The Dream Café

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

18 September 2017
by skzb

Predictability is Death

I’ve been watching Torchwood for the first time, and most likely the last.   It has various problems: I find none of the characters except Jack engaging, there is little or no display of the kind of the competence that makes us love teams (Leverage!),  and I keep getting the impression that Torchwood made things worse more often than better.  However, it was early in the 2nd season (Episode 3) that I was able to isolate the biggest reason it kept irritating me.

Look at it this way: It is perfectly all right, sometimes, to have the audience emotionally engage with a character , then kill off that character.  It can be cathartic, and it can also raise the stakes—it lets the audience know you’re serious, that no one is safe, that the danger is real, and so on.


If the only time there is emotional engagement you know that it will turn out bad, that there’s no chance of it working out, then all of a sudden you’ve lowered the stakes, usually to zero; I find myself saying, “Oh, look.  It’s a sweet romance; I guess that he’s going to leave so I can feel all sad for her.  Whatever.”  Or, “Hey, an extremely likable character.  He’s going to die.  Yawn.”

Just as the possibility of sorrow increases the tension and makes us engage, if there is no possibility of happiness, we just stop caring.

24 August 2017
by skzb

Free Speech, the ACLU, and Nazis

There’s this thing going around where someone says, “Would you quit talking about freedom of speech? The First Amendment is only about what the government can do.” This is like saying, “Would you quit bringing up social media? I already said I don’t like LinkedIn.” I mean, it isn’t exactly a non-sequitur, but one feels the question hasn’t been addressed.

There is clearly a great deal of confusion around these issues, and a lot of failure to think things through. There are still those who see free speech as some sort of idealized principle that stands above the class struggle, as well as those who are willing to chuck it out entirely because it’s inconvenient at the moment. In particular, the American Civil Liberties Union is coming under attack from various quarters (including the ACLU in California) for insisting that the government not prevent white supremacist organizations from holding public meetings. I keep hearing the question posed as if the only choices are to use the legal system to prevent them from speaking, or to give them free reign to spread their hate and permit them to grow. I would like to state my vehement oppositions to both of these programs.

Nazis are often spoken of as a hate group that wants to kill people. I think this is because they are. They want to murder African-Americans and Jews, often Muslims and First Peoples, frequently Gays, probably trade unionists, and certainly Communists.

But legally, it gets kinda tricky, on account of they don’t publicly say, “You, in the White Power tee-shirt, go kill that Muslim standing next to the tree. Do it now.” Since, in essence, they are saying that, but couching it in terms such as, “purity of the races,” and “we will not be replaced by Jews,” and, “make America great again,” the law has a bit of trouble.

Many liberals are reacting to this by saying, “If we can establish, through history, and action, and by reading their propaganda, and other means that they really want to kill, and are inciting others to kill, then we should be able to use the law against them. If the law does not, at present, permit us to do so, let’s reinterpret or change the law.”

At which point those of us with even a working eighth-grade knowledge of history become very, very frightened, because we know what will happen when the law changes to permit that sort of interpretation. Hint: It isn’t the right wing that suffers.

But there is good news. Not only is changing the law (or selectively enforcing it, or reinterpreting it) not the only way to fight Nazis, it isn’t even the best. Not by miles. In fact, it may well be the worst.

By using the state against these people, it gives them “anti-establishment” credentials, at a time when millions of people are becoming more and more hostile to the established order. It allows them to pretend to be oppressed, and many people have a habit of giving sympathy to the oppressed.

Nazis and white supremacists prey on the backwardness and ignorance of society, pulling in the most repulsive elements and then recruiting among the hopeless and the angry and those desperate for a way forward. The way forward does not involve relying on the capitalist state—the state that exists to defend the system that gave rise to the very miseries that provide the breeding ground for fascistic elements (as for its opposite, the fight for socialism).

The way forward involves the masses, the oppressed, the working class, organizing and moving directly against white supremecy and Naziism. Anyone who paid attention to what just happened in Boston knows how effective this can be.

To ask the state to use its power against them is to give the state more weapons to use against us. To shut white supremacists down and shut them up with our own power—with the united force of masses—is not only the best way to defeat them, but it is a springboard for further struggles.

9 August 2017
by skzb

A Quick Note on Free Speech

Free speech absolutists (I’m not one, by the way), believe in the moral principle that no one should be prevented from expressing an opinion by violence, fear of violence, or economic or legal coercion. The First Amendment only protects against the last (and not always that). Thus, when someone is arguing for free speech, to point out that it is not a case where the Bill of Rights applies does not answer the argument.
If you wish to answer that argument (which, of course, you are under no obligation to do), you must show that what is being accomplished by suppressing that speech is more important than the moral right being denied. I believe there are such cases, but I also believe it is a scary and dangerous road to start down, so we need to be bloody damn sure we’re right when we do it.

20 July 2017
by skzb

Do You Believe In Science?

And then this happened:

And here are the lyrics:
Do you believe in science in a young girl’s mind
Testing results to verify what she finds
And it’s science it makes you happy and cheery
From hypothesis to demonstrable theory.
I’ll tell you about the science it’ll take some proof
The neverending search for objective truth

If you believe in science, don’t bother to guess
If it’s observed in a lab, if it passes the test
Then do it again so the results are reliable
As long as what your looking at is falsifiable
You won’t be convincing if your data’s too scant
So outline your plan, apply for a grant.

If you believe in science come along with me
We test what we know and we know what we see
Farewell now, to every phantom and wraith
And every idea based only on faith
We’ll look great in our white lab coats
And I’ll follow you around and keep careful notes.

Yeah, do you believe in science
Yeah believe in the science that’s what we should do
And we’ll send it out there for peer review
Believe in the science that can find the truth
Ohhh, talkin’ ’bout science
Do you believe in science

13 July 2017
by skzb

A Statement on Russia and the US Elections

Let’s assume that the allegations about Russia’s involvement in the US election are true. What then?

Well, we can dismiss the moral argument instantly. The US, of all the countries in the world, has absolutely no moral right to complain about another country meddling in its elections. Indeed, a country that only meddled by revealing private information about a candidate ought to be thanked for such restraint, when we look at how the CIA has gone about installing dictatorships, overturning democracies and inciting civil wars for more than half a century.

What next? A threat to democracy? Please. Before Trump even announced his candidacy there was still the reactionary, anti-working class, racist “war on drugs” that was busily disenfranchising huge sections of the population. There was NSA spying on civilians, increasing police terrorism, “constitution free zones,” a press that was overwhelmingly afraid to publish anything not approved by the intelligence community, brutal persecution of whistle blowers, “free speech zones”—you name it. All sorts of things that threaten democracy one hell of a lot more than revelations that a candidate engaged in backroom deals to win the nomination and had close ties to Wall Street that everyone knew about anyway.

So, what are we left with regarding Russia? An opportunity to use patriotism and nationalism against Trump. We all hate Trump. We hate him so much that Bush and Obama appear decent by comparison. So, the thinking goes, many of those who supported him consider themselves patriotic.  All we have to do is show them that the patriotic thing to do is oppose Trump and we’re home free, right?  So, why not invoke patriotic illusions and nationalist phrase-mongering to get him out of office?

That is the more difficult and important question, because it leads us to the question of how we move forward. Here is my position as succinctly as I can put it:

Patriotism is a tool that is used to tie the working class to their enemies; it is the excuse used, especially in time of war (and these days, “time of war” means always) to justify violent repression against anyone speaking out against their conditions. In a 21st century capitalist country it is, in a word, thoroughly, irredeemably reactionary. Moreover, many of you are aware of this. Until this recent rather pathetic call to “reclaim” patriotism most of those who considered themselves leftists recognized that nationalism of any sort must be utterly rejected, and even those who were close to liberalism without rejecting capitalism got sort of nervous and twitchy around flag-waving and jingoism.

Trump did not materialize out of thin air. He’s the product of a system unable to solve its own contradictions, voted for (or, at least, not voted against) by millions of hopeless and desperate people who saw no way out. He exploited the backwardness, ignorance, fully justified anger, and, above all, the lack of an alternative among broad sections of the oppressed. Since his election, we have seen an even greater unleashing of backwardness and ignorance.

Patriotism—the notion that the oppressed within certain geographical boundaries ought to feel more loyalty to the oppressors within those boundaries than to the oppressed outside of them—is exactly an expression of ignorance and backwardness.

We do not fight ignorance and backwardness by appealing to and reinforcing it, we fight it with knowledge and reason and showing that there is an alternative, a way forward; by showing that the problems that produced Trump can be addressed by a revolutionary socialist program uniting all of the oppressed internationally. This has the additional benefit of being true.

The criminality of Putin is not in question, and we ought to give our support to the Russian working class in their struggles against him.  But by evoking Russia—that is to say, patriotism—against Trump, you are contributing to Trumpism.  You think there aren’t others, maybe more civilized in appearance, maybe even less so, waiting in the wings?  To get rid of Trump without tackling the conditions that produced him would be the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory.  We can’t afford any more of those.