Overweening Generalist

Friday, July 26, 2013

American Coup D'Etat Semantics: You Can't Just Pee On A Stick

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"'The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all."
-A long time ago a logician wrote a book that was double-coded: Children could enjoy it on a child's level, while mum and pop were edified at an adult level. The author's name was "Lewis Carroll" and "Charles Ludwidge Dodgson."

In my studies of assassinations in Unistat history, and associated events, certain years pop up as ones authors more or less argue could be construed as something on the order of some subspecies of the coup d'etat, or "blow against the state." 1947 and the National Security Act is still my personal object for deep study. But certainly: 1963, 1974, 1980 (the "October Surprise" and what resulted from long-time FBI snitch-President Reagan), and 2000 are all "up there." Now let's consider 2013. I think it has a lot to say to us, but because I fear I bore you far too often, I'll try to make it brief.

But first, a digression of sorts: historically the coup d'etat has been associated with a military take-over of the corridors of power, and for good reason: a very high percentage of total coups are of this sort. (See the still-seminal Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook, by Edward Luttwak, skip right to the amazing Appendices.)

We think of the President hopping on a helicopter with a suitcase in some Third World country, rushing to exile in Lichtenstein, the generals storming into the Palace, or some scenario we've ingested with spy thrillers filtered through Hollywood. 

What about a different sort of coup? One you may not have seen depicted in a novel of film or history book. Something like a "slow-motion coup d'etat"? That's the term a Berkeley professor has recently used. An M.I.T. professor used the exact same term recently. They were both talking about Unistat.

                                                      Robert Reich

Rosa Brooks
On the 4th of July last, Rosa Brooks wrote "America the Coupless" for Foreign Policy. It's about how military leadership increasingly self-identifies as "more conservative and more Republican than the general population." I find this harrowing, but she's concerned about a military coup in the US, writing on July 4, 2013. Less than 1/2 of 1% of the population actively serves in the military, and Unistatians show a very high degree of respect for the military while having almost zero knowledge about what military life is like, what problems people in the military face, etc. Brooks finds this alarming. She ends her piece this way: 

"Tocqueville famously quipped that in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve. It's a good thing we don't yet have the military we deserve: If we did we might be seeing tanks in our own public squares."

Andrew Bacevich
Well, to catch the younger Sarnaev brother, we did see a militarized local police force that ought to make Rosa Brooks nuance her thinking a bit. But a military coup seems unlikely in Unistat, at this stage, largely for the reasons that Prof. Andrew Bacevich gives here, from the blog Crossed Crocodiles, 2 August, 2009, an excerpt from a discussion that included Luttwack himself and other experts on the possibility of a military coup. Bacevich thinks the military - the Pentagon - after 1945, learned to play politics with Congress and the media and they get what they want: just look at the "defense" budget! Bacevich uses the term "creeping coup" to describe a deflection of concerns from domestic needs to "national security" ones (and how hard can it be when you have morons like Michelle Bachmann on the Intelligence Committee?). No, but seriously: go back to the Crossed Crocodiles blog-link and read the back-and-forth between Bacevich and Richard Kohn, especially the part blogger "xcroc" has highlighted.

Bacevich: "creeping coup."

[Sidelight: Here's one of my main guys, George Scialabba, reviewing a book that came out in 2006 and its inconspicuousness - James Carroll's book House Of War, not Scialabba's review - seems to me unmerited and unjust. Maybe it's just another case of the Murrrkins being prejudiced against fat books?]

Chris Hedges
Hedges seems to me like a tortured, very dramatic soul, extremely well-educated, a brilliant speaker, and he has some valuable ideas that seem to want to harness a left-wing religiosity dormant in the Unistatian mind. This righteous fervor would link working class people (most of us) with an intelligent, populist progressive politics. But I'm oversimplifying Hedges, who deserves your attention if you haven't already given him some of it. In the 17 September 2012 issue of The Economist he answered questions about a very slow capitalist coup that has happened in Unistat. It perhaps started with the destruction of popular/radical movements during World War I and gained momentum under an almost religious movement called "anticommunism" in Unistat (I think this point is woefully underrated). Hedges (and this is but one of many interesting aspects of his thought, to my eyes) sees the New Left as weaker than the Old Left. In the 1970s a neo-feudalism is seen in which the Empire went from being an Empire of Production to an Empire of Consumption. He tears Neoliberal Bill Clinton a neo-one, and says that the populace was kept mollified for a spell by easy access to credit and cheap market goods, but now the jig is up, the jobs are gone, it's a Temp/McDonald's/Wal-Mart Reality Sandwich for Unistatian workers, and they don't know what...wha?...wha happened? Read this piece: he wonders if Aldous Huxley or George Orwell was right, then he splits the difference - as I would - and gives Huxley the criminal level of hedonism untinged by any humanistic ethics, and Orwell gets the surveillance state nod. Here's Hedges on video for 17 minutes, from very recently, explaining why we're now in "corporate totalitarianism."

Hedges: a slow "capitalist coup." We're now under "corporate totalitarianism."

Brief digression: on the subject of Americans and the violence that erupts from their imposed amnesia: Henry A. Giroux: "The Violence of Organized Forgetting" (The OG does NOT want to absolve the Unistatian citizenry for allowing themselves to get into this mess!)

Robert Reich
Prof at Berkeley, formerly of the Clinton administration. On 5 June, 2012, Reich blogged that "I fear that at least since 2010 we've been witnessing a quiet, slow-motion coup d'etat whose purpose is to repeal every bit of progressive legislation since the New Deal and entrench the privileged positions of the wealthy and powerful - who haven't been as wealthy or as powerful since the Gilded Age or the late 19th century."

How have the new plutocratic oligarchy pulled off the coup? Citizen's United, and their ownership of media and the overwhelming repetition of lies about "Obama is increasing the debt by $4 billion a day! Stop the liberal spending, black man! You're  'out of control'!" The fascist Koch brothers and other billionaire right-wingers are "job creators" (they're actually job-destroyers), the government is evil, regulation is strangling every thing that's good, true, and wholesome, etc. Obama's "mortgaging our childrens' futures!" As if these multi-billionaires need to worry about their kids. The reality is that the debt is growing because the Republicans in Congress refuse to repeal the Bush tax cuts, threatening to throw the country off a "fiscal cliff" if we dare make the billionaires pay something close to their fair share of taxes. Remember: Bush and Cheney started two wars while cutting taxes on the rich, which...has that ever been done in history? It's...sorry: it's fascism. And the amnesiac public (see Giroux) let 'em get away with it. Oh hell, maybe the public is just fucking stupid. There. I said it.

Reich: a "slow-motion coup d'etat." And: "treason?" 

Paul Craig Roberts
13 July, 2013: the American people are "hesitant to acknowledge it..." (yea yea...see Giroux?)

Roberts was one of the architects of Reaganomics! So: quite some distance from Reich, Brooks, Hedges, and Bacevich. Not that any of the aforementioned are squarely in any of the others' camp.

What gets me here is the style: the appeal of the "Founding Fathers." That Bush/Cheney/Obama/Biden and their minions and cabinet are "usurpers." It's an Executive Branch coup for Paul Craig Roberts. The leadership in Unistat is "illegitimate" and the Unistatians are serfs: we can be picked up for no good reason at all, kept incommunicado, thrown in a dungeon, tortured, no lawyers, no court appearance, no evidence. We can be placed on lists compiled by the "National Stasi Agency" and killed by drone, if Caesar (at the moment: Obama) so deems. We are no longer a nation of laws or Constitution. It's sheer "lies and naked force." The only Amendment left standing is the 2nd, which is a joke in the face of the Empire's forces (see Roberts's prose). When Obama intercepted the Bolivian jet that had Morales on it, because they were sure Snowden was stowed onboard, they showed that they cared more for "revenge" than International Law. 

It's a short piece, but this former Reaganite is sure we've undergone a coup. While I find much sympathy with Roberts here, the style - for what it's worth - doesn't gleam for me. He repeats at least three times that since 2000 the leadership is not legitimate, but he asserts it's less legit than So.Africa under apartheid, Israel in Palestine, the Taliban, Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein. Okay, yea. Maybe. I'll give ya this, brother Paul: it's one clusterfuck of a mess.

I like that he took pains to single out John Yoo and Jay Scott Bybee as legal legitimators of the Imperial President who is above Constitutional Law. (maybe see my blogspew on NeoMedievalism?

Roberts: "a coup" with heavy stress on the Executive Branch; and "illegitimate."

Jimmy Carter
The same week that Roberts blogged - it's really all starting to coalesce now, <cough> isn't it? - Jimmy Carter was in Atlanta, giving a talk to further German-Unistat relations. Der Spiegel covered it in German, but oddly, it wasn't "news" to the hordes of dipshits who get paid as "journalists" in Unistat, so it didn't appear in mainstream press here, but some guy Tweeted, and...well, read the very very short piece. Basically, Carter thinks that the Snowden revelations mean there's a "suspension of American democracy." (As opposed to actual democracy? Anyway...) Carter apparently added that the NSA story will leave Google and Facebook with less credibility worldwide, which...don't hold your breath. Still: Carter is not exactly in any of these other peoples' camp, is he? 

Carter: vague: didn't utter the "c" word, but a "suspension" of "democracy." A real cliff-hanger.

                                                          John Tirman

John Tirman
M.I.T. professor at the Center for Intl. Studies, and along with Reich and Hedges, my favorite. He boldly asserts Unistat has undergone a coup, and tells why: five days after the 4th of July, Tirman wrote that the Snowden revelation are a "blow to the traditional authority of constitutional government, the sine qua non of American political experience." He's no Paul Craig Roberts, clearly.

Tirman is a man after my own heart by reminding us of Unistat's fomenting of traditional-style military coups in Iran (1953), Gautemala (1954), Chile (1973), and Turkey (1980). 

What I appreciate most about Tirman is his use of the terms "parallel state" and "deep state," which deserve far wider use by the citizenry. Yes, we have the FISA court, which resembles democracy in the way a horse resembles a hippo. The parallel state, now in its 12th year, is secret, nondemocratic, up to its ears in spooks, spies on everyone, friend and foe alike, and is basically lawless. It has had 12 years to grow structures that institutionalize an alternative authority, a hidden set of rules, and who knows what is permissible. Thomas Jefferson, that old wig, is spinning at 78 rpms as he hears about this. As Paul Craig Roberts wouldn't hesitate to say: "illegitimate."

Tirman says that Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin warned us, and he's worth quoting when he's quoting them:

Snowden's and others' revelations should not be completely surprising, given the work of Dana Priest and William Arkin in their 2011 book Top Secret America. Many of the most shocking bits were excerpted in the Washington Post , where Priest is a reporter. They uncovered a vast, opaque security bureaucracy, extremely inefficient but aggressively intrusive. "The federal-state-corporate partnership has produced a vast domestic intelligence apparatus that collects, stores, and analyzes information about tens of thousands of US citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing," they wrote.  It involved, they calculated, nearly 4000 organizations in the United States, "each with its own counterterrorism responsibilities and jurisdictions."

After Tirman ticks off a litany of explosively obvious corrosive effects of Big Money and corporations on the body politic, he ends with this: "The seduction of policymakers by corporate money is sad. The psychotic, parallel state is terrifying." 

Tirman: "slow-motion coup d'etat."

Here's Dana Priest on NPR for 39 mins. Take what she says with a pinch of Snowden, and a snifter of Cheney, add some torture and the Patriot Act and a dash of All-American Idiocy, and tell me Unistat hasn't undergone a coup, that, in the immortal prose of Paul Craig Roberts, is an "illegitimate" state.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Are We Living In A Robert Anton Wilson Novel?

This topic is related to a recent question over at my blogger-colleague Tom Jackson's blog RAWIllumination.

My knee-jerk reaction: it seems evermore so, aye.

With some introspection (okay, a bowel movement): definitely maybe.

Ken Cuccinelli (my friends and I just refer to him affectionately as "Cooch") is quoted very recently thus:

“My view is that homosexual acts, not homosexuality, but homosexual acts are wrong. They’re intrinsically wrong. And I think in a natural law based country it’s appropriate to have policies that reflect that … They don’t comport with natural law. I happen to think that it represents (to put it politely; I need my thesaurus to be polite) behavior that is not healthy to an individual and in aggregate is not healthy to society.”

Robert Anton Wilson writes in his book Natural Law (Or Don't Put A Rubber On Your Willy):

"It appears that the reason that the term 'Natural Law' is preferred to 'Moral Law' may be that many writers do not want to make it obvious that they speak as priests or theologians and would rather have us think of them as philosophers. But it would seem to me that their dogmas only make sense as religious or moral exhortation and do not make sense in any way if one tries to analyze them as either scientific or philosophical propositions."

Two recent articles on Cooch and his moralic acid-laced Low-Medium Level Bullshit:

Katie McDonough's "Ken Cuccinelli Keeping The War On Sodomy Alive"
Amanda Marcotte's "Ken Cuccinelli Really Wants To Ban Oral Sex"

Are the voters in Virginia really this retrograde? We'll see. At this point I'll believe anything. 

Also, no doubt Cuccinelli as a Republican in 2013 agrees that government is intrusive on the rights, liberties, and freedoms of his corporate sponsors. 

Robert Anton Wilson often said he not only wanted government "off our backs" but "off our fronts, too." This latter proposition would seem to exclude Cooch.

Are You Naturally "Unnatural"?


   RAW with his old friend and fellow heretic Timothy Leary, circa 1992? (if you know who took this 
   pic I'll be happy to give credit)      

One of the weirdest interviews RAW ever did was in November, 1996, with someone named Nardwuar; RAW seemed to think it was a put-on but he played along with good humor. 

17 years later, Mark O'Connell at Slate has crowned Nardwuar as the "pop music's best interviewer." (Neil Strauss on Line 1!)

Anyway, I was very surprised that anyone would raise Nardwuar to such lofty heights. But as RAW often said, "Different lanes for different brains."
A link between quantum mechanics and game theory seems to have been found.
Yes, the two areas seem far apart, and RAW did not accentuate Bayesian games, but from the age of 16, in 1948 (!) he was interested in the findings in both areas and how they may interact. The article I cited doesn't mention John von Neumann, but JvN was an early theorist in both areas, and RAW wrote about John S. Bell, Norbert Wiener, von Neumann, Claude Shannon, Erwin Schrodinger and the philosophical implications of the wave equation, the interplay between The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior and multi-valued non-Aristotelian logics, semantics, the ontological basis of math, the EPR gedankenexperiments, Einstein's disagreements with Niels Bohr, how information might play in biology, and psychological theories of interpersonal communication and "games" and how quantum mechanics, language, information, games, and the human nervous system all interact in social "reality."
A few weeks ago, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse advocated for Philosophy to go public, for the public good. They consider "repackaging" philosophy - by which they mean: the stultifying and dull Thing that philosophy has become in the Academy - and make it more accessible. They reject this as impractical. I disagree with them here, mostly because their arguments using specialized philosophy-language is pretentious in the first place, and they ought to realize that if they unpack their epistemology and ontology and hook it up to their Wittgenstein and other turns of language, they'll see that their use of the copulae "to be" (i.e, use of "is" "am" "are" "was" "were" and "be") seems inconsistent with their overly technical language in the first place. They're writing for each other in small journals, hoping for citations and to keep their jobs as the Humanities wither under the Leviathan of corporate capitalism.

If they can't write about their Big Topics for the intelligent layperson, maybe they aren't as fine thinkers as they suppose themselves "to be"? Take more English courses, academic Philosophers?

Aikin and Talisse then consider that philosophy should go public by addressing the concerns of the public and not arcane subjects. But then they look at the journals and see that philosophers have been writing about immigration, surveillance, human enhancement technologies, the biology of race, the nature of lying and the ethics of torture. But while they don't bluntly say it: those articles are impenetrable. To quote the Beat poet Jack Spicer out of context, "My vocabulary did this to me!"

Circling back around, these advocates for a public philosophy finally realize that philosophy must be repackaged nonetheless, and I wholeheartedly agree with them here:

"On this version of “public philosophy,” what is called for is not a change in what philosophers do or in the topics they address; rather the call for public philosophy is call for better spokespersons for philosophy.  It is a request that those who are especially skilled at presenting complex and difficult ideas come forward and speak publicly for the discipline.  It is also a call for the profession at large to acknowledge the need for such spokespersons, and to find ways to recognize the scholarly importance of public outreach.  But, importantly, it is also implicitly a call for those philosophers who are not very good at representing the discipline to go back to their offices."

And many of us who are longtime readers of Robert Anton Wilson would argue that RAW was doing this in the 1960s, but the exigencies of rising in the Academy, together with an iron curtain put up by mainstream media and the "counterculture" concerning identity and publishing and who gets reviewed and what topics are to be considered out-of-bounds, and "style" (and other Damned Things)...militated against RAW being taken more seriously by people who think public philosophy is important for a healthy democratic society. A "science fiction writer" was not to be taken seriously by Serious People, the guardians of True Philosophy. A writer who wrote so candidly about sex, drugs, Timothy Leary and Aleister Crowley and Wilhelm Reich and Ezra Pound and Alfred Korzybski (all banished to the Region of Thud by the curators of Official Culture) could not be taken seriously. A writer who speculates about the phenomenology of UFO contactees, who mixed genres (too irresponsible and promiscuous?), who openly declares himself an "anarchist" and who chronicles a 14-odd-year odyssey of self-experimentation to probe the vast reaches of his own consciousness...this was something not fit for mainstream Philosophy. And then there is the ludic play with deep researches into conspiracy theory, a subject so demonized by the True Knowers of Unistat, there's no way this Wilson should be allowed anywhere near the Conversation about true Philosophy. Best to ignore his work until he finds himself living in the marginalist's milieux, where he properly resides...

So I argue: RAW was at least 40 years ahead of Aikin and Talisse. But RAW's readers found him anyway, and they think his unified field hypotheses about media and language extremely interesting, philosophically. RAW's ideas about the acceleration of culture, propelled by technological innovation, and its sociological fallout: paranoia, alternate religions, a Nietzschean multiperspectivalism, and the analysis of Conspiracy Theories as a way to test one's own epistemological plasticities? His readers enjoy these philosophical ideas too. Indeed.

While we may model the worlds we inhabit as "texts" we know these are only models, and that language does not map directly onto any sort of "reality" in a one-to-one correspondence, as RAW wrote about starting in the 1960s, largely influenced by discarded thinkers. 

I would like to suggest to Aikin and Talisse that their world has finally caught up with Robert Anton Wilson's but after many years of talking to academics, I'm afraid the response would be, "Who?"

I asked Prof. George Lakoff of Berkeley if he knew of RAW's work, and he said, "I once had a student who was really into him." That's the only admission I've personally ever heard from a True Serious Thinker that RAW even existed. 

RAW can never serve as a "spokesperson" that Aikin and Talisse advocate for, because he was not from academe. However, I strongly suggest that their sought-after spokespersons take into account the playfulness and sense of humor Wilson brought to philosophical topics, especially the officially outre topics of conspiracy, altered states, and pop kulchur. And because humor is difficult, the Aikin and Talisse plea may not gain traction. If so, 'tis a pity. (I'd like to once again suggest George Carlin as a sociolinguist for any who'd be interested...)

Coming back around, Tom Jackson wrote a concise and cogent piece on the occasion of the death of Holy Blood, Holy Grail co-author Michael Baigent, and defended a court's findings in favor of Dan Brown, who the authors of HB,HG sued. If you like the OG and you haven't read RAW's The Widow's Son, consider adding it to your Summer Reading list. It might be instructive to compare its literary qualities to Brown's Da Vinci Code, and even more revelatory when you realize which one the public clamored over and which one is the "obscure" novel.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Surveillance State: Some Books and Other Media, Precursors, Re-Taking Stock

There's a textbook titled Surveillance and Democracy, edited by Haggerty and Samatas. It came out in 2010 and I got it via Berkeley's wonderfully extensive "Link Plus" system. Even though it was only about 220 pages, much of it was too theoretical for what I was looking for, but I did "enjoy" - if that's the word - a chapter by Ben Hayes: "'Full Spectrum Dominance' As European Union Security Policy: On the Trail of the NeoConOpticon.'" I think at the time I was interested in stories about how the NeoCons (or the NeoCon Mind At Large, mostly in media and banking and the Pentagon; Obama played Occupy for his own ends) wanted to isolate and contain or crush Occupy, but this all seems so long ago now. I had no idea that Constitutional Law professor Obama would continue in the Cheney mode. Humility is endless, someone once said...Suffice to say that the next edition of this text - read in Political Science classes? - could easily jump the record by going from 270 pages to 2700 pages.

                                     Marshall McLuhan seems to have foreseen our 
                                     Patriot Act/Snowden Era

In light of what's been revealed and will continue to pour out in this, the Snowden Era, as some of us now call this Epoch (9/11 is so...like...yesterday, man), I'd like to point out that it's still not too late to get filled-in by what Dana Priest and William Arkin of the Washington Post accomplished in their stellar research and collating and just overall journalist mega-due diligence in Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. Dig how Bush/Cheney privatized surveillance on such a massive scale that Priest and Arkin found nondescript snoop centers in industrial parks all over Unistat. And I mean all over. And they're not government agencies! It's privatized now. It pays better than the low-mid-level gummint spook gig, so why not defect to the private sector, get paid more, and have absolutely zero ideas about democratic principles? No more of that nagging, cognitive-dissonance-y pangs that you may not be serving the people of Unistat, but only the servicing the needs of the 1%.

Of course, we still have  ye olde fashioned spooks, like the alphabet soup of NSA/CIA/FBI, et.al...that we're paying with out tax dollars to listen in on...well, just about everything, really.

Here's Richard Rhodes's review of Priest and Arkin. A passage:

“A culture of fear,” write journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin, “had created a culture of spending to control it, which, in turn, had led to a belief that the government had to be able to stop every single plot before it took place, regardless of whether it involved one network of twenty terrorists or one single deranged person.” The resulting “security spending spree,” they report, “exceeded $2 trillion.”

But let's not worry too much. The number of people who have Top Secret Security Clearance is only at least 854,000. 

A few years ago a film about life in East Germany under the Stasi came out: The Lives of Others. The Hollywood elite voters gave it the Oscar for Best Foreign Movie of 2006. Way back in 2006! I remember seeing the film and wondering how close we in Unistat were to this situation, and thinking: probably closer than most Unistatians would want to know. At the same time, another part of my brain told me, Stop being such a paranoiac...
Here's the trailer.

James Bamford's Puzzle Palace came out in 1982. Around 1995 I bought a battered paperback copy at a used bookstore and read it all, riveted. The few people I knew who were fascinated by this stuff agreed: how come the CIA are the rock star spooks, while you mention "the NSA" and the common response is, "Who?" Bamford deserves credit for doing the first extended book-job on Snowden's former employer.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the last book I read about the NSA - how evil they could be - before the Snowden stuff hit. It was Dan Brown's Digital Fortress. Yes, I admit it. I had gone through a point where I felt like I had to read DaVinci Code, if only to see what all the fuss was about. When that book sold 10 million (or however many), his previous potboilers got popular again. So I read those too. Here's someone from Democratic Underground, writing this past Bloomsday, on how oddly prescient the novel now seems. I admit I hadn't thought much about the NSA (except they were probably doing something nefarious with regards to the 4th Amendment in addition to maybe getting a line or three on possible terrorists) when I read Brown's book. 

A question after all these books and films and now the Snowden Era: what are we supposed to do this all this information that They have about us? And what do They plan to do with their information about us? And a third question, if I may: must we replay something like East Germany, or is there some saner way out of this madness? What part of the 4th Amendment don't They get? (I know, I know: they get it all, but they're just obeying orders; it's nothing personal, yadda blah yadda blah meh meh meh.) 

It's far too easy for paranoids like me to see a President Palin and local cops having ultra-fast digital info, based on my license plate whizzing by, that I'm an "America-Hater" and it's best for True Americans to get rid of people like me...who read Chomsky, have been involved with Occupy, support the ACLU, and are clearly guilty via documentation of hundreds of thousands of Thought Crimes...

Going Back
In 1967, when Allen Ginsberg visited Ezra Pound in Rapallo, they talked about the craziness of Vietnam and how the Unistat government seemed to see the "peaceniks" as troublemakers. And they agreed: Make everything open. End the State secrets game. The artist Bobby Campbell has remarked on Timothy Leary's very similar vision, which emanates from that era. (For Ginsberg/Pound: see What Thou Lovest Well Remains, pp.36-37)

Poets as Distant Early Warning signalers...

In Only Apparently Real, a collection of interviews with Philip K. Dick with Paul Williams, the ever-present topic of PKD paranoia comes up, and PKD has ideas about the end of privacy...in 1974! (see pp.154-164)

In Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice, in 1970 the ARPANET is suspected as a future Panopticon. (see pp.364-366)

In his book of poetry, Coming To Jakarta: A Poem About Terror, Canadian-raised and later Berkeley English Professor and chronicler and theorist of "Deep Politics," Peter Dale Scott, recalls that, in the 1930s, when his father was away on conferences about economic democracy or world peace, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police tapped their phone. (see p.30)

In Laurel Canyon, a history of late 1960s/early 1970s rock and folk musicians who lived in that area of LA, information about the LA County Sheriffs harassing hippies, wiretapping, surveillance. Sure, the Manson stuff could bring that on, but...

Marshall McLuhan, dying sometime in the early hours of the last day of 1980, had been wondering where the new tribalized electronic human was going, with the evident omnipresence of electronic and digital technologies, which were extensions of our own nervous systems and which changed us in ways we could not know about unless we constantly investigated and "probed" how they were working in feedback loops with our own nervous systems. Add synergetically to that: the-non-wired environment, and our conscious sensibilities. In his Catholic, quasi-anachist mind, he worried about the elimination of  what he thought of as "natural law," mostly in the Catholic Church, Aquinas-on sense. The trouble with all this new tech: it seemed to render ourselves evermore "discarnate." He thought this discarnate-ness would lead to a new religious age, which could be an occult-like thing. It might be a diabolical or destructive age that was upon us. McLuhan biographer Philip Marchand takes it from here:

"There was yet another twist to the phenomenon of discarnate man, as McLuhan saw it. In an age when people were translated into images and information, the chief human activity became surveillance and espionage (recall: McLuhan died in 1980!- OG). Everything from spy satellites to Nielsen ratings to marketing surveys to credit bureau investigations was part of this intelligence-gathering, man-hunting syndrome. So pervasive was the syndrome that discarnate man worried whether he existed as nothing more than an entry in a databank somewhere." (see Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, p.250)

Do the (very) few OG readers suspect the OG could go on and on with these classic "counterculture" figures and their musings on the "Surv State" (as poet Ed Sanders often writes it)? Aye. I could. I will. But to end this blahg, let me go WAY back:

Do not revile the king even in your 
  or curse the rich in your bedroom,
because a bird of the air may carry
          your words,
  and a bird on the wing may report
         what you say.
-Ecclesiastes 10:20

PS: Bertold Brecht:

Some party hack decreed that the people
had lost the government's confidence
and could only regain it with redoubled effort.

If that is the case, would it not be be simpler,
If the government simply dissolved the people
And elected another?

  • "The Solution" ["Die Lösung"] (c. 1953), as translated in Brecht on Brecht : An Improvisation (1967) by George Tabori, p. 17

Monday, July 8, 2013

Digital Mindfulness and the Availability Heuristic

What the eff am I trying to get at? For one thing, I'm trying to remind myself...

Ezra Pound said that poetry was "news that STAYS news." And his friend William Carlos Williams said:

It is difficult
to get news from poems
But men and women die every day
for lack
Of what is found there

So, in a way, I'm talking about...poetry? (Huh?)

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky labeled one of our cognitive biases in making decisions about what to pay attention to or how we make decisions under uncertainty "the availability heuristic." Heuristics are methods of discovering or learning, by rules that are often not consciously known all that well. The availability heuristic has to do with how many instances you can come up with and how easily you come up with them. One study asked people about their own assertiveness. You think you're "assertive" to some degree. Okay, now you are asked to list six instances of your own assertiveness.

                                            Amos Tversky, who would have shared 
                                            the Nobel with Kahneman, if Amos
                                            hadn't died at 59

You may have done some thinking of your own assertiveness just now. But what if you were asked to list 12 instances of assertiveness on your part? Many people have a tough time with this. It was found that the difficulties of listing 12 made these people less likely to say they were an "assertive" person than the people who were only asked to list six. The people who listed six were more likely to call themselves "assertive." Why? Because of the relative ease of recall. The fluency of memory retrieval of only six items bested the difficulty of listing 12 items. When you're charged with recalling 12 instances in which you were assertive it's taxing, and you begin to assert that maybe you're not all that assertive. The examples weren't easily available - not 12! - and so your impression of some "fact" about "reality" has been altered. Weird...

We are wired with so much olde cognitive machinery that once served us well...and the most astonishing fact, and (maybe) the most amazing thing we've learned in psychology in the last 40 years is how those old "programs" are there, working marvelously, and yet they're unconscious...

Kahneman was always testing his own intuitive sense of what was likely, statistically. He writes in his magnum opus Thinking, Fast and Slow that "I recently came to doubt my long-held impression that adultery is more common among politicians than among physicians or lawyers. I had even come up with explanations for that 'fact,' including the aphrodisiac effect of power and the temptations of life away from home. I eventually realized that the transgressions among politicians are much more likely to be reported than the transgressions of lawyers or doctors. My intuitive impressions could be due entirely to journalists' choice of topics and to my reliance on the availability heuristic." (pp.7-8)

Call this a conspiracy theory, but the corporate media like to make money. They will report what they think we want to hear/read/think about. When I say "they" I largely mean the Editorial Mind At Large in the corporate media. Watch the local ABC/CBS/NBC/FOX "news." Keep a stopwatch and log all the minutes in one hour devoted to 1.) commercials, and for what sorts of products; 2.) sports; 3.) weather; 4.) celebrity scandals and marriages; 5.) "happy" talk among the broadcasters themselves, and 6.) some sort of random violence or robbery that occurred in the greater metropolitan area. You'll find it's almost the entire show, but you'll learn more if you try this for yourself for five to 10 hour-long "news" broadcasts.

If national or world events of significance are covered, they seem to receive a very superficial treatment and they NEVER deliver multiple viewpoints within a larger context of conflict. Why? Is it a conspiracy? I don't think so. I think they think they'll lose viewers (and revenue) if they make the news too pertinent, with too much depth, and with any sort of detail that would cause the sponsors to stop buying airtime.

But somehow, whether we try to avoid it or not, we still know who Paris Hilton is. We still find we've heard about that "senseless" shooting in the bad part of town. We know how beautiful the weather girl is on channel 7. We've heard that so-and-so has come out gay. That celebrity X has a drug problem, politician Y said something inflammatory and stupid, and what teams look to be in the Super Bowl or World Series or World Cup final. It's how we're wired. Read Robert Sapolsky on the sociality of baboons. Primates are like that. The old joke about the true intellectual? The one who hears the Overture to William Tell and never once thinks of the Lone Ranger? That person may be an intellectual, but he may also be autistic. It's quite normal to know what's going on in the larger tribe, no matter how petty the story. Intellectuals only pretend  they don't know who Kim Kardashian is. But let's not forget what our own values are.

I write this a day and a half after a plane crashed at San Francisco's main airport, and yes, it was really scary to think of myself or a loved one on that plane - terrorism seemed to get ruled out fairly quickly - but at the risk of sounding heartless, why was this covered so extensively? Freak stuff like that happens;  it really doesn't seem as pressing as about 85 other issues I could think of. You're far, far, far more likely to die in an accident at home or driving to the supermarket than when you take a flight. (There's another cognitive bias at work there, but then I run the risk of spending my digression too early in the blog.)

But I'm talking about my own values. I think the NSA case and the way some in the media have treated Snowden deserves the same wall-to-wall coverage a jet crash did.

                                                    Thomas Frank, co-founder of 
                                                    "The Baffler"

That's the idea behind this piece from R.J. Eskow. (I highly recommend it.) And I think he makes a compelling point. Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas? very persuasively (speaking for myself) made the point that the Republican Party influenced voters in that state to vote against their own interests because of the relentless playing off of deeply conservative social values in the electorate, while all those "social" conservatives being elected helped implement economic ideas that hurt the people who elected them. It's easier for most voters to think about stopping abortion than it is to understand international trade agreements that will ultimately send their job overseas.

Eskow here cites the unbelievably high approval of Obama among "liberals" even though Obama's policies look to the Right of Nixon's. And why? Because of same-sex marriage? That Democrats still think women should have access to reproductive rights? Eskow writes, "Democrats campaigned on populist themes in 2012, but as soon as the election was over the party's leaders returned to what Frank described in 2004 as 'endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, social security, labor law, privatization, deregulation, and the rest of it.'" Eskow turns Thomas Frank's query to liberals and asks, "What's the matter with Liberal Land?" Indeed...

Hillary Clinton's economic policies are the same as Obama's, basically. A shorter way to put this is: we're totally fucked unless we can come up with someone who's truly an economic progressive. (Would Elizabeth Warren stand a chance? I admit I'm in love with her. There. I've said it, with my blog hanging out in front for everyone to see.)

Meanwhile, at least 20 million working-age adults in Unistat are unemployed or under-employed under Obama's "recovery." Why? Because fairly affluent liberals can get so worked up over morality issues like reproductive rights and gay marriage? And his very very George W. Bush-ist policies are okay because he seems like a good liberal guy, and he has a "D" after his name? It does indeed look like the Democrats have taken a page from the Republicans and what they were able to do to, as Thomas Frank so ably explained, in Kansas.

I find it difficult to disagree with Eskow when he argues there ought be no artificial divide between economic and social issues. Fairness, equal opportunity and justice before the law, the social contract, and that "people continue to suffer from rising poverty and the death of the middle class, regardless of sexual orientation" all seem to all be quite pressing "values" to me.

So: unless we take periodic time outs to tune out the noise of popular culture and the infotainment that passes as "news" (Nuzak?), and meditate on what really matters to us - the "news that STAYS news" to us - we can easily get derailed.

Notice how the "Fiscal Cliff" was covered wall-to-wall a few months ago? It was a manufactured disaster show for the proles and other workers and consumer-types - whether they were from Kansas or San Francisco. We let it happen. I found it embarrassing. Politics as cliff-hangers and dramatic "show-downs" is just too fascistic to me; I agree with Walter Benjamin on this. But if you asked anyone about the Fiscal Cliff, they had something to say. It had been made quite available to the public. Meanwhile, the urban police are becoming more and more militarized, the NSA stuff finally made everyone pay attention to the Panopticon, no significant banking reform has occurred, Obama has a private "kill list" - apparently - and our prisons are becoming evermore privatized, with investors seeking assurance they will be kept at 90% capacity. And our financial system has become Vegas without the glitz. Isn't that enough to keep Pretty Actress's "baby bump" out of the news, for, say...two days? Please?

And yes, a new season of American Idol will soon be upon us. Or: we can turn off the TV and read poetry instead?

If, as an ancient tradition holds, there's some infinite spark of something divine that's unique to our individuality and all that, your deeply felt and thought values are worth meditating upon more often, aye? Are they deserved of articulation?

To note the normal bias of the availability heuristic, just keep testing yourself. I'm astonished at how often I'm guessing based upon a few things easily available to my memory. Am I gambling? Yes, and so are you. Why do I assume this or that is true? Do I have enough data? No matter how educated, you'll find yourself having made assumptions that were quite wrong, often due to the availability heuristic. (Kahneman and Tversky were amused by how wrong their "intuitions" were when they tested them, and they were truly Nobel-worthies.)

What if I look at the studies and stats? When I find out I was wrong, I learn something. I like how Kahneman, when writing about the media and issues and values and the availability heuristic, says that when Michael Jackson died you couldn't find any other issue covered in the news for a week, when less exciting but more impacting issues such as declining educational standards or over-investment of medical resources in the last year of life were surely worthy of public discussion...then he admits he used those two examples because they were the ones available to his mind at the time, and that "equally important issues that are less available didn't come to mind." He noted that medical resources and declining standards had been mentioned often.

What is it that isn't being mentioned but is very important to you? And how will this situation be ameliorated? Have I made the availability heuristic more available to you?

I end by asserting that the more famous and beloved a just-dead celebrity, the less available urgent information becomes, and so formulate an OG maxim:

A newly dead beloved celebrity is a national nuisance.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Cello Suites, by Eric Siblin (2009)

If you only read one book on Bach the rest of the year, give this one a try. I missed it when it came out four years ago and serendipitously found it in a library search for something else, checked it out, and couldn't put it down.

Subtitled, "J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece," The Cello Suites carries off well what's famously difficult to do: write 300-plus pages about music, engagingly, for an intelligent lay audience. Check it out!

Siblin wrote rock concert reviews for the Montreal Gazette and happened to catch the cellist Laurence Lesser play Bach cello suites in 2000, 250 years after Bach's death. Siblin said he was listening to someone he'd never heard of play music he "knew nothing about." But he was tremendously moved by the music, did plenty of top-notch research and wrote this, his first book. I found it a refreshing middle ground between gushing Bach-worship writing and overly musicological and technical Bach writing, of which there is no end. Siblin incorporates Bach's history, the mysteries of his archives, scattered among his surviving sons, the original manuscript of the profound six Cello Suites in Bach's hand still missing and probably lost forever due to the ink he used; there's also a parallel history of Pablo Casals, who resurrected the Suites and lived 96 years, through exile from Franco's Spain. Prior to Casals's championing the Suites, they were thought of as overly-mathematical "exercises" for the cello, which, I confess, I still find difficult to understand.

I probably heard someone playing the Prelude from the G major Suite on radio KUSC in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, and thought it transcendent. I bought the music and read the bass clef as if it was written in treble and worked out, measure by measure, the fingerings for my Stratocaster. To this day I am stunned by every single measure in all 36 sections of the six Suites: given the economy of the cello, the voice-leading, melodic invention, thematic development, range of emotional register, and sheer bravura in even the slow movements - I make hundreds of mistakes; these pieces are deceptively difficult and yet a source of never-ending joy to even attempt to play! - seems like a miracle to me. Siblin, who plays guitar, writes about learning the G major Prelude with a tone of wonderment that hits home with me, and resonates with the experiences of my fellow rock guitarists who've tried to take on Bach.

Siblin does something I never tried: he takes cello lessons! For awhile. Hat's off to him for even trying!

What a delightful book; his love for the Cello Suites is infectious and the reader will probably feel a strong need to watch some of the Suites played live on You Tube, or even go out and buy one of the very many versions. I own Yo Yo Ma's version, but have listened to many from the library, and Rostropovich really floored me, I recall. Siblin tells us that Janos Starker probably holds the record with five different recordings of the Suites. Because the source was Anna Magdalena's copy and she didn't know bowing techniques or dynamics for the cello (or an arcane five-string cello-like thing that Bach may have written the Suites for, just one of many  Siblin relates), so, as Siblin writes, "The Cello Suites are a blank slate, a Rorschach test that allow cellists to put their own stamp on Bach and interpret the music as they see fit - or as they think Bach would have wanted his music played."

I felt a twinge of vindication when Siblin noted how, early in the Gigue from the 3rd Suite, there's a section that could've been written by Jimmy Page: "It is a bold, churning phrase that would not be out of place on a Gibson Les Paul wielded by, say, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Bach's audience, two centuries before the electric guitar was invented, could not have heard the notes in remotely the same way. Historical faithfulness has its limits."

In this, Siblin makes the case that those who insist Bach only be played on "period" instruments to ensure "authenticity" have their place, but their viewpoint is by no means the "one true correct one." On the contrary, Siblin seems the ecumenical Bach listener, and enjoys (or notes with amusement) versions of Bach played on xylophone, or African salsa-style Bach. He mentions Procul Harem and Walter/Wendy Carlos....and Glenn Gould, who actually liked the Swingle Sisters' early 1960s 8-voice chorus, and who had two best-sellers, singing Bach (Bach's Greatest Hits and Going Baroque), swinging the 8th notes. Siblin tells us the Swingle Singers covered some of the cello Suites, which I really must go out of my way to hear now. Glenn Gould is quoted about the Swingles, "When I first heard them I felt like lying on the floor and kicking my heels, that's how good I thought they were."

In addition to Zeppelinesque metal, Siblin hears in Bach's solo Cello Suites: jazz-funk riffs, a country fiddler in a beer hall cranking out tunes, sudden explosions of seemingly impossible polyphony on a four-stringed instrument in which chords must be arpeggiated, sections of almost Philip Glass-ian proto-minimalism, and the doleful expression of deep sorrow of death, probably of his first wife Maria Barbara. There are wonderful stretches of phenomenological-impressionistic observations about the listening of music that I found impressive in Siblin's writing, amid the discussions of Bach's lifelong quest to find a better-paying job, Casals rising to become a world leader in the peace movement in the 20th century, and the peccadilloes of backwater German royalty, among other things.

The ecumenical Siblin: "When I hear violinist Lara St. John play the solo violin works to the rhythms of the tabla, I can't help but want to hear the Cello Suites in a similar setting. 'MarimBach,' Bach To Africa, and Jacques Loussier all turn my crank a great deal."

A formal device that Siblin used I found delightful: he writes six basic chapters, one for each Suite, and divides those chapters up by starting with an epigraph of quotes about each of the formal dance-movements Bach used, for example: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuet, Gavotte, and Gigue. Examples: for the Sarabande section of Suite number four, we get a quote from James Talbot in 1690 regarding the character of a Sarabande: "Apt to move the Passions and to disturb the tranquility of the Mind." Jules Ecorcheville on a Courante: "The transformations of the courante might be compared to the frolicking of a fish who plunges, disappears, and returns again to the surface of the water." Dimitri Markevitch says of the Gigue: "Produces an almost satanic effect with its repetitions of similar motifs." (And yet I see no parental warning stickers on the CD for Matt Haimovitz's version of the six solo Cello Suites. Did the God Squad mess up?)

Going back to the Prelude of the first Suite, Siblin gives his impression of the feeling of movement at the beginning, then notes that Robert Johnson, the seminal blues guitarist, seems to share something with the beginning of this Prelude, and that Bach's broken chords could power a rock anthem, and once again he cites Led Zeppelin. I wish I could have explained to Siblin that, indeed: those first chords that Bach uses (you've all heard them: see/hear below) ARE the basis of blues and rock: they're the I-IV-V progression that forms almost all blues tunes and exerted a tremendous influence on rock and roll. Here: this progression seems to be in the musical DNA of every Western listener; we get it like mother's milk.  Pause the recording after the third broken chord, then notice that you expect a return to the main chord, and indeed, Bach provides it before going off in a long strandentwining unfurling of seemingly foreordained and perpetually mobile pumping out of 16ths notes, before finally ending with an incredible build-up, climax, and gesticulated G major chord. (Bach had 20 children.)

                                      Nova Scotian Denise Djokic elegantly playing 
                                      through the G major Prelude

Yes, there is the occult-mathematical kabbalistic Bach in Siblin's book too, but not too much. (Those of who who geeked out on this aspect of Bach as related in Douglas Hofstadter's Godel Escher Bach won't find the same buzz here.) In kabbalah his name, J. S. Bach, adds up to 41, and there are 41 measures in this first Prelude; he was known to encode his last name in sequences. In German the B stands for B-flat, while the H represents B. Out of this quasi-chromatic sequence he spun motifs and combinations that flowed like a brook on the first days of a German Spring.

All in all, Siblin's book has a catchy melody and a rhythm I can dance to - like a Gigue that "ends in an atmosphere of optimism and cheerfulness," as Dimitri Markevitch said - and I give it a ten...or a 14, which is "Bach"'s value in gematria, and 14 was the number of fugues based on a single theme that Bach was writing when he died.

The Cello Suites seems an underrated book to me.