Wednesday, November 29, 2006

More Classics shenanigans

I don't know how I missed this when it came out last year, but there is a new book by a "layman," one Robert Bittlestone, which claims to have discovered Odysseus' island home Ithaca. University of Texas Emeritus Peter Green reviews the book, Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer's Ithaca, in the NYRB.

What's cool in this particular case is that Bittlestone, the founder and managing director of the consulting firm Metapraxis (whose copyrighted name must be driving Alain Badiou crazy), basically started with nothing except a copy of the Odyssey (and, of course, his vast fortune and the amazing geological technology that comes along with it). Determined that "Homer" was "right," he set out to make sense of the confused geographical mishmash of Odysseus' world, and in fact succeeded quite admirably. He even enlisted some very respectable Classics names along the way, such as James Diggle and Anthony Snodgrass of Cambridge. ("Diggle and Snodgrass" easily being the greatest instance of British Classics names-pairing since "Hornblower and Spawforth," eds. of the Oxford Classical Dictionary.)

Bittlestone's "millionaire amateur done good" story mirrors in many ways that of Heinrich Schliemann, the eccentric treasure hunter who excavated Troy in the late 19th century. From Green's description of Bittlestone's book, it's hard to know who is kookier--Bittlestone, who believes that the composer of the Odyssey was a contemporary of the actual events of the narrative and addressed its "real-life" characters at banquets ("In reply to him then you said, swineherd Eumaios"), or Schliemann, who named his children "Andromache" and "Agamemnon" and had a penchant for announcing his discoveries as "Priam's Treasure," "Helen's Jewels," and the "Death Mask of Agamemnon."

However, ridiculed as they were by many self-important Classics mavens, both Schliemann and now Bitterman made important discoveries relying only upon their good faith and (heavily endowed) spirit of entrepreneurship. (Austin-5000, I suppose this means you have won our disagreement over the "Geist des Kapitalismus.") The history of philology is full of such colorful characters, and I look forward to encountering them.

Postscript--I bought the NYRB today on a magazine run (Sheriff, I have not forgotten the joy of a good 'zine binge) and I'll be damned if it wasn't the biggest waste of five bucks since I saw that Ronald Reagan film. The whole spankin' show is free and online. As is the International Socialist Review. But The New Republic--you'll always be my password-only newstand purchase.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Some ribald verses (*Updated*)

For your enjoyment, and for my own benefit, I hereby translate a few choice selections from poems of that knave Catullus. Hard to believe he was a contemporary of the stern Cicero! (Apologies to anyone who might be offended by truly nasty language. I have chosen words I wouldn't normally use for the sake of authenticity.)

(Update: I've softened some of the most extreme language this morning. It didn't sit well with me. You should see some of the other translations floating around! It is here perhaps that a "fold" would come in handy, as other blogs have. I thought this whole enterprise would be worth doing because a) I literally have to translate all these poems, b) they're incredidbly funny, and c) Catullus is considered one of the greatest poets of all time. Really, we're dealing with "high art" here.)

Carmen 16:

I'm gonna fuck you in the ass and make you suck me off,
Aurelius you bugger and Furius you poofter,
You who think I'm a pussy because of my verses,
Which are tender little ordeals.
It is fitting for a poet to be pure and chaste,
But his verses need not be,
Which possess wit and charm,
If they are tender and not too prudish,
And which can stir up an itch,
Not in young boys, I say, but in these hairy dudes,
Who can't rouse their heavy shlongs.
You, because you have read of my many thousands of kisses,
You think I'm barely a man?
I'm gonna fuck you in the ass and make you suck me off.

Carmen 25:

Thallus, you sodomite, softer than rabbit fur and goose down,
Or a dainty little earlobe,
Or an old man's droopy cock, covered in cobwebs.

Carmen 33:

O greatest of the thieves who hang around the bath houses,
Vibennius the father, and his catamite son
(For the father has a foul hand,
and the son a devouring butthole)
--Why don't you go off into exile or go to hell,
Since indeed the thieveries of father are well known
To the people, and you, his son,
Can't peddle your hairy buttocks for a dime?

Carmen 69:

Don't marvel, Rufus, that no girl wants to place her
Soft thighs beneath you,
Not even if you try to seduce her with a gift of expensive clothing
Or the enticements of a bright little stone.
A certain wicked rumor injures you,
According to which a fierce goat lives in the valley of your armpits.
Everyone fears this; nor is it strange: for it's a terribly strong beast,
And no pretty girl would go to bed with it.
Therefore either destroy this cruel disease of the nostrils,
Or stop wondering why they all run away.

Carmen 74:

Gellius had heard that an uncle is accustomed to chastise,
Should anyone say or do anything naughty.
So that this wouldn't happen to him, he fucked his uncle's wife
And made him swear by Harpocrates, the god of silence.
Now he does what he wants; even if he should make his own
Uncle give him head, the old man won't say a word.

Carmen 80:

What should I say, Gellius, as to why your rosy lips
Are whiter than a winter's snow,
When you leave home at daybreak and when the eighth hour
Wakes you up from a soft nap on a long day?
There's an answer, though I know not what--
Or does the rumor mutter truthfully that you swallow
Great big boners at men's waists?
So it is... They shout that miserable Victor's groin has burst,
And that your lips are marked with the drained out man-juice.

Carmen 97:

I didn't think it made a difference, God help me,
Whether I smelled Aemilius' mouth or his asshole.
This one's no cleaner, and that one's no dirtier,
But actually his ass is cleaner and better:
It doesn't have any teeth. His mouth has teeth
Half a yard long, and gums like an old ox-cart, I swear,
And what's more he usually holds his mouth open
Like the spread cunt of a mule when she pisses in the heat.
He fucks a lot of girls and fancies himself a charming fellow,
But isn't he sent as a slave to the mill to drive the ass?
If any woman should even touch him,
Shouldn't we think her able to lick a diseased hangman's anus?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

I really can't take much more of this

Ecuador goes to the polls tomorrow. And yes, it's another neck-and-neck battle between (drumroll...) an absurdly wealthy neoliberal and a populist ally of Hugo Chavez. Could the world please offer me an election that does not conform to this fucking pattern?

The Beeb sez:

Insults traded

Ecuador is in a delicate state, says the BBC's correspondent Daniel Schweimler in Ecuador's capital Quito.

The country is becoming increasingly polarised, says our correspondent, people are disillusioned with its politicians and are impatient for change.

Three presidents in the past ten years have been forced from office by angry crowds.

Only three presidents since 1979 have served full terms.

In October's first-round vote, Mr Correa said the count was fraudulent and that he had won a clear victory.

Mr Noboa, Ecuador's richest man, said Mr Correa's campaign had been financed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"Correa wants an insurrection, a civil war in which the poor will die," said Mr Noboa.

He has already made two unsuccessful runs for the presidency, in 1998 and 2002.

He has accused his opponent of wanting to install a communist dictatorship and drive Ecuador into the camp of Venezuela's anti-American President Chavez.

Mr Noboa made his fortune in bananas and has promised to bring foreign investment to Ecuador. He frequently campaigned carrying a bible.

Mr Correa has said he would maintain good relations with the United States despite having called President George W Bush a "dimwit".

He has said he wants to renegotiate contracts with foreign oil companies and has threatened to reduce payments on Ecuador's foreign debt.

At his final rally, Mr Correa urged his supporters to follow the vehicles transporting ballot boxes to make sure votes were not tampered with.

"Watch out for alterations of results, ballot box switching; ensure there is no vote-buying."

An election win for Mr Noboa, he warned, would turn Ecuador into the banana magnate's "estate."

Gosh, that sure is an even-sided insult swap. The leftist says his opponent will turn the country into his own personal industry. He then takes a crack at George W. Bush's intelligence (oooh, dangerous!). The conservative says that Ecuadorians will be killed when Correa issues in a Communist dictatorship. Playing the national security card? Why, it's almost like America!

This pattern pops up everywhere. We saw it in AMLO vs. Calderon in Mexico. In Bachelet vs. Pinera in Chile. In Ortega vs. Montealegre in Nicaragua. In Morales vs. Quiroga in Bolivia. In many cases (Noboa, Pinera), the conservative is one of the wealthiest citizens, if not the wealthiest, of his country. The leftist usually struggles to fit him- or herself into the appropriate place on the "friends of Hugo Chavez" spectrum. They also usually win. That's a pretty fascinating fact about South America: despite the fact that many of these countries are in severe financial straits, they are willing to take chances on candidates who are totally different and whose elections basically amount to a complete overhaul of policy. Well, good luck to whoever wins tomorrow's election in Ecuador. "
Three presidents in the past ten years have been forced from office by angry crowds."

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thoughts on the New Left

You'll kindly remember my post from a few weeks ago about the "conservative canon." In it I said, "The 'canon' of conservatism has always interested me. It seems so much more neat, nice, and carefully delineated than the sprawling mass of countercultural pamphlets, vague manifestoes, and pop culture oddities that constitute the 'mission statement,' if there is one, of the 60s New Left."

Well, I just so happened to find a helpful start to answering the question of the New Left's "mission statement" at a used bookstore. I have been reading this little book, The New Radicals: A Report with Documents by Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau (Vintage: 1966), and it's really quite fascinating. From what little info they provide, I gather that the authors are themselves young, contemporary members of the New Left, which they call "the Movement." In addition to providing "documents" of the Movement from SDS, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and various radical subset groups, they provide about 80 pages of their own commentary about the origins of the Movement and where it's going (I think in hindsight we all know the answer to that). I would only like to point out a few interesting observations:

First, easily the most frequently used word in this book is "ideology." These people were obsessed with the notion of an ideology--do you have one, do you need one, are they "over", are they too confining? The students and activists interviewed in the book generally steer clear of identifying themselves with one certain ideology. To do so would be too "old hat," too similar to the tired old radicals from the '30s and '40s who are all insider squabbling and not enough action. At the same time, the members of the Movement disagree with Daniel Bell's pronouncement of the "end of ideology." Most see it as a complacent liberal way of dismissing tough questions about society and relying upon the welfare state, a sort of ideology in itself.

That's the other big point of interest: The use of the word "liberal." In a word, the Movement hates liberals. "Conservatives" are barely dealt with, as they were admittedly not much of a driving force in those days. The racist white powerholders of the South are certainly "conservatives." Barry Goldwater, Andrew Sullivan's hero, is mentioned, but his positions are considered so plainfacedly barbarous and reactionary that no one gives them a second thought. "Conservatism," then, is not an idea to be challenged. It is simply an evil in society that must be conquered, but this is thought so obvious as to be boring.

The more interesting question is what to do about "liberalism." These students were reared on their parents' liberalism, which when it was not openly radical (as in the case of many of the Jewish students from the Northeast) was at least an "enlightened" sort of non-racist, welfare-promoting, progressive-taxation liberalism.

...Which, according to the Movement, is apparently the source of all that is Wrong about American society. In particular, the welfare state is viewed as the ultimate faceless, bureaucratic horror, totalitarianism with a house in the suburbs and a college degree. The welfare state works with the "Multiversity" system to churn out cogs for its bureaucratic offices, corporate positions, or just to reinsert back into the educational "apparatus." Particularly sinister is the University's willingness to work as part of the military-industrial complex, teaching the government and the army better ways to suppress national movements in foreign countries. Basically, the members of the "Movement" are fueled by a sense of betrayed principles and disgust with hypocrisy which seems distinctly American.

That has been probably the most interesting thing about reading this book. I had long assumed that besides the early 1900s, at the height of Eugene V. Debs' popularity, the '60s were the closest America ever got to having a strong, prominent "Leftist" current, i.e. one informed by socialistic and Communistic ideas. According to this book, at least, that was absolutely not the case for the New Left. Certainly, there were radical ideas floating around, and the Movement was never going to be the sort of thing that attracted College Republicans, but these kids were absolutely not Reds. If anything, they were on a moral crusade, the kind that seems impossible these days with so many debates about relativism and identitarian in-fighting. Almost all of them describe themselves as "existential humanists," with all the Sartre and Camus that goes along with it. They had deeply ingrained values which they wanted to express in society by taking active part, by following through with their convictions about citizens making participatory decisions concerning their everyday lives. (The only real hardliners discussed in the book are the Progressive Labor Party, which is almost comically militant and Maoist, and the DuBois Club, an avowedly Communist organization that tries to get "hip" by opening their pamphlets with inane phrases such as "It's, like, their system, baby...and it's a bitch." Please.)

I've drawn a sort of idealistic portrait here, but the documents and assessments by Landau and Jacobs seem to back up my assertion that the New Left was primarily a moralistic movement. Perhaps this is why it didn't last very long. It had almost no policy prescriptions. (Recall again, as Robot has for us in the past, the vague half-assertions of the Port Huron Statement.) However, it is very interesting to compare this fairly large, forceful movement with the political scene today. Now conservatism's star is on the rise, or at least has been, for the last twenty-five years. The Democratic challenge to the Republicans is to promise either to do less of what Republicans do (making Reaganism more "palatable" to centrists) or to reintroduce the government into daily affairs in order to "level" the playing field (with public programs, tax redistribution, artificial wage adjustments, et al). Now, when the Bush Administration seems unbearably bad to me, which is basically every day, I practically salivate at the idea of high corporate taxation, the EITC, a living wage, and affirmative action. Although I don't want to admit it, "the welfare state" is my quick and dirty answer to the challenge of Republicanism, and I think it is for most people our age. We might hide behind a thick wall of hip philosophy and postmodernism, but when it comes time to pull the lever at the ballot box, we're voting for the welfarist party. But there is almost no conception of there being a "third way," except in a few scattered libertarians and socialists (who, I continue to think, have more in common than they suspect). Big Daddy Government is going to be intruding into our lives one way or the other, either socially or economically. It was a virtue of the New Left to conceive of a third way as being possible, even imminently so.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

All the President's Men. (As in, they're all the President's men. Every last one of them. Even that "liberal" one over there. Yeah, that one too.)

How did I manage to miss this? A little over a month after September 11, on Nov. 29, Paul Wolfowitz gathered together a group of "a dozen policy makers, Middle East experts and members of influential policy research organizations" in a secret meeting. The purpose of the event was to draft a report for Bush in favor of invading Iraq. Also present, however, were at least two journalists, Fareed Zakaria and Robert D. Kaplan. All signed "confidentiality agreements" to keep mum about the whole business.

In other words, two highly prominent journalists, one a columnist for Newsweek and the host of Foreign Exchange on PBS, the other an editor, foreign correspondent, and columnist for The Atlantic Monthly, clandestinely helped to plan the Iraq War, then proceeded to promote it in their positions of power and influence while giving no indication of their personal involvement.

Wow. I probably shouldn't be so surprised. Robert Kaplan certainly had no qualms at the time: "Everyone was in a patriotic fervor," he says. (Glenn Greenwald gives an excellent though typically heated treatment of Kaplan's latest follies here.) What interests me more is the extent to which this example, among countless others, really shatters the myth of the "liberal media."

"Liberal media" isn't really the best term. I will grant what seems to be incontrovertible evidence that most members of the mainstream media do identify themselves as "liberals." But most educated people, I will venture to say, are "liberal" in the same way that journalists are: more secular than deeply religious, nondiscriminatory towards or at least tolerant of "deviant" practices like homosexuality, pragmatic rather than dogmatic about abortion, etc. In this way the "liberal" media will always be annoying to anyone to the right of Fox News, Human Events, the Family Research Council, et al.

However, when it comes to truly fundamental shared concerns among citizens, such as executive power and the decision to go to war, I really don't see how our national media can be termed anything other than "craven," and I certainly don't understand how the National Review and Rush Limbaugh can fume and fuss about the New York Times, USA Today and other media outlets being "treasonous."

(You might accuse me here of arbitrarily privileging these concerns over an issue like abortion--true, abortion is equally wrapped up in conceptions of the rights and liberties of citizens, and according to some viewpoints human lives might be at stake, but even if we grant these points I still think a state's constitutional structure is of the utmost importance, precisely because it makes thinking about right and liberties possible at all. War is of equally high importance because it is a decision that cannot be checked by the citizens of the enemy state--in choosing to attack them, we choose to violate their liberties [sovereignty] unilaterally. Here we might interject that this shouldn't even be a concern under normal circumstances, since the only justifiable casus belli is one of self-defense. As young citizens of the United States, however, we have quickly seen that we must be on our toes to check our government's inclination towards "wars of choice.")

To return to my original point, I am incredulous at the idea that our "liberal media" has "sabotaged" the national security or "tied the President's hands during wartime" or "emboldened the enemy" or whatever other ridiculous claims conservative commentators trot out. It appears self-evident to me that these last five years have witnessed an almost universal abdication by the press (not to mention our elected leaders) of their responsibility to fairly gather and report information to the public. In addition (and I consider this a separate issue), almost every pundit, columnist, and newspaper of note (even that hateful bastion of liberalism, The New York Times) supported the war at its inception. I'm sure the Times now prides itself on its "independence" or "patriotic dissent" or what have you in criticizing the execution of the war, but before the war even began, when it counted the most, the Times certainly did no disservice to the Bush Administration with its Judith Miller propaganda and incessant ra-ra editorials about unilateral military action. (See this informative TNR article from early 2003: they rightly note that the Times basically echoed the Administration on everything right up until the actual start of the war, when it turned fickle and washed its hands of the situation. So, they enabled but then distanced themselves. Whether this is better or worse than the policy of TNR, which was to fully buy into the war rhetoric, is debatable.)

This cravenness persists in the debate about the NSA phonetapping scandal, which is constantly portrayed as a fight on the part of the Democrats against the President's powers to tap domestic calls. This is not the issue, although that debate should probably happen, too. The debate is about whether the President, acting solely on his own authority, can issue wiretaps without warrants, i.e. by bypassing the FISA court. This point is almost always obscured or ignored. By neglecting to specify this point, the press allows many Americans to be deceived by conservatives into thinking that Democrats are terrorist coddlers, or at the very least "weak on national security." (This should in no way indicate that I think Democrats are perfect saints about protecting our individual liberties, or that their version of the "war on terror" is any less overblown and deceptive than Republicans'.)

The President has not gotten everything he's wanted, to be sure. He didn't get privatized social security, Harriet Myers, the Dubai ports deal, and a few other measures. And the press has at times risked its neck to reveal the truth (NSA, the Financial Tracking program). Conservatives can, I suppose, be annoyed at these instances, because as a rule the most extreme of them tend to hate and denounce anything that isn't personally handstamped by the White House propaganda machine. Mostly though, I think they simply want to deflect criticism from their own failed policies onto the press, which is constantly "undermining the war effort." Thus the apparatus that graciously enabled them to carry out disastrous decisions becomes the perfect "fall guy" when they fuck it all up.

What I'm basically getting around to here is the obvious, which is that the Iraq War and its attendant issues (executive power, torture) have made us ponder, in my case very deeply, how much we really know about our government and society as a whole, and how much we can trust it. My belief right now, as far as the press is concerned at any rate, is that we are downright deceived in our conception of possessing a "free and fair" press. Our national media is corporate-owned and elite-directed. Its members, no matter how "liberal" on the social issues, will not hesitate to gleefully swallow and regurgitate immense loads of pro-government pablum. I'm not about to compare CNN to Pravda or some truly state-controlled untruth factory, but the level of democratic, objective reporting we can reasonably imagine, hell, which we should expect, is in no way being met. It has effectively given this President more than he could possibly hope for. My recommendation, since I feel I should make one in the face of all this negativity, is to read but also promote international journalism, as well as grassroots publications in the United States, even "radically unmainstream" media outlets like the World Socialist Website, Alternet, Znet, In These Times, and also paleoconservative dissenters like The American Conservative. Each of these obviously has its own ideological agenda and often highly disagreeable points, but the extent to which they have been overwhelmingly right on these very issues of war and power when compared to the mainstream discourse is startling.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Workers of the World, Reach for your Dildos and Lube ... in unison!

A while back this blog witnessed a moderate call to arms by one of its most steadfast contributors. (No, not me, I'm talking about the Scantron one you'll find if you scroll down.) Well, it appears that the world has anwered. With the announcement of the Global Orgasm for Peace I think we the human race have finally deemed the chances of all hell breaking loose in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Sri Lanka, North Korea, "Africa," etc. to be so nearly inevitable that we have given ourselves no choice but to return to the peculiar wisdom of the The 60's.

I trust that the Badiou scholars in the audience will determine whether this collective moan of ecstasy will resemble "The Event" -- forgetting for the moment its lack of sponteneity -- we've all been waiting for.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Marty's mag

If New Republic editor-in-chief Martin Peretz keeps making statements like these, there's really no reason to believe his magazine is even remotely capable of treating issues objectively. It's worth reprinting the majority of his latest "insight":

That's the point, isn't it? I actually believe that Arabs are feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) "atrocities." They are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all. It is routine in their cultures. That comparison shouldn't comfort us as Americans. We have higher standards of civilization than they do. But the mutilation of bodies and beheadings of people picked up at random in Iraq does not scandalize the people of Iraq unless victims are believers in their own sect or members of their own clan. And the truth is that we are less and less shocked by the mass death-happenings in the world of Islam. Yes, that's the bitter truth. Frankly, even I--cynic that I am--was shocked in the beginning by the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq. But I am no longer surprised. And neither are you.

Yes, I know, I know, Islam is a peaceful religion. But peace does not rule in the world of Islam. Of course, if only Israel gave the Palestinians the peace they want, the Sunnis and Shiaa would not be killing each other in Iraq, and Hezbollah would not be fomenting a civil war in Lebanon, and democracy with democratic results would soon govern Egypt, and the Syrian dictatorship would finally become a free republic, and Saudi Arabia would allow religious freedom, and Pakistan wouldn't be torn by sect and tribe, and India wouldn't be harassed by Islamic fanatics. God damn you Jews. Don't you grasp how much waits on your surrender? And you keep on insisting on living a free life in your own land.

Now this is surely one of the most odious bits of prose I've read in a long time, whoever the author might be. This is trash fit for the comments section at gleefully racist sites like Little Green Footballs. But no, this is the editor-in-chief of one of the country's oldest and most well-respected political magazines, and a "liberal" one at that. And yet...according to Peretz's logic, the families of the almost 1200 Lebanese civilian casualties of the Israel-Lebanon War are "feigning outrage," not to mention the majority of the people of the world who are in solidarity with them. I suppose only Americans and Israelis can "truly" mourn for the people of Lebanon, who of course were the "indirect" victims of Hezbollah rather than of massive indiscriminate airstrikes, because after all, "We have higher standards of civilization than they do." Certainly Victor Davis Hanson must have whispered this last phrase into Peretz's ear as he gave him a hack-journalistic reacharound, an act which culminates in this petit mort of bad faith: "And the truth is that we are less and less shocked by the mass death-happenings in the world of Islam."

Gee, that's funny, the only "mass death-happenings" I see are widespread war and chaos unleashed by an illegal act of military aggression on the part of the United States, followed by the awful spectacle of the Lebanese War this summer. And in case you haven't been paying attention, over 300 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in June. (But why would anyone notice that? The Palestinian people are so "death-prone" anyway.)

And then Peretz trots out the "preemptive anti-Semitism" defense, which roughly runs, "If you found anything wrong with what I just said, have you thought about why you're a Jew-hating bigot lately?" What a cowardly, dishonest twit this man is, and what a sad state of affairs it is when the country's leading "progressive" magazine buys into the rhetoric of aggression and chauvinism. It can only be called "perverse" when we in our comfort wreak havoc upon other nations, only to mock them in their mourning of their dead children.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Testicle-Eating Dictators, British Aristocrats, American Oil Interests ... and Spain

There was a bit of a stir this week in Spain when the president of Equatorial Guinea (a former Spanish colony), Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo visited Madrid on official state business. Walking around the center of Madrid, yesterday, I ran into a group of African men protesting Obiang's rule, asking for signatures and such. It turns out that Obiang's Equatorial Guinea is perhaps, as Economist writer Adam Roberts put it, the most wretched place on earth. Despite having the third highest oil reserves in Africa -- which, if distributed amongst the tiny population would result in a per capita GDP of $50,000, the highest in the world -- it is one of the poorest countries in Africa. How so? The answer is depressingly predictable. Obiang himself is estimated to have assets worth around $600,000,000. His son, meanwhile, just bought a $35,000,000 mansion in Malibu. That Obiang has been accused of cannibalism (see below) only adds insult to injury.

As all this news has surfaced with Obiang's trip to Spain, I came across this newly published book review in LRB on a story I had forgotten: Mark Thatcher (Maggie's son) and company's 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea. From the review, it seems like it's a hell of a story, perhaps worth reading in its full book-form. It's not everyday that testicle-eating dictators, British aristocrats, and American oil interests find themselves in the same tail of a failed coup attempt. Here's one snippet from the review:
When Obiang Nguema, Macias’s nephew, seized power from his uncle (whom he killed) in 1979 things improved only slightly. Opposition leaders tend to die behind bars; torture is commonplace; Obiang is reported to eat the brains and testicles of those he particularly dislikes; and members of his family as well as some of the country’s diplomats have been accused of large-scale drug-running. With the country now Africa’s third largest oil producer, Obiang and his family are fabulously rich, while the small population languishes in unchanging poverty. By the same token Obiang became increasingly vulnerable to anyone with notions of mounting a coup, an idea that came to Simon Mann as a result of his long association with Tony Buckingham’s Executive Outcomes in Angola. There mercenary success earned huge financial rewards: Buckingham walked away from that adventure worth some $150 million in oil and diamonds. Mann, an Old Etonian scion of the brewing family, seems to have hatched his plot after consultation with the Lebanese tycoon Ely Calil, who was already helping to fund Obiang’s chief rival, the opposition leader Severo Moto.
I'm not going to try to throw myself into the mix of foreign policy vis-a-vis African dictatorship, but I do hope that our government is thinking of some way to handle the transition when Obiang -- like Mugabe and Castro -- dies intelligently. Perhaps we could send as an emissary the rapper Eve, who had a relationship with Obiang's son before she got word of daddy's dirty little secret.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Don't call it a comeback / I've been here for years

Hello again.

In response to Robot's conjectures, I finally did see Dick Rorty, though not in the context of handsome solei. He was at a Classics colloquium for visiting prof Alexander Nehamas. Some dude he was with asked him midway through if he was "tired." Lame.

I regret the lack of posting and commenting. I remain faithful to you all.

In other news, Chuck Krauthammer is a fucking asshole. (That's how you know this is a Scantron post.) Expect this kind of "we gave the Iraqis a republic and they screwed it up" drivel as the official party line when the smoke clears.

The other debate I'd like to touch off is the freakin' crazy populist revival going on. Is this the real thing? Or simply media hype? See Jacob Weisberg's prescient post at Slate. Lou Dobbs' response. Is Lou Dobbs a disgusting xenophobe or a hero of the little man? Both? And what about Jim Webb's populist, dare we say class conscious Wall Street Journal op-ed? Blogger Billmon's response. Have the Democrats shifted right on social issues only to embrace progressive economics? Are they simply engaging in demagoguery? I will say that I saw an interview with Webb on, of all places, Lou Dobbs Tonight, in which they channeled John Rawls for five minutes straight. Economic "fairness." "Fair equality of opportunity." "I don't judge a society by the status of the top 1%, but the bottom portion." Is Rawls just an ideological screen for populism then? (Um, no, I can tell you that much.)

Gentlemen and women, I'm off. I've managed to find something to do on a Friday night in this godforsaken place, praise Jesus.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Mmmm, Smells Like Bacon

I just came across this insane video of a UCLA student being repeatedly tazed by his university police. Apparently the student was in the school library after 11 pm, when officers asked him to show them his student ID card to prove he was a UCLA student. He did not have his ID on him and was asked to leave. The student did not leave as quickly as the officers would have liked, so an argument arose and then they repeatedly tazed him in front of a library full of stunned onlookers. I would not be surprised if in the morning this story is national ‘news.’

Here’s the video, it’s pretty painful to watch:

Something to look out for: right after his first tazing, the student screams, “Here’s your fucking Patriot Act! Here’s your abuse of power!” (As a hippie killer, I support the officers’ actions; yet as Josh, I see their actions as quite disgusting.)

What makes this event even more crazy, is that the student’s name is Mostafa Tobatabainejad. Yup, not some rich white kid at all...

I smell a lawsuit (and sizzling human flesh). When Mostafa gets his pay day, he’d better send the kid who recorded the entire ordeal on his cell phone a nice thank you card.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sunday Morning Brings the Dawn in

Perhaps arriving a bit later than others on this blog to the "podcasting" phenomenon, I can nonetheless declare that it has changed my life (or, perhaps simply my commute) much for the better. While the possibilities are endless, its most significant impact has been my newfound ability to listen to the Sunday morning political interviews: Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and This Week. While I have been following politics closely for several years now, I realize that I have only rarely actually listened to what politicians themselves -- rather than pundits, bloggers, news clippings -- have to say, unedited, and unprepared.

Usually, I find the questions (especialy Russert's) to be quite probing. Nonetheless, the exchanges can be incredibly frustrating for any intelligent listener. At least three times per episode, the interviewer asks just the right question to get the politican on the ropes (this week, it was George Stephanopolous asking some terrific questions to White House chief of staff Josh Bolten about Bush being for Donald Rumsfeld before he was against him a few days later), whereupon the politician basically makes up a clever though transparently bullshit answer (...that even though Bush had been for weeks searching for a replacement, he was only going to replace him if Gates turned out to be in the meeting to be "a suitable replacement"), whereupon everyone knows that you can cut the bullshit with a knife, and yet for the sake of civility, nobody screams at him or her, "THIS IS BULLSHIT!"

The quality of these programs do stand out, however, and so I feel obliged to defend them when under attack -- as a young immigrant would defend his new mother country when the going gets tough. Which brings me to a rather simple defense of Meet the Press, which seems to be constantly under fire for even the slightest affront to Democrats. It seems that many hoped that when the Democrats won, Meet the Press would magically overnight turn into a forum for Democratic interests and voices, much as it had sometimes (though not quite to the amount liberal bloggers want you to believe) been for Republicans in the past. Well, when this past Sunday witnessed not a single Democrat, the shit hit the fan.

No matter that host Tim Russert had announced on his show that he had invited "new Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi [D-CA], Majority Leader Harry Reid [D-NV].," and that "both declined our invitation." No matter that the two guests on the show were Joe Leiberman -- who in a 51-49 Senate is perhaps the single most important figure given his wavering "Independent Democratic" status -- and the likely 2008 Republican nominee, John McCain. No, no, no. Old Russert still seemed to be unable to find his testicles, according to Josh Marshall, and get the Kraft to invite some democratic guests.

Why didn't he invite other Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel? Media Matters implored. An excellent question, no doubt, but perhaps one that could be answered by the fact that Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel were on the program the previous week!

It's a rather trifling matter, I recognize, but I already sense I will have less sympathy for this kind of Democratic partisan bullshit now that the Democrats are no longer the oppressed minority. Besides, as several commentators have already pointed out, there's no shortage of praise for Democrats in the MSM -- a very good thing, I might add.

P.S. I feel that because I have already attacked certain liberal blogging institutions I normally love, I might as well take the opportunity to go all out and do the unthinkable: praise President Bush. Getting back to the business of the Rumsfeld firing, I must say that I truly appreciated Bush's honesty when he told reports that he had essentially lied to them earlier in order for them to get off his back. Whether or not at the time it was a politically reasonable move for the Republican Party to keep Rumsfeld on board until the elections (I tend to think it was, given that if he was fired, it would have been even more obvious how much of a failure Iraq was), I think Bush did the right thing (1) to wait until firing him, (2) lying about it, and then (3) admitting he was lying: (1) because it truly does send the wrong message to fire an appointed Secretary right before an election for political purposes; (2) because while telling a lie was perhaps wrong, he had no obligation, given the political implications of (1) to tell the truth; and (3) because it's the first time I can ever remember a politican telling the truth about lying.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What's Midwagh? (Needlessly Long Story)

So, upon returning home on a cool fall night in Cairo, I was privy to a wonderful new experience. Riding in a taxi with three friends who live nearby (Egyptians, mind you), we come across your friendly neighborhood checkpoint.

Ok so maybe not quite so dramatic but a checkpoint/roadblock nonetheless. Seeing a taxi full of fiery-eyed youths, the Five-oh ask for the driver's license and ID card and have us pull to the right....

(while waiting for the man to come up to us)
Scalliwag:"Does anybody have anything?"
Vagabond:"I've got papers..."
Scalliwag:"Well you'd better fucking swallow them-oh whatever"

About this time two officers come up and open the doors for us, asking us if we wouldn't mind stepping out of the car. [NB: All police banter will be translated here loosely, at risk of offending any Straussians, so as to get the universal 'cop' feel out of the conversation]

"Well well well, so where you boys from?"
[residences given]
"Where you been tonight? Out havin some fun?"
"Just downtown, nothing really"
"Boy what the hell do you got in your hair?"
"Nothing, sir, it's just a headband to keep my hair back"
"Oh my isn't it then, you know my daughter has one just like it! So how bout you just tell me, what do you have on you?"
"No, nothing"
"Why don't you just tell me, so's I don't have to search you?"
And then, this is great, one of my friends says, for reasons I don't quite get, in English "That's not your right."

As I'm standing there thinking what on earth would have possessed him to say that, in English no less, the officer replies: "What? What was that?"
[now in Arabic] "That's not your right. I don't have anything on me, but still it's not your right."
"Oh really? Wait- how about you tell [names and points to the guy who seems to be the BMOC (Big man on Checkpoint)] what you just said, tell 'im in English.--Hey, get a listen of this!"
"Well, it's not your right to search me, but I'm telling you we don't have anything on us."
"Hey there boy, you're shakin, somethin worrying you?"
"Just cold, sir" [true, he was complaining about this all night]
"Sure 'bout that? I dunno, you seem a bit nervous? Why don't you just tell us, we're not out to get you or anything, just come clean and tell us something."
About at this point the officer proceeds [and before you get the wrong idea, for a state with nearly unchecked police powers, these guys were being pretty friendly] to start frisking my friend. "Hey, rolling papers! and you've got the long ones, huh? Whatcha rolling in these, boys?"
So out comes the half truth from a friend that they were using them to smoke Midwagh a perfectly real and legal substance that is very popular in the Emirates (where this friend had lived). Now these kids did have Midwagh, but not on them to say the least. As the discussion ensued over the nature, origin, and genus of Midwagh, and how it might be deployed within a rolling paper, Another officer asks me what's inside my backpack and asks to see it. As he starts looking through my papers and course readers, he happens to remark on
a)the first page of one of my readers is from Gibb and Bowen's [rather atrocious] Islamic Society and the West. "Oh great, I'm going to prison" I start thinking, "this could be a long night."
"Boy they sure do got you doing a lot of reading, you're reading all this?"
"Yeah, well, you know how it goes"
"Uh huh, and what do we have here?"
b)An American friend of mine had happened to give me a newsletter published by the university al-Quds (Jerusalem) club featuring an article he wrote. This newsletter was half English, half Arabic. "They publish these kinda things at your university, do they?"
"I suppose, I haven't read the thing" [meanwhile in my head I'm thinking of about five other incidences wherein government involvment in the otherwise autonomous university affairs--usually incited by very silly things such as this-- created some very stick situations.]
At this point another officer (there's about 5 total I think) chimes in "Y'see, they do alot of free-speakin' over at the American university." Fortunately this was not dwelled on too long. At this point the front pocket gets opened and the officer proceeds to unwrap every single gum wrapper and piece of paper trash I have in there trying to find drugs.
"Listen, there's nothing there, there never has been, those are just gum wrappers"
"Oh no, I know, I'm just lookin'" [as he takes a deep smell of one of them to check for hash residue]
"Suit yourself"

Needless to say, after about 5 more minutes the officers had just gotten bored or perhaps really figured (out) that we didn't have any contraband on us, and started to send us on our way.

"Listen boys, we'd really love to see some of this midwagh stuff, why don't you keep some on you so that next time you pass by we can have a look, eh?"
OK, sure.

So I'm bad at telling stories, and it really does end kind of abruptly, although it is funny to note that one of my friends had to make sure as we were getting in and driving off that the Officers new that even the Sheikh of Dubai was a fan of the stuff. We even went into a discussion as the tired cabby pulled off of how much you might spend on the bottle of the stuff. Needless to say, however, I've officially (although they never saw my ID) been interpellated by the Egyptian state security apparatus. Ah, what a sense of subjectivity I'm feeling now. Good night.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Command of Leonard Cohen's Politics

Andrew Sullivan brings up an interesting -- though quite likely extraordinarily wrong -- analysis of the politics of Leonard Cohen, beginning with his song, Anthem. After quoting a few lines, Sullian is inspired to write: "We have to win this war. And we have managed to get rid of some of the madmen who were busy losing it, and exposed some of the charlatans who were enabling them. It's a start..."?

Note this is the second time this month that Sullivan has quoted from L.C's most overtly political album, The Future. I have absolutely zero direct knowledge of Leonard Cohen's politics, but in his music they are usually conveyed with either irony or ambivalence, or both.

When Cohen sings in "Anthem" for example, "Cant run no more /With the lawless crowd / While the killers in high places /Say their prayers out loud /But theyve summoned up / A thundercloud / And theyre going to hear from me," he doesn't seem convincingly serious. That is, I don't really take Cohen to be Batman, or the Old Testament God, or something. Isn't this the ironic Leonard Cohen, the "Field Commander," who being the "most important spy was "wounded in the line of duty, parachuting acid into diplomatic cocktail parties, urging Fidel Castro to abandon fields and castles," etc? Isn't this Leonard Cohen the same as one whose name is printed in bold, and whose face along with two ladies appears above an album titled "Death of a Ladies Man"? The same one who after being "Sentenced to twenty years of boredom" promises revolution first by taking Manhattan and then Berlin?

The Future, admittedly, seems like a departure from these earlier songs I've been citing. But where it may lack in irony, it makes up for it in ambivalence. On the Revelations-esque "The Future" he sings, "give me back the Berlin wall, give me Stalin and St. Paul. I've seen the future, brother, and it's muder." A few songs later, though, we get the two songs Sullivan cites: one of a vague Biblibal vengeance against those who have "summoned up a thundercloud," and the other of "Democracy is Coming to the U.S.A."

At the conclusion of this little Tocquevillian bit, Cohen sings, "I love the country but I can't stand the scene. And I'm neither left nor right, I'm just staying home tonight, geting lost in that hopless little screen." Where Sullivan here would likely pick up on -- and identify with -- "I'm neither left nor right" I tend to focus on Cohen's first sentence, where again, that detached irony returns. This is a songwriter, I think, who is genuinely interested in political questions. He's simply incredibly aware of his own weakness, or indifference, or some combination. "Field Commander Cohen" is I think the greatest expression of his political yearnings (on perhaps his greatest album, New Skin for the Old Ceremony), along with the greatest expression of his inevitable political failures. As in "First we Take Manhattan" he brings up with issue of "boredom," which it seems he associates with his career as an artist, these "forms of boredom advertised as poetry." The life of the poet is quite far -- perhaps contrary to Walter Benjamin's belief -- from the messianic role of healer and do-gooder. The song urges the Field Commander (or is it Castro?) to retire to the normal complexities of modern life, and to poetry. Yet, once removed the life of action and politics, what becomes of the poet? His role seems rather irresponsible while "many men are falling, where you promised to stand guard." Then, we return to the ultimate ironic self-consciousness:

I never asked but I heard you cast your lot along with the poor.
But then I overheard your prayer,
that you be this and nothing more
than just some grateful faithful woman's favourite singing millionaire,
the patron Saint of envy and the grocer of despair,
working for the Yankee Dollar.

While Cohen would perhaps like to cast his lot with the poor, there's little doubt that he at the very least struggles to avoid these last traits. Of course he's envious and full of despair (what else do you think of when you think of Leonard Cohen?) Of Course he profits off of his poetry.

These songs remain fairly ambiguous, but I think this ambiguity -- especially when concerned with politics -- is quite purposeful. At the end of the day, Cohen simply says what about a million other poets have said before, but perhaps says it a bit better. While he's fearful of the future, and yet desparate and hopeful for change, he's well aware that life is about more than fighting for these things, and that he is incapable of dedicating himself entirely to a life of fighting injustice. (Perhaps here would be a good time to bring up the fact that, biographically, Cohen became a Buddhist monk: the perfect expression of despair (the recognition of human suffering) and hope (not so much in poetry, but meditation.) To be critical, in other words, he wants to be both descriptively ambiguous -- not saying exactly what's wrong with the world, only that something's not right -- and prescriptively ambiguous -- ironically calling for revolution, or retribution, or divine intervention at times, and at other times calling for poetry, or sex.

So, back to where we began, I think Sullivan's rather full of shit (dare I call him "intellectually dishonest!") to use Leonard Cohen in support of a renewed military effort in Iraq. There's plenty of other poems he could have chosen to get that fighting spirit going. Leonard Cohen, however, remains a rather odd choice.

ps. How many senior theses have been written on this topic? I shudder to think...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Mixed signals

Has anyone heard the post-election spin from Republican and Libertarian circles that this election indicates that voters want "true conservative values"? This notion is not hard to find. "The GOP lost. Conservatism prevailed," says Michelle Malkin. John Hinderaker at Powerline says, "This year, on the other hand, it is actually true that the Republicans have lost power in large part--although, to be sure, not entirely--because they have been untrue to their conservative principles." Mark Levin thinks "the field is wide open for a principled, articulate, and charismatic conservative. The 2008 election begins today. " Larry "Kuds" Kudlow says, "The changeover in the House may well be a conservative victory, not a liberal one." And Andrew Sullivan has been living under the illusion for the past few months that voters are going to punish the GOP for betraying their roots.

You smell that? It's horseshit.

I guess I can't really blame people for thinking that their particular political movement is what "everybody secretly wants." We all fall prey to thinking, "If only everyone knew all the relevant information as I do, then we'd certainly have [social democracy/anarcho-capitalism/Christian theocracy/robot overlords/Amsterdam]!" The difference is, some of us are kidding ourselves, and some aren't. And you are truly kidding yourself if you think that George Bush and his posse ever strayed from some magical force called conservatism. They are conservatives, plain and simple. Any attempt to look to a "pure" conservative past finds no actual historical precedent.

We can try to flesh out the meaning of this elusive "pure" conservatism, but it's very difficult. Most of these commentators, and also many libertarians, seem to think that where BushCo really went wrong was with the economy. "He's outspending LBJ!" went one particular meme. "He's leaving all this debt to our children! Where is our beloved Ronald Reagan?" For the life of me I can't understand this complaint, since Reagan himself presided over huge deficits, all the while increasing military spending and (wait for it...) giving tax breaks to the biggest earners. Like Reagan, Bush has also rolled back plenty of corporate and environmental oversight. He also attempted and utterly failed at privatizing Social Security, an immensely unpopular measure.

On the social policy front, I also have no idea how this government could have been any more conservative. And it's laughable to say that "real conservatism" calls for increased privacy for the individual and less "government in the bedroom," because only about two prominent conservative commentators actually want this and the majority of them want the exact opposite. Most Americans, on the other hand, aren't rabid about criminalizing every last abortion, or delivering diagnoses about braindead women, or singing "Jesusland uber alles" from the rooftop of every courthouse.

Andrew Sullivan has been justifiably upset over the past several months at the Bush administration's constant lying, corruption, torture, and powerlust. But he's wrong to think that these are specifically un-conservative practices. They should be un-American practices (unfortunately, this is not always the case). And moreover, if you're going to find instances of them in 20th century American politics, you're sure as hell going to be marking a lot more in the "Republican" column than the "Democrat." I could spell out all the nasty examples from Kissinger, Nixon, Iran-Contra, et al., but that would be boring.

There's also the question of the war, which was the biggest factor in the election. Here "conservatives" are faced with a paradox. Some old-schoolers like Pat Buchanan think we never should have gone to Iraq, but he is the vox clamantis in deserto. The only real Republican talking point can be that Iraq was a great idea, the only possible option. However, (A) wars are expensive. (B) As "conservative" economists, we (questionably) want a balanced budget. (C) We will never increase taxes to balance a budget. Ergo (D) we're up shit creek with a turd for a paddle. I have no idea how one ties all these loose "pure conservative" threads together. Perhaps Michelle Malkin and John Hinderaker can tell us. But at the end of the day, the Republicans got voted out in part because they were too conservative, not "not purely conservative enough." The Bush administration is not the deviation from the norm, they are the manic id of conservatism as we historically know it, with all its nastier tendencies run amok. And most of the above commentators are even more deranged and far-right than the President. If they wish to persist in their fantasies, let them. They'll just lose more elections.

As a side note, more post-election conservative fun:

As a little joke, Jonah Goldberg at NRO's Corner blog links to the "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" scene from Life of Brian. He leaves a caveat, however: "Note: Monty Python sacrilege follows." NRO must be one of the few places left in the world where they have to take care not to offend any unwitting Christian readers with freakin' Monty Python. It's kind of cute, though, in the sense that conservatives are really quite sensitive after all.

Meanwhile, Hugh Hewitt sez: "President Bush will not flag in the pursuit of the war, and Senator Santorum is now available for a seat on the SCOTUS should one become available." This is kind of cute, too, in the sense that I never realized that Hugh Hewitt was actually a small, naive child.

"I know what androgyny is!"

New York City will allow people born there to change the sex on their birth certificates:

Under the rule being considered by the city’s Board of Health, which is likely to be adopted soon, people born in the city would be able to change the documented sex on their birth certificates by providing affidavits from a doctor and a mental health professional laying out why their patients should be considered members of the opposite sex, and asserting that their proposed change would be permanent.

My reading of the article is that people born there will be able to use the certificate for marriage. The interesting question is whether other states will be able to do anything about it. Will NYC natives living in Missouri, Tennessee, or even Texas be able to change their birth certificates to get the equivalent of a gay marriage? Interesting stuff. Maybe Texas will start having mandatory genitalia examinations for marriage certificates.

Sour grapes

I'm just realizing today that I've been lowering my sights for politics in this country for years. Fiscal responsibility, a more progressive tax system, and getting the hell out of Iraq all seem possible and desireable now, where yesterday they would have been unthinkable. But more important to me than anything else is that the tone of the political debate will have to change. Bush is already having to say things he doesn't want to say to people he doesn't want to talk to. He hasn't had to do that for four years.
Moreover, the Republican machine has lost its inertia. The really demoralizing thing about the past few years has been that it seemed that the republicans were not only in power at the time, but that they would be forever. That's done. With victories in the states, some of the gerrymandering the Republicans instituted can be reversed. The Democratic base will be energized by this election, and more liberal issues will be on the table, meaning that those who care about these issues and stand to benefit from them will get off their asses.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election thread

I feel like Atrios, but let's talk about the election. To start out: which is worse, knowing that you work with people who voted for George Allen or working in a state where two major highways are named after Jeffferson Davis and Robert E. Lee?

Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy has projected a Webb victory. That would be orgasmic. As a long-time democratic voter, I know not to get my hopes up; hopefully, the Republicans will learn that lesson in Virginia tonight.

Double update:
Here's CNN's feed on ballot measures. As usual a lot of them are really cool and alot are really lame. Colorado and Nevada both have marijuana legalization initiatives that look like they're going to be defeated, although right now Nevada is somewhat close with 43% for and 57% against and only 21% of precincts reporting. Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio are all raising their mimium wage. The South Dakota referendum on an abortion ban has failed, 58% to 42% at the moment. That makes me really happy. Maybe 8 states have banned homosexual gay queer marriage--lame. Missouri may or may not do stem cells; I predict the law protecting research will pass.
Ohio is not allowing slot machines, which is pretty interesting, as we have seen curbs on gambling erode in many areas in the last decade. Arizona may or may not ban gay marriage, but a bill that would require a $1 Million reward to some lucky voter has failed. It seems like those who are voting want others to vote for the same reasons they do. Interesting, considering recent discussions.

A Day of Nation-Wide Elections, a Moment of Local Pride

On one of the most significant academic blogs in the blogosphere, during one of the most wild and crazy days for blogs (ie. an election) a professor some of us are very close with has been given some major props. For those of you on this blog who babysit for his children, house-sit while his family is away, and write senior honors theses under his direction, I think this is something of which to be quite proud. Congratulations.

Monday, November 06, 2006

'Twas the night before the election...

...And the economists are on the prowl, reminding us of why we ought not to vote and how voters are largely irrational. First there was this post by economist Greg Mankiw at this blog (more here). Then there's "The Myth of the Rational Voter" by Bryan Caplan at Cato Unbound (with Matt Yglesias' response).

I agree with Yglesias that it's a bit weird for Caplan to complain about the irrationalities of the demos in a system which so obviously favors the elite. I would go further than this, however. Most people do understand, and not a few champion, the idea that a free market system by its very nature creates inequalities of wealth. Moreover, despite the "equality of opportunity" in this country, many people understand that those same inequalities of wealth help to compound the differences between socioeconomic classes so that a large group of people, no matter how hard they try, will never be able to match the performance (sic) and rewards of the entrenched elite. For this reason, is it really such a surprise that:

"Compared to the experts, laymen are much more skeptical of markets, especially international and labor markets, and much more pessimistic about the past, present, and future of the economy. When laymen see business conspiracies, economists see supply-and-demand. When laymen see ruinous competition from foreigners, economists see the wonder of comparative advantage. When laymen see dangerous downsizing, economists see wealth-enhancing reallocation of labor. When laymen see decline, economists see progress" ?
Even if economists espouse such things when you have adjusted for income and job security, you still have not answered the question cui bono? within the framework of the system outlined above (with wealth gravitating towards an entrenched elite, etc). So, even if the pie is getting bigger because of the wonders of the market so that everyone is better off than they would have been, there is no guarantee that the benefits will not be distributed extremely unequally, which is of course the case in the United States. Faced with the choice of redistributing more income now or waiting to receive increasing marginal returns, no matter how slight, more or less indefinitely, is it surprising or "irrational" that a large number of voters would favor the former? And to get back to Yglesias' point about all this, are they ever really given the chance for the former at all, once the policy has been crafted by the political elite?

There are further points in Caplan's that lept out at me as needing clarification. For example, when discussing how to "correct" for voter rationality, Caplan suggests taking more options off the table and leaving more decisions to "private choice and free markets." He mentions freedom of speech and religion as two such options that have been safeguarded from potentially dangerous democratic tampering. This example, however, seems to me to work against his argument. What if, for example, we drafted a constitutional amendment that stipulated that every American was owed $15,000 a year as a Basic Income Guarantee? We could call it the "freedom from hunger." (This is an idea promoted both by socialists like Philippe van Parijs and conservatives like Charles Murray.) Short of voting to overturn the amendment, that would be a pretty easy way to decrease the factors that give rise to democratic debate on the subject, although it certainly wouldn't be the free-market option.

Caplan also suggests reforming the Council of Economic Advisors so that they had veto power over legislation that they deemed "uneconomical." Caplan draws parallels between such a hypothetical institution and the Supreme Court. The catch, however, is that the whole purpose of the Supreme Court is to judge legislation based on a document, the Constitution, which is temporally and juridically prior to the Supreme Court itself. What is the parallel document in the Economic Advisors case? The Wealth of Nations? Social Statics? Economics 101? The comparison is absurd, because it would be arbitrary and most likely biased to choose a founding document ex post facto.

I won't go over all of the rest of Caplan's arguments, but I will point out that he suggests giving educated voters two votes, since "well-educated voters hold more sensible policy views," and tilting elections in favor of these votes by decreasing spending for turnout. In this case, the well-educated, who are more inclined to come out to vote anyway, would come out in typically strong numbers and ignorant voters would be more likely to stay at home.

I won't mount a serious challenge to this argument, but I will point out my serious, almost innate distaste for it, which is the more important feature anyway. Austin and I were talking the other day, and the idea of a "thymotic" conception of human nature came up. In brief, this idea dates back to Plato's Republic, in which Socrates distinguishes three parts of the human soul: the appetitive (basic desire for stuff), the rational (calculation), and the spirited, or thumos, whence we get our common conceptions of nobility, baseness, shame, fairness, etc. Obviously no one has a hard time finding desires for certain things, but only a few people (according to Plato, at least) have the right kind of calculation to judge the best means for achieving those ends. (Plato also thinks that reason can show us what sorts of things ought to be judged desire-worthy, in a normative sense, but that's irrelevant here.)

Now, the problem with Caplan, it seems to me, is that he apparently believes there are only two relevant questions--what we want, and how we're going to get it. Examining only these questions, we might easily forget about "democracy," "fairness," and "equality," because these pesky concepts always seem to intrude upon best laid plans. It is also taken for granted that only a few elite people (in this case, economists) can truly tell us what is in our best interests, based upon their special knowledge. Again, this is an idea as old as Plato, and Caplan reinforces the comparison by using phrases like "elites persist in unmerited deference to and flattery of the majority," which is all over the Gorgias.

However, once we recognize the "thymotic" element of human nature, which strives to have itself recognized and respected, the problems of having "free market everything" and restricting or altering democratic rights start to make a lot more sense. People don't just want to have their desires maximized, they want to be able to hold themselves with dignity and a sense of self-worth. Therefore, it's not surprising that they should all want to be able to vote and affect their government, especially when they see their social position not as a "natural" one that is somehow "deserved," but as one which is more or less arbitrary, and which could have been improved, even to the level of the elites, given a more egalitarian social scheme.

This is not, by the way, what Austin and I actually talked about with respect to the thumos, but I still think the concept offers a better way of looking at voting motives, "rational" or "irrational," in contrast to the homo economicus view. It also helps to explain why so many people find the "pure" free market and its mass/elite binary as arbitrary and unfair as Caplan finds it natural and optimal.

The growing left bloc to our south

In case you didn't hear, Sandinista Daniel Ortega is poised to win the election that took place in Nicaragua today. The United States, which of course has a disgraceful history of interfering with Nicaraguan affairs, was actively campaigning against this result, supporting Liberal party candidate Montealegre. I was aware of this event from several articles at openDemocracy, but I didn't really pay attention until I saw this article from Reuters a few days ago: "Ortega comeback scares U.S. residents of Nicaragua." "Wow," I thought, "has he threatened U.S. citizens?" Well, it depends on how you define "threaten." In actuality, the owners of $200,000 villas are nervous that Ortega's election will slow down business. One man says "there's a good chance he'll confiscate property"; what's more certain is that the U.S. will withdraw aid and investment in order to punish the people of Nicaragua, 80 percent of whom, according to Reuters, live on less than $2 a day.

Ortega is a worry, but not primarily because of the early Sandinista government, which the US State Department falsely portrays as an "authoritarian dictatorship," when in fact this label certainly applies to the US-backed Somoza dynasty. Rather, it is from several shady alliances and pacts made in the 90s, especially with disgraced swindler Arnoldo Aleman, leader of the Constitutional Liberal Party. For instance, it is precisely because of a rule that Ortega and Aleman created--that presidential candidates need only win 35% of the vote with the other candidate trailing by at least 5% to be declared president, when it used to be 45%--that Ortega is probably going to win today.

Of course, the wider picture is that Ortega's is yet another in a growing list of Latin American governments which oppose the United States. How exactly he fits that description is unclear, since he has agreed in advance to go forward with CAFTA, but the US has certainly designated him as such, and Hugo Chavez is waiting in the wings with the victory champagne. No matter what, it will be interesting to watch the changing dynamic, and to watch with trepidation the state of the Nicaraguan people, whose new government is being called "pro-terrorist" and "hijacked by undemocratic forces."

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Saturday fun, part two

For one reason or another, I often frequent sites where Loose Change and other 9/11 conspiracy documentaries are advertised. My understanding of the science and facts that allegedly support these theories indicates that they are really far out there. Nonetheless, I sometimes go to the advertised sites, if only as a sociological exercise. While dicking around today at one of these places, I found the following advertisement:

Kay Griggs, wife of US Marine Corps Colonel George Griggs, does an amazing 8-hour interview with Pastor Rick Strawcutter. Incredibly revealing picture of how our world is really run -- the power elite, our military, our intelligence and their global agenda. DVD (set of 4), new factory-pressed release

"Wow," I thought, "this lady must really be good if she can keep rappin' for eight hours--they advertise it as a feature! Maybe I shold check it out". Boy, was I right! I've spent the last hour researching the origins of this marathon interview, and every second was well-spent. The most useful resource in my exploration of this topic was certainly Greg Szymanski's probing article on Ms. Griggs; interested readers should also see this FAQ at
You see, George Griggs, Kay's former husband, is not just your normal Marine Corps Colonel. Instead, he "is a trained assassin" who "calls the people he is involved with the members of The Firm or The Brotherhood. If you are in the clique, you are above the law and literally can get away with murder". And this isn't just your ordinary clique or firm, but one that involves "sexually perverted rituals, like anal and oral sex in coffins at drunken parties and running naked in the woods at Bohemian Grove" (Bohemian Grove--Secret Honor, anyone?).
That's not all. Griggs has the dirt on Zionist conspiracies dating all the way back to 1933. As she says,
Truth is light. And these guys are anxious to collect the global power now in the few hands of their Freemasonic ( French Masons ) brotherhood's elite hands. It is a very, very small group and a rather homogenized group of global top down existentialist Zionists and socialists. In short Nazi’s who came to the U.S. when Hitler, their boy, turned on them in 1933.

So, check out the free excerpts from her video. You'll be happy to know that her interviewer, Pastor Strawcutter, is no lackey either. He is the voice of "the second top rated show in the country". If all of you enjoy the excerpts, we could buy the eight-hour dvd. The only bad part is that the video isn't really 8 hours, as this answer to a FAQ tells us: "The interviews were held over the course of a weekend in 1998. A 2-hour edited version entitled "Sleeping with the Enemy" is available, as is the full 439-minute unedited footage. Although 439 minutes is actually 7.3 hours, the complete interviews are contained on 4 DVDs (each with a capacity of 2 hours), so we refer to the duration as 8 hours."
Well, at least we know that they're telling the truth.

A little saturday fun!

While I was moping about how meaningless my life is one day to Scantron (over our digital mobile phones), I remarked about one of the few pleasures in my life: video games. This must have really caught his attention, because he suddenly exclaimed "Dude, you can be the Huffy Crew expert on video games!" as if he had no idea why I existed before that moment. So today I will begin to follow my Beruf (I'm a Weber-reading video game critic) with (I believe) my first video game blog (this will make three sets of parentheses in this sentence and four in the last three sentences).
Via Metafilter, I send you to the 50 Worst Video Game Names of All Time. It is much more entertaining then it sounds, and is evidence that the proliferation of video game sites on the web is not entirely as lame as it sounds. I never thought that an article ending with "Props to VG Museum and Allgame for their informative game libraries" could do it for me.

The Children of Europe

The population is aging. Women no longer have babies as they once did. Immigrants are persecuted. Unrest grows. The future is bleak.

The parrallels between Alfonso Cuarón's new film Children of Men and the very real situation in Europe are legion. It's a terrific tale, and when it arrives in late Dec., it will be worth the $8.50 admission price. That the movie represents that most rare of cinematic breeds -- the English language film that premiers in Europe first, the United States second -- I think makes a lot of sense. In its almost literal "... and the Last Man" quality, it's much more an eerie reflection on European life today than a dystopian depiction of "The Future" at large.

Without a doubt the most pressing issue in Spain today -- and I would venture to say Europe in general -- is immigration. Because immigration to Spain is both an extremely new phenomenon (Spain was a net exporter of people until the late '80s), and an extremely sizable one (likely over 1 million for this year, making it for the 7th year in a row Europe's largest absorber of migrants), the impact here is particularly strong. Immigrants now make up 8.7% of the population, four times what they composed six years ago. It's what everyone wants to talk about, and it's above the fold each morning in the newspapers (except when those terrorist Basque bastards cause trouble). More empirically, polls show that immigration is now rated as the top political issue (over terrorism) by some three-fifths of voters, compared with only 29% a year ago.

Any intelligent Spaniard, however, will tell you exactly what any intelligent American will tell you about immigration: that at the end of the day, "we need it!" The Spanish government at least thinks so. Last year, 700,000 undocumented immigrants were given amnesty. The economic results of immigration seem to be quite clear: the social-security coffers remain stocked, and GDP growth is humming along at a respectable 3.7%, thanks in large part to increases in migrant-infused demand, and low labor costs.

There are two problems, however. The first, is that not everyone in Spain and Europe frolics into the night praising the economic benefits of immigration; and the second, is that this round of European immigration might be just beginning, not ending. The reason for the latter being that the Children of Men are drying up. Birth-rates all across Europe are continuing at an even more unsustainable pace, in the literal sense that Europe is not reproducing enough to reproduce itself. As a recent International Herald Tribune article put it:
"In 1990, no European country had a fertility rate less than 1.3; by 2002, there were 15, with six more below 1.4. No European country is maintaining its population through births, and only France - with a rate of 1.8 - has the potential to do so..." Of the 20 countries in the world with the highest share of geriatrics (those over 60), all but one were in Europe (the exception being Japan, eternal ruiner of all neat and clean statistics). "Collectively we decided not to have children and, without knowing it, we decided to immigrants,” one Spanish commentator was recently quoted as saying, certainly echoing what most of Europe feels to be the case.

Count me among the many who fear many European countries' ability to successfully integrate these new immigrants. Whereas the previous influx of non-European immigrants during the economic boom of the late 50s and 60s ended abruptly with stagflation and strict immigration laws -- leaving the children on these immigrants to fend for themselves in the suburbs of places like Amsterdam -- the historical circumstances this time around are different. Politicians know that so long as fertility rates remain low, the economic incentives of immigration are manifold, and the doors should best be left open. Whether they can balance this with the threat of an ultra nationalist and xenophobic backlash on behalf of some European political leaders and populaces -- as in Israel, where Mr. Lieberman's paty is doing its best to prove people like Mr. Judt right about what happens when states have to choose between democracy and ethnic purity -- remains I think the biggest concern. I focus on politicians more than multitudes because I think this journey between the Scylla of no Children of Men, and the Charybdis of high levels of immigration can be successfully navigated with intelligent and moral political leadership. From what it seems, I think the Spanish Socialists are one such example.

Friday, November 03, 2006

I have to blog this

As part of my fraternal responsibility, here's a link to an article about "Green Drinks," an alcohol-lubricated gathering for environmentalists and other fascists. The most salient part of the article comes at the end:
Alex Thompson, 26, who had ridden his bike from Culver City, credited the group with helping him create his free "bike-mentoring" program, Roll With It, which matches novice cyclists with experienced "bike coaches" who help their charges become cycling commuters.

"I'm kind of timid and afraid, but they told me to shut up and put me in touch with people to make it happen."

I can't think of a more representative quote. What a weirdo! But the article declares its weirdness from the beginning:

"I'm a big believer in liquid fuel derived from corn," said Stuart Cooley, an energy efficiency engineer with the city of Santa Monica and a rum-and-Coke kind of guy, "and here we get to sample ethanol."

Ahh.... nothing tastes as good as pure whimsy!

Thanks Curry King, link is above!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

What's in a label?

Andrew Sullivan, today:

Just so you know where I'm coming from. I'm not a liberal. I believe in small government, balanced budgets, welfare reform, and a flat tax. I'm against affirmative action and hate crime laws. Personally, I'm pro-life, although I can live in a society in which legal first trimester abortions are safe, legal and rare. I'm pro-marriage - I just want everyone to have access to the family structure. I was for the Iraq war. I published the Danish cartoons. I wore a Reagan '80 button in an English high school. I'm a Catholic. I would never have voted for the Medicare prescription bill because we simply cannot afford it. In other words: don't get your hopes up. I'm not on the left, whatever the religious right is now saying about me.
In other words, "Hello, I'm Democrat Harold Ford, Jr."

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Strange developments concerning an old, familiar name

From reading this article in the AmeriQuests journal, linked to today on Political Theory Daily Review, you'd think Gerald Early has more than a few hang-ups. Not to say this isn't an informative and...interesting... piece, although it is in need of an editor at a few points. The typeface and huge blocks of text also make it a chore to read, but I recommend it, for reasons which will soon become clear. Early leads with a Dewey quotation and later brings in Walter Lippmann, so Robot, I know you'll tune in.

The first two-thirds of the article comprise a rather staid account of black/white American relations and the rise of the black intellectual. When you come to the final paragraphs, however, Early slips into a palpable pessimism, especially when discussing black faculty recruitment in academe. I quote at (extreme) length this long-winded analysis:

Universities have become the largest employer of these intellectual; most schools that consider themselves major or important want to have at least one or two, mostly in order to have some sort of race-based aspect to the curriculum (for the social and psychological good of the students), to demonstrate among things in this multicultural age the pedestrian fact that blacks have brains, too, (no one wants anything that involves the conspicuous use of brain-power to be all-white), and to be “role models” for the black students these schools try to enroll; ironically, this means that for these schools black intellectuals exist, largely, perhaps exclusively, for not only extra-intellectual reasons but almost for anti-intellectual reasons, for the black intellectual’s importance is connected almost solely with his or her race, their significance as a sociological phenomenon, and the significance of the race-based stuff they teach largely for its sociological resonance: what it means for the school to offer this, what it means for the students to take these courses with these professors, somehow everyone being liberated by it all in some mysterious way where through the very act of supposedly challenging the institution through one’s presence, the black intellectual merely confirms its legitimacy in the desperation that he or she exhibits in wanting the institution to confirm his or her own.
Yes, that was all one sentence. He goes on to say that for black intellectuals this position "can only make most people unhappy as they exist in the half-light of being both an endangered species and prima donnas, a kind of privileged twilight that is meant to mask or to dim their continued marginal status in American intellectual circles on the whole."

Then we really start our descent: "The most famous of this cohort of black university intellectuals are Henry Louis Gates, the director of the African American Studies Department at Harvard and Cornel West, also of Harvard University. Despite their enormous fame, status, considerable earning power, and great learning, their work is of very little consequence in American letters for very much the reasons I have outlined." Now, this is just silly, bordering on the envious. Despite the obligatory insertion of "great learning," the phrase "enormous fame, status, considerable earning power" smacks of a low blow. And how exactly is Henry Louis Gates' work "of very little consequence"? Gates is a MacArthur genius fellow; his book The Signifying Monkey won the American Book Award; he edited the Norton Anthology of African American Literaure; he and Kwame Anthony Appiah edited the Encarta Africana, an online African-American encyclopedia; he has written articles for Time, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, which is more than most academics and intellectuals can say. (Gates' Harvard web page.) To simply assert that his work is of little consequence is totally irresponsible. He also gets Cornel West's title wrong: West teaches at Princeton, not Harvard.

Then Early states: "As someone who is considered by many a black public intellectual, I claim no special exception for myself from the general condition as I see it of the black intellectual in the American university and in American life. I directed a Black Studies Program for about seven or eight years and thought it odd, fruitless way [sic] for an institution to dispense charity, and a feeble attempt at minority 'enabling.'" This statement would probably confuse his colleages in the Washington University African and African-American Studies Department, whose website lists him as an affiliated professor. "I directed" and "thought it a fruitless way" give the false impression that Early has renounced any ties to African-American Studies departments. Early has also built his career on the sort of African-American- and race-centric scholarship he laments in this article. Work sample: Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation, This is Where I Came In: Black America in the 1960s, Miles Davis and American Culture, The Muhammed Ali Reader, The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader, and One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture. According to his faculty page, he's currently working on a book about all-black Fisk University.

The next and final paragraph is either a glib, hasty summary or a smug, self-pitying write-off. Brace yourself for more long sentences:

I was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, so I have an “impressive” set of credentials to make me seem more important, by virtue of my education, than I am. I teach in a field, American literature, that seems to be transforming itself into something else: sociology for some, “theory” for others (who rather think themselves quite intellectual because they toss about a bunch of densely-worded thought-clichés), “culture” for still others (like myself who have decided that no canvas is too big to doodle and finger-paint upon); films for others (where, after all, everything from music scores to magazines ads are “texts” to be read and interpret).
The first sentence is an insult to Penn and Cornell, plain and simple, done to make Early seem honest and self-critical. The repeated use of quotation marks ("theory," "culture," "texts") is truly annoying, as is Early's pronouncement about "densely-worded thought-clichés." It's annoying when people who know nothing about literary theory succumb to this kind of anti-intellectualism, even worse when chaired academics who have numerous colleagues in the field do it.

So ultimately, I'm confused. What exactly is AmeriQuests? Did someone really peer-review this article? Did someone even edit it? Most of the other articles in this issue, a special on "Public Intellectuals, Academia, and the Media," use extensive annotation. Early's clearly does not. Does he suppose that no one will read this article, in which he offhandedly belittles other academics, even whole departments and universities? By all means, if Early thinks that African American Studies are problematic, he has the right to speak his mind. But this article is reckless in its characterizations and dishonest in its self-presentation. Weird.