Bad Comedy

The Guardian recently ran an article that posses the question ‘why don’t we see any late night conservative television a la Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and Steven Colbert?’ As I read about the failed attempt by Fox News to do just that, it became clear to me that whoever wrote this article didn’t understand why; they were posing a question but didn’t have an answer. Not really. The very question itself, the very fact that somebody bothered to write up an article on the topic tells more about liberals than conservatives. It also shows an alarming lack of understanding of the conservative emotional/psychological world.

It’s not that conservatives cannot be funny – think of Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson – but to pose the question completely misses the fundamental draw and psychological economy behind the right-wing world. This goes beyond the simple observation that conservatives are sustained by anger, resentment, and a sense of self-entitled self-righteousness. When I was younger and would listen to conservative talk radio, the best DJ/hosts – Rush himself – were the best because they were so good at starting quite and slow and then building the listener into a crescendo of anger – I myself would become angry and frightened about where the country was headed and here I was maybe ten years old. Obviously irony, sarcasm, puns – has no place here. Not only would it not be understood, it would literally snuff out the entire point – the additcting cycle of rage.

But its also more complex then that: conservative comedians wouldn’t be able to compete in the first place. Right wingers don’t need their own late night show – they have Trump. Conservatives live and are sustained by the low theatre of ideology that masquerades as reality. It shelters them and guides them – they need it to cope. Think about it: what is the difference between WWE and Trump’s presidency? Or The Apprentice for that matter. Its fundamentally “the same show,” the same play of emotion and posturing which, if it has a goal, is simply that of base greed and narcissism. Attributing the normal assumptions about the motivations and goals to this administration is therefore not just hopelessly myopic, but catastrophically dangerous.

What’s worse is the response to all this by the Democratic party and establishment liberals in general to conservatives. Here’s another example: The New York Times today writing about Trump on trade: “In Trade Actions, Trump Embraces Unpredictability” goes the headline, the tag being “With New punitive tariffs on Canadian jets, the Trump administration has intensified confusion about the principles guiding its trade policy.” The only real mystery is why would anyone look for principals or a ‘policy’ in the actions of Donald Trump? The same basic problem applies to the worry over late night conservative comedy shows: it implicitly takes conservatives at their word. Across the board, the “Establishment” takes conservative talking points as fundamentally true; most Americans implicitly accept the basic assumptions and reasoning of conservatives to be true, “but if only they were more enlightened, then they would vote Democrat” runs the logic here. This is not just lazy and incorrect, it’s crippling our ability to respond and protect our open, democratic society by the forces of greed and ignorance which menace it.

The reality is that conservative thought is over-representing in this country. Country to the strange whining about there not being free speech on college campuses, the ideas and values and arguments presenting by the right wing get far more of an airing than they deserve. This includes “bandwidth” – coverage on internet, television, books, newspapers and movies – but also disproportionate intellectual pull. For example neoliberal economics, commonly called “trickle-down” or “austerity” has been throughly discredited on both the theoretical abstract plain as well as the real-world of policy. Neo-Liberalism has been the dominate political creed of this nation since Reagan and it has been a disaster – and yet, the rhetoric of neo-liberalism remains at a fever pitch, and I would say that a majority of Americans implicitly assume the tenets of neo-liberalism to be true, if a little “heartless,” instead of just plain wrong and sinisterly so.  Between the stable of billionaire donors (Koch/Murdoch) that assure that any conservative ideas get fully funded and endlessly trumpeted, and the traditional tactic of businesses to pander to our lowest instincts and impulses, we are swamped by conservative ideas disproportion to an actual breakdown of the qualities of ideas and the proportion of what people actually believe and want. For example, I would argue with confidence that progressive Americans – say the actual number of people who wanted Bernie Sanders to be president – is greater than the number of people who wanted Trump or Clinton respectively – but we would not be aware of this because of the inertia and money behind Trump and Clinton.

The “conservatism” we know today represented by Trump – that mix of ethnic nationalism linked with massive corporate entities pursing profit (neo-liberalism) which gets it start with Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater, has been ignored and dismissed, but  that only disgusts how effective it has been as an ideology. The business executive uninterested in social questions and the Democratic Establishment politician looks the conservatives as being ignorant, and excessively distasteful, but not actually un-American. We look at the Iowa primaries and we think “It’s good that such a solid middle America state gets to go first,” not “Iowa is no more American, a rural area is no more American than anybody or anywhere else.” Let’s be explicit: the crowd represented by Bannon are the enemies of America, they are the enemies of freedom and democracy. Far from representing a trend in American politics which “has always” been there, they represent the forces which our Revolution implicitly rejected in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I deny them even the right to call themselves “Confederates.” They are something new – a reflection of cynicism, greed and hypocrisy in the internet age rather than something at all “American.” The creepy sense of authoritarian conformity – Trump’s secretary of the Interior saying that a third of government employees are “disloyal” to Trump being one of the more recent clearly fascist remarks to come from this administration (maybe we should require personal loyalty oaths?) – just makes it all the more obvious. This does not deserve any benefit of the doubt – and I question the judgment of people who would even suggest such a thing.

Kaepernick’s kneeling protest and its conservative backlash brings the issue into stark relief. The fact that’s so easy for conservatives to derail the argument and to pose the protest as “disrespect” for the flag and veterans is beyond alarming. It’s Kaepernick who embodies the spirit of America – freedom, idealism, hope against long odds – not the forces of racially infused economic stratification and crude jingoistic vitriol. It’s time we stopped calling conservatives half-way terms like “deplorable” or “racist” or “mean” and start calling Trumpism for what it is: wrong, un-American and yes, downright fascist.

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No Is Not Enough

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As a rule, I avoid books written by pundits and politicians, and eschew books that seem rushed out to address the latest trending issue, be it ISIS, Trump or why the mainstream media lies. And while books like this wear their loyalty on their sleeve and their biases on their foreheads, it’s best to avoid them for the simple reason that they are not really meant to win an argument or make a point or inform you in any way. These books are meant to fire up the True Believers – somewhat of an antithesis for me.

I made an exception for Naomi Klein’s latest book, No is Not Enough, because I see her as the leading public intellectual of progressive politics. And with Trump’s election, we as a society and my own self personally, need some sort of hope, some sort of way forward. As the book says – we need a way to win the world we need.

The first third of the book lays out Trump’s path to the presidency, the depravities of neoliberalism, the bottomless hypocrisy of the Republican Party specifically and conservatives generally. It’s devastating and insightful and in the light of Hurricane Harvey, all the more urgent and important.

Next, Klein examines some of the issues with the Democratic party – which I found to be a little naive, a little bit cautious. To be blunt here, she does not quite say what needs to be said: the Democratic party rigged the primary against Bernie Sanders and is just as much a part of the larger problem as the Republicans. In her investigation of the primary, she focuses more on Sander’s trouble with minority voters and the double standards facing Hilary against Trump. The highlight is how she points out how what seemed the “safe choice” turned out to be the most dangerous choice – she says it, but the point could have been made louder and longer.

In the conclusion, Klein presents the hopeful looking-forward bits, drawn largely from the Dakota Pipeline protests and her own worth Canada’s indigenous peoples. The big takeaway from this section for me was people who follow the wide-spectrum of left-leaning politics need to put aside the logic of “my crisis is bigger than your crisis” that tends to cripple and compartmentalise the whole project. Everything is related, Klein says and so we need to remodel the system to benefit everyone. I found this section to be light on details though – and it seemed incapable of address some harsh realities and difficulties that progressive politics will have to face and master to gain power.

No is Not Enough is about hope though. It was not the “this is the way forward” that I was hoping for, and seemed to be focused more on finding tiny successes and instances of not-total-defeat to hold on too. This is a good book and many valuable points are made – especially when it comes to understanding Trump – but my own personal expectations for this book was high and were not lived up too.

 

Superintelligence

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It’s hard to talk and think about artificial intelligence or superintelligence with out resorting to science fiction or shallow references to pop culture. WOPR, HAL 6000, Skynet – it’s best if you put those aside for a moment. Well not really, because the basic theme of the book is the tremendous danger a true machine super intelligence would pose to humanity. AI is an existential risk – quite possible it will be “our” meteor wipes us out.

I love serious books. I love how Bostrom saw a problem – lack of serious critical thinking about AI and its dangers – and sat down at his desk, sharpened his pencils and addressed the issue in a well written, insightful book. Logical, smart, yet with rare and subtle humour, Superintelligence is the sort of book that may not be that widely read, but will deeply impress those who do read it.

Systematically exploring the pathways to “super intelligence” the threats, dangers and the odds, this book is neither a pundit-like “rah-rahing” for AI, nor is this a conspiracy theorists’ doom-porn expose. It’s a serious, well written book – and in the age of twitter and fake news – it is incredibly refreshing. Bostrom – like all people’s who intelligence is worth respect, sees opportunities, but offers no easy or simple solutions.

A book that proves that “smart” and “academic” can be enjoyable, even invigorating.

 

Brother Number One

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Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were pound for pound the most murderous of the communist dictator/revolutionaries that emerged during the Cold War. What strikes me about this “Cambodian Revolution” is exactly how far they went in their ‘leap’ towards communism. All privacy – everyone was expected to wear the same clothing – and personal ownership was abolished, the entire population of Phnom Penh was herded into the countryside and treated as enemies of the state.  No other country has pursued the logic of communist revolution further than Pol Pot’s communists.

Pol Pot is a nom de guerre, much like “Stalin” it is quite interesting how secretive the man actually was – his family didn’t even no he was the leader of the revolution until they saw his photo hung in the collective’s dinning hall as a part of the nascent personality cult that was being formed. Brother Number One is a biography of a man – real name Saloth Sar – that strove his entire life to not have a biography.

Pol Pot was actually born to what we might understand as a wealthy farming family, and in the very small world of Cambodia a hundred years ago, this meant connections to the royal family via the royal ballet troupe. Pol Pot received a very high level of eduction for the time – even travelling for years to France – and mixing with the Cambodian elites of his generation. In France he becomes a communist true believer, returns to Cambodia, where he becomes the head of the nascent Cambodian Communist Part, formed and backed by Vietnam in their struggle for independence and war against the US. Pol Pot becomes the head of the Cambodia Communist Party when it’s really not a desirable job to have, but he’s totally loyal and committed.

Once Pol Pot becomes the leader of the party, all sources of personal information essentially cease, and the biography reads more of a history of the Cambodian Revolution. You have to say this for Pol Pot: he was not corrupt and not a hypocrite.

Reading this book you come to realise how poor and small Cambodia truely is – the geopolitical reality is that they are trapped between Thailand and Vietnam; the best Cambodia can hope for is a tenuous independence backed by one or the other. The Vietnamese brought Pol Pot to power and they went to war to get him out of power – it’s as simple as that. And much of the butchery of the revolution can be chalked up to sheer incompetence – there simply was no body who knew how to run an economy – mixed with a curious sense of fanaticism.

A fascinating, chilling read.