Odds and Sods

Mar 28th, 2004 11:48 pm | By

I trust you saw this review of Alain de Botton’s latest scholarly work via News. If not, do have a look; it’s very funny. Very enraged, very impolite, and very funny. It starts well –

Alain de Botton is the kind of public intellectual our debased culture deserves. This prince of précis, this queen of quotation, pastes together entire books by citing and then restating in inferior prose the ideas of great writers from centuries gone by. Aping the forms of philosophical thought in tones of complacent condescension, he provides for his readers the comforting sensation of reading something profound at little cost of mental effort.

And it goes on well, too.

the second half of the book offers “Solutions” to our unhappiness, drawn from the five spheres of philosophy, art, politics, Christianity and bohemia. Each of these, apparently, can allow us to re-examine our priorities and re-engineer our status systems. The lessons from this half of the book are edifying. Buying a new car will not make us happy. Jesus was a holy man, and yet a humble carpenter. Some people have valued poetry more than money. Dropping out of the rat race and lounging around in the park with topless women might be fun. It makes you think, doesn’t it?…Sitting uneasily with this striving for gravitas is the fantastically irritating whimsy by which banal ideas are illustrated by pseudo-logical flowcharts, graphs and diagrams. The effect of one of these is, surprisingly, to imply that God manifests Himself in the shape of a giant pepper-pot.

Very funny, but of course irritating too. Silly books sell jillions and good books sell two. Why do people insist on wanting to read silly books instead of good ones? Perhaps I’ll write a cliché-filled rant on the subject and send it to Norm for his contest.

Speaking of that, there was an article by Terry Eagleton in the Guardian the other day that I meant to say something about. It’s all right, I like its basic point, but I did notice one thing that got up my nose –

For later modern thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, we could act effectively only by repressing true knowledge. True knowledge would drive us mad. We could not act, and reflect on our actions, at the same time, any more than some dim American presidents could simultaneously chew gum and walk.

When, I’m always wondering, did Freud become a “thinker”? And why, and how, and under whose auspices? What is a thinker, anyway? A gifted amateur? An inept professional? What?

Because the trouble is Freud didn’t think of himself as a thinker, he thought of himself as a scientist. But word has got out that he wasn’t that, because he had such a very peculiar way with evidence. But people in certain bits of the humanities don’t want to give him up and don’t want to admit that he was just wrong about psychology, and move on. So they’ve changed the terminology. Now he’s not anything one can pin down and say ‘Nope, he got that wrong,’ he’s a Thinker. Not a philosopher, but a Thinker. That might be an acceptable word for some people, but in the case of Freud I think it’s just a weasel word, a way of saving appearances.

But to end on an optimistic note, there is this new group blog The Panda’s Thumb. One of its members, P Z Myers has the blog Pharyngula and I think has commented here at least once, and I think Timothy Sandefur has talked to us too at some point. Anyway, The Panda’s Thumb looks set to be another excellent place (along with for instance Chris Mooney’s blog and Carl Zimmer’s) to get scientific news and discussion and analysis.



Miscellany 3

Mar 27th, 2004 11:21 pm | By

And more. Another item from Normblog, that made me laugh a good deal. About people who pontificate in a repetitive repetitive manner about clichés and the end of civilization as we know it. I know people like that, I’ve been trapped at dinner tables and in cars with them on more than one occasion. (Some people even think I do that! Would you believe it!) Drone drone drone they go, droning about droning bores. Rather the way I am now. I’ll let Norm tell it:

Not only that, there are ‘more dangerous’ clichés, says Mortimer, like ‘”the war against terrorism” when we aren’t at war with any country’. One reads this sort of thing so often now, I’m thinking of charging a small fee to explain in simple language to those a bit on the slow side usages of the word ‘war’ not involving simple bilateral conflict between sovereign states. Anyway, Mortimer regrets that ‘political ideas have become clichéd’, and laments a lost time ‘when sentences and our language were used to mean something and sound well’. Harrrrumph! I invite entries of no more than thirty words saying in the most clichéd way you can that we’re going down the tubes because of slack speech patterns.

Good old days, verbs as nouns, they don’t, nobody, any more, you used to be able to, why I remember when, subjunctive, they when they mean he, heorshe, politically correct, between he and I, a good book, tv, youth culture, time was, Orwell, never use a long word when a short one will do, tell what you know, simple, good Anglo-Saxon, Latinate, jargon, sociologese, schools these days, illiterate, teachers, Book of Common Prayer, coughcough hack wheeze.

That was fun. Next. There are a lot of interesting items at Cliopatria. This one for instance on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and a critique of it in ‘Dissent.’ The author of the critique comments there too. And then there’s this and this on the departure of Invisible Adjunct – which has caused a lot of reaction in blogoville, but the comment at Cliopatria is particularly interesting since it comes from colleagues. IA is a historian. Historians regret her departure. This whole adjunct thing is – well, let me put it this way, it’s the market going one way and ethics going another. PhDs are a dime a dozen therefore we can underpay and overwork them therefore we will. Peachy.



Miscellany 2

Mar 27th, 2004 8:11 pm | By

More of the miscellany. I want to look at a sentence or two from a comment on the hijab issue – a comment prompted by this article. I’m not bothering to link to the comment, because it’s quite typical and not all that interesting, in my view. It’s the typicality that makes the sentence worth looking at. It’s the kind of Everyone Says It sort of thing that – well, that everyone says, without really thinking about it much, or perhaps at all. So people go on saying it, and they hear it, and no one ever (or hardly anyone hardly ever) stops to take a closer look at it, and it infects public rhetoric more and more. A meme, in short. Which of course is not to say that I never do that – only to say that I like to point out the ones I notice. Including my own when I notice them.

The action that causes problems, in short, isn’t scarf-wearing at all; it’s intimidation, backed up by credible threats of violence. So why is the solution scarf-banning, rather than making schools safe places to express one’s preferred interpretation of religious faith?

Er – is that what schools are supposed to be? Safe places to express one’s preferred interpretation of religious faith? If so, why? And what other kinds of things is school supposed to be a safe place to express one’s preferred interpretation of? Suppose one has a preferred interpretation of race relations, for example, or sexual orientation, or equality between the sexes? Is school supposed to be a ‘safe place’ to ‘express’ those? In what sense? In what sense of ‘express’ or ‘safe place’? What, in fact, do those fuzzy mushy woolly feel-good words even mean? Does anyone know? Or care? Or do we just like to say them without bothering to think much. And as for that clinching, argument-closing word ‘faith’ – what I just said goes double for that.

Next item. From Scott McLemee’s site a comment on Invisible Adjunct’s departure, including a comment on the vices of anonymity and the admirability of IA’s avoidance of same.

It was last December that IA provided a link to my incredibly vile, destructive, mean-spirited, sarcastic, bitter, and altogether unconscionable effort to destroy the Modern Languages Association, by placing tongue-in-cheek. (Or maybe tongue-in-chic.)

Yes I remember that. As a matter of fact Scott and I were emailing about the IA thread at the very time the yells of rage were at their loudest. I also remember well that the ones that were by far the rudest came from an anonymous blogger – which is one of Scott’s points about IA: that she didn’t use her anonymity to hurl insults.

Anonymity does not seem to bring out the best in people. Someone using a fake name can be just as much of a blithering, ranting, resentment-crazed, semi-autistic creep as he wants to be. No accountability! Woo-hoo! It’s a virtual paradise for any chump with a chip on his shoulder.

Eeeeyup. We’ve seen quite a lot of that kind of thing here. All the more unfortunate that an anonymous who did not go that route is leaving, taking her good example with her.



Miscellany

Mar 26th, 2004 7:07 pm | By

Dang, I’ve been having a hard time keeping up lately. Not very surprisingly. This writing a book caper does tend to take more than a few minutes a day, after all, and the time has to come from somewhere. And there are other odds and ends, and so – items I want to comment on have been piling up. I do what I can, I wake up nice and early, a good deal earlier than I would like to in fact, but still the piling up goes on. So I’m just going to do a miscellany, a grab-bag, an everything all at once comment, and whittle the pile down a little.

There’s this from Normblog on something George Monbiot said the other day.

The ‘fury it generated among Muslims’. So ‘Muslims’ are entitled by their reactive fury, are they, to determine whether the lives of the people of Iraq may be freed from the tyranny of the Saddam Hussein regime? Would Monbiot allow the same veto power to, say, the racist reactions of some British people over how the issue of asylum-seekers should be handled? It’s not only how people react; it’s whether they have any business reacting in that way.

Just so. And that’s true even if the people doing the reacting are in some sense part of an oppressed group. I’m not sure people always hold that thought firmly enough in mind. Next up, Timothy Burke on Rigoberta Menchu.

The question for me was, “Why did she, with assistance from interlocutors, refashion herself into the most abject and maximally oppressed subject that she could?” The answer to that question, the fault of that untruth, lies not so much in Menchu but in her intended audience. Here I think the academic left, that portion of it most invested in identity politics (which is not the whole or necessarily even the majority of the academic left), takes it on the chin. Menchu is what some of them most wanted, a speaking subaltern.

But read the whole thing. It’s really very good. Farther down we get this:

You want what people in my field call “the African voice”. If you don’t have it in the syllabus, in your talk, in your paper, in your book, somebody’s going to get up in the audience and say, “Where is the authentic African voice?” and mutter dire imprecations when you say, “I don’t have it. I can’t find it. It doesn’t exist”. You may quote or mention or study an African, or many, but if they’re middle-class, or “Westernized”, or literate, or working for the colonial state, somebody’s going to tell you that’s not enough. The light of old anthropological quests for the pure untouched native is going to shine through the tissue paper of more contemporary theory.

Right, that’s enough for this one. I have to get away from this dratted desk for awhile. More later, from Scott McLemee, Cliopatria, Panda’s Thumb, Terry Eagleton.



An Interlude

Mar 24th, 2004 5:15 pm | By

Right, well as long as I’m in a plaintive vein, a threnodic vein, a sorrowful, plangent, mournful, whingey vein – I think I’ll just take a moment to ponder the grief of living in an out of the way corner of the world. And corner it is, too; tucked or rather jammed up in the far far far northwest corner of the whole damn country, not on the way to anywhere except Alaska (and maybe Japan but only if you’re starting from Idaho). It’s not Los Angeles, it’s not San Francisco, and it sure as hell is not New York or Paris or London. It’s not central. It’s not a capital. It’s not a place where things happen and interesting people sooner or later end up, so that one can just walk out the door at a leisurely pace, no need to rush, stroll along to the tube and in a few minutes be chatting with, I don’t know, Umberto Eco or Yo-yo Ma over lunch.

Well, yes it is, actually. People do come here. It could be much worse. It could be Puyallup or Sequim (you don’t know how to pronounce either of those, and I’m not going to tell you), to which people really don’t go. But people do come here on book tours and lecture circuits. And besides, it was my idea to come here, I wasn’t dragged here in chains. And I like it here. It’s just that –

Well it’s just that my insufferable colleague and his colleague are having lunch (have already had it by now, unless they opted for a very very late lunch, more like pre-dinner, or high tea) with Alan Sokal today. And I’m not. I’m over here, in this hick town, facing the stupid Pacific, missing all the action. And I am devoured by jealousy. Consumed by it. It is so unfair. There they are giggling and chewing and telling jokes about Lacan’s mathematics and Butler’s transgressions, and there I’m not. It is so unfair!

It’s not, of course, it’s not a bit unfair. And it’s also not geographical. If I were there, would I be there? No! Because I wouldn’t be invited, because there’d be no reason for me to be. So it’s not in the least unfair, and I know that perfectly well. But I’m just so jealous. So I’m having an Unreasonable Moment. You don’t think I’m always rational do you? No, of course you don’t.

No, I just thought I would pine a bit, to relieve my feelings. Sokal is something of a hero to people who dislike Fashionable Nonsense. Well he is to me anyway. The parody was such a brilliant idea, and he carried it out so well, and it worked so beautifully, and it made them all look so silly and self-serving – how could one not admire? So one does, and one wishes one could have been there, to ask the great question of our times: why do Americans like pizza with pineapple on it? But I’m an adult, and semi-rational some of the time, so I’ll get over it. I just wanted to pine first.

Update. Just to clarify, by way of making sure no one misunderstands. That is of course mostly joke. It’s quite true that I’d have loved to be there, but that’s all. I’m not really pouting. Sobbing gently now and then, but not pouting.

Second update. You’ll be pleased to learn that my guess was right – they really did laugh about Lacan’s mathematics. I’m clairvoyant.



Ave atque Vale, Invisible Adjunct

Mar 24th, 2004 12:02 am | By

Damn! Invisible Adjunct is packing it in. Rolling up the carpets, unplugging the lamps, feeding the leftover cake to the cat. In short, leaving. Leaving both blogging and adjuncting. I don’t know which is sadder. Well yes I do – the latter is. Presumably it was more important to her, so it’s worse that the world of academe closed her out. My Cliopatria colleague Ralph Luker and IA’s real world history teaching colleague is angry about it.

I am stunned! Angry, first of all, at the academy and more particularly at the history profession for its failure. And, yes, it is the profession’s failure, not IA’s. Deeply sorry, secondly, for the loss of a humane and deeply thoughtful voice in our wilderness. And hopeful, even certain, finally, that IA will find a fulfilling future. But, I am angry …

I feel rather distressed myself. IA writes so well, and seems so thoughtful and reasonable and knowledgeable. There ought – she – it – I mean – if they can’t –

Sigh. And it is a loss to blogoville, too. Some of those threads – like the one on whether people should go to graduate school or not (which now has a whole new resonance, doesn’t it) – were really informative as well as interesting. I think it takes a good host like IA for people to want to reveal that much. I don’t think we can count on some instant replacement for that particular blog. So it’s a double loss all around. Damn!

Well, IA, go in peace, and I hope you find some work where they don’t treat you like a dang adjunct. You’re not an adjunct, you’re central. So there.



Undiplomatic Immunity

Mar 20th, 2004 11:26 pm | By

There is a discussion at Twisty Sticks of the subject we were talking about a few days ago (‘Immunity’), and will be talking about in the future – as I said, it’s one I’m curious about and would like to explore. The subject of Why Does Religion Get Special Treatment? Why does it get a blank check, a free pass, a dispensation, diplomatic immunity. Why are there special rules that apply to religion and nothing else, why does religion get to trump other concerns, why does the importance of religion outweigh the importance of other things – of other concerns, commitments, values, desires, goals.

Which raises a related question, one which probably needs answering or at least clarifying in order to think about all this. The question of what religion is. When I ask why the importance of religion outweighs the importance of other things, what do I mean by other things? What are we talking about here? What things, what kinds of things?

I think that’s part of the problem in such discussions, and maybe part of an answer to the why question. Religion is probably the ultimate example of being all things to all people. That’s part of what’s wrong with it, why it’s so irritating (and dangerous and harmful, often), why it’s often so futile and frustrating to argue about it, as Phil Mole notes in an article in ‘Skeptical Inquirer.’ Because it doesn’t have to pin itself down and limit itself, because it’s just anything and nothing. It’s a feeling, it’s morality, it’s meaning, it’s love, it’s Daddy, it’s goodness, it’s purpose, it’s community, it’s someone watching over us, it’s the intelligence of the universe, it’s Mind.

But one of the main things it is is a set of ideas and truth-claims. If it’s not that it’s not really religion, not in the normal meaning of the word (as we’ve discussed here before, at considerable length). It is institutional religion we’re talking about here, because that is the kind that gets this special treatment. It’s the big, powerful, traditional religions about which people say Well maybe we’d better let them ignore laws about humane animal slaughter or else they might burn down Leeds. (Someone did actually talk about cities in Northern England in flames, at Twisty Sticks, so I’m not exaggerating.) So what I’m wondering about is why other sets of ideas that people care a great deal about don’t get this kind of treatment. I only get more curious the more I wonder about it.



Names Again

Mar 18th, 2004 8:53 pm | By

Norm Geras has taken up the discussion of women and names. (And by the way, speaking of Norm, there was a conference to honour his career at Manchester a few days ago. Chris Bertram of Twisty Sticks gave a paper there on Marx and Engels reading Rousseau, Ian Kershaw gave one on the singularity of the Holocaust. I was not there, I was over here, several miles away, turning pale with envy.) You’ll see that he doesn’t entirely agree with JerryS.

..what’s always struck me as the most difficult issue is not – as gets pointed out pretty quickly – that by keeping her own name a woman is still thereby accepting to be known by the name of another man: in this case her father’s. That is unavoidable.

The background to that is that Manchester City beat Manchester United last weekend.

No it’s not, I’m just being silly. As usual. Or rather more than usual. It’s this book, you see. I work on it for awhile and end up feeling light-headed – all that snickering. Anyway, Norm makes a good point about this business of a woman’s keeping her own name after marriage but then giving all the children the father’s name.

But I find the option perplexing. For what it seems to initiate by the woman’s retention of her own name – that is, putting men and women on an equal footing in this domain – it effectively undercuts by the way the child is named.

Just so. I suppose that’s one of the many bits of radicalism that was just allowed to drift away over the years. But many of those bits of radicalism were worth hanging onto and trying to implement, I’ve always thought and still think. And that’s one of them.



Impatience

Mar 17th, 2004 7:07 pm | By

Yes and speaking of writing books (yes we were, yesterday) and Adonis and one thing and another – we are writing a book, as a matter of fact. We’re doing a much-expanded version of the Fashionable Dictionary. It’s going to be very, very, very funny. Eye-closingly funny, lung-emptyingly funny, furniture-breakingly funny. In fact, to tell you the unvarnished truth and not to put too fine a point on it, it already is. I say this with all due modesty and humility, on account of how I don’t have any. Don’t know what the words mean. (Better bung them in the dictionary then.) Anyway I can pretend I’m talking exclusively about my colleague’s work when I boast. But I’m not. His stuff makes me whinny and shriek like a demented horse, yes, but so does some of mine. How I long to show you some of today’s work…but alas, alas, I cannot. You will just have to wait. It won’t be long – the book will be out in the autumn. And then you can whinny and shriek too, and then you’ll rush off to buy armloads of the book to give all your friends, and I’ll be able to postpone the evil day of having to get an actual Job for another month or two, and so will Adonis.

Actually we’re writing two books. We thought one wasn’t enough, that one is kind of a pale, timid, half-hearted thing to do, that the really butch decisive assertive approach would be to write two. So we are. I’m also raising a litter of feral polecats while my colleague is building an SUV from a kit. No, that’s not true, I just felt like saying it. But all the rest of it is true.



Who’s We?

Mar 17th, 2004 6:08 pm | By

Well really. There is a limit. And I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks so. I’m perfectly happy to be peculiar, eccentric, bloody-minded, odd, etc (which is just as well), but there are some ideas and thoughts one wants to see plenty of resistance to. There are a lot of them in this ridiculous comment by Katie Roiphe.

These days, no one is shocked when an independent-minded woman takes her husband’s name, any more than one is shocked when she announces that she is staying at home with her kids.

Oh is that so. No one? Really? How do you know? Have you asked every last one of us? Have you asked the black swan? And anyway, what a silly word to use – ‘shocked’ – how typical that is of this kind of post-feminist bilge. It’s not about being shocked, for heaven’s sake, it’s about equality. ‘Shocked’ is a sly, underhanded way of making prepostfeminists sound like prudish Victorians drawing back their skirts. Of implying that subordination is sexy and sexual (Roiphe ought to read or re-read Mill on that subject) and refusal of subordination is sexless and antisexual.

There’s something romantic and pleasantly old-fashioned about giving up your name, a kind of frisson in seeing yourself represented as Mrs. John Doe in the calligraphy of a wedding invitation on occasion. At the same time it’s reassuring to see your own name in a byline or a contract. Like much of today’s shallow, satisfying, lipstick feminism: One can, in the end, have it both ways.

Ew. Ew, ew, ew, ew, ew. Oh yes that dear old delicious frisson of seeing oneself obliterated and disappeared and nullifed and erased. Of no longer being oneself but being instead Mrs SomeoneElse. Mrs Man. Funny how that’s not a frisson men long for, isn’t it. And funny how people can be stupid enough not to realize (or is it not to care? which is worse?) what these invidious distinctions say about women. Get a clue, Roiphe. If it’s only women who are expected to become Mrs SomeoneElse when they get married and men carry right on being Mr Himself, that is saying something about women. Maybe you should think a little harder about what that something is. (Here’s a hint: it’s that women are inferior and subordinate.) And don’t be in such a damn hurry to assume that you speak for all women, that you know who ‘we’ are and what we think.



Immunity

Mar 15th, 2004 8:09 pm | By

I’ve been re-reading Martha Nussbaum’s brilliant essay and chapter ‘Religion and Women’s Human Rights’ in Sex and Social Justice. In it she discusses the tension between religious liberty and human rights. It’s refreshing, to put it mildly, to read someone who doesn’t pretend there is no such tension. On the contrary; Nussbaum is quite definite about it:

For the world’s major religions, in their actual human form, have not always been outstanding respectors of basic human rights or of the equal dignity and inviolability of persons…these violations do not always receive the intense public concern and condemnation that other systematic atrocities against groups often receive – and there is reason to think that liberal respect for religious difference is involved in this neglect…Liberals who do not hesitate to criticize a secular government that perpetrates atrocity are anxious and reticent when it comes to vindicating claims of justice against major religious leaders and groups.

Nussbaum goes on to detail some of the ways religion does interfere with women’s human rights, and a very thorough job she does of it. And then she raises some searching questions about group rights.

A “group” is, then, not a fused organism but a plurality of individuals, held together in some ways but usually differing in many others. The voices that are heard when “the group” speaks are not magically the voice of a fused organic entity; they are the voices of the most powerful individuals; these are especially likely not to be women. So why should we give a particular group of men license to put women down, just because they have managed to rise to power in some group that would like to put women down, if we have concluded that women should have guarantees of equal protection…?

Why indeed. And why is it that ‘Liberals who do not hesitate to criticize a secular government that perpetrates atrocity are anxious and reticent when it comes to vindicating claims of justice against major religious leaders and groups’? Why do people who don’t otherwise defend atrocity go quiet when the atrocity is religiously based? That’s not a rhetorical question, it’s one I really wonder about. Habit, custom, ingrained inhibitions, reluctance to be rude and hurtful, yes, but why does all that apply to religion and not to other sets of ideas or institutions? What is it about religion and religion alone that makes us feel so squeamish about, say, interfering with its right to oppress and harm and deprive women?

I’m not sure, and I’d like to tease out an answer. But I think the fact that we do feel this hesitation, the fact that we do let religious groups and no others get away with systematic abuse of women (and dalits, and gays, and animals, among others), is one reason I think well-meaning liberals and leftists should stop being so generous with the ‘It’s in that other sphere’ stuff. I think that’s one compelling reason for saying No it’s not, it’s right here in this one, messing with people’s lives, and not being impeded enough. So that’s one reason I’m going to carry on saying that. I might decide to write a book about it, especially if I can persuade my colleague to write it with me.



More on US and Venezuela

Mar 14th, 2004 8:31 pm | By

This story about the US funding opposition to Hugo Chavez is a difficult one to understand clearly. As all stories are, really. Even if one is oneself an investigative reporter and has many reliable sources with masses of evidence – one still doesn’t know what sources one has overlooked, which sources are reliable but partial, reliable but themselves overlooking something – and so on, back and back it goes, into the receding mirror of who really does know. (This of course is the bit of break in the rock where postmodernism gets its toehold: the truth can be very hard to pin down, therefore why not just shrug and say there is no truth and proceed to tell stories instead.) All stories and reports and analyses are like that, but some are even more so.

My colleague points out that it’s odd that there’s not more about it in the UK media, since they’re not usually reluctant to express suspicion of US motives. And he’s right; I haven’t found much. The BBC has a couple of stories, but they’re precisely the kind that are hard to understand clearly. This one is quite non-committal, saying Chavez ‘claims’ the US is funding the opposition, and that the EU has deplored the climate of violence. This one on the other hand reports that Venezuela’s ambassador to the UN has resigned in protest at Chavez’ policies, and talks about tension, violence and division over a referendum to vote Chavez out.

Venezuela is deeply divided over President Chavez, with his supporters regarding him as a champion of the poor and his opponents viewing him as dangerously autocratic.

There you are, of course. One person’s champion of the poor is another person’s dangerous autocratic demagogue. This is certainly not the first time we’ve seen such a scenario – in fact it sounds exactly like Chile in 1973, just for one. So I’ll just offer up a few links, and let you ponder them.

One from the Toronto Star which is pretty much on the champion of the poor side.

Last month, Haiti’s democratically elected government was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by Haiti’s wealthy elite, with apparent support from Washington. That has fueled speculation Washington will encourage a similar coup in Venezuela, where the well-to-do are itching for an opportunity to overthrow Chavez. In fact, they’ve already overthrown him once. In April, 2002, an armed faction led by the head of the local chamber of commerce stormed the presidential palace and took Chavez prisoner…This country of 23 million remains fiercely divided, mostly along class lines. The opposition, led by the wealthy elite, has 3.4 million signatures on a petition to recall Chavez, but a court-appointed commission has questioned 1.5 million of those signatures. The matter is under review, with the support of international agencies. It’s not surprising the well-to-do hate Chavez who, in the past five years, has made an aggressive assault against their long-entrenched privileges. For decades, they effectively ruled Venezuela, maintaining close ties with U.S. corporate interests and siphoning off billions of dollars in revenues from the state-owned oil company to support their lavish lifestyles.

One from the Observer that considers the comparison with Haiti. Letters to the Guardian, one on each side. And the link José gave, to a site which has as he says a pro-Chavez point of view.



Not This Again

Mar 13th, 2004 9:24 pm | By

Well, this is familiar. Familiar and stomach-turning. What was that we were saying about ‘democracy’? Sometimes that seems to translate to democracy Henry Ford style. Any colour so long as it’s black; any candidate so long as it’s one the US approves of.

But critics of the NED say the organisation routinely meddles in other countries’ affairs to support groups that believe in free enterprise, minimal government intervention in the economy and opposition to socialism in any form. In recent years, the NED has channelled funds to the political opponents of the recently ousted Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide at the same time that Washington was blocking loans to his government.

Shades of 1954. I thought we’d learned our lesson, I thought (idiotically, I admit) we’d stopped doing this kind of thing, if only for reasons of sensible caution and prudence. I thought we’d kind of realized it has a tendency to turn around and bite us now and then. I thought, not to put too fine a point on it, that we’d finally realized that such behavior is not the way to win allies and that yes as a matter of fact we do need allies, despite being The World’s Only Superpower. Oh what’s the use. My own fault for thinking anything so silly.



One From Column A and One From Column B

Mar 12th, 2004 7:36 pm | By

This article on democracy and Islamism raises some interesting and vexing questions we’ve talked about before.

Nevertheless, recent books like Noah Feldman’s After Jihad and Graham Fuller’s The Future of Political Islam suggest that the Islamist movement may indeed be compatible with democracy. They find that while there are holdouts like Osama Bin Laden dead set against anything like democracy, there are many, perhaps even a majority of Islamists who favor free elections. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as the Islamists go when it comes to democracy. Free elections are OK, since they see that they would do very well in polling places across the region. However, it’s not at all clear that the Islamists have any interest in the broad array of liberties—like freedom of speech and equal rights—that most people, certainly most citizens of liberal democracies, associate with democracy.

Yes, but that’s just it. At least so it seems to me. Citizens of liberal democracies may (and do) associate a broad array of liberties with democracy, but that’s their mistake, surely. They are not the same thing, and the one does not entail the other. It’s kind of important to keep that in mind! Otherwise one will go around doing ‘regime change’ all over the place and keep being gobsmacked when the newly empowered people elect leaders with no interest whatsoever in any broad array of liberties. How many times do we have to learn this before it sinks in, one wonders.

Does the name ‘Hitler’ ring any bells for instance? Austrian guy, painter, little moustache, kind of a tough nut? He was elected. Various hard men in the Balkans were elected and then evinced a certain lack of respect for broad arrays of liberties. The demographics and history of Rwanda might be enough to give one pause about the inevitability of any link between democracy and liberties, such as the liberty not to be slaughtered by one’s neighbours.

The fact is, this whole mistake looks like one of those confusions of correlation with causation. Those of us who have grown up in the Western democracies are used to seeing various liberties and protection for minority rights along with democracy, so we assume, rather fatuously, that they are inextricably linked. But unfortunately they’re not. They can be made to be inextricably linked, by constitutions, Supreme Courts, Houses of Lords, Senates, various other institutions; but they’re not linked that way of necessity or by nature. The majority is not always right, minorities are not invariably wrong, The People are capable of voting for gross injustices. Life is like that.



Bad News

Mar 10th, 2004 11:29 pm | By

Oh, damn. It’s only recently that I saw a bibliographical reference to Susan Moller Okin’s work (I think in one of Martha Nussbaum’s books, but I’m not sure) and read Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, but I’ve certainly been leaning heavily on it ever since. I just think it’s an excellent book and argument, that points out a lot of things that get too easily overlooked. I haven’t read her other books but have made a mental note to do so. And now – well damn, that’s all. No more books. That’s a real loss.

And judging by this article it’s a global loss, and a loss that goes beyond the library, too. (Not that I think the library is not enough, I don’t, but I certainly admire people who add to libraries and do more besides.) Damn and blast.

Okin argued that if theorists fail to speak about the concerns of women in the domestic sphere, they thereby fail to take into account what it takes to have a public sphere, said Rob Reich, assistant professor of political science. In Justice, Gender and the Family, Okin asked whether the principles of justice should be applied to the family. “Her attitude was that the family could not be exempt from a conception of justice,” Reich said. “After that [book], it was impossible for people to write about political theory regarding the position of women” without taking the domestic sphere into account.

That’s the kind of thing that gets too easily overlooked, for instance in the way people think about multiculturalism and “group rights” – which all too often turn out to be rights to oppress girls and women. Well – hail and farewell.



Plain-talking Boots-wearing Reglar Guy

Mar 9th, 2004 11:56 pm | By

I take the ostrich approach about certain things. Maybe it’s because I’m conserving my irritation-energy in order to use it here – but some sources of irritation I just do my best to ignore. I would ignore people shouting into their cell phones (mobiles) in public if I could, but alas I cannot. I would ignore CNN news on the tv set at the airport if I could, but alas I cannot. I would ignore the nasty music playing in the supermarket and the bookstore if I could, but – you get the idea. But some things I do have control over, some on-off switches I do have access to, and I keep them firmly in the off position. I ignore the presidential campaign (mind you, I always do ignore those), and I ignore tv news and various tv argument shows and shout-fests. But once in awhile I bump into one by accident, on my way somewhere else, and my attention is caught. It was caught a few evenings ago, and I stared in slack-jawed amazement. At? A couple of telegenic guys were mouthing about something on MSNBC, but what I was gaping at was the blurb at the bottom of the screen. It said: ‘Elite media bashes ‘The Passion.’ This was on MSNBC, remember. Oh yes, MSNBC, poor penniless non-elite MSNBC. What on earth does ‘elite’ mean in that illiterate sentence? Something along the lines of ‘Has a different view of things from Normal Amurrikans,’ I suppose.

But of course I shouldn’t be amazed. It’s everywhere, that kind of thing. Which is exactly why I ignore so many pieces of everywhere, so that I don’t have to keep being reminded of that. Of the staggering idiocy of people who swallow that line, and the infuriating perversity of people who peddle it. The line that the elite is no longer the rich and powerful, it’s simply anyone with views however microscopically to the left of whoever happens to be using the epithet. Or, that it’s anyone who’s ever read a book, or who likes reading books, or who likes to think now and then. The line that people like that are bad and evil, and that therefore the way to be a good person is to go to great lengths to seem even more incurious and anti-intellectual than one already is. As in this article about what a ‘regular guy’ George W Bush is.

Until last month, President Bush hadn’t been to a NASCAR race since he was governor of Texas and running for president. On Monday, he goes to a rodeo and livestock exhibition in Houston – again, for the first time since he was governor. Such appearances at sporting events this election year help Bush shore up his standing with his core supporters: white men. They also show him as a plain-talking boots-wearer with Middle America tastes – an image Bush has cultivated for years to counter his background as an Ivy Leaguer from an old, wealthy, New England-based family. That comes in handy particularly this year, as the president will almost certainly face Democratic Sen. John Kerry, a wealthy Northeasterner the Bush campaign aims to paint as out of sync with much of the country. Allan Lichtman, a political scientist at American University in Washington, said the events call attention to Bush as “both the macho guy and the regular guy. Despite all the charges that his administration is a giveaway to the rich, this shows President Bush as in touch with the concerns and the lives of ordinary Americans in all the ways the patrician, distant, former hippie war protester John Kerry isn’t,” Lichtman said.

What? What? It does what? It shows what? In touch? What does that mean? The concerns? The lives? The boots? What in hell is the man talking about? Have we been completely invaded by pod people who have sucked out all our brains and eaten them, leaving small pools of Miracle Whip in their place? Do people really not realize that the ol’ boots-wearer, Mr Plain-talking (that’s one way to describe it), is also a wealthy Northeasterner? Who is in fact himself ‘out of sync with much of the country’? (That usually is the case, actually. That’s why we have more than one party, at least it’s supposed to be.) That however many boots he wears he is still who he is and not some ranch hand? That tastes are one thing, and what he does to us is quite, quite, quite another? Is that really so hard to grasp??

Well, you see why I ignore this kind of thing. My voice rises to a piercing scream in a matter of seconds, my eyes bulge out of my head, and then I start to foam at the mouth. So it won’t do. I’ll let Tom Frank do it instead. He does a very good job.

That’s the mystery of the United States, circa 2004. Thanks to the rightward political shift of the past 30 years, wealth is today concentrated in fewer hands than it has been since the 1920s; workers have less power over the conditions under which they toil than ever before in our lifetimes; and the corporation has become the most powerful actor in our world. Yet that rightward shift-still going strong to this day-sells itself as a war against elites, a righteous uprising of the little guy against an obnoxious upper class.

Frank also goes on to say interesting things about the grain of truth in the Volvo-driving liberal stereotype, and what the left ought to do about it.



Fifty Fifty?

Mar 8th, 2004 7:10 pm | By

One question we keep hearing a lot in relation to this discussion of religion is one along the lines of ‘Why bother?’ Why bother to argue about religion, or to analyze it, or to point out weak arguments some of its defenders use? What is the point? Religion is a need, it’s always been there, it’s probably hard-wired, people aren’t going to give it up, arguments are beside the point, you’re wasting your time. Well, one, I’m not entirely sure that’s true. Not in all places and all times, and if not there and then, then not in general either. That is, I think there may be a confusion between what is hard-wired and what is simply heavily reinforced by the surrounding culture. There have been people, cultures, areas, that were more or less secular, more or less skeptical, more or less unsupernatural. Surely if that has happened in some situations, it can happen in other situations. It may or may not be desirable, but I think whether it’s possible or not is an open question. And two, and more to the point, even if that is true, obviously it’s not universally true. Obviously some people do not feel a profound unappeasable need for a deity. Some people (I’m one) even feel an active repugnance for the idea.

That being the case – surely there must be vast grey areas in between. Between ardent believers who wouldn’t change their minds no matter what anyone said, and determined skeptics who ditto. Surely there are plenty of people who believe, but tentatively; who believe, but are open to argument; who believe, but recognize the difference between belief and certainty. And plenty more people, especially young people, who just don’t know.

It’s not as if people never do change their minds about anything, after all. They do. We do. I do it myself all the time, and I don’t think I’m so peculiar that I’m the only person on the planet who does. Often the mind-changing we do is fairly easy, because it meets no reisistance: it’s not a matter of altering engrained habits of thought or entrenched intellectual commitments, but simply a matter of learning something we didn’t know before, or learning more on a subject about which we knew little. But now and then, if presented with powerful arguments or evidence, or if we are at some kind of mental turning point, we can even change our minds about things that really matter to us.

And it is worth chivvying away at all this, I think, because bad arguments go on being made. It is worth pointing them out, in hopes that their perpetrators will at least manage to come up with better ones. There is for instance this one which a reader sent me a link to. Read that article and then wonder if the ‘scientist’ (why does the article never say what kind of ‘scientist’ the guy is? what is the point of that absurd honorific use of the word ‘scientist’ in such a totemistic way? that’s the kind of thing that puts people off the very word. And what’s with the repetition of the ‘Dr’ bit? What, he has a PhD therefore what he says can’t really be as silly as it sounds? Is that the idea? Well, I hate to tell you, but…) would have started from such a bizarre assumption if he hadn’t been setting out to find what he wanted to find in the first place.

A scientist has calculated that there is a 67% chance that God exists. Dr Stephen Unwin has used a 200-year-old formula to calculate the probability of the existence of an omnipotent being. Bayes’ Theory is usually used to work out the likelihood of events, such as nuclear power failure, by balancing the various factors that could affect a situation. The Manchester University graduate, who now works as a risk assessor in Ohio, said the theory starts from the assumption that God has a 50/50 chance of existing, and then factors in the evidence both for and against the notion of a higher being.

Oh is that the assumption it starts from. Ah. Can we use that for everything? For anything? Shall we all become Bayesians and see how it works? Let’s see. Zeus has a 50/50 chance of existing. So does Tinkerbell. So does Francis the Talking Mule, and Krishna, and Spider Man, and the crew of the Enterprise, and the dramatis personae of ‘The Tempest,’ and the characters in Middlemarch. Everything we can think of has a 50/50 chance of existing, and so does everything we can’t think of. That should cover it.

‘Assumption’ is a very interesting word. It makes a large difference which ones we start from, and why. And it goes on being worth pointing that out, I think.

Update: here is an excellent comment on the book, recommended by José.



What We Don’t See

Mar 4th, 2004 8:08 pm | By

What was that I was saying only a day or two ago about smelly little orthodoxies and the hijab? This article from the BBC certainly gives a good illustration of what I mean. Two mentions of Muslim opposition to the ban, and no mentions at all of Muslim support for the ban. If you don’t already know a little about the subject, and read that article, you’ll be left with the impression that Muslims who have any opinion on the matter are opposed. But that is simply not true. Forty percent of Muslim women support the ban, according to news reports I’ve seen.

Most of France’s political parties, and around 70% of the population, support the ban which some Muslim leaders say risks being perceived as intolerant…Some French MPs, backed by Muslim leaders and rights groups, have warned that the new law could be seen as intolerant and undermine the integration of France’s Muslims. They say young Muslim women are being forced to wear the headscarf, though the few hundred who have turned out for demonstrations against the new law say they wear it of their own free will. Many governments and human rights groups have criticised the bill – including the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the US-based advisory group, the Commission on International Religious Freedom.

That’s it, those are all the places the word ‘Muslim’ is used. It says ‘some’ Muslim leaders in that first sentence, but doesn’t bother to point out that other ‘Muslim leaders’ are not merely indifferent or neutral or not bothering to say anything, but are in fact in favour of the ban. Sly, subtle, sneaky, and not a very forthright form of reporting, I would say. Though it may not be deliberate. The malodorous orthodoxy may be so well internalized that the reporter wasn’t even aware of giving a partial (incomplete) account. It may be so taken for granted that all Muslims love the hijab, and that a school dress code is an interference with religious freedom, that the fact that some Muslims don’t see it that way simply fails to register. As does the fact that many of the people who favour the hijab and oppose the ban are not just nice pious people but extremely reactionary, are well to the right of your Jerry Fallwell and your Pat Robertson, are in fact the kind of people who beat up and rape women for not ‘covering up.’ That’s how smelly little orthodoxies work, isn’t it, they just get dug in until people stop noticing them and stop being able even to see alternatives. A good reason to point them out then.



A Basin of Nice, Thin Gruel

Mar 3rd, 2004 11:55 pm | By

I want to talk just a little more about this question of morality and motivation. The more I think about it the more of a wall it seems. A dead stop, an aporia, a permanent undecideable. A six of one half dozen of the other. Norm Geras put it very well:

I have read that in the Nazi camps, those who did best at maintaining their moral bearings, at not going to pieces in face of the horrors they daily had to experience, were people of very firm and definite convictions: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish rabbis, hardened communist militants. On the other hand, intellectuals, liberal and professional people, sometimes suffered a precipitous moral collapse…To have had to get used to conditions of life and death in places where there was no why would have been hard enough for anybody; but it may have been especially testing and cruel for those educated in the norms of a sceptical rationality. Would we want to say, though, that the religious or quasi-religious forms of certainty which have helped to save some people in such conditions are, on that account, to be given an unqualified pass as ethical motivators, when we know what else, what horrors, such certainties can themselves lead to?

That’s just it, you see. It’s precisely the qualities that enable people to maintain their moral bearings in an unspeakable situation, that also enable people to eliminate doubt, ambiguity, complexity, uncertainty, caution. That can be a good thing, even a splendid thing – but it can also be a bloody nightmare. Maybe overall, thin gruel is really a safer dish than stronger meats. Maybe all those lions with blood dripping from their jaws, all those dedicated impassioned righteous soldiers (one thinks of Opus Dei, and shudders slightly), are simply too dangerous, for all their courage and self-sacrifice. Especially since the things they believe in, the things that motivate them, are not testable or investigatable, not questionable or revisable. If they get it all wrong there is no one to tell them so; no one they’ll listen to anyway. Thin gruel is not an exciting dish, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t scald your insides, either.



Motivation

Mar 2nd, 2004 7:34 pm | By

I now think I inadvertently conceded a little too much in that last post. Through not paying quite enough attention to the first part of Chris’ comment – the ‘at its best, religion succeeds in a symbolic articulation of universal moral concern’ part. My attention was grabbed by the parenthesis, by ‘motivation,’ because motivation is exactly what I had it in mind to talk about. I do think religion can be a powerful motivator, for both good and ill. But that symbolic articulation I take to be a separate question, and that one I’m much more doubtful about. I for one simply don’t find its articulations all that impressive, or at least no more so (at best) than secular articulations. There’s a bit of Isaiah I love with a passion – the one about the lion and the kid lying down together – but it expresses a thought that a secularist could (and does) easily have just as well. It’s probably a thought that humans have had as long as they’ve been human.

To put it another way – I’m not sure it really is the ‘symbolic articulation’ that does the motivating. That’s why I take the two to be separate. I think the motivation actually comes from somewhere else. From the tangle of idealization, fantasy, imagination and so on that makes up the deity. That’s pretty much the point of a deity, after all. To provide a focus for all those longings and imaginings, to make up for all the terrible lacks of human beings, to be anything and everything we want, desire, need, long for. We need it and miss it and want it; we imagine and conjure it up; we love it. Of course we love it – what’s not to love? What are we going to imagine, a crappy tiresome inadequate deity that’s just as imperfect and frustrating as real people are? As boring, or bad-tempered, or lazy, or more interested in self than in us, as real people are? What would we do that for? What would be the point of that? No, our deity is like all the nicest things in the people we like and entirely without all the nasty bits. That’s the motivator, surely. (That doesn’t describe the all-too-human Greek deities, or the god of wrath, to be sure, but the effect is the same. Either extreme love or extreme fear: both gut-level motivators.)

Religious morality is not particularly original, and a lot of it is disgusting. Even Jesus, that we’re encouraged to think is all about love thine enemy and turn the other cheek and little else, is made to say some appalling things by the writers of the gospels, especially John. It always horrifies me to read of, say, Muslim feminists explaining that the Koran does not in fact require female genital mutilation or the hijab or whatever other piece of female subordination is being discussed. Good, glad to hear it, but what if it did? Would you then bow your head and submit? Or would you find a better way to decide your morality.

Either the morality is good, in which case the deity is surplus to requirements, or it isn’t, in which case the deity is one we should reject. But…the point about thin gruel remains. It’s hard to think of a substitute for religion as a motivator. Literature, as with Arnold and Leavis? Rock concerts? Football? Sometimes political movements can do it. The Civil Rights movement in the US was like that, and the struggle against apartheid. Which prompts baffled thoughts about the fact that we get inspired to be our best, dedicated, self-sacrificing selves when there is a glaring injustice to be corrected…So does that mean it’s good that there should be glaring injustices? Hardly. And yet the inspiration is precisely bound up with the injustice. This is a familiar thought, but one that doesn’t get discussed much. But it’s well-known that veterans of the Civil Rights movement, like veterans of the Spanish Civil War, are nostalgic for the Cause and the ‘beloved community.’ We’re all like Don Quixote, wishing we had something noble to work for. Making a little more money isn’t quite it.

Norm Geras has a very interesting post that’s also on this overall subject. And I have a good deal to add. It’s like a hydra, all this. Every N&C suggests three or four more. Get comfortable; we may be here for awhile.