Thursday, March 28, 2024

Word Pictures

When it comes to the perverse use of language for political gain Orwell is the most oft-quoted author in English, perhaps a little over-quoted, as his observations do not necessarily encompass all aspects of the problem we face today.

One wonders what he would have made of "Trans women are women", an apparent statement of fact grounded in a rather obvious counter-factual.
Might he have said "calm down, it rather depends on the human social context" or was he a bit too invested in calling out these distortions? I'm sure the purity of it would have impressed him. 
Anyway, my own quotees would be these. First Joseph Conrad: "Words, as is well known, are the great enemies of reality."
And then Arthur Miller: "Words are undervalued as a means of expression. Pictures tend to trivialise experience." Not as contradictory to the above as it might at first seem.
Living in this society which relentlessly trivialises experience with images, it is hardly surprising that a certain amount of effort goes into turning language into a co-conspirator. 
In Academia and certain professions (though less so on the scientific side) there is a new form of false precision in ascendancy, taking the form of what we might call "word pictures". These are words that are loaded up with extra meaning before insertion into a sentence, such that hearing them delivers an almost visual experience. And although they have a bit extra inside them, their real purpose is to restrict what can happen outside their 'walls'. 
They make ignorance feel like knowledge, which is also handy in today's democratised discourse. 
I witnessed some high end deployment of this linguistic toolbox on X yesterday in the form of a "rapport" by Francesca Albanese at the UN. A lawyer by training and an antisemite by instinct, she can barely open her mouth without letting slip one of the pictorial buzzwords of her ideology: apartheid, genocide, colonialism, occupation etc. Have those bingo cards at the ready. 
The purpose of such words is to take us outside of language, outside of reality as Conrad might have it. 
There are some other little ironies worth noting. The term colonialism lends itself to an emotive over-simplification of a complex situation even in its original context, let alone the contemporary Middle East. 
And Albanese's partisan argot also represents a kind of clandestine translation from another set of formalised and aggressive grievances and chauvinisms, those of the Islamists, to another. 
It's as if the word pictures we are being saturated with are like a set of symbols which have been touched up to appear as if they belong to one faith tradition when in fact their origin is alien to it. Rather like the Mezquita in Cordoba: a mosque which is now dressed up as a Catholic cathedral.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

3 Body Problem, first impressions

The top show on Netflix in Guatemala right now is Bandidos, deservedly awarded a second season. The action kind of floats, driven by half a dozen likeable characters and a plot which is cleverly structured yet never feels anything other than light.

And then, in second place, we have this, 3 Body Problem ("from the makers of Game of Thrones') possibly not the ideal follow-on choice after all that enjoyable Mexican triteness. At the end of episode one I was already referring to it as the Cheesy CGI problem (though Bandidos had a bit of that too).

Not having read the original Chinese 'hard' sci-fi series by Cixin Liu, I was not immediately aware how the modern-era main protagonist in the book had been split into five different TV characters, suggesting an updated gag: 5 Body Problem.

I'm now four episodes in and I still find them a completely non-credible group of former Oxford Natscis, but the low levels of likeability I experienced in the opener are easing just a bit.

It says much that the better parts so far have been those set 40 to 50 years ago in Communist China, apart from the really unnecessarily violent opening scene.

A Generational Conflict

One thing is clear: the defenders of Hamas don't want to talk about what Hamas is, what Hamas did.

Instead they'd much rather lock you into a seemingly self-contained side debate about the human costs associated with eliminating Hamas for good where, even if they are losing the intellectual argument, they can lay permanent claim to the moral high ground, falsely. 

At the very least they will attempt to contextualise something which ought never to be contextualised.

If I learned something from my parents' generation it is this: When faced with the need to put a proper end to a geopolitical cancer, the time for recriminations over whether one is responding 'proportionally' and indeed whether the human cost, to the enemy's own civilians in particular, is usually after the malignant growth has been removed.

Those who fought in WWII for the Allies, in a war started by enemies that had few visible red lines, did not subsequently carry around a large share of the burden of blame for the slaughters in places like Dresden or Hiroshima.

For it is self-evident that just because one supports the goal of one's own survival and the long-term removal of a systemic threat, one does not become morally complicit with every instance of callousness in the manner in which the conflict ultimately progresses.

War can be both absolutely horrible and yet necessary. Oppenheimer made the bomb, Truman ordered it to be dropped, twice. The Japanese were largely to blame, and in a very real sense, collectively. 
This is a profoundly uncomfortable truth, but it seems true to me today nonetheless, even though I long struggled with it as a younger person.

If you fall for Hamas's rhetorical counter-strikes with mortality statistics, it's possibly because you don't appreciate the existential danger or because you think it's someone else's problem, someone you may not care about all that much.

You are probably deluding yourself however. Fascism knows few natural boundaries. To my parents' generation the opportunity costs could not have been clearer. 

Israel has been obliged to wage a definitive war it had ducked for over a decade in order to eliminate an antagonist it can no longer afford to rub up against, a loud and proud nihilistic nemesis which has promised to repeat the atrocity of October 7 at every available opportunity.

This may not seem to be your fight just now, but do everyone a favour and think before you sit in judgment on those given little alternative but to fight it.

Civilians are dying, in their thousands. This is probably at least partially down to Israelis not caring (just like my parents' generation stopped caring in analogous circumstances), but it is also a consequence of Hamas caring, but in entirely the wrong way.

Still, there is no reason to believe that this war is any more monstrous than others, unless of course you have become convinced that all Jews are innately monstrous. Then you are part of the pathology.



Friday, March 15, 2024

Anatomy of a Fall (2023)

Winner of both the Palme d'Or and the Palm Dog, this extraordinarily well scripted and well CAST movie (practically an advert for the Academy's decision to add a new statuette category for this skill-set), presented me with a key dilemma (not the one the writer-director intended I think) which I never fully resolved: did I believe in the trial as anything other than a storytelling means to an end.


For the story here is not really about a crime or potential crime, but about human relationships, and very well told, yet I never quite understood why the French state would have taken a gamble in providing the mechanism for developing it.And amidst all the truthful insights into couples and masculine vulnerabilities there is one dominant and ultimately decisive suggestion which struck me as a little irresponsible for current times: "If you don't know...just decide"


Thursday, March 14, 2024

“Better be pruned to grow — than cut up to burn”

Every so often one comes across a statement like “The Muslim world lacks the equivalent of the Reformation”. Those who repeat it seem to have been misdirected by all those virgins in paradise and the predisposition for child marriages into forgetting that, from the get go, Islam was a highly puritanical religion. 

As the Arab empire took shape and began to rub up against the Roman Empire in the eastern Med, so-called westerners made some decisions which would lastingly affect how they themselves thought about the correct approach to the big issues. 

Early Christianity in the Middle East under Greek tutelage had largely consisted of a plethora of coexisting sects. Under Arab rule all but the state-sponsored Orthodoxy of the Emperor himself were effectively extinguished, but that permitted a rebel tendency, puritanical and iconoclastic, to emerge and threaten the core, even to the extent of declaring the veneration of the cross a form of idolatry. 

The fact that at this point primitive Christian and Islamic underlying attitudes were barely distinguishable must have set up an 'Aha!' moment for the ecclesiastical authorities. And thus the official church’s solution was to surrender their own puritanical rabble to Islamic control. 

Rather than fight them, they simply offloaded them, permitting them to become Muslims. (In this they became like the ‘useless third’ of society — the telephone sanitisers and so on — which Douglas Adams had dispatched into deep space on an iffy colonising venture, or indeed the right-thinking passengers of the Mayflower who, as luck would have it, somehow initiated the socially beneficial project of founding the United States.)

Meanwhile the Orthodox church maximised its own fancy image worship and overall grandeur, seemingly liberated from the priggish and the abstemious. 

‘The West’, might feel existentially threatened by Islamic teachings today, but it only ever took the shape that it did because it learned how to put them to practical uses. 

This plan seemed to be working well at first, but there would be a period of iconoclastic reaction and relapse within Byzantium itself, yet once this was over the authorities went back to actively persecuting those who rejected the finer things of worldly life. 

Meanwhile, further to the still comparatively light-starved west, under the authority of the Bishop of Rome, a work-around had been found, whereby individuals of uncompromisingly ascetic bent were walled off and made socially useful within monasteries and convents where they were much less likely to become a nuisance. 

Later on of course, there would emerge new religious orders which got out a bit more, and as these became commercialised, the conditions for a Reformation and a society-wide re-emergence of puritan nutjobbery were once again established.

In parts of the affluent world today we see an analogous development whereby the rebel extremist tendency within our own cultures is either being offloaded or perhaps self-offloading onto Islam in a manner which might otherwise seem unlikely to the historically ignorant. 

Only time will tell if this will again result in a handy purge of these cultish cranks, or whether in fact they are all coming to sweep away the rest of us.

Monday, March 11, 2024

The Evil of Banality

There were no terrorists hiding in tunnels beneath the city of Hiroshima, nor indeed underneath Mariupol's drama theatre, yet once again last night it was the IDF response to 7/10 that drew facile comparisons from people in fancy formal wear with one very specific part of the murderous, ethically complex inferno that was WWII.

Yet the thing about the Holocaust is that it stands apart from everything else that happened between the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the dropping of the second of Oppenheimer's atrocious new weapons on the citizens of Nagasaki, and deservedly so. And it in no way preserves this status as a result of some sort of process of 'selective empathy'.

Those who would have us lose sight of this are, in my recent experience, morally moronic, morally degenerate or both. Not so much the banality of evil as banality and/or evil. 



Sunday, March 10, 2024

Argylle (2024)

A not entirely un-entertaining 007 pastiche targeting immature audiences (by age or otherwise).

Like the aforementioned off-ness in Foe, audiences are distracted from the crap-ness of Argylle by tge rather cunning inclusion of the decoy variety in the ludicrous opening sequence involving Dua Lipa and a Mini Moke, with such terrible haircuts and CGI that there just HAS to be a kind of punchline, which there is, and Matthew Vaughn's early twist is just enough to dispatch thoughts like "hang on though, the CGI for Alfie the cat really is shonky..." for the remainder of his movie.

Foe (2023)


Aside from its central pair of talented, nice-to-look-at thesps, perhaps the most engaging thing about this movie is the way many of the scenes making up at least the first two thirds of its running time feel strangely off, predominantly in an uncanny way.
And yet, upon reflection, there's a good deal of off in Foe which cannot have been so deliberate, like Irish actors unconvincingly cast as rural Americans, Australia cast as the MidWest and a whole rather flimsy backdrop-as-Macguffin about space stations and environmental apocalypse, which does little to to distract the audience from noting that this is essentially a low budget three hander set in an old wooden house.

The intentional part of the off-ness might have been used to better effect had the director not delivered a spoiler, or at least a very large hint, in the opening textual prologue.

This places expectations at the Phillip K. Dick or at least Black Mirror level, but these are bound to be disappointing because this is not a movie about the existential crises of artificial consciousness, rather an examination of what happens to the affections of wetware when presented with an edges-off, slightly unworldly facsimile of the love object.

This distinction between real and fake would have worked a whole lot better if all the real characters did not come across as so fake.
And the reason why Phillip K Dick's variety off-ness remains the touchstone for these AI narratives is that he was confronting something seriously off in his own lived reality when he wrote his stories, and so any binary doubts quickly segue into universal incertitudes bordering on paranoia, which become available for vicarious participation by audiences.

Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Tools...of empire

This X-pleet would be funny for its total lack of self-awareness if it wasn't so dumb. (Morons with zero self-awareness are rather less funny in the Trump era than they ever used to be.) 

It starts off well enough I suppose, helpfully explaining why many members of the Pro-Pal mob have acted like morally degenerate, antisemitic morons, not exactly censuring them for this, but pointing out that it is probably damaging the noble cause. In effect an impassioned call for greater care in disguising their racist bile as progressive concern.

Yet then it goes full moronic itself, conflating Zionism with a supposed western settler-colonial ideology, before basically saying that all worldviews (though presumably not hers) are innately relative.

I guess she might agree with Sartre that none of it ultimately matters, the only important thing is one's 'commitment' to one's own ideological compulsions.

And given that this worldview of hers was using the misleading term 'genocide' very actively even before the events of 7/10 — which breached the ceasefire they now want rather imperiously reimposed — one has to conclude that it has always been deployed in this context as a form of not very indirect Holocaust denial/rebuttal by the Jihadis (and their 'apologists').

And if genocides can be 'active' (i.e. they manifest potentially even before they meet the agreed criteria), then raping freshly-made Israeli corpses and burning Israeli babies alive possibly also counts, you'd think?

The post was shared by an individual who reposted it saying it was "important...urgent", having only just shared a shameful image combining the Star of David with a Swastika. It was that urgent.

Anyway, there's more than one empire in play here, if that's how you have to caricature the geopolitics. Uncle Sam and the 'West' share the field with Russia, Iran, China and Islamic Jihadism.

Plenty of ways to act like a total tool. 



Flow My Tears


Around the time of my infancy Phillip K. Dick determined that his favourite composer was John Dowland

Then on November 17, 1971 the music in his life was abruptly muted when his California home was broken into, his stereo stolen and his steel-plated filing cabinet relieved of its contents via the use of dynamite.

When he reported this rather brutal burglary to the police, their immediate response was like the title of this book, but in the sarcastic register. Treating him as a troublemaker, they advised him to leave town rather than open an investigation.

Dick immediately wondered what dangerous truths he might have inadvertently stumbled upon. Eventually he concluded that the problem was this very novel, which he had abandoned.

He recalled having recently discussed its premise with a random bloke who’d crashed at his place, this man having confided that the CIA were indeed looking into a pill that would catapult users into a reality in which they were completely disconnected.

When he’d started Flow My Tears…the author had thrown his celebrity protagonist Jason Taverner into a new day in which he found himself utterly forgotten. The mechanism for moving across to this alternative, authoritarian reality would turn out to be a rather nasty narcotic, but as Dick picked up where he’d left off, he was starting to think that the flip-side world had actually been hiding in plain sight. He might indeed have stumbled upon an alarming insight.

In their native environments totalist societies do ‘exactly what it says on the tin’. But in order to gain traction within the ‘liberal’ world, they tend to have to make use of cunning subterfuge.

‘Queers for Palestine’ is precisely the kind of absurdist role play which only makes sense in this export grade idiom of inversion, tailored for gullible westerners. Outside that protective bubble, it would be an open invitation to oppression. It’s more a trick of perspective than an acid trip.

Dick duly concluded that that Nixon was probably a communist sleeper agent.


Government by the party, for the party...

We live in an age where nuance suppression is an industry, which makes them all that more important.

Take Belize here. Up until 1862 it was effectively an independent territory under long range British protection, not a Crown colony.

This anomaly is poorly understood even in Belize itself today, where contemporary arguments for a republic feed off a narrative whereby the British monarchy was complicit with the condition of African slaves there (with fairly constant murmurings about reparations), yet by 1862 both the trade and institution itself had long been abolished.

An alternative, feel-good caricature would have the British monarchy as the first imperial power in history to have dispensed with slavery.

This means it would be hard to pin the blame for the presence of people of African descent around the Bay of Honduras on the Windsors, in particular because a very significant minority of this demographic — the Garifuna — were never in fact enslaved outside of Africa and turned up in the region originally as part of a mechanism for avoiding European rule.

Anyway, these nuances are no luxury right now, because it has become questionable whether republican government in the Americas can remain wholly commensurate with the preservation of the core values of democracy.

One can point to El Salvador, Mexico, the USA and lately Guatemala, where the lack of a properly independent arbiter (however symbolic) within the state, immune to corrupt, party political packing is posing a severe threat to the system of popular suffrage.

So, beware Belize. Change made largely for the sake of historical misconstructions can lead to all kinds of places one does not really want to go.

Monday, March 04, 2024

Nativier than thou...

One of the more spurious arguments one occasionally hears from the Pro-Pals is that so-called Palestinians are descended from ancient peoples who inhabited the Levant.

They may well be. But the point is spurious because almost all historical-nationalist polemics derived from DNA analyses are notoriously dodgy, and 'nativier than thou' is generally considered an essentially racist proposition in most other contexts. 

Indeed if I were to make a show for political purposes of how much longer my ancestors had spent on the island of Britain compared to newcomers of any kind, I would soon be designated a knuckle-dragger and scheduled for ostracism.

And one is also obliged to remember here that many of those who big up these statements are otherwise inclined to aggressively play down biological factors compared to cultural ones in the other situations which matter to them.

I would also suggest that the argument is being used rather blatantly in bad faith, because the peoples who have long opposed Jewish self-determination, have done so precisely because they have closely identified with the culture and geopolitical objectives of their own later colonisers, the Arabs. 

It is this adopted Islamic identity which means the very notion of going Dutch with non-Muslims is broadly antithetical to them, and this means that there is something extremely cake-and-eatey about the DNA narrative.

In 1948 roughly 120,000 non-Jewish inhabitants of the Mandate decided that they could coexist with the Jews, assuming Israeli citizenship, while as many as 600,000 chose the path of violent 'resistance', which they have followed ever since.

The numbers of the latter have swollen to millions — that great inverted genocide — suggesting that any ancestry test result is likely to have been significantly diluted. Yet the continued 'resistance' remains grounded in another highly spurious, historically-blinkered line of argument, that it is the Jews who are all newcomers to the region, occupiers or settler-colonialists no less

If it is really anti-colonialism that you support, be careful what you wish for…

Even Yemen was a Jewish kingdom pre-colonisation.

The truth is that the modern world should not rely on any kind of regressive territorialism, based on race, religion or uncompromising irridentistism. Everyone has to come to the table with dotted lines in their heads based on actuality.

This applies to all significant actors in the current situation, yet in saying that, one must never lose sight of the fundamental dynamic of the conflict, which has always been an attempt by Islamists to eradicate the only Jewish-identifying polity from this earth. They dress up this objective in all sorts of borrowed fineries, but nobody should ever be fooled.
There have been immoral behaviours and attitudes all around since 1948, but until that urge to smother all alternatives to the Islamic way is put on the back-burner, there is unlikely to be any real peace in the region.

Self-representation deficits...

I was recently reading a fascinating essay about Buenos Aires in the 1920s and 30s, at the time one of the most self-consciously modern urban spaces outside of Europe and North America. (And perhaps the only one of such that had no direct experience of the world wars. Additionally, even though the conditions for long term decline might have already begun to crop up, Argentina also had a very mild experience of the Great Depression.)

One might contrast Antigua, which has self-identified as 'old' in recent times.

Yet like all cities with a well-defined image for both the outside world and its own denizens, there ought to be more open and diverse debate here about the meanings and appropriate uses for the streets here, socially, politically, culturally — and the Alcalde ought to assert for himself a key role in marshaling these as well as articulating his own vision.

The obvious immediate danger, as we have seen, is a vacuum into which step those whose own project is largely limited to using Antigua as a lure for leeching off high-end transients. The outright cynicism one can detect here is likely to result in a gradual augmentation of the phoney-ness of the environment, with the city ultimately converted into little more than a boutique mall.


Friday, March 01, 2024

Wholeness and its discontents...


Theodicy is the name given to the discipline which aims to explain the presence of evil in our reality. We can call it theo-idiocy when it stands for the conclusion that it’s all just a matter of perspective, and that if we could only see the big picture…

Mani's position was that Good and Evil are there from the start, unconnected. Darkness, rather counter-intuitively, spills over into the Light, effectively causing a cosmic level environmental disaster which has to be cleaned up using spiritual ‘mestizo’ beings such as ourselves.

This soteriology was odd, because the salvation going on has more to do with cleaning up the system level evil-spill than with individual salvation.

St Augustine was into Manichaeism first and never really shook off the dualism. His swerve towards Christianity was influenced by an important ‘pagan’ precursor, the Enneads of Plotinus.

In this neo-platonic system there is only one true being, self-identical and unchangeable. Us lot live on a sliding scale below this absolute One, removed from full participation in Being by degradations like the need to think, move and engage with matter.

The more we collaborate with the external world, the more we slide downwards. Evil is thus the final notch on this scale, the furthest distance from perfection — but we possess a native buoyancy arising from the innate tendency of our inner being to lift itself up towards full reunification. (Sin and Grace are notably absent from this game of snakes and ladders for souls.)

Yet like Augustine after him, Plotinus struggles to explain precisely why these degrees of imperfection and multiplicity in general might exist, albeit contingently. He talks of it all starting with an overflow of Good, resulting from a superabundance, but fluid dynamics of this sort require the presence of Time to make proper sense.

Augustine comprehended that his God cannot precede His universe, nor can it have come about as a result of creative thoughts (or potentiality) in the deity, for cognition would encumber Him with the knower-known duality of our own intellectual experience. An Absolute creator is thus a bit of an oxymoron.

If Gnosticism feels like a 'work around', the term 'cop-out' comes up more readily with Christian theodicy. Augustine ultimately settled on the idea that it is "fitting” for God to be associated with good things, such as making universes. 

Slightly more appealing is the notion that without us, goodness would ‘always’ remain virtual rather than actual. It's the only way the One could be said to have had needs. Materialisation has a few negative outcomes, but maybe they were always factored in as acceptable.


The Goggles

As an historian it would never occur to me to don the googles of moral righteousness before analysing events in the past, so it is a mystery to me why people seem so determined to do so before commenting on events in the present.

There are of course situations in all periods which are located in close proximity to what we could describe as absolute wrong. But possibly not as many as today's Twitterati (X-twats?) seem to presume. And applying a filter which removes all the grey from one's black and white images is a horrendously lossy process. 

Take one example. Consider Bullfighting as something done within an ancient cultural milieu as opposed to one which persists into our own world. 

We are far more likely to judge it in overtly moralistic in the latter instance, in part because we tend to believe that it is within the powers of our free will to make a change. We innately prioritise suffering experienced in the present moment, that forever moving point with hints of a dotted line extending into the future.

However, in doing so today we open ourselves up to a couple of avoidable hazards. 

Firstly, we get such a buzz from this militant sense of virtue that we do indeed start to apply it in retrospect, dispatching forthwith into hellfire all kinds of historical actors living at some temporal distance from our own culture and its shibboleths.

Secondly, the righteous mentality has a way of mis-reading and ultimately perverting relative goods (or even relative bads) which historically has led inevitably towards some of those rare cases of absolute bad. 

In both cases we end up with a dogmatically unified, totalist perspective shorn of all shade and sometimes also of useful complexity.

By squeezing all nuance out of the exposition, it becomes like a cliff-face with no hand-holds.