Secondhand Adventures in Book Clubbing

"I found the descriptions of the horse to be, frankly, astonishingly beautiful, and yet disturbingly arousing."
“I found the descriptions of the horse to be, frankly, astonishingly beautiful and yet disturbingly arousing.”

Mrs. Kuhl and her friends have a book club. After a rather calamitous go at Emma Donoghue’s Room and at a loss for a title that would please all tastes, I suggested they read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The book had incidentally been selected for the One Book One Town program run by our library, which culminated in a presentation by Ronson at the local university last night. Mrs. Kuhl liked the book but one thing kept irritating her: Ronson’s claims of a uniform Twitter.

I identified both with Justine and also with the people who tore her apart. And I thought: We’re punishing Justine, gleefully punishing Justine, with this thing that we are the most terrified might happen to us.

At the presentation, Ronson repeatedly used the words “we” and “us” to describe the bullies who attacked Justine Sacco. During the Q&A portion, Mrs. Kuhl was the first to ask Ronson a question: What percentage of Twitter shamed Sacco? Ronson said he didn’t know, then continued to throw blame on everyone in the room, including himself.

Mrs. Kuhl’s question would be easy to answer if we had access to Twitter’s big data: simply set time parameters around the date (21 December 2013) and divide the number of tweeps using @JustineSacco or the #HasJustineLanded hashtag by the total number of users active that day. But as Twitter is cagey with its proprietary info, the best we can do is guess. The month before, Twitter said it had 232 million “monthly active users” (out of a total of 651 million accounts — the difference being a “dark pool” of inactive or barely active users); and there were an estimated 100,000 tweets about Sacco. If every one of those tweets had a unique author (and they probably didn’t), then only 0.0431 percent of active Twitter tweeted about her. That’s not “we” or “us.” That’s a very small, very specific group of somebody else.

Ronson also cited the fact that #HasJustineLanded was trending worldwide as proof of the monolithic nature of the shaming but Twitter’s bar for trending can be very low, sometimes as low as 500 or 600 tweets. Their algorithm for trending has more to do with time of day and the frequency over a short span rather than overall volume.

Twitter is not a homogeneous experience. A good example of this is black Twitter, something I rarely witness without trending hashtags (like when #Blackish was trending the morning of February 25th). Mrs. Kuhl, because of her love of all things Patriots, has some insight into that world via the Venn overlap of white and black Pats fans, but I never see it. I know it exists — and yet there is an entire universe of conversation happening out there that goes completely over my head.

That said, just because it’s a small clique doing the cyberbullying doesn’t mitigate the serious effects it can have, from losing a job to contributing to depression and even suicide. I’m glad for Ronson’s spotlight on the issue but his argument would be better served if he stopped using the collective “us” and started asking questions about the specific behavior or traits that lead to bullying. After all, when a bullet-ridden corpse is discovered in an alley, psychiatrists don’t throw up their hands and sermonize about how we’re all murderers.

Dietary Dissidence

Cave Girl, issue 11, 1953.What’s this? Words of moderation from Melvin Konner, one of the founders of the paleo diet?

[H]umans are omnivores. Neither the “meat-as-a-condiment” wisdom of the heart-healthy scientists nor the “carbs-as-a-condiment” faith that now passes for “paleo” is persuasive to me. In a 2014 paper in the Journal of Human Evolution, Amanda Henry and her colleagues found that even our Neanderthal cousins ate barley broth along with their steaks. Once thought of as extreme carnivores, Neanderthals were actually diet opportunists, just like our own direct ancestors.

I first headed down the paleo road in the early aughts after reading Loren Cordain’s book. The appeal was twofold. Like him, I had difficulty accepting that animal fats cause heart disease in light of our physical traits obviously evolved for omnivorism; and I shared his enthusiasm for moving away from subsidized, vacuous, and overprocessed (and I say over because all food is processed to some extent — nobody is eating raw bison liver Revanant-style) corn- and wheat-based slop in favor of fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Yet over the years I’ve watched the paleo movement transmogrify into crazed anti-carbohydrate zealotry. Based on my wanderings around the blogosphere, I think a lot of adherents arrive at paleo’s doorstep from a weight-loss perspective and become radicalized by making mad gainz in those early months of low carb intake. Many of these folks don’t seem to do a lot of sustained aerobic exercise (Crossfit doesn’t count) and so don’t recognize that carbs are — and were — a necessary component for endurance. From running distances longer than a 5K to eating white rice to drinking beer (no one will take away my beer *sound of racking shotgun*), I am undoubtedly an apostate.

In his last graf, Konner compares the paleo diet to vegetarianism or keeping kosher or halal, which is apt. All diets are less about nutrition and more about anxiety over pollution. The more strict and obsessive the diet — from the vegan to the raw-fooder to the paleo wringing his hands over a teaspoon of honey in his morning tea — the more high-strung the personality, which is arguably more malignant to well-being than any pound of butter. “All of these strategies — low-carb paleo diets, too — seem to be compatible with life and health,” Konner writes. Reasonableness? What an old-fashioned idea.

It’s All Papier-Mache

True Detective 62If Twitter is any metric, viewers have been struggling with this season of HBO’s True Detective. I discovered the show halfway through its first season and was immediately ensorcelled by its reinvention of pulp luridness into a contemporary setting: writer Nic Pizzolatto had stripped the genre of its fedoras and ratatat James Cagney patter but retained the outré crimes, dysfunctional protagonists, and hardboiled dialogue — this last refashioned from purple Chandler metaphors into philosophical, albeit sometimes plagiarized, poesy. It seems much of the disappointment stems from wanting a repeat of season 1, wherein Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson prowled the landscape of a Southern Gothic, uncovering decadent families involved in ancient conspiracies. But rather than retread the tires of the old Dodge Charger, Pizzolatto has damned his S2 characters to the wasteland of the California noir, where the politicans are crooked, the dames dangerous, and the cast of characters byzantine. This in particular seems to confound the Tweeple, though so far all of the chauffeurs have been accounted for. Some people can’t handle the deep trip.

Upon landing, film noir so reverberated on Gallic shores that it was the French who christened the genre; and Albert Camus deliberately wrote the first half of The Stranger in what he called “the American style,” perhaps best exemplified by Hemingway’s “The Killers.” Noir reflected an existential awakening on two separate landmasses. We are taught in school that existentialism was a Continental movement of the 1940s and 50s, and so it’s strange to think of noir as an expression of an American variety. But as George Cotkin argues in his book Existential America, the official canon of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, et al. was selected by American academics smitten with postwar Europhilia who deliberately ignored a homegrown strain reaching at least as far back as Hawthorne and Melville. “Existence precedes essence,” quoth Sartre, by which he meant there is no such thing as destiny, that God has no plan for us; we are born and proceed to invent ourselves by the millions of choices we make during our lifetimes. But noir — both the cinematic and the literary kinds — had been saying a similar thing long before Sartre formalized it.

“Man is condemned to be free,” Sartre wrote in Existentialism and Human Emotions. We are brought into the world without our permission, free to do anything we want, unrestrained by determinism or “a fixed and given human nature.” This, our universe, is not so different from the amoral dimension of noir, where there is no afterlife to punish crimes or reward good deeds — the only law is what you get away with. One of these worlds might have more chiaroscuro than the other, but in both we are free to murder our husbands for the insurance money, just as in both we are free to become fraud investigators and bring murderers before juries. We decide.

In a very tense opening to a recent True Detective episode, detective Ray Velcoro (played by Colin Farrell) confronts gangster boss Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) over whether Semyon knew the name of a man he had given to Velcoro — a man Velcoro believed to have raped his wife and whom Velcoro subsequently killed in vengeance — was, in fact, not the name of the actual rapist. Velcoro accuses Semyon of manipulating him into the murder to gain leverage over a cop. Semyon replies:

I didn’t get you to do anything. I gave you a name and you made your choice. And that choice was in you before your wife or any of this other stuff. It was always there, waiting.

There was no coercion or con; Velcoro had already chosen to be the kind of man who prefers vigilantism over the justice system: his wife’s rape just gave him an outlet to express it. “And didn’t you use that man to be what you were always waiting to become?” Semyon asks. We don’t need to actually visit the African savannah to know whether we will shoot the endangered lion; we’ve already chosen beforehand to be big-game hunters or not to be big-game hunters. “The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion,” Sartre added. “He will never agree that a sweeping passion is a ravaging torrent which fatally leads a man to certain acts and is therefore an excuse.”

True Detective 53Velcoro later tells his partner-in-investigation Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) that he’s a bad man. This isn’t exactly true; though he has done bad things, it’s after his confrontation with Semyon that he begins living authentically — he realizes he is responsible for his choices, which can no longer be foisted onto Semyon or circumstances. He sacrifices his custodial rights to preserve his son’s well-being; he refuses to take advantage of a drugged Bezzerides. Velcoro chooses to do good. The same can’t be said of Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), whose terror at being outed as the closeted homosexual he is ends up getting him shot. “You’d just been honest about who you are, nobody’d be able to run you,” Woodrugh’s lover and blackmailer tells him. Inauthenticity can leave you dead on the pavement as the end credits roll.

I have no idea how it will fall out in Sunday night’s finale; I have two competing theories of whodunnit. Afterwards I will miss Pizzolatto’s wonderfully overwritten dialogue and my Monday mornings will be robbed of the mp3 shopping by which I recreate T Bone Burnett’s moody soundtrack. I will just have to sit back and wait for the flat circle of time to revolve to season 3.

Magazine covers via Cover Browser. Copyrights belong to their owners, whoever they are.

A Shout-out Over Innsmouth

Innsmouth Olde AleNarragansett Beer has released the second offering in their Lovecraft Series of craft beers, Innsmouth Olde Ale.

When I first read it, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” was not among my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories; I was drawn to more cosmic works like “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” But “Innsmouth” has grown on me over the years, in part because I can better appreciate its sophistication and in part because technology has evolved to the point where the story is as much prescience as fantasy horror. Ken Hite’s discussion of Robert M. Price’s essay prefacing The Innsmouth Cycle made me realize the story is more than just a guy being chased by a bunch of inbred townies:

Among other things, Price makes the point that Obed Marsh is the prophet of a Cargo Cult, one which implicitly casts Lovecraft’s New England as a primitive backwater. … Lovecraft’s story brilliantly inverts the colonialist understanding of the Cargo Cult by demonstrating that the Other (the non-white, the “Kanak,” the foreign) is the far more sophisticated myth, one with a better claim both on the past and the future than white Massachusetts Protestant Christianity.

If you haven’t read the story, then spoilers crawlin’ an’ bleatin’ an’ barkin’ an’ hoppin’ after the jump.

Continue reading “A Shout-out Over Innsmouth”

Short News, Altering the Past Edition

Danaus plexippus
CC BY Thomas Bresson

Down the Memory Hole. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, the only proper response for historians toward Hillary Clinton is a loathing both total and complete. The Clintons’ contempt for government transparency and the work of anyone who has ever stepped foot in an archives shouldn’t have come as a surprise even before she admitted using a personal server for her emails as Secretary of State or her lawyer’s confession that — surprise, surprise — said server was later wiped clean. Some of us have memories long enough to remember Sandy Berger’s plea bargain (and $50,000 fine) for stealing and destroying documents from the National Archives that dated to the final years of Bill Clinton’s administration — an action I’m sure Berger did at his own instigation, right?

No Gods or Kings, Only Matzo. Unlike BioShock Infinite, which was a slice of awesome no matter which way the cake was cut, the first two BioShocks were mediocre games buoyed by their amazing environmental graphics and a superb backstory. Creator Ken Levine revealed in a recent interview how the Jewish heritage of a number of BioShock characters — a Soviet refugee, a Holocaust survivor, New York doctors and artists — was integral to driving the storyline. To me it’s a great example of weaving together 20th-century history and experience to develop a very authentic alt-hist world.

America’s Creeping Confucianism

By now you’ve probably heard about the New Jersey antiques collector facing 10 years in prison for possessing an unloaded 1765 flintlock pistol. Earlier that day, the man and his friend had bought the gun from an antiques dealer in Pennsylvania:

On the way home, the pair were pulled over by a local sheriff. According to Van Gilder, the detaining officer told him that he wanted to search the car, and threatened him with dogs if he refused. “I didn’t mind,” he tells me, but he wanted to make sure that the officer knew that there was a flintlock pistol in the glove compartment, and that he had just purchased it. “Oh, man,” Gilder says. “Immediately, he wanted to arrest me. But when he called the undersheriff, he was told, ‘No, it’s a 250-year-old pistol; let him go.'”

The officer did as he was told, and gave the pistol back. The next morning, however, he came back — “with three cars and three or four sheriffs.” Van Gilder says, “He told me, ‘I should have arrested you last night.'” So he did. “They led me away in handcuffs” and, at the station, “chained me by my hands and feet to a cold stainless-steel bench.”

The man, Gordon Van Gilder, is a retired English teacher who lives in Millville, NJ, which incidentally is quite close to where I grew up. The geography is an added level of absurdity in this case: Millville is extremely rural and piney. By no stretch of the imagination could the pistol be considered a danger in a densely populated urbanscape; Van Gilder could probably walk out his front door and go full Aaron Burr without hitting anything besides a white cedar or a snapping turtle.

The I-told-you-so attitude of the officer highlights the growing Confucianism in American law enforcement. To Confucius, all crimes could be categorized. Context of the crime was to be eliminated and was even seen as undermining society; circumstances were to be stripped away from hypotheticals like, “Would you steal medicine to save your dying child?” leaving only the theft before the judge. What punishment to deliver was merely a matter of establishing what crime had been committed. Confucianism is characterized by its “respect for authority, hierarchy and social order,” in the words of one apologist. It is the ethics of despotism, which is why it’s been popular in China for millennia.

The fact that the officer threatened to unleash the hounds on a couple of old coots driving down a country road is reminiscent of a story Bill Lee, the cover artist for Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer, told me about him and some of his WWII buddies being boarded and searched by the Coast Guard in Bridgeport Harbor — apparently our brave USCG thought a boatload of Normandy Nazi killers was “suspicious.” The context of Van Gilder’s situation — harmless history buffs returning from an antiques dealer with an antique — is superfluous. The Confucian officer is sure a crime has been committed and it only remains to determine which one. This is precisely why police departments discriminate against hiring officers with high IQs: they want somebody with a binary mind who won’t consider bigger questions. Just like an insect’s brain is simply a series of on/off switches — is this food? is this an enemy? — the New Jersey sheriffs only care if the flintlock is contraband or not. Today a legislature could outlaw bread and tomorrow cops would arrest everyone with a loaf or baguette on their pantry shelf, never considering the sense or wisdom behind the law. Beetles and ants are not philosophers.

The icing on the cake is that the pistol will probably be destroyed — or more likely find itself on the mantel of some petty Cumberland County potentate. If only New Jersey could be more like Connecticut and put those sheriffs out of work by eliminating county governments.