August 23, 2004

A Chaotic Neutral Left

I can't write today.

God knows I tried. I have six, maybe seven pages of complete shit. This is the best so far:

It is relatively easy to extract a distribution of probable translations for individual words or segments from a corpus of aligned texts. Each word or multiword term W in a corpus C = {C1, C2, C3, ...} has a distribution vector DW which is determined as follows:
[Insert lame-ass formula from Salton 89 here]

In principle, the best translation - or at least the most likely one - the target language segment with the distribution vector that maximises the cosine between the two vectors. In reality, however, this calculation is fraught with difficulties.

Gaaahh!

Anyway, I'm taking out my handicaps on the blogoverse. Deal.

A Ken MacLeod post on Mark Ames - of the Moscow Exile - has poked me in a sensitive spot. It references a number of Ames' pieces over the last few years, some which expose a lot of the American left. Particularly this:

Wal-Mart is one of the few bones with a little meat on it that America throws to its tens of millions of lower-middle and semi-middle classes. Goods that once may have been unattainable are now attainable, almost free, thanks to union busting, employee abuse, Third World slave labor, the destruction of over-priced ma and pa stores, the homogenization of Middle America and every other horrible sin. When I said "Fuck 'em," I didn't mean it in the sense that I'd turned coat and gone right-populist like some David Horowitz. I just meant that I needed those cheap dishes. And I understood how, from the point of view of the economically struggling millions, you could mistrust and loathe all the natty left-wing intellectuals, all the rasta-haired, chin-studded anti-consumerists who want to steal that one bone that you've been given: access to goods. Goods that allow you to keep from slipping down yet another terrifying notch on America's cruel socio-economic fortress walls. You may not have health insurance, job security or a pension, but if you have goods, even inferior imitations of Crate & Barrel, then at least you're not entirely out of the picture. [...]

The rightwing oligarchy and its mandarins explain away globalization's savage effects on the lower classes as all part of prophet Adam Smith's wonderful plan for humanity. Or, negatively, the American Right seizes on the affordability of the goods produced overseas to attack Leftist critics for being elitist snobs because they are dismissive of the value of cheap middle-class-quality goods to the lower classes (a fair charge against the Left, though the Left is right to be elitist here) and because the Left wants to interfere with the hallowed "free market" which they claim is economics' equivalent to "pure democracy." This is an insane lie, evil quackery, the separation of human behavior from the hallowed "market."

For the right wing, lying has no consequences. Whatever they say about the proponents of globalization, no one has accused them, America's oligarchs, of being elitist. Only the natty leftwing critics are elitist. Which matters, because if that vicious feudal wage-price-war cycle I described ever reaches its logical conclusion, forcing workers to actually pay factories for the right to knit Old Navy sweaters which are then given away, with cash bonuses, to customers, someone will have to pay for it. History shows that when things turn bad, it's the elite who tremble most.

What makes a purge of the last remaining remnants of the feeble Left almost plausible is the fact that, as I said, they're the ones trying to convince the downsized Americans that it's immoral and distasteful to shop at Old Navy, it being a Gap store and all. Hell knows what the Left would like Middle America to wear: Bob Marley white rasta cottons and red/yellow knit cap? Thrift store outfits? That sounds way too complicated for most of us. At least at Old Navy they make it easy. Cheap and easy shopping -- about the only legal pleasure left in America.

The Left needs to understand how truly sweet this bone of affordable imitation-middle-class clothes feels to America's poor if it wants at least a hope of connectng. Their hatred of all things Gap, including Old Navy, is elitist. It's rooted as much in a cultural elite's disdain for "looking like everyone else" as it is in moral revulsion at sweat shops. That doesn't mean the Left is wrong, but it is not a popular argument among struggling wage slaves who watch Friends and dream that some day they might be able to afford Banana Republic. [...]

The Left is an elite. Let's admit it. From bourgeois liberals like Ehrenreich to Hard Leftists like the anti-globalization activists or even us at the eXile (though I'm never really sure how deep our Leftism runs.) Take Debbie, the data entry processor whom I replaced at NPC. I don't ever want to be like her. Or around her, if I can help it. Or the tens of millions like her. Like many Kentuckians I met, she loathed Clinton for being a two-timer and respected Bush for being "real." This is as good a reason as any to stay away from the disenfranchised.

As Talking Heads bravely sang, "I wouldn't live the way those people do/I wouldn't live there if you paid me to!"

Why shouldn't the Left acknowledge its elite status? What the hell are we trying to hide? Who are we trying to fool with our denial of our elitism -- the Debbies (who don't listen to the Left anyway) or ourselves? Can you handle being in opposition to your own countrymen, your own targeted class, on the grounds that you know better?

I can.

A recent post on Crooked Timber also reminds me that long before I was clear on what I meant by "the left", I revelled in being chaotic neutral: Kill'em all, let God sort'em out.

It is my chaotic neutral sensibilities that Ames really appeals to, against my better judgement.

The thing is, I have this suspicion, against my better judgement, that Ames is right. I suspect that there is no hope for a populism that isn't a sack of bullshit. Maybe there was, once, but not any more. Is there really no hope for anything better than a kinder, gentler, less exploitive, less manipulative ruling class?

It is in this light that I link to this post on Ken Layne's blog:

"But," Tim sputtered, "Kerry clearly claimed he was in Cambodia several days before he was in Cambodia. It was seared--"

"Stop that," I said, poking his neck with the corkscrew worm. "Listen to yourself. What are you doing, again? That's right, you're reminding people that the other guy fought in Vietnam. Have you become so brain dead that you think this helps your girly boy Bush? Do you honestly believe the coward boy can beat the War Monster?"

Blair tried to shake the confusion from his head. Then his eyes brightened for a moment and he said, "Four months! Kerry was only in Vietnam for four months!"

Death, War, Death, War ... Worship Me"See? You did it again. You people can't stop reminding everybody that Kerry was in Vietnam, taking lives like your boy eats cookies. Killing people, saving people, holding Life & Death in his hands like a savage gift. He kills the Viet Cong or anybody else he chooses, he saves a U.S. sailor who fell out of the boat, he walks the halls of the Senate deciding who he'll kill or who he'll save. In Vietnam, Kerry is a death's head of gruesome power, while your Bush hides in Alabama, a scared little girl. And what did little Bush do in Texas?"

Blair grinned, foolishly thinking the ball was again in his court. "He killed many people in Texas. All those executions ...."

"Ha! Your girly Bush killed nobody. He signed off on lethal injections. He's a middle manager in a cubicle at the suburban branch of the Bank of Death, initialing memos he doesn't even know how to read. What kind of Texas oilman is your little girl? You ever see 'Dallas'?"

Blair nodded. Everyone has seen "Dallas," all over the world.

"Then you know how a Texas Oilman is supposed to act. What do you think J.R. would do if his wife told him to stop drinking?"

Visibly wilting, Blair stepped deeper into the shadows.

"That's right," I said. "J.R. would've thrown his glass of scotch at her goddamned head, and then he would've laughed and poured a fresh double on the rocks while she whimpered behind the sofa, fearing for her life. Laura Bush tells your beloved wuss to stop drinking and he just stops drinking? Who's the wife here? Not Laura Bush."

Here is Ken Layne, channelling Mark Ames, channelling the Moscow elitny: Ours is a vengeful candidate. Elect Kerry and see him execute southern Republican senators on the Mall, laughing all the while: "You are the weakest link. Goodbye!" You think Iraq was a stupid unnecessary war? We'll have a war every year, just before the new TV season starts! Ha ha ha! Trade deals? We don't need no stinking trade deals. If our deficit gets to high, we'll invade China and oppress the Tibetans ourselves! Take that you hippy Dali Lama!

Beat them upside the head, show them who's the boss, until they know who the real elite are. Then, we tell them what to think if they want to be like us. Sickeningly, it seems like that is the way forward.

Ames' vision isn't quite so apocalyptic. He's right that pretending to be populists when we aren't offers the right - and even the centre - a favourite line of attack. I don't watch professional wrestling, I don't go to church, and I really hate Budweiser. I tape the Superbowl so that I can fast-forward through the game and watch the commericials.

We do tend to put a lot of focus on the injustices we see in the few things the classes we claim to be trying to help actually like. We raise tobacco taxes; we ban smoking in bars; we raise booze taxes; we raise the drinking age; we bitch about McDonald's and Walmart; when people haven't got much to support them but their churches, we tell them that the Bible is just a load of superstition. Is it any wonder we lose?

The truth is that the other side knows damn well that tobacco gives you cancer; they know that underage drunk driving kills; they don't eat at McDonald's and they don't shop at Walmart if they can avoid it; and they don't go to church. But lying has no significance for them. There are no points for being right. Their populism is lies. Polled issue by issue, the right hasn't been in line with the public since the Nixon era. Yet, they win elections on transparent lies.

What I'm begining to think we need is a chaotic neutral left - a left that says, damn straight I'm doing this for self-centered reasons. But at least I'm not fucking you over.

A recent example of this might be the gay marriage movement. Despite open opposition from the whole of the right, and little more than tepid support from the mainstream left, something over half of Americans think gay marriage is probably inevitable, and probably not a big deal. Why? I suspect because when a gay person is for gay marriage, they are not likely to claim that they're for it because they think it helps straight people much.

Fear of violence from the ghettos once made Americans rethink their beliefs about civil rights and race - beliefs that ran just as deep as homophobia. Women once demanded rights for themselves, and undertook protests big and small to get them. FDR built the modern American welfare state over the opposition of America's most powerful men, inducing them to at least stand aside because they were sincerely afraid the poor would destroy them. Perhaps someone has to stand up for getting the government to do what's good for them. Maybe someone needs to say, ask not what you can do for your country, ask what your country ought to be doing for you. Then others follow. Then people respect you. Then they negociate.

Americans aren't very good at populism. They don't trust men in power who don't rob them blind. Hopelessly repressed about sex, they will demonise a president who uses his office to get a little nookie, but will praise one who uses it to shift vast sums of money to his allies.

Maybe we need a return to "big government" liberalism - people who will fund the schools, the universities, the welfare programmes, the R&D agenda - not because these are the right things to do for everyone, but because each of those things is a traditional left-wing constituency. People who will tax the rich not because they have taken the public for a ride, but because there is no way to shut down the vast right-wing noise machine except to starve it, and there's no way to starve it but to tax the Scaifes and Olins into bankrupcy. We need people who drink Heineken not because its a snobby imported beer - God knows Heineken isn't a good beer - but because it keeps money away from the Coors Foundation.

Is it possible that we could build a chaotic neutral left? Would people vote in a naked political machine intent only on winning elections and keeping the reins of power? Would they vote for an openly self-agrandising force?

They did it for the right, so why not?

Posted 2004/08/23 16:37 (Mon) | TrackBack
Comments
But lying has no significance for them. There are no points for being right. Their populism is lies. Polled issue by issue, the right hasn't been in line with the public since the Nixon era. Yet, they win elections on transparent lies.

And it seems to be an American quirk at that; Spain's conservatives lost because of the transparency of their lies, the hypocrisy of John Major's government's "family values" campaigning did bite them in the end, Stoiber didn't get elected because it was patently obvious he couldn't manage the country any better. Ah, but there is an external parallel with the situation in the US--France. Everyone knows Chirac is a liar, and a transparent one. He still gets elected.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at August 23, 2004 17:09

But Chirac is... presidential!

No. No he's not. Sarkozy is actually Gaulist, but Chirac is just slick and old and everyone owes him. As far as I can tell if it wasn't for the protest votes, France would have President Jospin and the model would fit perfectly.

Posted by: Scott Martens at August 23, 2004 22:08

I think that the right wing is much more intelligible if you just think that the separation of the sheep from the goats is the whole law of life. Everybody thinks they're part of some elite, and hates those below, even though a lot of people are fooling themselves and will be made to pay the price.

If the lower orders are worthless, stupid, incapable of understanding, but sometimes useful, OBVIOUSLY you lie to them in order to get use out of them (and as stupid, they're easy to lie to).

This isn't far from the more realistic, hardnosed classical conservative positions -- rum, sodomy, and the lash, bread and circuses, various opiates, pie in the sky. It just means that the experiment with / dream of equality (imperfect as it always was) is over with.

Lind's "Made in Texas" traces Bush's point of view directly to the Confederate planter economy -- and elegant elite and a brutish, disenfranchised working class.

The forms of separation of sheep and goats are different and incompatible, but the Republicans meld them. Sinners and saved, productive and unproductive, and predators and prey are three entirely different kinds of distinction, but all conservatives believe in some mix.

Only partly on topic, sorry.

Posted by: Zizka at August 25, 2004 6:03

Test

Posted by: Scott Martens at September 2, 2004 7:18
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