Lullaby for the Damned – pt 3

Part 1
Part 2

Five

Mandatory.

Jon Three Three Seven Gardner was growing weary of the word. Everything now was mandatory. Exercise was mandatory. Sleep hours were mandatory. Study time was mandatory. Nutrition was mandatory. Even recreation was mandatory.

It was during post-shift mandatory recreation time with the off-crew that Jeet-G again met Sarah Four One Huber. She was playing something that looked like a cross between backgammon and the game with the stones and the divot-riddled wooden board whose name he could never recall.

“Mancala,” she smiled, her eyes still fixed towards the board.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You were wondering what games this reminded you of. You got backgammon and were wondering about the other one. It’s called mancala, and it originates from Northern Africa.” She moved a black token from one pile to another. “This game you see here is related. We edited it out, but it used to be extremely popular.” Her opponent remained silent. Continue reading “Lullaby for the Damned – pt 3”

Lullaby for the Damned – pt 2

Three

As he nibbled on his lab-grown food bar, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner silently recounted all he had learned in the past three “days” since he had awoken inside a plain gray box gently suffused with a pale light of indeterminate origin. He organized his thoughts into three categories: outrageous, implausible, and incomprehensible. It was outrageous, for example, that he had been abducted from the life he knew into mandatory labor in a bizarre facility that as near has he could tell, had no exits. It was implausible that the world that he thought he knew to be real had effectively ended in 2012 and that all that remained of human consciousness now ran inside a simulation best spoken of using familiar metaphors rather than technical definitions. It was incomprehensible that from outside the simulation, time was as visible and manipulable as length, width, and depth, and that a fifth dimension was observable.

In his old life as Andrew Culligan, Jeet-G (which is the name he had taken to calling himself thanks to the insistence of his new supervisor that there never was an Andrew Culligan) had viewed the progression of his life and the events he witnessed in serial format, one thing neatly following the last, one step at a time. By his understanding, the future was governed by probability, the past was ruled by certainty, and the thin divide separating them was the inscrutable razor’s edge of the present, where All Things Dwell. All else was either memory or expectation. Phantoms. Imps, sometimes. Jeet-G recalled in his life that never was instances where his memory lied to him. Songs he heard again years later bore new, minor lyrics changes. There in the canteen, eating food as dull and gray as the facility itself, he quietly recited the chorus to Michael Jackson’s 1982 classic hit Billie Jean: “Bille Jean is not my lover; she’s just a girl who says that I am the one, but the kid is not my son.” But, he discovered with some surprise, that his recollection was false, that the lyric is “claims”, not “says” and the notion still sat poorly with him. It was an edit, according to his orientation. There were many thousands of these edits, some great, some small, most of a trifling or petty nature. Some were more serious, more personal. On the second “day” he was informed that when workers like him were culled, in-simulation parents would frequently remember a child that had never existed, and thanks to the incomplete and often hurried nature of the editing process, bits of residue from the cull’s former existence often lingered: a toy that shouldn’t logically exist, oddly framed family photographs, kids’ movies among the VHS collection. Jeet couldn’t help but wonder if James and Ellen Culligan were wrestling with the discomfort of knowing they had a child who was simply no longer a part of the fabric of their world.

Someone entered the cantina. Jeet-G had still yet to acclimate to his new appearance, so everyone else he encountered-and there were surprisingly few others-still looked to him as if they had walked off the set of a cheap 1980s science fiction thriller. The alien creature raised a hand in greeting. “Hey. You must be the new guy. Can I join you?”

The casual greeting made the encounter even more surreal. Jeet-G had carefully listened to his own speech during his downtime and he had been discomfited by what issued from his organs of communication. It wasn’t English. It wasn’t, in point of order, any language he had ever heard uttered before. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t even properly uttered. There was a spoken component to it, but maybe a tenth of the meaning was passed by mechanically agitating the surrounding air. The rest of it he found himself unable to place, unaware as he was of the nature of his new physiology and anatomy. Neither was he at all certain what he should call this new “language” he now “spoke”. Nevertheless, speak it he did, and with what he perceived to be a native accent. “Sure. They call me Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. I’ve been trying out Jeet-G for short.” He thought about smiling, then realized he was too glum to muster the necessary sentiment. “I’d shake hands, but I have no idea what’s even real anymore, let alone what the custom around here is.”

“I’m Sarah Four One Huber.” She had no discernible secondary sex characteristics as far as Jeet-G could tell. He wondered if telling males from females would be covered later in the orientation. “How are you adjusting?”

“Adjusting? I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to be adjusting to.” He wasn’t sure if he was glum or still alarmed, and his ambivalence was evident.

“What department do they have you in?” She had sat opposite him and was unfolding a modest square of cloth that appeared to be woven from metal thread. “I’m in thoracic anatomy.”

“What’s that?”

“Mostly I make adjustments to ribcage design, heart structure, lung capacity, that sort of thing. Haven’t you gotten your work assignment yet?”

“No, not yet.” He wondered what she meant by adjustments to anatomy. “Sorry, did you say ‘heart structure’?”

Her voice rose half an octave in excitement, “yeah, after the event, they needed bigger livers for all the extra toxins, and the liver uses a lot of blood.” She held out her hands, extending fingers no bigger around than soda straws to illustrate her point. “So I helped move the heart under the sternum, rotate it, increase valve diameter, alter the shape of the right atrium, and I even helped with the arterial brachiation and the composition of the pericardium.”

Jeet-G returned a blank look. “I don’t get it.”

She slowed the pace of her speaking, now concerned that he was either a little dimwitted or just knew little about human anatomy. “The pericardium is the membrane around the heart. It…”

He hid his irritation at the condescension well enough that she didn’t catch on. “No, I mean, I don’t get it as in I’m not sure what you mean when you say you adjusted anatomy. Do you… I mean, how do you…” He was confused as to the extent of his confusion.

“Oh, you haven’t gotten to that part of the orientation yet. Oh, I’m sorry. I understand why you must be puzzled.” She leaned over conspiratorially. “We edit them.”

“You edit who?”

“Them. The humans.” She cocked her head a bit. “Well, I suppose strictly speaking, ‘we’ humans, since they’re just us, only we’re out here and they’re in there. Also, they’ve been edited a lot.” She took a bite of the dull food. “I mean, we have too. These bodies have been tailored for this environment just like theirs have.”

He looked down at his still-bizarre appearance. “We have?”

She sat up in surprise. “Of course we have. Low gravity, therefore thin limbs and severely reduced physical strength. Clean environment, therefore small kidneys. Low fat diet, so not much liver. Short digestive tract. Low light, big eyes with dilated pupils. You know, all made to fit the environment.”

That almost made sense to him, but he still had no idea where exactly he was. She said it was a low gravity environment, so he began to suspect he was on some space station somewhere.

The truth, as he would eventually discover, was far more bizarre.

Four

“Greetings Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. I see you have met one of your co-workers. Sarah Four One Huber is also a new arrival, much like yourself. She has proven invaluable in arresting the septicemia problem we had in 2013.”

“It’s 2017.”

“Yes?”

“You said she’s a ‘new arrival’ so how can she have fixed a problem in 2013? Correct my math if I’m wrong, but that was four years ago.”

“You aren’t wrong.” The voice still seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. “But I want you to remember what we said about the nature of time.” Jeet-G sighed as deeply as he was able with his tiny new lungs. “Time proceeds here at the same pace it does there, but we are able to witness and access the entire sweep of history—past, present, and future—on the other side of the veil. We’re in 2017 just like they are. The main difference is that we can see the events of 1912, of 23,000 BC, of the dawn of life on Earth if it suits the mission’s needs. Here, take a look.” Jeet-G rocked back on his brittle heels as a gently-spinning globe filled the orientation room. “This is the Earth about four million years ago.”

Jeet-G caught his balance. “You mean it’s a, uh, a map. A globe. Or maybe a really good hologram. It’s not the Earth.”

“No, it’s the actual planet. It’s in read-only right now, so you can’t alter anything, but that’s the real deal.”

Jeet-G reached out to touch the sphere, but his hand passed right through it. “Come on, it’s a projection. It’s not there.”

“How do you know you’re not the projection?”

“Point taken.”

“If it helps, think of it this way: relative to each other, you’re both projections.”

“That doesn’t help.”

The disembodied voice sounded amused. “You know how like in Star Trek they sometimes talk about the Enterprise being out of phase with a part of subspace or something like that?”

“I’m more of a Star Wars guy. I watched a season or two of Deep Space Nine during the original run, but I never really got into it.”

“Funny you should mention that. Rene Auberjonois is an edit.”

“A what?”

“He died in 1981. Pancreatic cancer. Where The Buffalo Roam was his last performance, and we brought him back.”

“You do that? Bring people back to life? Why?”

“Second-string actors, mostly. Sometimes politicians. Rob Ford is one we’re working on right now. Our most infamous edit is Nelson Mandela. In fact, that one’s what the inhabitants have named our visible edits after.”

“Visible?”

“Most of what we do is ordinary monitoring. But there’s a threat somewhere on the other side of the veil. We’re not sure what it is or where’s it’s from, but here, look at this.” The projection of the planet shimmered as the surface rapidly shifted to form more recognizable continental forms. The changes then slowed, and within the course of what Jeet-G estimated to be a couple of weeks, cities went dark, huge patches of land went from green and fertile to scorched and glowing. Lakes dried, satellites fell from orbit, and the axial tilt of the planet went what Jeet-G could only describe to himself as “all wobbly.”

“What the shit is that?”

“That the shit, is what we’re trying desperately to stop. That is why we planted you in there, that is why we harvested you, and that is why we need your help. What you see before you is a mere three years from now. Unless we can stop it.”

Jeet-G was a-gawp. “How? What? What is that? How do we stop it?”

“That’s part of the problem. We think it’s probably a rogue human on the other side of the veil, someone who’s figured out the nature of things and is either intentionally or accidentally messing with the controls that only we here on this side are supposed to have.” The voice grew melancholy, afraid. “But we don’t know for sure. And we barely even know where to look. We’re still trying to narrow it down by continent. We think it’s probably somewhere in North America, since most of our hits are in the United States.”

“Hits?”

“People reporting systematic memory lapses, errors in recollection, that sort of thing.”

“What?”

“If you want to find someone robust against our editing work, you have to introduce a wide variety of edits, some blatant like the reshoot we did of the Zapruder Film, some subtle like we did for the Volkswagen logo. The big, blatant, obvious ones are to gather a large sample batch, and the smaller ones are to refine our inquiry.”

“I… I still don’t follow. You make changes to the fabric of reality with these edits just to see who notices? How can anyone notice? What you’re describing is impossible.”

“Memory is not reality. Remember that we are experiencing time the same as they are. We can change their entire history, move continents around, change the very structure of their brains even. It will have always been the case, for example, that the Coca-Cola logo has had a small hyphen between the words, but for some, the memory of a tilde will remain. That memory-mismatch frisson shows up here.” A HUD appeared near the globe, much like ones he recalled from the real-time strategy video games he enjoyed. “We track it, try new edits to cull the sample numbers. Eventually we’ll find the culprit and eliminate him from the timeline.”

“Eliminate?”

“That’s the hope anyway. If the Earth goes, we’re all out of a job. Plus, most of us, perhaps all of us still have pretty strong sentimental ties to the reality of our birth. You can even visit the woman who was your wife if you’re so inclined. Not that I’d recommend it, of course.”

Jeet-G folded his arms and snorted. “This is bullshit. Exceptionally well-crafted bullshit, but bullshit all the same.”

“John Three Three Seven Gardner, it does not matter if it is bullshit. You have been drafted to perform a task. If you prove unwilling or unable to perform this task, you will be replaced with someone who can and will.”

“Really? So you can send me back?”

“No.”

“So then what would happen to me?”

The voice was silent for several seconds. As Jeet-G began to wonder if it had left, it abruptly returned. “We lack the resources to support unemployed laborers. You would be recycled.” Jeet-G swallowed the lump that formed in his narrow throat. “That’s enough of that talk for now. Let us return to the test editing procedure. Please be seated at the terminal.”

Jeet-G dutifully sat on the rigid surface, silently pledging to take a modicum of revenge for his abduction.

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Tending the Liberal Garden

Featured image is The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles, by Vincent van Gogh – repr from artbook, Public Domain 

Pluralism

Adam rightfully calls our attention to the “tragic liberalism” of Jacob Levy. This style of liberalism is tragic because the legitimate values of the polity are incommensurable, plural, and inconsistently applied due to the inevitable diversity of the political body. These features lead to “irresolvable tensions.” These tensions are tragic not only because they are a constant, Sisyphean feature of the human experience, but because all attempts to navigate the tensions invariably hurt the legitimate interests of real human beings. We live in a world of trade-offs.

To take a frequent example Adam and I have used, the individualist concerned with liberation will desire to impose a certain level of uniformity on the populace for the sake of the disadvantaged members of society. A closed society like that of the Amish will face interference from without aimed at liberating those individuals perceived either as oppressed or at least as insufficiently capable of making and acting on informed decisions about their membership in the community. But this imperils the very existence of those sorts of communities, which individuals have genuine reasons to value that have nothing to do with the desire to dominate others. And a universalist imposition will hamper the discovery potential of a more federalist approach that affords such communities wider latitude. Both partisans in a political dialogue about how much to interfere in such communities are reasonable.

Continue reading “Tending the Liberal Garden”

If by Identity Politics

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about identity politics. All right, here is how I feel about identity politics:

If when you say identity politics you mean the cultural relativism, polylogism, the automatic and unappealable guilt of the white man by the Original Sin of his oppressive tyranny, that engenders antagonism, essentializes individuals by race or gender, destroys discourse with accusations of tone-policing and mansplaining and foists upon us unwanted self-understandings, calls forth a new age of identity-based segregation, yea, literally constructs a new hierarchy of privilege-checked domination to put in chains the pale old masters; if you mean the evil spell that topples the freedoms of speech—yea and to offend—and of association into the bottomless pit of safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions and mattress marches, white fragility and the male gaze, problematizing and Twitter shaming, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say identity politics you mean solidarity, diversity, the realities of present bigotry and discrimination and the legacy effects of ancient oppressions, the idea that our experiences diverge according to the identity groups to which we belong—chosen and unchosen, plural and overlapping—and that to ignore these differences is to paper over injustices—designed or emergent—in rote thrall to a bland ideal of equality that can perpetuate injustice; if you mean activism led by those who know where the shoe chafes; if you mean more deeply plumbing our social well of knowledge by really listening to the testimonies of groups historically ignored; if you mean a rejuvenated liberalism which magnifies our differences not to erect walls between us, but to illuminate the path to a more genuine equality of dignity achieved in our contextual lives and not just in abstract blueprints; if you mean realizing the benefits of diversity, which are the necessary conditions for that Open Society welcoming to individuals of all sexes and genders, races, religions, nationalities, peaceful political ideologies, and body types; if by identity politics you mean loosening up the grand narrative of history’s victors to include alternative and conflicting interpretations, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

Why no Brave New World?

If you’re anything like me, you haven’t read Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic A Brave New World since you were awaiting a slightly overdue deployment in a piss-yellow barracks during the rainy spring of 1995. Twenty years and change hence, most of what I recall from the novel are impressions of its themes. One thing I remember clearly is a certain irritation at being betrayed. I was promised a dystopia, and received instead a glorious paean to a frankly enticing possible future.  Continue reading “Why no Brave New World?”

The Organizational Economics of Time Travel

Why haven’t time travelers prevented the 100% likely depredations of [pending event]? Why hasn’t anyone come back in time to kill Hitler or save the dodo or smother the members of Nickelback in the cradle? Why in a universe of fermion asymmetry and higher-than-three-dimensional branes have we not seen the real-life equivalent of Booster Gold, Ripley Hunter, Max Mercury, Nate Summers, or the crew of the retrofitted RMS Bounty (after replacing the Klingon meal packs)? Continue reading “The Organizational Economics of Time Travel”

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Sun Tzu and the Art of Narrative

Featured image is a statue of Sun Tzu. By 663highland – 663highland, CC BY 2.5.

One of the few nuggets I can recall from my high school reading of Sun Tzu’s Art of War is this: leave your enemy an escape route. If you surround your foe so thoroughly that they have no option but to fight (suppose surrender is not an option), then they will fight like hell. They will fight as nasty as they can, because there is nothing else left. But if they have a way out, then you can best them in the field with less bloodshed on both sides.

Virginia Postrel in her characteristic wisdom points out that Trump voters had many reasons to vote the way they did. Some of these were racist reasons, to be sure. At the very least, Trump voters displayed a stunning lack of giving a shit for the plight of women and minorities, who bore the brunt of both Trump’s narrative assault and his actual prescribed policies (e.g., building a wall and banning Muslim immigration).

Liberals want to turn Trump’s victory into an endorsement of racism and misogyny. That’s a dumb strategy if you’re against those things. The liberal belief that half the country is made up of horrible people is a big reason Trump got elected, and the more Democrats keep repeating it, the more likely their worst fears are to come true.

And so one popular narrative on the left is to portray all Trump voters as reaching deep inside themselves to find their true hearts of racist darkness. But even if this were true, this is a dangerous narrative for liberals and progressives to advance. Think of this as narrative combat. In the flesh and blood political field, of course, liberals and progressives are routed. But there is a narrative struggle as well. And in this narrative struggle, it’s still possible for liberals and progressives to “win”—that is, to weave history such that in electing Trump, Americans are understood to have succumbed fully to racism. Conservatives and other Trump voters are backed into a narrative corner. If no matter what they do, they will be seen as the worst kinds of racists, then they lose all incentive to believe otherwise of themselves. Worse, they will lose any incentive to rein in the genuine racists in their midst.

trump-turnout
Not a broad endorsement of any vision. Link.

And there are truly nasty elements among the Trump electorate. Nothing I have said above should be interpreted as denying that. The KKK and other white nationalists are jubilant at Trump’s victory. Trump’s campaign brought the Alt-Right out of the shadows, and they will be with us for a long, long time. To be clear, the Alt-Right is explicitly against Enlightenment values and liberalism broadly construed. And these elements will likely be emboldened with the apotheosis of their latest mascot.

But we must be careful to allow Trump voters with non-malicious reasons to keep those reasons, woefully misguided though they may be. Those reasons, those self-conceptions, may yet be compatible with the open society. At least, these self-conceptions may be clay that can be worked with toward liberal ends in a way that white nationalist and Alt-Right identities cannot be. Remember that this is the same citizenry that elected Barack Obama. Twice. And some Obama voters also voted for Trump.

Here is another narrative avoid, one of opposite valence. All over my social media feeds I see recriminations of liberals and progressives and “elitists” for doing nothing but calling Trump supporters racists, sexists, and bigots, and generally employing shame tactics against rural America. Now, just as there really do exist actual racists who loudly and proudly supported Trump for frankly racist reasons, there is a kernel of truth to this narrative as well. But it’s not the whole story. Perhaps because of the careful curation of my social media, here’s what I observed far more often than overzealous accusations of racism and angry demands for white men to “check their privilege”: discussion of institutional and other forms of unconscious effective racism that were met by white men who immediately interpreted these discussions as assaults on their character. Openings of discussions of the reality of social privilege were construed as denunciations of whiteness or masculinity as such.

Social justice rhetoric can be and sometimes is weaponized, but white male fragility is also a very real phenomenon. I was discouraged to hear John McWhorter—one of the “black guys of Bloggingheads”—express disapproval of the term “structural racism” as too incendiary. But the idea is all about how unintentional and unconscious actions can lead to racially disparate consequences. Implicit bias is real. Legacy effects of now-dismantled but historically bigoted policies are real. Spontaneous orders resulting from the unplanned actions and beliefs of diverse individuals can and do lead to perverse outcomes for people belonging to certain communities. While care must always be taken in crafting rhetoric, we must not give up on educating everyone about these realities for fear of offending those who most need to learn that these aren’t just silly ideas cooked up by ivory tower professors. As ever, the burden for this communication rests heavier on white folks like me.

The lesson from all this is that there is no singular true narrative for any electoral outcome, especially from an election as unique as this one with two historically unpopular candidates. We can’t make up our facts (leave that to Trump and the postmodern Alt-Right), but we can be strategic about our narratives and the possibilities they contain.