21 October 2013

Doubleplusgood duckspeakers

Sarah Palin just delivered a striking example of her rhetorical style.

I strongly recommend watching the video to see and hear her delivery, even though I'm providing a transcript of most of it below.

In transcribing Palin's comments I've added a number of line breaks. This invites comparisons to Hart Seely's unforgettable setting of Donald Rumsfeld's speeches into free verse, and William Shatner's rendering of Palin's speeches in the style of Beat poetry, but that's not my intent. I don't want to laugh at this. I want to reveal the structure of her argument. Yes, there is one.

(In using this technique, I should acknowledge my debt to Mark Crispin Miller, whose book The Bush Dyslexicon demonstrates the power of looking closely at transcripts of politicians' comments.)

Responding from a report that President Obama had said that “nothing has done more damage to our credibility in the world and our standing with other countries than this recent DC fight” over the budget, government shutdown, and House Republican refusal to raise the debt limit:

what emboldened our enemies and
what empowered competitors was

his promise to
fundamentally transform America
from being
a solvent, free, exceptional country
something we’re not gonna recognize

also, what has
emboldened enemies is he with

doubling of our debt since he’s been elected
putting us on a path towards bankruptcy

and then

locking up pipelines and resources
that will result in us being more reliant on
foreign imports for energy

and then of course he having

left behind
his administration
left behind
our brave men
in Benghazi
to be murdered

and then of course there's

where he promised to
bomb Syria
because in that civil war
Syria was going to bomb Syria
and then we never heard another word again
about his threat to
bomb in a foreign civil war

and then of course most recently, Megyn, he

using our military
those who would fight against our enemies
our military
our vets
shutting down their memorials
holding them hostage in terms of budget deals
threatening to withhold paychecks
for our brave men and women

as for
economic competitors:
corporate tax rates
second highest in the industrialized world
that empowers
our competitors

You may have trouble following Palin not only because of the way her arguments jump around, but also because they are almost all incomplete. To decode them, you need to know that they are allusions to right-wing talking points. Take, for example, the allusion to President Obama's “promise to fundamentally transform America”: that's an allusion to a perfectly ordinary campaign speech from Obama shortly before the 2008 election which right wingers relentlessly quote out-of-context to claim that it reveals his sinister plans.

So how does this work? Does Palin just “get lost in a corn maze”, as Tina Fey memorably described the Katie Couric interview she quoted verbatim in one of her spoofs of the Alaska governor? Check out that segment:

That's why I say I, like every American I'm speaking with, we're ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the tax payers looking to bail out, but ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the healthcare reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping tho— it's got to be all about job creation too, shoring up our economy, and putting it back on the right track, so healthcare reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as— competitive— scary thing, but one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we've got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is a part of that.

I submit that this is not just clumsiness. This is a method, if not necessarily a conscious one.

Mike the Mad Biologist has an excellent and chilling examination of this in his essay Misunderstanding Palin and ‘Palinism’:

I think the fixation people have on Palin’s complete policy incoherence and ignorance is missing the point.
Her policy ignorance isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.
In this way, symbols and short phrases are the goal, not a means (although others, such as corporations and lobbyists, are willing to co-opt the emotions these symbols generate to further their own agendas).

I want to go a step colder.

From “The Principles of Newspeak”, in the appendix of George Orwell's novel 1984:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.
Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.
The intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness.

For the purposes of everyday life it was no doubt necessary, or sometimes necessary, to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgment should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets. His training fitted him to do this, the language gave him an almost foolproof instrument
Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning ‘to quack like a duck’. Like various other words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when The Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.

Informed by that, I offer two more long quotes from the that appearance by Governor Palin shown in the clip up top.

Responding to polls suggesting that the budget crisis hurt Republicans enough that it might cost them the House of Representatives in the next election:

people who see the way that
I and Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and
a whole lot of other Americans see

that we are

Taxed Enough Already
of course
that's the acronym for the TEA party movement
we're Taxed Enough Already

and we believe that

the Constitution
that's the blueprint
that leads us
toward a more perfect Union


we will fight very strong
for that

so if the GOP is standing strong
on the planks and the platform
that represents
everything that I just mentioned
if we stand united
well then we
won't lose the House
and we
could even win back the Senate

I tell ya

fiscal conservatives
more energized than ever

after last night's bill
Americans came out as the losers
we're just going to
incur more and more debt
unsustainable spending spree that
Barack Obama is on


we're saying
enough is enough
we are energized

Asked about primary challenges within the Republican party in the next Congressional election:

here's the deal
what we're talking about right now is

the enemy of America's
economic freedom
is this
fundamental transformation of America

the enemy of the enemy is my friend
is any commonsense conservative's friend

so we do have to consider
a politician's record
truly what it is they intend to do
to stop this
fundamental transformation
and to
this stripping away of
our economic freedom


those who can't stand strong
to defend our Republic
to defend our Constitution

heck yeah, they've got to be primaried

otherwise we're going down


Journalists are poking fun at some duckspeaking from Donald Trump. I've included a little bracketed connective tissue to clarify the flow in the mind of the approving listener.

having nuclear

my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer
  • Dr. John Trump at MIT
  • [we have] good genes, very good genes
OK [my uncle and I are]
  • very smart
  • the Wharton School of Finance
  • very good
  • very smart

you know (if you’re a conservative Republican):

if I were a liberal
(if like, OK)
if I ran as a liberal Democrat
they would say I'm “one of the smartest people anywhere in the world”
(it’s true)
when you're a conservative Republican
they try
[to accuse you of being dumb]
oh do they do a number
that’s why I always start off:
  • went to Wharton
  • was a good student
  • went there
  • went there
  • did this
  • built a fortune
you know I have to give my like credentials all the time
because we’re a little disadvantaged
[because liberals accuse you of being dumb]


you look at the nuclear deal
[that Obama foolishly made with Iran]
the thing that really bothers me:
it would have been so easy [to do better]

it’s not as important as these lives are

nuclear is powerful
my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago
the power [of nuclear]
(and that was 35 years ago)
he would explain the power
of what's going to happen
[because the Iranians outsmarted Obama]
he was right

(who would have thought?)
[that my uncle was smart enough to anticipate Obama]

when you look at what's going on
with the four prisoners now
[Americans held by Iran]
(it used to be three, now it’s four)
(when it was three, and even now)
I would have said
“it's all in the [Iranian] messenger, fellas”

it is fellas
you know they don't
they [the Iranians]
haven’t figured that
the women are smarter right now than the men
[women earn more college degrees than men in the US]
[unlike the barbaric Iranians who mistreat women]
so you know
it’s gonna take them about another 150 years
[for Iran to catch up with the enlightened West]


the Persians are great negotiators
the Iranians are great negotiators
so (and)
they they just killed
they just killed us
[because Obama is a weak negotiator, unlike me]

Trump does not speak as much in winks toward rightwing media talking points as Palin does, but he does appeal to rightwing sentiments very succinctly without building an argument.

I note that both Palin and Trump are both regarded by their supporters as telling plain truths that ordinary politicians avoid.


And now we have Palin endorsing Trump.

Color me unsurprised. There is a pattern here.


The Nerdist has a crackerjack video looking closely at the way Trump talks.

Emily of the State <@EmilyGorcenski> has a tweetstorm on Trump's language toward the same point.

Trump doesn't speak in full, coherent sentences, because he's speaking a different language, one his followers understand but we don't.
It's fascinating in a “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” sense. He begins a clause, and finishes it with nonsense filler words.
But his followers have already used their bias to fill in meaning.
“You look at what happened in Sweden last night, they took in large numbers, they're having problems they never though possible.”
This isn't a sentence. It's three sentence fragments strung together that only make sense if you fill in meaning.
Sweden didn't take in large numbers of anything the night before, nor did they have problems taking in large numbers. No, this is innuendo.
And none of us know what it's supposed to mean because we're trying to reconstruct logical sentences, and not filling in with our biases.
The sentence makes perfect sense to his followers. A large number of muslim refugees caused problems that the lying media isn't reporting.
This style of speaking reinforces the biases of the listener, that's why it's so dangerous. We can't treat it as if Obama is speaking ConLaw.
Trump “says it like it is” by saying the first part of a thought and letting the listener fill in the rest. Exactly as it is in their mind.

Alexandra Erin has another long tweet thread using Trump's 2017 CPAC keynote as a way to look at his rhetorical style. A taste:

He's not making points, he's hitting notes of a familiar tune. Their brain fills in the rest of the song and dance.
People on Donald Trump's side have an amazing capability to believe that Donald Trump is on their side.
They can listen to him say three different opposing things, and if they even *register* the ones they disagree with, they assume it's smoke.
“He was B.S.-ing those other people. It's all just politics. He has to say that. But he meant it when he promised me ________.”
But a lot of them? Don't even register that he's saying anything inconsistent. They have classed him in their heads as on their side.
He always talk about the “winning again” in conjunction with war. He doesn't think we've won enough wars, he wants to win some.

@MadAlgorithm on the kind of rightwing conspiracy theories which are often the basis of duckspeaking allusions.

Most right wing conspiracies are meant to do two things. One distract and waste the time of left wing respondents. Two instill urban mythos that may be built upon and drawn upon later.
As long as the false narrative perpetuates w/o dying out it can be used. Particularly as out of nowhere rhetorical "gotchas!" Once it has ceased to be surprising or distracting, it can be dumped down the memory hole.
The false narrative is not meant to survive. They are created at high rates. Most die without ever catching public attention. Some do. It is by whatever is expedient and keeps eyes off of the real con.
There's also the facet wherein such urban mythos maybe brought up in discussion or formal political debate only to be denied as obviously false by the very same people who perpetuate it pretending they don't know what it is.
There is a kind of tactic in use where the utterance of the urban mythos is a political brinkmanship and an application of widescale, distributed gaslighting. bringing it up makes the utter seem deranged & vulnerable to be portrayed as such.
Indirectly, the mass manufacture of urban mythos in this form also serves to provide cover to the actual harebrained schemes that come out of the regressives.
Trump, the GOP, and the Russian collaboration being one such example. Which is a global industry predicated entirely on the business of just this.

The Weekly Sift talks about some related questions in Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric:

In spite of its books and intellectuals, Evangelical Christianity is fundamentally an oral culture. Trumpist conservatism is built on top of it. One of the challenges conservative Christians have faced since pledging their allegiance to Trump is how to justify supporting a man who has literally no Christian virtues, and who appears to understand nothing about the Christian religion.
That’s how oral culture works: This is the story we’re in, so we should do these things. No principles of action are being proposed, so you can’t argue about it in a Socratic sense. It arises from a process of community discernment, not a process of logical thought.

I quite like that analysis because it implicitly recognizes how this kind of oral culture and community discernment does have significant virgues which we have good reasons to respect, even while we also have cause to have frustration with it and opposition to it.

The Atlantic has an article around a similar theme: How Fox News Became A Language:

Political theorists, over the years, have looked for metaphors to describe the effects that Fox—particularly its widely watched opinion shows—has had on American politics and culture. They’ve talked about the network as an “information silo” and “a filter bubble” and an “echo chamber,” as an “alternate reality” constructed of “alternative facts,” as a virus on the body politic, as an organ of the state. The comparisons are all correct. But they don’t quite capture what the elegies for Fox-felled loved ones express so efficiently. Fox, for many of its fans, is an identity shaped by an ever-expanding lexicon: mob, PC police, Russiagate, deep state, MSM, MS-13, socialist agenda, Dems, libs, Benghazi, hordes, hoax, dirty, violent, invasion, open borders, anarchy, liberty, Donald Trump. Fox has two pronouns, you and they, and one tone: indignation. (You are under attack; they are the attackers.) Its grammar is grievance. Its effect is totalizing. Over time, if you watch enough Fox & Friends or The Five or Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, you will come to understand, as a matter of synaptic impulse, that immigrants are invading and the mob is coming and the news is lying and Trump alone can fix it.

Language, too, is a norm. It is one more shared fact of political life that can seem self-evident until someone like Trump, or something like Fox, reveals the fragility that was there all along. You might have observed, lately, how Americans seem always to be talking past one another—how we’re failing one another even at the level of our vernacular. In the America of 2020, socialismcould suggest “Sweden-style social safety net” or “looming threat to liberty.” Journalist could suggest “a person whose job is to report the news of the day” or “enemy of the people.” Cancel culture could mean … actually, I have no idea at all what cancel culture means at this point. Fox, on its own, did not create that confusion. But it exacerbated it, and exploited it. The network turned its translations of the world into a business model. Every day, the most watched shows of the most watched cable network in the country—a prime-time destination more popular than ESPN—take the familiar idioms of American democracy and wear away at their common meanings. The result is disorientation. The result is mass suspicion. Like a vengeful God bringing chaos to Babel, Fox has helped to create a nation of people who share everything but the ability to talk with one another.

18 October 2013

Grant Morrison's Caterpillar

I've heard him use this metaphor a few times, and it's intriguing. Here's him talking about it in a Wired magazine interview.

My positive view of it is that maybe we walked ourselves into the darkness. We’re consuming resources in the same way a caterpillar consumes its resources, by devouring the leaf that it lives upon. If we are part of a natural, emerging process, then maybe that process knows what it is doing. Maybe the way humans are fusing with technology is part of the growth, and we may not manage to exhaust the planet. The planet is a big thing. It has survived several massive extinctions, and still managed to come back. Of course, it’s not the planet that we have to worry about. It’s us. But we’re turning into something else, and I can see the bleeding edge of that transformation in the way we’re bonding with our communications technology.

But, you know, I’m willing to consider the bleak alternative. Maybe humans are a kind of planetary cancer, something that’s gone wrong. Maybe we’re all of us vile monsters, including our moms and the Dalai Lama. I think that’s a way of looking at humanity that came about after World War II, an existentialist, nihilistic view which has persisted for a long time, helped along by the media. And it may not be true. We still don’t know. But that doesn’t mean that we all shouldn’t campaign and do our best to use resources intelligently. That doesn’t mean we stop being political, but it should always be taken into account that self-lacerating guilt isn’t improving anything either.

I’ve been accused of encouraging apolitical apathy by some critics but they’re generally people who have no intention of getting up off their own arses to make things better anyway. I agree that oil companies should be brought to account if their plans to rape the Antarctic affect our future well-being but I have a feeling that much larger processes are working themselves out. The self-aggrandizing idea that humans are somehow different from the rest of the natural world continues to cause us no end of problems.

17 October 2013

Gender garment dissonance

A collection called Crossings on Pinterest. Just because.

The secret origin of white people

This is more like notes toward a post rather than a proper blog post. I have these links burning a hole in my pocket and want a place to put them.

It starts with an essay Yo, Pundits! Here’s What’s Up With the Republicans, which submits that the two tribes of American politics thesis which many people (including me) tend to favor is too simple. Drawing upon David Hackett Fischer’s book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, it says that what is now the backbone of the Republican party is grounded in the Borderer ethnic group from the Scots-English highlands.

The more we study the Borderers’ folkways in Britain and in America, the more we see how thoroughly the Republican Party has adopted this culture's worldview and purged itself of incompatible elements.

To begin with, right-wing authoritarianism has fertile soil in two aspects of Borderer rank ways: “tanistry” and “macocracy.” Tanistry is the selection of a “thane,” or warlord, to lead a clan. “By the rule of tanistry, one man [⋯] was chosen to head the family: he who was strongest, toughest and most cunning,” Fischer writes. “The winner became the elder of his family or clan, and was honored with deference and deep respect. The losers were degraded and despised” (694). The Borderers had no fixed social order, and they treated all outsiders alike, with what was seen as “insolence,” “impudence,” “forwardness,” “familiarity,” “unruliness,” “licentiousness” and “pride” (755)
“Macocracy” is a coinage derived from the “Mac-” prefix on the names of Scottish clans, defined by Fischer as “a structure of highly personal politics without deference to social rank”. In other words, it's not a man's title that gives him power, but rather his personal leadership and ability to influence others. Charismatic leaders drew fanatical personal followings among Borderers, who placed a heavy premium on personal loyalty. We see this in elected officials' deference to media figures such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, to organizational leaders such as James Dobson and to political operatives such as Karl Rove.
Also, Borderer culture was intensely conformist. Those who broke the rules of Borderer society were “hated out,” or ostracized; “;[d]eviance from cultural norms was rarely tolerated[, and] opposition was suppressed by force” (781). The Borderers’ libertarian conception of freedom did not include the right to disagree or dissent.

This combination of cultural factors produces a political culture in which people can take marching orders and “talking points” and follow them day in and day out without deviation
Today’s Republican Party tolerates inequality of wealth because Borderers have historically experienced more of it than any other culture in America.

The historical quotes describing Borderer culture are striking in how contemporary and fresh they seem. This stuff dates back to the colonial experience before white racial identity was invented.

It brings to mind an old favorite of mine, the screed Revenge Of The Mutt People from Joe Bageant which I have blogged before.

We the mutt faced sons and daughters of the republic. Born to kick your chicken breast meat to death for you in the darkest, most dismal corners of our great land, born to kill and be killed in stock car races, drunken domestic rows, and of course in the desert dusty back streets at the edges of the empire. Middle class urban liberals may never claim us as brothers, much less willing servants, but as they say in prison, we are your meat. We do your bidding. Your refusal to admit that we do your dirty work for you, not to mention the international smackdowns and muggings for the republic — from which you benefit more materially than we ever will — makes it no less true.
With the “fighting tradition” of Scots Irish behind us, we smashed upon each other ceaselessly in trailer court and tavern, night and day in rain and summer heat until finally, we reach our mid-fifties and lose our enthusiasm (not to mention stamina) for that most venerated of borderer sports.
liberal refusal to see white people as also being diverse, and seeing that some of them indeed need their own sort of affirmative action is exactly the kind of thing that helped the neocons lead these working white people by the nose


I found some lively criticism of Albion’s Seed

Fischer creates a Frankenstein’s monster of “Borderers” out of bits and pieces of anecdote of specific events from the 18th to 20th centuries, mostly getting his methodology and analysis directly from pre-1920 sources, and ignoring most research contemporary to his own publication. His section on “Borderers” is meant to create an image of a race of uncivilized whites who are habitually violent, chaotic, stupid, and resist attempts by others to “civilize” them, when in fact the Scots-Irish often sought integration, while rural, poor Appalachianers were more often the victims of violence from these supposedly civilized groups. While Albion’s Seed was initially hailed in popular and academic reviews, when people looked closer as I did, they began to see that the “Borderers” section is one big fib.

… where, unusually, replies to the post are worth digging into … though I have a huge caveat about the commenting community.

Aaron Barlow at Academe Blog has a related post Want to Understand the Tea Party? Look to How They See Themselves:

These are primarily people of European ancestry who see themselves as simply “American,” with no ties to other nations or other cultures. They do not descend from post-Civil War immigration; ties to any “old country” were broken long ago, probably even before the age of steam. Many of them are associated with the Borderer culture that rose between Scotland and England and that was hardened on Ulster Plantation in the 17th century, either by descent or incorporation–and all of them see themselves as being the “real” Americans who created the United States.

They do not feel that they have been treated well by the federal government, of late. In fact, they may never have felt themselves treated well (they were the rebels of the War of the Regulation in the 1760s and the Whiskey Rebellion thirty years later–not to mention, many were the stalwarts of the Confederate States of America, though few would have been counted among the rich slave owners).

Colin Woodard’s “Eleven Nations” thesis

In his book Eleven Nations, an elaborate website, and countless articles, Colin Woodard argues for several distinct North American cultures with geographies which emerge from our history. In an article about the surprising geography of gun violence he starts with a good capsule summary:

The reasons for these disparities go beyond modern policy differences and extend back to events that predate not only the American party system but the advent of shotguns, revolvers, ammunition cartridges, breach-loaded rifles and the American republic itself. The geography of gun violence — and public and elite ideas about how it should be addressed — is the result of differences at once regional, cultural and historical. Once you understand how the country was colonized — and by whom — a number of insights into the problem are revealed.

Those colonial projects — Puritan-controlled New England, the Dutch-settled area around what is now New York City; the Quaker-founded Delaware Valley; the Scots-Irish-led upland backcountry of the Appalachians; the West Indies-style slave society in the Deep South; the Spanish project in the southwest and so on — had different ethnographic, religious, economic and ideological characteristics. They were rivals and sometimes enemies, with even the British ones lining up on opposite sides of conflicts like the English Civil War in the 1640s. They settled much of the eastern half and southwestern third of what is now the U.S. in mutually exclusive settlement bands before significant third party in-migration picked up steam in the 1840s.


In the process they laid down the institutions, symbols, cultural norms and ideas about freedom, honor and violence that later arrivals would encounter and, by and large, assimilate into. Some states lie entirely or almost entirely within one of these regional cultures, others are split between them, propelling constant and profound disagreements on politics and policy alike in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, California and Oregon.

Another article, Up In Arms also explores the connection between these different cultures and their implications for guns, violence, and contemporary politics.

Among the eleven regional cultures, there are two superpowers, nations with the identity, mission, and numbers to shape continental debate: Yankeedom and Deep South. For more than two hundred years, they’ve fought for control of the federal government and, in a sense, the nation’s soul. Over the decades, Deep South has become strongly allied with Greater Appalachia and Tidewater, and more tenuously with the Far West. Their combined agenda—to slash taxes, regulations, social services, and federal powers—is opposed by a Yankee-led bloc that includes New Netherland and the Left Coast. Other nations, especially the Midlands and El Norte, often hold the swing vote, whether in a presidential election or a congressional battle over health care reform. Those swing nations stand to play a decisive role on violence-related issues as well.

More on “Real Americans”

I realized that I should just consolidate this post with another post of links & quotes I originally did a week earlier:

The group of Americans we currently call the Tea Party believe that they are the only real Americans. When they wail that “our country is being taken away”, their conception of “us” does not include people who are not in their group.

Matt Taibbi in The Truth About the Tea Party:

It would be inaccurate to say the Tea Partiers are racists. What they are, in truth, are narcissists. They’re completely blind to how offensive the very nature of their rhetoric is to the rest of the country. I’m an ordinary middle-aged guy who pays taxes and lives in the suburbs with his wife and dog — and I’m a radical communist? I don't love my country? I'm a redcoat? Fuck you! These are the kinds of thoughts that go through your head as you listen to Tea Partiers expound at awesome length upon their cultural victimhood, surrounded as they are by America-haters like you and me or, in the case of foreign-born president Barack Obama, people who are literally not Americans in the way they are.

Mike the Mad Biologist points to the proto-fascist note here in Misunderstanding Palin and ‘Palinism’: It’s the Politics of the Blood:

Her policy ignorance isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Palin is conceptually and intellectually poor because her politics are not about policies, but a romantic restoration of the ‘real’ America to its rightful place. The primary purpose of politics is not to govern, not to provide services, and not to solve mundane, although often important, problems. For the Palinist, politics first and foremost exists to enable the social restoration of ‘real’ Americans (think about the phrase “red blooded American”) and the emotional and social advantages that restoration would provide to its followers (obviously, if you’re not a ‘real’ American, you might view this as a bad thing…). Practicalities of governance, such as compromise and worrying about reality-based outcomes, actually get in the way. Why risk having your fantasy muddied by reality?

Robert DeNiro’s film The Good Shepherd (content warning — bigoted character saying racist things):

Let me ask you something. We Italians, we got our families and we got the Church. The Irish, they have the homeland. The Jews, their tradition. Even the n****rs, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Carlson? What do you have?

The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

A linkrotted Billmon Twitter thread on herrenvolk democracy:

In a U.S. context, I take “herrenvolk democracy” to mean the sacred principle that all white people (or at least, white men) are equal. [⋯] But key insight I finally had about US herrenvolk democracy (& why our politics is so peculiarly poisonous) is: it’s not just about race. To the populist right wing, liberals — like blacks, Hispanics, gays, Muslims, etc. etc. — aren’t “white.” Not part of the volk. Not “real Americans.” Which means that for the populist right wing, democratic rule by a liberal president (really, any big D Democrat) is a contradiction in terms.

Jim Henley on conservative indifference to Russian election tampering in the US:

Kurt Eichenwald < @kurteichenwald > 11:44 AM - 23 Jun 2017

How does GOP not get Russia cyberattack is NOT about Trump? It is about a foreign power undermining American democracy.


Let's talk about what we’re up against here. The GOP doesn’t think they betrayed America because they don’t think we are Americans.

Conservatives have expressed their conviction that they constitute “America” for decades.

They call where they live “Real America.”

James Watt said, I don’t talk about Democrats and Republicans. I talk about liberals and Americans.

The House Unamerican Activities Committee began “investigating” leftists in the 30s.

The American Legion began as a proto-fascist paramilitary group after WWI. They broke strikes & black heads.

Thank God No One In America Can Remember Anything About Anything Ever

To the hard-core conservative, the rest of us are in America, but that doesn’t mean we are Americans. We are not white enough, or straight enough, or well-off enough, or we pray wrong, or don’t pray. We love the wrong sort of “freedom.” The GOP, from base to pinnacle, thinks they are the country.

Therefore, if Russia is helping the GOP, Russia is helping America. To Republicans, the GOP = Real America so Russian aid & comfort to Republican Party can’t be treason by definition.

And at bottom, nothing about this should surprise us. The US national security complex has done the same thing in other countries for decades. The US intelligence community always finds someone willing to take the money and accept the help. Those people don’t believe they’re “betraying their country.” (For the most part.) Some of them even really have been forces for local good. Others, let’s say not. But someone accepts the help.

Now we get to see it happening in the other direction. My point isn’t “we desurv it lol.” My point isn’t even “UR dumb 2B surprized.” My point is, we could wait a very long time for the GOP to be outraged at treason they don't consider treason.

Of course we deserve it BTW. “The judgments of the Almighty are true and righteous altogether.” I don’t care.

Turnabout is fair play, but that doesn’t mean I want to be on the wrong end of a global white, patriarchal counter-revolution. I don’t want to watch poor folks, black & brown folks, queer folks & others have their lives further blighted to prove a point. Putin’s Russia is the nexus of an international revanchist movement and I want no part of it — not because it’s Russian. Because it sucks.

But to the Republican Party, white revanchism is America. Plutocracy is America. The authority of bosses & dads is America.

What the Trump campaign & GOP congressional leaders abetted may be treason against the America that exists, but not the one in their hearts.

Therefore, do not anticipate them getting unduly upset about Russian “meddling.” To them, Putin isn’t the foreign power.

We are.

16 October 2013

Evil libertarian grandfathers

In the course of a commentary on Hayek's love for Pinochet, Corey Robin gives us this quote from Mises:

It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history.

The Market is a cruel god

From Thomas Frank's One Market Under God, a summa of market triumphalists' “good cop, bad cop” routine.

The market will give you a voice, empower you to do whatever you want to do, and if you have any doubts about that, then the market will crush you and everything you’ve ever known.

13 October 2013

Buddy Holly

“Fun Guy From Lubbock”: If you don't get the joke, never mind.

Real Americans

I decided to consolidate this post with the secret origin of white people post I made less than a week later.

12 October 2013



A more personal word about me than I ordinarily post here, connected to some cultural politics I consider more interesting than my own story. There was no talking about the one side without the other, and no saying it any shorter, so here it is as well as I can say it at the moment.

I do not know that I feel a need for anybody to read it. But having succumbed to a Twitter rant, I needed to revisit this a bit more properly.

My Twitter rant was sparked by a young trans person encouraging middle-aged people to come out as trans, even late in life.

I am not trans. I understand myself as a cishet man.

But saying that is a best-first-approximation with some weirdness around the edges. I wish I had better language for talking about how that is a bit fraught. Just naming it at all requires getting more long-winded than I think those complications merit. And I also think it is irresponsible to leave it unnamed. So here we are.

At the time I write this I am a bit over fifty years old. I have sunk costs in a gender identity which formed under very different conditions than the world we have now.

I was assigned male at birth and while masculinity has never sat quite right on me, I do not experience dysphoria, nor do I have a strong inner sense that I am not a man but something else.

I just find masculinity kind of dumb.

I imagine that someone born in 1996 in analagous conditions to the ones I grew up in, someone built on the same frame as me, likely might understand themself as an nonbinary demiguy, perhaps saying My Gender Is No or some such.

But that is not me. I am a product of a different world. I have a little pang of envy for the Youngs who have better vocabularies to work with than I did when I was their age, who can work out who they are in a world which offers these to them. The Youngs are magnificent and are doing a great job and I am there for them 100%. It is a victory that they simply cannot imagine the world I grew up in, in which I was exceptional in having a handful of queer friends who were out to me but could not even conceive of someone Out at large as a possibility. The current vocabulary of nonbinary idenity, or even trans identity at large, simply did not exist.

They told me I was a boy, so I found a kind of boy to be. I made a peace with it which worked well enough. I have worn long hair with a coat & tie for three decades now; “eccentric dandified man” has served me very well in a lot of ways. It should be evident I am not just talking about grooming, yes? A friend used to say that I was the only man she knew who dressed as a man and had it read like drag. It reflects a whole way of interacting with the world and its gendered understandings, a way of performing myself, a way of understanding myself. I developed hard-won skills in a certain masculinity I built for myself.

Again, this does not come from a strong draw to a different gender than I was told I was supposed to inhabit. I felt — and still feel — weakly gendered. When advocates for trans liberation say “imagine if everyone insisted that you were the other gender”, I find myself thinking, “well that doesn’t sound any worse”. I would have found a way to roll with that.

So with all that, saying I am simply a cis man in a world with better vocabularies feels a bit dishonest but I still have to count myself a cis man. “Sunk cost gender identity” is not just a joke. Do I have the time and patience to figure out something new?

When I was young, I was scrawny and soft and poorly socialized in masculinity. When I performed masculinity people were not easily convinced; they scented something different on me. Now I am flabby and beefy and my middle-aged hormone cocktail reads on my face. Masculinity has gone from hard to sell to hard to avoid. There is a way in which it is a relief for me that I have less performative work to do to read with a gender that civilians understand. Indeed, there are many people who read me as very masculine; that does not feel like they have read me wrong, but rather like I have gotten away with something. It aligns with skills which I invested time and energy to develop.

I am old and my limbs are stiff, but hardwon skill at a distinctive way of dancing masculinity means I can do those steps. I cannot easily pick up a new dance with my gender identity & performance the same way limber young people can. And that is not just about naming it to the world; that is about naming it to myself. My sense of myself is threaded with the experiences I have had moving through the world presenting and understanding myself as a man.

I move in circles where people have been introducing themselves with their pronouns for long enough that my “he or they” has now shifted in implications a couple of times ... and each round has suited me. If I get read as a fella, it feels like a victory. If I don’t get read as a fella? That too feels like a victory.

And. I want to be careful about cultural politics.

A decade ago, I wrote about how in the 1990s, there was a school of thought in queer liberation which framed “queer” as a cultural and political position, such that one could be gay or lesbian but not queer, implying that perhaps there were ways to even be cisgender (though we did not yet have that term) and heterosexual yet also queer. That formulation of “queer” disappeared, but it was and is important to me for a host of reasons, not only in suiting my ambivalences about how to talk about myself. In retrospect it is obvious that a big part of what I was writing about then was non-binary gender identity which we did not yet have well-developed vocabulary to describe. So I wrote that I counted myself a little bit queer, in that old sense. (You can find that essay further down this page.)

For a time, I shared that essay around. Many people found that it reflected something they recognized in themselves. But I do not circulate it any more, after an exchange with people who hated it, taking it as appropriating the word “queer”, taking me as shouldering my way into queer spaces, evading the responsibility I bear in occuping a place of cisgender & heterosexual privilege. I had tried to avoid exactly those errors. I was stung by the harshness of the responses. But my feelings are less important than how that response reflected that people were hurt by what I wrote — people I want to support, including people I knew personally. The essay is still up on this site not because I stand behind it but to hold myself accountable for the ways in which it stepped wrong.

It is no good to name myself with a word if it hurts people who need that word more than I do.

But no other words at hand entirely hit the mark.

I need something else.

It feels dishonest to say that I simply am a cis man. I hope I have made clear why it also feels inaccurate for me to say that I am non-binary.

And having opened the door, I have to address how my sexuality is comparably blurry around the edges.

I have been attracted to and attractive to a lot of queer people assigned female at birth, including (but not only) non-binary people who would take on “they” or “he” as their pronouns years or even decades after we flirted. Some people would reject the relevance of any of that, saying I am describing nothing other than a species of heterosexuality with a side order of implicit transphobia, me misreading all AFAB folks as “women” even when they are not. I respect the very good reasons to have that skepticism. Yet on the other hand, some people who have known me for quite some time observe that this has shown up enough times in enough ways that it is absurd not to see a pattern which one cannot call “straight”. And that reflects how there are a number of other little particulars and complications which make “heterosexuality” another first approximation which is also an over-simplification. Having gotten more personal & confessional already than I like to get into in public, I hope that readers will accept that as given without further details.

If there is an identity and an orientation in that, what to call it? Despite our ongoing Cambrian Explosion of queer language, I lack anything which fits. This is part of why I think language and taxonomies around gender and sexuality will remain a moving target for a while longer; I think quite a few folks remain offshore from the mainland of clear terms and categories.

One friend, who was among those very angry at me saying that I was “a little bit queer”, proposed “askew”.

The longer I sit with that, the more I like the turn of phrase. I am cishet to a first approximation, but a bit askew.

I am posting all of this in the place where I put the older essay below, because they are about the same thing in a way which I hope will be clear.


July 2016

In the time since I originally wrote the essay below, it became clear that I have to retract it. That realization does not come easily, as I have received a lot of positive feedback from people (LGBT and otherwise) who found it affecting and clarifying. But I cannot stand behind it.

The question of how we use the word “queer” is fraught. In the 1980s, gay and lesbian activists reclaimed this slur for themselves. “Queer” developed, in the course of a long and difficult conversation in the relevant communities, as a term of art describing lesbians and gay men ... and bisexuals ... and trans people ... and a range of other people with marginalized sexual and gender identities.

That conversation included a strand which saw queerness not simply as an alternative way to say “LGBT” but as a distinct quality of its own which overlaps significantly with those identities but is not congruent with them. “Being LGBT doesn’t necessarily mean you are queer; being queer doesn’t necessarily mean you are LGBT.” I know many LGBT people who advocate for this usage. This essay tried to explore some of the implications of using “queer” that way, as a response to seeing it fade away from contemporary use.

And therein lies the trouble.

Many other LGBT people have only encountered the use of “queer” in a sense synonymous with LGBT. For many of those people, this overlapping usage I talk about in this essay is not just unfamiliar, it is baffling. Bizarre. Outrageous. A disruption and violation of what they understand the word to mean. In that context, this essay sounds like me personally trying to demand a place in the LGBT tent, coöpting the credibility of communities who have struggled against terrible adversity for their place in the world.

I don’t want to do that. I deliberately tried to avoid that implication. But I failed.

Hearing support from some LGBT people and outrage from others presents a certain navigational challenge. But I cannot wound and insult people whom I ardently wish to support. And so I cannot stand behind the words, and apologize to the people wounded by them.

It is tempting to simply delete the post from the blog, or to replace it with this retraction. But that seems irresponsible, an erasure of the paper trail of what I said, even though I no longer say it. Too often I have come late to a controversy and cannot see what was originally said. It is better that I am accountable for what I wrote.

So here is the thing that I no longer say.

I originally authored this retraction in March 2016; in July I edited it to make the apology and reasons for keeping the post up more explicit.

October 2013

A little bit ago, I had a Twitter exchange that began with an exasperated tweet from Khadijah Britton saying:

Wait, wait, WAIT — Cis heteros are trying to start using the word queer? What in the holy dagnabbit is that?

(For the uninitiated, “cis” means “not transgender or transsexual”. It’s a witty use of a Latin root, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

I replied, in a series of tweets:

“Queer” means non-normative sex/gender/sexuality. So yeah, that’s a completely valid possibility.
Kinky butch hetero cis woman? Queer.

Poly dandy hetero cis man? Queer.
Russel Brand. Tilda Swinton. Dennis Rodman. Marilyn Manson.

Kinda queer.
This comes out of Queer Theory cultural politics from the late ’80s through the ’90s which framed things in terms of asking whether it was even desirable in the first place for non-normative sex/gender/sexuality to stake a claim to being “normal”, or whether a transgressive stance was actually desirable.

Queer identity says NO to normalization. It says, “No, being gay is not just like being straight with just one difference that doesn't matter. It is radically different, and that difference needs to be embraced and supported.”

So the queer sensibility is actually opposed to (or more precisely, radically disinterested in) gay marriage. To the queer sensibility, which is explicitly radical, becoming just like heteronormative straight people is dumb, a denial of the genuinely different character of gay life.
The queer sensibility lost the fight of the ’90s over the cultural politics of lesbians and gay men. Most embraced an un-queer politics. And in the trans community today, we are seeing a similar split. Are trans people meaningfully different from cis people? There are folks in the trans community on both sides of that question.

Britton replied to this Twitter rant ...

Please do blog about it. I think the world forgot.
... which appeals to my Generation X vanity beautifully. Gather ’round, Millenials, as I sing the song of when I was young and cool, and had impassioned conversations in San Francisco coffeeshops about heteronormativity and Kathy Acker.

T. Thorn Coyle points to the animating principle of the queer sensibility:

Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote eloquently about the need to become “conscious pariahs” rather than parvenues, assimilationists. Attempts to assimilate to sick systems make us sicker. Breaking from our need to belong frees us to become who we really are, in touch with our core natures. This freedom enables us to choose. When we can choose, we can build what we desire.

This shows us two different ways of operating from what we would now call the oppressed position in identity politics. The assimilationist parvenu cultivates the approval of the social order which rejects them, trying to remake both themselves and society so that they are not seen as different. The conscious pariah refuses to evade society's rejection of them, instead challenging it directly. Every liberationist movement against bigotry and systemic injustice has some form of this tension between the two strategies, and it's typical for the pendulum to swing between the approaches being favored in the broad movement.

At the moment, the parvenu/assimilationist sensibility is ascendent in the culture politics of homosexuality. As a hetereosexual fella trying to be a good ally, it’s not my place to question that choice by a group I don’t belong to. And I've applauded the gains that this has produced.

But I have to confess that I miss the more forcefully “conscious pariah” school of queer theory that I cut my teeth on in the 1990s.

That school argues that one should not say, “Relax, we are not a threat to society.” Rather, say “Hell yes, we are a threat to society, and we should be, because society is wrong.” One should not say, “We are just like you, quiet and monogamous and sweet and safe.” Instead say, “Our very existence is a challenge to a world which deserves to be challenged.”

From that point of view, having bourgeois monogamous married gay couples on sentimental sitcoms is the opposite of what one should be fighting for. That is tame, in every sense of the word.

OK, there’s some sheer rock ’n’ roll bravado in the queer theory stance, which is part of what appealed when I was young, but it's not only that. For there is good reason for cultural critique, is there not?

Which brings me back to the Twitter exchange which started this. The queer sensibility claims the word “queer” because it highlights outsider status. Not “normal”, which would require queer people to change to fit, to file off their rough edges. Which then takes us to seeing that queer cultural politics is not simply a different approach to advocacy for the rights of homosexuals. It represents a different set of allegiances, not defined simply by homosexuality.

I remember seeing a flyer for a queer San Francisco event years ago which said, “This event is not only for lesbians and gay men; it is for anyone queer. Not being gay doesn't mean you’re not queer. Being gay doesn’t mean you are queer. If you are, you know, so come join in.”

“Queer” claims a shared interest for all people whose relationship with sex and gender and sexuality is outside the “norms” offered by society. It includes not just lesbians and gay men but also trans people and intersexed people and sexually submissive men and butch straight women and polyamorous families and straight men who cross-dress and asexuals and countless other people who “don't fit” ... and who resist fitting. It’s an unlimited, open-ended category which defines itself in part by its refusal to police its own boundaries, which is why in my tweets I referenced heterosexual celebrities.

Which brings me to why I’m posting about this today. I started writing it yesterday, for Coming Out Day, and I’m lagging a little late.

The core idea of Coming Out Day is that visibility is important. People who can claim their gay and lesbian identity should because it helps make the world better for the people in circumstances where they cannot yet do it safely.

I’m heterosexual and hesitant to shoulder my way in to that, for all the familiar identity politics reasons. I offer my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters my applause if they are out and whatever help I can muster if they feel they cannot be.

But the principle of Coming Out Day is to serve the community through visibility. It says there’s a responsibility to be out if you can be. So while it would be irresponsible of me to “come out” as cis gendered and heterosexual, and the confessional personal narrative isn't really my thing on this blog, I’m thinking that it’s also irresponsible for me not to come out as a bit queer in the broad sense.

I’ve been living a polyamorous life since before the term “polyamory” was coined, and I’ve been living in a triad for almost a decade. I’m what Dr. Charlie Glickman charmingly calls a “dainty man”. When occasion calls for it I'm a BDSM service top. A sweetheart who identified herself as a lesbian once gave me a copy of Leslie Feinberg’s novel Stone Butch Blues because it reminded her of me.

Yeah, I’m kinda queer. And here I am. So, as they say: get used to it.


John Beckett writing on his blog Under the Ancient Oaks at Patheos uses this post as a springboard to talk about Responding to a Dysfunctional Society.

I’m not a queer radical any more than I’m a celebrity-worshipping materialist. But given a choice — and I do have a choice — I’m playing for the queer radical team.

I finally tracked down Charlie Glickman's excellent meditation on this subject, Queer Is A Verb, plus instructive commentaries on the histories of the words “gay” and “queer”.

Shon Faye offers a propaganda video on similar themes.

Jenna Wortham writing at the New York Times ruminates in When Everyone Can Be Queer, Is Anyone? and Hugh Ryan at Slate replies by objecting Why Everyone Can’t Be Queer. I’m inclined to agree with Ryan, but your mileage may vary.

10 October 2013

The climax of Buffy

You don't have to love Joss Whedon the way I do. Criticize his failure to handle race in anything even resembling a sophisticated way, sure. Criticize the misfires in his feminist cultural politics, OK.

But do not tell me that Joss Is Not Really A Feminist. That is plain stupid.

The premise of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is described in the titles of every episode:

Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer.

A heroic female protagonist is good, but not necessarily a victory. In the final episode of the show, Whedon gives us a climax for the entire series, in which Buffy herself criticizes and destroys this premise, saying, No, that's not good enough. Being Special Action Girl is insufficient. It's just more sexism. We have to do better. We will do better.

Here's her St. Crispin's Day speech in that climactic moment:

So here's the part where you make a choice. What if you could have that power, now? In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power should be our power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of this scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice.

Are you ready to be strong?

I'm thinking of this because via Wolven I find this nifty series of animated GIFs showing the montage of scenes the show gives us as she's speaking.

In the middle of the St. Crispin's Day speech, we get a montage commenting on domestic violence and Title IX.


06 October 2013

Crisis of the Republic

A friend reminds me of this speech about the crisis in the governance of the Republic.

You will break up the Union rather than submit to a denial of your Constitutional rights. That has a somewhat reckless sound; but it would be palliated, if not fully justified, were we proposing, by the mere force of numbers, to deprive you of some right, plainly written down in the Constitution. But we are proposing no such thing. When you make these declarations, you have a specific and well-understood allusion to an assumed Constitutional right of yours .... but no such right is specifically written in the Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such right. We, on the contrary, deny that such a right has any existence in the Constitution, even by implication.

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events. This, plainly stated, is your language.
In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!” To be sure, what the robber demanded of me — my money — was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle.
The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

This commentary, so relevant to today, is not new. That comment comes from Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln in his Cooper Union address in 1860. (Hat tip to Digby for introducing me to its importance years ago.) It remains the single most clarifying description of American conservatism's inability to be satisfied that they have been adequately “respected”, their eternal complaint that their opponents refuse to “compromise”.

Picking up where that quotation left off, we have Lincoln describing how they can tolerate no disagreement.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly — done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated — we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

I am quite aware they do not state their case precisely in this way. Most of them would probably say to us, “Let us alone, do nothing to us, and say what you please about slavery.” But we do let them alone — have never disturbed them — so that, after all, it is what we say, which dissatisfies them. They will continue to accuse us of doing, until we cease saying.

Obviously the question of slavery is now decided, but on other questions where Americans are deeply divided we see that conservatives cannot abide policy victories which contradict them. They are “losing their country”.

Not our country. Their country. They think they own the whole place.

Recall that when Lincoln was elected, he was proved right in this speech. Before he had time to enact any actual policy, what his opponents imagined he would do moved them to take up arms. This too should sound uncannily familiar.

Our current crisis — a willingness to destroy the US government if they cannot command it — should come as no surprise.

Update: The Rude Pundit makes this point in their inimitable style: Republicans Will Shit On Your Lawn And Tell You It's Your Fault.

05 October 2013

Quasi-Austrian libertarian economics

For future reference: I've found a clear, succinct description of the thesis that the US economy is based on “printing money” but the inflationary chickens have not yet come to roost because dollars are in foreign hands.

It's utter bunk, for reasons I don't have time to assemble at the moment, but it's good to have a tidy description of it handy.

03 October 2013

Life, liberty, and property

Having been frustrated by attempts to find the phrase “life, liberty, and property” in Locke's Two Treastises on Government (and made some interesting discoveries along the way) I believe I have the original quote at last: Second Treatise, Chapter VII, Section 87:

Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men

Life and liberty are a subset of property. And “estate” is interesting; what does that include?

02 October 2013


I haven't read William Gibson's seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer since I was a teenager.

The most memorable scene in it for me is marvelously spooky. Let me set you up: it's in the hazily-defined near future. Various prosthetic technologies are common; we meet a character who has had a lung replaced with gear for making animated holograms, another who has extensible razor blades implanted under her fingernails for fighting. Our protagonist, Case, is a “cyberspace cowboy”: he connects to the internet through a direct brain interface. At one point in the novel he uses his computer to feed him the live stream of sensory experiences from his colleague, who is working with him to unravel a mystery involving an AI program named “Wintermute”.

Here's the scene:

There were cigarettes in the gift shop, but he didn’t relish talking with Armitage or Riviera. He left the lobby and located a vending console in a narrow alcove, at the end of a rank of pay phones.

He fumbled through a pocketful of lirasi, slotting the small dull alloy coins one after another, vaguely amused by the anachronism of the process. The phone nearest him rang.

Automatically, he picked it up.


Faint harmonics, tiny inaudible voices rattling across some orbital link, and then a sound like wind.

“Hello. Case.”

A fifty-lirasi coin fell from his hand, bounced, and rolled out of sight across Hilton carpeting.

“Wintermute, Case. It’s time we talk.”

It was a chip voice.

“Don’t you want to talk, Case?”

He hung up.

On his way back to the lobby, his cigarettes forgotten, he had to walk the length of the ranked phones. Each rang in turn, but only once, as he passed.

I love the wonderfully cinematic image of the phones ringing as he walks by them. But of course, one could not make that film now, because: payphones?