Monday, May 28, 2007

Our liberal views confirmed again

Does anyone see what I see?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Salud Cuba!

In Andrew Sullivan's post about Michael Moore's Health Care views, called "Sicko," he rips into the documentary film maker. "What Moore supports is the abolition of all private health insurance," he says. Commenting on Moore's desire to eliminate private health care, he remarks, "How do you 'eliminate' the right of insurance companies to offer policies to people who want private health care? A good question. Moore's model is Castro's Cuba [My italics]."

An odd accusation. While there are nearly countless ways to legitimately attack Castro's regime, health care is famously, and simply, not one of them. As the new Moore documentary is largely about, and has been extensively documented elsewhere, Cuban health care is in many ways a model for even Western nations. Despite extreme poverty, an embargo, and political repression, all health indications suggest that Cubans are every bit as if not more healthy than those human beings found 90 miles away in America. Despite the fact that the U.S. spends 32 times more on health care per person annually, Cubans appear to live as long as we do, and their infants don't die as much.

So, then, instead of merely acknowledging that the U.S. can and should do better, Sullivan attacks the Cuban system for the one thing they seem to do well. Stick to foreign policy, old chum.

I didn't think, but it is the internets after all...

I thought I'd try the Google search "muslims cause global warming" just for kicks, and hey, lo and behold. Oh internets, what mysteries do you still keep invisible to us, surely waiting for the right search string to bathe use with your multiple global, local, glocal, translocal, virtual, heterogeneous, simulacral, and discursive knowledges.

Zombie Clone Of The ALDaily Digital Watch.

Apropos of the title- They LIVE! By 'they' I mostly just mean Denis Dutton's raging, increasingly megalomaniacal desire to turn the site into a plush-armchair liberal diss-fest. Just a quick run-through of what crafty old Dutton's snuck onto the ledgers this time:

The West ought to pursue peaceful engagement with Iran, many believe. But the arrest of Haleh Esfandiari makes clear that the mullahs understand nothing other than brute force... more» ... more»

Ahmadinejad’s promise to wipe Israel off the map has not been taken seriously the West. It should be – and we ought to bomb Iran, says Norman Podhoretz... more»

European leaders mean well but are naive in their stance on Turkey, says Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Turkish liberals need the army in the struggle with the Islamicists... more»

Violently imposing a socialist or Islamic society is justified in the same way by Marx and Sayyid Qutb: if people were really free, they’d accept this fate instantly, joyously... more»

Londonistan calling. How a nation moved from cricket and fish-and-chips to burkas and shoe bombers in a single generation... more»

Western analysts bleat on about the strategic importance of that backward, oil-rich area we call the Middle East. Why not just ignore it?... more»

That's not everything, I just didn't want to scroll more than about halfway down. I mean, wow. Also, I've noticed that somehow it's still fun or interesting to pull punches at communism, even with our infinitely amusing new Muslamic diversion; it seems about as relevant as making fun of that darned "Catholic hating Know-Nothing Party".

The rest of the pieces on the website, however, are written by and about many excellent white people of high moral fibre and standing within their communities.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Power and the President

Thank you Alex Rossmiller for saying what every liberal -- and Stanley Fish -- believes would never actually admit: that there's nothing really wrong in prinicple with Dick Cheney's powerful role within the executive branch. And why not? Because if it were a progressive in there kicking ass and taking names, liberals would be the last ones screaming about the constitution, the imperial vice-presidency, and whatnot.

The same, no doubt, can be said about "King George" and his moves to greatly expand the powers of the executive. It remains an almost iron law of American History that the greatest presidents not coincidentally are the ones who greatly expanded the power of the presidency: Jackson with his Indian Removals and bank vetoes; Lincoln with his war declaration and suspension of Habeus Corpus; Franklin Roosevelt with his "court-packing" plan, New Deal reforms, Japanese internment, etc. The reason I never much cared for current left-wing cries about expanded executive power is that I have no doubt such complaints wouldn't exist were there a Democratic president; and when a Democrat does become president, his/her mandate for change will be based on the work done by George Bush.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Play the "Is Scantron reading too much into things" game!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Numbers game

A new Pew poll indicates that 78% of U.S. Muslims think suicide attacks against civilians are never justified, while 13% think they are "sometimes" or "rarely" justified. Some conservatives have found these numbers cause for concern. Blogger Glenn Greenwald says that sizeable polling numbers can be retrieved for almost anything, and that this 13% means nothing.

I disagree. Only 15% of Americans strongly approve of the job President Bush is doing, but no one seems to be able to stop him or them.

That single, unconscionable freedom -- Free Trade

Irwin M. Stelzer (not to be confused with Irwin R. Schyster) has a problem with trade "reforms":
The deal, still subject to congressional approval, is this: The Democrats will agree to approve two minor trade agreements, one with Peru and the other with Panama, in return for a Republican agreement to require its trading partners to adopt a series of environmental and labor market "reforms." Those "reforms" include the recognition of the right of trade unions to organize workers, the outlawing of most child labor and of workplace discrimination, and a requirement to allow patent protections of pharmaceuticals to lapse overseas when they expire in the United States.
If you're so free trade that you can openly mock outlawing child labor and ending workplace discrimination, you've got balls. In this case, you're also a total asshole and sycophant.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The predictable liberalism of Martha Nussbaum; or, Why conservatives will not like her new book

Martha Nussbaum, who has written exquisitely and in depth on maybe a dozen subjects of which I could not possibly master even one, is adding another scholarly topic to her CV: Indian politics. Her new book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future, promises to examine the disturbing trends within India's political system, namely the threat posed by its extremist Hindu right-wing, which she claims is partly inspired by fascist ideology.

To promote the book, Nussbaum has contributed a sort of precis to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Reading this summary, I was struck by its very, very liberal (to an extent predictable) qualities, and thus the reasons that it will inevitably be criticized by more conservative reviewers. Let's take a look.

First, Nussbaum recounts the terrible Godhra train incident of 2002 and the ensuing massacre. Basically, a train car full of Hindu religious pilgrims caught fire and 58 people were killed. Because the pilgrims had been arguing (perhaps harrassing) Muslims beforehand and because a group of angry Muslims was protesting nearby, it was assumed that Muslims had caused the fire. An awful massacre followed, during which time many people were slaughtered, mostly Muslims at an estimate of 2000 but also up to 250 Hindus. Since I knew absolutely nothing about the incident when it occurred and because I'm still researching it, I'll leave it up to you to check the sources linked to on Wikipedia and try to figure it out for yourselves.

At this point in the exposition, Nussbaum takes an obvious stance against the Hindus and in defense of the Muslims, noting that "the third-largest Muslim population in the world lives [in India] as peaceful democratic citizens, despite severe poverty and other inequalities." Meanwhile, she neglects to mention any of the statistics on Hindu deaths. She also apparently believes the findings of two independent inquiries into the incident who found that the fire was probably caused by personal cookstoves stored underneath trainseats. Needless to say (if you even glance at the Wikipedia page), the "official" story surrounding the Godhra incident is not uncontroversial and Nussbaum's version may attract criticism right from the start.

Nussbaum wishes to use this crisis within India, of which Godhra is symptomatic, to argue that the world is not a Huntingonite "clash of civilizations," but rather a clash "
within virtually all modern nations,"
between people who are prepared to live on terms of equal respect with others who are different, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity and the domination of a single "pure" religious and ethnic tradition. At a deeper level, as Gandhi claimed, it is a clash within the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality, with all the vulnerability that such a life entails.
While this may be true to an extent, one could still make the argument that both theses are true. (There's nothing in one that precludes the other.) But I will return to this shortly. Nussbaum proceeds to draw a parallel with the United States:
This argument about India suggests a way to see America, which is also torn between two different pictures of itself. One shows the country as good and pure, its enemies as an external "axis of evil." The other picture, the fruit of internal self-criticism, shows America as complex and flawed, torn between forces bent on control and hierarchy and forces that promote democratic equality. At what I've called the Gandhian level, the argument about India shows Americans to themselves as individuals, each of whom is capable of both respect and aggression, both democratic mutuality and anxious domination.
Nussbaum goes on to explain that in the Hindu right-wing version of Indian history, the Hindus started as a homogeneous, indigenous group that enjoyed peace and internal agreement during a golden age. They were subsequently invaded by Muslim hordes, cultural homogeneity was broken up, etc etc. In addition, within the Hindu right, "a persistent theme is that of humiliated masculinity: Hindus have been subordinate for centuries, and their masculinity insulted, in part because they have not been aggressive and violent enough." Finally, during the 1930s, when searching for a firm foundation for their right-wing ideology, many Hindu extremists found inspiration in the "race pride" of fascist Germany. Nussbaum takes care to note that the Hindu right's final solution, so to speak, was not racial purity, "but rather with whether Muslim and Christian groups were willing to 'abandon their differences, and completely merge themselves in the National Race.' He [Golwalkar, a Hindu extremist] was firmly against the civic equality of any people who retained their religious and ethnic distinctiveness."

Fast forward a bit, and Nussbaum is explaining that the main Hindu right-wing organization, the RSS, has as its political wing the Bharatiya Janata Party, which Wikipedia claims is "one of the two major national political parties in India." The BJP is the party of "fear and hate," and the RSS continues to try to indoctrinate young Indians with its "fascist ideology." Nussbaum's conclusions is that
The "clash within" is not so much a clash between two groups in a nation that are different from birth; it is, at bottom, a clash within each person, in which the ability to live with others on terms of mutual respect and equality contends anxiously against the sense of being humiliated.
Hoo boy. Where to begin.

I don't mean to attack this article as some sort of devil's advocate, because I find many of its arguments convincing and necessary. For one, I do believe that the "clash of civilizations" thesis is largely a myth, propagated to justify increasing hostility towards countries we disagree with and to nullify criticism of "our own" culture, however pluralistic and heterogeneous it might actually be. That said, there are forces in the world, even if they aren't as powerful and threatening as our government and media drastically exaggerate them to be, which are fundamentally opposed to peaceful co-existence. This is not exactly Nussbaum's point here, but she does seem to dispose of any sort of "external enemy" altogether and to focus her energy on the "inner struggle," as it were.

The inner struggle is problematic for two reasons, precisely because it itself is a double concept. I will start with the more precise version of the concept, the individual one. This is what Nussbaum is talking about when she says "a clash within each person." It is a profoundly liberal notion of self-examination, of making sure "your own house is in order." It's the sort of sentiment liberal Christians call upon when they quote scripture as saying "remove the plank from your own eye before removing the mote from your neighbor's" and "let he who has not sinned cast the first stone." In politics it is encompassed by political philosophies as different as Andrew Sullivan's "conservatism of doubt," Cornel West's "Socratic questioning," and Nussbaum's own "other picture, the fruit of internal self-criticism, [which] shows America as complex and flawed, torn between forces bent on control and hierarchy and forces that promote democratic equality."

Put simply, I don't believe Nussbaum on this point. I frankly do not believe that she thinks she has a lot of "internal self-criticism" to go before she has reached a point of suitable inner balance. Rather, I think that her appeal to an ethic of internal questioning is a screen for what she really believes, which comes through loud and clear from her description of Hindu "fascism" and from her comparison between India and America, and which constitutes the second form of the concept of "inner struggle."

This is the social form. The liberal view of the social form is actually quite firm in its beliefs, although it's hesitant to name its enemy. Its enemy is the right-wing
class of society, which in India is the Hindu party and which in America is obviously the Republican Party. Nussbaum all but explicitly says this when she says things like "One [image of America] shows the country as good and pure, its enemies as an external 'axis of evil.'" The other, of course, is the internal self-criticism side, led by good liberals like Nussbaum. Like the BJP, the GOP is the party of "fear of hate." It paints a rosy picture of (white, middle class, Christian) American society while scapegoating the possibly "insidious" classes within it (liberals, Muslims). It decries the loss of "masculinity" in America and the "emasculating" effects its acceptance of gays and women has had on American foreign and domestic policy. (For some examples of this, see this post from the liberal "Sadly, No" blog and especially the article contained within written by Norman Podhoretz, which the blogger labels as an example of the "faggotry of appeasement" meme.)

The rhetoric of "internal self-criticism," especially at the individual level, is a ploy. As I said, I simply don't believe that Nussbaum thinks we all have a lot of self-exploration to do. That is a task for conservatives, in order that they might catch up with all the enlightened self-critique Nussbaum et al. have already engaged in and so arrive at a state of "joyful cosmopolitanism," which Nussbaum applauds in the Indian statesman Sir Rabindranath Tagore. The argument, in other words, is that the
real danger to democracy is from the right-wing, and that to solve this problem the right wing needs to become more like Martha Nussbaum.

And she's right, to an extent. But it's also why conservatives will not like this book, especially since it depicts them, in what I think is a slightly underhanded way, as "fascists." When conservatives started using the term "Islamofascism," leftists primarily but also others (rightly) attacked this term as a particularly nasty form of propaganda and bigotry, used to blur differences between Middle Eastern countries, governments, and movements and so create a pretense for indiscriminate aggression against all of them. The question was not whether
these groups were actually fascists (and I think they can only be described thus in the loosest sense of the term possible, roughly synonymous with "totalitarian ideologies we don't like"--and note that this pretty much only applies to al Qaeda and not to Hezbollah or Hamas) but whether describing them in this way was productive of any form of progress. It's not. But neither is "Hindu fascism," nor is the rather backhanded "aggressive European nationalism" and "the roots of domination" (which pretty much just means "fascism").

I tend to think that, Jonah Goldberg unpublished books notwithstanding, if one party in America has fascist tendencies, it is the Republicans. These are not
patent fascist realities, but only latent but significant dangers which gain power whenever the right-wing in America appeals to its lowest elements. A short perusal of right-wing blogs' message boards will open one's eyes rather quickly. But to repeat, there is no real danger in America of slipping into fascism. (Everything short of this is pretty much on the table, however.) To publicly accuse the right of fascist leanings as Nussbaum does is not a workable strategy for reform.

So, to sum up, conservatives will not like this book. They will point to just the sorts of things Nussbaum says we ought to neglect, such as external enemies and the danger of internal dissent and wavering in the face of "evil." They will accuse her of "blaming America first" and placing her priorities in soft-headed avenues of weakness which will ultimately invite attack. Indian conservatives will likely lambast her portrayal of the BJP and her narrative of the Godhra massacre.

But the more thoughtful will probably also point, as I think I have,to some of the underlying assumptions of her writing, and the way she covers up what can only be her own convictions and beliefs with the language of "individual self-criticism." Martha Nussbaum is saying -- implicitly, perhaps, but still saying it -- that the American GOP needs to become more like her own liberal pluralistic cosmopolitanism. Why she doesn't just say this is a consequence of her faux-tolerant brand of enlightened liberalism of which we are all intimately familiar.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The End of Jew-rusalem and the Beginning of What...?

Continuing the trend of blogging about unsettling news stories, I couldn't help but react in dismay as I read this article about the Jewish population crisis in Jerusalem. As it turns out, within 30 years the city may be 50% Arab, thanks to a 3-4% growth rate that has seen the Arab population grow 257 percent since '67, compared to only 140 percent by the Jews. Compounding the problem is that Israeli's just don't want to seem to live in Jerusalem in the first place. Israeli flight, with 17,300 Israelis (mostly young professionals looking for lower cost of living and better jobs) leaving annually, has been a problem for some time.

Yet, what concerns me is not the loss of Jerusalem's Jewish identity and majority, but rather what actions the state will take to retard -- or stop -- a demographic problem which in reality is a microcosm of the larger crisis facing all of Israel. So far the official response has been a series of progressive measures with a bit of the illegal thrown in: Israel's going to pump $1.5 billion into social services, build schools, relocate government agencies to within the city, and build 20,000 settler units in East Jerusalem.

So long as Jewish population and immigration growth remains low, however, these solutions are only delaying a problem the state will have to address some day. In his famous 2003 New York Review of Books essay, Tony Judt expressed the problem in the following way (I quote at length):

In one vital attribute, however, Israel is quite different from previous insecure, defensive microstates born of imperial collapse: it is a democracy. Hence its present dilemma. Thanks to its occupation of the lands conquered in 1967, Israel today faces three unattractive choices. It can dismantle the Jewish settlements in the territories, return to the 1967 state borders within which Jews constitute a clear majority, and thus remain both a Jewish state and a democracy, albeit one with a constitutionally anomalous community of second-class Arab citizens.

Alternatively, Israel can continue to occupy "Samaria," "Judea," and Gaza, whose Arab population—added to that of present-day Israel—will become the demographic majority within five to eight years: in which case Israel will be either a Jewish state (with an ever-larger majority of unenfranchised non-Jews) or it will be a democracy. But logically it cannot be both.

Or else Israel can keep control of the Occupied Territories but get rid of the overwhelming majority of the Arab population: either by forcible expulsion or else by starving them of land and livelihood, leaving them no option but to go into exile. In this way Israel could indeed remain both Jewish and at least formally democratic: but at the cost of becoming the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project, something which would condemn Israel forever to the status of an outlaw state, an international pariah.

Anyone who supposes that this third option is unthinkable above all for a Jewish state has not been watching the steady accretion of settlements and land seizures in the West Bank over the past quarter-century, or listening to generals and politicians on the Israeli right, some of them currently in government. The middle ground of Israeli politics today is occupied by the Likud. Its major component is the late Menachem Begin's Herut Party. Herut is the successor to Vladimir Jabotinsky's interwar Revisionist Zionists, whose uncompromising indifference to legal and territorial niceties once attracted from left-leaning Zionists the epithet "fascist." When one hears Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, proudly insist that his country has not excluded the option of assassinating the elected president of the Palestinian Authority, it is clear that the label fits better than ever. Political murder is what fascists do.

Since Judt's essay, of course, Israel's demographic reality has gotten worse and not better; its political establishment has turned more rightward, not less. Judt's proposal, along with Virginia Tilley's, is one form or the other of a one-state, binantional solution. My own view is that in a perfect world, such a proposal would be the perfect solution, but that it remains to be seen that such an idea could somehow prove to be the exception in terms of the violent history of multiethnic/religious states.

That said, as the debate heats up in the coming weeks, months, and years as to just what Israel should do given its demographic problem, it's extremely important that neocon and right-wing arguments don't win out for the failure of a reasonable alternative. When the argument is made that "the only way to maintain/save Israel (from the Muslim hordes) is by doing X,Y, and Z egregious actions" there's no reason a very loud voice shouldn't shout back: "If the status quo is dependent on X,Y, and Z, who needs it!"

Multicultural eugenics

Recently the concept of hybrid vigor has come to my attention. When two members of the same species from diverse gene pools mate, the product of said mating is often healthier (better?) than either parent. A common explanation is that this is the opposite of inbreeding: while combining the same genes over and over leads to potentially harmful (but sometimes helpful) accumulation of recessive genes, a genotype derived from diverse sources tends to have fewer distinct characteristics, both bad and good.
A good example arises from dog breeds: do we want dogs that have specific characteristics like a unique size or fur or hunting ability, or do we prefer a dog that is more exemplary of the capital-D Dog? Now, what if we were to apply this example to human beings? This would require believing that human beings are genetically different. To what extent and in what way people are genetically different is a controversial question, and one that I don't really want to get into.
But there is a reason to get this close to controversy. I believe that eugenics is rightly condemned for the negative historical effects that it has had. However, what if our study of genetics eventually explains the reasons behind hybrid vigor and shows conclusively that the genetics behind it would apply in human beings? That would raise the possibility of a multicultural eugenics. That is, instead of worrying about "racial purity", people might argue that mixing ethnic groups should be in some way preferred. I think any public policy of this nature would be reprehensible and doubt it would ever be seriously proposed, but it would make a stimulating science fiction novel.
One issue is that of culture. Many have argued persuasively that the differences we see between people arise mostly from culture and have little to do with genetics. But if we think about culture as a sort of genetic material, the possibility of hybrid vigor arising in culturally mixed individuals arises as well. Surely we can think of how mixing the individualistic protestant work ethic of many North Americans with the communitarian feeling of other societies could yield a beneficial result for both the individual and society as a whole.
There are many controversial moral issues that arise when we talk about genetics in human beings. I want to reassure readers that nothing here should indicate my belief in a superior ethnic group or any inferiority. Everything I have written depends only on positing a genetic difference between ethnic groups, something that I think is widely accepted and uncontroversial.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Magical torture scenarios

I don't really care if he's doing it all for show or for the "swing vote," but I actually respect John McCain when he says that torture is absolutely unacceptable as a United States interrogation technique. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, can sit on a tack. What a disgrace. Why did people clap for this buffoon alone? Also, I like how Guiliani and Romney's random assertions of "Not torture! Not torture!" are supposed to magically make it so. I mean, I buy into speech act theory, but that is ridiculous.

Here's what I'm talking about.

Just so you know

The new Wilco album is not a Wilco album. Neither is it entirely a Loose Fur album or a Mermaid Avenue album. But it's definitely not a Wilco album. But still, their new guitarist Nels Kline rules. More on this later.

A call to juvenile arms

We will never be young and irresponsible enough again. Please just join with me for a moment in not being sad that Jerry Falwell is dead.

Monday, May 14, 2007

God and The State vs. Makeup

The annual spring offensive kicked off three weeks ago, and I'm not talking about the Taliban's. Iran's government has decided to take this year's crackdown on un-Islamic appearance a bit more seriously than usual. During the first four days of the campaign, 150,000 people were questioned in the country, of whose cases 14 were brought to a judicial resolution. The remainder were freed by signing a commitment to be good Muslim citizens (as well as signify that their next infraction would result in their appearance before a judge). More than 3000 women have been detained in the last three weeks for insufficient veils or makeup, as well as have several men for wearing a tie, "un-Islamic" shirts, or western haircuts. Some more photos -- including some pretty creative fashion dissent -- can be found here.

Ironic how Foucault could come to appreciate a state that employs his concept of biopower with such obvious vehemence that it becomes somehow fashionable to ignore it entirely.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Ph.Deez Nuts

If you're planning on obtaining a J.D. in the coming years -- as many readers and posters of this blog certainly will -- you're in luck. It turns out that your percentage chance of becoming the President of the United States is pretty good. According to the American Bar Association, 25 of the nation's Presidents have had either Law Degrees or practiced law -- nearly 60% of the total number of Presidents. The percentage of declared presidential candidates with law degrees for as their highest terminal degrees for this year's election is slightly higher, at just over 60%.

Given the paradoxical bias of our political system and culture toward lawyers -- who de Tocqueville claimed "are the most powerful existing security against the excesses of democracy" and yet constantly seem to be elected by the demos -- what are those hopeful future classicists and historians out there to do? The answer is clear. Go eastward young man! Western Europe beckons! Despite Sarkozy's (former lawyer) recent victory in France, and Prodi's (law), Zapatero's (law), and Blair's (law) before them, the tide is beginning to turn. The ancien régime of rule by funny men in wigs is ending.

The faint whispers of revolution have echoed across this great continent for the past few weeks. First, there was Francois Bayrou's strong showing in the first round of the French presidential elections. A former classics professor, Bayrou founded a new political party this week, which is almost certain to topple Sarkozy when voting begins in early 2012. Next, was Blair's official announcement that he will hand power over to Gordon Brown in late June. Brown has a Ph.D in history, having written his dissertation on the current issue of The Labour Party and Political Change in Scotland, 1918-29.

That we are being introduced to a bright future is beyond question. One can imagine the consequences when the revolution spreads to American politics. Debate over Guantanamo and warrantless eavesdropping vis-a-vis the rule of law will be eclipsed by state-sponsored discussions of Plato's Laws. Latin American accusations of American imperialism throughout history will turn to historiographical arguments over William Walker's relation to the American South's desire to expand slavery into Mexico and Cuba in the mid 19th century.

Let me make myself absolutely clear. Paraphrasing Benjamin paraphrasing Fourier, I think that with these changes, four moons will illuminate the earthly night, ice will recede from the poles, sea water will no longer taste salty, and beasts of prey will do man's bidding.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Crab Cakes, Orioles Baseball, and Terrorism

Jeremy Kahn has written an absolutely heartbreaking story for The Atlantic Monthly -- here published for free on another website -- on witness protection and the culture of "Stop Snitchin." Shows like The Wire, DVD's featuring current NBA allstars, and popular websites featuring "Stop snitching" merchandise" have documented and popularized a phenomenon where testifying against gang violence becomes impossible due to fear. Baltimore witness intimidation has long been considered the most brutal. "In many Baltimore neighborhoods, talking to the law has become a mortal sin, a dishonorable act punishable by social banishment-or worse," Kahn writes. "Prosecutors in the city can rattle off a litany of brutal retaliations: houses firebombed, witnesses and their relatives shot, contract hits on 10-year-olds." Baltimore's ignominious connection to places like Baghdad and Rio de Janeiro is clear.

Anyone who has lived in The Charm City long enough has experienced some kind of personal connection to this story. More often than not, it's hearing about someone you vaguely know, or someone living in the same building as a friend, getting shot. While Kahn points out that one in every four homicide witnesses themselves have an outstanding warrant for their arrest, their reason for being one of the most short-lived of any American human being is more often than not simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They saw a crime occur, and the next day a bounty is put on their head to stop them from talking to anyone about it.

There's a long list of reasons why this problem is a rather intractable one. It can only come to an end when there are witnesses to testify against the murder and intimidation of other witness. It requires a neighborhood-police relationship that has significantly deteriorated during the past forty years. It requires Baltimore's elite political and social class to devote resources, energy, and possibly lives to solving a problem which remains essentially confined to already impoverished neighborhoods, and to a "black on black" nature.

It's a sickening reality, and when I think of white middle class kids wearing a "Stop Snitchin" t-shirt to be cool, it makes me want to vomit. These drug gangs are as senselessly violent and ruthless as the worst of any ghetto. I hope that articles such as Kahn's will continue to put increasing pressure on the municipal, state, and federal levels to devote the resources and attention to begin to stop this terrorism.

Missile Defense Update

It looks like the Democratic Congress is finally heading my calls, having begun to question the Bush Administration's show of manly manliness on the Eastern European front, even while hundreds of thousands of Iranian missiles await their imminent release into space.

So far, I must say in general I'm fairly pumped about this Congress -- and especially the House.

More homework

If there aren't any objections, I thought I'd cap this evening with another bit of Latin translation, this time from the historian Tacitus, in his panegyric for his deceased father-in-law Agricola. For much of his encomium, Tacitus highlights Agricola's illustrious career as governor of Britain, during which time he subdued the Caledonians (Scots) in 84 CE. Earlier in the text Tacitus noted that the more servile Britons, Hibernians (Irish), and Caledonians had gradually adopted the customs of the Romans during their pacification process: "Little by little they were led to the allurements of vice, the colonnade and the bath and the elegance of dinner parties. And among the ignorant this was called humanitas, when it was part of their subservience."

Still, a large band of allied islanders, perhaps numbering 30,000, managed to come together to mount a resistance to the Romans. Tacitus puts this remarkable speech into the mouth of a Caledonian chieftain, Calgacus, who is rallying his troops before battle (which, if we believe Tacitus, would claim the lives of some 10,000 Britons and only 360 Romans). This is the first and most famous portion:

Quotiens causas belli et necessitatem nostram intueor, magnus mihi animus est hodiernum diem consensumque vestrum initium libertatis toti Britanniae fore: nam et universi co[i]stis et servitutis expertes, et nullae ultra terrae ac ne mare quidem securum inminente nobis classe Romana. Ita proelium atque arma, quae fortibus honesta, eadem etiam ignavis tutissima sunt. Priores pugnae, quibus adversus Romanos varia fortuna certatum est, spem ac subsidium in nostris manibus habebant, quia nobilissimi totius Britanniae eoque in ipsis penetralibus siti nec ulla servientium litora aspicientes, oculos quoque a contactu dominationis inviolatos habebamus. ... Sed nulla iam ultra gens, nihil nisi fluctus ac saxa, et infestiores Romani, quorum superbiam frustra per obsequium ac modestiam effugias. Raptores orbis, postquam cuncta vastantibus defuere terrae, mare scrutantur: si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit: soli omnium opes atque inopiam pari adfectu concupiscunt. Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

"Whenever I consider the causes of this war and our situation, I have great assurance that this very day and this alliance of ours will be the beginning of freedom for Britain. For all of you gathered here are unaccustomed to servitude, and there are no lands beyond us, nor even is the sea secure, since the Roman fleet threatens us. And so battle and weaponry, which are honorable for the brave, are in this case the safest recourse even to the cowardly. Earlier battles, when we fought against the Romans with varying success, held out to our hands the hope of relief, since we, the noblest of all Britain and situated in its innermost places, where we could never look upon the shores of slavish people, kept our eyes safe from the disease of domination. ... But now there is no tribe beyond us, nothing except waves and rocks, and the even more dangerous Romans, whose arrogance you can escape only through fawning and meekness. These plunderers of the earth, after they've wasted the entire world through their ravaging, ransack the sea. If their enemy is wealthy, they are greedy; if poor, they are haughty. Neither the East nor the West satisfies them. Alone of all people they lust after wealth and poverty with equal desire. Pillaging, slaughtering, raping -- to these they give the false name 'empire,' and where they make a desert, they call it peace."

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Sirra, let us not tarry, but hasten towards sweet cultural oblivion

Imagine for a moment that you're a 17th century European university professor. A startling report (written in Latin, of course) has been circulated, revealing the terrible news that professors across Europe, from London to Paris to Geneva, are no longer teaching John Duns Scotus! That great figure of our cultural heritage, that inheritor of the classical past, that responder to the immortal questions which plague human life, is being pushed out of curricula by a motley crew of rationalists and empiricists, including some fellow named Descartes (and isn't he in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum?).

So, ha-ha, silly academic disputes, right? What might have been perceived at the time as a crisis of the institution (and I have no idea, I'm just imagining a scenario) is today nothing more than hair-splitting and long bypassed conservatism.

So why are we constantly reminded that SHAKESPEARE IS DYING, and that this spells doom, or something, for our VERY WAY OF LIFE? Case in point: The New Republic's "Open University" blog, which contains this post from some dude named Robert Brustein. You see, Shakespeare as a required course for an English degree has decreased from 23 schools out of 70 to 15. This means, by some incredible leap in logic, that "at the present rate of attrition, in twenty years you won't find a Shakespeare course anywhere in the country." Umm, required or non-required? Something tells me the Bard will be with us for quite some time yet; if majors are "no longer asked" to read him for their degree, I don't really give a shit.

And you can guess why Shakespeare is out of fashion: it's those pesky minorities! (God, it almost pains me to report this cliched shite.) Brustein quotes a Very Serious-Sounding Report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni that "While Shakespeare and other traditionally acclaimed authors such as Chaucer and Milton are no longer required, many institutions such as Rice, Oberlin, and Vanderbilt require students to study 'non-canonical traditions,' 'under-represented cultures,' and 'ethnic or non-Western literature.'"

Why don't you give us an example, Bob, and we can all collectively laugh at the expense of the dark people? Great, thanks: "English majors can avoid reading Othello in favor of studying 'Critical Race Theory' which explores why race 'continues to have vital significance in politics, education, culture, arts, and everyday social realities,' including 'sexuality, class, disability, multiculturalism, nationality, and globalism.'" Suuure, and next they'll be telling us that cultural values are relative! Imagine!

A quick glance at the University of Virginia's English Department website shows that there are nine classes available which explicitly list Shakespeare in the title or course description. Some dearth. Here's how Brustein ends his post:

"A recent newspaper cartoon shows two young girls walking out of a school. One turns to the other and says, 'I have two mommies.' The other replies, 'How much is two?'" Gotta watch that positive correlation between TEH GAYS and inadequate math skills. (Where is that cartoon from, the Bob Jones University Collegian?)

In all seriousness -- and perhaps Brustein wasn't been completely serious -- these boo-hoo Shakespeare jeremiads are so lame. I'm from a classics department, for Christ's sake, so I suppose I could, like some nutters, be running around screaming bloody murder that undergrads no longer know Pindar's 3rd Nemean Ode. However, I recognize that no one, not even Shakespare, is immune from academic decision-making and editorializing, nor should they be. Shakespeare is great, yeah, he might even be "intrinsically" great, but what if there are just too many intrinsically (or otherwise) great authors to make room for him? Might not this be conceivable? What makes him super-duper-special, or in the words of Brustein's post, "the language's greatest writer"? Am I the only one that feels this way? What would be unacceptable "canon-slashing" in your college major?

Monday, May 07, 2007

A Question:

Did the phrase "opposites attract" carry any weight, or even seem meaningful, before the discovery of the principles of magnetism?

Does MTV suck?

Sometimes I question myself for saying that MTV sucks now; perhaps it's just a new era and the kids like different kinds of music and shit. But when I see videos like this, I'm convinced that music television was a beautiful thing which has been forgotten...

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Testing a hypothesis

So, one line of thought goes that conservatives believe in the individual, liberals in society. (This is a simplification, obviously, and one could easily point out that liberals also believe in individuals, that conservatives engage in mass demagoguery and don't respect individual sexual rights, that both of them are quite enthusiastic for individualistic, capitalistic entrepreneurship, etc, but grant me that first sentence.) Would I be correct in pointing out, however, that when conceiving of their political enemies they engage in the opposite practice?

The general trend seems to be that liberals have a long laundry list of individual conservatives who "make the world a worse place." Typically these are people who reach a large audience/readership, such as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Michelle Malkin, Michael Savage, et al. Political figures are usually limited to those occupying the White House, who are practically thought of as a cabal, but John McCain, Tom DeLay, and Joe Lieberman (yeah, he's a conservative on every level that counts these days) might also make the list.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have few individual targets, comparatively speaking. Obviously, they will bash Pelosi, Reid, and perhaps Murtha to no end, and they especially hate the Clintons, but for no other reason than that they're really loathsome people, which might be true for all I know. O'Reilly seems to have really latched on to George Soros and maybe Cindy Sheehan, but the latter has disappeared from the scene lately. On the whole, however, the "enemy" for conservatives often seems to be an indiscriminate mass, e.g. "the mainstream media," "the Hollywood elite," "leftist academics," or, of course, "liberals." I will admit that "liberals" is much more easily expressed phonetically in a contemptuous manner than "conservatives," which may be why it's used as a term of abuse so much more than "conservative." (As a side note, I'd say that "conservative" is not even an epithet: It's more like a revered "truth claim" of some kind, an unattainable standard set by Ronald Reagan or something that we can all "admire" and "respect." "Right-wing" is a bit harsher, but it has its counterpart in "left-wing." [Everyone wants to be in the center!]) "Democrat Party" is also so much more utilitarian in its nastiness than "Republic [?] Party." I don't even know what the equivalent would be.

Does my summary sound accurate? Also, what tend to be the causes and effects of these trends? In the conservative case, the smearing of "liberals" carte-blanche seems to me to have really developed during the 80s and culminated in the campaign against Dukakis in '88. (Isn't it common knowledge that you couldn't call yourself a "liberal" with pride after that?) On the whole, however, for the majority of the 80s, 90s, and early 00s the Republicans have held immense power, first under Reagan and Bush I, then in congress under Clinton, a very centrist President by anybody's standards anyway, and of course for the last 6 1/2 years. Considering they have had little opposition and have retained a sort of "cultural hegemony," you'd think that they'd go after individual scapegoats. Of course, they continue to attack the smallest of small, weak minorities -- gays, poor black people, immigrants, Muslims -- but otherwise they cast the largest possible net in terms of the "PC liberal culture" that's out to get them. Their ability to cast the debate in these terms continues to put liberals on the defense, I think. In other words: it's really fucking effective.

Liberals attack prominent right-wing figures because, let's be honest, there's a lot of them. However, this is a very ineffective strategy because the "shaming" process will get you nowhere in this country (could anyone ever really muzzle Coulter through shame?), and in fact it will likely just afford the media demagogues in question more popularity. In the blogosphere there seem to be more and more liberals realizing that hey, our cultural, political, and media establishments tend to be really, really conservative, but in the "mainstream," figures tend to follow the patern outlined above: defensive maneuvering with an emphasis on "bad" individuals. I'll flake out here and just say what others, including, I think, George Lakoff, have said, that liberals really just need to reframe the debate in language more favorable to them, where they don't have to worry about being "criminal coddlers" and "abortionists" and "defeatocrats." How much this can actually happen is questionable, simply because mainstream Democrats have done such a good job of making themselves similar to the Republican Party. (I'm thinking particularly of the DLC here, whose current chairman, Harold Ford Jr., was indistinguishable from his Republican opponent in the Tennessee senate election last year. As Atrios and Yglesias have pointed out recently, Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, also seems to conform to this model.) I'm not sure how powerful the following strategy actually is, but Republicans have certainly cornered it: They can always call Democrats "socialists" (e.g. "socialist health care") at the end of the day, which has always and will always ring sour with the American public. I've seen right-wing websites advertising "Redefeat Communism" t-shirts with Hillary Clinton's face on them and they seem to believe this in earnest. The Democrats' actual similarity to socialists I will leave for all of you to contemplate. Even their closest candidate, Bernie Sanders of VT, would have been kicked out of the German SPD by Eduard Bernstein for being a bourgeois opportunist.

Allow me here to preempt the argument that might be made in favor of a Democratic policy that offers "concrete, pragmatic solutions to problems." This line of thought assumes that there are social outcomes that all can readily agree upon. It also neglects the fact that by most of the standards we would consider important, Democrats outperform Republicans, even in that most hallowed of conservative fields, the economy, yet still play the defensive. Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly has spent his blogging career documenting these facts so I'll leave it to you to discover them. Also, it's just being too optimistic to neglect the extreme importance, at the end of the day, of ideology and, dare I say it, propaganda. (If you think that both sides of American politics aren't engaged in large-scale, sophisticated propaganda exercises on a daily basis, you're kidding yourself.) Many liberal bloggers have raised a hubbub recently over Jon Chait of the New Republic's suggestion that the "netroots" engage in "propaganda." Many of them do, of course; they'd just call it "argument" or "principles" or maybe, just maybe if they're being honest, "talking points." The modern aversion from the term "propaganda" stems from its associations with onesidedness, lack of self-criticism, and a certain "mindlessness," but many of our daily practices involve these features, and certainly politics must contain a certain element of it if they are going to be decisive. I feel another blog post coming on about the Chait controversy, but I'll save it. For now, I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts!

In the meantime, since you've read this much, I'll "reward" you with the best thing I read in intensive Latin survey this week. This is from Pliny the Younger, writing in the late first century CE under the emperor Trajan. This is from Letter I. xx to the historian Tacitus:

Varia sunt hominum iudicia, variae voluntates. Inde qui eandem causam simul audierunt, saepe diversum, interdum idem sed ex diversis animi motibus sentiunt. Praeterea suae quisque inventioni favet, et quasi fortissimum amplectitur, cum ab alio dictum est quod ipse praevidit. Omnibus ergo dandum est aliquid quod teneant, quod agnoscant.

"Various are the judgments of men, various their attitudes. And so those who have heard the same legal case at the same time often think different things, or on other occasions the same thing but from different thought processes. And what's more each man favors his own method of finding out the truth, and when he embraces something as the strongest argument it's often what he himself foresaw all along but happened to be said in another way. Therefore everyone needs to be given their own version which they can grasp on to, which they can recognize."

Generation PWN

While a coworker and I were discussing the relative merits of the Facebook groups "A grizzly bear would pwn an anaconda in a fight" and "An anaconda would pwn a grizzly bear in a fight," an elderly colleague walked by. I considered, for a second, the possibility that this guy would realize we were not discussing work-related issues and pwn us in front of our boss or something. But this was clearly paranoia: our generation is indecipherable to its own members; I'm sure those on the outside just don't even bother. This guy probably thought we were talking about computer cables ("a series of tubes") or something. What n00bs!

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

One way to improve DC

Visitors to the District of Columbia seem to like the idea of the District's height code, which limits buildings to a height of 130 feet. Indeed, the possibility of seeing the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument from anywhere in Washington is nice. But, having lived here for almost a year, I dread the sight of the Washington skyline. On purely aesthetic grounds, cities like Baltimore and Philly beat the crap out of DC because of their interesting skylines: driving through these cities after spending time in Washington is always a breath of fresh air. Being able to see the Monument becomes having the monument see you: it's like the Eye of Sauron, asserting government's right to dominate and look into all activity. Combining this with the Stalinist boxiness of the architecture that the policy creates, we could come to an argument for free building that would please the likes of Howard Roark and other Ayn Rand creations.
But let's not; there are other, more practical reasons for ending the height limit, as this article from the Washington Post indicates. The limit on height prevents the creation of new real estate by going up, meaning that real estate prices are increased, pushing out low income residents and increasing the cost of government business. Furthermore, increased density is good for the environment. That's one reason that Manhattan is the most energy-efficient place in the United States. The current policy makes DC into the car-dominated city that it is. It's good to see people working against it.

Added picture, edited some text, changed title.

Socially responsible investing

A group that opposes the atrocities in Darfur is pressuring investing companies like Berkshire Hathaway into divesting shares in companies that are involved with the country. The problem with this is, of course, that if a profitable stock is shunned by investors, its price drops. Presumably, its profit per share will be constant (that is, the company won't change its actions to comply with its former shareholders), meaning that a profitable stock will now be even more attractive to investors without similar qualms. The more investors who refuse to own the stock for moral reasons, the more immoral investors can profit. This is simple economics.
Does this mean that so-called "socially responsible investing" is a bust? Probably not. We can assume that those who are making these choices are making them on some sort of Kantian basis: they ask themselves whether a world in which everyone invested merely according to profit would be one in which they wished to live, and answer in the negative. But there are other options. One tactic is to use shareholder votes to affect the choices that companies make. Unions, for instance, have been purchasing shares in certain companies in order to force them to improve their business practices. Unfortunately, I suspect this tactic would not work in the present situation because the Chinese company that is engaging in the questionable behavior probably does not afford many decision rights to its shareholders; i.e. because the Chinese economy is insufficiently capitalistic, shareholders do not have the right to tell companies what to do.
Finally, some companies' actions are morally controversial, meaning that there are actual debates as to whether they are right or wrong. Take Caterpillar, for instance: the Episcopal Church and others have taken money out of this fairly successful stock because it sells the bulldozing equipment that Israel uses to destroy Palestinian houses. Supporters of Israel and its actions will presumably have no objection to buying the stock and profiting more from it than they would otherwise. Similarly, those who have no moral issues with vice stocks (alcohol, guns, defense and tobacco) can invest in the extremely successful Vice Fund.
Investors need every tool they can get to beat the market. This is because we can presume that stock prices reflect the decisions of people who have a very strong interest in knowing how their investments perform and who pay a lot of attention to news and upcoming events. Insider trading is so profitable because those who do it have information that others don't; they can beat the market by knowing important events sooner. If socially-responsible investing is prevalent, investors without morals also stand to make a significant amount of cash.
How do we apply this? Find out what companies are being shunned for what reasons. Some of those reasons you probably feel are justified--for instance, the activity in Darfur is unconscionable. What you do with those stocks is a hard question and I think I've outlined reasons for not investing them and the consequences of not investing. But the easiest thing to do is find a stock that is being shunned for reasons with which you disagree . I support the right to produce and consume alcohol and tobacco. If others don't, they can shun the stocks while I invest in them. They will only be helping me, someone with whom they disagree, make a large profit. Thanks, Christians!

Here's an excellent article on the issue by Daniel Gross of Slate. Via that article, here's a chart that puts "The Ave Maria Catholic Values Fund" against The Vice Fund. The upshot: moral investing may be profitable, but vice investing is as well.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Throw some D on it

Are you taking Vitamin D with your fish oil? You should be.
In June, U.S. researchers will announce the first direct link between cancer prevention and the sunshine vitamin. Their results are nothing short of astounding.

A four-year clinical trial involving 1,200 women found those taking the vitamin had about a 60-per-cent reduction in cancer incidence, compared with those who didn't take it, a drop so large — twice the impact on cancer attributed to smoking — it almost looks like a typographical error.

Via FuturePundit