Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Forever young

Remember that quiet kid in middle school whose parents were never around? Well, maybe he was actually a 29-year-old man. Who lived with 43-year-old man claiming to be his uncle. And a 61-year-old man claiming to be his grandfather. And another, random 34-year-old man, a sex offender whom the 29-year-old had met in prison. What, did total fuckedupedness just skip the quinquagenarian generation? It's like "Three Men and a Baby" as written by Todd Solondz.

The two older men, according to CNN's version of the story, "Were very upset when the detectives told them they had been having a sexual relationship with a 29-year-old man and not a pre-teen boy." Eeeeeeeeeee.

Corpus Aristotelicum

Aristotle, son of Nichomachus and Phaestius, could perhaps rival Deleuze in works. Just for the sake of taking up sheer space on the blog, I submit the following:
XII. He also wrote a great number of works; and I have thought it worth while to give a list of them, on account of the eminence of their author in every branch of philosophy. Four books on Justice; three books on Poets; three books on Philosophy; two books of The Statesman; one on Rhetoric, called also the Gryllus; the Nerinthus, one; the Sophist, one; the Menexenus, one; the Erotic, one; the Banquet, one; on Riches, one; the Exhortation, one; on the Soul, one; on Prayer, one; on Nobility of Birth, one; on Pleasure, one; the Alexander, or an Essay on Colonists, one; on Sovereignty, one; on Education, one; on the Good, three; three books on things in the Laws of Plato; two on Political Constitutions; on Economy, one; on Friendship, one; on Suffering, or having Suffered, one; on Sciences, one; on Discussions, two; Solutions of Disputed Points, two; Sophistical Divisions, four; on Contraries, one; on Species and Genera, one; on Property, one; Epicheirematic, or Argumentative Commentaries, three; Propositions relating to Virtue, three; Objections, one; one book on things which are spoken of in various ways, or a Preliminary Essay; one on the Passion of Anger; five on Ethics; three on Elements; one on Science; one on Beginning; seventeen on Divisions; on Divisible Things, one; two books of Questions and Answers; two on Motion; one book of Propositions; four of Contentious Propositions; one of Syllogisms; eight of the First Analytics; two of the second greater Analytics; one on Problems; eight on Method; one on the Better; one on the Idea; Definitions serving as a preamble to the Topics, seven; two books more of Syllogisms; one of Syllogisms and Definitions; one on what is Eligible, and on what is Suitable; the Preface to the Topics, one; Topics relating to the Definitions, two; one on the Passions; one on Divisions; one on Mathematics; thirteen books of Definitions; two of Epicheiremata, or Arguments; one on Pleasure; one of Propositions; on the Voluntary, one; on the Honourable, one; of Epicheirematic or Argumentative Propositions, twenty-five books; of Amatory Propositions, four; of Propositions relating to Friendship, two; of Propositions relating to the Soul, one; on Politics, two; Political Lectures, such as that of Theophrastus, eight; on Just Actions, two; two books entitled, A Collection of Arts; two on the Art of Rhetoric; one on Art; two on other Art; one on Method; one, the Introduction to the Art of Theodectes; two books, being a treatise on the Art of Poetry; one book of Rhetorical Enthymemes on Magnitude; one of Divisions of Enthymemes; on Style, two; on Advice, one; on Collection two; on Nature, three; on Natural Philosophy, one; on the Philosophy of Archytas, three; on the Philosophy of Speusippus and Xenocrates, one; on things taken from the doctrines of Timaeus and the school of Archytas, one; on Doctrines of Melissus, one; on Doctrines of Alcmaeon, one; on the Pythagoreans, one; on the Precepts of Gorgias, one; on the Precepts of Xenophanes, one; on the Precepts of Zeno, one; on the Pythagoreans, one; on Animals, nine; on Anatomy, eight; one book, a Selection of Anatomical Questions; one on Compound Animals; one on Mythological Animals; one on Impotence; one on Plants; one on Physiognomy; two on Medicine; one on the Unit; one on Signs of Storms; one on Astronomy; one on Optics; one on Motion; one on Music; one on Memory; six on Doubts connected with Homer; one on Poetry; thirty-eight of Natural Philosophy in reference to the First Elements; two of Problems Resolved; two of Encyclica, or General Knowledge; one on Mechanics; two consisting of Problems derived from the writings of Democritus; one on Stone; one book of Comparisons; twelve books of Miscellanies; fourteen books of things explained according to their Genus; one on Rights; one book, the Conquerors at the Olympic Games; one, the Conquerors at the Pythian Games in the Art of Music; one, the Pythian; one, a List of the Victors in the Pythian Games; one, the Victories gained at the Olympic Games; one on Tragedies; one, a List of Plays; one book of Proverbs; one on the Laws of Recommendations; four books of Laws; one of Categories; one on Interpretation; a book containing an account of the Constitutions of a hundred and fifty-eight cities, and also some individual democratic, oligarchic, aristocratic, and tyrannical Constitutions; Letters to Philip; Letters of the Selymbrians; four Letters to Alexander; nine to Antipater; one to Mentor; one to Ariston; One to Olympias; one to Hephaestion; one to Themistagoras; one to Philoxenus; one to Democritus; one book of Poems, beginning:
Hail! holy, sacred, distant-shooting God.

A book of Elegies which begins:

Daughter of all-accomplish'd mother.

The whole consisting of four hundred and forty-five thousand two hundred and seventy lines.

"Deleuze, philosopher, son of Diogenes and Hypatia"

A eulogy (?) for the always-multiplicitous Gilles Deleuze, sourced from this difficult-to-navigate (because mostly French) Deleuze archive. May it bring a smile to your face. This really doesn't require anything much like thought.

Suidas in Philosophie 47 par André Bernold - 01/09/

Deleuze, philosopher, son of Diogenes and Hypatia, sojourned at Lyon. Nothing is known of his life. He lived to be very old, even though he was often very ill. This illustrated what he himself had said: there are lives in which the difficulties verge on the prodigious. He defined as active any force that goes to the end of its power. This, he said, is the opposite of a law. Thus he lived, always going further than he had believed he could. Even though he had explicated Chrysippus, it is above all his steadfastness that earned him the name of Stoic.

He was one of the most remarkable orators of his time, and the greatest of those who made a profession of teaching philosophy. He was only understood by a small number. He was persecuted, the object of a jealousy that never abated. He disdained these miseries because of the joy of his life, which was philosophizing.

Possessed of a lofty temperament, he merely endured people. But formidable was his irony. His voice was most extraordinary. Athenea compares it to a rasp, then to a torrent of pebbles. His elocution was of an extreme distinction, a bit weary, the diction slow and sweet. Apollodorus compares his voice to that of a sorcerer. He was a man of perfect nobility, who detested everything that diminished.

He wrote much, perhaps more than anyone else, if one considers the density of his works. Even though he addressed logic and morality at length, he must be placed in the ranks of the physicists, indeed in the first rank. He left a text Of Nature that Stobea ranks with those of Heraclitus and Lucretius, and relates an oracle: in a very distant future, nothing as great as it will have appeared, except a certain Ethics that is not Aristotle‚s.

He said that three anecdotes were sufficient: the place, the hour and the element. His own place was to be found in the east. As for the hour, it was the hour of profound darkness; for there is much dread in his books. Even the sky suffered from its cardinal points and its constellations, he said. Regarding the element, much hesitating is permitted, for he speaks of everything with a rare splendor. He passionately loves the earth; Aratos says that he was a troglodyte. He celebrates the serried lines of the waters, and fire, according to him, is soluble. His element nevertheless is aerial˜overhang, suspension, and profound fall.

He was also a doctor, the last to treat medicine as an art. We cite two books on monsters, two on wounds and the most famous, on the oedema of the feet.

We read in Aristoxenes of his Treatise on the Refrain, the daring of which is extreme. One further finds Of the Line, and Of Sublime Images.

Proclus recopies a very obscure passage on, the virgin, the one who never lived, beyond the lover and beyond the mother, who coexists with the one and is contemporaneous with the other. In the same spot, he says that every reminiscence is erotic. Strabo insists that he was an astonishing geologist. With Félix he composed, aside from Against Oedema, which also contains a Politics and a Geography which are assuredly never lived madly enough: On Strata, that similarly includes a Strategy. That work seems never to have been understood by anyone among philosophical folk.

In geometry, he discovered the pulsation of spirals. He declared that the love of children for their mother repeats other adult loves for other women.

There was a multitude of other Deleuzes.

Here is the list of his works: Of the Event, in 34 books. Of the Constellations that Pierce Us. Of the Impassability of Incorporeals. Of Paradox and Fate. On the Wounds that are Received While Sleeping. Symptoms. On the Demons‚ Leap. Of Tubercules. Of the Noble Man. On the Ugliness of the Human Face. Of Idiots. Of Invisible Witnesses. The Prince of Philosophers. On Degrees. Of the Three Testaments. The Galician, or Of Coldness, or Of Cruelty. Of Larvae. Of the Idea that Watches Us. Misosophy. Of the Egg. Of the Clear and the Obscure. Of the Universal Spider. That Every Intensity is Agonizing. Of the Sardine. On the Question „Who? Of the Orgy. Of Nobody. On Universal Collapse. In Praise of Lucretius. Of the Viscera. Of Complication. Handbook of Torsions. That It Is Agreeable Not to Explain Oneself Too Much. Of the Singularities that Unsettle Us. Of the Cloaca. Of the Triumph of Slaves. The Cloak. What Belongs to Us Under a More Subtle Solicitation. Of Absolute Depth. Of Unknown Joy.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

How times have changed...

Thanks to Lenin's Tomb, I found this amazing appeal by Franklin Roosevelt to the Muslims of North Africa (seriously not made up) :

Praise be unto the only God. In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. O ye Moslems. O ye beloved sons of the Maghreb. May the blessing of God be upon you.

This is a great day for you and us, for all the sons of Adam who love freedom. Our numbers are as the leaves on the forest tress and as the grains of sand in the sea.

Behold. We the American Holy Warriors have arrived. We have come here to fight the great Jihad of Freedom.

We have come to set you free. We have sailed across the great sea in many ships, on many beaches we are landing, and our fighters swarm across the sands and into the city streets, and into the wide country sides, and along the highways.

Light fires on the hilltops; shout from your housetops, and from the high places, and say the sound of the drum be heard in the land, and the ululation of the women, and the voices even of small children.

Assemble along the highways to welcome your brothers.

We have come to set you free.

Speak with our fighting men and you will find them pleasing to the eye and gladdening to the heart. We are not as some other Christians whom ye have known, and who trample you under foot. Our soldiers consider you as their brothers, for we have been reared in the way of free men. Our soldiers have been told about your country and about their Moslem brothers and they will treat you with respect and with a friendly spirit in the eyes of God.

Look in their eyes and smiling faces, for they are Holy Warriors happy in their holy work. Greet us therefore as brothers as we will greet you, and help us.

If we are thirsty, show us the way to water. If we lose our way, lead us back to our camping places. Show us the paths over the mountains if need be, and if you see our enemies, the Germans or Italians, making trouble for us, kill them with knives or with stones or with any other weapon that you may have set your hands upon.

Help us as we have come to help you, and rich will be the reward unto us all who love justice and righteousness and freedom.

Pray for our success in battle, and help us, and God will help us both.

Lo, the day of freedom hath come.

May God grant his blessing upon you and upon us.

- Roosevelt

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Sunday fun!

Fink, FANK, Funk

1. Fink

Fink is short for Finkelstein; commonly it is a last name in its own right, as in Mike "Fink," the family friend who once gave me a mattress. Another example is Bruce Fink, translator of the works of Jacques Lacan and author of The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance, an excellent primer in all things subjectively split.

A fink is also someone slimy or slippery: an unsavory fellow. At a greater magnitude is the term "rat fink," presumably derived from the physiognomic comparison of the species rat and fink, thus indicating excessively rodent-like qualities, as in Dustin Hoffman's character in Midnight Cowboy.

Also, the verb "to fink," which signifies either the activity of lisped intellection, or the act of rodenting: to sniff, to crawl, to achieve unsavory doings.


From Wikipedia: The FANK (French: Force Armée Nationale Khmère — Khmer National Armed Forces) were the armed forces of the Khmer Republic, the state that existed between 1970-75, and today is known as Cambodia. FANK succeeded FARK (Force Armée Royale Khmère), which had been responsible for the defense of the Kingdom of Cambodia since its independence in 1954 from France.

3. Funk

"What is funk?" is a question my grandmother put to me during a recent attempt, on my part of course, to eulogize the late James Brown. When a grown woman needs a young man to tell her about the hardest working man in show business, I begin to think that the finer points of our civilization have been cruelly squandered. But as I remind myself, the Geist of funk is a complex one, beset by all the ambiguity and paradox of its nomial relations, "fink" and "FANK."

To be "in a funk": to experience doldrums and melancholy; in Kantian terms, to will the Blues. To be in a funky way, however, or, as with George Clinton, to have the funk (which is, as he reminds us, that which one has got to have - presumably if one is to undertake the entertaining occupation): to be moved by forces of dance and gaiety; but also to encounter a suavity of self, an inner-emmanating sense of cool. One who has the funk is good to lay down a masterful groove, but one who delves too deeply into matters funky, one who is "in a funk" --who passes within that territory whose boundaries bespeak gaiety and the Dionysiac, but whose nucleus is purely and monotonously Blue-- has gone too far. To merely have the funk is the secret of the funky. Funk is an ornament to those who have it; to those who seek its secrets, it is a prison of morose self-pitying.

To put it otherwise - Jump back, Jack; See you later, alligator.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Fink the fink?

The blogosphere seems to be sweating out the "anti-Semitism" meme these days. Of course there is much hubbub about Carter and Dershowitz at Brandeis, but Yglesias also set off a landmine with his defense of Wesley Clark against charges of anti-Semitism.

(This is a really fascinating debate. Yglesias' article in The American Prospect is here. Jon Chait of The New Republic responds on TNR's Plank blog. And Yglesias parries! And Chait thrusts! Yglesias, seemingly in for a true pissing match, keeps it up. Somewhere along the line, TNR editor Marty Peretz's racism comes up, which is always apt I suppose, and Atrios, Glenn Greenwald, and Spencer Ackerman chime in. [Yes, this is what I do all day.])

So, before this zeitgeist dies out, I'd like to report my own encounter with this sensitive topic. I attended a lecture by controversial scholar Norman Finkelstein last night. Finkelstein was invited to Stanford by Students Confronting Apartheid in Israel, the Coalition for Justice in the Middle East, and Stanford's Speakers Bureau. Even before I heard Finkelstein speak I was disappointed about the selection. My first experience with CJME was a talk given by Rami Khouri, editor of the Beirut Daily Star. It was a very impressive event and I signed up for the e-newsletter. Their inviting Finkelstein, however, was a bit like the conservatives at Wash U bringing in Ann Coulter. It seemed needlessly provocative and a poor way to start any sort of debate on the issue. Thankfully, Finkelstein did not come off as blatantly rude and bullying as Coulter did (and as everyone knew she would), but I still had very serious problems with the event.

Finkelstein's talk was devoted to debunking/demystifying certain aspects of the Israel-Palestine debate. This portion of the talk was largely unsophisticated and didn't tell me anything I didn't already know--various UN resolutions, voting records, soundbytes from Benny Morris and Alan Dershowitz, and the ruling by the International Criminal Court on the security wall. Needless to say if you know anything about Finkelstein, he took a very critical stance against Israeli policy. But as he pointed out himself, he didn't say anything more than what this 12.26.06 Haaretz editorial said:
Everyone in the Sharon government talked about the "demographic problem" to convince people of the justness of the pullout. Now the Palestinians have been forgotten and demographics have been forgotten - all because the data can't be used for political ends. But the apartheid regime in the territories remains intact; millions of Palestinians are living without rights, freedom of movement or a livelihood, under the yoke of ongoing Israeli occupation, and in the future they will turn the Jews into a minority between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

The unfinished separation fence has become a monument to the shortsightedness of the Israeli policy to neither swallow nor regurgitate. The fence was meant to serve the unilateral withdrawal, but it has become clear that more outposts will be erected wherever the fence has not been completed, now that the Justice Ministry has suggested "laundering" the existing illegal outposts. When we want to withdraw, we will have to contend with more settlers.
Of course, if you look at the comments section for this op-ed, many readers did not agree with its statements, but this is all more or less blah-di-blah for me. I know that this debate and this language exists within Israel. Which is why, as I said, I found Finkelstein's talk unsophisticated and uninformative.

This is where things get weird. I can't say for sure how many people there disagreed with Finkelstein from the outset and how many didn't (it was that kind of polarized audience), but only a few people were audibly jeering while he spoke. The rest seemed more or less on the same page. And--this is the only way to put it--when people started feeling more comfortable they started to laugh. Quite a bit. They laughed and cheered when Finkelstein compared Morris and Dershowitz to Nazis. They laughed when he accused Israelis of claiming unique status for the Holocaust, but then decrying various leaders as the "new Hitler." (Somehow, laughter never struck me as being an appropriate response, ever, when discussing the Holocaust, or any other instance of genocide.) They laughed when he said that despite claims of growing anti-Semitism, Princeton's Jewish enrollment rate was close to 40%. (As if there was some necessary correlation between high Jewish enrollment and low levels of anti-Semitism.) And they laughed when he said that Yale had just created a center for the study of anti-Semitism, and again when he joked that Jewish students could now make a triple major of Jewish studies, Holocaust studies, and anti-Semitic studies. (As if these are illegitimate areas of study, and as if Finkelstein or anyone else in the room would laugh at an Edward Said School of Orientalist Studies.) In all of these cases the mood was one of very heavy irony, but it was ugly.

My question is: Why the comedy routine? Mr. Khouri of the Daily Star had no need and probably no desire for joking: He had just come from a war that was deadly serious. I assume that Jimmy Carter doesn't lace his speaking dates with one-liners. The joking displayed immaturity, smoldering resentment, and mockery. It was pretty shameful, and also just a plain shame, because the event didn't have to be that way at all. I came away thinking Finkelstein was more or less a joke as a scholar and little more than a provocateur in his rhetorical style. And of course, there was nothing afterwards in the paper or on the internet other than "You're an apologist for terror!" "You're an apologist for occupation!" Smell the progress!

Muslim cabdrivers and alcohol: What "should" they do? is running a story in their "Behind the Scenes" series about Muslim cabbies in St. Paul-Minneapolis who refuse to transport passengers carrying alcohol. I suppose this is news--CNN says that 5,400 such incidents have occurred in the past five years, but out of how many total rides? It's an average of three times a day, at any rate. Yet CNN's reporting is needlessly provocative (and just plain dumb). Here's how Keith Oppenheim begins his story:
It's always interesting to me, that in my own country, I often get assignments where I walk into a room, and everyone looks and sounds different from me. Different language. Different culture. And sometimes, different beliefs.

On this story, I crossed such a threshold.

Well, hello there, whitey! Come on in! Note the complete vapidity of this lede. I find it not at all "interesting" that you could, even in "your own country," walk into a room where everyone "looks and sounds different" from you--in this case, different from a thirty-something white guy in a suit. Some examples: A gay bar. A bridge club. A retirement home. A record store. A construction site. A roadhouse bar. In all such cases, you could very conceivably be of the same race, religion, political persuasion, language, and social class as the other people, not to mention many other factors. "Language" is possibly the only real "interesting" thing on the list--there are presumably many countries where it is not unusual to go one's whole life hearing the same language. But culture? What does that even mean? "And sometimes, different beliefs"? Who let this guy escape from the Borg? This is fucking America, buddy: We're supposed to consider it a good thing that we don't all believe the same things. But of course, this story is about dark-skinned Muslim people, so we have to think of Mr. Oppenheim as entering the heart of darkness or something. Onward, brave explorer!

I stepped into the taxi depot that serves the Minneapolis - St. Paul International Airport, where drivers sit and wait for their next fare. In this crowded, noisy room, most of the cabbies are Muslims originally from Somalia.

"We're doing a story about the conflict between the cabbies and the airport. The Muslim drivers have been refusing to take passengers carrying alcohol, such as wine or liquor purchased at a duty free shop," I explained.

A group of men gathered around us.

"This is America, we have freedom of religion," says one cabbie. We could see their feelings are intense -- that the issue seems to cut to the core of their identity.

Wow, so you entered into a circle of Muslim men expressing their intense feelings at you--and survived?! (As a side annoyance, notice the constant tense shifts in the writing. Is there any rhyme or reason to them?)

Oppenheim goes on to explain that airport officials sought a compromise by proposing that cabbies who were opposed to transporting alcohol could put special lights on the roofs of their cabs. The airport workers who direct people to cabs would then know who not to send people with alcohol to.
"But the feedback we got, not only locally but really from around the country and around the world, was almost entirely negative," said airport spokesman Pat Hogan. "People saw that as condoning discrimination against people who had alcohol."
As far as I can tell, "discimination" has no meaningful sense here, unless you think it is discrimination for Tavern on the Green to refuse seating to people in tanktops. Businesses can typically refuse the right to serve anyone and run the risks that they might suffer for it. The airport could have given any number of reasons for scuttling the idea (less business, too much time and effort, etc), but "discrimination against people who had alcohol" is not a good one.

The airport is now considering suspending those who refuse to transport the booze. At the end of the article, Oppenheim lets this know how this sits among the Muslim drivers:
For Adan, the choice is clear. "I would leave my job, instead of doing something that's not allowed in my religion," he said.

The interview with Adan took a long time. Our fare came to $150, a very good day for him. Normally, he makes about $100 a day, so it became more clear to us that refusing a fare is a big loss. But Adan said he won't accept the idea that in America a cab driver should allow something his religion forbids.

So, this particular man says he would leave the job. No word about protest, striking, lawsuits, etc. He would just quit. Great! That's how it's supposed to work. You come into a job with certain beliefs. If you find that because of those beliefs you are unable to perform your job in the way the company wants, they either fire you, or you quit. These are completely voluntary transactions. Contrary to what the snide author of this article implies, no one "should" allow something his or her religion forbids, especially as a private citizen in a non-federal job. The company and the workers, as private individuals, can attempt to work out the differences. If the company decides it simply will not put up with the problem, then I agree with the ultimate legality of firing the workers. But neither would a strike be out of bounds. If the workers want to strike to have certain changes made, that is their right as well. But of course this can't guarantee them keeping their jobs. Nor would people necessarily sympathize with their cause; I wouldn't.

Taking legal action seems to me totally absurd. I can't construe this situation as actively discriminating against Muslims. In any case, in the future the rules should be clear: We need you to be able to transport alcohol; otherwise, we won't offer you the job. I would expect this same sort of process to take place, for example, with someone who objects to transporting people who wear fur.

In scanning other news items on this subject (none written as terribly as this one), I see many reporters alluding to the incident a few years ago when Christian pharmacists refuse to fill out birth control prescriptions. This is indeed a good parallel. But in those cases as well, it's not anyone else's business as to whether the pharmacy fires the Christian refusers. Presumably, the pharmacy would receive so many complaints that they would offer a similar ultimatum: Fill out the prescriptions or we'll fire you. In the meantime, the customers can go somewhere else. (This itself is a form of complaint.) Does anyone know if a birth control user could actually sue the company for refusing to fill out her prescription? In any case, again, I don't really know what it means to say that the doctors "should" allow something their religion forbids. If all this means is, "You will be fired if you don't," then I agree. But to suggest that there's something wrong with them for believing what they believe here, "in America," is insulting.

I took a look at blogs posting about this issue as well. The most famous blog discussing the topic, the conservative Captain's Quarters, has this to say:

The MSA [Muslim Society of America] and its apologists want us to consider the religious and cultural sensitivities of the cabdrivers, but again, no one forced them to take jobs where they could come in contact with people who have service dogs or bottles of wine. Should a restaurant end its alcohol sales if it hires a Muslim waiter? Should supermarkets ban service dogs if it hires a Muslim cashier? No. It is the responsibility of the immigrant to assimilate into our culture and to obey our laws, not the other way around.
I agree with the first sentence of this post, but disagree profoundly with the remaining. Should a restaurant end its alcohol sales? It probably wouldn't, but that's not really for the Captain to say. It's for the company and its employees to figure out. Nor is it the "responsibility" of the immigrant to "assimilate" into our culture. They do need to obey the law. But there is no law being broken here, except in the case of cabbies refusing those with seeing eye dogs. Or am I missing something about taxicabs? Are they run by the state? Funded by the government in some way? How would this change things?

Coincidentally, I suppose I do think that the cabbies in question "should" allow alcohol, just as I think that the Christian pharmacists "should" fill out birth control prescriptions. I think I have reasonable claims to make for both positions. But I'm certainly not saying it's a prerequisite of being an "assimilated" American to hold such positions, which is what most of these sources seem to be implying, especially the Captain's Quarters blog and its grossly racist comments section.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The social problem, er, issue, er, fabricated talking point

People are going ga-ga over Jim Webb's response to the SOTU from last night, and with good reason. I'll leave it up to you to check out why the left blogosphere loved it so much. I noticed one passage in particular, though, that hasn't received any attention (at least, not for the reasons I'm about to give). Here's Webb:
"Regarding the economic imbalance in our country, I am reminded of the situation President Theodore Roosevelt faced in the early days of the 20th century. America was then, as now, drifting apart along class lines. The so-called robber barons were unapologetically raking in a huge percentage of the national wealth. The dispossessed workers at the bottom were threatening revolt.

Roosevelt spoke strongly against these divisions. He told his fellow Republicans that they must set themselves "as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other." And he did something about it."

Now this is all well and good from a strategic perspective. What could be a better example than a Republican President who intervened against big business? There's a bit of a historical disconnect here, however. Webb says that the dispossessed workers were threatening revolt. Who on earth is doing that now? More to the point, back at the turn of the century workers joined the IWW or the Socialist Party. Today for a populist like Jim Webb! Therefore, isn't his message a bit different? It's more like, "Meet my demands, Mr. President--I don't know how long I can hold them back." In actuality, any sort of class struggle in America is infinitely remote. If the lower and middle classes really feel they're getting screwed, they'll vote for the Democrats; but that's already happening anyway. Don't get me wrong, it's good that Webb and others are pushing for less inequality. But at the end of the day, their ultimate reason can only be, "Because it's fair." They can't point to a looming social crisis, because there is none.

A Weblog Post

My total absence in the blogosphere leads me to a tepid reentry via a piece that I had written, though not developed, for a class of mine. With little further ado, here's a bit of my Defense of Edward Said against all the haters at ALDaily. I've been trying to avoid posting some blah blah theory stuff, but I think that the recent defense of our fine education by AT-5k has emboldened me; I would hope professor Balot might have enjoyed this.

A good deal of the criticism of Said’s Orientalism as address the work’s seeming ahistoricisms and tendency to assign importance to only certain works and events while ignoring others. At times, this seems fair, and Said often displays a large degree of ambivalence to Marxism and similar (historical) materialist strategies. However, it would seem that Said’s major concern was not to renounce the applicability of Marxism, but merely to avoid certain strands of reductionism or orthodoxy sometimes found in Marxist analysis. Instead he sought—as, I believe, Foucault did also—to situate a materialist critique alongside a critique of the ideology of Orientalism. As such, his focus on literary texts, colonial documents, and other representations of the East was not intended to replace the historical and material factors involved in the interrelation between the ‘Orient’ and the ‘West.’ He did not seek to, as Sadiq al-‘Azm implies in one critique (in an article otherwise in agreement with Said entitled “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse”), to imply that because all discourse is filtered through representation then the west is innocently acting in the only way it can. That the apprehension of a culture proceeds through the creation of representations does not entail resignation. Instead, as Said’s (rhetorical) questions at the end of his book imply, the fundamental problem is with the very questions asked and with the attempts to take an entire “culture” as a unit of analysis (325-326).

Said’s focus on the micro-politics of the Orientalist discourse, the small and seemingly insignificant sites of its operation, is not merely an type of eclecticism or corralling data to support his point. By focusing on the details that he does, Said exposes the conditions of the Occidental relationship with the Orient in a way that cuts through both Orientalist discourse but also historicist and even materialist analyses. Genealogy gives a means to analyze the history of truth, so to speak; it attempts to expose the conditions under which interpretations and analyses can be made. When thinking about the way Said writes the genealogy of Orientalism and his critics, I am reminded Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”:

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it….

Benjamin attempts throughout the same essay to differentiate between the ‘empty’ time of the historicist and the historical materialist’s “time of the now.” Said’s work I see as embodying the process of the latter; the history of Orientalism is not homogenous, and it is only by detailing the small fragments of the past that the importance of Orientalism in the present can be felt. In fact, the full connection between Orientalism and Imperialism, which many leftist scholars accuse Said of treating too lightly, can only be grasped in the present, not as they have been part of a long causal chain but as a myriad of fragments that are now condensed. Thus the ultimate goal is not to attempt to create a new causality or history that somehow distances itself from Orientalism, or seek to form new representations for the future. The militant or provocative kernel of Said’s work instead provokes us to dismantle or implode this historicism; materialism, seemingly absent in Said’s work, returns in the final instance, as it is only in the present that the full stakes of the struggle can be felt. The struggle is imminently a materialist one because it is only a materialist perspective that can allow the historian or thinker to analyze each individual situation as such, as a distinct set of conditions that does not seek recourse in the inconsistencies of Orientalism.

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I rep my block

A vicious assault on one of our dearest institutions, and the reply. Thanks to Hippie Killer for the heads-up.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

This Would Never Happen with Southwest

If you spend many hours per day on the computer (like most of the Huffy Crew indeed do) than you’ve probably heard about how Northwest Airlines declared for bankruptcy and fired thousands of workers this past July.

What made this story so internet-appealing is that NWA handed out laughable pamphlets, titled “101 Ways to Save Money,” to its recently laid-off workers. (On a side note, it’s darn cute how NWA came up with such a fun number, like 101, for their helpful hints.)

The list ranges from the intelligence-insulting (48. Move to a less expensive place to live), to the life-style-insulting (14. Quit smoking), to the absurd (19. Write letters instead of calling), to the I-forgot-this-company-just-fired-you (53. Bicycle to work.). Here are the rest of the highlights:

6. Do your own nails.

7. Rent out a room or garage.

12. Buy spare parts for your car at a junkyard.

13. Go to museums on free days.

15. Get hand-me-down clothes and toys for your kids from family and friends.

16. Meet friends for coffee instead of dinner.

21. Make your own baby food.

24. Buy old furniture at yard sales and refinish it yourself.

30. Share housing with a friend or family member.

37. Take a date for a walk along the beach or in the woods.

38. Make cards and gifts for friends.

39. Shop in thrift stores.

56. Borrow a dress for a big night out, or go to a consignment shop.

70. Cut your cable television down to basic.

85. Grow your own vegetables and herbs.

87. Donate time instead of money to religious organizations and charities.

89. Shop at auctions or pawn shops for jewelry and antiques.

92. Trade in old books, records, and CDs at book and record exchanges.

95. Search the internet for freebies.

96. Compost to make your own fertilizer.

98. Cut the kids hair yourself.

But by far, the most insane piece of advice has to be number 46:

Don't be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash.

“Mom, whats for dinner?”

“I hope you kids like… apple cores and band-aids”

Does this grin eat shit?

Confession: Robert Kagan fascinates me. Yes, we've all benefited from his classic essay on America and Europe--the Power and Paradise argument--but what about his latest history of American foreign policy kick? I blogged recently about his "Dangerous Nation" thesis, remarking that while it was quite accurate, it seemed rather, well, amoral, if not immoral.

(Quick summary: The United States has an internationalist, even interventionist past. We tend to have this debate every generation and some try to swear off foreign meddling forever, but it seems to be in our blood. America has undertaken various missions, both ones of goodwill and of economic and political interest, and we're not going to stop anytime soon. More than that, they have tended to have had good results or been historically necessary in one way or the other.)

Kagan has a review in the Washington Post of Michael Oren's new book Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. As is his habit these days, Kagan endeavors to show that contrary to the "conventional view," President Bush did not inaugurate a substantial change in American Middle East policy. (Coincidentally, the official White House line is part of the conventional view: Bush and Rice have both stressed that what they're doing is new, an alternative to the "false peace" of the status quo ante in the ME.) Instead, Kagan says in so many words, we've always dicked around with the Arabs, trying to "transform" them, "politically, spirtually, and economically--to conform to liberal and Christian principles." Also, far from playing the neutral judge with respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict, America has traditionally supported Jewish people against the Palestinians, even long before the creation of the state of Israel. Kagan notes that "many Americans have been obsessed with the idea of 'restoring' Palestine to the Jews." (Yes, those scare quotes are Kagan's.) In other words, Kagan has an accute historical sense and a predilection for demystifying Americans' illusions about themselves. He tends to take no prisoners on either side and is open about many powerful Americans' chauvinistic attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims.

Yet, as I noted about the Financial Times article above, the point of all this historical probing is not to teach us how to correct our international meddling, but to embrace it. Kagan cites approvingly Oren's predictions that the United States will "continue to pursue the traditional patterns of its Middle East involvement" and that policymakers "will press on with their civic mission as mediators and liberators in the area and strive for a pax Americana." At least, I think Kagan approves. It's hard to tell whether he thinks that the United States has never sufficiently screwed up in the past to warrant stopping now, or that the United States simply will not stop, and so whatever it does is automatically good. As the Washington Post says of his new book, "The picture he paints is not always edifying. Europeans and others wary of America's motives and influence may find that it confirms their deepest dreads; some neoconservatives may wonder if Kagan has decamped to the Chomskyite, America-bashing left."

In point of fact, Kagan is more like bizarro-Chomsky: they agree on basically all the historical material (which conservative and mainstream historians are often loathe to admit), yet reach polar opposite conclusions. And indeed, I wonder what his fellow neoconservatives think, because it seems he's playing the role of the loose-lipped member of the secret club, the initiate who's gabbing on about all the private rituals and handshakes. I mean, most conservatives would have us believe that we've never done anything to Arab nations, that terrorist extremists just "reflexively hate our freedom" or something. Kagan's having none of that, but he does seem to believe that we're the good guys in a battle we started. Does this man know what he's doing? Do father Donald and brother Frederick approve? Or is he the bumbling black sheep? The shiteating grin of the neoconservative movement? I'm keeping my eye on him. (Nota bene: This is not another post about what neoconservatives "really" want, but what Robert Kagan's scholarship effectively does, if anything.)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

When Noam Met the Cadets

After following Andrew Sullivan's link to a rather spectacular (in the true sense of a "spectacle") 1969 debate between William Buckley and Noam Chomsky, I discovered another Chomsky video they had on file, of a talk he gave on Just War Theory to some 200 West Point students enrolled in a philosophy class. This lecture, given over 35 years after his Buckley debate, is striking and moving for a number of reasons. One remarkable feature is Chomsky's consistent and continued command of facts -- something I've always found immensely admirable and impressive about his work -- about wars, whether they be in Greece, Vietnam, Iran, or Lebanon. Though we often hear only one side of the story from Chomsky, it is a story that is unrelentingly and commendably grounded in winning the debate over history, over what really happened, as he reminded Buckley, "in the real world."

But the most striking aspects of his talk at West Point have to do with the most obvious of facts: that this is Noam Chomsky giving a talk at West Point. Here, we do not see the kind of (largely deserving) condescending and facetious treatment Gerald Early gave to Ann Coulter when she came to Wash U. Nor do we see any expressions of resentment or suspicion -- not to be confused with weariness and boredom, which we may indeed see -- from a group of cadets forced to attend a lecture given by an MIT linguist who has never served his country in the military. On the contrary. Chomsky is given an ebullient introduction by a West Point philosophy professor, and following his talk, and question and answer session, is received with rousing applause and a gift.

Ultimately, this is a scene of intense beauty, and intense sorrow.

It is a shockingly beautiful testament to the idea of the United States of America that Noam Chomsky would be invited to speak at West Point -- or allowed to speak freely at all -- and be received with open minds and intense gratification by a military institution that has carried out exactly the kind of terroristic, aggressive, and imperialistic missions that Chomsky claims has and continues to be perpretated by the United States government.

And it is nothing but sorrowful and shameful that these incredibly intelligent and talented students -- younger than the readers and writers of this blog -- are being trained to risk their lives for a world far more bloodthirsty and dangerous than it need be. Nay, that it can be.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Benny Morris and the "determination" to pre-emptively kill millions of Iranians

Israeli historian Benny Morris paints a deeply disturbing picture of what an Iranian nuclear strike against Israel could look like. Morris is of course right that we need to take Iran's threat to world peace seriously, but it is absurd to think that this is not being done already. Morris, however, seems to believe that the "incompetent leadership in Jerusalem" will ultimately "prove unequal to the task" (which task, exactly?), and that the United States will not act, having been "driven by the debacle in Iraq into a deep isolationism" (all this, when we now know that the U.S. encouraged Israel to expand the Lebanese war to Syria, and that the government has contingency plans for a large-scale war against Iran).

In fact, I find the majority of Morris's article either misleading, mistaken, or both. For example, Morris repeats what I believe to be a serious error: the idea that Ahmadinejad is so "obsessed" that he will forsake the existence of Iran itself in order to destroy Israel.
He is willing to gamble -- the future of Iran or even of the whole Muslim Middle East in exchange for Israel's destruction. No doubt he believes that Allah, somehow, will protect Iran from an Israeli nuclear response or an American counterstrike. [...] Or he may well take into account a counter-strike and simply, irrationally (to our way of thinking), be willing to pay the price. As his mentor, Khomeini, put it in a speech in Qom in 1980: 'We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. I say, let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant.' For these worshipers at the cult of death, even the sacrifice of the homeland is acceptable if the outcome is the demise of Israel.
To me this all smacks of the erroneous judgments (stemming from an article by Bernard Lewis) which predicted that Iran was planning to destroy Israel (with what bombs?) on August 22 of last year. Like Morris, Lewis argued that Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollah possess an "apocalyptic worldview" which ensures that they will not follow the rules of Mutually Assured Destruction "rationally." Although argument from precedent will only take you so far, I can think of no case in which a nation-state effectively destroyed itself in order to carry out a "holy" or otherwise irrational mission. The attribution of such irrationality to Ahmadinejad has always appeared to me a smokescreen for stifling debate on Iran's real objectives and encouraging immediate military action.

Furthermore, Morris takes the offensive step of ascribing to "Western intellectuals and media outlets" the "preparation of hearts and minds" for the second Holocaust. Apparently, both the vilest sorts of anti-Semites and Western critics of Israeli policy have been desensitizing all of us to the idea of nuclear annihilation.
As with the first, the second Holocaust will have been preceded by decades of preparation of hearts and minds, by Iranian and Arab leaders, Western intellectuals and media outlets. Different messages have gone out to different audiences -- but all have (objectively) served the same goal, the demonization of Israel. Muslims the world over have been taught: 'The Zionists\the Jews are the embodiment of evil' and 'Israel must be destroyed.' And Westerners, more subtly, were instructed: 'Israel is a racist oppressor state' and 'Israel, in this age of multi-culturalism, is an anachronism and superfluous'. Generations of Muslims and at least a generation of Westerners have been brought up on these catechisms.
In addition to being the crudest sort of ad hominem attack and moral equivalizing (i.e. "any critic of Israel's policies is in actuality in league with anti-Semites"), this passage also implies that critics of oppressive governments automatically accept their destruction by nuclear weapons. For many millions of people opposed to the Iraq War, this sort of thinking obviously does not apply. I will give Morris the benefit of the doubt that some people who categorically oppose the Iraq war would not oppose the destruction of Israel (i.e. these loathsome hypocrites exist), but they are not even remotely close to being in the majority in the West. The general idea that Westerners would mumble "Oh, it's a shame about Israel, isn't it? But really, they had it coming, and they were superfluous" is a very serious distortion.

Finally, Morris describes a hypothetical situation in which the Israeli government is forced to use its nuclear arsenal against Iran:
In short order, therefore, the incompetent leadership in Jerusalem would soon confront a doomsday scenario, either after launching their marginally effective conventional offensive or in its stead, of launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Iranian nuclear program, some of whose components were in or near major cities. Would they have the stomach for this? Would their determination to save Israel extend to pre-emptively killing millions of Iranians and, in effect, destroying Iran?
I'm not going to deny for a second that Mutually Assured Destruction is a very real, very frightening concept, and that a nuclear-powered nation could one day find itself in the position of having to use its arsenal in the face of an impending attack. However, I take offense at the idea that a nuclear attack on innocent Iranians would be any less of an act of genocide. Is the difference that Iran would be attacking on the basis of sheer hatred, while an Israeli nuclear strike would be one of (preventive) defense? But Iran already has defensive excuses for the same sort of strike (while not saying so explicitly). Indeed, even before Iran's announcement of nuclear development the United States encouraged regime change in Tehran. Since the beginning of the nuclear program the outlining of possible attacks against Iran has only increased. Iran has indeed employed bellicose and threatening rhetoric, but everyone points to the fact that the completion of a nuclear weapon would take almost 10 years. To nuke a country now for an act which it is not even capable of achieving flies in the face of all sensibility, both pragmatic and moral. It's not that Israel is stuck in the position of not being able to use their nuclear weapons for fear of international outrage, as Morris says, but that they shouldn't do it.

The story as I've laid it out sounds particularly bleak if you believe that as soon as Iran acquires nuclear weapons (if they do), they will use them. In such a case I would then be an "appeaser," sitting on my hands until it's too late. However, I do not believe (uninformed as I am) that they will use them. You can scream that Ahmadinejad is irrational and suicidal until you're blue in the face, but I stand by my conviction that nation-state leaders will not sacrifice their existence for holy missions. That being said, it's not like I deny that Ahmadinejad and many others would like to see Israel destroyed if there could be no consequences involved. It's just that there are consequences, and Ahmadinejad understands them. Other things being equal, if Iran develops a nuclear weapon some series of demands and counter-demands will ensue, as was the case during the Cold War. This is by no means a welcome scenario, but it's better than the apocalyptic one.

However, there's no way of knowing right now whether this will happen. Just today, the Ayatollah showed signs of altering his policy because of international pressure, much to the chagrin of the Iranian President. I hope these developments continue and that cooler heads prevail. It's not set in stone that Iran will have nuclear weapons by 2015, nor does it have to be even likely. I've just noticed that Matt Yglesias has a similar, though much briefer, post on Iran here. Furthermore, the United States just can't just approach the brink of a nuclear strike on Iran while encouraging the "peaceful" nuclear program of Jordan, which recently announced its intention to start development. As I've said before, the world community is made up of states of both good and bad governments, but more than anything it is bound by rules. It's my (probably hopelessly naive) cosmopolitan hope that abiding by the rules will encourage such actions in others. Morris's article is either an expression of total pessimism or a tacit call for a "determined" nuclear strike. I don't see the need for either.

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Yo soy El Decider

Chavez has asked for and received a special "enabling act" which allows him to rule by decree for 18 months. Apparently this is not the first time: Chavez used a similar measure in 2001 to pass 49 controversial laws, coincidentally at the very end of the legislation (presumably so they would be neither debated nor opposed). Now he intends to do the same, with his eye on nationalizing key industries.

I must confess it's difficult to avoid the word "dictator" when the person in question is literally dictating policy.

While hoarding up all this executive power, Chavez at the same time has promised that Venezuela will see an "explosion of communal councils." Whether this will actually happen and what sort of autonomy those councils will possess is of course completely unknown. Venezuela has encouraged worker-management co-planning in the past, which I applaud, but I can't really find any optimistic way to square this with the loss of political participation.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Charles Murray for President! (Syke)

Sometimes, Scantron, a piece of well written writing comes along that is so odious that it needs to be addressed before anything else. Charles Murray's -- of The Bell Curve fame -- trilogy of op-eds in the Wall Street Journal is just such a piece.

Murray is in many ways a respectable thinker. Whether he's providing scientific evidence to support racist assertions and privatized school choice programs (as he does, along with co-writer Herrnstein, in the Bell Curve), or devising ingenious ways to decimate welfare programs as we know them, he's no doubt a creative fellow willing to offer up arguments incredibly unpopular in academia, and incredibly popular amongst a handful of people in three or four think tanks, and perhaps the descendents of John C. Calhoun as well. However, when The Wall Street Journal gives Murray three consecutive days to publish his thoughts on education, he loses his Neitzchian "the strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone" protection, and consequently, my sympathies.

One could almost understand Murray's arguments in the three pieces simply by following the narrative of their titles: "Intelligence in the Classroom"; "What's Wrong with Vocational School?"; and "Aztecs vs. Greeks". Arguments over where and how to implement school reform, he argues, are largely misplaced. Rather than focus on, say, economic, social, or cultural factors, we should chiefly be interested in one thing: the intelligence of the student. Intelligence, here, meaning not only the rather mundanely quantifiable Intelligence in the sense of g, or "general factor of intellectual ability," but also ... well, actually, that is really all he means.

Where he continues from this is clear from the second title. No matter how you slice it, he goes on to write, when there's just too many dumb kids in the school, there's just too many dumb kids in the school. No amount money, let alone pedagogical techniques or curricular advances, will solve the problem. Dumb kids -- his cut-off for those who should go to college seems to hover at around a "problematic" IQ of 110 -- won't learn what you want to teach them, and so instead of letting them suffer, let them prosper in more manageable fields. You know, "practical," "vocational" stuff.

After this discussion of the training of the lower and average sorts comes the climax: the training of the Guardians (a term he's not too eager to separate himself from), or the top 10% of the intelligence quotient. After a surge of aphorisms (each beginning "The encouragement of wisdom...") about from whence their education should spring (grammar, Aristotle, history), he gets to the crux of the matter:
The gifted should not be taught to be nonjudgmental; they need to learn how to make accurate judgments. They should not be taught to be equally respectful of Aztecs and Greeks; they should focus on the best that has come before them, which will mean a light dose of Aztecs and a heavy one of Greeks. The primary purpose of their education should not be to let the little darlings express themselves, but to give them the tools and the intellectual discipline for expressing themselves as adults.... In short, I am calling for a revival of the classical definition of a liberal education, serving its classic purpose: to prepare an elite to do its duty.
I will now, briefly, make the case for why this classical definition of a liberal education, despite its flashy empirical basis, is dangerous. Allow me to challenge and probe some of Murray's broader claims.

1) Despite claiming to be so adamantly against liberal academia's theories of student achievement being connected to socio-economic factors, Murray does quite little to actually refute these theories (with the exception of the ubiquitous "see The Bell Curve" explanation). The closest he comes is when he writes: "My point is just this: It is true that many social and economic problems are disproportionately found among people with little education, but the culprit for their educational deficit is often low intelligence." Surely, though, the author would not deny that there are hundreds of thousands of students in low social-economic-status schools and backgrounds who, despite measurably high IQs, experience social and economic problems because of liberal reasons as well as conservative ones -- cultural analyses as the "acting white" theory of low African American achievement.

2) If IQ is, however the guiding factor in achievement, and that it's inefficient and educationally worthless to have high IQ kids along with low IQ kids, then the only way to reform the schools would be to test for IQ early and separate out accordingly. But the trouble with this process of empirical filtering -- the same one that says someone with an IQ under 110 is a "problematic" case for college achievement -- is how is the line drawn. What about the slacker- troublemaker 120ish IQ he discusses in the first piece, and the hard-working, honest, and kind 110ish IQ? Surely the author would not deny that there's not a community in the world, let alone a teacher, who would prefer the former of these two students to the latter.

3) Community, though, appears to be the last thing on Murray's mind. After reading these pieces, as with most educational theories, the key question to ask is: what is the end of this education? Murray seems to suggest it will be a happier society. There will be less strife, as idiots won't have to constantly fail all the time, expecting to be rocket scientists, while geniuses will no longer will have to be held back by being in classes with idiots. But how is this happiness? Surely the author would not deny that a bunch of little kids being educated for the sake of being given the "tools and the intellectual discipline for expressing themselves as adults" doesn't sound exactly like Chucky Cheeses to a 5th grader. Indeed, I'm not sure what Murray wants to happen in primary schooling, where some of the most critical years of education occurs and where students learn more about concepts like "respect," "problem-solving," "cursive," and "multiplication tables," and not so much about how they should learn to act when one distant day they become an adult and have the great responsibility of doing something worthwhile with their high or low IQs.

But why care about respect, or playing nice together, or sharing, or cooperatively constructive activities, when community itself plays no part. Here is where I become enraged, for here lies ultimately one of the most individualistic and anti-democratic educational philosophies I have read. His aphorisms demonstrate such:
Humility requires that the gifted learn what it feels like to hit an intellectual wall.

The gifted must assimilate the details of grammar and syntax and the details of logical fallacies not because they will need them to communicate in daily life, but because these are indispensable for precise thinking at an advanced level.

The encouragement of wisdom requires being steeped in the study of ethics, starting with Aristotle and Confucius. It is not enough that gifted children learn to be nice. They must know what it means to be good.
With an incredible sleight of hand, Murray transforms the immensely social concepts of humility, communication, and ethics into skills for the individual's improvement vis-a-vis herself. Humility will make him/her probe deeper. Communication will make him/her smarter. Ethics will make him/her "good" (the ambiguity of this adjective, I suppose, was permitted by his editors because it has something to do with Aristotle and Confucius).

In a democracy, the end of education must have at its intellectual core that "self evident" truth that Jefferson once wrote about. What's self evident about it is that after we decide that a democracy is a satisfying political, social, and ethical arrangement, this kind of truth nearly necessarily follows. "Democracy is not concerned with freaks or geniuses or heroes or divine leaders but with associate individuals in which each by intercourse with others somehow makes the life of each more distinctive," John Dewey once wrote. (For a more extended philosophical critique of the Murray piece, by the way, I recommend the Collected Works of John Dewey.) If we value living together cooperatively as human beings in a community more than we value efficiency of IQ; if we value interaction more than we value isolated genius and geniuses; if we value a college education as an enlightening, fun, and diverse experience more than we value as a training ground for elite adults ... then we must reject Murray's educational theory because it's nothing more than a bunch of recycled ideas utterly devoid of meaning to Western Civilization for over seventy-five years.

We also, it seems to me, must reject the Wall Street Journal editorial page. What a bunch of right wing loonies, eh?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Politics and the pundits' language

We read more political commentary than anyone else. Let's face it: we're rather freakish in this respect. However, although we might be expanding our knowledge of the world around us exponentially, our aesthetic sense could be suffering, since (as I have pointed out with Victor Davis Hanson) many authors on the internet are unremittingly bad.

Matt Taibbi has graciously given us the locus classicus for dismantling poor pundit writing with his review of Friedman's The World is Flat. But allow me to proffer a few more examples. Take this sentence from an article by National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez about Rudy Giuliani's Presidential prospects:

"But if Rudy can be patient and practice political abstinence as his rivals engage in hot combat, the former New York City mayor could prove to have a leg up in the 2008 Republican race."

Now, having established the abstinence metaphor at the beginning of her piece, Lopez is allowed at least this one instance. "Hot combat" and "leg up" are just too many images for one sentence, however, and furthermore the triad of abstinence, heat, and raised legs establishes the unfortunate and confused mental picture of simultaneous pissing and copulating. (Wasn't Lopez's point to keep our minds off of sex? But perhaps these are my own psychic hang-ups manifesting themselves.) Also, "hot combat" is a wretched phrase. It sounds like the lazily translated title of a Japanese video game, the literal meaning being something like "Big Fighting Temperature Increase."

Other pieces, while not as gauche in their language as Lopez's, suffer from quite the opposite problem: they're so damn colorless as to be scarcely readable. Take this paragraph-sized monster from an American Prospect article about Martin Luther King:

"If he were still alive, King would surely be working with unions, clergy, and community groups to raise the federal minimum wage, enact local living wage laws, expand health insurance to all Americans, and help America's working poor -- hotel workers, janitors, security guards, hospital employees, grocery workers, farmworkers, and others -- unionize for better working and living conditions."

A three-string series of comitative subjects. Four purpose clauses. A seven-string series as an interjection. Two instances of the word "America." Two of "living." Six of "work" or "working." What would Martin Luther King be doing again?

It's not hard to find this stuff, and I admit it's too easy to mock it. Instead, we should "get down to brass tacks" and "search high and low" for the "cream of the crop," the "diamonds in the rough," to employ a few "well-worn cliches." In other words: Writing contest time. Tomorrow (today--Thursday--if you're reading this now), pick out one or two particularly well-wrought phrases, sentences, or even whole paragraphs during your daily pundit-scanning. (I think blogs should be allowed, too, provided that the sentence in question is from a longer, composed piece, not just a blurb.) Post your selections in the "comments" section here with a few explanatory notes. If you like, you can include instances of outstanding shabbiness as well. For the sake of clarity, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Zargatron B journalism are prohibited. Let us never forget what Orwell and Eric Brown taught us about bad writing!

All over the map

Please do me the favor of reading my comment in the MLK post about the difficulty of using a complex historical event or figure to justify a sweeping statement. Then do me the additional favor of reading this short piece by (my favorite whipping post) Victor Davis Hanson.

Shorter Hanson: "President Bush must become a Lincoln/ Wilson/ FDR/ Truman/ Nixon to ensure that there be a Sherman/ 1918 summer offensive/ Eisenhower/ Ridgeway/ Abrams to get us through this potential 1864/ 1942/ 1951/ 1969. Did I mention that I'm a historian? Did I also mention that I'm the worst political commentator in the history of the written word?"

The man gets paid by the simile, I swear.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Nietzschean Health Care

Evidence indicates that, for the average person, single-payer health insurance increases life-expectancy. This fact sways me towards nationalized health care, but I always return to the American system for one reason: our system has proven much more effective in improving the technology that keeps us alive. There is probably a very powerful health-care version of the Paradise and Power argument: the rest of the world pays so much less for health care because they are able to free-ride on the American medical technology juggernaut. Rich Americans serve as lab-rats for the rest of the world, and if technology isn't developed in America, it is often the high prices that Americans are able and willing to pay that will make an expensive technological project worthwhile. So if American health care was nationalized, we might find that the whole world suffers, even ourselves. Thoughts?
Via Sullivan, Instapundit(!?), and the Economist.

Jukebox Degree Scantron

Just some tunes I've heard lately, reviewed for ya:

LCD Soundsystem, "All My Friends": Well, this is certainly more, shall we say, emotive than their autopilotic "North American Scum" (by no means a bad song, just very...Cake-like). It builds on a simple, even childlike, piano repetition. Unsurprisingly considering it's LCD, a hi-hat enters into the equation soon after. If you've heard "Daft Punk is Playing at My House" or "Disco Infiltrator," not to mention the really early stuff like "Losing My Edge," you'll be surprised to find lead singer James Murphy actually singing on this track, rather than doing his best Mark E. Smith speak-shout impersonation (looks at the Sheriff knowingly). We are also treated to some Casio keyboard not unlike the Strokes circa "12:51." The earnestness of this song is frankly freaking me out, considering this is the band that once deadpanned: "I'm losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties." Consider this song the biggest "build-up" ever, with the band gradually layering on more on more sounds until--hello--we've got a climax. This is a fist-pumping song. It's a "Wow, I'm usually so ironic but tonight I took ecstasy and I really, honestly love you, my friends" song. (Okay, ecstasy optional--I have felt this way on occasion.) The problem is, unless you know all the lyrics beforehand, you're not going to tolerate it long in the party mix. You could potentially cry over this song someday, though. While riding on your friend's shoulders.

The Shins, "Phantom Limb": This is maybe the most innocuous song ever written. It therefore borders on being incredibly boring. The drums and Korg keyboard are static throughout the whole thing, leaving any trace of a hook up to James Mercer's vocal. This is thankfully serviceable, and there's even a moment during the chorus when his falsetto reminds me of Seal's "Kiss From a Rose"--he must hit the same note or something. The lyrics seem to be about nothing in particular. Coincidentally, both LCD Soundsystem and the Shins mention "tans" in their songs; there is no further importance to this point, however. The video is cute at least: young children performing disturbing theatrical vignettes, a la the Crash Test Dummies' "Mm Mm Mm Mm" crossed with the end of Rushmore. If you find yourself whistling the final "ooh woo oohs" of this song while folding your laundry, you will have performed all that could possibly have been expected of you from the Sub Pop A&R people. In a tragic instance of "staring into the abyss and the abyss staring back," the Shins have managed to become blander than Zach Braff.

Bloc Party, "The Prayer": I still can't decide whether it's a good thing that I go into Bloc Party singles expecting a dance song and receive something much more complex. Is it me or is this song conspicuously TV on the Radio-like? The bass is much murkier, the beats blurred and fuzzy. There's also some weird humming business going on in the background. Like many Bloc Party songs, the lead-up to the chorus is jarringly ugly, the chorus itself cathartic. I approve, though not of the terrible video, particularly the scene where the hipster dancer girl is flinging glowing cigarette burn effects from her wrists. Laaaaame. Overall, not as immediately endearing as their last single, "Two More Years," but that was just a bastardization of "Banquest" and "Pioneers," anyway.

Basement Jaxx, "Take Me Back To Your House": You will breakdance to banjo like never fucking before with this one. I wish I knew who this singer was, because her combination of deadpan and totally perfect pop artistry is really sexy--like Emily Haynes (wink, wink). Who am I kidding, you really can't love this song until you see the video, which includes dancing Communist bears and Josef Stalin asking the heroine out on a date, sweet sound effects included. And let's not ignore the ephemeral nature of dance music here, people: you have roughly three weeks left to enjoy this song before it's as passe as "Dick in a Box." Use your time wisely.

Ted Leo + Pharmacists, "The Sons of Cain": I'm not going to lie to you: Leo is doing nothing new. But since that's roughly synonymous with "kicking as much heinie as ever," I have no complaints. Before I point anything else out, I will say that the production on this sounds amazing. If this is an indicator of the album as a whole we have much to look forward to. Thanks Brendan Canty of Fugazi! This is one of Ted's real spazzy songs, plus one of those where he's talking directly to you, world-weary lover of music. If I didn't know better, I'd say he's become indie rock's primal scream therapist, just angry enough to galvanize you around our fucked up political system, just hopeful enough to make you do some sort of Irish jig despite yourself. (Literally primal scream: check out the John Lennon-esque "heyyyyyyyYYYYYYYs" at the end there.) There isn't much in the way of a melody, but that's all right: this is the sort of sped-up rocker that Ryan Mackin could skank to (and most likely will). Me happy with all things Ted.

Perhaps there will be more installations of this post in the future, depending on people's interest.

Monday, January 15, 2007

My Effort to Enforce a Standard of Tone and Sentiment Regarding the Use of Images in Posts, or "Set This Man Free!"

By God's love, let him not see another day in chains!

Unrepentant appeal to the emotions follows

Now seriously, where is the love?

Guess who

Who said,

"I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered" ?

"You are messing with captains of industry... Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong...with capitalism... There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism" ?

"True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring" ?

"It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgement against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism" ?

Just another annoying leftist, I guess.

From the "D-" to the "C -bag"

Has anyone heard the term "cobag" yet? I noticed it on a few blogs and find its gender-neutral nature superficially annoying but intrinsically a good thing. Nor will it ever replace douchebag, purely for aesthetic reasons: "douche" just rolls off the tongue so much more contemptuously than the simple "co." Plus, "douche" is more onomatopoeic. I rest my case.

An unsullied conscience

Andrew Sullivan, while certainly one of my most often read bloggers, is nevertheless very good for a laugh sometimes. In recent posts, he has defended his "evolutionary" change of heart with regard to the Iraq War and refuses to acknowledge that those who opposed the war from the beginning were right. It all began with his analysis of Bush's surge speech, followed by the comments of a "condescending" reader who argues that anti-war protesters were right from the beginning. Cue a snide riposte from someone presumably closer to Andrew's views, the focus of which is:
The crux of the problem is that stalwart opponents of the war were, for the most part, nothing like the sophisticated visionaries your reader describes. The case for war barrelled along in large part precisely because opponents of the war were unable or unwilling to make a persuasive, coherent case for opposing it, and instead associated themselves with vacuous slogans, wanker academics and unreconstructed anti-globalists who fear corporations and hate trade. This is not a winning formula for shaping American policy.
Andrew happily agrees, presumably having found a "reasonable" partner in this discourse:
I agree. A few people - James Fallows, Joe Klein, Brent Scowcroft, for example - opposed the war for sane reasons. They deserve kudos as much as I deserve criticism for not listening to them closely enough. But I went to the pre-war anti-war marches as an observer. I did not hear arguments about the difficulties of managing a sectarian society, nor questions about troop levels, nor worries about the impact of the war on Iran's status in the region. I heard and saw often reflexive hostility to American power, partisan hatred of Bush, and blindness toward Saddam's atrocities. I remember what I saw. And I feel as estranged from that reflexive position today as I did then.
Now this is just absurd for several reasons. First, it matters immensely whether we are talking about (1) opposing the war qua this war as an illegal and underhanded enterprise, or (2) opposing the war as a potentially FUBAR'ed catastrophe. (Coincidentally, Iraq is both.)

So, if you think that the war was illegal and mendaciously sold to the American people from the beginning, you obviously aren't going to tick off Andrew's pathetic ex post facto laundry list of questions when opposing the war: "I did not hear arguments about the difficulties of managing a sectarian society, nor questions about troop levels, nor worries about the impact of the war on Iran's status in the region." That would be like saying, "I'm opposed to capital punishment, but just in case it does happen, I'm going to focus on how the killing should be humane, well planned, efficient, etc." Furthermore, it is obvious from Andrew's writings that if the war had gone swimmingly, he would be fine with it now. Only the "gross mismanagement" of the war is the problem. Yet those he describes as attending anti-war rallies were and are not having this argument at all. Therefore, his sentiments are largely superfluous.

But there's another problem. It's all well and good that "a few people opposed the war for sane reasons" (conveniently, two respectable journalists and a conservative), but demanding, as Andrew's reader does, that anti-war types "make a persuasive, coherent case for opposing it...instead [of] associat[ing] themselves with vacuous slogans, wanker academics and unreconstructed anti-globalists" misconstrues both the situation and the terms of the debate. What's being demanded is a nice, liberal sit-down in which each party presents its evidence systematically, and presto! the best argument wins. If the reader and Andrew think that the lead-up to the war was conducted in this fashion, they are frankly bonkers. The demand that war protesters "make a persuasive, coherent case for opposing it" is especially insulting. The anti-war position was the de facto persuasive, coherent case. The onus has always rested on the Bush administration to justify this perpetuating travesty.

Furthermore, to think that these sorts of questions can be decided by well-educated, respectable individuals making coherent arguments is to inhabit a magical world. I wish that could be so, but this presidency has been so doggedly anti-democratic and authoritarian that people have been forced to have recourse to the (perfectly legal) avenues available to them: protesting, marching, writing letters, calls for impeachment. Yet somehow these people are the detestable rabble who refuse to counter the Bush administration's "persuasive, coherent case" with their own! To sum up: the administration marched off to war with complete contempt for the democratic process, the fair presentation of information, and the notion of limitations on presidential power. Yet those who would protest these facts are automatically discredited by their association with "wanker academics" and "unreconstructed anti-globalists." Well, fuck you too. This is what we will have to deal with from Sullivan and other "pro-war, anti-execution of the war" types: they increasingly point out Bush's incompetance and ethical failures, but they shriek at even the slightest hint of being associated with someone like Chomsky or the A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition. Please, just don't let their individual reputations be smeared by such unsavory characters! How nobly then will they be remembered!