No future

Twenty years ago I posted an essay online talking about some of the changes that I saw taking place in the production of culture. One such change was the increasing disposability of art, which went along with something I found even more damaging: the loss of belief in any sort of cultural posterity. Here’s part of what I said:

I think the consciousness of disposability is something new. In my opinion it is the most profound change that has taken place in writing in the past century, and cannot be overestimated.

In Shakespeare’s day, even if you weren’t Shakespeare, you might still think that your sonnets would last forever. For Keats the desire to be counted “among the English poets” may have been a dreamy notion, but it was also a perfectly valid goal. It meant that you were intent upon entering a pantheon of immortals. And even in the first half of the twentieth century there was still a firm belief that art was, in some meaningful way, eternal. Ezra Pound could rail against what “the age demanded,” but only because he had confidence that his work would be among what remained. That was part of what being a classic meant.

That has all been lost. Put simply, and without any qualification, no author writing today has any belief that their work will survive. I’m not saying that no literary work will survive: that is a determination hinging on various factors outside of this survey. I don’t even know if the planet is going to survive. What I am saying is that no writer, however noble their intentions or committed their aims, has any belief that what they are creating is going to last.

That was a grim take, I’ll admit, but I was thinking about that essay again this week when I came across a story in the Huffington Post on Republican responses to how they think their defence of President Trump will be judged by history. The takeaway? They’re not concerned at all.

“I don’t care how I’m remembered,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told HuffPost. “I care that the American people elected this guy president, he’s doing a great job, and [the Democrats] have zero facts on their side to remove this guy from office.”

And if you think Jordan insisting he doesn’t care is just some defense mechanism because he knows it will turn out badly, Jordan will tell you that actually, he hasn’t given any of that “a second’s thought.”

“The first time that even entered my mind was 20 seconds ago when you asked me,” he said.

Jordan’s colleagues expressed much the same indifference (or shamelessness), but at least one went even further:

One of the darkest answers came from Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), a former history teacher himself. Bishop said the idea that history would remember what Republicans do assumes “that we’re going to survive in this country long enough to have a history.”

So much for posterity in politics. It seems the idea of the future has been laid to rest. But Trump’s flunkies are only taking their lead from higher up the food chain. Here, for example, is his Attorney General and Enabler-in-Chief Bill Barr:

Asked by CBS News’ Jan Crawford about concerns over his reputation for defending the president amid ongoing probes into the administration’s alleged ties to the Russian government and claims that Mr. Trump obstructed justice, Barr appeared indifferent.

“I am at the end of my career,” Barr said. “Everyone dies and I am not, you know, I don’t believe in the Homeric idea that you know, immortality comes by, you know, having odes sung about you over the centuries, you know?”

“Everyone dies.” One picks up, again, the odour of a decadent narcissism. Barr isn’t worried about the future because, at the end of his career, he knows he doesn’t have much left. And when he’s dead, why should he care about the judgment of history? In fact, he makes it pretty clear that he doesn’t think there’s going to be any judgment of history. I suspect that, like Rob Bishop, he thinks the whole idea of the U. S. having a history yet to be written a bit of a stretch. And this skepticism goes all the way to the top:

Since the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s aides and advisers have tried to convince him of the importance of tackling the national debt.

Sources close to the president say he has repeatedly shrugged it off, implying that he doesn’t have to worry about the money owed to America’s creditors—currently about $21 trillion—because he won’t be around to shoulder the blame when it becomes even more untenable.

The friction came to a head in early 2017 when senior officials offered Trump charts and graphics laying out the numbers and showing a “hockey stick” spike in the national debt in the not-too-distant future. In response, Trump noted that the data suggested the debt would reach a critical mass only after his possible second term in office.

“Yeah, but I won’t be here,” the president bluntly said, according to a source who was in the room when Trump made this comment during discussions on the debt.

I won’t be here. Everyone dies. I really don’t care, do U?

We should all care. As posterity (the “Homeric idea”) is to culture so progress is to politics. Artists have to believe their work is going to have some kind of afterlife, otherwise they’re just making a cash grab. Politicians have to believe that they are trying to improve things, otherwise they become what Matt Taibbi calls (in reference to the Trump administration) a death cult.

I understand where all this is coming from. Humanity faces a lot of challenges that seem insurmountable. But to give up hope in the future is the short road to doom.

Federal election 2019: After

Back again to comment on the 2019 federal election. A week ago I offered up my thoughts on how things were developing, concluding with the following prediction:

What I think will happen is that the Liberals will hold on with a minority government, perhaps due mainly to an anti-Ford vote in Ontario and stronger support in Quebec. The NDP will be nearly wiped out. The Greens will see a significant increase in their vote, though I doubt it will result in many (if any) seats.

I got some of this right. The Liberals did get back in, this time with a minority. And this was mainly due to their strength in Quebec and Ontario (and more specifically the GTA). Much of Quebec, however, went for the BQ. The NDP weren’t wiped out, but lost a lot of seats. They still tried to put a positive spin on things though by claiming that, while diminished, they will hold a balance of power in the new parliament.

One observation I’d make is that we are becoming a more regionally divided nation, which I see as being a sort of work-around of the archaic first-past-the-post electoral system. The Liberals were crushed in the West, all but disappearing from the map, but it made little difference. The Conservatives actually won the popular vote, but still lost handily. The Greens received 6.5% of the popular vote and ended up with 3 seats. The Bloc Québécois got 7.7% of the vote and 32 seats. This is the FPTP system at work.

As I said in my previous post, I didn’t think the party leaders were an inspiring group. Despite this, it looks as though Elizabeth May will be the only leader stepping aside. Inertia is taking over, as it so often does in Canadian politics. Our leaders have a habit of overstaying their welcome.

Perhaps I’m just old and jaded, but I didn’t see a big difference among the various parties. I studied a primer on their various platforms before voting and was surprised at how ill-defined they were. And what was defined struck me as being largely without meaning. Conservatives complained that a carbon tax would be ineffective, which I’m sure it will be. But at least it’s something. The Conservative position on the environment was a joke, saying they would meet greenhouse gas reduction targets but giving no idea how. But then I’m sure the Liberals will fail at meeting these targets as well.

On most other issues it was the same. A national pharmacare program sounds like a good idea, but the Liberals only said they want to work toward it while the Conservatives dismissed it entirely. The Liberals and NDP were OK with letting deficits grow while the Conservatives promised to reduce them. This is something I’m sure they would not be able to do, but I suspect they would have made at least some of the cuts they promised to government programs.

Immigration was supposed to be a hot-button issue but only the People’s Party tried to run with it. And the People’s Party went nowhere. The other parties were all vague on the matter.

I take it election reform is totally dead. Elizabeth May waited until the day before the election to declare that if the Green party were elected then hers would be the last federal government in Canada chosen by the first-past-the-post system. And where had I heard that before?

Like I say, perhaps this is all just me being jaded. Or something. When I filled in a questionnaire that sought to identify my political preference based on my feelings toward a catalogue of issues I wound up in a quarter of the political spectrum that none of the parties identified with (that is, socially conservative and economically left-wing). But then this position, which I would identify with an “old left,” is one that has increasingly come to feel abandoned.

A final note: For what I believe is the fourth election (federal and provincial) in a row the Green Party were the only party in my riding to do any door-to-door canvassing for votes. And they came by my place twice. So basically the other parties have just given up on this. Are they putting all their resources into social media? I wonder how that’s working out for them.

Looking ahead I don’t see anything to feel good about. Essentially we’re in for more of the same. I don’t see anyone being in a rush to trigger another election and I don’t think the Liberals ran on much of a platform to actually do anything. We didn’t vote for change and we’re not going to get any.

Federal election 2019: Before

Four years ago I did a post a week in advance of the 2015 federal election in which I predicted the Conservatives would stay in power with a minority government. Well, I had my reasons. And I’ll be the first to admit that my predictions are almost always wrong.

That confession out of the way, I thought I’d try again with some thoughts on the 2019 contest, a week before the vote.

In that earlier post I took as my theme the question of what had happened to the conservative movement. I think the last four years have answered that question pretty decisively. I thought that in terms of its ideology the right was a spent force, but it certainly came roaring back with Donald Trump in the U.S., the Brexit fiasco in Britain, and Doug Ford in Ontario. Was all this just the twitch of a death nerve, or does it signal something with more staying power? Stay tuned.

As far as my thoughts post-election in 2015 are concerned, I had this to say:

Moving forward, I’m not confident that the Liberals will provide much in the way of new ideas or leadership. One hopes for competence at best. Still, I’m interested in how a couple of issues that came up during the campaign will be handled. First, the Liberals declared that they were against the first-past-the-post election system. Now that they have a majority, will they backtrack on that? Second, the Liberals have also said that they want to “reform” the Senate (I’m all on board). This will be harder to effect, but I think would be a popular move. That said, I don’t expect any meaningful changes to be made to the current system.

Well, an end to the FPTP system and meaningful reform of the Senate didn’t happen. And I think I’m safe in saying that they never will. We’re locked into a nineteenth-century political system, components of which were archaic in the nineteenth century. I don’t like it, but the system is never going to change itself, and indeed will do everything it can to resist any change happening.

A week out from this year’s vote my main takeaway is the dismal quality of the party leaders. This too is part of a problem that is afflicting democracy globally. In the U.S. the best and the brightest the Republican Party had to offer were deemed so worthless they were blown away by a pathetic real-estate con-man who had been refashioned as a tawdry television personality. Currently the Democratic Party is trying to decide which of their candidates is the least unattractive, and it’s quite a contest. Ontario’s premier is Doug Ford. You get the picture.

To go quickly through the list, I think Justin Trudeau has lived up to all the dismissive labels flung at him by his worst critics. He is an airhead with beautiful hair. Not only does he strike me as downright dumb, he’s a lousy politician as well, with none of the instincts, vision, or rhetoric you’d expect in a national leader.

Andrew Scheer has zero charisma, negligible political skills, and is leading a party that seems stuck in reverse. Would it kill the Conservatives to adopt, or at least pay lip service to, some progressive policies? Or show that they’re comfortable living in the twenty-first century? Jagmeet Singh seems like the brightest guy in the race, but is also deficient in political awareness and appears to be an odd fit for the NDP. Indeed, large segments of the party, both on the ground and among the leadership, have rejected him entirely. While good on TV I suspect he is less charming in person.

I think the Green Party should have got rid of Elizabeth May after the last election. Her leadership has never felt sure in its footing and she has difficulty communicating what should be a pretty direct message. On the party’s key issue she was easily upstaged during the campaign by a kid visiting from Sweden.

Maxime Bernier just strikes me as dim, but maybe he comes across better in French.

I don’t like the thought of any of these people becoming prime minister. To be even more blunt, I don’t think any of them are leadership material. I wonder if there’s some connection between the lousy political system I mentioned and having so many lousy politicians. Probably.

As far as predictions go, the polls show a tight race and how it splits up in key ridings will be the deciding factor. None of the parties a week out have any wind in their sails. Nobody I’ve spoken to on either the left or the right seems much interested. What I think will happen is that the Liberals will hold on with a minority government, perhaps due mainly to an anti-Ford vote in Ontario and stronger support in Quebec. The NDP will be nearly wiped out. The Greens will see a significant increase in their vote, though I doubt it will result in many (if any) seats.

Next week I’ll be back and give some post-election thoughts. Until then, don’t forget to vote!

Badface

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has found himself in hot water lately over the discovery of photos where he appears in black- or brownface.

What I find most depressing about all of this is that it looks like it is going to become one of the defining campaign issues — if not the defining campaign issue — of this year’s federal election. Not jobs, health care, the environment, or economic policy, but something this stupid.

I guess you can argue that the photos and the fallout from their release tell us something about Trudeau’s character. Something not very flattering. He is being pilloried, with some justice, for being a hypocrite: his principled stands on issues relating to identity politics being derided as mere virtue signaling.

That expression “virtue signaling” is worth a bit of explanation. Some people object to it, or find nothing wrong with the idea of making public one’s own set of moral values. My own take is that, used pejoratively, the expression should be understood as referring to signaling one’s own virtues in a facile way that costs the signaler nothing. But of course it may involve demanding others make sacrifices.

I think Trudeau has done his share of virtue signaling. What bothers me the most about the current scandal is the general air of dishonesty in Trudeau’s response. In brief: how could he possibly not have known that these photos were out there all this time? They were even published in a school yearbook! Did he think they had just disappeared?

In a later press conference he admitted that he had in fact been aware of them while he was going through the process of being initially vetted by the party, but had found them too “embarrassing” to mention. In other words, he really did think they were dead and buried. Now, being asked if there are any more such photos out there that might surface at some point, he will only reply “I am wary of being definitive.”

Does any of this matter? In a polarized political environment, where people are voting against the other side more than they are supporting their own, maybe not so much. If Donald Trump can shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and get away with it, Justin Trudeau can probably get away with this. Our politics have become a joke.

Gamer grouch

The first Fortnite World Cup has been held, with the winner, a 16-year-old from Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania, taking home the $3 million top prize.

The response to this story has been predicably polarized. Some think it’s great that such a popular form of entertainment is finally getting the recognition it deserves. There were 40 million contestants vying to get into the Fortnite World Cup, a field that must have been strenuously winnowed down to the 100 who made the final cut. Video games are a bigger business than Hollywood, and have been for years. The people who play them can make millions of dollars through their own streaming channels and endorsement deals. Resistance to these developments is clearly futile. And anyway, as Steven Johnson argued in Everything Bad Is Good for You, video games are actually a healthy past-time, involving complex problem-solving skills, among other things.

Critics, and I include myself in this category, have their doubts. I get that video games are popular, and big business. And I have nothing against their professionalization. Elite gamers may as well make money out of this. I also understand the draw for people who just like to watch. Maybe they’re picking up tips to improve their own play, and maybe they just find the players entertaining.

But I don’t think video games are good for you. They are extremely addictive, and very consciously designed to be so. Encouraging any sort of addictive behaviour is bad. I also don’t think people learn anything from video games or pick up any worthwhile skills by playing them. In addition, I think they’re harmful to one’s health. If “sitting is the new smoking” I don’t think the example of teenagers who are spending 8-12 hours a day in front of a screen, as some of the contestants to the Fortnite World Cup said they had to while “in training,” is a good one. Wouldn’t young people be better off swimming or playing soccer? That’s good for the body, and team sports can build social skills as well. It seems to me that sports are also less directly commercial than esports. Sure there are professional sports like hockey and basketball, and kids dream of making it into the big leagues, but these video game tournaments strike me as just being advertisements for a product. Soccer is a sport first and only at a higher level big business. Video games are a business, period.

Is the Fortnite World Cup the end of civilization? No, but I don’t see it as a step in any good direction. That said, I’m comfortable now being on the wrong side of history.

Raptor rapture

Last night’s broadcast of the National, the CBC’s flagship national newsprogram, was devoted entirely to the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA basketball program.

The whole damn program.

There are so many things wrong with this. Why devote so much time to a sports story? It’s “news” only in the sense of being an attention-grabbing headline. And the thing is, the CBC’s sports coverage isn’t that good in the first place (and it wasn’t at all good in this instance), so who would be coming to the National to watch it?

I wish I could support the CBC more. I get the sense that they’re trying. I like the hosts of the National, and think they held on to Peter Mansbridge far too long. But they just seem to be flailing now. And they really have to do something about the number of local human interest stories that they’re regularly running on this program. These don’t belong on a national news broadcast.

I know these are tough times in the news business, but I don’t see how any of this is helping. Five minutes on the Raptors would have been plenty, even on a slow news day. It looks like we’re into a death spiral now.

The decay of lying

I’ve recently been re-reading Seymour Hersh’s series of investigations into some of the lies told by the Obama administration, first published in the London Review of Books and then collected in The Killing of Osama bin Laden. It’s a measure of the impact Trump has had that it all seems so quaint now. And I’m not just referring to the arrival of truth-tellin’ Michael Flynn in the final pages of Hersh’s book to tell us that Russia is our friend.

Obama’s lies were variously motivated, but mainly had to do with reasons of state and the always-in-operation cover-your-ass principle. The cover story or “narrative” (a word that has now become synonymous with fiction) about the assassination of Osama bin Laden was primarily concocted in order to conceal the cooperation of Pakistan’s military intelligence. As far as cover stories (or lies) go, this struck me as fairly innocuous, even though it gave rise to Zero Dark Thirty and the hard-to-kill myth of torture’s efficacy.

I felt the same way about the misinformation given out regarding what the administration knew of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This again seems to have been politically motivated, and stemmed largely from a chaotic situation on the ground and no clear directing policy framework for dealing with it. I’m not even sure how much it matters, at the end of the day, who was gassing whom, much less who the U.S. said was responsible.

But that was then. These lies were purposeful, political, and at least to some extent persuasive. Zero Dark Thirty even won an Oscar by taking the lies about the hunt for bin Laden and running with them. The lies of Trump, in comparison, are random, personal, and easily exposed. Are they, however, less consequential? As many commentators have pointed out, his indiscriminate carpet-bombing of lies isn’t meant to mislead about any particular point as to make the whole concept of truth seem irrelevant.

The post-truth world is the endgame in sight, a political environment like Putin’s Russia as described by Peter Pomerantsev in Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. Pomerantsev’s book is held up by Timothy Snyder as a warning of where the West is heading, and it’s hard to disagree with his general assessment of the course we’re on.

I was thinking of matters like these this past week when following some media scandals. First there was the testimony of Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was commended, even by some Liberal party members, for telling “her truth.” I’ve been vaguely aware of this expression for a while but I’m not sure where it got started. As near as I can tell, when someone says they appreciate you telling your truth what they’re saying is that they don’t believe what you are saying is true, but they accept that you believe it to be true. It’s very much a backhanded way of saying nothing much. It’s also a perfect political soundbite. In response to the recent accusation of inappropriate behaviour on the part of possible presidential candidate Joe Biden, other Democratic candidates again rushed to acknowledge the complainant coming forward with “her truth.” I guess this covers the bases pretty nicely, without committing anyone to saying what the truth in any particular situation is.

But isn’t this a problem? By just saying that someone has told their truth aren’t we making the claim that no objective truth can be arrived at or is recoverable? That everything is relative to one’s own subjective experience? How is this different from a world where nothing is true and everything is possible?