November 4th, 2012
|08:53 am - The Long Con|
I just read an article by the American historian Rick Perlstein (author of Nixonland) which develops the idea I was kind of kicking around in my head yesterday, that 'Insider knowledge' is overrated. The article is called The Long Con and it's about how political mailing lists have been used by con artists since the early sixties to mail scams out to victims. And a lot of these scams are based on supposed 'insider knowledge', send money to learn about the cancer cure doctors are keeping to themselves or whatever.
In the last page of the article Perlstein raises another point, which I find fascinating. Loud public affirmation of things that people at some level know are not true serves as a group bonding thing. Here he is on the Romney campaign:
Lying is an initiation into the elite. In this respect, as in so many others, it’s like multilayer marketing: the ones at the top reap the reward... Sneering at, or ignoring, your earnest high-minded mandarin gatekeepers—“we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” as one Romney aide put it—is another part of closing the deal. For years now, the story in the mainstream political press has been Romney’s difficulty in convincing conservatives, finally, that he is truly one of them. His lying—so dismaying to the opinion-makers at the New York Times—is how he has pulled it off once and for all. Knowing deep inside that something isn't true makes it bizarrely more emotionally compelling to a certain kind of person. Orwell wrote quite a bit about this. For example I think those people who make a big fuss saying 'Obama is a Muslim' don't really believe it. And in a funny way the fact that they know it isn't true makes it more exciting to say it, and hang out with other people who say it. Or you know 'Homosexuals are going to inject our children with AIDS' or whatever bullshit. It excites them in an unhealthy way I think, because they know it isn't true, but they can all get together and say it to each other.
If I try to put it in a nice way, some people are strongly attuned to group cohesion and group membership - which is a natural human thing - and affirming an untruth in solidity with others emphasises the strength of their social ties. Just like for a different kind of person affirming 'the truth' against social unpopularity is quite thrilling in a different way.
November 3rd, 2012
|08:44 am - You don't need to be an Insider|
I went to bed early last night. Apparently there was a Newsnight report about the ongoing child abuse revelations which are rocking the British establishment. The BBC cautiously redacted the name of the friend of Margaret Thatcher who was closely involved. So this morning I thought I would give myself a little test of how easy it would be to find out who he was. It took less than five minutes. And it was only as long as that because I had the wrong name in mind. I have decided not to link to any websites, because it will all be out by the end of the day anyway. For example, wikipedia staff have edited content, but wikipedia editing history is open to anyone to read. If you care to know you can find out. PS it is not a fascinating fact or anything.
There was an article in Crooked Timber about the concept of Insider knowledge (it's not about child abuse).
Most of the time, you can learn as much or more from intelligently consuming publicly available information as you can from attending purportedly insider briefings... (in fact) you are likely to end up with a less biased understanding. ... the reasons for the apparent near-unanimity among foreign policy specialists that going into Iraq was a good idea was a combination of bad sources, careerism, and substantial dollops of intellectual dishonesty.
I agree with that post: the idea that powerful people have some kind of secret understanding, closed to the rest of us, is self-serving bullshit. OK, obviously there are secrets - like who exactly did what and when - but secrecy is there to protect the incompetence and weakness of the powerful. It doesn't give politicians and their pet journalists special power or competence, quite the reverse, it allows them to be rubbish. And secondly, while the details of allegations can be hidden (for a while) the overall attitudes of superiority and selfishness which enable abusive behaviour are obvious to anyone who cares to see.
Let me take an example from outside Western society, and outside right wing circles. Both Stalin and Mao were linked to people who physically abused others. In both cases the details were suppressed. But do we think that ordinary people in those countries did not know? Or that the attitude which enabled that abuse was not clear to all? Of course people knew. And it is just the same for us. (By 'the same' I mean we already know in our hearts, like people in Russia did. The wicked deeds are different).
I think the only thing that happens when details come out is that what has been frankly obvious to anyone with eyes can't be denied any longer - not the individuals but that attitude that some people are expendable, usable, less important. Although of course some people will bitterly continue to deny.
October 31st, 2012
|09:48 am - Mystery Dance|
pointlessride asked if she could translate one of my Breaking Bad stories into Russian and here it is. It is fun to translate it back into English with Google. Like reading a story written by someone else. I like it.
October 29th, 2012
|07:52 pm - Sandy|
Sorry I have been very poor at reading livejournal this autumn because my life is very busy. Best wishes to all lj friends on the East coast of the US. Hope there aren't too many problems from the storm coming over this evening.
October 28th, 2012
|09:40 am - Derren Brown and magical narrative|
My daughter is a big fan of Derren Brown and she was telling me about his new show Apocalypse. We were saying how his explanations of 'how he does it' are always fake, and the real trick is something else going on while your attention is caught up in his elaborate psychological explanation. And also how he makes use of the narratives which already exist in our society to control his subjects. One of my daughter's closest friends was brought up on stage at a Derren Brown show, and analysing her experience afterwards made it clear how he uses the narrative of 'being on stage with Derren Brown' for example (and other common cultural narratives). By the way this is absolutely not a criticism or a debunking, I think it's brilliant stuff. There are layers within layers, and the first revelation is always a fake one. Not a problem, and I think he's a lovely man, who deserves his success.
A friend said she thought government was like that - there is one bit of business going on in the public view, which corresponds to culturally accepted narrative of 'what government does' and then another thing going on which is government actually being effective and producing results while our attention is on the showmanship. She thought the current government were only doing the 'government narrative', like a magician who does the hand-waving and distraction, but who isn't actually working meanwhile to make the trick happen.
And then I was comparing what happened to the Lib Dems in 2010 - and we saw a lot of this on livejournal - to a kind of hypnosis. They were swept up by a powerful narrative, and it ate them and destroyed them. But I don't feel they are blameless, because they were psychologically ready to be tricked. They were kind of asking for it.
|09:13 am - Skyfall |
All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; ...I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
I went to see Skyfall, the new James Bond. This is a brief spoiler-free overview. I dunno, I will cut it in case you are utterly allergic to seeing anything in advance, but there's nothing here that gives away any significant plot development. But do try to see it.
( Read more...Collapse )
October 10th, 2012
|07:28 am - Brick|
I am watching Brick, by the same director as Looper, and also starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It's a very black comedy, one of the many, many versions of Red Harvest that have been made over the years. Red Harvest is a fascinating novel, probably in my top ten, and it has been made into several great films, but funnily enough none of them are called Red Harvest. Perhaps that's too obviously a socialist title. I am thinking Yojimbo, Fistful of Dollars, Miller's Crossing and Last Man Standing. I am sure there more I can't think of right now. This version authentically captures the gluttony for punishment of the main character, which is downplayed in the films with Willis and Eastwood and so on. He basically wins by abasing himself, and needlessly being knocked unconscious over and over again.
Anyway, the very bleak humour in this is that all the characters are school kids (though played by actors in their twenties). It's not like 'Bugsy Malone' - there's real violence. But it is very funny to hear noir dialogue, as you might recognise from scenes in other films between a police chief and a private eye, in the mouth of a Vice Principal telling a kid off for not going to class. Or the scene in Red Harvest where the 'private eye' is beaten unconscious by the henchman, followed in this version by the protagonists eating cereal in a kitchen under the watchful eye of the chief gangster's mum.
And yet, of course kids of this age do get killed, get pregnant, get addicted and exploited. And they aren't listened to. Just in the month I have been teaching there has been serious stuff happened to kids in my classes, which would challenge any adult. The use of highly stylised noir dialogue is, as I say, comic, but also provides a way for adults to see into the world of children, in adult terms. I would like to see more recognition that the suffering of children is as serious as the suffering of adults.
Turning it around, the restrictions and powerlessness of children enables the noir plot to unfold, and makes clear the alienation and futility which Hammett's communist novel was portraying.
(I'm actually posting this before I have seen the whole film, because I have to go to work now)
October 4th, 2012
|02:12 pm - Sube conmigo amor Americano|
For national poetry day, here is my own translation of part of The Heights of Macchu Picchu by Pablo Neruda. Oh Wilkamayu, oh you loom of sound.
Sube conmigo amor Americano
Rise up with me, American beloved
Oh, kiss with me these undiscovered rocks.
The silver torrent of the Urubamba
Drives out the pollen from its golden cup.
Everything is flying: the emptiness within the vines
The solid ground, the stony garlanding,
Above the silent canyon through the peaks.
Come, little one, between these wings
Emerging from the ground - crystal and freezing air -
Beating back, fighting the emeralds,
The savage waters at the base of snow.
Love me, love me, until the night forces
Sound from the Andean flint,
Until the rosy knees of dawn
Part to reveal the blind son of the snow.
Oh Wilkamayu, oh you loom of sound
When you break your perfect line
In white spume, like a wound in snow
When your plunging tempest sings
Punishing heaven, calling the sky to wake,
What language is this, wrenched from the Andean foam,
That gushes into my open ears?
|01:55 pm - Three films|
I have seen three films recently, but because I am working literally seven days a week right now, I haven't had time to post here about them. In case you are trying to decide whether to see them, here is a quick blast of opinion. No spoilers.
Anna Karenina: starring Keira Knightley, script by Tom Stoppard, and directed by Joe Wright (also directed Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, and Atonement). Some people are irritated by Keira Knightley. If you are, this will irritate you, as her mannerisms are on full strength. Not a problem for me, I think she is doing pretty well & maturing as an actress. This is an extremely stylised non-realistic production, more like an opera than a normal film. It's very lush with fantastic dresses and so on. The story happens in and around a series of theatrical sets, some of which kind of open up into real life rooms or landscapes, and others close down into backstage walkways. It reminded me a bit of Kenneth Branagh's Magic Flute. It's very girly, very pretty, and a bit shallow.
Killing Them Softly: is a philosophical gangster film - there are a few of those aren't there. Like the Hit or something, but this one is American. The philosophical theme is entropy and the inevitability of decay. It is grimy and oppressive in atmosphere but very cleverly designed. Brad Pitt is a competent hitman, no appetite for emotional scenes, just does the job. He is operating in a milieu which is dominated by incompetent men with massive emotional issues that they express through greed and violence. Meanwhile the banking crisis and the McCain/Obama presidential campaign are playing out in the background, on every radio and TV in every room. As Pitt contends 'This is capitalism, now give me my fucking money'.
Looper: This is a time travel film set in the near future USA, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a hitman and Bruce Willis as his older self back from the future. A big deal for me is that this was directed by a Breaking Bad alumnus - Rian Johnson who directed my favourite episode 'Fly'. It is also the best SF film we have seen for a while, though it is quite flawed. I feel it was perhaps pulled in many directions as it was made, and the emotional punch was somehow lost. You can read a full review by Abigail here: I really recommend that, and there's no point in me repeating any of that analysis. I disagree with Abigail in one respect - I think the way that the paradoxes of time travel were handled, though no doubt ridiculous, was satisfying in narrative terms, and internally consistent - like for example Terminator, where the time travel doesn't annoy the viewer, regardless of whether it makes sense.
For me the best scene hands down - and it is interesting Abigail also mentions it - was a Breaking Bad scene. Aging dangerous (bald) man browbeats and ridicules younger man in a diner, calls him a child, and they end up hurting each other. That's like in every episode, but it never gets old. I would say that Bruce Willis is - he's probably a more straightforward kind of guy than Bryan Cranston, less in touch with - erm - the problematic things inside. His delivery of the same lines is less complicit and disturbing, but nevertheless fascinating to see a different favourite actor approach the same material.