Sunday, December 8, 2013

In case no one had noticed…

It became obvious that Monday night 33 years ago, to those who hadn’t quite picked up on the implications of Reagan’s election, that we were in for a rocky ride, a dark period of reaction against the progress of the previous two decades. We’ve never emerged, “hope and change” notwithstanding. I incline to think that none of us who remember the event will live to see the end of the tunnel.

Then again, we’re now halfway toward the Beatles reunion so many people yearned for in 1970.

Monday, November 11, 2013

On Veterans’ Day (formerly Armistice Day)

We celebrate the veterans of the armed services today for their willingness to “protect our freedoms.” The problem is, not a single round of American ammunition discharged in my lifetime, not a single bomb dropped, not a single splash of napalm, not a single cloud of defoliant, not a single cluster round—not a single one of the trillion+ dollars of kinetic or chemical rounds discharged since 1952 upon largely non-white foreigners has advanced the cause of American “freedom” by so much as a millimeter. On the contrary, each and every US adventure abroad has brought with it a contraction of domestic civil liberties. I have nothing against “our troops,” who believe in their cause as sincerely as the soldiers of another empire seventy years ago at this time (“Gott mit Uns” was the favored slogan back then, I believe), but I’m not prepared to assign to their depredations a noble cause. The most brutal and aggressive country on the face of the earth seventy years ago was...well, you know. Today, it's us.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Further to dog cognition

Comment would seem superfluous.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

“The sombre imbecility of tyranny”

William T. Vollman's novel Europe Central impressed the hell out of me. It well deserved the National Book Award. Its author did not deserve over 700 pages of an FBI file compiled originally on the basis of a suspicion that he was the "Unabomber." Nor indeed, Ted Kaczynski having been identified and arrested by then, ought he have been investigated as the source of the 2001 anthrax attacks on the basis of his spurious identification as a "former suspect." Nor indeed is it proper that he has been detained on border crossings (seven hours seated. No reading permitted. Pee only under supervision) on the strength of his "suspect" status. This is how we live now. America is a police state. Honest, it is. This can happen to anyone.

(the tagline is from Nostromo, by Joseph Conrad)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Moloch, fuck yeah!

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!
—Allen Ginsburg, Howl

There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.
—Mario Savio, speaking on the steps of Sproul Hall, 2 December, 1964

From almost half a century ago. We’ve screwed that pooch.

Researchers have established—by humane means, it is devoutly hoped—that your average frog deposited in a saucepan full of tepid water over a heating element does not in fact suffer itself to be poached. The amphibian will, if unimpeded, seek to remove itself to a cooler medium. Nevertheless, the metaphor persists because although it rests on a foundation of faulty physiology, it seems to express a truth of psychology, or sociology, or political science: we are apt as human beings to be insensitive to incremental changes, and but imperfectly responsive to the large-scale cumulative effects of these. Our froggy friends will put some distance between the hot water and themselves. We will variously fail to notice that the water has got any warmer, or to deny that warming has occurred, or that there’s anything wrong with hot water, or we will assert that hotter water is an excellent development. I’m not planning a rant about climate change here, incidentally, although these responses certainly apply. The tendency of water to boil, we are told, is an inevitable condition of the world that we are powerless to change. Oh, and look, wonderful and cunning new consumer electronics deliver us a lewd, violent, particolored popular culture at a million frames a second, so who’s got time to worry about the fucking water? Pay no attention to the energy consortia setting up shop on top of your aquifer.

I’ll be sixty-one in a month. For about as long as I’ve been paying sustained attention to public affairs, U.S. presidents have been assuring as, as though stating that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, that “America’s best days are yet to come.” When I hear that said these days, even by a president to whom I am disposed to cut some slack, why it makes my blood just, um, boil. I want to take that president, or any such president, and…ah, but how unwise it might be, tomorrow if not today, to have typed the rest of that common figure of speech. Pattern recognition software and artificial intelligence have become sophisticated enough for the NSA (which I will use going forward for the entire “security” apparatus of our swollen surveillance state) to draw some automated conclusions should this entry, by its nature a public utterance, happen to traverse their servers. So no, I’m not here to wring real or metaphorical necks, nosirree, but I do wish that going forward our elected Caesars would cut it out. The country is an empire in senescence and decline. Its treasury has been looted, its infrastructure has been allowed to rust out, its tame media (and oh, what a loathsome collection of servile courtiers the press corps has become there in Byzantium-on-the-Potomac!) is being devoured by oligarchs. The social safety nets, such as they were, have been shredded (too bad about those 401(k)s, but thanks for playing. Ka-ching!), the surviving, bloated banks are all “too big to fail”—or to prosecute, apparently—and of the two principal parties, one is underwritten by brigands playing with brownshirts and the other by responsible, incrementalist brigands. Oh, yes, and the Bill of Rights has been eviscerated. Don’t tell me that America’s best days are yet to come. Just don’t. Because unless you’re, say, Mitt Romney’s kids, those days aren’t coming, buckaroo. Not for you.

What’s that you say? I should cheer up because gay marriage and recreational pot are now legal in some jurisdictions? Bite me.

Standard disclaimer follows, in short and longer versions.

Begin short version: Middle-aged white men have been saying that the world is going to hell since forever. I know that. It does not necessarily follow that the world is not in fact going to hell. Short disclaimer ends.

Begin longer version:  I am aware, painfully aware, of the tendency for old farts to decry the declining state of the world, which once was young and green at just around the time—by jove, now I think of it, at just around the time that we were young and green as well. Also, regardless of whether we are today fifty or ninety, the very best popular music that has ever been performed or produced was released in a narrow window between approximately our fifteenth and twenty-second birthdays, following which it fell into a terminal decline that has brought us the insensate caterwauling with which the airwaves are afflicted today. I get it. My own lamentations about the sad state of the world must be evaluated in the light of many centuries of tut-tutting from the senescent and embittered.

I am aware, too, that at mid-century there will be men and women in their sixties who will look back on 2013 as a vanished golden age of comity and prosperity and real music. I hope that they frame the comparison in terms we might chuckle at, rather than along the lines of “and we ate real GMO produce then, not the roots and grubs we gather at night when we dare venture out of the bunker.” Be assured, though, that if such a dystopia lies in our future, the political leaders of 2053 will be there loudly asserting that the continent’s best days still lie ahead of it.

So with these disclaimers and stipulations out of the way, my observations of the route we’ve traced from, say, 1970 to the present day can be summed up in a pithy two words: it stinks. Things got worse (a further and specialized disclaimer relating to specific then-disenfranchised classes may be found as paragraph four of “On American Mid-Century Middlebrow,” or you can take my word for it), and life got harder—and I’m taking Nixon as the baseline here—and beginning with Reagan’s election in 1980 the nation descended into a period of oligarchic reaction from which I do not expect it to emerge in my lifetime. A third of a century into this dark age we have contrived in this country (let no one say that American ingenuity is dead!) to devise a society that combines some of the gamier elements of anarchy and authoritarianism while signally failing to deliver the putative benefits of either scheme. Longer disclaimer ends.

We now go about our daily lives under constraints on our conduct and scrutiny of our public behavior and private communications that few American adults alive in 1970 and to the left of J. Edgar Hoover then would have had any difficulty in recognizing as a quasi-totalitarian dystopia. Millions of workers submit to random drug tests as a condition of employment. Human flight, a glorious dream for millennia, we have transformed into a pointless public rite of petty humiliation, the notional purpose of which is “security” and the actual function, civic abasement. The pernicious term “enhanced interrogation” (“Verschärfte Vernehmung” in the original German) has entered the public discourse, and that torture as public policy and whether or not to employ euphemisms to describe it is even a topic to be contemplated is a measure of how depraved that discourse has become. The recent NSA revelations, and the savagery of the Obama Administration’s response to the leaks suggests that the permanent National Security State is an equal opportunity employer and the deft wielder of whichever instrument the electoral process hands it. Because I’m pretty sure that most of the people who voted for Obama in 2008 weren’t voting for the tightening of the state’s grip (I voted for Obama in 2008. In 2012 I voted for The Guy Who Wasn’t Mitt Romney. I wouldn’t take back either vote, but I’ve, you know, scaled back my expectations). It appears that Erich Honecker did not live and die in vain.

To introduce a term like “totalitarian” into discourse today is enough to elicit a certain amount of eye-rolling from the Serious People, partly because the term is also tossed around by some authentic foaming-at-the-mouth, knuckle-dragging fuckwits but largely because we’ve all gone about our business for the past several decades immersed in our private concerns or hypnotized by the shiny objects du jour (white Bronco! White House blowjobs!) while the subassemblies of today’s police state were designed, tested, deployed, refined in the service of the “war on drugs.” Many saucepans, many frogs. Some were boiled, some were burned. Hypermilitarized urban police departments field SWAT teams better armored and packing greater firepower than Charlie Company had at My Lai. And then, of course, there came the Avignon Presidency, also known as the Cheney Shogunate, and the events of 11 September 2001, which represent, it is universally acknowledged, an atrocity without precedent in the annals of villainy, an unparalleled level of suffering and destruction visited upon a blameless nation—to the side that owns the cruise missiles, asymmetric warfare will ever seem an unsportsmanlike proposition. And all those subassemblies of repression required just a few turns of a screwdriver, a little torquing of the odd bolt, to put together into the sinister, monstrous apparatus that looms over us today. And friends, I’m here to tell you that the machine is never coming down. Not in your lifetimes and not in mine. The ratchet of state authority is set ever to advance, never to relax, and we will have occasion to observe in the coming decades that the term “terrorist” is almost infinitely elastic. Ask the guards to tighten your restraints, ladies and gentlemen. It’s going to be a long, bumpy night.

Update: This just in. I defy anyone to read the linked article and tell me with a straight face that Ben Franklin would have been, you know, totally on board with this use of the post.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Apropos of nothing in particular

I watched The Lives of Others again recently, and it held up very well indeed. For anyone who missed it on its previous theatrical and home video releases, the film is set in “East” Berlin (how archaic the distinction begins to sound!) in 1984, an odd choice of era in which to depict a surveillance-obsessed society.

Playwright Georg Dreyman, a cosseted darling of the German Democratic Republic, is so obviously a socialist believer that the regime has never troubled itself to monitor him until an influential Central Committee member develops a lech for Dreyman’s girlfriend. Ferocious, über-straitlaced Stasi operative Gerd Wiesler (brilliantly—brilliantly!—depicted by the late actor Ulrich Mühe, already mortally ill during filming) is assigned to monitor the comings(!) and goings at Chez Dreyman to get the goods on the dramatist and clear the field for his powerful rival. Unfortunately for the designs of swinish Minister Hempf and of sleek Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz, Wiesler’s old classmate and now superior, their chosen instrument proves to be that dangerous tool, a true believer: a devotee of the socialist ideal as sincere as the object of his clandestine scrutiny. Slowly (and the film is masterful in conveying the gradual erosion of the spy’s zeal) a sympathy develops between the watcher and the watched, and Wiesler is by imperceptible degrees transformed from persecutor to protector.

We were visiting Seattle some years back when The Lives of Others had its theatrical release in this country, and it was playing at a small cinema near our bed & breakfast. I’d hoped to see it then, but in the event we were obliged to await its release on DVD. What I remember from that first viewing, and what particularly impressed me on the reprise, was how intelligently the ending was handled. My own sensibilities and expectations debauched by so much of the American product, I experienced a rising sense of dread during the closing minutes first time out. “Oh, no,” I thought. “Without a foot set wrong the past two hours, the director is going to ruin everything with this sentimental and obvious denouement?”

I needn’t have worried, and ought to have had more faith. Thank god that Steven Spielberg didn’t have the conn. Anyway, if you haven't seen it yet, you ought to.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Ides of March

After a youth spent in the postwar suburbs of southern California, the first time I lived in a house older than myself was in Santa Cruz. It was a rundown, ill-maintained Victorian rented out to undergraduates as individual rooms, and I didn’t care for it. I spent a summer the following year in a pleasanter house of the same vintage, but I never did warm to the Victorian feng shui. Then I moved to Oakland. I lived for fifteen years—from mid-September 1977 to mid-March 1993—in a lovely craftsman bungalow in Oakland’s tony Rockridge district. I was married when I moved in; divorced a few years, and still in shock a bit from the dreadful endgame, when I was compelled to vacate the premises twenty years ago today. I had externalized a great deal of my identity back then, about half as “husband” and the rest as “the guy with the cool old house.” It was accordingly a mere wraith that limped away from the house on Hillegass Avenue to inferior and charmless premises a few blocks distant.

Today I live in an area I would then have derided as “Baja Oakland,” in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood (and young: I confess that I regard the reliably middle-aged and prosperous sidewalk population on College Avenue as a bit more simpatico) and a house in some respects as good as and in some others better than the old place. I still regularly find myself in dreams back at Hillegass—generally in a state of panic, realizing that the new owners are due back at any moment, and that I must needs decamp.

Anyway, here’s a close re-creation of the postcard I sent out (social media being then at a somewhat primitive stage of its development) to friends announcing my forced relocation. I was feeling...ill-used.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog…” well, you know.

A great deal of highly entertaining, vastly ill-informed, largely anthropomorphic material has been written over the centuries on canine intelligence. The following entry is my modest contribution to this venerable undertaking.

Daniel Dennett, a philosopher whose work I’ve followed and admired for many years, has written extensively on the phenomenon of consciousness, and on evolution by natural selection (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, largely devoted to the latter, includes an excellent chapter on the former, enlarging on ideas earlier set forth in the audaciously-titled Consciousness Explained). He once observed (or so I would have said until a few months ago when I attempted to locate the vaguely-remembered citation) something to the effect that notwithstanding our close genetic kinship with the higher primates, it has been Canis lupus familiaris, the common dog, and not the chimp, bonobo or gorilla, that has been under intense selective pressure for the species’ last four thousand generations or so to understand human language. For at least 15,000 years, humanity has been the livelihood of the dog. Upon our toleration and goodwill the dog has relied, and these elements it has attempted to conduce after hard study. Market demographers may bring to bear more sophisticated tools to their assignments, but Rover has a good deal more fur in the game. The stakes (and the steaks, adds my own pet, anticipating this evening's table scraps) are very high.

I could be mistaken about Dennett, incidentally. Much of what I've googled as I've prepared for this essay suggests that he’s not inclined to credit Man’s Best Friend with the “intentional stance,” a term he devised to describe a form of sentience that possesses both an interior mental state and an awareness that other beings are possessed of interior mental states. Now as it happens, researchers (no doubt funded by your taxes, by the sweat of your brow, droplets of dollars that might be better funneled into the development of more lethal unmanned aircraft) have lately caught out squirrels in two different patterns of behavior as they secrete nuts against future need: if the squirrel is confident that it is unobserved by one of its fellows, it will go ahead and bury the savory treat. If it believes itself watched, however, it will go through the motions of hiding its treasure underground, but will actually leave the scene with the nut stuffed in its cheek, subsequently burying it in a location deemed more secure. This certainly looks to me like the intentional stance manifested in a brain not much larger than, well, an acorn. I’m going to guess that even a relatively stupid dog can rise to this level of abstraction.

Placed in the south forty (square yards) for the purposes of voiding his bladder or bowels, or merely patrolling the perimeter to make it inhospitable to the raccoons or possums or (shudder) families of skunks that occasionally send scouts behind the house, Ravi the family dog will signal his readiness to return to the interior by scratching politely, and lightly, on the kitchen door. If after a couple of repetitions he receives no response, he will ramp up the gesture with considerably more energy. On one occasion, when the spousette and I had retired with each of us supposing that the other had readmitted the pet, I was awakened an hour later by the violent and unprecedented clatter of dog claws on a bedroom window, suggesting to me that the creature (a) knew where we were and (b) brought to bear the intentional stance in his apparent belief that we possessed attention to be roused and that proximity was likely to be efficacious in securing that attention.

When I was a child, the prevailing notion of animals in the culture was something along the lines of Cartesian automata. They were governed by “instinct,” which alone produced flinches or howls if the creature was struck: no actual pain was experienced. Alongside this received wisdom, of course, people still spoke to their pets and lavished affection on them, but many did so while simultaneously believing that there was no one home, that they were sharing their lives with what amounted to furry appliances bereft of emotions, much less of any higher cognition. Much more recently (well, 1999) there was an article in The Atlantic (featured on the cover as “Why Does Your Dog Pretend to Like You?”) that painted the pooches as evolutionary opportunists:

If some advertiser or political consultant could figure out just what it is in human psychology that makes us willing to believe that dogs are loyal, trustworthy, selfless, loving, courageous, noble, and obedient, he could retire to his own island in the Caribbean in about a week with what he would make peddling that secret. Dogs belong to that select group of con artists at the very top of the profession, the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it. Dogs take from the rich, they take from the poor, and they keep it all. They lie on top of the air-conditioning vent in the summer; they curl up by the fireplace in the winter; they commit outrages against our property too varied and unspeakable to name. They decide when we may go to bed at night and when we must rise in the morning, where we may go on vacation and for how long, whom we may invite over to dinner, and how we should decorate our living rooms. They steal the very bread from our plates (I'm thinking here of a collie I used to have whose specialty actually was toast). If we had roommates who behaved like this, we'd be calling a lawyer, or the police.

I approach the subject of dog sensibilities without professional credential. I’ve shared quarters with canines for about twenty-five years out of the four-plus decades since I left the parental premises to seek my fortune—an elusive target, to be sure—and have derived considerable moral improvement from the experience. I could wish, looking back, that as a young man I’d been more attentive to the needs of Takoma (1971-1985; a series of common roofs during the latter nine years of his span), a preternaturally intelligent husky/border collie/Australian shepherd mix, and if I peer into the remote reaches of mid-adolescence there was Sam, an amiable mongrel of scrambled pedigree, who was devoted to me during our twenty months’ association. My post-nuclear family was a very unstable isotope in the mid-sixties, and another in a series of covalent cataclysms separated Sam and me forever in 1968.

I acquired Takoma, AKA “Tako,” by marriage in 1976. The poor dog expired early in 1985 after an abbreviated but harrowing decline, and the marriage followed suit the following year in a somewhat more prolonged but comparably grim endgame. I still tell the story of how one afternoon about a third of a century ago Tako approached me in my study—I was at work in those days on a novel for which I then still held high hopes—and repeatedly nudged my elbow. Well, that was properly the muse's place, and I brusquely ignored the dog with mounting irritation until he went to the kitchen, retrieved a spent tin of catfood from the trash, returned to the study and dropped the can with a clatter at my feet: looked at me, looked pointedly down, looked at me again. It occurred to me at that point that the creature had not eaten all day owing to my neglect, the spousette being out of town for the weekend, of the standard feeding drill. This is of course anecdotal evidence only, but it seems to me at least to imply an intentional stance, and then some.

Much more consistent attention was paid to Napalm (1993-2011; described elsewhere in this blog), whose behavior first led me to posit the (metaphorical) existence of a canine “language module,” an abstraction level spun up upon receipt of a human signal that verbal interaction impends. We used to joke that Napalm could parse moderately complex English sentences once he was convinced that table scraps were in play. I do believe that my hypothetical language module, requiring as it does in my model a certain expenditure of energy on the part of the dog, might explain in part the episodes of canine deafness with which we’re all familiar. Dogs are method actors: “what’s my motivation?” indeed. Ravi, then about a year old, joined the household at the end of 2008, and I have observed him perhaps too closely for any pretense of objectivity. It’s impossible for me not to be sentimental about him, but I don’t believe that familiarity has utterly debauched my critical faculties. I’ll report, you deride.

Tone of voice, physical presence, eye contact and body language probably precede phonemes. Ravi will lie at one end of the dining room during a dinner party, and the conversation will be background noise merely to him. No words will register. We adopt a special tone (at least half an octave higher than the normal conversational timbre in my case) in addressing him, and this appears to be processed as a signal for attention: the language module spins up. Usually an early phrase directed at the dog is either “Ravi?” (put language module in fifth gear!) and/or “Do you want…?”

Do you want is taken, I suspect, as a single unit of meaning, signifying to the dog that what follows the magic syllables is a proposition. Poor old Takoma well understood the difference between the subsequent “…go outside” (the back yard) and “go for a walk” (out to crap in Safeway’s ivy on Claremont Avenue) and would cower in the former instance or head enthusiastically for the vestibule in the latter. The late Napalm processed the phrase in like fashion, as does Ravi.

Ravi has only to hear the word “walk” pronounced with the appropriate inflection, or to see one of his leashes held up for his inspection in order to know that an excursion impends. He understands “treat” and “Happy Hips” (the brand name of a particularly coveted doggie delight—I speak it aloud when he dawdles returning from an excursion, and he tends to pick up the pace unless there’s a particularly provocative piece of pee-mail still being processed). On walks, which we undertake leashless wherever this is practical, he responds appropriately to “heel,” “hold it” and “wait for me” (urgency of tone is a factor in each case). Lina has been working to get him to process “go left” and “go right”; I remain as yet unconvinced that she’s made much progress toward that end (I think he’s responding much more to nonverbal cues here).

Let’s return for a moment to the Cartesian automata model to which I alluded above. Those who hold that dogs do not or cannot rise to the level of the intentional stance at least have the significant differences between primate and canine brains to back them up. But primal feelings? Rage, fear, anticipation, excitement, lust, pain—yes, and sorrow, and love—don’t these reach us from deeper substrates of our layered grey matter? The appreciation of a sonata (I do not, incidentally, believe that dogs process music, for reasons I may enlarge upon anon) engages our high-level processing, but grief? Loneliness? Shame? These may be mediated and experienced through higher levels of human consciousness, but they emanate from buried structures we share with our pets and, for that matter, with the beasts we carnivorous hominids routinely consume (another topic for a future blog entry).

Ultimately I think it matters less whether dogs actually understand our words—I believe that Ravi does, and there is experimental evidence to suggest that one particularly brilliant border collie (a breed universally acknowledged to occupy the upper reaches of canine cognition) has not merely mastered a vocabulary of over a thousand words, but can also process the rudiments (verb-subject) of grammar—than whether a spectrum interspecies communication that extends to a level of abstraction, language forming one band of this spectrum, is taking place. If it is, then something remarkable has occurred over the millennia, a development that eluded the grasp of the author of “Why Does Your Dog Pretend to Like You?” fourteen years ago. We have established a kind of communion, on a fairly sophisticated level, with an intelligent representative of the animals (there are others, of course. I believe that the connection with domestic cats is conducted at a significantly lower level of abstraction. I can’t speak from experience of horses or livestock), and at least among societies that can afford a class prosperous and indulgent enough to support household pets we have a population of, well, quislings. We humans are so routinely callous in our depredations upon the other animal species of this planet that if they were magically raised to sentience, their vision of the demonic would certainly take two-legged form. We have invaded and now occupy the planet as harshly and proudly as ever Nazis lorded over France, and yet…here there trot at our heels our very own collaborators, who may not have welcomed the human hegemony at the outset, but who have bound their fates with us and even (heaven help!) love us. We have an obligation to be kind to them, don’t you think?