The Dim-Post

January 20, 2015

Vague Trotteresque Musings of the Day

Filed under: books,Politics — danylmc @ 2:02 pm

1. The Cult of Business.

Gordon Campbell has a post up about the similarities between John Key and David Cameron, and it touches on the issue of what these people actually believe in.

Robert Muldoon too, used to think that his own political instincts were always somehow mystically in sync with the mood and the tolerance levels of the nation. (In his last interview before his 1984 defeat, Muldoon told me that he had this innate ability to know New Zealanders, even though he hadn’t walked down Lambton Quay for over a decade, nor shopped for clothes in an actual shop for years – “ They bring in some shirts and I choose.”) With Key and Cameron, it is a far more conscious process, aided by focus groups. In both cases, being ever-willing to shift ground in order to perpetuate themselves in power is what passes for a political philosophy :

I was thinking about this very issue a bit over the summer. What does the right believe? I feel like the core beliefs have shifted in the wake of the GFC, but to what?

My theory is that contemporary right-wing thought has moved on from ‘neo-liberalism’ and its attendant belief in the magical power of free markets or the panacea of economic growth. What they believe in now is ‘business’, in much the same way that early Christianity transferred its system of belief from the mysticism of the Gospels and the coming Kingdom of Heaven to the temporal supremacy of the Church, and Communist intellectuals transferred their belief in dialectical materialism to the primacy and infallibility of ‘The Party’. Right-wing intellectual thought, such as it is, is focused on the primacy and infallibility of ‘business’ and the wisdom and needs of the private sector. So we have politicians like John Key and Steven Joyce, who are themselves revered as ‘business’ (ironically, every time they sit down to do a deal with the private sector they get comprehensively beaten at vast expense to the taxpayer) and who have no ideological problem with picking winners or extensive interference in the market, or just giving state money away to private companies. The free market isn’t important. Business is important. The state can intervene in the economy – massively – but at the service of business. Ideally it should be in partnership with business or, failing that, managed by someone from the private sector ideally a membership of the modern post-capitalist priesthood, our versions of the college of Cardinals, or the politburo: a ‘business-leader’.

Here’s a silly but – I think, telling – example: When Grant Robertson was announced as Labour’s Finance Spokesperson, various National-Party and ACT people scoffed at the appointment. Robertson has no private-sector experience. He wouldn’t win the respect of ‘business’. I pointed out on twitter that Bill English doesn’t have private-sector experience either: he was a Treasury analyst and then a politician. A National Party organiser quickly corrected me. English had worked on his parent’s farm in Dipton. Private sector! Which sounds absurd, because Robertson ran the Prime Minister’s Office, which – to me at least – is slightly more impressive and more of a qualification for being a senior Minister. But if the mystical properties of the private sector are at the core of your belief system then obviously English’s experience has blessed him in a way that Robertson’s has not. To an atheist the difference between someone claiming to be a bishop in the Catholic Church, and one who has actually been consecrated via apostolic succession is meaningless. To a believer it is everything.

So here’s a solid prediction based on this hypothesis: Paula Bennett will never be the leader of the National Party. She’s not ‘business’.

2. Nostalgia, mid-point Generation X literature and generational attitudes to climate change. 

A few of the novels I’ve read recently (The Marriage Plot, Wolf in White Van, The Interestings) have been set in the 1980s, or indulged in a little nostalgia for 1980s youth culture. Up until now, whenever I’ve read a novel dealing with childhood nostalgia it’s almost always been a boomer author pining for the 1950s and 60s, but Gen-X authors are now of an age when they’re looking back to their/our own youth.

Nothing wrong with that. But one of the features of growing up in the 80’s I really don’t miss is the Cold War and perennial threat of nuclear apocalypse. I don’t remember how old I was when I learned about the possibility of nuclear war. I do remember that whenever the electricity went out I always checked to see if my digital watch was still working. I knew that the EMP of a nuclear blast would disable my watch, so if I could still tell time then a nuclear war probably hadn’t broken out. Maybe I worried about these things a little more than most kids, but everyone was aware of it.

And then the Cold War just ended. The Warsaw Pact collapsed and the looming threat of global annihilation suddenly wasn’t there anymore. Which was awesome, but I do wonder if it impacts on generational attitudes towards climate change. Do most people of my generation and older sub-consciously equate the slow motion catastrophe of climate change with the threat of nuclear war and just sort of hope that climate change will painlessly vanish as a problem, somehow, the same way thermonuclear war did?

January 13, 2015

Goverment introduces lore to kerb homophonia

Filed under: satire — danylmc @ 1:54 pm

National leader John Quay has announced a sweet of tough knew measures to lesson the rain of homophonia in knight-classes, flour gardens, stationery stores, too-story buildings and even in caughts of law. 

‘It’s thyme,’ Quay said in Wellington this mourning. ‘This vial homophonia steeling our mite cannot be aloud to run its coarse. We must beet it at the route.’

The mane porpoise of the bills is to seas the prophets of homophones. ‘This will be a cymbal and a coo,’ Quay added.

‘It’s common cents,’ said United Future leader Peter Done, who will support the bills cite-unscene. Greens co-leader Rustle Gnawman holy disagrees, calling for both an inquiry and an enquiry into the affects of the axe.

 

The treachery of images; also, links

Filed under: books,media,satire — danylmc @ 6:28 am

I like this essay by Teju Cole on the issues around Charlie Hebdo and free speech. Also, this piece by Laura Miller questioning whether the critics describing Charlie Hedbo as racist know what they’re talking about. This problem occurred to me yesterday when a bunch of people I know linked approvingly to this column critical of Charlie Hebdo, explaining why its cartoons were racist and offensive, which included this point:

I know that the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo identify as left-libertarian atheists, and that they’re “equal-opportunity offenders” —the exact same background and mindset as Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as Seth MacFarlane, as your typical 4chan troll. I know that, ironically, the last issue printed before the shooting was mocking a self-serious right-wing racist doomsday prophet and his fear of a Muslim takeover

The ‘self-serious right-wing racist doomsday prophet ‘ referred to here is Michel Houellebecq. I don’t know a lot about French satire but I do know that this is a dubious way to describe a guy who is arguably the most acclaimed novelist in contemporary French literature, whose last book was a parody of a thriller in which a psychopath gruesomely murdered Houellebecq himself (which won the Goncourt award, the French equivalent of the Booker Prize). His new book Soumission does imagine a France surrendering to Islam. But, via the Guardian’s review:

Some in France have already complained that the novel fans right-wing fears of the Muslim population, but that is to miss Houellebecq’s deeply mischievous point. Islamists and anti-immigration demagogues, the novel gleefully points out, really ought to be on the same side, because they share a suspicion of pluralist liberalism and a desire to return to “traditional” or pre-feminist values, where a woman submits to her husband – just as “Islam” means that a Muslim submits to God.

But Soumission is, arguably, not primarily about politics at all. The real target of Houellebecq’s satire – as in his previous novels – is the predictably manipulable venality and lustfulness of the modern metropolitan man, intellectual or otherwise. François himself happily submits to the new order, not for any grand philosophical or religious reasons, but because the new Saudi owners of the Sorbonne pay much better – and, more importantly, he can be polygamous. As he notes, in envious fantasy, of his charismatic new boss, who has adroitly converted already: “One 40-year-old wife for cooking, one 15-year-old wife for other things … no doubt he had one or two others of intermediate ages.”

The novel ends in an almost science-fictional conditional mood, with François looking forward dreamily to his own conversion and a future of endless sensual gratification.

Houellebecq’s previous book was called The Map and the Territory, which is ironic because him and a lot of what’s happening in France are now subject to a classic map-territory problem: we’re confusing descriptions of what’s happening for the events themselves. It’s a reminder that the pundits confidently translating French (and Islamic) culture for us so they can tell us what to think about it all don’t necessarily have the faintest idea what they’re talking about.

January 11, 2015

How to actually strike a blow for satire and free speech

Filed under: satire — danylmc @ 12:37 pm

In the days since the Charlie Hebdo massacres I’ve seen a lot of rhetoric about the ABSOLUTE commitment western democracies have to free speech, and the CRUCIAL importance of satirists to be able to say anything – about anyone – no matter how offensive, and be protected by the law. People might be surprised to learn that in New Zealand satirists are not actually protected by the law at all, and can be sued for defamation and copyright infringement at will, while it is illegal to use images or footage from Parliament that subjects the House to satire or ridicule. So if some of the New Zealand politicians or newspapers standing on their soapboxes pontificating about how much they love satire and free speech wanted to actually promote those values and campaign to update our laws protecting satire so that they’re in line with that of most other western democracies (a simple members bill should do the trick) that’d be lovely thanks.

Notes on other books I read over the summer holiday

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 6:24 am

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: Sci-fi novel in the space opera tradition which swept all the major sci-fi awards last year and is, I think, the first book to do so. All the critics are comparing her to Ian M Banks, or ‘the successor to Banks’, and that’s fair enough, but I also think there’s a lot of Ursula Le Guin’s influence in there (most of the characters are members of an ungendered humanoid race). Highly recommended. My only criticism is that in sci-fi/fantasy books with exotic character names I find it really hard to keep track of everyone.

American Prometheus by Martin J. Sherwin and Kai Bird: A biography of Robert Oppenheimer. The science writing isn’t as good as I’d like. (The gold standard of science biographies is, for me, James Glieck’s book about Feynman). If you don’t already know a lot about quantum physics then the story of Oppenheimer’s contributions to it won’t mean much. The sections on Los Alamos are excellent. I’ve wanted to read a good nonfiction account of the Manhattan Project for a long time and this was it. Oppenheimer was under FBI surveillance for much of his adult life, and his biographers had access to the FBI archives, so the level of insight they have into their subject is almost unprecedented. This could be an unexpected side-effect of the modern surveillance state: our ancestors will get really kick-ass biographies.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: My wife enjoyed it. I started but didn’t finish it. I didn’t like Atkinson’s superior, sneering attitude towards her characters, which the reader is supposed to share. Also I’m really sick of British writers writing about World War II.

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle: Not for everyone but I loved it. NYT review here. If you describe the book in terms of plot it sounds banal and weird, but it’s an example of how clever story-telling and great prose can transform something simple into something dark and complex and brilliant.

The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère: Carrère wrote a biography of Phillip K Dick called I am alive and you are dead. It’s my favorite literary biography; I’ve reread it a few times and always felt bad for the author that this book wasn’t better known, and that he hadn’t made it as a writer (because if he’d published more books I would have heard of them, right?) Then I stumbled across this Paris Review interview with Carrère and learned that he’s one of the superstars of contemporary French literature. (I assumed he was a Hispanic writer working in the US.) Anyway, The Adversary is his best-selling true crime novel. It is amazing. I’m going to read everything else he’s written.

January 9, 2015

Brief thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo massacre

Filed under: media — danylmc @ 8:16 am
  • Some people get really excited when things like this happen. It validates their desire for the west and liberal democracy to be locked in an existential ‘clash of civilisations’ with Islam. (Newspaper editors get all excited too, since attacks on other news outlets lets them indulge a fantasy that they’re heroes upholding western civilisation instead of businesses who market their products with stories about car-crash victims and Princess Kate.)
  • Obviously there are people living in western democracies whose beliefs are in conflict with ideals like pluralism and freedom of speech. The guys who committed the Charlie Hebdo massacre; right-wing terrorists like Anders Breivik who murdered about eighty people, mostly teenagers in Norway in 2011 because he thought he was at war with ‘the left’ and ‘multiculturalism’. These people are frightening but the chances of them prevailing in a war of ideas against western democracy are zero. They’re a challenge to the police and state security services, not to our values or our future, and we certainly don’t need to go to war with the demographics these people pretend to represent.
  • Cartoons making fun of Mohammad have become a focal-point for issues of free speech in Europe. Which is a shame. People have the right to draw and publish these cartoons without fear of reprisal; but Europe’s Muslims are mostly a poor, powerless, disenfranchised group of people subject to racism and Islamophobia. Publishing cartoons specifically designed to mock and offend them as much as possible just to prove that you can seems like a not-great use of the right to free speech.
  • European and other western media outlets are now locked into a debate about publication of these images framed by violent Islamic radicals. Do you not show these images, and let mass-murderers dictate the limits of free speech? Or re-publish them and compound the insult to an already marginalised group of people, thus empowering the groups who perpetuate these attacks? This debate and dynamic is great for both radical Islamic militants and racist far-right politicians, but bad for pretty much everyone else.

December 31, 2014

2015

Filed under: blogging,personal — danylmc @ 6:33 am
  • I’ve got quite a bit of writing to do next year, on two separate books, so blogging might be light.
  • A couple of weeks ago I decided to give up twitter. I’m supposed to be using my idle moments to think about my writing, and instead I was using them all – and then some – to check twitter, or think about stuff to say on twitter, so this was just about freeing up some mental space.
  • But two weeks of not-being-on-twitter made me realise something: somewhere along the way twitter became completely awful, and not constantly exposing myself to – and participating in – this endless cacophony of advertising soaked shrill, mean-spirited outrage is a wonderful experience. I encourage other compulsive twitter users to try it.
  • Update: the more I think about writing, and social media and left-wing activism, the less sense it makes for me to spend my time and energy generating unpaid content for tax-avoiding, libertarian Silicon-Valley billionaires to monetise. The blogging is fun though, so that’ll probably continue.
  • Also, too – my wife no longer works for the Green Party. She’s moved on to a job in local government. This’ll make it a bit easier for me to criticise the Greens if I think they do anything silly – or, compliment them without looking like a total shill. I’m still a member of the Greens, and hopefully this year I’ll find some time to contribute to the party. First priority: get them to change the name of their regional newsletter from ‘Wellingreen’ to ‘Anything else’.
  • Happy New Year everyone! Thanks for reading.

December 25, 2014

Thoughts on ‘The Bone Clocks’ by David Mitchell

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:50 am
  • The only other Mitchell book I’ve read is Cloud Atlas. I thought that was pretty good. A lot of people consider it the first great 21st century English novel, but I really don’t see that. Maybe I just don’t get Mitchell?
  • But at the beginning of Bone Clocks I felt like I did get him. The first section of this book is great. Strong character, strong story-telling. Beautiful style. Artful setting up of the world and the narrative. I read it in one sitting with this bubbling happy feeling that this was going to be one of my favorite novels ever.
  • Oh, there were a few things I didn’t like. Mitchell’s dialog is pretty clunky. It’s all like: ‘This is what I’m thinking and why and I’m articulating it perfectly.’ ‘This is exactly what I think about that, and here is my artfully worded witty reply.’ Also, there are genre elements – fantasy horror – that he’s pretty clumsy with: heavy on exposition while simultaneously confusing. Good genre writers – someone like China Mieville, say – make sure the reader always knows what’s happening, but not why. That’s the mystery that keeps you reading.
  • Unfortunately these bad features get far more pronounced, and the good things fall away. Bone Clocks consists of six linked novellas, all with different characters, with the main character reappearing throughout and telling her own story again in the sixth and final section.
  • Critics seem especially dazzled by this. Such formal invention! Polyphony has been a major feature of the novel since, like, the mid-19th century so I’m not sure why everyone acts like Mitchell invented it, but again, maybe I’m missing something here.
  • The second section is about an amoral, wealthy Cambridge student. The third is about a journalist covering the Iraq war in the early days after the invasion. I particularly hated this bit: if Mitchell wants to write a screed about how he thinks the Iraq war was a horrible mistake he can put that highly original and unique perspective in an essay or something, not cram it into a fantasy novel in which his characters articulate the author’s political opinions in long speeches and (worse) pseudo-witty quips back and forth to each other.
  • The next novella is a (long) piece of literary satire. The main character is instantly identifiable as Martin Amis, although for some reason Mitchell denies this character is based on Amis. Maybe this part of the book will be interesting to readers who like Martin Amis, or hate Martin Amis, or even care a bit about Martin Amis?
  • Next section: the fantasy elements take over and we see a centuries long war between magical immortals play out. This is more boring than it sounds. Good fantasy writers spend lots of time establishing the rules of their world and the parameters of their magic systems so that the reader understands what’s happening during the climax, and what everyone can and cannot do, and what the stakes are. Mitchell has a bunch of magicians show up and start casting spells with stupid names at each other.
  • Final section: the original character at the end of her life living in rural poverty on the west coast of Ireland in the 2030s in a climate-changed, post-oil-crash world. And hey, this part is also pretty good. Pity about the 400-odd pages of really-not-very-good content between the opening and closing sections.
  • What I thought Mitchell was doing in the opening section was writing a genre novel with literary qualities. Something like Lev Grossman’s Magician books, or Elizabeth Knox’s adult fiction. What he’s actually done is write five literary novellas and a fantasy novella and link them together with genre tropes: secret societies of immortals, evil sorcerers and characters learning telepathy, etc.
  • The result is a bit like those fake novelty book-covers you can buy to slip over a copy of 50 Shades of Grey and pretend that you’re reading Proust. Bone Clocks provides the illusion of ‘literature’ but it’s driven by genre elements. With Cloud Atlas you kept reading because you wanted to discover the links between the characters, and what happened to them; with Bone Clocks you keep reading because there’s sexy magicians and psychic powers and shit. None of the genre elements work on a literary level. The sexy blonde magician doesn’t represent anything the way, say, the ghost in Beloved represents the ghost of slavery. She’s just a sexy blonde magician.
  • Not that I have anything against sexy blonde magicians. But Bone Clocks doesn’t have any of the pleasures of a good fantasy novel. It doesn’t even make sense. Even the critics who liked this book – and there are a lot of them, many of whom ranked this as their favorite book of the year which is how I wound up hate-reading it in late December – admit that the climax of the book is ‘bewildering’, by which they mean ‘incomprehensible nonsense’.
  • And you don’t have to take my word for all of this: Mitchell points out most of the flaws in his novel in a review inside his own book, something which admiring critics seem to find particularly brilliant, but which made a kind of red-mist descend over my vision for a few minutes.
  • The obvious comparison to Bone Clocks is Cloud Atlas, Mitchell’s much-better third book, which has a similar structure. But the real template for Bone Clocks, I suspect, is Earthly Powers, an Anthony Burgess novel published in 1980, which didn’t win any major awards so is a little forgotten today: its also a world and time spanning epic with a metaphysical war playing out in the background, and the super-erudite, too-clever voice of most of Mitchell’s characters is almost identical to that of Burgess’s protagonist. I haven’t read Earthly Powers for about twenty years: maybe its been sort-of forgotten for a reason? But I remember it being an awful lot better than The Bone Clocks, so let me recommend that in lieu of this.
  • And here’s one last thing, just while my dander is up. Most of the reviewers who loved this book mention – in terms of reverent awe – that Mitchell’s books are linked. Characters in one book have the same name as characters in the others. Maybe I’m missing another trick here, but so fucking what? Stephen King (among others) has been doing that for forty years. Why is this simple, gimmicky unoriginal trick another hallmark of Mitchell’s unique genius? What gives?
  • Merry Christmas!

December 8, 2014

Liberal media watch, Sunday edition

Filed under: media — danylmc @ 2:30 pm

There’s been a big debate on twitter about Judith Collins’ Sunday Star Times column. The column itself is here, and it is about concrete fiber board. It is possibly the most boring thing there has ever been a twitter debate about.

Some people are upset about the column because they feel Judith Collins is disgraced: Oravida, her role in Dirty Politics, etc. I don’t have a problem with disgraced political columnists per se. After all, Rodney Hide has a column. (And I note there’s no left-wing columnist at the Herald on Sunday to balance out Hide’s weekly screed about how wonderful John Key is). But Collins was disgraced partly because of her alleged role in manipulating the media, so giving her a national newspaper column seems ethically perverse. Maybe the huge consumer demand for copy about fiber board will make up for the revenue shortfall from readers who care about ethics?

Anyway, the SST has promised that they’re hiring a new left-wing columnist to balance things out. Their identity is a surprise, presumably because the editor also doesn’t know who his new columnist will be yet, only conceiving of his need for one when left-wing readers of his newspaper went nuts at him on Twitter when they heard about Collins.  (I have this ominous suspicion it will be Laila Harre, who will be keen to paint herself as the voice of the left after winning less than 10,000 votes for her Internet Party in the election, and will be also be eager to continue her grudge against Labour and the Green Party in print.)

I do have a few problems with the SST appointing Collins. One is that – as Finlay Macdonald said on Twitter – the media is supposed to be holding MPs – especially government MPs – to account, not giving them jobs. Also, the government already has a huge platform to communicate to the public. They get tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to tell us what they think, and what they’re doing, and why. Is it really the role of the media to give these very privileged, very powerful people even more of a platform to disseminate government propaganda? And then there’s the way the SST went about this. Collins’ column isn’t on the opinion page. It’s on the news page next to a story about the same subject, running the same lines as Collins. That’s a hell of a way to blur the lines and contaminate the SST’s entire product.

So various people on Twitter are calling for boycotts and canceling their subscriptions. I’m not quite there yet. Not over a column about concrete fiber board. But I’m thinking about it, and encourage anyone else troubled by all this to do the same. Various journalists on twitter are up in arms over this suggestion: ‘What about all the good content in Fairfax papers? What if good people lose their jobs, etc?’

Here’s my question to them. The Dirty Politics saga was a media scandal as much as a political scandal. What are people who are offended by it supposed to do, exactly, when they’re confronted by an editor like the SST’s Jonathan Milne, who is cheerfully demonstrating that not only has he learned nothing, but that he’s determined to keep pushing the barrow out, get dirtier, make his little corner of the media more sleazy, more compromised, more biased? Canceling your subscription is pretty much the only power we have.

December 4, 2014

Rank

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 11:44 am

Stuff has a cut’npaste story up on the TransTasman newsletter’s annual rankings of MPs, a yearly ritual in which a bunch of elderly right-wing journalists pour praise on their favorite right-wing politicians and scorn on their most despised left-wing enemies. Whatever.

But what struck me reading through the rankings is that there seemed like a big difference in scores between male and female MPs irrespective of any left-wing/right wing bias. Even female National MPs I rated quite highly were ranked lower than totally undistinguished male Nats. And it’s even worse for Maori, who all seem arbitrarily low regardless of party, or how well they perform.

The data breaks down like this: Average score for a Male Pakeha MP in the Transtasman ranking is 5.4. Males overall have an average ranking of 5.1. Pakeha overall average 5.1. Maori are way lower than Pakeha with average rankings of 4.6. Female MPs are way lower with an average ranking of 4.4. If you compile the rankings for Labour and the Greens, the men get an average ranking of 5.2, but the women are dragging them down with an average ranking of 4.4.

Here’s a list of the TransTasman writers. I’m informed that the sole contributors are the authors listed at the bottom of the report. You might not be shocked to learn that they are all white men. But what that means is that TransTasman’s inequality in their rankings and staggering bias towards Pakeha males has nothing to do with identity politics. See, identity politics is just something the left does to privilege women or Maori. It’s a form of political correctness gone mad in which people value gender or ethnicity over actual merit, but when white guys get privileged, or when we coincidentally overwhelmingly favor other members of our race and gender that’s definitely nothing to do with identity politics. Or racism or misogyny. It’s always just because we all deserve it. Shame on you for doubting the analysis of the impartial, objective white guys at TransTasman!

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