Plucked Chicken Award 2020: Covidiots

Something went seriously wrong with Western liberal democracy when Covid came knocking

When Plato described man as a featherless biped, Diogenes the Cynic came to his Academy with a plucked chicken proclaiming “this is Plato’s man!”. The Plucked Chicken Award will be awarded every year to the human being that best represents the folly of our idealization of our species.

Plucked Chicken Award 2020: Covidiots

It is the fourth installment of the Plucha (remember, every award needs its shorthand) and what a way to start a decade. We often romanticize humanity by believing that our species finds a way to put its differences aside in times of turmoil and strife, and work together for the betterment of all. And what better opportunity for that than during the worst pandemic that has swept through the planet in over a century. Shakespeare once wrote that “some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” and 2020 had greatness served to us all on a silver platter. After all, in what other crisis could a president or prime minister simply sit back and let their scientists and medical experts take the reign? In what other crisis could ordinary folks be heroes simply staying home and learning to bake sourdough? Alas, nothing could have been further from what actually happened in 2020.

One would think that in an age where illiteracy among the adult populations of the Western world is almost unheard of and when people have nearly the entire repository of human knowledge accessible for free on a smartphone, they would have the common sense to take all necessary precautions to avoid the disease from spreading. This includes staying at home and avoiding all but essential activities, wearing a mask when outside your home, and generally behaving in ways that shows solidarity with your fellow human beings, knowing that these sacrifices aren’t done merely to save your own life but to save others. These aren’t new concepts that are impossible to comprehend for Westerners in liberal democracies. We’re not explaining viruses and bacteria to a Polynesian cargo cult. Continue reading

Cyberpunk 2077 is a (Latin) American dystopia

There are eerie similarities between fictional Night City and today’s Latin American reality

Ok, I have a confession to make: Cyberpunk 2077 is a masterpiece. Yes, the game has taken a lot of flak for the buggy, near-unplayable mess that it was upon release for the PS4 and Xbox One but I am blessed with the PC version which was clearly made with more tender loving care. The developers, Polish studio CD Projekt Red, has also taken some very deserved criticism for its excessive and at times obnoxious marketing, frequent delays, and months-long “crunch time” imposed by management on its staff, a regrettably common exploitative practice in a gaming labor market where unions are non-existent and a surplus of labor (who wouldn’t want to make a living making videogames?) means all but a handful of A-list designers are expendable. Indeed, it is the utmost of ironies that a game based around the cyberpunk premise of rapacious hyper-capitalism ended up exemplifying every bit of it, a fact that has not gone unnoticed to the majority of reviewers who have called the game out for its sub-standard quality control at time of release and impossible-to-meet hype.

But still, launch fiasco and bugs (I have only encountered a couple of rather innocuous ones) aside, I have been utterly enamored by this game despite being less than halfway through it. Firstly, it has the brilliant Hollywood-quality plot and dialogue that one should expect from the people who brought us The Witcher 3. Secondly, it actually has enjoyable combat which I felt in The Witcher 3 was a bit bland, all the more considering it adds stealth elements like having to sneak past guards or security cameras. Thirdly, the hacking elements are perfectly done. Geralt of Rivia’s “witcher sense” has been replaced with a hacker mode where you can perform various kinds of cyber-trickery on any number of equipment around you, even enemies themselves. But even that pales in comparison to the “braindances”, essentially a detective “ghost-mode” which lets you enter other people’s memories and pick up visual, audio, or thermal clues. All this seems overwhelming at first but the game’s excellent in-game tutorials make it second nature very quickly. It’s all brilliantly done and gives you a good variety of tactical options to approach the game. Continue reading

The age of the bad take: how the US liberal media plays to lose

The symbiosis between the media and the Democratic party establishment is a recipe for failure

The opening line in MSNBC host Brian Williams’s daily broadcasts has been exactly the same since January 20th, 2017: “Good evening once again, day 1,347 of this Trump administration, 37 days to go until our presidential election.” Like an inmate counting down each day of their imprisonment as well as the days until their liberation, the opening line serves to prime his audience into equating Trump’s four-year term in office into a prison sentence with no parole. Another one of MSNBC’s highly paid personalities, Rachel Maddow, spent the better part of 2017-19 offering the possibility of such a parole by her obsessive peddling of the Russian interference story that eventually led to Trump’s impeachment. Of course it was destined to fail, as by now it had become all but obvious that a Republican-held Senate would require Republicans to put their country’s interests ahead of that of their party and their president. Only one did so.

Fox News often gets the blame for exemplifying the kind of conservative media brainwashing that has proven so toxic in recent decades, leading to sycophantic levels of support for Trump as well as George W. Bush before him. But much less has been said about the role of the other two networks that form the US’s triumvirate of cable news: CNN and MSNBC. Just as Fox News is unabashedly conservative (notwithstanding its since removed “fair and balanced reporting” motto), CNN and MSNBC supposedly represent the “liberal” side of US politics. And just as the last four years has seen Fox News wage a campaign of apologism and denial over all of Trump’s misdeeds, CNN/MSNBC has basically turned into a 24-hour stream of Trump outrage. And by doing this, has largely turned a blind eye to the structural causes of why Trump won while blindly supporting a Democratic Party establishment that has no intention of addressing them. Continue reading

Is there a Centrist personality?

The right loves authoritarian populists and the left loves to smash windows. What about the so-called middle-ground?

The rise of Trump has resurfaced much discussion about the right-wing authoritarian personality. This initially gained prominence after World War II as social psychologists attempted to find an explanation for why so many millions of Germans and Italians became enthralled with their fascist leaders. According to the theory as developed by people such as Theodor Adorno and Bob Altemeyer and later also popularized by philosophers like Hannah Arendt, a certain psychological profile which prioritized obedience to authority, adherence to traditional social norms and hierarchies, and punitive views towards criminal justice, as well as a general aggressiveness towards outsiders. These attitudes resulted in these personalities being particularly susceptible to far-right populist leaders, however anti-democratic and illiberal they may be.

Nailing down a left-wing authoritarian personality, however, has proven difficult. Altemeyer himself has stated that he has failed to find any evidence of it despite decades of study. Others have seen left-wing authoritarians as being mostly similar to their right-wing counterparts, except that the latter’s deference toa authority is replaced by an obsessive desire to overthrow it, as well as a willingness to engage in politically-motivated violence. Still, this is questionable. Even looking at many of the left-wing authoritarian regimes of the 20th century (the USSR, North Korea), it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the support by their populations was more a product of state intimidation and propaganda rather than personalities. Continue reading

A homage (and critique) of Michael Brooks

He brought internationalism to the US left ecosphere but it wasn’t without shortcomings

On Monday, July 20th, we learned of the passing away of Michael Brooks, co-host of The Majority Report which was the first political podcast that I became a constant follower of. At just 36 years old, every death is a tragedy, more so when it is of such a sudden and unexpected way as a blood clot in the neck (which from what I later read, is exceedingly rare). But more tragic was this happened just as Brooks’ career was taking off. His spin-off podcast, The Michael Brooks Show (TMBS) was launched in 2018 and in just two years had become and important gathering ground of the US progressive left, even managing to bring on luminaries such as Cornell West, Slavoj Zizek, Noam Chomsky, and also land Brooks an interview with Brazil’s Lula da Silva. He had also recently published a book, Against the Web, which is to my knowledge the first counterargument to the right-wing movement known as the Intellectual Dark Web.

If the interview with Lula was the highlight of his podcasting career, there’s a good reason for it. Lula appeared to be Brook’s political hero and shaped (or was shaped by) his cosmopolitan world view which was somewhat unique among the US’s notoriously insular political commentators. For us non-Americans, US news coverage of the rest of the world is something of a running joke, from embarrassing map mistakes on cable networks to a more egregious lack of nuance when analyzing foreign affairs. If they are even covered at all. And while I consider the Majority Report’s host, Sam Seder, probably the finest commentator alive today (on any media) on US politics, Brooks brought a much needed internationalist flair to the podcast, commenting on obscure Latin American and African issues of interest to a leftist audience. Issues that simply would not have been taken up by the Majority Report’s normal coverage had he not been involved. Continue reading

Bioshock and the folly of libertarian utopias

What happens when you run a society based on the premise of unrestrained greed

“[Atlas Shrugged] is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force.” – Attributed to Sid Ziff of the Los Angeles Mirror-News

Despite being a firm believer in reading your enemy (as evidenced by the copies of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Milton Frideman’s Free to Chose that I have gathering dust somewhere), I must confess I have never read Ayn Rand’s most well known novel, precisely because of reviews like the one quoted above. Atlas Shrugged is something of a bible for libertarians since it delineates her philosophy known as Objectivism which is based around ‘rational egoism’ and the economic system best suited to promote it, laissez-faire capitalism. The book was critically panned during its day and Rand was never taken seriously as a philosopher (or a novelist for that matter) although this has not stopped the book from finding its way into millions of college dorm rooms by “edgy” econ and political science undergraduates who fail to realize the lifelong cognitive and moral impairment that reading it and believing in it might entail.

The book itself is about a group of industrialists who, oppressed by excessive government bureaucracy and regulation, decide to abandon their businesses in order to create a new community based entirely on laissez-faire principles. The community would be called Galt’s Glutch, named after the mysterious character of John Galt who masterminds the capitalist rebellion and also outlines the community’s philosophy. Since then, the idea of forming a real-life Galt’s Glutch has been something of an obsession for many libertarians, although finding a location for such utopias is not easy. There is not a square inch of land left on Earth that is not claimed by a government as sovereign territory. This leaves only one place where states have no authority: international waters. Continue reading

The perfect economic killer virus

The novel coronavirus appears almost perfectly fine tuned to wreck a globalized, capitalist economy

The Black Death. Smallpox. Spanish Flu. By now we have all read how these pandemics ravaged humanity, leading to death tolls in the tens of millions. We have also seen how they raved the human body in gruesome, graphic ways. The bubonic plague caused black pustulent swellings that give the disease its nickname. Smallpox deforms the body with thousands of blisters. The Spanish Flu had many symptoms, some of which included uncontrollable nose bleeds and cyanosis, a darkening of the skin into a blue-black hue due to lack of oxygen. In many cases it was so swift that people feeling fine in the morning were gone by the end of the day, often simply dropping dead. More recently we have seen the scourge of Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever, that not only has death rates of 80% among its most lethal strains but also kill you in a horrifying manner, effectively liquefying your insides and bleeding them out from every orifice.

Compared to that, the novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 (or specifically, the disease that it causes which is Covid-19) that is currently affecting the planet is remarkably unremarkable in terms of its lethality and gruesomeness. Death rates have been widely quoted as being around 3%, give or take depending on a country’s demographics as well as general levels of health and preparedness, but they are far lower when all of the untested, asymptomatic cases are considered. Certainly worse than “just the flu” but considerably lower than some of its corona-cousins like SARS (1-in-3 dead) and MERS (2-in-3 dead), the latter being by far the most deadly of the bunch and up there in lethality with most hemorrhagic fevers. And although the clinical description of what Covid-19 does to so many parts of the body is nightmarish, it is all mercifully hidden under the skin. A Hollywood summer blockbuster disease this is not.

Which leads me to believe that although Covid-19 may not be an apocalyptic “perfect killer” disease, it is quite possibly the most perfect destroyer of a modern globalized economy. In fact, if one had to design a disease to bring global capitalism to its knees, it would probably be this. Continue reading

DOOM: from here to eternity with a detour into hell

Remembering the most influential videogame in PC history

No list of the greatest PC games is complete without Doom, the classic 1993 first-person shooter with revolutionary 3D graphics. In the second installment of retrogaming for this blog, I picked up my pixelated shotgun and navigated through Doom’s nightmarish landscapes to remember just why this game was so damn good… and so damn controversial.

My first encounter with Doom must have come sometime around 1994, shortly after I made the jump from console to PC gaming. My mother had thankfully spoiled me with a brand new 486DX-50 which was as close to top of the line at the time as an eager, 15-year old could want. One of the early gems in this new life as a PC gamer was Wolfenstein 3D, the delightfully campy Nazi-killing slug-fest that was one of the first true first-person shooters, at least one that was played in full screen and fast pace, something that at the time required the type of processing power that only a top of the line PCs could provide. Wolfenstein 3D was a bit repetitive but maddeningly fun, as you rampaged your way through Nazi bunkers adorned with swastikas and Hitler portraits while killing Wehrmacht grunts, SS officers, zombies, mad scientists, and even Der Führer himself in a mech-suit. The violence was also over the top, offering blood and guts on a scale that Nintendo at the time would not dare come remotely close to.

It was then that my neighbor (also an avid Wolfenstein fan) told me that another kid on the block had a new game he wanted to show us. “Better than Wolfenstein”. A cynic even in my teenage years, I would not be convinced until I saw it for myself. But when I did, my jaw dropped. As great looking as Wolfenstein was by late DOS-era standards, Doom was a quantum leap ahead. Rooms were decorated in complex techno-futuristic textures, lighting was used to create an atmosphere of ever-present terror, and the monsters were just so much scarier: I still remember jumping the first time a “Pinky” Demon appeared out of nowhere, it’s now iconic growl forever etched into my gaming consciousness. The game also did a wonderful job of prepping you for danger, such as by the subtle hisses and cackling of enemies (particularly the ever-present Imps) whenever they were lurking around the corner. To top it off, Doom was dripping with macho bravado by taunting you when you tried to quit (“go ahead and leave, see if I care”), challenging your manhood with the labels of the easier difficulty levels (“Hey, not too rough”), or by sublime touches like your character’s devilish grin whenever you picked up a new weapon. The 90s were all about the ‘tude, and Doom was the 800-pound gorilla.

Continue reading

The toxic masculinity of coronavirus denial

Populism isn’t the main predictor of a leader having a terrible pandemic response

Bolsonaro spit

By now we have witnessed some of the most astonishing levels of governmental incompetence in response to arguably the greatest human crisis of our lifetimes. On the right, there is Donald Trump calling it a “hoax” and using the pandemic as an excuse for further corporate enrichment, or Brazil’s Bolsonaro insisting that “Brazilians don’t get anything” and clashing with state governors that have enacted lockdowns. On the left there is Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador who has breached social distancing and hygiene protocols in public with zero regrets and claimed that he is protected by religious amulets. At first glance, the common denominator seems obvious: populism. Almost all of the coronavirus deniers appear to be your standard “new right” populists as well as a few others on the left (like López Obrador). But there’s a better explanation. Bad pandemic responses are strongly rooted in the toxic masculinity of their country’s leader. And a good proxy for this is their attitude towards climate change.

Controlling nature

Why climate change you ask? Well, there is already considerable body of research that suggests that climate denial is strongly linked to toxic masculinity. Men are more likely to be climate deniers, less likely to adopt environmental-friendly behavior, and also more likely to interpret this behavior as being “feminine” or “gay”. The psychological underpinnings of this should be obvious. Men have been traditionally raised to think to be in control of nature, rather than let nature be in control of them. Polluting the water, extracting resources, and filling the air with smog are very manly ways to tell Planet Earth we are in charge. As for the flora and fauna, they exist to serve our needs. This idea is as old as the Bible itself, which calls upon man to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28) Continue reading

The rentier class always wins

Once again, taxpayers will end up paying the bill while rentiers escape unscathed

As the battle for our lives against the novel coronavirus pandemic rages, another battle is being ready to be fought: for the economy. It is not an exaggeration to say that that the second quarter of 2020 will see the most severe decline in global economic activity in the history of human civilization, and the question is whether we can come up with the right policies to ensure that the this does not deteriorate into another great recession or worse, another great depression.

For starters, let’s understand the scale of the carnage. Entire sectors of the economy like restaurants, hospitality, and travel have already collapsed. Entirely collapsed. The millions of workers that are now unemployed or which will be soon unemployed as a result of this will require a social safety net of epic proportions in order to survive the 3 or more months of lockdowns, with no guarantee that their jobs will still be there when the crisis is over. For countries that have pushed forward a comprehensive package of corporate lifelines and worker’s support (pay guarantees, moratorium on interest, utilities, mortgages, and rent, etc.), it is estimated that these may end up costing as much as 10% of GDP (maybe even more), putting further strains on national finances which in many cases have not yet recovered from the 2008-09 crisis. And for developing countries, with masses of informal workers and lack of social safety nets, the outlook could end up being as apocalyptic as the virus itself. Continue reading