost perfect. There was one clunky scene which should have had its cameo removed, been re-written to use an existing character, and trimmed. But that did not come close to derailing, I'm going to say it, the best movie ever made by humans.
It is not "like" one of those ideas you and your friends come up with after a really inspired 3AM bull session and wake up to realize could never actually be made. It is that idea. They made it. They crushed it. It exists now.
Derbendammerung was a bigger moment for the media than I would have guessed. News wonks knew about him so they gave their take on his broken career. Some were good, most were lazy. One rang my bell.
There are, for example, no black Fields Medal winners. Derbyshire calls this fact “civilizationally consequential." Really? If you follow Derbyshire's link, you'll find that the Fields Medal is awarded for outstanding discoveries in mathematics. It has been given to 10 people in this century and to another dozen or so since the first cohort of post-desegregation students reached the age at which top-level math achievement could be assessed.
That’s an absurdly small sample on which to base any claim about the mathematical ability of a minority population. (If every Fields Medal were awarded to an American, on a proportional basis you'd expect one black recipient in this century rather than zero.) The list of Fields Medal winners tells you nothing about blacks. But it tells you a lot about Derbyshire.
True. That is one of Derb's many questionable "measures" of the success of races of people. Hell, all of those words should have scare quotes, but I don't do cocaine so my arms get tired.
No black people in your lifetime won a Fields Medal? To most of us that would be as much a measurement as no citizens of Okinawa have ever won Miss Vermont. When were those chances generated in the cosmic lottery? By whom? The medal is for science. The medal is not science.
Which brings me to Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Astrophysicist, educator, Great American. Planet-killer.*
Walk away. Leave the helmet. No one gets hurt.
Tyson, once, in the course of making several great points, said a really dumb thing. Right here (8:30):
Nobel prizes won by Jews vs. Nobel prizes won by Muslims. Ow. What. Jewish people are disproportionate Nobel winners for so many reasons that have nothing to do with Islamic mysticism. Some of them great. Like a tenacious culture of education and ambition fostered across the Middle East and Europe and now America. Some of them awful. Like the relative odds of surviving as a Jewish person of middle-intelligence and quiet, average temperament in the centuries between Masada and Shoa. Safe people get to be more average. This might say something about how to um, impact groups so that they achieve high per-survivor yields of Nobel Prizes, but is probably not what Tyson wants to mean.
Also, as a result of these and a hundred other trends, there were a lot of Jewish people in Western Europe and California when they happened to be giving out Nobels. I don't think you could say in 1205 that they had a cultural plan to be there and do a lot of math, or that their Muslim governors had a cultural plan to not.
And what does any of this have to do with whether Baghdad deserved or did not deserve to be burned to the ground by middle Asians in the 12th century, just after Tyson's thesis event? Would there even be a Nobel Prize if one man had not died in Mongolia forty years later? And what does that have to do with Egyptians under British rule not winning a Scandinavian academic award, another iteration of which was saved for the enlightened and world-improving Henry Kissinger?
Objectively, among all people, we are the greatest advocates for peace.
Awards are not given by gods. They are given by people in places. They are given expecting something back. They are given to build particular communities. I don't doubt that the Fields and Nobel committees evaluate the real science. But to achieve visibility to them in the first place, it is helpful to be born on land that was Mongol-free in 1305 or redcoat-free in 1805, or conversely, a place which was redcoat-full in 1805, but is not so now. I'd claim Abu Al-Ghazali and liberal Jewish theology have very little to tell us about those things. That evaluating these broad ideas in some kind of cosmic horse race by counting Swedeish trophies is dumb enough to give me whiplash in an otherwise cool lecture.
Is this recent? The shiny psudeomeasurements? Cute facts about obvious things that Reveal Big Trends? The huckster tricks employed by Malcolm Gladwell or David Brooks? Maybe Tyson saw too many people rewarded for comparing sumo wrestlers to bagels.
Too bad. Most of the time you can't tell something about, say, the "essential character" of "Indonesians" by what matchbooks they buy or what sports they excel at. Sports are largely geography and matchbooks are accidents of commerce. You could count them. But what are you counting?
Tyson and Derbyshire share acres of mental real estate (however much Derb twists his vision to never find that out). The amateur and the professional are both men of science, skepticism, curiosity, and a concern with the future of those traits in our people. Each in his own way wants to be rigorous. Each wants to state only things he can know, and demonstrate.
Each still, in weak or rambling moments, reaches for the god prize. The shiny thing given by someone else which will settle all arguments.
If they, especially Tyson, can't always resist this, what hope is there for the rest of us? Can we ever stop wanting to know for sure? To be approved of? To ask the cosmic chicken guts to pass judgment?
This weekend John Derbyshire, a little-followed freelancer for National Review and other, more obscure Conservative magazines, wrote a very special manifesto about the danger of the Lower Races of Man that, with a thin intellectual dusting, reads like it was pulled out of a time capsule buried during Jim Crow. For this embarrassment, he's joined his comrade Pat Buchanan in the dustbin of Respectable Media History. Like Buchanan, Derbyshire is a crowing reactionary but not a moron. Mostly. Like Buchanan, he embarrasses himself with his own honesty. But what gnaws at me is, I think he embarrasses his colleagues even more. By showing the thinness of the line they try to draw between these ornery old bastards and themselves.
I think I've read everything Derbyshire has ever published on the web. Lowry is right that he is often a very good writer with a very impressive breadth of experience. I want to read his novels and his nonfiction books on math.
So I hate the sanctimony directed at him by guys like Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru. For those who don't know, Goldberg is a Kardashian-grade scion of a 90s tabloid subject who has never written anything of substance. He wouldn't be delivering sandwiches at a political mag with a healthy culture. Ponnuru is a weasily theocon whom Derbyshire took head on (shades of his backhand for Ben Stein), in a piece I will remember for a dozen haunting phrases and thoughtful, devastating honesty.
Is it wrong to have concern for fetuses and for the vegetative, incapable, or incurable? Not at all. Do we need to do some hard thinking about the notion of personhood in a society with fast-advancing biological capabilities? We surely do. [...] Should we let a cult of theologians, monks, scolds, grad-school debaters, logic-choppers and schoolmarms tell us what to do with our wombs, or when we may give up the ghost, or when we should part with our loved ones? Absolutely not. Give me liberty, and give me death.
Between Ponnuru, Jean Teasdale, The Baby Turtle and Waterboard Igor, political Catholicism is a shifty, cruel, sad little movement these days. Which means so is NRO. I hate these toadies getting in free kicks when a better man destroys himself.
But of course Derbyshire did destroy himself. In more ways than one. You can track his slide down in the last five years, writing less and less about math and culture and international relations and life, and more and more about Those Niggers and Spics and Their Low Pants and Criminal Genetics. His pedestal as a cold-minded advocate from science took a crack every time he ran with what Charles Murray said and took it ten steps further. He made it a deterministic superstition: jumbling "statistics" unanchored from any context, ignoring all relevant criticism, building a private dogma of Race Science that explained all human problems as Nigger Problems because PSAT scores + Charles Pickering = Revealed Word. Personally I can pinpoint the exact moment I had to stop trusting his conclusions on any subject, especially when he dead-to-rights should have known better. A man who can analyze institutional credit risk for a living, then turn around and say the housing bubble was a buyer problem, because minorities, has stopped trying to notice things.
If the man has any brain cells left, he can maybe ponder this piece. Where he admirably, in an un-PC way, diagnosed a thinker who was eaten alive by The Jew Thing. It's a tiny bit Greek that you can flip through his own work like this, and watch a whole mind die of The Nigger Thing. But it was his mind to ruin.
Anyway, what really gets to me is how much of a smug liar Lowry is when he says "Derb has long danced around the line on these issues, but this column is so outlandish...". Oh what? Danced around like this? Or like this? Or the thousand other things said by NRO and Weekly Standard writers and NRO and Weekly Standard approved candidates (let's talk Newt Gingrich), that amount to the same or worse? "Derb" of course, is being fired for the ultimate Kinsley Gaffe. He said an awful thing outright which he has said quasi-politely for years, and which Rich Lowry is saying quasi-politely right now. He is expressing Rich's worldview, and the worldview of a great deal of Rich's writers and audience, without the weak ciphers they decide are "acceptable."
So here are my gut feelings about tribe and human nature. Derbyshire once wrote that he would be more of a peer to African mathematicans than white American convicts. This balances nothing. But in that same vein, I would still sit down and shake the hand of a Derbyshire or Buchannan before I would a Lowry or a Ponnuru or a Thiessen. I also feel (can't prove) that if the tribe of the American Right were filled out with intelligent, worldy, openly bigoted, self-accountable and fully human old bastards, we would be better off than we are today. The insinuating, smirking, unaccountable bastards are worse. They have nothing to teach us. They are not even wrong.
What a tangled up country this is. Could anyone explain to her that most of the people in that anti-establishment rally probably Support The Troops? That there are veterans in that rally, and that they are not protesting the war or the millitary? Probably not. A 60-something mayor of a small Southern California city is still marching against Johnson. Against the fucking army and the fucking office and the whole fucking power thing, man. While Newt Gingrich is still waddling around the world looking for fucking hippies to give haircuts and a goddamed job, already.
Those Occupy protesters who have jobs have very good jobs, probably. Those who don't (especially those who were in the army, and want an office) can't get one. They're in the street because the world between those realities is vanishing.
I joke in my last post about how bloodless and tired any political process looks, when that process produces shambling suits like Gingrich and Romney, and fires them off to fight the ghosts of 1968, again, while more and more people in every town can't find a way to live.
I guess the joke isn't very funny.
The enemy of this country is not its army. The enemy of this country is not its students. The enemy of this country is not even its bankers. Really.
The enemy is the idea that we can live apart any more. That America in 2012 can indulge the same intravarsity score-settling that made our parents' America so transformative.
We do not want to socialize the banks. We do not want to take your guns. We do not want to revoke the New Deal. We do not want to overturn Roe. We do not want to work for China.
And for the love of god, you lunatics, we do not want to build a flying highway between Alberta and Mexico City. What the hell would you do with that? Get there and turn back around? Pee over Kansas and watch the wind blow it to Oklahoma? Jump off? Would you people either take your medication or die, already?
Where was I.
I want the Republican party to be functional again because I want this country to be functional again. All of it.
I hope our parents will understand that stance, someday.
While we are on the subject, let's take a moment to note how sad this year's Republican primaries are, compared to the last batch.
Now, those were impossible to top. They were so thick with old white macho fantasy that we are still trapped in the comic book world they created. Sarah Palin sprang from their head fully armed, the nightmare fairy for a generation's rage against all things outside the cul-de-sac.
Now what? Now they have a bench of young governors and congressmen, well-oiled fundraising groups and a chance to tag the Alien Usurper with a recession. Now they don't have to campaign from under George W. Bush. Now they can really let fly. Who's coming out of the gates???
At least the grabass radio host is having fun.
Let's be clear. Herman Cain is what happens when the elephants die and the monkeys run away and the ringmaster is drunk and the acrobats have herpes and the last clown relizes this is his chance. Before the audience leaves, he can do whatever he wants. No hope. No rules. No pants.
I stand a little corrected. The soundbite pagents between people who don't have to say anything and won't be President have done some good.
In August of this year, Rick Perry was going to be the perfect canned Republican. Cocky, intimidating, Conservative, a distant cousin to George Clooney.
Then he was forced to speak in public. Again. And again. And again. For some reason, Republican insiders and media elites were not able to take whatever drugs got them through George W. and Sarah P. with a straight face.
Then again, George and Sarah could approach a podium and read a canned answer with flair. They could read a prompter and enunciate. They could read.
Soooo, that's over. Which is good.
Meanwhile, the Cain and Gingrich candidicies drag on painfully until some humans finally touch a ballot and we can all throw out the year's worth of polling data that ran serious numerical analysis on people's responses to "if you had to express a preference of no consequence you could later reverse, who do you like more, Eyebrow or Glasses?".
After all, both Gingrich and Cain can wear a tie and look forward and pronounce a three syllable word without pissing in their shoes. Thus, for two more months, we must pretend they can be President.
Is there some room in Hell where they write these rules?
It's funny I went on about tonal discomfort two days before I used this book in a way no doctor would reccomend. I'm very lax in my Alan Moore knowlege. I've got Watchmen and some Lost Girls and now this. But even with that small sample, I'm ready to call out my favorite strength of his: godlike mastery of tonal discomfort.
It's one thing to write "I felt horribly interested at the same time I felt disgust." That's what Lovecraft, for instance, would say. He'd use four or five synonyms for "disgust" and twelve commas before he finished saying it.
Moore uses the story organically. Moore walks you to that state of mind. Then he makes you live there a while. He builds a story on the spot where you are processing sex and rape and jokes and death and discovery and horror all at the same time. Then he invites you to have tea.
In the end you have to be horrified at yourself, if you're horrified at all. Then you have to condone yourself to keep reading. Which you will.