Gongol.com Archives: May 2021

Brian Gongol

May 7, 2021

Threats and Hazards "Decadent" is the worst inverse shibboleth

When "Anonymous", a "senior Trump Administration official", published the book "A Warning" in late 2019, there was a rush to try to unmask the author. It was an understandable rush -- the nameless official had previously submitted an opinion to the New York Times saying that the President was "erratic", "chaotic", unstable, and amoral. Just how high did the self-identified member of "a quiet resistance within the administration" rank? ■ While Anonymous was later revealed to be Miles Taylor, there were those who thought it might have been a Cabinet official, or perhaps even the Vice President. Certain tell-tale words were used to try to pinpoint the author's identity, with some people arguing that the frequent use of the uncommon word "lodestar" pointed to Mike Pence. ■ To be sure, stylometry is a fascinating way to try to read between the lines to find out who might have authored a document. Computers make the statistical analysis easier: People give themselves away through their choice of words. Just ask a teacher reading an essay that has been plagiarized, in whole or in part, by a student who doesn't take care to cover their tracks. The writer's "voice" is distinctive. ■ While shibboleths are typically used to signal in-group membership (and, sometimes, to sort out double agents), they can also inadvertently reveal an author's adherence to a way of thinking that needs to be held at arm's length. ■ One of those negative shibboleths is the word "decadence". If someone is using the word "decadence" -- especially when talking about their own country -- there's a very good chance they're on a completely wrong track. ■ The word "decadence", unless the author is talking about a particularly rich piece of chocolate cake, is a dead giveaway that the author thinks other people are enjoying themselves too much, in large numbers. While it is entirely possible for people to engage in behavior that takes fun too far, one of the basic premises of American civilization, at least, is that we have the "unalienable" right to pursue happiness. That's one of the basic purposes for having formed this country in the first place. ■ Thus when someone like an editor at the New York Post declares that "America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower", he's not passing a sound judgment on his fellow Americans -- he's declaring that he cares not for the American experiment in self-government itself. Sohrab Ahmari is, of course, entirely free to hold an opinion like that, as untethered to reality as it might be. But the rest of us are not obligated to pay such an opinion any serious respect. ■ In fact, when someone pulls out "decadence" as their linguistic weapon of choice, they're joining in a habit engaged by murderous, evil political regimes. The accusation of "decadence" is a value judgment with no objective standard. Thus it can mean "anything I do not like". In an authoritarian regime, that means the state can use the subjectivity as a tool of oppression. In a freer society, it screams of illiberalism. ■ If one holds an objective belief that a society has gotten soft around the edges and needs toughening up, then one ought to make a specific, fact-based case about what behaviors, rules, or practices need reform. That's how a democratic republic finds its way to the right path. ■ As it has been said, America isn't very good at being right, but we're pretty good at getting it right. We get it right by engaging in a process of course correction over time. We swing too far in one direction, then we overcorrect in the other, and ultimately the pendulum finds its equilibrium. Merely disclaiming the zeitgeist as "decadent" is a sneer in the direction of thoughtful debate, and without robust debate, how can we ever expect to correct our way? ■ We get a lot of things wrong in America, and we surely always will. But one of the main engines of our success as a vibrant, rich, and free nation is a perpetual commitment to openness. Our adversaries and rivals have never embraced that commitment, and it's hard to imagine that they will. The saddest turn of events would be for us to surrender that commitment on our own -- just because some people were having a good time.

Aviation News China's careless rocket debris could land almost anywhere on Earth this weekend

23 tons worth of space waste will come crashing down "anywhere between 41.5 degrees north latitude and 41.5 degrees south latitude". (Des Moines is at 41.58°N.) China's behavior here is an exceptionally irresponsible case of ignoring the basic principle that you should clean up after yourself.

Business and Finance Who's going back to the office?

The CEO of a company in Washington, DC, has taken the peculiar step of sharing an opinion piece with the Washington Post, saying "I am concerned about the unfortunately common office worker who wants to continue working at home and just go into the office on occasion." ■ Even taking her "concern" at face value, Cathy Merrill chose a strange forum in which to express her thoughts. In the pages of her own magazine, she waxes nostaltic about the way her company embraces long-term employees. But one doesn't just publish an op/ed in the Washington Post hoping that it reaches merely a niche readership. The Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal are America's three newspapers where people go if they want to be read by the elites. ■ Some work environments have agglomeration effects. Some don't. Most are probably on a sliding scale somewhere between the extremes. But it is downright kooky to suggest a one-size-fits-all rule of "If we don't see you, you don't count." ■ Office culture undoubtedly means something. Human beings often like to work in proximity to other human beings, even when they're not working together -- hence the etiquette of working from a coffee shop and the emergence of co-working sites and business incubators. ■ But unless you believe that the entire white-collar economy of the United States has been artificially inflated since March 11, 2020, there's no denying that working from home has worked out satisfactorily for a lot of people. ■ We were forced to make extremely rapid adaptations in the spring of 2020, with technological innovations filling voids created by the disrupted workplace. But now that everyone's been forced to learn how to behave during a Zoom meeting, there's no reason to pretend like that isn't a default component of the standard worker's skill set. A workplace skill, once broadly acquired, easily becomes an expectation. ■ Some environments will always need a physical presence -- nobody's going to start building heavy machinery from home. But the productivity numbers suggest that now that we're over the initial learning curve, it's perfectly fine for many office workers to remain home-office workers, without any excessive pain for their employers or the economy as a whole. But as for the "things that drive office culture"? If they're important, competitive forces will find ways to bring them back. If they're not, then like bell bottoms and slap bracelets, they'll find their proper place in a dusty old nostalgia bin. ■ Instead of hand-wringing over "office culture", more of our energy ought to be devoted to considering the broader need for mental well-being. The last year has put a spotlight on the need to train a lot more people to provide support for mental health. As in, possibly by at least an order of magnitude more than we already have. The people who are actively seeking professional therapeutic help are almost certainly outnumbered by the people who would probably benefit from some form of mental-wellness support. ■ Victor Frankl observed that "Some of the people who nowadays call on a psychiatrist would have seen a pastor, priest or rabbi in former days." And that was in 1946, before religious identification and participation had met their modern decline. The quests for self-understanding, meaning, and belonging are rightly to be satisfied beyond the purview of the HR department. Addressing those needs holistically would a much better use of our time and efforts than worrying about who gets the last slice of office birthday cake.

Health Sharing spare vaccines across the border

Good neighbors: "The Blackfeet Nation in northern Montana provided about 1,000 surplus vaccines last month to its First Nations relatives and others from across the border"

Computers and the Internet Open-source Audacity program sold to private company

It's a very good audio editing program; whether things remain the same under new management is a whole new question altogether. Open-source programs are usually passion projects, which means they do risk becoming orphans without some form of incentive to keep them going.

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