On Writing – Rudyard Kipling’s Writing Table

As somebody who has worked his entire professional life on small screens with inconstant tools, I read with envy this description from “Working Tools,” by Rudyard Kipling:

“Like most men who ply one trade in one place for any while, I always kept certain gadgets on my work table, which was ten feet long from North to South and badly congested. One was a long, lacquer, canoe-shaped pen-tray full of brushes and dead “fountains”; a wooden box held clips and bands; another, a tin one, pins; yet another, a bottle slider, kept all manner of unneeded essentials from emery-paper to small screw drivers; a paper weight, said to have been Warren Hastings’; a tiny, weighted fur-seal and a leather crocodile sat on some of the papers; an inky foot-rule and a Father of Penwipers which a much loved housemaid of ours presented yearly, made up the main-guard of these little fetishes … Left and right of the table were two big globes, on one of which a great airman had once outlined in white paint those air-routes to the East and Australia which were well in use before my death.”

I don’t know what Kipling means by the ominous “before my death,” but the rest of the passage has a delightfully antediluvian feel. It is a vision of a lost world where men could “ply one trade in one place for any while,” the opposite of the digital, big city working life in which we carry our tools with us everywhere as tablets and computers, and we are hurried from desk to desk even in our own offices in the course of a single day.

In my experience, creative types like rituals and privacy. There’s something of the private treehouse about the sort of environment I like to work in best. To transport me to another place, it has to be private and it can’t be sterile, and computers are the opposite of both. People accuse me of being cranky or reactionary when I bemoan the endless treadmill of software updates, but to me they are the equivalent of somebody coming in and tidying up a working room without asking and with no warning. The creative part of the mind is more like a child or a dog — it likes consistency and comfort as a counterpoint to playfulness; it likes its toys and its familiar places.

(image credit, kiwibird: http://njvd.blogspot.com/2015/10/rudyard-kipling-and-batemans-house.html)

The Feminism of Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians is lovable for many reasons (as its record box office performance demonstrates). One of them is how it effortlessly portrays a world in which women are the prime movers. The men in the story are either absent or seen in moments where women are center stage. The two scenes where we do encounter men only both pass a kind of reverse Bechdel test, in which the male characters are important enough to be named but their conversation is entirely about a woman.

It is in the traditionally female domain, the mahjong parlors, kitchens, high-end fashion boutiques, bedrooms, boudoirs, and garden pavilions of Singapore that the true stars of this film move like warring goddesses, dripping with jewels and clothed in a procession of jaw-dropping outfits. But these remarkable women are more than mannequins. It is their struggle to balance duty and love, to find peace with each other, and to keep alliances in an uncaring world that generate all the suspense and joy of this story. The men of the film are the objects that keep that plot moving. They are beautiful objects, but untransformed by the story. Like the jewelry which is so important to the plot, men are valued more in the exchange than the possession.

So much of the talk about Crazy Rich Asians has focused on its breakthrough status for minority representation in cinema, that its remarkable feminism has gone unremarked, perhaps because it wears it so lightly but so well.

In the new age of nuclear threat, social media is a horror

Today, Trump will likely announce his intention to de-certify the Iran Nuclear Deal, which, since 2015, has successfully pulled Iran back from the brink of developing nuclear weapons. This is close to the top story on traditional American news outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. The same goes for international English-speaking publications like The Economist and The Guardian.

Trending on twitter today? Outlandish clothing worn last night by famous people at The Met Gala in New York City.

With the threat of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula and more world-killing devices in the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia, this type of distraction is—without exaggeration—life threatening.

The moments of the Cold War when the world came close to incineration, both the Cuban Missile Crisis and lesser known incidents like the Andropov Affair of 1983, were managed by people in power whose disciplined, focused attention was wielded skillfully, at just the right moments in time. A few uttered words, a few well-placed phone calls, and in each case the world was saved. Had their attention been less focused, we might all be dead by now. With just minutes to decide whether to launch a strike, the kind of mental focus most of us have trouble mustering in the age of social media is, for a few, a life or death commodity.

Is it inconceivable that Trump’s thumb could wander from the button on his smart phone to the Button in the nuclear briefcase? Are we one “covfefe” away from the end of civilization?

It is true that when Nixon drank in the evenings, his national security advisor asked the staff to run any decisions to launch a nuclear strike by him first. And it is true that Reagan’s dementia may well have set in long before he left office. But these men governed a country which was eloquently and forcefully debating how to comprehend and exercise the full responsibility of possessing nuclear weapons. Public figures like Carl Sagan and Lewis Thomas discussed nuclear weapons in print and on television with a gravitas and sense of responsibility that nobody has time for anymore.

Silicon Valley, which has designed the organs of our current public debate, is not big on either gravitas or responsibility. Mark Zuckerberg, whose media platform played a huge role in the election of the man who controls our nuclear weapons, failed even to show up the first time he was summoned by Congress.

Without much choice, we live in a world of horrors and entertainments which flick past us with an ephemeral slightness that, in the pre-digital era, would have been characterized only by an overheard remark or a bug to be swatted out of our peripheral vision. In matters of life and death, we have only the “recent, careless thoughts” of distant, distracted human beings to rely on, if such worries even occur to us.

Meanwhile, the shock of the people whose courage and attention were just enough to get us through the first decades of life on earth with nuclear weapons, are relegated to the front pages of newspapers and published books where, like the senators on the Capitoline Hill after the fall of the Roman Republic, they speak for nobody.

Which philosophy of war does James Mattis believe in?

Ideas matter, especially in life or death situations like war.

There’s a reason that the Founding Fathers put the President as civilian Commander-in-Chief in charge of U.S. military policy. They could’ve chosen to give absolute authority to the office they named The Secretary of War, now called the Secretary of Defense. Many previous civilizations chose to do just that, or were ruled over by monarchs who got their power through war.

Now that Trump has abdicated military power in Afghanistan to his Secretary of Defense, isn’t it worth asking what kind of society Mattis believes in, and which philosophical system he gets his ideas from? The Founding Fathers would’ve appreciated a vigorous debate on the topic, exactly the kind we’re not having right now–in our 16th year of war in Afghanistan.

More on this over at HuffPo.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-has-given-james-mattis-absolute-power-in-war_us_595a470de4b0c85b96c66377

Rhetorical Miscellany #2: Benghazi, Hillary’s emails, and “political prosecution”

This is a post in a series examining how ancient rhetorical techniques shape contemporary public life.

Under the George W. Bush administration, embassy personnel died and privately hosted White House emails were lost, all without investigation by either party in Congress. So why are Republican members of the House of Representatives investigating the same activity under Obama, focusing entirely on Hillary Clinton’s term as Secretary of State? Last week saw Hillary testifying before a Congressional committee about the Benghazi incident, and the investigation into her use of private email servers has dragged on for months.

Neither investigation is motivated by the pursuit of truth and justice, but instead by Republicans’ desire to discredit a potential Democratic presidential candidate. Fox News and two Republican congressmen involved in the Benghazi hearings have admitted that their investigation is a mere political maneuver. Republicans have been using these tactics at least since Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings. But Democrats are not above it either. During George W. Bush’s term, Democrats in the Senate held hearings sounding the alarm about the sale of US port facilities to a company from Dubai. It was easy to make selling US infrastructure to a Middle Eastern company look like a threat to national security. The deal turned out to be a routine, legitimate business practice, something that the Senators who publicly opposed the deal, among them Hillary Clinton, must surely have known. Just because there is legitimate legal authority behind an investigation doesn’t mean we can be sure it is worthy of our attention and outrage.

It is easy to see this as a symptom of our degraded public trust. Corruption has corrupted even the processes by which corruption is found out. How can our democracy recover from such a sorry condition?

But there is grim comfort in the knowledge that it has ever been so. The use of legal processes as weapons in the power struggles of the ruling class is a practice as old as democracy itself.

In ancient Athens, members of the political class regularly deployed two legal methods to discredit, imprison, impoverish, or exile their enemies. One was called ostracism, and it has no parallel in the American system (though perhaps it should). The other is called political prosecution and we see it all the time in American politics.

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Rhetorical Miscellany #1: Let’s declare a war on “Let’s declare a war on …”

The ability to make ideas convincing, not on their merits but through their manner of presentation, is both magical and infuriating.

I find it magical because this skill (which was called rhetoric in the classical and medieval world, and is now called, alternately, advertising, public relations, and “communications”) can lodge the most preposterous beliefs in our heads, or lead us to spend money on things for reasons we do not fully understand.

It is magical to me when I consider how Apple in the 1980s and ’90s convinced people they were iconoclasts because they bought a certain brand of mass-produced machine. It is infuriating to me when I see people buying the idea, peddled by gun industry lobbyists, that those of us who don’t own guns are to blame for mass shootings.

When you slow down such arguments, and remove the undercurrent of self-importance or fear that usher them into the mind, their unreason is quickly revealed. A mass-produced object does not make me unique. A plague of weapons does not make us safer. But rhetoric, operating at full power, can make such arguments feel like the truth. This has consequences at the cash register and the ballot box, where we shape our future.

Rhetoric was conceived in the hothouse of ancient greek public oratory, where it was an essential skill for the political class. But in our own time, where the speed and emotional charge of debate are amplified by instantaneous electronic media, and generations of mass audience advertising have influenced how we think, rhetoric has become ubiquitous and taken on godlike powers.

Partly because I like collecting shiny things, and partly in an effort to defend my own sanity and intellectual integrity, I collect rhetorical tactics. I dissect them and try to figure out where their power comes from. Up until now, my collection has lived in notebooks and in my thoughts. I thought I’d share some of my collection here.

First up: “War On …”

The phrase “declare war on” is a sure sign that rhetoric is being deployed. Framing any public issue as a war splits it into a binary conflict with the aim of recruiting you to one of the two sides. (more…)