Notes and Comment Blog


Simple Gifts

Apr 22nd, 2003 9:52 pm | By

I linked to this essay about George Bush in the Atlantic Monthly a few days ago. I was and still am particularly interested in the depiction of Bush’s narrowness that Richard Brookhiser gives.

“Practically,” Brookhiser writes, “Bush’s faith means that he does not tolerate, or even recognize, ambiguity: there is an all-knowing God who decrees certain behaviors, and leaders must obey.” While this clear-cut belief structure enables him to make split-second decisions and take action with principled confidence, it also means that he is limited by “strictly defined mental horizons.”…”Bush may be a free-range animal, but he has a habitat, in which he stays. If he needs to know some facts that his advisers don’t know, he can discover them. But if he needs to think some thoughts that they can’t, he may have a hard time doing it.”

But Brookhiser claims that Bush is a ‘reasonably intelligent man’ despite all this. But is that right? Surely someone who cannot even recognize ambiguity, who stays permanently in a mental habitat, who has a hard time thinking unfamiliar thoughts…Surely that is a pretty good working definition of stupidity? Because it’s wrong, it’s obtuse, it’s unobservant and myopic and unhelpful, to oversimplify things. Isn’t it? Doesn’t that stance indicate a fundamental and damaging mismatch between a person’s ideas about the world and how the world in fact is? How can someone who doesn’t notice something so blindingly obvious – that the world is a complicated, multifarious, difficult, patchwork place, not a simple single easy one – be considered ‘reasonably intelligent’? The world is not a simple, easily grasped, easily managed place, is it. It’s vast, complicated, confusing, contradictory, unpredictable, dangerous. Simple solutions obstinately adhered to no matter what happens or what new research shows or what new evidence reveals is not only a mistake, something that gets a tick in the margin, it’s likely to be the wrong bad harmful destructive thing to do. Which is not to say that leaders should go on pondering forever and never do anything, it’s simply to say they should have the kinds of minds that are aware of a range of possibilities from the beginning.



Iraqi History and Archaeology

Apr 19th, 2003 7:48 pm | By

The story of the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and other museums in Iraq is an interesting and deeply discouraging one. A giant hole has been blasted in the world’s stock of available knowledge that will never be completely repaired. Even if all the missing artworks do eventually turn up on the black market (a highly unlikely if), that still leaves all the books and manuscripts that went up in flames at the National Library, and all the artworks that are not missing but smashed. Whatever the neglect or indifference of the Pentagon in not protecting the sites, the damage is done now, and people who think history and knowledge are good things are in shock.

Slate has a thorough story here. The Guardian has one on the warning the Pentagon had here. The New York Times reports some further details here. The Wall Street Journal gives its own peculiar view of things here and here. There are useful pages here, here, and here.

The Washington Post reports the Pentagon was warned of the risks to Iraq’s archeological heritage and the National Museum in particular here. The San Francisco Chronicle reports here that the Pentagon did warn the military to spare archaeological sites where possible. The Washington Post reports here that there were not enough troops to do the job.



Idealism

Apr 19th, 2003 6:00 pm | By

Ian Buruma says in this article in Prospect that the source of the bitterness between France and the US is that they are the two great missionary-revolutionary countries, the two great believers in universals, only they have different ‘universals’ (quite a paradoxical outcome). Both are idealist nations, both are the proud inheritors of institutions and values born in violent revolution, but the ideals and institutions and values are not the same ones. So we come to Liberty fries and Liberty toast and a deluge of Francophobe jokes on the Internet.

But it’s possible that Buruma overestimates US idealism at times.

Unless one believes, like Noam Chomsky, that the war was fought for the sake of corporate interests, that too was at least partly the result of American idealism. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson thought they were protecting Asian dominoes from falling to communist tyranny.

Well, that’s debatable. It’s debatable whether they really thought that at all, and how large a part the thought played in our ending up there, and how idealistic the thought was even if they really did think it. How much room did ideas about protection from tyranny have among other ideas about great power rivalry and ‘credibility’, along with thought-free zones of inadvertence and ratcheting effects (send just a few thousand troops to help the South Vietnamese, then send a few thousand more to help the first ones, then…)? And above all how much breathing room did they have among thoughts about domestic politics and the next election? There is a sobering conversation between Johnson and McGeorge Bundy in the summer of 1964, in Michael Beschloss’ book and tape Taking Charge, recordings and transcripts of Johnson’s phone conversations. Johnson expresses deep misgivings about sending young men, sons of people he knows, off to war, but then says he can’t possibly give the Republicans a chance to call him weak, and possibly lose the election.

And then there is the vexed question of how genuinely ‘idealistic’ the anti-communist stance really was. It can’t have been a purely idealistic opposition to totalitarianism or dictatorial rule, can it? Because if it had been, we wouldn’t have supported so many ferociously anti-communist but also just plain ferocious dictators, would we. Surely the anti-communism-trumps-everything policy had some roots whose idealism was at least debatable, such as hatred of atheism and secularism, and even more, hatred of economic egalitarianism. Communism was always hated and feared because it was a threat to profit and property rights and rich people. Some choose to see that as idealistic, but the matter is at least debatable. Ronald Reagan liked to get starry-eyed over the US as a place where someone can always get enormously rich. Other people are not so moved by a place that rejoices in by far the largest wealth and income gap in the industrialised world. Economic egalitarianism may be wrong-headed, foolish, an economic poison-pill, but I still find it hard to see devotion to markets and profits and vast inequality as idealistic.



Democracy or Freedom?

Apr 18th, 2003 7:00 pm | By

Sometimes it can seem as if Americans have a special gift for naïveté – something to do with living in a huge country bordered by oceans, thus distant from the rest of the world, and also to do with our dreams of exceptionalism and being the City on a Hill, and maybe also to do with vague notions that people who live right in the place where Levis and Hollywood movies and Big Macs actually come from have no need to do a lot of heavy lifting-type thought, that that kind of thing is for those poor deprived people in other countries who have to import their Jurassic Park and Kentucky Fried Chicken from us. Whatever the reason, we’re not awfully good at noticing the blindingly obvious.

One bit of common knowledge that always seems to come as a big shock, not to say an appalling violation of taboo, is the notion that democracy could be good and valuable in many ways, could be the best available possibility, and still have some aspects that are troublesome, still not be compatible with all other possible goods. Americans ought to know this if anyone does, given our history, the longevity of our democracy, our oddly mixed role as beacon and bad example, and a little book some French (Liberty?) guy wrote by the name of Democracy in America that took a good hard look at the subject. That little book inspired another, equally influential little book by John Stuart Mill, called On Liberty. And yet it still comes as a great surprise when anyone tells us that there could be tensions between democracy and other goods, particulary if the other good is our beloved freedom.

Fareed Zakaria is the latest to point this out in his new book The Future of Freedom, which is reviewed by Niall Ferguson in the New York Times. Zakaria was interviewed on Fresh Air a few days ago. I was particularly interested in what he said about his dismay at seeing India turn farther and farther away from its proud founding heritage of secularism over the last twenty five years. That’s another thing Americans don’t like to notice: that religion can be highly coercive. Democratic, yes indeed, but not necessarily anything to do with freedom.



Abstract, Imaginative Thinking

Apr 10th, 2003 7:24 pm | By

It is not very astonishing, but it is nonetheless highly unfortunate, that science is under attack, given an incurious, narrow, semi-educated, fundamentalist god-botherer in the White House. Some of the battlegrounds in that attack are discussed in this article in The Guardian, which points out the rhetorical skill with which the anti-science moves are dressed up in ‘scientific’ clothes.

…these aren’t the old wars of science versus religion. The new assaults on the conventional wisdom frame themselves, without exception, as scientific theories, no less deserving of a hearing than any other. Proponents of ID – using a strategy previously unheard of among anti-Darwinists – grant almost all the premises of evolution (the idea that species develop; that the world wasn’t necessarily created in seven days) in order to better attack it.

Intelligent Design, which soberly discusses cells and eyes and complexity in order to argue that there must have been a Designer (without, of course, answering the obvious next question, So who designed the Designer then?). An apparently scientific but evidence-free claim that viruses are small enough to get through condoms, in order to divert funding away from condoms and toward abstinence. Keen admiration for research, the more the better, in fact an indefinite amount is not too much when it comes to global warming, let’s keep doing research for years and years before we take any action. On the other hand when it comes to cloning, then we listen to the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics Leon Kass, who believes and says that we should go with our intuitive disgust-reactions in these matters.

Cloning proponents like Howard Garrison, director of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, say that when they sit down with sceptics they go a long way in convincing them. But the president “listens selectively”, says a source close to one of the national academies, the learned societies which represent the elite scientists in the US. In the White House, an embryo is an embryo and must be protected at all costs.

Well, the president would listen selectively, wouldn’t he. That’s the kind of guy he is. The historian Richard Brookhiser, a conservative, says as much in the Atlantic.

Bush’s worldview is extremely rigid, circumscribed by the good-versus-evil religious convictions to which he has adhered since his recovery from alcoholism seventeen years ago…While this clear-cut belief structure enables him to make split-second decisions and take action with principled confidence, it also means that he is limited by “strictly defined mental horizons.” Abstract, imaginative thinking, Brookhiser emphasizes, is not the President’s strong suit. And though Bush does take care to draw upon the counsel of intelligent, informed advisors, each with a different point of view, those varying viewpoints tend to fall only within a range of perspectives that reflect his pre-existing inclinations.

And that range of pre-existing inclinations probably does not include a lot of that ‘abstract, imaginative thinking’ which is not Bush’s strong suit, but which is science’s. Unfortunate.



Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings

Apr 7th, 2003 6:25 pm | By

This is an interesting but irritating essay in the Guardian. It takes a look at the question of what books ‘everyone’ should have read by age eighteen or twenty, and also at the teaching and study of English literature at the secondary school level. It contains some peculiar albeit doubtless popular ideas about what literature is, what kind of people like it and why, what it tells us and does for us.

English is perceived as a “girly subject” and it struck me that the essence of the subject lies in being honest about your feelings – your personal response to texts. As Kate in the upper sixth says, it is about “empathy”…For me, this explained a great deal about why English was so much more popular among girls. Boys on the whole don’t want to articulate their feelings or be forced into the dangerous situation of having to confront texts and respond personally to them. The rules of physics are so much safer.

Excuse me, but that’s crap. For one thing, literature is very far from being exclusively about ’empathy’. Is ‘Paradise Lost’ about ’empathy’? Is ‘Don Juan’? ‘Gulliver’s Travels’? ‘The Frogs’? ‘Emma’? ‘Lucky Jim’? Literature is more than just the novel, and even novels are not always about empathy. Satire, epic poetry, Aristophanic comedy, much lyric poetry, and many other genres have little or nothing to do with empathy. And then for the other thing, ‘feelings’ [pardon me while I gag] are not the only possible ‘response’ to texts. Dang, you know what? It’s also possible to have thoughts about texts! Imagine that! One can just sit right there in English class, even one composed entirely of girls, and think about what one has read rather than just emoting over it. And as a matter of fact one will probably get a great deal more out of what one has read if one does think as well as feel. The best literature is not just some emotional waterfall, it is deliberately crafted, using that highly cerebral medium, language. Language requires thought, and thought is often the better for language. Boys are perfectly at liberty to think about literature without having to articulate their wretched tedious feeeeeelings. Can’t we ever get out of this dratted Barry Manilow song?

But at least the teacher agrees with me about good old Stephen King.

This was the class that had just so thoughtfully dissected the war poem, and which had soundly argued opinions on the English syllabus – too much of the canonical and academic, not enough contemporary material, why not some Stephen King (no thanks, says the teacher).

Two elitists in the world, then.



Hutton and Kagan

Apr 4th, 2003 5:41 pm | By

I usually whinge a lot about the mediocrity and tameness and blandness of the US public television network, but it does have one excellent show (no, two, Nova is a frequently-good science show): Frontline. It outdid itself last night with its account of Tony Blair’s struggle to keep George Bush and his neoconservative advisers from attacking Iraq without UN sanction. And today it offers an array of fascinating interviews, debates, email arguments on its website.

This one for instance between Will Hutton and Robert Kagan, in which Hutton reminds Kagan that the US is an Enlightenment product too, not a strange Martian novelty.

For what needs to be said as loudly and clearly as possible is that the U.S.A. is a quintessential expression of the European Enlightenment — hardly surprising in that the country for the first three centuries of its life was peopled largely by European immigrants. Yours is a republic of laws. The majority of Americans are as law-abiding, peaceable, and as horrified by violence as any European.

Speaking as a Yank, it’s a relief to be reminded of that. Sometimes I think I’m living on a strange new planet invented by mutants from Texas and various Texases of the mind, with ideas like these:

American neoconservatism is a very idiosyncratic creed. Its pitiless view of human nature, its refusal to countenance a social contract, its belief in the raw exercise of power — “full spectrum dominance” — its attachment to Christian fundamentalism, its attitudes towards abortion and capital punishment, and its deification of liberty of the individual are a mishmash of ideas that have no parallel anywhere.

But then Kagan reminds us of the depressing realities.

Polls conducted by Gallup and other polling organizations since the war began all show more than 70 percent of Americans favoring the military action in Iraq. These percentages have not budged, moreover, even though the perception of the war’s progress has moved from optimism in the early days to pessimism in the past week.

Yes, so we keep hearing. I have a hard time believing it though, Gallup notwithstanding. The most conservative, tax-phobic, Clinton-hating, Bush-voting Republican I know is passionately against the war, and I must say, if she is, then anyone might be. I keep saying ‘70%? But there are all those anti-war signs everywhere!’ And then remembering, Oh but this is Seattle. But then I hear from a rock-ribbed Republican, and I have to wonder.



Two of Them

Apr 2nd, 2003 9:08 pm | By

So there (see below) are two of my operating assumptions. That many words important for our understanding and conversation are not transparent, not self-evident – indeed are worse than that, are apparently self-evident and straightforward but in fact not. Thus we have a false sense of security when we use them, we take them for granted and at face value, and assume that everyone understands them exactly as we do. But such is not the case. My second operating assumption is that this matters, it’s a problem, it causes problems, and should never be lost sight of.

Elitism is one of those words. I have a running argument with a friend, who is forever telling me that I’m an elitist and he’s not. But he’s quite, quite wrong. He’s thoroughly confused, and as far as I can tell his confusion stems from my failure to admire the writing of Stephen King. But I take that to be a very odd definition of elitism.

This musing is relevant to Butterflies and Wheels because conflicting ideas about elitism are central to a lot of Fashionable Nonsense. There are people for instance who like to accuse scientists, all scientists, scientists by definition, of elitism, and they like to do it in pointlessly clotted arcane jargon that seems to serve no other purpose than exclusion of outsiders. Who exactly is the elitist? It all depends how you define the word…



Operating Assumptions

Apr 2nd, 2003 6:53 pm | By

We all have our operating assumptions, and it can be interesting and even useful sometimes to figure out what our own and other people’s are. One of my own that I often notice is not universal, is that Things Could Be Better. That improvement is needed, that there are errors and misunderstandings that need pointing out and fixing. Of course, in one sense, that’s too obvious to need stating, and everyone knows it: no one is fool enough to think everything everywhere is perfect at all times. But some people do seem to have a default assumption that the world is all right and
straightforward and self-evident and easily managed, that problems and confusions and mistakes are the exception not the rule. One could call it optimism, which is (for some reason) widely considered a good thing, but I must say it seems to me more like obtuseness and willful refusal to notice and pay attention.

For instance yesterday in a conversation about the war an acquaintance of mine announced confidently: ‘Intelligent people can see through propaganda.’ Even apart from the obvious question, is that really true, is it really that easy simply to ‘see through’ and be uninfluenced by propaganda? there is the more fundamental question, what is propaganda? How do we distinguish it from non-propaganda? From persuasion, advertising, public relations, editorials, journalism, political speech, rhetoric, reportage? Surely it’s obvious if one thinks about it for two seconds that my propaganda may be their patriotic address, and our rallying the troops is almost certainly their flaming propaganda. Propaganda is not (obviously – surely?) a self-evident category, or even one with some good clear-edged specifications we can all agree on like those that differentiate species or elements, it is in fact far less of a useful descriptive than it is a boo-word. (Well, so is Fashionable Nonsense! I hear you exclaim. Yes, we know!)

So that’s one of my operating assumptions: that our language and conversation and writing are full of these fuzzy, ill-defined, debatable, often emotive words and phrases, that their meaning is far from self-evident, that the different meanings they convey to different people is often not peripheral but at the very center of whatever is being debated, and that it’s lazy and obtuse and willfully unobservant to take words like ‘propaganda’ as straightforward and self-evident to all.



Some More

Apr 1st, 2003 12:11 am | By

In ‘The New Yorker’ Seymour Hersh tells of the disagreements between the military and the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. There is some of this in every war, and a lot of it is just each side protecting itself or as we put it in the vernacular, covering its ass. But it may be worse than usual this time. Or it may not.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of last week was the failure of the Shiite factions in southern Iraq to support the American and British invasion. Various branches of the Al Dawa faction, which operate underground, have been carrying out acts of terrorism against the Iraqi regime since the nineteen-eighties. But Al Dawa has also been hostile to American interests. Some in American intelligence have implicated the group in the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which cost the lives of two hundred and forty-one marines. Nevertheless, in the months before the war the Bush Administration courted Al Dawa by including it among the opposition groups that would control postwar Iraq.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, the saying goes. At least, until a little more time passes and the enemy of my enemy becomes my worst enemy of all, as with those dear darling beloved pious freedom-loving god-fearing mujahaddin in Afghanistan a few years ago. ‘Courting’ Al Dawa sounds like a similar sort of arrangement. And it hasn’t worked after all. Maybe if the US had done a better job of hanging on to its friends it wouldn’t need to be ‘courting’ terrorist religious fanatics.

The Independent takes a look at Rumsfeld and the unfortunate arrogance of the US tone.

Mr Rumsfeld is not, therefore, the sole architect of America’s counter-productive posture of arrogance in this war. But his tenure at the Department of Defence does not help. He was openly contemptuous of the United Nations and has always asserted that the US can go it alone – without the British, at one recent stage.

Arrogance and contempt towards the UN, France, old Europe, and even the UK, and sucking up to terrorist groups. Possibly a somewhat flawed approach.



Some Opinions

Mar 30th, 2003 10:15 pm | By

The war is in its 11th day, and it’s clear that the cheery expectation of a Blitzkrieg was ill-founded. Apparently shock and awe have succeeded only in turning Saddam Hussein from a hated tyrant to an admired resister of the invaders, a result fraught with horrible implications for the future, including the future of Tony Blair. It is a profoundly dispiriting thought that this war could well end up entrenching the ignorant callous provincial talentless Bush more firmly in power than ever while it undoes the vastly more worthwhile Blair. Jonathan Freedland comments here on Blair’s backbreaking efforts with the UN and Bush’s smug indifference to the whole matter. There is something intensely degrading about watching a person of Bush’s calibre lording it over someone of Blair’s. (That’s why I don’t watch it.)

Abdel Bari Atwan here describes the reversal of fortune Saddam Hussein’s reputation has undergone at the hands of the US president.

President George Bush has at least one achievement to his credit in his war against Saddam Hussein. He has transformed Saddam into a heroic champion in the eyes of many in the region and might elevate his status into that of a mythological figure if he succeeds in killing or capturing more British and American soldiers and in turning Baghdad into an Arab and Islamic Stalingrad…The allies committed a dangerous mistake when they relied on information supplied by the Iraqi opposition regarding the state of affairs within Iraq. They made an even bigger mistake when they spoke of installing a US military governor over Iraq, as this will serve only to stir up patriotic feelings among Iraqis and encourage them to bury their differences with Saddam and unite forces to repel an American occupation.

Depressing enough. After that perhaps a touch of wit would be refreshing, so try Alexei Sayle’s piece on Bush. There is plenty of sober truth along with the wit though. I was particularly struck by the observation that Bush is a ‘dry drunk,’ because a friend of mine has been fulminating about that (along with the more usual complaints) since long before the election. She is a judge who has decided a great many domestic abuse cases, so she knows what she’s talking about. Sayle tells us the dry drunk is one who has forcibly wrenched himself off alcohol without dealing with whatever caused the alcoholism to begin with, so is forever in pursuit of other outside fixes, such as shopping, religiosity, or military adventures.

If we look at the nation that President Bush leads, it also behaves in many ways like an addict. The United States is a gigantic John Candy of a country, straining its oversized elasticated pants from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The country is addicted to more or less everything, constantly craving greater and greater quantities of petrol, electricity, pointless sports, empty patriotism, fatty hormone-crammed meat, gigantic pedestrian-crushing four-wheel drive trucks, ever more baseball caps with nonsense written on them and unquestioning obedience from every nation on the planet.

And finally there is this one about the bottomless horribleness of US hard right politics and the tragedy of Blair’s alliance with it. I know the idea is that Blair has restrained Bush and made him that little bit less dangerous than he would have been otherwise. But surely he has also provided him with a tiny veneer of respectability that he wouldn’t have had otherwise, has enabled him to look that little bit less unilateral than he in fact is. Maybe it will prove to be for the good in the end, but I must say, I’m not very optimistic.



What Does Porn Do?

Mar 30th, 2003 6:24 pm | By

Well, here’s an intriguing little item by way of a break from war news. The abundance and popularity of porn on the Internet, and what that may do to men’s attitudes to women, and how strangely little attention the subject gets.

For a political perspective you would have to search to the very margins of feminist debate. It is as if an entire generation of research into the emotional effects of porn has simply been forgotten, leaving us with porn galore and not the faintest idea what it does.

The most sinister aspect of the whole subject is how inextricably confused lust seems to be with hostility, at least in this kind of pornography. (And is there any other kind?) Judging from the description (I have to be honest: I’ve never looked at this kind of, er, material) it’s not even slightly erotic, it’s more like assault. Slut this and slut that. It appears to be all about treating women as toilets (very literally) and hating and mocking them at the same time. It’s hard to see how that can help poisoning men’s attitudes to women…and the stuff is ubiquitous. Not a happy thought.

But the emotional consequences of casual porn use, or the effects of its cultural ubiquity, are completely ignored. Whether porn might be harmful to a non-addict is never even examined…Here is some evidence. Experiments were carried out on ‘normal’ men, not addicts, for research by Edward Donnerstein, a prominent academic and author. ‘On the first day,’ he reported, ‘when they see women being raped and aggressed against, it bothers them. By day five it does not bother them at all. In fact, they enjoy it.’…Even porn which wasn’t violent made the men twice as likely to say they felt aggressive towards women. This is not to say that porn turns men into rapists; it doesn’t need to, for it trespasses on the mind more subtly. The evidence proves that porn invites its audience to view women differently – as inferiors, as objects, only good for sex. This is the problem with pornography; it alters the way men look at women…and it even alters the way women look at themselves.

And this isn’t even Fashionable Nonsense. In fact if the author is correct it’s only ‘the very margins of feminist debate,’ which can be fertile territory for FN, that notice at all. That’s one of the worst aspects of FN: the way it can discredit useful, necessary, original lines of thought and inquiry. I used to like those margins of feminist debate, until they got cluttered up with touchy-feely irrationalists and earth mothers and science-haters.



Maybe a Lottery Would be Better?

Mar 23rd, 2003 10:08 pm | By

Richard Dawkins likes to outrage people. He’s not the only person in the world who likes to do that, in fact it’s just barely possible that there are one or two people connected with Butterflies and Wheels who don’t mind irritating. However that may be, Dawkins has done it again.

Evil is not an entity, not a spirit, not a force to be opposed and subdued. Evil is a miscellaneous collection of nasty things that nasty people do. There are nasty people in every country, stupid people, insane people, people who should never be allowed to get anywhere near power. Just killing nasty people doesn’t help: they will be replaced. We must try to tailor our institutions, our constitutions, our electoral systems, so as to minimise the chance that such people will rise to the top…And we democracies might look to our own vaunted institutions. Are they well designed to ensure that we don’t make disastrous mistakes when we choose our own leaders? Isn’t it, indeed, just such a mistake that has led us to this terrible pass?

Leaving aside what he says about the war in Iraq (because my colleague doesn’t agree with him on this point, while I think a thousand and one contradictory things), I do think he’s absolutely right about the US method of electing a president. We do keep electing shockingly embarrassingly unqualified people. I’ve often thought we ought to think about the UK system, where the parties choose the candidates and the voters choose between them. Here we choose the candidates ourselves and boy do we do a crap job of it. But then again maybe it wouldn’t help. Over there it seems to be accepted that a candidate with brains and skill and competence will be more electable than a bumbling inarticulate folksy mediocrity with ‘family values’, but here that is not the case. In the last election I heard with my own ears people rejoice at the fact that George Bush II was an ordinary guy just like the rest of us. Not, as Richard Dawkins points out, the way a CEO is chosen, so why this job? Who knows.

It’s not new though. We started off this way. There was much irrelevant nonsense in the very first election, Jefferson being slagged off as a Frenchified intellectual who had children by a slave concubine (which turned out to be true, confoundingly enough). Richard Hofstadter tells of the anti-intellectualism of the Jackson-Adams elections. We elected one military ‘hero’ after another, most of them with no civilian talent at all.

And yet this, as our folksy head of state keeps reminding the world, is the world’s only superpower. So the single most powerful human on the planet is chosen by a process that mingles elements of a high school popularity contest, an ad campaign for the newest most macho SUV, and good old-fashioned backroom bribery. It is a bit of a mismatch.



Solidarity and Group Think

Mar 21st, 2003 10:51 pm | By

This review by Alan Wolfe is an odd mix of insight and blindness, shrewdness and obtuseness.

Wolfe makes some good points about the inherent difficulties of trying to make a progressive politics out of consumer movements, and about the value of thinking big when writing about history.

For the past two or three decades, historians have been studiously thinking small…As important as social history has been, however, it has also been mind-numbingly narrow in its evocation of detail and in its reluctance to consider the larger meanings of its findings. But Cohen thinks big…One hopes that her book will stimulate her colleagues to take similar risks, even the risk of emulating historians of previous generations whose efforts at intellectual synthesis and grand narrative are treated now with contempt by postmodern pygmies.

But there is also a passage where Wolfe draws a bizarre moral from the segmentation of U.S. consumer markets in the post World War II period.

In theory, consumption, whether we like it or not, ought to unify us, because we all become consumers of roughly similar goods. In reality, marketing specialists discovered in the postwar years that the best way to sell goods is to segment the audience that is buying them…Once again, consumption determined politics. We shopped alone before we bowled alone. Segmented into our zip codes, is it any wonder that our politics became so contentious and our unity around a common conception of the good so impossible?

What can he mean? U.S. politics didn’t ‘become’ contentious after WWII, they always have been. The Depression, WWI, strikes and riots, Wobblies and miners and anarchists, the 1890s, the 1850s, not to mention a contentious little item known as the Civil War. And then again what can he mean in any case? What would a non-contentious politics look like? An ant farm? Clone Nation? There is much to be said for communitarianism, solidarity, and such, but it has to be said with caution. How exactly does one distinguish between solidarity and group think, conformity, organization people in grey flannel suits, outer-directed suburban robots, the pressure of majority opinion that so worried de Tocqueville and Mill? The answer is not self-evident, and not easy.

And then there is the last paragraph, the grotesque last three sentences.

It was not just perversity that led Ralph Nader, a hero of Lizabeth Cohen’s youth, to work so hard on behalf of the Republican Party. He must have realized on some level–and if he did not, then consumers certainly did–that if small cars are unsafe at any speed, one ought to buy SUVs instead. And for that ignoble end, conservative Republicans are the ones to have in office.

That is such an odd thing to say that it actually fooled me, I thought for a minute that Nader had in literal fact been a Republican in some earlier phase. But no, it was merely yet another assertion that It Is Forbidden to vote for a new party, a principle that would have left Lincoln with little outlet for his talents. And what a ridiculous non-argument he presents for it! The SUV! Which took over the universe precisely in the years Clinton and Gore were in office. What did they ever do to push Detroit to engineer better gas mileage, or to change the law so that SUVs would have to meet the same standards that non-bloated cars do? Nothing! Not one thing! They went on bleating about the sacred freedoms of the consumer, that’s what they did, but we should have voted for Gore anyway, because…the SUV situation under Bush is just exactly as bad as it would be under Gore. Huh?



Teach me how to think, please!

Mar 19th, 2003 5:58 pm | By

I have found something useful for philosophers to do!

Surprising news indeed, but take a look at this paragraph from Helen Salmon, student representative for the Stop the War Coalition.

This is not a war for the liberation of the people of Iraq. The US and Britain were happy to back Saddam’s tyrannical regime, his gassing of the Kurds and his war against Iran until he invaded Kuwait. Nor is this a war against weapons of mass destruction. No evidence of such weapons has been found in Iraq, and no war has been threatened against North Korea, despite its possession of nuclear weapons.

Never in the field of writing about human confict, have so many bad argumentative moves been made in so short a paragraph. Let’s count!

1. The fact that the US and Britain were willing to back Saddam has no necessary bearing on whether their combined action in Iraq is a war for the liberation of the people of Iraq (they may simply have realised the error of their ways, for example).

2. War against weapons of mass destruction. Oh dear. The problem here is that Ms Salmon’s logic compels her to the conclusion that whether there is such a thing depends on how good people are at hiding these weapons. Bad regimes, good at hiding – no war against weapons of mass destruction. Bad regimes, bad at hiding – the war’s on!

3. Terrible logic in the next bit about North Korea. Indeed, it’s Stangroomesque in its awfulness! No more to be said, really.*

So philosophers, the challenge for you, should you choose to accept it, is to teach this person to think. Scary, eh?!

*Yes, I know – that’s no kind of argument!



Philosophers – Shut Up Now!

Mar 17th, 2003 7:37 pm | By

What is it about philosophers that they can’t resist pontificating about things they know nothing about? The examples are legion. Mary Midgley and David Stove wittering on about Darwinism and selfish genes. Simon Blackburn and Mary Warnock making a mess even of amateur political commentary. And Roger Scruton demonstrating that there’s no start to what he knows about popular music.

And the latest example? Have a look at this from an article in Issue 22 of The Philosophers’ Magazine (a title which sounds vaguely familiar):

Subjects like sociology, psychology, religious studies and history, which adjoin philosophy, all require empirical support, which is interpreted within the lines of a largely unquestioned methodology. Philosophy is the only subject in which the basic assumptions of these other subjects could conceivably be questioned, so if you don’t fall into line with the assumptions predominant in these other subjects it’s no good running to them for refuge. You’ll probably find minds even more closed there than they are in philosophy itself.

So who wrote this? Maybe a (bad) GCSE student. Nope. Robert Ellis, a philosophy PhD.

Needless to say, it is absolute, utter tosh. Sociology, for example, is rife with theoretical and methodological debate. Even at high school level, students are required to understand that there are huge differences, for example, between the way in which positivists and phenomenologists do their sociology. Method is an explicit part of the A-Level examination. Texbooks have been put together and organised around arguments about what constitutes sociology proper.

And, of course, it’s the same in the other subjects (at least the ones that I know something about.) So, for example, the history of psychology is at least in part dominated by an argument about the appropriateness of behaviourism as a strategy for finding out about behaviour and the mind.

So here’s my Message to Philosophers: Shut up!* You’re making fools of yourselves.

* You are permitted to talk quietly, amongst yourselves – though preferably not in public – about your own subject.



Yum, Gefilte Fish

Mar 16th, 2003 7:56 pm | By

Well, this is a fun item for the eve of war. Even, or do I mean especially, if it’s not really true that many Jews worldwide are hailing this nonsense as a modern miracle. Perhaps that’s just a bit of casual journalistic exaggeration, hmm? After all there are only two witnesses, and the fish is no longer talking, to say the least. Surely the smallness, the minusculity, of the number of witnesses ought to give the most credulous believer pause. Two. I ask you. At that rate couldn’t any one of us get any other one of us to join in a fun-loving prank and tell the world any old thing? ‘My garden gnome suddenly recited page 7 of the Nebraska State Highway Code in Finnish, a language I don’t speak.’ ‘My electric kettle sang the Hallelujah chorus as it came to a boil this morning.’ ‘My scone has the face of the Blessed Virgin on it.’ Oh wait, that last one really happened.

Not to mention the interesting and poignant detail that the two witnesses’ reaction to the miracle was to kill the fish. Well there you go. Jahweh incarnates himself as a giant carp in order to shout warnings at a pair of fish-cutters (what better audience after all? Not a couple of journalists or pundits or heads of state, oh no, that would make too much sense for our whimsical deity) and what does he get? Whacked on the head, cut up, and turned into gefilte fish. That’ll teach him. Smarty-boots. ‘If you want to send a message, call Western Union,’ as my high school English teacher used to snarl when we searched for the ‘meaning’ of Wuthering Heights.

Still, the shouting carp corresponds with the belief of some Hasidic sects that righteous people can be reincarnated as fish.

Can be? Can be? What, because this is a reward? ‘Hey, you’ve been so righteous and good and all-around what is needed that you have the option of going back as a fish. Top that! Am I generous or what?’

Oh well, never mind, I never have understood these things, obviously I’m far too shallow and boring and scientistic. I gotta go, the kettle’s boiling.



Fun at Skool

Mar 15th, 2003 8:23 pm | By

John Sutherland has redeemed himself. I took issue with him a few weeks ago when he wrote a column recommending the UK imitate the US in using athletic scholarships to increase minority access to higher education. I think there are some serious drawbacks to that way of doing things, so I said as much. But I think he’s right on the money here. I’ve nattered about this issue of students as consumers several times on B & W. I’m glad to know other people are noticing. One would think it would be self-evident that 18-22 year olds might possibly want qualities in their teachers other than scholarship or the ability to inspire, and that hence their evaluations would be of limited utility, for the same sort of reason that one doesn’t ask a five-year-old to plan the dinner menu.

It is instructive to note what students rate highly and what royally pisses them off. They like younger professors, generally…Above all, the younger instructors do not “condescend”. Students dislike boring instructors; they avoid waffling instructors who don’t know their stuff; but they loathe, with homicidal intensity, instructors who talk down to them…On the whole, professors know more than a first year undergraduate. How can wisdom and learning “not” condescend when confronted with vacant ignorance? Should you flatter a know-nothing student…?

Exactly so. That is, one would think, what the whole enterprise is about. But of course the idea that a teacher might know more than a student is an awfully ‘elitist’, hierarchical, hegemonic, kind of like colonialist idea, so we’d probably better get rid of it.

The UCLA system demonstrably encourages crowd-pleasing. I have trawled through a few hundred of the review pages and the one criticism which is never made is: “This professor is just an entertainer – there is no substance in his/her class”. Students will happily put up with bad teaching if it is “fun” bad teaching. “Amuse me!”, orders Demos…

Neil Postman wrote an interesting book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. I think he was on to something.



How to Make Bloody-Minded Women

Mar 12th, 2003 7:42 pm | By

The last women’s college in Oxford has just voted to remain a single-sex college. I’m always interested in these campaigns to keep women’s schools single sex, and the idea (which I tend to believe) that single sex education is good for girls and bad for boys. I went to a single sex school myself, one that combined with a boy’s school the year after I graduated. I regretted it at the time but later decided I’d been lucky. If nothing else, I derived the benefit (at least I think I did) that it never crossed my mind for an instant that women were supposed to shut up and let men do the talking. So when I went to a double-sex university I talked and argued with the best of them, if not more. Maybe I would have anyway, not being a notably compliant person; but I wonder.

It is a difficult question. The whole issue of whether women do better when they’ve had a chance to build up some blithe, unaware confidence in a boy-free zone, or whether that notion merely perpetuates the idea that women are so fragile and malleable and pathetic that they have to live in a bubble to survive at all. Val McDermid chooses the first option in this article by a graduate of St. Hilda’s from last year:

I think the single-sex environment allowed women to flourish in a way that is much harder for them in a male-dominated college. It meant that, when we emerged into the world of work, we had a bedrock of self-confidence that made it far easier for us to compete on the unequal terms we found there.

Former student Katherine Wheatley is definite: ‘Women benefit from a single-sex education, whereas men benefit from a mixed one,’ she says, and that this ‘is borne out by the results at GCSE and A-levels year on year.’ I think it’s probably true, I’m glad St. Hilda’s stayed single-sex, and yet, and yet…I also wish women didn’t need special enclaves in order to flourish. But then I wish a lot of things, as we all do. If wishes were horses.



I Win I Win

Mar 8th, 2003 8:37 pm | By

Sometimes I find myself in an odd sort of competition with friends from other countries, specifically the UK: we argue over which of us lives in the more anti-intellectual culture. I say I do, they say they do, and so we improve the shining hour.

But I have a nice little piece of evidence here. Specifically this remark:

One reason people trained as philosophers press so hard for academic jobs is that the United States offers few other opportunities to use their training. Television here, unlike its counterparts in Europe and Asia, almost completely ignores university and intellectual life. So do radio and print journalism, devoting far more airtime and space to sports.

I rest my case. Who can deny it? Is there any equivalent of, say, Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ in the US? There is not. Are you kidding? A show on a mainstream (not even the more avowedly ‘highbrow’ Radio 3) radio station where five people talk about serious books and ideas, about books that all five of them have actually read, for a whole hour? I don’t think so! Do we see a lot of people starting their own philosophy magazines in the US and actually making a go of it? Not that I’m aware of!

No, I think I get to declare myself the winner in that particular game.