Not in the stars, but in ourselves

Whatever else Susan Sontag did, she gets a ticket into heaven for Illness as Metaphor (link to isbn.nu).

For those who haven’t read this invaluable little book, here’s a thumbnail: She looks at medical conditions are treated as moral problems instead of as diseases. Her examples are tuberculosis and cancer, and in a later supplement, AIDS.

The telling point she makes is this: If an illness is both threatening and mysterious, so that it can kill or disable at any time but is not understood or curable, its cause will be assigned to something socially determined. TB was thought to result from too passionate and expressive a personality, and sufferers were told to lie down and stop reading poetry and having romances. Later, cancer was ascribed to holding in , and patients were blamed for not expressing themselves.

In both of these cases an inexplicable affliction was linked to a social prejudice, and without evidence this was accepted. And in both cases the patient’s behavior was blamed. It’s easy to see why AIDS was added in her supplement. Another mysterious and threatening ailment was entirely blamed on moral and social problems, so that the actual biological problems were poorly investigated and patients were blamed and ostracized.

Since cancer and AIDS are still deadly and mysterious in affluent societies, the problem remains. Any theory that presents a moral enemy as the cause of these diseases will be accepted by the appropriate group. If your group dislikes pharmaceutical companies, governments, synthetic chemicals, homosexuals, meat, science itself, or any other socially contentious force, then moral certainty will be applied to medical uncertainty.

Some of these fears may be accurate. Cancers can be caused by trace amounts of metals or chemicals, or by radiation. Birth defects and crippling illnesses result from exposure to toxins and infectious agents in pregnancy. People did get AIDS because governments and medical agencies chose not to screen transfused blood, and people died of AIDS because of malign neglect by the same authorities.

But the problem remains technical at its heart, and not moral. Sassafras oil is a natural herbal carcinogen. Deadly nuclear radiation can cure cancer. AIDS doesn’t care if your behavior is socially approved; it justs kills you. Magical thinking will sometimes solve your problem, but it’s more likely to make things worse for yourself and others.

A post today by ofmonsters reminded me of some of the current villains in the alt-culture world: vaccination, cow’s milk, refined sugar, white flour, processed foods, the Western diet, gluten, “toxins,” etc.

Some of the things in this list are bad news for people with particular medical problems. Other things in this list are worthy of investigation for basic personal health: too much processed food and dairy and a diet rich in meat will in general make people less healthy, for example. And some of them are meaningless. “Toxins,” for example, always refers to some nebulous and poorly defined environmental evil that must be cleansed, rather than to actual known toxic substances, all of which are different from each other. White flour has less fiber in it, but is not otherwise evil. Refined white sugar and brown sugar and honey and rice syrup have different flavors but provide the same dangerous blast of calories.

The vaccination fear is paranoiac. Vaccination is a symbol of government power, scientific arrogance, and threats to children. In a state of ignorance it’s understandable that someone would fear this. Without vaccination we have piles of dead children and later piles of dead adults. It’s not negotiable. Tagging vaccines with autism (another poorly understood and incurable affliction) gave the whole counterculture a perfect condensed symbol for their dislike of white coats, compulsory medical treatment, and the medical-industrial complex. But they’re wrong, and being wrong about vaccination threatens everyone.

What I have to say to these fearful people is this.

1) Read Sontag, or at least work at understanding the concepts she talks about. Watch out for moral certainty when you’re solving medical problems.

2) Your fears of government, pharmaceutical companies, toxic substances, radiation, bad diets, dangerous assumptions built into Western culture, and the centralized corporate meat-centric incompetent business of Big Food are all completely legitimate. There are deadly problems and bad people and very poorly organized institutions.

So we do have big problems, and the problems are similar in kind to the ones you’re seeing. The problems, however, do not result from science. They result from bad engineering and wickedness. The scientific method is how we know these things went wrong. That’s why we know that heavy metals in our food are bad, and that factory farming kills, and that it’s better to cut down on the cow’s milk and eat more fiber, and that cancer can result from contamination of food and water.

The scientific method is also why we know that vaccination is a good idea, that sassafras is a carcinogen even though it’s natural, that “toxins” means many different things and not one, that chelation is a dangerous treatment for specific situations, and that white sugar and honey will give a diabetic the same dangerous load of concentrated calories. It’s also how we found out that stomach ulcers were often caused by an infection and not by “stress.”

The antidote to unreasoned panic is not less science, but more. The scientific method is, to paraphrase Churchill, the worst way of interpreting illness except for all of the other methods tried. This includes the method Sontag clearly outlines. If someone says that the illness is due to “stress” or “toxins” or “Western diet” or “gay lifestyle” or “the government,” stop and watch closely.

Choosing an attractive moral or social cause for your terrifying unexplained problem may feel satisfying. Don’t take the bait.

Edie Sedgwick, slight return

The Los Angeles Times Magazine has been in decline at least since 1986.

They have tried to recast themselves as the New York Times Magazine, as a Southern California Lifestyle Thing like Sunset Magazine, as maybe four other things. Nothing works.

This week they managed to hit a new low with a feature article on a young woman named Cory Kennedy.

Cory has been internet famous since she was 15, which was in 2005. Someone took pictures of her and posted them, and the phenomenon grew as those things can. She is a pretty girl, and her prettiness is of the gamine waif variety. She will look 15 until she’s 25.

The Times Magazine article is the typical deploring/promoting titillation piece. They at once portray her as the “grew up too fast” pop culture victim and as a high-flying teen hottie. They play this game very well. They also made sure to post forty-four pictures of her to accompany the article on the Net.

Ephebophilic disasters like this aren’t new. The current crop probably started with the Guess? ads in the 1980s. The “new” men’s magazines are all over it. It’s creepy. The way this article presented it was particularly damaging, though. She’s presented as someone who did this of her own initiative and was in charge all along. It started when she was 15. This appears to confirm predators’ belief that their young victims are behaving as adults and not being manipulated.

Edie Sedgwick died in her 20s. I wonder how long Cory will make it?

Theory: We Are All Andy Now

I have heard a lot of conspiracy theories about prominent people: that they are actually evil space lizards or controlled by same, that they are all Illuminati or Masons, that they are somehow demon-possessed or in the pay of warring alien races. This is clearly foolish and probably schizophrenic.

I have an alternate theory. I believe that in the early 1980s, shortly before he died, Andy Kaufman had himself cloned. The Kaufman clones grew quickly and were dispersed into the community, and there were thousands of them. Today, almost every prominent person in politics, entertainment, the arts, academia, the military, and media is an exact copy of Andy Kaufman.

This explains a number of things. How many times in the last few years have you heard someone say “This is insane! It’s like an Andy Kaufman routine!”? How many rumors have there been that Andy isn’t actually dead, but faked it and is in disguise? How many times have you looked at someone on TV or read something in the paper and though “Are daily events just riffing on Andy, or what?”

Locally we had a school board member named Steve Rocco who caused yet another set of Andy-lives rumors last month. The so-called “Borat” phenomenon is clearly Latka. The Turkmenbashi, Santorum, almost all bloggers, Zacarias Moussaoui, the list of Kaufman projects just goes on and on. How much of American public discourse now resembles 1970s pro wrestling? Nearly all of it!

There’s only one way to find out. I propose mandatory Andy DNA testing. How else will we know how much of our society is being controlled by his one last, best perfect performance?

And think about it. You could be an Andy too, and not know it yet.

Bluebeard’s door swings open

I briefly mentioned this the other night but it’s been bothering me. When I saw those drunk people ineptly pawing each other outside my friend’s place Saturday night, I had a realization. The woman was wearing the typical “grown-up” woman’s Halloween costume, which I call the “slutty noun.” Low-cut everything, fishnet stockings. It’s basically a Playboy Bunny outfit. That wasn’t the part the struck me, though. The man was wearing probably a pirate outfit, but I wasn’t sure. And that’s when it hit me.

Not only do the women dress as if they were available for instant sex, the men all dress as rapists.

The male costumes I saw were all some variant of this: soldier, pimp, pirate, “savage,” rapper, baller. Just about all the guys’ costumes I saw that night were a version of “permitted to rape.”

There’s your party. The women all dress as prostitutes and serving girls. The men all dress as rapists. And then they get drunk and play it out.

“Play” is where it goes for most people, and i’m not suggesting that everyone who dresses up goofy and has too many drinks is going to end up as a crime scene. I still don’t like it, though. You can have a lot of fun — and friends of mine did! — goofing around dressed as Borat or Log Lady or Cinderella or the Cookie Monster and enjoying the masquerade experience. If you’re going to play out a rape fantasy, though, it might be a good idea to know that beforehand and know who’s really down for that instead of just getting hammered and finding out.

Meaning Well: Anti Irony #1

One of the worst things you can call someone now is “well-meaning.”

A well-meaning person is always doing the wrong thing. The phrase encompasses many sins. The well-meaning person is presumed to be ignorant of the world’s harsh ways, naive, gullible, and full of an unwarranted optimism especially about human nature. Arrogance or at least hubris is implied too, in that well-meaning people have an exaggerated view of their own ability to improve things.

One thing is certain: well-meaning people always make things worse. They’re always trying to feed babies when the real problem is that parents won’t work. Or getting in the way of a war because of the horrors thereof when the real problem can only be solved by winning the war. Or providing shelter for the poor when the real problem is the oppressive system that keeps them poor. Well-meaning people always seem to have band-aid solutions and don’t see the picture. Their attempts to make things better always result in disaster because of something called the Law of Unintended Consequences which says that every time you do something that seems to mean well it will mean more trouble later on, in the larger scheme of things.

The answer to the problem of the well-meaning is to accept that the world is a harsh place and embrace that harshness. In fact, one is supposed to embody the world’s hard ways. If someone misbehaves, punishment and force must be used. If there is a problem between governments, then it will inevitably result in war and it’s best to prosecute the war as soon as possible. If there is a social disaster like a famine or an economic crisis, it’s important that this “run its course”; mere half-measures like handing out food or shoes will only drag out the problem.

If a problem resists solution by bombing or jailing or some other harsh measures, then it is considered to be insoluble and part of the human condition. To say otherwise is, once again, to be “well-meaning.” Tough-minded hard-nosed adults understand how unforgiving and full of suffering things are and don’t try to change it. Only the very young and the fatally naive believe that things can be improved.

This is a place where Social Darwinism, Marxism, and Malthusian pessimism meet after having been thoroughly dumbed down into one idea: don’t try to be good. The task is impossible and will make you into a victim yourself. Worse still, it will obstruct the natural way of things which eventually resolves conflicts. The Tao of this worldview is cruelty, and you must flow with it.

This attitude is everywhere in my country. The admirable person is said to be hard-nosed, realistic, rational, sober, and tough. His opponents are softies, Pollyannas, illogical, giddy, and weak. It’s as though the Churchill-Chamberlain dichotomy was applied to every part of life: politics, religion, law, medicine, the arts, everything. You’re either a heroic bulldog war fighter or an umbrella-waving idiot appeaser.

The word “aggressive” is entirely positive in all contexts. It has come to mean “effective,” and anything labeled “passive” is by definition a failure. One roots out crime aggressively, and also treats disease aggressively, and even an aggressive prose style is given the seal of approval.

I urge you to resist this. Mean well.

Feed babies. Use band-aids on wounds. Give poor people 20 dollar bills and places to stay. Solve arguments without violence. Oppose cruelty and war. Be passive rather than aggressive. I urge you, in fact, to be a complete weenie and wussy, who can’t see that what’s needed is a short sharp shock. I urge you to think of criminals and drug addicts as salvageable improvable humans. I urge you to lose an argument more often and to resist an opportunity to destroy an enemy.

It’s true that our conscience doesn’t know how to manage a central bank or create a national water policy or stop the warmongering of dictators. And our conscience is naive about realpolitik and the tragedy of the commons and the necessity of breaking eggs to make metaphorical omelettes.

“Well-meaning” is our attitude when we listen to conscience. I am not ashamed.

Windbag alert and attention conservation notice

I have developed a manifesto-sized idea and am about to blog it out. You have been warned. Long essays making a large cultural point can’t be sold and published conventionally unless the author is a respected and eminent intellectual or a rock ‘n’ roll star. Those who can, do; those who aren’t, blog.

This may fizzle or may be several essays; I’m not sure where I’m going to pinch off the blog yet. Because of TL;DR in this post-literate medium I present some bullet points below for those who aren’t going to plow through the thing.

  • Irony is worse than dead, it’s suicidal.
  • Stop celebrating bad art, bad food, and evil. There’s a place for enjoying things that are so bad they’re good. It isn’t the place called “the entire culture.” Giving up on quality of any kind has more serious consequences than we might think.
  • Phony postmodernism kills. Take the risk of being well-meaning and sincere. A couple of poorly understood Cultural Studies classes does not confer the privilege of detached Godhood.
  • Permanent adolescence is no improvement over permanent childhood. Living our lives fully and meaningfully is a duty to others and not just to ourselves.
  • Subcultures, fandoms, and gaming worlds are eating a generation of privileged and educated people alive when we could and should be doing well and doing good. Come out of the couch fort and live.
  • Cheap fatalism is a crime of privilege. Admitting defeat in advance hurts many, many people less fortunate than we are before it touches us.

I freely admit in advance that I will be didactic, pretentious, and annoyingly prescriptive. It’s likely that I’ll also be irrelevant and that I will make a fool of myself. I have no formal training in philosophy or sociology and will probably reinvent various wheels poorly.

But sometimes an idea just arrives and possesses me. This one has sat on me for years, and is at the root of a troublesome fiction project that won’t budge. Tormenting my small audience with an unsaleable vanity-press think piece is the best I can do with it right now.

Further material in this series will be tagged “ironyproject.”

ballistic behavior! reverse planning! predator variable! MOTH POPULATION!

I just ordered The Logic Of Failure ( at amazon ) ( at isbn.nu )

I like Amazon’s SIPs, and I particularly like the ones for this book:

Statistically Improbable Phrases (SIPs):
storeroom experiment, bad participants, predator variable, reductive hypothesis, reverse planning, elaboration index, ballistic behavior, experiment director, good participants, moth population, problem sector, partial goals, regulator settings, watch factory, temporal configurations, experiment participants, planning game

Courtesy my brother, a piece of cop prose

“Detectives alertly moved in on that vehicle and that male tried to ram that vehicle, two other vehicles on that scene. He subsequently exits the vehicle and as he’s running away detectives can clearly see this male is attempting to pull a gun out of his back pocket. At some point in time he is chased around the corner and two detectives discharged their weapons.”

the “Nice Guy” thing, wankipedia edition

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nice_guy_syndrome

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Nice_guy_syndrome

The talk page isn’t quite what it could be. I was hoping for a real dust-up between self-diagnosed “nice guys” and the women who hate them, but it’s pretty tame.

At least the first few words are correct: “folk psychology” about covers it.

hay guys lets make r own sciense @ home by puling it out of our ases lol

Someday they’ll all be President

It pisses me off when people post warnings about DUI enforcement online. They say stuff like “take a cab tonight if you’re going towards $TOWN” or “they’re running a checkpoint at Newport & Flower, pass it on”.

How about just not driving drunk? Ever? It’s not hard to avoid. You’ll be helping your friends the best possible way by not killing and maiming them.

If you can afford to go out and drink but you somehow can’t afford to cab it home then you’re just being a fucking sociopath. Stay home and drink, okay? Helping the other sociopaths mow us all down isn’t nice.