Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

June 12, 2008

American Nerd: A Review

Filed under: books, culture, history — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:53 am

I finished up reading “American Nerd: The Story of My People” by Benjamin Nugent.  I first heard about book when Rachel Maddow interviewed the author on radio show.  The book was a good example of intellectual candy.  It was an enjoyable read.  There are a few interesting tidbits here and there.  Although, on the whole, it didn’t feel very nutritious.

The book is, perhaps unsurprisingly, about nerds.  What are nerds?  What is perception of nerds in the society?  How did nerds come to be viewed this way?  What does a nerd hope and dream about that may be different from other people?

To begin with, Nugent traces through some threads of anti-intellectualism in America.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that American anti-intellectualism appears to have its roots tied indirectly to racism and xenophobic fears.  The prototypical nerd is based off of a hard-working, immigrant Jews and Asians, so called “grinds” or “greasy grinds,” who perceived their best chance at advancement in society as being linked to education.  It is actually a testimony to the remarkable success of the immigrants that institutions within the society had to take measures to move the goal posts.  Intellectual achievement could no longer be the determining factor, other characteristics like nobility and hardiness were lauded.  Like any remarkably successful group that challenges existing power, the “grinds” were consequently demonized.

Nugent looks at some of the popular culture portrayals of nerds and nerd culture as well, focusing on the escapism and rule-based aspects, including hyper-whiteness traits, such as mispronouncing words that had obviously only been read, and not spoken aloud to a knowledgeable audience.

Nugent progresses to his personal life, examines some people he grew up with and looked at why they embraced nerdiness.

Nugent mentions Revenge of the Nerds multiple times.  So, I am sort of surprised he didn’t incorporate the main theme of that movie into the book.  Nearly everyone struggles with trying to be accepted, especially in middle school and high school.  Everyone has dramas and crises going on in their life at any given moment.  Nerds are a group that deals with that alienation in a particular way, and maybe that is worth exploring, but it behooves you to mention that the problem isn’t unique to just nerds.  The problem faces everyone.  Everyone feels alienated at one time or another.  This is the prime Nixonian political calculation, there are always a lot more losers than winners.  If you get the losers to band together, you can just ride their antipathy towards the perceived winners to power.

It is hard to bemoan the plight of being a nerd.  Even the self-described ones such as Nugent is doing so well he is getting books published.  His best friend Kenneth was a video game testing lead/program manager.   Self-loathing is a problem, but the big problem with that there is no measure of perspective.  Maybe high school sucks and girls don’t like you.  Is that worse than getting your arm blown off by a bomblet in Cambodia or Laos, or being deformed by Agent Orange in Vietnam?  Intelligence is a gift, even if you find yourself alienated, or depressed.  Maybe one would never miss it, but it doesn’t mean humanity wouldn’t be poorer from the difference.

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June 5, 2008

Remembering Tiananmen

The Guardian had a piece on the Tiananmen Square Massacre which took place 19 years ago on June 3rd-4th. What makes Fenby’s piece frustrating is its obvious Western lens. Fenby states the fundamental questions the protesters were facing was the following:

But there was a more fundamental question: if the Chinese were to be free to run their lives economically, why not politically as well? If the command economy was being dismantled, why not the command political system, too?

As is typical, Fenby considers this to be the common wisdom instead of say asking, or quoting any one participating in the demonstrations. Naomi Klein provides another analysis of the underlying reasons for the protests in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism where she *gasp* actually cites one of the organizers of the protest.

This alternative narrative is being advanced by, among others, Wang Hui, one of the organizers of the 1989 protests, and now a leading Chinese intellectual of what is known as China’s “New Left.” In his 2003 book, China’s New Order, Wang explains that the protesters spanned a huge range of Chinese society — not just elite university students but also factory workers, small entrepreneurs and teachers. What ignited the protests, he recalls, was popular discontent in the face of Deng’s “revolutionary” economic changes, which were lowering wages, raising prices and causing “a crisis of layoffs and unemployment” (China’s New Order pg. 45, 54). According to Wang, “These changes were the catalyst for the 1989 social mobilization.” (China’s New Order pg. 54)

The demonstrations were not against economic reform per se; they were against the specific Friedmanite nature of the reforms — their speed, ruthlessness and the fact that the process was highly antidemocratic. Wang says that the protesters’ call for elections and free speech were intimately connected to this economic dissent. What drove the demand for democracy was the fact that the party was pushing through changes that were revolutionary in scope, entirely without popular consent. There was, he writes, “a general request for democratic means to supervise the fairness of the reform process and the reorganization of social benefits.” (China’s New Order pg. 57)

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism pg 187-188

So Fenby gets partial credit, the economic reforms were at the heart of the protests. However, it was not because of mystical consciousness raising magic of the “free market” and people asking doing a collective “why not?” It was precisely because of the tangible forms of economic distress that these reforms caused that spurred the protests and calls for democratic oversight.

Capitalism and democracy are not concepts that go hand-in-hand. Most of the time, they are directly at odds. Capitalists are always a select elite in society. So it seems natural that if economic affairs are controlled predominately by capitalists, this is a direct contravention of democracy because the public opinion of the majority is ignored when forming economic policies, by definition.

If there were any sense in the world, and the subsequent ability to call a spade a spade and declare A is A, China would correctly be identified as state capitalists, not communist. As such, the proper narrative of the Tiananmen Square Massacre is one of class struggle, another instance of capitalists crushing labor. The Tiananmen Square Massacre is an inconvenient truth for both East and West. This is why Fenby can confidently declare it to be “officially a non-event.” It is, from the point of view history is traditionally written from: the state’s. However, it is an important event to remember for a history of the people.

May 21, 2008

Summer of Terror, South Korea 1950

Filed under: history, media, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 8:37 am

The AP is running a story of the mass graves recently found in South Korea. Experts estimate 100,000 people killed by the U.S.-backed regime. The people executed were suspected leftists or hapless peasants. We are told that the South Korean dictatorship was concerned that the people they ended up executing might reinforce the North Koreans if the area was taken over. Regardless of the reason, extermination of civilians is a crime against humanity.

CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY: namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.

A couple points are worth noting.  The AP ran another story explaining why it took so long for the truth to come out titled: “Fear, secrecy kept 1950 Korea mass killings hidden.”  However, we find near the end of the article that “[s]cattered reports of the killings did emerge in 1950 — and some did not.”

It is important to note that people at the time dismissed the atrocities at the time as fabrication and almost charged those who spread the stories with treason.

Earlier, correspondent Alan Winnington reported on the shooting of thousands of prisoners at Daejeon in the British communist newspaper The Daily Worker, only to have his reporting denounced by the U.S. Embassy in London as an “atrocity fabrication.” The British Cabinet then briefly considered laying treason charges against Winnington, historian Jon Halliday has written.

For those who dismiss this as some academic exercise left to the distant past.  Here is an example of the U.S. getting rid of Al Jazeera in Fallujah.

The U.S. military responded by ordering Al Jazeera out of Fallujah, so that the killing could continue without witnesses.  Gen. Mark Kimmitt declared, “The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not legitimate news sources.  That is propaganda, and that is lies.”  Four days later, on April 15th, Donald Rumsfeld said that Al Jazeera’s reporting was “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable.  It’s disgraceful what that station is doing.” (pg. 194 Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People who Fight Back – Amy Goodman and David Goodman)

There is also considerable evidence the U.S. military specifically targeted Al Jazeera as one can glean from watching “Control Room.”  There are also some other cases documented in “Static” leading to the conclusion that “[t]he penalty for presenting unofficial truths soon became apparent: U.S. bullets and bombs were ultimately trained on Al Jazeera.” (pg. 197 Static)

A framework for understanding these issues is offered by Noam Chomsky.  Chomsky presents three types of terror: constructive, benign, and nefarious.

It takes a while for him to lead-in to it, but it is about 2:15 minutes in.

A “constructive” form of terror is what McCain advocates by bombing Iran.  We never put it exactly in those terms, but it is exactly what we are doing.  It is usually hidden behind some euphemism about “showing Iran” or giving them a black-eye or bloody nose.  It masks the fact that we are planning on destroying parts of Iranian infrastructure and indifferently killing some of the citizens of that country.  “Benign” forms of terror are mostly irrelevant for purposes of discussion.  “Nefarious” forms of terror are what the other-side does.  These are typically seared into the national psyche such as Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, etc.

As Chomsky notes, we are more responsible for the atrocities of governments that we support than those that we oppose.  However, what I hope is clear is that the government cover-ups or downplays the actual effects of our violence or by our proxies and their human cost.  The mainstream media is frequently complicit in that portrayal.  The few who speak the truth to power are frequently branded as treasonous or unpatriotic.  These few are later vindicated.

It is my sincere hope that citizens in the United States will be able to recognize and react to these atrocities when they occur and help bring them to a close.  The first step to winning the true “War on Terror” is to end the acts of terrorism our own country engages in.

April 20, 2008

4/20: Chomsky on Marijuana

Filed under: culture, history, politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 9:30 am

In honor of 4/20, Chomsky explores the history of marijuana criminalization.

In recent news, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) recently introduced a bill to help decriminalize marijuana.

April 19, 2008

Debunking 9/11 Myths and McCain’s History Problem

Filed under: books, history, media, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 10:33 am

I recently got done reading “Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts” edited by David Dunbar and Brad Reagan. To my dismay, there is a foreword by Senator John McCain. The contents of the book, aside from the foreword, are good. I got it more for the second part of the title, the Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts as a case study on how to deconstruct denialism, more than the refuting of particular 9/11 myths.

The book is flawed in certain ways. One is that they tend to cherry-pick claims to refute. I understand the difficulty of proving that certain claims are representative of the community. However, there seems to be no clear criteria that they use for which claims they choose to refute besides finding them on one of many 9/11 conspiracy websites. To make matters worse, they often bring in irrelevant information to the claims. For example, certain conspiracy sites talk about a “New World Order.” While I understand the intention may have been to give an indication of the type of far out beliefs the sites hold, it is also prejudicial. The specific claims about events are either supported by the evidence or not. Whether or not one believes there is a plan for a “New World Order” is irrelevant. On the plus side, the book does a good job of destroying the conspiracy theorists claims. From the media I’ve encountered from the 9/11 truth movement, the claims Popular Mechanics debunks are reasonably representative. The only real question is if they ignored some popular 9/11 myths, which is why I wish they were clearer on their methodology for deciding which claims to refute.

This brings us to the worst part of the book: the foreword. For a book whose purpose is to debunk 9/11 myths, the editors of Popular Mechanics let by far the largest, most pervasive 9/11 myth through. It is the big lie that has been more damaging, destructive and offensive than all the other conspiracy theories combined. The one that isn’t aimed at the U.S. government, but rather those who perpetrated the attack.

But as 19 men showed the world their worst, we Americans displayed what makes our country great: courage and heroism, compassion and generosity, unity and resolve. We were united, first in sorrow and anger, then in recognition that we were attacked not for a wrong we had done, but for who we are – a people united in a kinship of ideals, committed to the notion that the people are sovereign, and that people everywhere, no matter what their race or country or religion, possess certain universal and inalienable rights. (pg. xi)

No, we were not attacked because of who we are, we were attacked for what the government has done at the behest of elite interests. As the book explores, the attackers targeted very specific targets: the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and presumably the Capitol building. If they hated us for our freedoms, they would have hit the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, etc. Instead, they struck at centers of the United States hegemony, the nexus of funding, planning and implementation of U.S. foreign control and domination.

Yes, Osama Bin Laden believes in a theocratic Islamic state. However, you don’t see him going out of his way to attack Sweden or Norway. It wasn’t freedom any more than our health-care system. In fact, it wasn’t even because of the first Gulf War against Saddam. It was our continued military presence in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia. He saw us as setting up shop and brutally reacted against it. 15 of 19 of the 9/11 hijackers were from that one country.

Iraq to the U.S. is exactly what Afghanistan was to the Soviet Union. In fact, we happen to be in a little bit worse shape because on top of Iraq, the U.S. is also fighting in Afghanistan. Bin Laden planned on beating the United States the same way he defeated the Soviets, draw them into a quagmire. As the Power of Nightmares explores, the Islamic extremists believed they were the cause of the Soviet collapse as much as some conservative segments of the United States believed they were the cause. In truth, Mikhail Gorbachev’s assessment is likely the most accurate, it was corrupt internal forces that caused the collapse of the Soviet system. Gorbachev tried to reform too much, too quickly and the system collapsed.

This is why McCain should not be let anywhere near the presidency of the United States. He doesn’t understand the Middle East as this gaffe shows.

His policy in Iraq is that we keep fighting until there are no more U.S. causalities, then we stay.

He has talked about more wars, and joked about bombing Iran. Starting a war with Iran is clearly on the forefront of his mind.

Acknowledging the reason we were attacked is not the same as endorsing those reasons.  And for those who would defend McCain by saying that he never actually said we were attacked for our freedoms, he said that we were united because we recognized we were attacked for our freedoms.  If it were the case, as it is, that we were not attacked for our freedoms, it is the duty of a public official to set the record straight.  Instead, McCain peddles in myths.  He is a member of the party that helped propagate those myths, and benefits directly from them.

In the final analysis, “Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts” is flawed not from the myths they examine, but rather those they leave unexamined and tacitly endorse.  Furthermore, McCain proves he is one of the last persons, we, the American people should trust to be president.

March 24, 2008

War Made Easy

Filed under: film, history, media, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 6:34 am

Norman Solomon goes through the presidential war rhetoric and the way the American media acts as a propaganda wing of the government. The key point is that when media just reiterates what the government is saying and acts in concert; the media isn’t acting as a check on the government, it is an enabler.

It should be said that there are independent news outlets, such as Democracy Now! or The Real News that do a much better job. However, these sources remain outside the mainstream. The most glaring difficulty I see is the news media has a tremendously tough time sorting through an official news source that lie to them. This difficultly has arisen mostly due to time constraints. There is literally less effort going into each news story today compared to the past. This is part of the Rupert Murdoch revolution in mass media.

The most serious aspect of propaganda is not what is included, but rather what is left out. If we are unable to cull those who are consistently and unapologetically wrong, we will forever be hamstrung dealing with unending mountains of false or misleading information.

March 19, 2008

Obama: A More Perfect Union

Filed under: culture, Education, history, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:50 am

Still transcendent.

History is a mighty dramos, enacted upon the theatre of times, with suns for lamps and eternity for a background.  -Thomas Carlyle

March 6, 2008

U.S. Planned Overthrow of Hamas in Palestinian Territories

Filed under: history, media, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 10:04 am

Al Jazeera is reporting that the U.S. plotted to overthrow the democratically elected government in the Palestinian territories. A story that has picked up some press internationally, but hasn’t picked up much mainstream steam in the U.S. The notable exception is Vanity Fair’s “The Gaza Bombshell.” The article drew this rebuke from an Administration official (source).

The story alleges that there was some kind of secret plot on the part of the U.S. government to create an internal conflict within the Palestinians, specifically an armed conflict. That’s absurd. That’s ridiculous. I said this morning that I think Vanity Fair should stick to arty photos of celebrities since clearly, at least in this instance, their efforts at serious journalism leaves something lacking.

The rebuke stands as a disconnect between U.S. myth and how the U.S. has historically acted. As Stephen Kinzer’s book “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq” shows, how this overthrow attempt is described is inline with how other attempts have been conducted and also their motives. Historically, it is also telling that government officials lied about the U.S. role in many of the previous overthrows. The Bush administration’s strong, and baseless dismissal should serve as a further indication that the story is, in fact, true. The sheer incredulity and faux-paternalistic lecturing is indicative that the story has struck a nerve.

Overthrows are typically the tool the U.S. uses when democracy produces an outcome Washington does not find to its liking. It is also telling the extent to which the mainstream media ignores such stories in favor of Patrick Swayze’s apparent battle with cancer.  This is not meant as a knock on Patrick Swayze.  I wish him the best.  However, the Hamas overthrow attempt has potential for blowback, and therefore should be receiving much better coverage.  This serves as another example the mainstream press fails to put the world into context and impedes citizens in a democracy from making informed decisions.

February 11, 2008

Rolling Stone: The Chicken Doves

Filed under: history, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 10:46 am

Rolling Stone has an article titled “The Chicken Doves.”  It equates Harry Reid’s and Nancy Pelosi’s political collapse to Neville Chamberlain’s.  Although to be fair, Neville Chamberlain deserves far less blame than Reid and Pelosi.  Chamberlain was trying to stop the break-out of another World War on the faint hope that giving the Sudetenland to Germany would be enough to prevent it.  Chamberlain had miscalculated.  Hitler’s imperial ambitions did not end at the Sudetenland and war was inevitable.   However, appeasement may have been successful in drawing Germany eastward and opening up a new front in the war, which was essential to Germany’s eventual defeat.

Chamberlain worked to prevent a major war from breaking out.  Pelosi and Reid refuse to end a disastrous one that has already begun.  Like Hitler, Bush’s imperial ambitions extend far beyond the few countries the United States is currently occupying.  Bush has let it be known that his goal is to transform the Middle East through regime change.  Bush has stated that he wants to establish democracies.  In practice, what Bush wants are obedient client states in the region.

The nature of the Democratic party’s collapse is their unwillingness to press the issue.  They could have forced compromises by being as obstinate as the remaining Republicans in Congress are the President are.  The Democrats are unwilling to play hard-ball.  So, the killing continues.   We will not have an end to this occupation until those who want to end it, want to do so as badly as those who want to continue the bloodshed.  If the Rolling Stone article shows anything, it is that trying to end this war will be an ongoing struggle, even if a Democratic president comes to power in 2009.

February 8, 2008

Chomsky on the Political Spectrum

Filed under: capitalism, culture, history, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 11:59 am

Noam Chomsky gives a speech on the political spectrum and realities of modern industrial society.  It is important to note that the War on Terror is the new Cold War.  The goal is to continue to spread Western imperialism.  Islamic fundamentalists do pose a threat, however the threat they present is exaggerated and largely serves as a pretense much like supposed Russian involvement in Vietnam.  It is therefore not surprising that intelligence is kept secret, dissent is intimidated and suppressed, torture is used, and the information turns out to be largely inaccurate.

Torture is used as a coercive mechanism to uncover new plots from the suspected terrorists themselves.  Of course, there is a good chance the plot was bogus. The truth is largely irrelevant because all that is important is a convincing pretext, and torture is capable of providing such an endless supply.

(parts 2,3,4,5,6)

I agree with Chomsky’s argument that some conclusions of Marxist thought flow directly from classical liberal principles applied to the realities of modern industrial society.  Movement conservatives, who claim direct lineage for classical liberal thought, are connected at most superficially.  Movement conservatives pick and choose certain conclusions they wish to draw, deny any relevant changes to circumstances that might invalidate the conclusions, and certainly do not hold the principles of the enlightenment at their base.

Chomsky’s strength as an intellectual and a critic continues to be shown by how logical extrapolations from speeches decades earlier continue to resonate and provide context today.

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