The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

28 August 2019
by skzb

Who Gets To Say?

I’ve been thinking about this one for a while now, trying to come up with an approach that won’t instantly shut down the ears of those it’s directed to. I’m pretty sure I’ve failed.

But a while ago I saw, again, the bald statement, “if you aren’t a Jew, you don’t get to say something isn’t antisemitic.” Of course, I’ve seen the same thing countless times regarding racism, sexism, &c.

There are a few problems with this approach. Here are the two biggest.

First is that, for anything worth paying attention to, it makes understanding impossible. One Jew says Ilhan Omar’s criticism of Israel is antisemitic, another says it isn’t (because, news flash, there’s going to be disagreement on anything but the most obvious cases) and who do you believe? If our only way of deciding is to listen to the unsupported pronouncement of various individuals, we cannot understand. If we cannot understand, we cannot act.

But more important is that, like so very much, like almost everything in this sort of middle class ideology, it denies any objective content and builds everything around personal feelings.

Making people feel bad is never desirable; but when you build your entire political ideology around how people feel, you’re maybe missing a few things.  For example, we are facing a climate crisis; that is objectively the case.  We feel worried about it because the polar ice caps are melting; the polar ice caps are not melting because we’re worried about it, and if someone isn’t worried about it, or if hearing about it makes someone feel bad, that will not slow down the rate of thaw.

The fundamental issues around antisemitism are not how it makes someone feel, but when it is used to whip up hatred that puts people in actual physical danger. The fundamental issue with migrants is that they are being killed, that children are being actively harmed, and, in a broader sense, that nationalism is being used to attempt to convince native-born workers that migrants or foreign workers are their enemy, not the capitalist who is exploiting both. What a migrant happens to feel about this at any given moment is pretty far down the list of concerns.

In our effort to understand, and fight, antisemitism, racial and sexual oppression, and the other forms of backwardness, we must, in my opinion, concentrate on changing the objective conditions that use and produce them. This requires understanding the objective conditions, which means for one thing, thinking things through (just how are accusations of antisemitism used to stifle opposition to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians?), and, for another, fighting to grasp the real-world forces, the class interests, that are in play.

Because when it comes down to it, our feelings, our emotions, are the product of our interactions with the world, the sum total of all we’ve experienced. And what we’ve experienced is living in a class society. One may be conscious of this, or unconscious of this; one may draw correct conclusions, or incorrect conclusions; but in the last analysis, class interests are the source of our feelings on antisemitism, racism, open borders, and everything else.

1. Objective conditions can explain subjective feelings; the reverse is not true.
2. Identifying actual cases of bigotry is everyone’s responsibility, which means that if you disagree with my stand on whether something expresses antisemitism, one thing I am not going to do is ask your religion.

21 August 2019
by skzb

On Civil War and Ideology

When ordinary men and women got it into their heads that it was a fine thing, by the grace and power of God, to be “downright separatists,” the secular as well as the spiritual order was threatened. The “gathered Churches” of the separatists were democratic institutions. The congregation came together of its own will, chose its own minister by free election, supported him by contributions freely organized and given. Now that all authority was shaken and every speculation possible, the “gathered Churches” would soon be taken by some as the pattern for a reformed secular order, a society which came together by free consent of the governed, by agreement of the people.
— C. V. Wedgewood, THE KING’S WAR, 1641-1647 page 481
There are several reasons this passage fascinates me so much. It expresses, in a certain way, the moment in the English Civil War that is analogous to the Emancipation Proclamation in the US Civil War—the moment when, we might say, it went from potentially revolutionary to actually revolutionary.
Here, also, we see the role of ideology in human struggle: merchants, manufacturers, and commoners of England (the Scots were notoriously opposed to the “Sectaries” at this point, and the Irish still wanted their Church back, and I’m not at all sure about the Welsh) used their religious ideas in the same way that, five quarter centuries later, the Americans would use “pure reason,” which same ideology would be brought to its culmination a quarter century after that in France. In all cases, the ideology serves the needs of its social class in its efforts to break out of the oppressive grip of a social order that was strangling it.
Here, too, is where we see the sharp separation between the nobility, many of whom supported Parliament against the King, and the commoners: the former were fine up until this point, but reforming the secular order to give more power to the riff-raff was going too far! And, parallel to this, the bourgeoisie, about to step into power for the first time, accepted it, but were unwilling to go as far as those below them: this was the period when the Leveler Party was created.  This is also a period in which the House of Commons, through the “Committee of Both Kingdoms,” had almost complete power; the House of Lords was all but irrelevant. 
The needs of the capitalist class clashed sharply with the old forms of feudal property relations, and so, in an almost perfect parallel, the new class used its relationship to God (a personal relationship, up to each individual’s conscience, and not requiring a member of the nobility, uh, I mean the priesthood, to intervene) to begin the transformation of society into its own image.
What began as a war to limit the powers of the king, to save him from “evil counselors,” transformed into a revolutionary struggle in which Charles was separated from his kingship, and his head from his body. Praise be to God, or, rather, to the ability of the human mind to use the ideological tools at hand to move society forward.

21 July 2019
by skzb

The Devil Went Down To Richfield

The devil went down to Richfield
He was looking for a soul to fry
He was in deep shit
His accountant quit
So he headed out to Best Buy

He comes across a young lady
Testing the console games
And the devil quick
Grabs a joystick
Turns and he declaims:

I guess you didn’t know it
But I invented the PS 2
And if you can dance, then take a chance
I’ll make a bet with you.

You play Guitar Hero, girl
But the devil can rock and roll
I’ll bet an Arcade Classics
Upright Machine
If you will bet your soul

The girl said my name’s Jenny
And I may seem a simple lass
But I’ll take you on
And I’ll beat your con
Cuz I’m going to kick your ass

Jenny, grab that interface that looks just like a Strat
Cause there’s nothing to do in Richfield except video combat
And if you win you get the best console in the world
But if you lose you’re in deep shit, girl.

The Devil took the controls in the shape of an old Les Paul
And he rocked it like Keith Richards,
But without any drugs at all.
And he jumped and writhed and hit those frets
and danced upon his hoofs
Yeah he didn’t miss a beat, and his score went through the roof.

When the devil finished, Jenny said, I admit that you’re not bad
But you stand clear by the Nintendo gear
And see that you’ve been had.

Aerosmith to ZZ Top
Through them all she ran
And she finished off with a fiddle piece
By the Charlie Daniels Band

The devil bowed his head and took his loss real hard
But a deal’s a deal so he gave the clerk
His Sulfur Mastercard
Jenny said, Devil, just come on back
If you can pay the toll
Just run and duck, you stupid fuck
I’m the queen of rock n roll

30 June 2019
by skzb

Again, on “Classism”

The word “classist” has been coming up again on my various social media feeds.  The term itself has a couple of problems.  The first I’ve commented on before: it reduces the class struggle—a clash of real, objective forces, and the most fundamental cause of oppression—to a prejudice, to a mere idea, to people “thinking wrong.”  But there’s another problem with how I’ve been hearing it used.
So often I’ve heard something called “classist” for objecting to ignorance and backwardness among among sections of the working class.  As in, it is “classist” to expect or demand a certain level of education, or culture in the working class.    It is not “classist” to wish for people to have a good working command of their own native language; it is sad when they do not (I am not here referring to slang or vernacular, I’m referring to an inability to communicate clearly in written or spoken language).  I’ve heard basic courtesy disparaged as, “bourgeois manners.” Well, pray, what other sort of manners are available at this time?  Feudal? No thank you; my knees are too old to bow properly.  None at all?  Accepting rudeness, boorishness, and lack of respect for others as laudable?  I don’t think so.  
It is the misfortune, not the fault of the working class that so many are deprived of good education, of access to culture. But the solution is not to pretend it is “snobbish” to value those things, the solution is to fight to raise the cultural level of the class.  People, there is a reason that throughout history, revolutionists would teach the oppressed to read! They didn’t say, “Objecting to illiteracy is classist,” they gave reading lessons—to peasants, to slaves, to workers.
Marxists believe that the working class is revolutionary, not because of how they think, but because of their objective social position, because they produce all value. This does not mean accepting backwardness and calling it a virtue, it means fighting against it.
If we encounter bigotry among white workers, we do not shrug our shoulders and smugly dismiss it as, “Well, that’s how they are.” No, we fight it as part of building class solidarity. The same is true of other forms of ignorance.
(My original discussion of the term, dealing with the more fundamental issues, is here.)

23 May 2019
by skzb

Why Trump Now? Dig Deeper

Let’s say this is about applied philosophy.
I keep seeing tweets about how sick Trump is. And it’s probably true.  But in watching the discussion, I’m struck by the difference in method between idealism and materialism.
At this particular moment of capitalism—as the system itself is shaking and shuddering and giving us permanent war, repression, a surveillance state, movements backward in democracy and freedom, white supremacy and even fascism becoming socially acceptable among some layers, reproductive rights threatened, the police turning into an army with terrorist tactics, any responsible journalist threatened with jail, and no foreseeable solution to climate change—right now is when there’s a president people are describing as “sick and in need of help.”
Why now? Why at this point in history is such a person the one the system finds to run it? And no, don’t tell me Trump is the cause of all of the above, because every one of those things I described started well before he even announced as a candidate. So…why now?
To the idealist, it begins and ends with, “A lot of people had bad ideas” which to me begs the question, because then the issue is, why are all of these “bad ideas” becoming so powerful at exactly this historical moment? and we’re right back where we started.
A materialist wants to dig deeper, to uncover the relation of social and economic forces that produces the conditions where ignorance and backwardness can flourish. Because if we do not understand those objective, material forces, all of our efforts to move forward, to improve things, amount to little more than shaking a rattle in hopes the gods will make it rain.