3 YOLO Reasons Why Buzzfeed Should Be Launched into the Sun

For the uninitiated, Buzzfeed is a “content aggregator” that steals other people’s reporting, puts it through an unhygienic sausage-maker, and churns out ordered lists. The result is that, for the first time in history, anyone can apprise themselves of current events without such needless expenditures of energy as reading and thinking.

YOLO (you only live once; or, in hungrier circles, you only love Oreos) is the motto of the Buzzfeed generation. Judging by the site’s take on the Syria conflict—a bag of horrors that includes, but is not limited to, a romanticization of child soldiery—I take that to mean that I am going to devote my fleeting time on Earth into making it a worse place.

Submitted without further comment.

H/t to Christopher Hooks, whose Timeline performed the thankless work of retweeting Buzzfeed’s digital typhus.

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The New Nietzscheans

Ah, Nietzsche. The first and last resort of disaffected males in their late teens—of the type that keeps such an ironic detachment from life as to refer to men and women as “males” and “females.” They read about The Philosopher and The Overman and The Antichrist and self-flatteringly assume that he’s talking about them. So God isn’t Great after all! So those things we call “manners” are actually vices; morality is an ancient and useless ghost from the Levant, one that has colonized our sadistic superegos and turned them against us! They rush to their keyboards, informing fellow travelers in r/atheism about their discovery. We might indulge their bright-eyed enthusiasm and forgive them for never getting to the passages where Darwin appears as a villain and—what is worse to Nietzsche—a plodding and pedantic bore.

Why do I now relive the combination of admiration and revulsion I felt when I first read Nietzsche? Well, a gentleman by the name of weedguy420boner introduced me to this:

Cyber-dystopia, meet your new official philosopher.

Society has for many years showered the computer-literate with special favors. We have in wholesale fashion displaced our old stereotypes about scientists—heroic men and women, living as ascetics, grasping towards new truths without fear of the consequences—onto coders, social media gurus, and the venture capitalists who enable them. We have thought their characters’ more chivalrous those of other subcultural votaries. (They’re not in some cases, as a Google News query for “Penny Arcade” would reveal). We have treated their cultural products as somehow embodying a greater authenticity than whatever we might categorize under the dread rubric “mainstream.” The Revenge of the Nerds franchise has aged worse than other cinematic classics—yes, even the hammy and ham-fisted On the Waterfront—because the idea that programmers are eo ispo persecuted outcasts has no basis in sociological fact.

We’ve reaped the consequences in the form of Silicon Valley Nietzscheans, digital Leopolds and Loebs. The visionaries behind Candy Crush and the rest of the app-based grab bag now feel so above hoi polloi that finding new ways of taking their money is not so much an exercise in business strategy—which is as it should be—as it is a deeply expressive release. Nietzsche tells us that creative power is a value higher than truth—“the will to truth” of so many Enlightenment milquetoasts was nothing but the covert discharge of the impulse to dominate, the will to power—and such power comes from recognition. It is not enough that I think that I’m noble and that my creative output is great, but others must think so as well. These ideas are narcotic to people who, like me, earn a living through the manipulation of abstract symbols; Nietzsche offers our ever-insecure selves a way to constitute our identity through others’ groveling before out “creative genius,” even—or, rather, especially—as we treat these others with contempt.

Fun and Games at the 2013 Video Music Awards

Fun and Games at the 2013 Video Music Awards

Nietzsche in fact hated the capitalism and its entrepreneurial avatars for all the unusual reasons. It wasn’t objectionable as an engine of exploitation or inequality or social disruption. (In fact, in one of the few passages that directly addresses politics, he presciently writes without rancor that in the future private actors will assume responsibility for even the most public forms of human activity, like war). It was objectionable rather because the elites it produces are wholly unlike the Greek aristocracy that sired Aristotle. He accused them of being uncurious and uncourageous “last men,” addicted to comfort and material plenty, inferior to even the devout farmer because they treat nothing with reverence and touch everything with their unwashed hands—guilty above all of “the introduction of parliamentary imbecility, including the obligation of everyone to read his newspaper at breakfast.” Abolishing suffering, which the liberals and socialists of Nietzsche’s day earnestly championed, held out not the promise of a New Jerusalem, but rather the threat of a hedonistic commonwealth in which art is impossible and Farmville is the primary obsession.

(An aside: it is unclear if Nietzsche deliberately tinged this portrait of the last man under bourgeois capitalism with anti-Semitism. What is clear is that, despite explicitly disavowing the label of “materialist,” he believed that there is no body-mind dualism, a falsehood derived from the structure of Indo-European languages, and that biology therefore produces ideas. He wrote the Europe’s salvation from “decay” and the looming threat of Russian power lay in breeding a super-race of Jews [embodying adaptability and the virtues of the modern age] with Prussian nobles [embodying time-tested traditional qualities]. Now would be a good time to draw your attention to the fact that Nietzsche, though a great German writer and unrivaled detector of hypocrisy, was not a great philosopher in the conventional sense and was also completely insane).

Are the brave entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley more like the Last Man than they are the Overman who delivers us from spiritual oblivion? The answer may be a matter of taste. But what is clear is that if we do not want their deliverance—if we do not want to live under Ayn Rand’s Nietzschean interpretation of capitalism—we will need to cool our ardor for digital hero-worship and take stock of our values. Neoliberalism consolidates and fails to improve the world by the sensible standards that David Hume and Adam Smith set for evaluating the market economy: the provision of abundance; the amelioration of the struggle of existence in the earthly world. In light of this, it is no surprise that frankly anti-utilitarian defenses of capitalism are growing more common. Charles Murray warned against universal healthcare because, like Nietzsche, he believes that striving and suffering—other people’s striving and suffering—puts individuals on a higher moral and aesthetic plane and wards off the nightmare of the last man’s world.

As for me, I say we first end the scourges of want and privation and injustice, at least on a trial basis. If it turns out we miss them, we can always bring them back.

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Mad Thoughts

I was in a Twitter conversation in which Internet user and rap legend ObeseChess rightly laments that current generations of Americans must come of age without the benefit of an acceptable incarnation of Mad Magazine. Sadly, 12-year-olds now have only the soft memory foam of BuzzFeed listicles on which to cut their budding cultural-critical teeth.

(By the way, you will follow all Twitter handles to which I link in my posts. This will be on the midterm).

I am far from original in making this observation, but I’d go as far as saying that we live in a post-satirical age, in which the random events and conditions of our vertiginous post-modern politics and culture make so little sense as to satirize themselves. Sidney Lumet wouldn’t need to make Network in 2013 when Americans can avail themselves of Nancy Grace, and when news coverage lends itself to such screencaps as this. Parody’s death knell sounded the moment nationally known cable news personalities favorably compared themselves to Howard Beale.

I digress. Mad, today reduced to a sad and sickly stenographer of conventional wisdom and American national security ukases, still holds a special place in my heart.  So much so that I attempted to make my High School senior year-book space a Mad fold-in. (The idea was that people would fold the sheet, ruining the unfortunate person’s yearbook page printed on the other side; being less talented than Al Jaffee, I couldn’t get it to work. Shame).

Unlike 21st century comic institutions, Mad occasionally took on targets that defy the categorization of “easy.” At moments it embodied less the anodyne spirit of Jon Stewart—who is “good friends” with Bill O’Reilly, and (as some Twitter wit put it) enjoys the privilege of not having to take politics seriously—and more the angry animus of George Carlin—who, however much people slavishly quote and misquote him, deserves credit for disavowing any pretension to being “cute” and instead seeking to (in his words) “smash” his enemies. How much have times changed? Pictures speak volumes. Below, from the early seventies, is a take on Roman Catholicism in Latin America, sufficiently harsh to get everyone involved with publishing Mad in Brazil carted off to prison. The artist is Wallace Wood, a brilliant science fiction and fantasy illustrator, famous for his improbably shapely women, who sadly drank himself into blindness, renal failure, and suicide. Let’s hope that the proud tradition of American satire does not one day moulder in oblivion with the names of grandmasters Wood, Jaffe, Woodbridge, Kurtzman, Wolverton and the rest.

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(Re) Introducing Dimpled Chad!

Fists pumping like champs!

"Take that, liberal elites!"

Well, the “legal complications” about which my previous announcement speaks have not only for the past month submerged my web project, but my life as well. For now, I would be well advised not to comment on the ongoing university-wide “investigation” into my and my professors’ research activities, but I will say that the mess has taught me volumes about the state of academic freedom and faculty governance at the American public university.

But enough garrulous navel-gazing. (Lord knows that we spend enough of our days gazing at navels). The site is back up at http://www.dimpledchad.info!

Here is our press release:

October 22, 2012 – Researchers at the University of Connecticut and University of Rhode Island are pleased to announce the launch of the new website: www.dimpledchad.info. Dimpled Chad is an information resource for scholars, educators, students, journalists, and political observers interested in the registration, turnout, and voting behavior of numerous groups in the U.S. electorate over the last four decades.

Uniquely among political websites, Dimpled Chad specializes in small-group electoral trends. Using information derived from the census and national exit polls, we have analyzed the behavior of a wide range of demographic groups in federal elections spanning as far back as the 1972 Presidential election.

For example, you can learn the learn the turnout rate of college-educated women or see the presidential preferences of white union workers in the Midwest or explore how urban Catholics in the Northeast have voted in congressional elections. These are just a few of the small-group electoral trends that can be found at www.dimpledchad.info.

Dimpled Chad has user-friendly tools for locating the results of our longitudinal analyses. You easily can find information such as:

  • The Presidential and House candidate preferences of various voting groups over time
  • Voting group’s attitudes about political issues and the economy over time
  • Trends in voting group’s behaviors such as church attendance and workforce participation
  • The voter registration and voter turnout rates for different demographic groups over time
  • The changes in the relative size of groups in the adult citizen population and the electorate
  • Information about how to register and vote in the 50 U.S. states
  • Information about barriers to registering and voting across the country

Our results can be viewed in both tabular and graphical formats. These tables and graphs can be downloaded to your personal computer for a variety of uses, ranging from background research on elections, to handouts for in-class student discussion, to presentations on voting behavior and elections.

Posted in Clifford Vickrey, Dimpled Chad, exit polls, political science | 1 Comment

Introducing: Dimpled Chad!

The look of horror

The look of a man whose soul has just been consumed

[UPDATE: the website received an overwhelmingly positive response from some of the finest American electoral researchers in the country, but is now mired in legal complications that I am not at liberty to discuss. I have taken it down: like the Colossus of Rhodes it is gone, but not forgotten! Stay tuned…]

Dimpled Chad is a Political Science web application I’ve been working on.

Since 2009, Profs. Sam Best, Jeff Ladewig (both of UConn) and Brian Krueger (of URI) have been merging American national- and state-level exit poll data spanning four decades. Given the maddening question-wording inconsistencies of exit poll instruments, such data manipulation has been a time-intensive labor of love. For the first time, students of public opinion and voting behavior can make meaningful inferences from exit polls over long time series. There are dozens of novel dissertations waiting to be written as a result.

The first batch of national data is finally ready. What is Dimpled Chad, then? It’s a website to display queries on the data in as user-friendly a fashion as possible.

For now, the site is password protected, but you’re free to log in and give it a try! The trial log-in info is a follows:

  • Username: guest
  • Password: guest2012

I’ve written three tools so far:

  • Basic tools: simple tabulations and cross-tabulations.
  • Advanced tools: more complex tabulations, layered tabulations, cross-tabulations, and layered cross-tabulations.
  • Graphing

Naturally, the exit poll data becomes more complete as one approaches the present, so it’s impossible to know exactly how many gays and lesbians voted for George Wallace. This caveat aside, have fun!

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On political divisiveness

Students of American public opinion divide themselves into two camps. One views Americans as irrepressibly and deeply divided on political and cultural questions. Another views our alleged political divisiveness as so much eyewash manufactured by a sensationalistic media and hysterical political elites. These, according to the latter view, project their own hateful and conspiratorial image of the world onto “just folks:” big-hearted political centrists who want nothing more than to exclude politics from polite conversation and get along with everyone. American politics is unrepresentative of “the people” because beltway denizens have unrepresentatively poor manners.

The ideas of the “can’t we all just get along” camp have achieved the status of beltway respectability and even official ideology—odd, since the camp blames the political establishment for the country’s dyspeptic ails. The White House ascribes its own institutional incapacity to Tea Party “terrorists” and “the professional Left.” David Brooks, whom the President courted to an unusual degree, makes a nice living off of repetitive sermonizing that “there are nuts on both extremes, and I’m in the middle, and that makes me special.” Thomas Friedman continually calls for the “radical center” to mobilize and form a third party—a “real” Tea Party—, but is apparently too lazy to get the ball rolling.

In fact, the country is politically divided from the top down, and the notion that there exists an independent, median voter to save the country from its “elites” belongs to utopian fiction. Voters reward rather than punish officials who stray beyond what self-described centrists describe as proper moderate thought and action; Newt Gingrich’s inspired turnaround of the Congressional GOP is a fine example of this. They instead reserve their punishment for the straddlers, as when they extinguished the entire House DLC delegation last November.

The concept of centrism, too, is so lacking in critical content that its use in political analysis is usually careless and laden with ideology: I hold right-minded principles, whereas you are addicted to the narcotic of extreme ideology. In fact, voters across the partisan spectrum report policy preferences at violent variance with the “center.” Red State Republicans, for instance, report being as suspicious of big corporations as anyone—a big populist “no-no” to Brooks, who sees in this sentiment Jacobin fanaticism—, and their views on the Medicare eligibility requirements are well to the “left” of what Obama pushed for in the latest debt ceiling crisis. “Isolationism” is a growing foreign policy stance, even though it is anathema to beltway centrists. “Closet partisans” often report themselves as independent and centrist because the absence of labels has itself become a fashionable label.

Worryingly, advocates of centrist cohesion seem increasingly inclined towards an anti-political solution to American political gridlock. I see in Friedman’s “radical center” the age-old yearning of moralists to abolish political pluralism in favor of some kind of technocratic elite that fears the irrationality of the voters in whose name it governs, an insight that makes intelligible his admiration of Communist China. The self-appointed independent saviors of the common man often do the very things they accuse extreme ideologues of doing: namely, promulgate an arrogance that scorns people who disagree with them. Consider Morris Fiorina’s claim that political observers spend all their time in “salons” unlike the “normal people” who “[hang] out at big box stores, supermarket chains, or auto parts stores talking to normal people”—as if the average person goes to those places, rather than dive bars, to hang out and socialize! Or consider David Brooks’s claim that liberals don’t know what it means to eat at the Applebee’s salad bar. (Hint: only one of Applebee’s and Sizzler’s has a salad bar). These crude stereotypes derived from TV commercials and Hallmark cards are convincing only to those who spend little time with the “grunts.” Maybe it’s not surprising that the panegyrists of the common man are the first to scream “mob rule!” whenever the latter is aroused to action.

To those who believe that intellectuals and even people who merely care about politics are deviant, hateful cosmopolites, I refer you to A) the fact that anti-intellectualism is the one thing that can get us all killed, and B) anarchist Victor Serge’s remark somewhere that intellectuals comprise both the worst and best people humanity has to offer.

As for me, I do not counsel extremism, and hope that America can heal its divisions. Messianic politics can exit the world stage unmourned. But I also think that the votaries of the centrist “movement” that speak the language of “country first” have a poor understanding of what’s on the minds of their countrymen. And I think that the twenty-first century Jeremiahs could use a little introspection before they pour vitriol on the millions of passionate Democratic and Republican activists who, whatever else we can say about them, are getting their hands dirty and working hard for political change—something that independent voters, who are on average less informed and publicly-spirited than their partisan counterparts, usually fail to do. With great moral judgments of others comes great responsibility.

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New website!

Just what the world needed at least as much as a hole in the head: another website and weblog! I intend my website to be a means of professional self-promotion, and to be a place to vent my political opinions. The two may work at cross-purposes, insofar as the pursuit of money is incompatible with the pursuit of truth.

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