Odds and Ends from Recent Weeks

Today I’m catching up on numerous items from recent weeks that I want to note even though I haven’t had time to thoroughly read or comment about them. A couple of them, at least, I will revisit, because I need to understand what they say.

Seventeen items: about Chris Rufo, varieties of socialism, the ‘X-Files’, vanilla, MAGA from a black perspective, geo-engineering, why liberalism is hard, “antiprocess” as the flip side of motivated reasoning, Marxism, civics, getting along, MAGA vigilantism, ideology in China, the dumbing of America, how conservatives impoverish people, building meaning and purpose, and the truth of art vs. science.

Vox, Zack Beauchamp, 10 Sep 2023: Chris Rufo’s dangerous fictions, subtitled “The right’s leading culture warrior has invented a leftist takeover of America to justify his very real power grabs.”

A right-wing firebrand I’d not heard of; probably should see what he thinks. Skimming the piece turns up this:

But the more I examined Rufo’s work, the weaker it started to look. His worldview is built on a foundation of exaggerations and misrepresentations — distortions that make it difficult to trust even his basic factual assertions, let alone his big-picture analysis of American society.


OnlySky, M L Clark, 8 Sep 2023: Get to know your socialisms

I’m pretty sure most of the people who rail against socialism have no idea what it actually means.


The word “socialism” lives a stunted life in current politics, but it’s important to have a good vocabulary for discussing public policy. In this overview of many “socialisms”, we hash out a few ways to think about all the ideas this one word contains.


CNN, Radhika Marya, 10 Sep 2023: Ever ‘shipped’ anyone? You can thank ‘The X-Files’ for that

I’ve mentioned ‘The X-Files’ before, dismissively, because its paranoid conspiracy-driven worldview was never of any interest to me. (I didn’t watch it.) But perhaps, like ‘Mission: Impossible’ decades before it, it helped fuel Americans’ gullibility about the plausibility of conspiracy theories and especially of government cover-ups.


NY Times, Ligaya Mishan, 8 Sep 2023: How Did Vanilla Become a Byword for Blandness?, subtitled “The spice is one of the world’s most elusive, complex and hard to cultivate ingredients. But for many Americans, it still represents a ‘boring’ choice.”

Haven’t read the article, but just guessing: perhaps Americans are so used to artificial flavors they’ve never experienced genuine vanilla? Even though I’m aware of the vanilla beans — how some of the chefs on the Food Channel carefully slice them open and scrape out the paste in between — I’ve never used them myself.


NY Times, guest essay by Esau McCaulley, 10 Sep 2023: The Half-Truth of America’s Past Greatness

The writer, who is black, contrasts his own experience growing up in the south with the nostalgia of whites expressed in the recent popular song “Try That in a Small Town.”


LA Times opinion, Edwin Chen, 10 Sep 2023: Opinion: We’re very far off course in meeting global climate goals. Get ready for Plan B

This is about “geo-engineering,” the idea of, say, injecting aerosols into the high atmosphere to reflect more sunlight back into space. The idea’s been around a long time; I think Gregory Benford is one of its advocates.


Salon, Kim Messick, 9 Sep 2023: The American crack-up: Why liberalism drives some people crazy, subtitled “Examining the psychological demands that liberalism imposes on the modern citizen”

Here I feel compelled to skim the article and see what its central point is. It begins with a familiar summary of partisan history since the 1960s:

[T]he parlous state of American democracy is deeply rooted in the ongoing crisis of the Republican Party, a crisis that has been unfolding in real time for at least sixty years now. The seed of this crisis, the dark singularity from which it bloomed, was the decision by GOP leaders to pursue the support of white Southerners repulsed by the Democratic Party’s embrace of the Civil Rights Movement in the nineteen-sixties. These voters, who had generally shunned Republicans since the hated Lincoln broke the Confederacy, were not a natural fit for the GOP as it existed in those years. A party with historical ties to the capitalist class and the aspirational bourgeoisie, it suddenly found itself inundated by millions of working-class voters whose instincts did not always align with its more traditional audience.

To secure the long-term loyalty of these voters—- and to cement a tectonic shift in the American party system—- it needed to show them that their new electoral house was in fact a home. The forward-facing, commercial ethos of the old GOP would have to accommodate itself to the atavistic, Lost Cause-nostalgia of the American South. Individual rights would have to make room for states’ rights; optimism for pessimism; a republic of consumers for an apartheid state; capitalism for feudalism.

The gist of the writer’s argument:

The burdens of liberal selfhood— of accepting the presence of creeds, conduct, and beliefs that strike you as absurd, of agreeing to be ruled (depending on the election results) by people whose lives you cannot fathom — are not easily borne.

Conservatives want to impose their ideology on others, because they are certain they are right; liberals understand that there will always be people who disagree, and being mature means getting along even with people whose “beliefs strikes you as absurd.”

“Civilized life is largely life lived with strangers.” This is inevitable given the expanding population and our global society.

More good historical background here, going back to the Protestant Reformation.


OnlySky, Captain Cassidy, 5 Sep 2023: Antiprocess: How we dodge uncomfortable information without even trying, subtitled “It’s lightning-fast, reflexive, and ultimately protective. It’s the opposite of engaging with information. And every one of us uses it.”

The flip side of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, apparently.


NY Times, Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno, 23 Aug 2023: Can Shrinking Be Good for Japan? A Marxist Best Seller Makes the Case., subtitled “Kohei Saito says the country should seize this moment of demographic and economic challenge to reinvent itself through ‘degrowth communism.'”

Again, haven’t read this, but two ideas here pique my interest: first the idea that perpetual economic growth cannot go on forever, and second that “Marxism,” like “socialism” and “communism,” are concepts that Americans simply dismiss as bad, without the least bit understanding of them. What could this guy mean? I’ll come back to it.


NY Times, opinion guest essay by Debra Satz and Dan Edelstein, 3 Sep 2023: By Abandoning Civics, Colleges Helped Create the Culture Wars

Commenting without having read: who abandoned civics training? I dimly recall having a half-semester in high school about civics, that is, how the government works, how laws are passed, and so on. Is this not taught anywhere in high school (where some subjects are presumably required)? If not, this might explain some of the Trump supporters wacky theories.


Salon, Kirk Swearingen, 3 Sep 2023: Can’t we all get along? Actually, no — not when the other side behaves like that, subtitled “Liberal ‘elites’ are too mean to their MAGA fellow citizens, argues David Brooks. Jeepers, not that argument again.”


Salon, Robert Guffey, 2 Sep 2023: QAnon 2.0: “Sound of Freedom” and the rise of MAGA vigilantism, subtitled “Right-wing influencers pushed a paranoid, anti-immigrant hit movie — while pretending they’d never heard of QAnon”

Another example, incidentally, of how conservatives get their books onto bestseller lists.


NY Times, Paul Krugman, 31 Aug 2023: Why Is China in So Much Trouble?

An example from China about how ideology overrides facts, and is leading to its economic meltdown.


Salon, Brian Karem, 31 Aug 2023: How did we get here? The dumbing of America, from Reagan to Trump and beyond, subtitled “Every Trump tantrum makes headlines, while the actual president’s work is ignored. This is Reagan’s legacy.”


OnlySky, Adam Lee, 25 Jul 2023: Failed states: How conservative enclaves impoverish people, shorten their lives


In the name of the culture war, Republican states are impoverishing and killing their own citizens.


OnlySky, Jonathan MS Pearce, 10 Oct 2022: Building our own meaning and purpose


Don’t let believers dictate your meaning and purpose of life. These are ideas for you to build yourself, and to sculpt as you desire.


Big Think, Adam Frank, 31 Aug 2023: Why the truth of art is greater than the truth of science, subtitled “Art isn’t a side note in human history; it’s the main text.”

Key Takeaways

• Art is as essential to understanding human nature as science. Art reveals the deep philosophical underpinnings that allow humans to unveil hidden truths. • While humans are constrained by the world, we consistently push back against these constraints. Art, through mechanisms like irony, allows us to see the world differently and emancipate ourselves from limitations. • The act of creating art is a profound inquiry into our relationship with the world. This recognition is foundational for true scientific understanding.

This is the kind of “truth” that goes to the core of what science fiction is about. As I’m exploring in my writing. I’ll explore this essay more closely.

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