Tuesday, January 18, 2022

A Shadow's Burden

The soul's weight descends on the bearer in a blanket of worry
For something so insubstantial yet tethered to a foreign body,
There's a frightening power, a Newtonian attraction to its pull
The eclipse of the heart appears suddenly in the blink of a lifetime

Dark matters apply their weight handily on the human chest
The entire mass, the full pressure, a mountain of silhouettes
Fragments of grief, scarcity, and all manner of precarity
Step right on, send me your troubles care of the soul's sanctuary

As a boy I would run freely for hours and hide from my own shadow
Try as I could, God knows I tried, it was never out of my reach
As a parent, I've found that the toughest lesson I've had to teach
To my children, without a doubt, is that no one is promised tomorrow

A shadow's burden chases the notion of whimsy away
The upheaval leaves in its wake a patchwork of dismay
Heavy on the mind, the heart aches in search of a cure for the perceived defect
The body seeks solace, but only time can supply the blanket of neglect

fabric batik patchwork

A Shadow's Burden, a playlist


A soundtrack for this note. See previously: The Laws of Grief and Rhythm of Loss

This internal displacement is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Writing log: March 15, 2021

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Naming Conventions

Prosecutor: Mr Witness, what did Reflection tell you about who shot Superman?

To Make the Road Fearful

Transcript of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Trial of Charles Taylor
Witness: TF1-375 [On Former Oath], June 24, 2008
Your Honor, I would first like to caution the witness,
Before he starts to speak with typical military directness
And turns to the sheer horror of the moment and macabre grimness
That there is the matter of naming conventions that we must address

Could we start, if he pleases, with the death and desolation
Of Operation No Living Thing or Operation Spare No Soul?
Oh, I see my learned colleague would rather not go down that rabbit hole
I withdraw the question, let's consider instead Operation Stop Elections
Which introduced the alarming spectacle of random amputations
Institutionalized by his troops as shock and awe situations
I ask you, Mr Witness, what, in all this, was your considered position?

Uh-huh, but what of Operation No Monkey, or the obvious invitation
To marauding and looting embodied in Operation Pay Yourself?
Surely he'll admit the sordid manner in which he outdid himself?
Any observer would marvel at that affair's rather cynical precision

Okay, the witness is being argumentative, we are not getting anywhere,
We can stick to the well worn terrain of what he previously admitted
Just the other day in open court, freely, in his earlier testimony.
But let me ask, what does he think about the names of the wicked?

Where, in all this, was Jungle, Black Jesus, Savage, Crazy, Red Goat, Rocky and Rambo?
All right, I'll restate my question, I am asking here about R.U.F. Rambo
Your Honor, could you advise the witness not to opine on who was scarred and handsome
And please answer instead of commenting on which of the two Rambos was the most fearsome

No, your Honor, my intent is not to blame the witness and the footsoldiers,
It is rather to determine the chain of command, the soul controllers
I understand that you, Mister Witness, followed orders to the letter
But from whom? Was it Zigzag Marzah, Five Five or General Dry Pepper?

Was it Captain Blood, Leather Boot, or the wannabe footballer, Gullit?
Was it Dawn-Dawn, Waco-Waco, Butterfly, KGB, Zino, or Black Diamond
Were the Black Gaddafa involved, or the notorious Adama Cut Hand?
And where was The Devil, The Killer, Scare the Baby and Monkey Brown?

Or was it General 50, General 245, or the rather confusing General Dried Pepper?
I'm sure you, Mister Witness, on this point, can provide further and better particulars
I submit to you that the Black Guards and the West Side Boys were part of the plan
And yes, of course, we'll get to the aforementioned Reflection and Superman

Now you would have us believe that you were present when, I repeat,
Scare the Baby was discussing with Butterfly "somewhere in Ganta"
In Ganta mind you, where to take Superman and Red Goat for dinner

Are you seriously telling this Court that a piece of pizza in Ganta
Costs more than twenty five US dollars?
So it would cost more than the rent of one of your motorbikes
For a whole day just to eat a piece of pizza? Jesus Christ

Witness: In Monrovia, not in Ganta. Monrovia. Monrovia. Yes, in Monrovia.
And I can locate the areas to you, for you to make a background investigation.

There's no need to bring up General Butt Naked, this isn't a fishing expedition
If it please the Court, my purpose is not to summon a play by way of Ionesco
Of logicians, and the plight of those who dance the corruption tango
Of all the things, the blood and the sin, Mister Witness, that this trial has heard
It seems to me that you're taking us to the torrid zone, the land of concern
Now we're completely unmoored, and reaching for the theater of the absurd

The child solder narrative in African literature

Postscript


See previously: To Make the Road Fearful

The most harrowing bit of reading I've done, the transcripts of the Charles Taylor trial, prompted the scariest piece of writing I've ever published, To Make the Road Fearful. Indeed, after getting it out of my system, I couldn't write a single word for almost a year, I was simply spent.

Four years later, I received a short email from the Chief Prosecutor who was then back at the UN. My piece had been doing the rounds at the International Criminal Court and United Nations and was being well received. It seems my close reading wasn't for nought, that plumbing the depths served some purpose even beyond assuaging this reader's curiousity. I can't say enough how heartened I was by this head nod of appreciation. Still, I felt that I had no business ever tackling this subject matter. I still felt the taint of its dark matter.

Perhaps the global pause enforced by the pandemic has occasioned a soul refresh. With a little distance from that cautionary tale, I now believe I can start to mine that terrain again. Satire is tragedy plus time, a wise man once said, and the balm of time can elevate the heart of darkness into its rightful domain: the land of concern, the terrain of the absurd. Do let me know if this is an easier read than the earlier grief concoction.

Naming, a playlist


A soundtrack for this joint

This internal displacement is part of The Things Fall Apart Series under the banner of Doctor Simbo.

Previously

Next in Part IV: Enter Doctor Simbo


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Writing log. Concept June 2008; Prose: April 2015; Poetry: March 28, 2021

Friday, January 07, 2022

Shock of the Familiar

It's uncanny when you first recognize a kindred spirit
When you find yourself in conversation with a long lost friend
Beholding that ineffable nous that immediately speaks to you
A substance and outlook that, you realize, tints your customary lens

For what is familiar to you, what you've long known as normalcy
Is not the same for others, rare are the cases of deep empathy
You wrote the tale of the lost stories in an attempt to find yourself
For it's not often that you recognize yourself on the book shelves

It's bracing to read them as they take you into their worlds, these writers
With their finely detailed narratives, it's the underlying story that matters
What with the shared love of limpid language and angular storytelling
We are children of Ananse, with words as music, lovers of social living

I have my tribe, masked in words, with whom I'm in episodic conversation
Members of my cohort who give me comfort with their singular discursions
Blood brothers and sisters, most of them badged as modern travelers
I don't need their likes or plaudits, their very presence is enough

Humorous anecdotes and elliptical notions thrown in for good measure
Unafraid to take our time and tell stories and let them take us where they may
There are distinctions for sure, I'm not one for some of their enthusiasms
Even when I disagree, I have a deep and specific connection with their artistic impulses

The long tail of community, kindred souls who risk and dare
We are normally dark matter, but clarifying with the stories we share
Each pushing our way towards the moment when you see your face in the mirror
But even with our undoubted self confidence, it can be the shock of the familiar

In a life of mixed metaphors: the middle passage and the torrid zone
I'd rather not face the challenge of humanity's curriculum alone
At once stranded mid-Atlantic, dislocation is our ultimate subject
A head nod to my fellow travelers engaging in the normalcy project

Aburi mask

Evocative, a playlist


The Friends playlist would normally be my first port of call, but this note seems to require something a bit more angular and evocative. Taken mostly from Massive Attack and Portishead who frankly won the 90s and finishing with the incomparable Stevie Wonder taking flight.
...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

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Writing log: March 25, 2021

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Flavor of the Month

No one is indispensable
Your kind are a dime a dozen
Don't delude yourself on special standing
Don't fall for that kind of racket
True, your skills are specialized and you're now being feted
Your insights are recherché, studied as befits the media glare
With the acclaim, you seem to have gained an entrée, a seat at the table
But the real power brokers are at the high table, far from where you are seated

No one is indispensable
True, for now you're the flavor of the month
But, as the history of all creative endeavors has shown,
Originality, although prized, has a shockingly short shelf life
Humanity can amble along with the merely mediocre, or plain ordinary
Survival is the biological imperative, your talents are unnecessary
Excess sauce, a thrill for the moment, a temporary passion
Tastes are bound to change, albeit you may be the latest fashion

No one is indispensable
I know, it's sad. They're throwing fine labels at you:
Edgy, Emersonian, afrofuturist, avant garde
Such is the frisson of authenticity granted those bearing a ghetto card
Your time might have come, feel free to enjoy the spotlight of this phase
But steel yourself for when their gaze surely shifts in the coming days

No one is indispensable
I tell you, let me count the ways
My friend, trust me on this,
Get ready to be lavished with faint praise
An ode to this fleeting moment when you are labeled Number One
Ephemeral, disappointment is nothing new under the sun

me mercy ocansey shop

Flavor of the Month, a playlist


A soundtrack for this cautionary tale.
  • Drop a Dime by Charlie Hunter
    I like the version on the Gentlemen I Neglected to Inform You that You will Not be Getting Paid album and accompanying tour but any version of this groove will suffice
  • High Fashion by The Family
    Here's hoping that Prince's vault will reveal more from the sessions for this band.
  • Flavor Man by Public Enemy
    The album's title poses the existential question of the internally displaced: How you sell soul to a Soulless People who sold their soul? The greatest hype man in history, Flavor Flav.
  • The Latest Fashion by Prince and The Time
    The live and original versions are light years from what was released, I hold on to them. Staying power was suspect with this tune.
  • Hot Property by Jamiroquai
    A light fun jam to round things up. It sounds almost like disco which we know quickly became branded as a passing fancy.
...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

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Writing log: Concept March 2012; March 17, 2021

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Season of Migration

Refugees all, we in Africa are no strangers to dislocation, in many ways it is our close friend.

Bags and Stamps
Welcome, Dislocation, old friend, so nice to see you again Mister
Come on in, Struggle is over there, we were just fixing drinks
What will you have? Homeland was trying out the sangria earlier
How was it homie? Did it pass the test? Tell me, what do you think?

Really? Well we can't have you drinking something that's merely ordinary
Come, let's get you something more substantive, I have a special wine
Or are you thinking whisky at this hour? Tell me your bottom line
Shelter, back there yonder, got started on a vintage bottle already

Knowing him, when he gets to work on these things, you might be out of luck
That guy can hold his drink, he's probably making pilgrim's progress
What's this I'm hearing? Good god, the pandemic's got you all mixed up?
You've lost your sense of taste? And ginger beer is now your weakness?

Well I can accommodate you, my friend, I think - it takes all sorts
We have a Jamaican one around somewhere but, please, no buyer's remorse
Before you leave, let me serve you some palm wine, some akpeteshie
That legend, Redemption, thinks it's quite worthy of a speakeasy

You know the story behind that one, we got it when we were getting married
And scoping out caterers for the wedding banquet at the last minute
The Nigerian caterer gave it to us on the house, said we deserved it
We asked, "What about the liquor license?" And sighed, "Oh, it's no use.
It would really round out the menu, oh this is such a case of regret"
That guy, cracked his Yoruba smile, and replied, I'll never forget,
"These oyibo get so confused, we simply call it palm juice"

The tides picked you up again, fear not, you shall return to your land
Remember, the world is your port of call, everything is written in sand
Nostalgia said he'd show his face. That guy, he never answers his phone
He never makes our cooking sessions, he spends his time in the torrid zone

bags and things

Immigrant, a playlist


A cocktail hour playlist for this holiday party
...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

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Writing log: March 21, 2021

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Ellipses

I first met my sister one Christmas Eve, I was about to reach my maturity
A long story, gaps, pain, and the ellipses that belie a longer history
Of such things are families made, what with the undercurrent of trauma
Still, that quarter century was tough to bridge between mother and daughter

We'd been talking over the months and now it was a family reunion
Feeling each other out, exchanging banalities, she was unassuming
The three of us in the Brent Cross flat, a typically cold English winter
Contra London's grey, we all wore the most godawful sweaters

We settled in with no wariness and just got on
Cool customers, we were nothing if not nonchalant
They stared at each other these proud African women
My aunt made it a fourth in our exiled quadrant

A meeting of minds, myself, aunt, sister, and mother
Exiled souls, from homelands and from each other
Four lonely Londoners now missing Nigeria and Ghana
Wondering how to write the script for tomorrow's chapter

The usual suspects came into play: respect, deference, shame, and matters of protocol
We found our way through the initial unease and established our new rituals
Not knowing what one should expect, our trajectories in life were not too dissimilar
Still it was disconcerting, in the moment, to experience the shock of the familiar

Crafting narratives, some of us for a living, we were all born storytellers
Truth and reconciliation, it was hard to tell who could top the other
We could each raise the stakes recounting close encounters
And mention the harrowing escapes that marked our identities
The stolen moments we now shared, the tale of the lost stories

We quickly forgot the hurt and settled into the comfort suites of teasing
Deflecting past slights with irony and dry humor, we practiced the art of easing
Still, the mannerisms were uncanny, genetics could not be denied
Fittingly, the first movie we watched together was Secrets and Lies

ghana artwork mother and child

Elliptical, a playlist


The soundtrack to this grace note comes courtesy of Meshell NdgegeOcello, purveyor of liquid soul and elliptical funk grooves.

I nominate this brief note for The Things Fall Apart Series under the banner of Social Living. What paradise have we lost?


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Writing log: March 25, 2021

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Restructuring Activities

The blue bags were the detail that lingered and that you first noticed
As the security guards escorted the unfortunate souls out of the building
The royal blue of our corporate logo, not quite Ikea blue or Big Blue
Lovely plastic bags filled with personal belongings, photos, wages due

The rumours had been spreading for weeks, it was hard to get any work done
We'd all started to worry about bank balances and the lack of emergency funds
The sword of the corporate Damocles loomed large over our heads
Water cooler conversation circled uneasily around the shape of dread

Some started polishing LinkedIn profiles and resumes
Replying to the recruiters' emails, the curriculum vitae
Truth be told, it could have been you that day, it was a roll of the dice
You'd been on the other side previously, the experience wasn't very nice

A day later, in Skype a number of avatars had "Presence unknown" as their status
Next to the grey offline dot, that naming designation was appropriately callous
The faces of the wounded members of your tribe forcibly ejected into the unknown
The rest of you counted your blessings and continued working in the torrid zone

ghana must go versus ikea


The corporate communications were full of inspired euphemisms
Uneasy phrases that outlined the process behind these resource actions
The passive voice reigned supreme, in this agitation there were no actors
The dry prose never assigned clear responsibility, only fudge factors

The actions were ongoing, the separations were involuntary
This opacity about the recent events and their inevitability
It was all about "the changes that we've made", those were mandatory
"The decisions we've had to make", on the other hand, were necessary

Tough love was in our future, there could be no promises about tomorrow
Indeed we were to understand that management was tinged with sorrow
And the logistics were tricky, it takes weeks to layoff thousands
When you wanted to present a human face you had to make allowances

Give them a couple of weeks severance, and explain their options
The bottom line was, we had to put this behind us, it was time to move on
A wilful erasure of the cheeriness and all the previous certainties
The stage was set, we'd simply have to endure these restructuring activities

heavy lifting


In the aftermath of this round of layoffs, I don't quite know what possessed me
To raise my hand, and indeed, my voice at the all hands meeting with my query
I simply asked the smiling executives if they could give us any guarantees
That those who had so grossly misallocated capital in stock buybacks
Had now adopted the right strategy to put The Company on the right track

There was a stunned silence at my impertinence, who knew?
"That's a very interesting question, you're not holding back, are you?
What was your name again?", he chuckled, that's all she wrote
Uh oh, you and your big mouth, I guess they were taking notes

In the event, the answer he gave was as expected:
"Piffle, paffle, wiffle, waffle"
Said with enough empathy to leave everyone baffled
In the land of concern, we wouldn't feel neglected

"Does that answer your question?"
"Indeed, thank you sir, I've learned a great lesson"
Woe is me, I should have kept my mouth shut
My future prospects had just received a haircut

Come to think of it, I never got a raise after that outburst
Luckily they weren't vindictive, they didn't do their worst
I've had years to recover, I make a good living, I can't say that I'm bitter
These days I keep my rather mild critiques of modern day shell games to Twitter

south africa must stay and ghana must go

Restructuring Activities, a playlist


A soundtrack for this pink slip, I must admit I found it difficult to get beyond Gil Scott-Heron who captured this mournful moment with uncanny accuracy. Pieces of a man collected in blue bags.
...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

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Writing log. Concept: November 15 2018; March 25, 2021

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Dining Philosophers Problem

The dining philosophers problem is well known in computer science
Dealing with matters of access, it has analogues in our headlines
Humanity's curriculum involves many rituals and traditions
Perhaps, then, it's worth explaining the problem's formulation

The diners that are gathered here today are five in number
Imagine, if you will, your favorite group of philosophers
They are initially presented in a state of silence at the venue
Around a round table, hungry they are, for spaghetti is on the menu

The central conceit is that each philosopher must alternately think and eat
Implicit also is that they are vegetarians or vegans, for there is no meat
The rules of the social game adds the constraint of manners as the main course
That they can only dig into their spaghetti if they have both left and right forks

After a philosopher finishes eating, but before launching into thought,
They must put down both forks to make them available for others.
Forks, in this arrangement, can only be held by one philosopher at a time.
The problem's construction teaches that sharing is caring at mealtime

To add realism to the scenario, we can assume there is an unlimited supply of food
And that our philosophers can eat long past the point that would normally be good
With these core ingredients: philosophers, spaghetti, forks (but no knives)
The problem is meant to illustrate the challenges of living parallel lives

An utter conundrum, this problem when it was presented to me at university
That, while I could discern that it had applications in the study of concurrency,
The problem was going from this set of instructions to designing an architecture
Full disclosure, I damn near failed this course on algorithms and data structures

The enduring challenge, if you think about it, is how to avoid deadlock
The fear is of resource starvation such that the actors find themselves stuck
We want a world in which no philosopher will starve and continue forever
To eat and think deep thoughts; a metaphor, this immortal philosopher

The Last Philosophers

Timing is everything in the choreography of actors
Finding a strategy to manage this human infrastructure
The fundamental issue at hand, the term of art, is mutual exclusion
A stark concept, therein lies the difficulty with the algorithm

The conventional solution involves a resource hierarchy
I found it quite unfair because it clearly lacks neutrality
But it can be proven to work, if one heeds the instructions and laws
It applies an ordering to the distribution of shared resources

Another strategy that has been advanced is arbitration
This one I tried out, as I'm a firm believer in conversation
Once you designate a mediator, and open yourself up to abide by their resolution,
As the song goes, it takes behavior to get along, diplomacy can be the solution

The philosophical issues are many with middlemen, think of Caesar's tax collectors
And of the oligarchs and monopolists who insert themselves as toll collectors
Who are the designers of these systems in humanity's curriculum?
Who gets to make the rules? And who pays soul insurance premiums?

Game theory can come into play, think of the prisoner's dilemma
The shortest path to success might be to seize resources - state capture
Write the ruler's rules, and steal power like a conqueror
Rehearse a coup drill following the lead of many a dictator

I found that the problem had all the makings of a cautionary fable
Earlier, you might recall, I held my fire at that philosopher's table
Where rage, and its contemporary uses, were the bone of contention
'Twas decidedly, I'd explained, a case of normalcy prohibition

I had been thinking about this modernity of parallel lives
Where some have the great privilege of their insatiable appetites
A state of the world in which no progress is possible
We would do well to study the Mosquito Principle

equality rosewood park

See previously:

The Dining Philosophers Problem, a playlist


A soundtrack for this treatise, bookended by the great divas
...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

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Writing log: March 28, 2021

Friday, November 26, 2021

A Panoply of Mistakes

Inadequate protection proved to be the golden rule
Turning the sanctuary of care homes into mortuaries
Meatpacking plants became the scene of betting pools
On the fate of frontline workers fighting penury

Essential meant expendable, they were an afterthought
And, as for survival checks, they were fiercely fought
Furlough schemes be damned, quick, get back to work
Eat out to help out, dereliction of duty was their watchword

The contrast was stark, for some, street life, eviction, and bankruptcy
For others, all manner of assistance, they called in the cavalry
It's quite obvious who the winners were, for them no expense was ever spared
The clear conflicts of interest on their no-bid contracts were never declared

Easy words: "I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost,
And of course," easy lies: "we truly did everything we could",
Badged with easy empathy: "it's hard to compute the sorrow
contained in" these "deaths, with many more likely to follow"

Easy insults: "I take full responsibility", even as I deceive
With easy deflection: "it would be almost impossible to believe"
That the country "has passed the grim milestone", so many lives lost
And of course, "I offer my deepest condolences" and these easy thoughts

sustainable caskets

After Mister Johnson, January 26 2021

Wrong, a playlist


A
soundtrack of unforced errors
Given the choice, they chose the wrong way. History will judge them harshly despite their fervent efforts at reputation scrubbing.

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Writing log: January 27, 2021

Thursday, November 18, 2021

A Taxonomy of Useful Idiots

Pondering a bestiary of useful idiots, a field guide to the species...

I once proposed a taxonomy of useful idiots: the ignorant, those who should know better, the reflexively tribal, and the professional opportunist. I have since recharacterized the mooted third category, the reflexively tribal, with a broader brush as the professional contrarian. The tribal intimation didn't fully capture the nuance that I sought, and the reflexivity I implied often overlapped with the contrarian impulse and with the actions of those who should know better. Not to mention that there was also the matter of intent. No, it wouldn't do; precision is needed in a hatchet job and I, for one, aim to deliver. Ah well, I've always been upfront that my brand of social anthropology was a work in progress. In any case, herewith some further musings...

To recap, here's the toli taxonomy of useful idiots:

  • the ignorant
  • those who should know better
  • the professional contrarian
  • the professional opportunist
Let's visualize this, in case you are that way inclined (forgive me Edward Tufte)

taxonomy of useful idiots

Useful idiots are a tribe that one encounters all too often in life. They cause a disturbance in the force, and no small disorder wherever they are found. They provoke anxiety and raise blood pressure with their confounding behavior. Their impact is particularly elevated in times of crisis, wars chief among them. During a pandemic, such as our covidious present, it can be a matter of public health and great urgency to be able to accurately identify these purveyors of grief. Prompt and targeted action is of the essence in order to blunt the impact of these merchants of chaos. We are all classifiers at heart, albeit we may not be good at it, but pattern matching is the human burden, it's what we do. It is worth investing the time and effort to understand the useful idiot, bear with me as I expound.

My poor man's Gartner quadrant lays out our populace of useful idiots plotting them against two axes: knowledge and intent. I hesitated in doing this as there is a fine line, of course, in discerning where candidates lie on a spectrum. How does one know for sure what someone knows or what their real motivation is? Mind reading is a skill lost to the ages - confiscated by the gods, humanity has to reach for heuristics. You don't have to reach to Hanlon's razor and "never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity". Also we ignore The Basic Laws Of Human Stupidity at our peril. And, as we shall see, Carlo Cipolla's insight and the framing of his treatise on our species's stupidity is a key driver of our investigation. We'll take it as a given that, to the observer, overt demonstrations of ineptitude or dismay are hard to characterize. But we have to try anyway, it helps to know who you are dealing with.

The Ignorant


I have written on ignorance previously, launching off on its embodiment in the form of the incurious George W Bush. That affair was simply a matter of standing on the shoulder of giants; we all know that Hilaire Belloc should have the first and last word on ignorance.
There is not anything that can so suddenly flood the mind with shame as the conviction of ignorance, yet we are all ignorant of nearly everything there is to be known. Is it not wonderful, then, that we should be so sensitive upon the discovery of a fault which must of necessity be common to all, and that in its highest degree? The conviction of ignorance would not shame us thus if it were not for the public appreciation of our failure...
Belloc, in his opening salvo, lays out the well known terrain of uncertainty that the ignorant live in. Ignorance is a natural part of man's condition, indeed you don't have to harken back to the Garden of Eden to acknowledge that it is our default state. Further, ignorance is a social disease, one that stings the possessor when it is perceived by others. We are all striving simians not far removed from the savanna and the perception of fault, and potential ridicule, is a potent restraint. For ignorance to be identified, there must, of necessity, be the notion of shame.

Reading Belloc's insight, we can begin to see the outlines of a strategy for dealing with the challenge. Education is the standard remedy proposed for ignorance - call it applied knowledge as the antidote. Further insight here is based on understanding that shame, and the perception of discovery, are crucial in the working of ignorance. So long as there are vestiges of a shame culture, one might be able to counter the actions and effect of the ignorant useful idiot. The threat of revelation, and its karmic or reputational consequences, could be a potent inhibitor of the ignorant useful idiot.

The reverse of the coin is also obvious: societies long removed from the sway of a shame culture are acutely prone to the workings of useful idiots. Where scoundrels prosper freely, the useful idiot has firm ground on their side. Buyer beware.

Those Who Should Know Better


Those who should know better are a frustrating breed because they have tasted of the fruit of knowledge but it didn't resonate with them. Perhaps they thought it didn't apply to them, or worse, they assumed good faith of others. Whatever the reason, a common observation apropos those who should know better is that laziness, intellectual and otherwise, is their close companion. They often have their own narratives and idées fixes, their preferred view of reality, in other words. Those who should know better like their stories, and hold fast to them, however misconceived. They never heeded the call to trust but verify.

Viewed through an information theory lens, those who should know better have looked at the data pyramid repeatedly but are unable, or unwilling, to distill data into information, nor indeed, to translate experience into knowledge, let alone process it further. They are missing the machinery that goes under various names, wisdom and common sense, prime among them.

Those who should know better, however, can often be reached by advocacy, and be swayed to, in fact, know better. Sometimes a mugging by reality is all it takes - in the playground growing up, I have seen a few well-timed slaps sober up those who should know better. More generally though, one has to wait for events to take their course and to reveal the inevitable results of their wishful thinking coming to pass. "Experience is a brutal teacher," quoth C.S. Lewis, "But you learn. My God, you learn".

Revelations do occur, and road to Damascus incidents do happen. Consider the parade of useful idiots in the hard realist liberal crowd that have been lying low after their misbegotten advocacy of the Iraq war (or alternately their latter day shtick after foisting George W. Bush on us etc.). Pick your favorite mea culpa, for their number are legion. Now, mind you, if you were collateral damage to the Bush-Cheney misbegotten wars on the wrong target, you might rightly point out that there is no consolation to be had at the spectacle of someone who should know better belatedly realizing their mistake. It won't bring back the dead bodies, or the money squandered. And good luck locating the foregone prestige, call it a deadweight loss. There are slim pickings to be found in schadenfreude at those who should know better's comeuppance - their damage has already been done.

Still, the fact that there is a measure of self-awareness is a positive - lemonade out of lemons, as it were. It is always entertaining to see the moment when those who should know better realize that they have been used, or figuratively pimped out by the more cunning. The squirming and the attempt to reconcile themselves with the knowledge that they've been had, and might even be an object of scorn or ridicule.

Sidenote: ridicule cuts even deeper against those who should know better than against the ignorant, but for a different reason. The self image of those who should know better sees them operating at a higher status than the ignorant. To be cast in the same rank as the ignorant is quite damaging to the psyche of those who should know better. Shame, not just at the revelation of ignorance, but of the acknowledgement of deficiency. Those who should know better have the self regard of the infallible; the realization of their poor judgement and incompetence is a grievous wound.

Those who should know better are often framed as serious thinkers. In modern western politics, these smooth operators are often the sensible centrists, the clear eyed realists. They are liberal hawks, branded as manly and reluctant warriors. In the American polity, there are always second lives.

We have folk wisdom at our behest. "Once bitten, twice shy" is what we hope works, and a mantra we tend to chant in the direction of all and sundry, and especially towards those who should know better. Experimental research confirms that our efforts are mostly misplaced. The problem with those who should know better is that, sometimes, they have to have been bitten a half dozen times before the lesson sticks and sometimes the lesson is only half absorbed. Perhaps they are missing the shyness gene or they don't have the requisite memory cells. The frustration for others is that their condition presents as a case of wilful, laziness-induced amnesia, a groundhog day of failing to learn lessons.

If you look towards our literature, the narratives that are replete in human culture, there are any number of cautionary tales, fables and proverbs that come into play. My own favorite saying is that "it is unwise to have gentlemen's agreements with people who aren't gentlemen". Such a statement would be lost on those who should know better. They might nod their heads, and give the impression that they have assimilated the information, but by the time the conversation has ended, their mind is a blank slate.

Different priorities might be at work in the psyche of those who should know better. W.H. Auden said it best that "Knowledge may have its purposes, but guessing is always more fun than knowing." Such is human Archaeology. We mistakenly place a premium on knowledge, and on wringing one's hand at the ignorant or those who should know better. Tsk-tsking the Fox News contingent or the low information imbiber won't get you far. We should simply acknowledge that there are many who simply view news as entertainment and politics as theater; it is no wonder they are wont to dismiss knowledge.

Frequency Distribution


The frequency distribution of our tribe of trouble manufacturers is interesting. I assert, through empirical and hard-worn experience, that the vast majority of useful idiots fall into the first two categories, the ignorant, and those who should know better. This is heartening because, as I've suggested, there might be strategies to mitigate their effects if not diminish their numbers.

Sidebar: Strategies For Dealing With Useful Idiots


An interim look at a few of the strategies we've outlined for dealing with useful idiots
  • education
  • shaming
  • ridicule
  • fear
  • experience
With this portfolio in our toolkit, one can hope a multipronged approach can temper the damage, even as all of these have limitations.

If you emphasize the importance of the axis of knowledge, then you can think about dealing with useful idiots as a matter of low information (per the ignorant) or as a failure at information processing (per those who should know better).

It helps to consult the texture of knowledge. The Rumsfeld Taxonomy of knowledge is one framework that an earlier, previously destructive Donald laid out (known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns). We'll augment it with a fourth category, the "unknown knowns", the subconscioius biases and blind spots that, tellingly, the erstwhile Secretary of Defense omitted from his taxonomy.

I would have thought that the lesson was that the unknowns by definition are unknowable and, if you go ahead, following the Rumsfeld example, and discount even the knowns, you end up traveling in a lightly-armored Humvee on the road from Baghdad airport with a convoy of outsourced mercenaries. Good luck on that front.
Mate Masie, the Adinkra symbol from the Akan saying about knowledge, wisdom and prudence, "Nyansa bon mu ne mate masie", is literally rendered in English as "I have heard and kept it". This points to the importance of comprehension, acquisition and retention in the workings of knowledge. Weaknesses on any of these fronts can undermine our strategic efforts against the useful idiots.

mate masie

Baltasar Gracián writing in 1647 in The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence, doesn't give much comfort about the odds of success.
There are many, however, who don't know that they don't know, and others who think they know, but don't. Stupidity's faults are incurable, for since the ignorant don't know what they are, they don't search for what they lack. Some individuals would be wise if they didn't believe that they already were. Given all this, although oracles of good sense are rare, they sit idle, because nobody consults them.
The ignorant and those who know better suffer no lasting downside; their failings are all too human. Nudging, and any of our other approaches, can provide only minor palliative relief.

On etymology, William Safire once investigated the provenance of the useful idiots of the west saying, the saying oft-attributed to Lenin - per Paul Boller, he never said it. We may not have a clear attribution but we all clearly know their effect. Useful idiots confuse the issue, they divert attention, they waste everyone's time. It is sad that the term is seen to be derogatory since it is merely descriptive and, shorn of value judgement, very helpful in classification.

Dealing with useful idiots is exhausting like all labour, but it is labour nevertheless. Thankless it may be, but it is best to consider our engagements with useful idiots as a tax on society, and we all know that we should render unto Caesar... It takes lots of behavior to get along as we know, social living is the best.

The Professionals


These categories of useful idiocy are fluid. People can move around and even leave the plane of useful idiocy using some of the approaches I've outlined. Which leaves the last two categories, both professional and, well, both useful idiots: I am referring of course to the professional contrarian and the professional opportunist. Let's take a look again at our taxonomy to refresh our memory.

taxonomy of useful idiots

The professionals, the professional contrarian and the professional opportunist, are orthogonal to the ignorant and those who know better. They are quite simply a breed apart. Consider them the superspreaders of the useful idiocy contingent.

Let's introduce a few terms and definitions that I often use interchangably as shorthand to these professionals: gremlins and parasites. Longtime readers will be familiar with this toli monger's jargon but one has been advised to expand one's audience. I'll adopt the Vox Optima explanatory, ostensibly-neutral tone and explain as I go along. So. Gremlins and parasites, clickbait for profit.

Parasites map easily to professional contrarians, whereas professional opportunists are often said to be gremlins. These professionals navigate the axis of intent as they practice their brand of useful idiocy.

The Professional Contrarian


The professional contrarian, call him or her Captain Obvious, is a strange beast, a consumuate purveyor of shrink-wrapped profundity. Now contrarianism per se is an honorable tradition in human society. We all celebrate those iconoclasts brave enough to pierce the groupthink bubbles we encounter in daily life. Intellectually, we all aspire to be the brave thinker who illuminates home truths, and disdains society's shibboleths. Intellectual dissent is often sorely needed in life especially as conventional wisdom is often anything but. And therein lies society's dilemma with the professional contrarian, for here is someone whose pursuit of an ostensibly laudable goal, crosses over into the realm of useful idiocy.

Sidenote: while Captain Obvious has traditionally been seen as a man, useful idiocy is one area on human life where there is gender parity, there is no need for affirmative action when it comes to the contrarian impulse.

There's a special category in the blogs I follow that I label as the professional contrarian. I think I have about 150 or so in that tribe as I deliberately seek out diversity in my reading. I'll only say that it makes for hard reading in times of crisis. Yet still I read, the exposure serves as a kind of strengthening of one's biome.

The behaviour of professional contrarians is all too familiar however. All complex ecosystems have parasites. Humanity has long experience with them. Psychologically though, there is no complexity, a parasite is a parasite and simply seeks to reproduce. Parasites are compelled to be parasitic, it is simply what they do.

On any given day, Captain Obvious wakes up, assesses a situation, finds the appropriate Slatepitch in keeping with the contrarian mode of operation, launches it, and keeps going looking for the next situation. Intent is an afterthought. Leveraging those moments when there is a real bounty of attention on one's contrarianism is a welcome, but not necessary, fringe benefit for the professional contrarian.

Reading the professional contrarian is hard at the best of times. They aim to unsettle, and you can almost visualize the smug smile when they hit send and wait for the uproar. The self affirmation they derive is independent of the issue on which they are expounding, it's narcissism distilled to its very essence. And it is this indifference that frustrates when they cross that thin line and turn into useful idiots. It's such a porous boundary really and it's the unthinking reflexivity of their contrarianism that irks.

The usual strategies do little to counter the workings of the professional contrarian. Pointing out the baleful effect of their actions doesn't sensitize them, nor indeed does appealing to their better senses since their actions are more instinctive, and they present as a clean slate of useful idiocy. Their only pressure point is a fear of being branded whiners, ergo a modified and highly specific form of the ridicule mode of attack. Dan Davies authored his lengthy Rules for Contrarians: 1. Don't whine. That is all as a kind of cautionary tale about dealing with professional contrarians. The downside is that being consumate professionals, the effect of the crybaby jab is temporary, and business as usual is resumed in short order. Unsatisfactory as it may be, palliative relief is the only remedy to the professional contrarian.

The Professional Opportunist


Which brings us to the professional opportunist, the gremlins in our taxonomy of useful idiots. Professional opportunists are a singular and contrary breed but should be considered distinct from garden variety contrarians. As I've suggested, the professional opportunist is a high functionning operator embued with both knowledge and intent, their roving grounds of dismay lie in the most dangerous quadrant in our taxonomy. A few aphorisms on useful idiots to set the stage:

The utility function of a useful idiot is at its highest in the immediate aftermath of a crisis.

Most of the time society proceeds without regard to the useful idiot, limping along with their brand of collateral damage. Times of crisis are where the professional opportunist's impact is most spectacular and confounding.

Trend surfing alacrity is the professional opportunist's strategy and the professional contrarian's opportunity.

Was it Stalin who talked of useful idiots? They always seem to materialize before and during wars.

Servants to power, we are all striving simians on the savannah at heart, looking to Alpha authority.

Apologists for war (think Iraq, think War on Terror) and apologists for unfettered capitalism have had a rough start to this century.

Most useful idiots lie low when things go awry. That, paradoxically, is the only time they are of any interest.

Professional opportunists are singular gremlins in human society and deserve close study. Sadly, we simply shake our heads at the spectacle

The professional opportunist knows no shame and depends on our short attention span. Hey! Look over there...

I looked.

Most professional opportunists escape scrutiny and scorn because there's always a core of past competence that one can point to.

The past competence is what makes the professional opportunist such a dangerous and confounding operator. Fluency born of knowledge and wilfulness in intent are a potent combination.

Stirling Newberry posited a theorem about opportunism a while back that I characterized as a Newberry's Spectrum of Banality. It's an equation oft-neglected by political scientists. Let's solve for X by restating the original formal statement:
X's writing represents the just before banal of the center left in the US. This is not to say that X is stupid, merely that by the time he writes something, there is a vast "The End" spray painted on the wall. He says something just as it is about to become common knowledge.
I have one quibble with the original formula, namely that it suggests that X is a man - not a bad assumption since the patriarchy is known to pontificate - indeed all pontifs have been male to date. For full generality, however, we should acknowledge equal opportunity blowhardiness of the professional opportunist.

Sidenote: the canonical description pointed to Jacob Weisberg, the original Slatepitch Siren, but it was applied in short order to Joe Klein (An Administration's Epic Collapse April 2007), Fred Kaplan (The End of American Leadership April 2020), and say William Saletan (The Trump Pandemic August 2020). Just before banality is the fingerprint of the professional opportunist as they scent blood in the water, and the opportunity to gain attention and wreak their brand of damage.

In Carlo Cipolla's discussion of the basic laws of stupidity (nicely illustrated incidentally), and the fifth basic law especially, he has this telling description that underlines why one can never underestimate stupidity and the damage it can cause. Echoes of Baltasar Gracián:
...the bandits with overtones of stupidity... and the helpless with overtones of stupidity... manage to add losses to those caused by stupid people thus enhancing the nefarious destructive power of the latter group

Trailblazers of the Trade Winds


Now I hear you, my Gartner quadrant of useful idiots is unsatisfactory, for one it ascribes a lower amount of intent, and, indeed, knowledge to the professional contrarian when we all know just how damaging, pernicious and indeed malevolent they can be. To take an example, the professional contrarian spreading misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic has probably caused more deaths and heartache that one can stand.

The professional contrarians have had a field day arguing against control measures, disputing mandates, highlighting individual choice, declaiming the role of public health interventions and so forth in mitigating the effects of the pandemic. Ascribing them a lower level of intent might auger a reduction of blame from some viewpoints, letting them off the hook, as it were.

The professional opportunist, armed with the same uncertainty in the science, also caused spectacular damage. The fact that the professional opportunist was more discerning in approach, and often exquisitly timed his intervention is perhaps a subtle distinction that we shouldn't dwell on.

Most people would dismiss this suggestion of a distinction between the two, and simply brand both as useful idiots. Especially in a time of crisis, the damage they did was equally pernicious, the wilful distractions they raised were equally frustrating. Revolutionary justice would probably mete out the guillotine to both without discrimination.

And yet, when confronted, one would encounter genuine bewilderment from the professional contrarian. "I was simply making a good faith case... There are shades of grey on the issue... Just asking questions...". The professional opportunist would be momentarily quiet when called out - the professional opportunist doesn't care about the argument that was proffered, or its merits, but, being skilled in the ways of evasion, will simply move to a new topic and often seek new grounds to continue punching down and sucking attention.

All crises have a clarifying effect. The first 18 months of these covidious times have been on object lesson on the workings of the useful idiot in action. Those mouthpieces who had been silenced by the global narrative pause and reduced to squares on a Zoom conference were not doing well with this democratization of attention, this era when everyone has been equally adrift and searching for meaning when it is the virus that sets the timeline. It has been interesting to watch prior narratives slowly reassert themselves in the new normalcy. I don't begrudge the old faithful talking heads their game - it's all in the game, but a game it is, especially for the professionals.

Take the Iraq war, New York Times editor Bill Keller belatedly nominated himself in the useful idiot pantheon along with Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, George Packer, Jeffrey Goldberg, Richard Cohen, Andrew Sullivan, Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, Kenneth Pollack and Judith Miller. Tellingly, there were no resignations tended or ashes and sackcloths rended.

Tony Judt helpfully summarized the lot as Bush's useful idiots in cataloging their collateral damage. I would add Michael Ignatieff to the pot but we are spoilt for choice with world historic useful idiocy with world historic consequences in blood and sin.

Mind you, many of this lot are still pontificating years later, they never paid a reputational price for being a useful idiot in that instance, and that, paradoxically, is one of the fringe benefits of the condition. At best, one might expect a mea culpa delivered grudgingly and belatedly, and with suitable hedging and rationalizations; the spectacle and perspective is turned towards the sadly, tragically mistaken useful idiot himself rather than the damage they encouraged, or fostered. Being a professional contrarian or opportunist gives you a free pass in the buyer's remorse stakes, sorry is optional.

A Game of Sorts


Too often I'm primed for a reflexive savaging of someone who should obviously know better, and then I pause and wonder if I'm being baited. The boundary between the useful idiot and the troll is very porous. At such moments of reflection in recent times, I turn to my taxonomy for guidance as I weigh the available evidence. Oftentimes I've found it more satisfying to try to identify a specimen in the wild with my nascent field guide than to go further, and engage with them. The professionals especially can be black holes of attention, whether negative of positive. Contra that expense of energy, it is truly fun to suddenly realize that you've been been dealing a specific subtype of these trailblazers of the trade winds.

And so I'll end with a parlour game, Dear Reader. Gather up a few names of those who have left you perplexed and confounded with their behavior in recent times. Everybody has at least a half dozen useful idiots in their life. You can even make it exciting, add a time limit for deliberation, have fun throwing out a few names of candidates. Once gathered, shuffle your names in a pot and pick one. Where would you place them in our taxonomy? The objective of the game is to correctly identify the genus of our confounder-in-chief.

Better yet, you can add some gamification to the process, or tap into the wisdom of the crowds as a group endeavor. Pick teams after dinner (drinks optional), and try to guess what your partner would have thought, or what a gameshow audience would have thought. 60 percent of respondents identified Buck Blowhard as a professional opportunist, Milly Noxious, on the other hand, was fully branded as ignorant by 90 percent of the audience. Cecil Showboat the III won the professional contrarian stakes by fully 75 percent of the public. And so forth.

Feel free to print out our Magic Taxonomy of Useful Idiots ™. You can throw darts if it helps, here's the larger version if you'd like to print it out. There are any number of configurations, rules and regulations that one can come up with. I'm certainly willing to discuss licensing any games based on the concept. The floor is open.

When you find yourself thinking about arguing about the latest David Brooks column, pick up the taxonomy and start to reason about where to place him. Opportunist or not? There's an app for that. Of such things are dating apps made. And, sure, a tweet about Bret Stephens might elicit the crybaby-whiner signal indicator of wounded amour propre of the professional contrarian, but it's more satisfying to behold the workings of his shell game.

Instead of writing long screeds about The Pandemic's Wrongest Man, Alex Berenson, ask yourself where he lies on the axis of intent and knowledge, and whether there has been any evolution over the past year, say from the merely ignorant to the professional opportunist camp. Observers are worried.

If you think about the Trump years, perhaps you might start with James Comey. Does the evidence make him someone who should know better? Or does the smug, self-satisfied look on his face, and the subsequent op-eds and interventions, warrant labeling him as a professional contrarian? Is the tell, his reaction to being rightly branded as a whiner for plunging humanity into peril by handing an election to the Donald?

Larry Summers, for example, has been doing a rollicking good rehearsal for our taxonomy in recent years as his intellectual influence in the halls of power has waned. Is he existentially contrarian, always speaking truth to power as perhaps his immaculate self image as the smartest man in the room might auger? Or should we regard the erstwhile President of my alma mater as merely naive, someone who should know better? Or is his shtick more purposeful, more in the vein of the professional opportunist? Inquiring minds want to know.

And so forth.

You're not going to prevent the useful idiot from doing their thing but, in the interim, you might as well have some fun, and apply our field guide, our taxonomy of useful idiots.

I'll start you off with one name: Thomas Friedman

(ducks)

Only posterity is unkind to the man of conventional wisdom, and all posterity does is bury him in a blanket of neglect

John Kenneth Galbraith

Foolish, a playlist


As is my custom, here's a soundtrack for this note, musical musing on all things foolish. Suggestions welcome. ...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

This note is part of the Shell Games suite.

The first part considered Shame Cultures, while the second took a look at The Skeptic's Credo.

Next: Buyer's Remorse

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Writing log. Concept: October 13, 2014, Poor man's graphics: April 15 2020, May 17, 2021