Unsolicited Advice

Pssst! Hey Mr Trump! Remember how, after 2000, that wily Hillary Clinton (call her “Slick Hilly,” there’s a good one) tried to show what a good sport she was and how she was capable of getting along with Republicans in the House and Senate, even the very ones who had made her life miserable with the impeachment and all that? There must be thousands of pictures and film clips of her shaking hands– indeed, sharing a friendly hug– with Republicans of all stripes.

Now’s your chance to dive into that trove and get back at those disgusting, disloyal Republicans who have failed to support your candidacy. Cram the airwaves with attack ads capitalizing on that association! Wallpaper the inside of the heads of your constituency with images of garden-variety Republicans embracing The She-Demon! After all, attack is what you’re good at; you’re not so interested in the nation-building stuff. And hatred of Hillary is the only thing uniting your various minions. Only you have the deep pockets and the ruthlessness required to obliterate the Republican Party as we’ve known it. Go for it, dude. You can probably take it off your taxes, if that’s a concern.


No Such Thing as Offshore

A recent interview with Nancy Fraser points up the “crisis of care” in societies like our own.

It’s assumed that there will always be sufficient energies to sustain the social connections on which economic production, and society more generally, depend. This is very similar to the way that nature is treated in capitalist societies, as an infinite reservoir from which we can take as much as we want and into which we can dump any amount of waste. In fact, neither nature nor social reproductive capacities are infinite; both of them can be stretched to the breaking point. Many people already appreciate this in the case of nature, and we are starting to understand it as well in the case of “care.”

The controversial bit is where Fraser says,

But there’s still a deep and disturbing question about what role feminism has played in all of this. Feminists rejected the ideal of the family wage as an institutionalization of female dependency—and rightly so. But we did so at just the moment when the relocation of manufacturing kicked the bucket out from under the idea economically. In another world, feminism and shifts in industry might not have reinforced one another, but in this world they did.

What I would like to worry is the proximity of “relocation” and “in another world.” Of course by “another world” Fraser means “in another possible world,” calling on a Leibnizian or Wheelerian imaginary of differently branching causal series, but there’s an overtone in “relocation” that suggests where the space of the “we” lies.

Given the acuteness of this crisis of social reproduction, it would be utopian, in the bad sense, for the left not to be focusing on this. The idea that we could somehow bring back manufacturing, that’s what’s utopian—again, in the bad sense. Unlike the idea that you could build a society that assumes every adult is a person with primary care responsibilities, community engagements, and social commitments.

Bring it “back”? Shorthand for “bring it back from China and other low-wage places.” It would be good to investigate what kinds of “crises of care” people are undergoing in the places where manufacturing has certainly not taken a vacation–and where it is often women who are doing the manufacturing, not for a very heavy wage. Fraser isn’t negligent: her answers in the interview often come back to the plight of people in the countries where financial capital is not domesticated. But perhaps as an effect of this being an election year, when our minds are concentrated on the issues that keep being mentioned, often to the accompaniment of a wagging finger, I think Fraser’s good universalism could be spread a little more thickly.


Can You Follow The Numbers for me please?

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda gave a talk the other day at Yale. I’m far from discounting the good that Kagame has been able to do in heading up a government with a low corruption index and efficient ministries, with visible effects in raising the level of access to health care, in fostering an economy that feeds and houses Rwandans, in standing athwart any attempts to reawaken the genocidal rages of 1993-4– and yes, I know that this was accomplished by ensuring ‘political stability,’ to use a technical term for a monopoly on power. I don’t much like this form of stability, accompanied as it is by repression (in whatever degree– a lesser degree in Rwanda’s case than in most of its neighbors’). But if the alternative is civil war upon civil war, then let’s not condemn Kagame’s government too harshly for doing what they thought was necessary. Obviously in an ideal world, multi-party democracy would flourish and no one would be put at any kind of risk for articulating an opinion or running for office.

I’m not writing to excuse Kagame (though the protestors who turned up at his talk might think so), however. I’m writing to suggest that we examine critically one of the claims he made, which may have struck you as self-serving. President Kagame held that his government’s human rights record is really no one else’s business, and that HR organizations are swimming in the wake of old-fashioned colonialism.

When it comes to Africa especially there is a great deal of continuity with certain negative assumptions widely shared across governments, media, and academia, not only in this country but more generally. … I can hardly blame you, students and others, for being sometimes confused as to what is true about Rwanda or Africa. The manner in which you receive information, and have it validated, is designed to sow confusion and not build understanding…. There is a culture of making up one’s mind about Africa by borrowing assumptions, prejudices, and judgements, from trusted intermediaries, who, by the way, tend to look the same, as you may have noticed.

“The same”– i.e., white, I suppose.

For centuries, the West has preferred to relate to Africa and similar places from a position of moral superiority. There is a word for this, which I won’t use, to avoid unnecessary distraction. But let’s agree that it reveals a stunning failure of moral imagination and human empathy, apparently so profoundly embedded that it requires no further justification, even as it implicitly guides both foreign policy and higher education.

The word must have been “colonialism”– as you see, I said it already. Now the argument that only Africans are reliable sources of information, or have a right to an opinion on Africa, isn’t a good one, and if applied more broadly would be fatal to any international cooperation. It sounds self-serving. And hearers sensitive to possibilities may worry that this betokens a readiness to continue running Rwanda without the inconveniences of democracy, à la Mugabe. This is certainly worth worrying about in any situation where someone has power and might not relinquish it.

But the argument that those who are interested in human rights in Africa are leading some kind of expeditionary corps of journalists and activists, hoping to dominate and control Africa, might be tested empirically, rather than just thrown out as an emotional ploy. Someone with access to databases of charitable and political giving could, I think, easily answer the following question:

— What percentage of those who contribute to international human-rights organizations (e.g., Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch) also contribute to free-speech or human-rights organizations in their home country (e.g., for US citizens, the ACLU, NESRI, the Innocence Project, the Heartland Foundation, and so on)? What’s the dollar ratio between international and domestic giving?

If it turns out the donors are primarily interested in human-rights activism abroad, that shows us that HR organizations need to think about their priorities. If it turns out that the donors are trying to repair injustices both at home and abroad, then I say hooray for them and let’s have more of this. Because, unfortunately, a national border doesn’t keep abuse out and justice in.



Yes, my fellow Americans, it’s time to mount a vast public campaign to raise awareness of the illegitimacy of tattoo-removal services. Didn’t you know that a tattoo is supposed to be permanent? If people can just go and get their tattoos removed, what is the meaning of having a tattoo in the first place? An insincere, non-binding tattoo must be the most abject thing on earth. No wonder public morals have declined! And those poorly sourced Chinese characters you’ve repented of, those political slogans that you’ve realized were spelled incorrectly, those cartoon characters and commercial brands you’ve grown out of– well, if life has given you bad tattoos, turn them into lemonade! There must be consequences; the individual’s history must be legible and indelible. Five years’ imprisonment for the person seeking to have their tattoos removed; life behind bars for any individual procuring, facilitating, or offering to perform tattoo removal. For tats are, by definition, forever.

Get this on the ballot in referendum-friendly states, bribe a few congresspeople, go on the talk shows frothing at the mouth, and while the frenzy is at its peak, slip in a repeal of Citizens United and a real single-payer health system. Thanks.


App Locally

There’s been some grumbling on the web about neighborhood information services such as NextDoor — the gravamen is that such services are inherently racist, or foster racism.

There’s a solution. Move to a different neighborhood. I live on the South Side of Chicago and while I wouldn’t call the NextDoor service here spellbinding, you don’t see messages from people freaking out because they saw a black person drive by. The astonishing reason behind this is that 80 percent of the people in the neighborhood are themselves black. Instead, you have requests for information about house painters and dog walkers, announcements of festivals, complaints about noise, calls to pester the alderman about this or that traffic issue. Normal people dealing with normal stuff. Some lifestyle scuffles, but Pantone numbers don’t enter into it.

It’s not the apps that “have a racism problem.” It’s the composition of the neighborhoods. Do something about that before you blame the software designers. Or have the apps become the reality itself?



Further to the Man who Forgot Words

At the aquarium the other day, a perfectly warm-and-fuzzy slide show meant to raise the public’s ecological awareness was prefaced with the title screen:


Now of course I know what they wanted to do: harness two slogans that people normally respond to in push-button, sleepwalking fashion, “one world” evoking those feelings of kinship with animals and nature, “making a difference” prompting us to get out our checkbooks and do something for the human-created organizations that are supposed to protect bits of nature. But having spent months reading the wrong kind of books, I couldn’t help thinking that if you are all about “One World,” “making a difference” must be the beginning of the downhill trend. If Laozi had been on that advertising account team, “One World: Stop Making Those Differences” or “Unmake a Difference” might have been the more consistent message (but then, who would have written checks?).


The Better Angels

On Sunday, September 11, 2016, it will be the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Sad to say, the terrorists did win. Not only did they demolish a piece of historic New York real estate, and kill three thousand people, but they also paved the way for America increasingly to resemble the autocratic Wahabiite kingdom from which they came. We saw it in the PATRIOT Act, and all the succeeding reauthorizations and expansions, which made it licit for not only the Three Letter Agencies, but local police, to delve into your past and present communications and interactions. We saw it in the retargeting of the Two Minute Hate away from the dimly remembered Communists and towards Muslims. We saw two unjustifiable and costly wars, and some less-documented quasi-wars, none of which made us in any way safer, and served primarily as a vehicle for turning our soldiers into mental patients. Our conduct of the first Gulf War led to the birth of ISIS, as all of Saddam’s generals and bureaucrats, barred by Rumsfeld from participation in the occupation government, needed jobs, and ISIS provided them. Our nominal “victory” — the assassination of Saddam Hussein captured live on video so that Obama and Clinton could view it in the Situation Room like tonight’s Netflix movie — led to no pause in our drone-enhanced military endeavors. And finally, let us not forget extraordinary renditions, “black sites,” intentionally inflicted US torture, at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib — hooded figures, stress positions, sexual humiliation, waterboarding — that told the world that, yes, the Geneva Conventions were so much meaningless paper. So the terrorists did win. Their acts corrupted our essential nature, but we did have a choice, in the middle of our patriotism and jingoism, to preserve it. Some told us to do just that, and we rejected them, calling them unpatriotic and sympathetic to the enemy.

Now, fifteen years and $4 trillion later, are we doing any better? What have we gained? What are we celebrating? Our 33,000 military deaths, the 1 million Iraqis and Afghans killed as “collateral damage,” some new, symbolic real estate?

Despite the Kissinger-like Machtpolitik which will probably be emanating from Washington only a couple of months from now. I would say that we should bring the troops home. Spend a couple of trillion dollars on them for their mental health. Leave Afghanistan for the Taliban; we tried bribing the Afghans into democracy, and it was like feeding $100 bills into a shredder. Leave the Syrians, the YPG, ISIS, and the Taliban to work things out; they could hardly be worse than they are today. If Russia gets a toehold in the Middle East, just remember that we have had our toehold for over six decades, in Saudi Arabia and Israel, and think of where that has gotten us.

This Sunday, exceptional America will be celebrated with processions of men in uniform, candlelight vigils, and NYFD T-shirts. We are mourning the loss of our buildings and our people. We cannot see that we have lost what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” and we do not know where they have flown.


An Unhelpful Thought

Zhuangzi– the great Zhuangzi, who seems to go everywhere with me these days– is credited with a nugget of wisdom that in virtually all translations reads similarly. 荃者所以在魚,得魚而忘荃;蹄者所以在兔,得兔而忘蹄;言者所以在意,得意而忘言。吾安得忘言之人而與之言哉?

I take Burton Watson’s translation as the baseline for English versions: ‘The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?”

Fair enough. No need to paraphrase. Zhang Longxi pointed out that “a man who has forgotten words” wouldn’t be much use as a conversation-partner, so we should probably read that clause as meaning “a man who will forget words” (and, by implication, capture my meaning). Also good.

But one problem remains, and that’s the parodic quality of Zhuangzi. He constantly picks up some pearl of wisdom, fits it into a slingshot, and uses it to shatter another vessel of wisdom that had been gathering dust on the shelf. Were it not for the lack of corroborating texts, I would be tempted to think that the first three segments, about fish, rabbits, meanings and their respective traps, were quoted from some source that took them straight as a proof of the priority of meaning over words; and that then Zhuangzi (whoever that might be) took things to their logical endpoint by saying, “Well, if you think that, then you’d probably advise me to find somebody who has forgotten words and have a word with him, right?” In other words, the problem Zhang Longxi fixed might not be the problem that needs fixing; Zhuangzi might have been laughing at the solemn ends-and-means calculus of conventional attitudes about language. The first three segments would be as it were in quotation marks, and the absurd conclusion would be where our author wants to go. Zhuangzi fans, your reaction? Or have you all obediently forgotten words? (Must go check on those fish-traps.)


The Allergens Among Us

It appears that the people least likely to develop life-threatening allergies are those who live on farms. Why is that? Farms are full of biota– from the charismatic megafauna Bossie and Fido to the worms in the apples and the fungus in the hay and the bacteria that break down the compost. Not to mention the boll weevils, locusts, ticks and other assorted annoyances. Living in such a place for a few years is great for training the immune system. You develop lots of antibodies and — I would assume — the hormonal equivalent of reflexes that deal quickly with new menaces. Resilience, let’s call it.

A college is (or should be) like a farm. You will run into many taxa there that you didn’t know existed. You will encounter people who think and say that [INSERT NAME OF GROUP THAT YOU BELONG TO] should be expunged from the face of the earth. You will hear that people who [INSERT NAME OF BEHAVIOR THAT YOU SOMETIMES PERFORM] should pay the presumed cost of their activities, even [INSERT NAME OF UNDESIRED OUTCOME, WHETHER DEATH, DISEASE, OR RESIDENCE IN CONCENTRATION CAMP]. You will hear people say that it’s all your fault that [INSERT DESCRIPTION OF THINGS BEING SCREWED UP]. People will try to intimidate you, to make you feel powerless, guilty, and/or small.

And because in college the ground rule is that we use reason, not force, to talk our way through things (this rule may not hold in Texas), you will develop a set of responses to these non-fatal threats. You will reexamine your previous beliefs and discover that when you defend them in public, you need a better reason than the fact that your mother, your priest, your TV role model, or your favorite teacher in high school held those opinions. You may discover that your previous identity-group, rather than being the plucky, heroic and endangered minority you always thought they were, are in many people’s eyes a danger to the public, or just a bunch of silly cranks. You may eventually go back to that group, but it will be on a different basis, because you have been exposed to the outside air. Or you may find a different group for yourself, with whatever degree of continuity with your prior self that you find plausible. If your college did the job it’s supposed to do, you will have developed intellectual resilience, something analogical to the immunity-building powers of life on the farm.

The analogical counterpart to antibiotic soap, to the removal of all threats to identity and belief, is what certain nice people who are basically on the same side as me in substantive matters call “safe spaces.” Patrick Henry College is a safe space for young Republicans. Oral Roberts University is a safe space for young evangelicals. Parents choose and pay for such safe spaces. But those safe spaces are not giving people the experience that I associate with college. They should be given a different name– “incubators” perhaps.

My classroom is a place where people can say stupid things and receive a (somewhat) respectful hearing and response. If you say an intelligent thing, you’ll have to back it up with facts and inference, because we’re not going to learn anything from it if you arrived at that smart remark by chance– we want to be able to reproduce it under other conditions. It is a fact of our life in literature that we must spend a lot of time on texts in which people behave badly– enacting mass murder, rape, cannibalism, incest, etc, and worse yet, uttering justifications for them all. Because I hate to cause pain, even indirectly, I will alert the sensitive to such content, but I can’t guarantee that every potentially troubling detail will be flagged in advance. Sugar-coating the barbarity of human history, or sweeping it under the rug, will only leave you with missing teeth and a lumpy carpet.



A friend from Beijing brought me a bottle of rice wine with a pagoda on the label: 塔牌紹興酒, or “Pagoda Brand Shaoxing Wine.” It reminded me of an earlier incarnation of that apparently famous brand, made in Taiwan: different bottle shape, different label, almost the same name, but complemented with an English transliteration: TART-PIE. There’s a whole theory of language in that designation.

The word for “pagoda” or “tower” is, in fact, borrowed in Chinese as a transliteration of “tart”: you can buy shuiguo ta, or fruit “pagodas,” in Taiwan. Before anyone gets excited, let me point out that they’re one-storey affairs. Knowledgeable consumers are aware that the “ta” is there as a transliteration, not as a unit of meaning. “Pie” is sometimes represented as pai (meaning “send,” fourth tone, 派). But every unit of sound, every syllable, in Chinese writing carries some kind of meaning. The translator of the Taiwanese rice wine label must have assumed that English works in the same way. If you wanted to translate the Pagoda Brand name, then, you would have to find words in English that had meanings and were phonetically similar, thus Tart-Pie. The absence of any relation between the wine and tarts and pies initiates the English reader into the way Chinese pastry buyers deal with “sendings” and “pagodas”: they just step over the misunderstanding and enjoy a fully semantic though partly nonsensical universe.



the First Seven Jobs meme

  1. Lutenist of fleas, Wallace Stevens Industries
  2. Apprentice dragon butcher, Nanhua Zhengjing Supply Co.
  3. Supreme Court justice
  4. Secretary-General,  NATO
  5. Golf
  6. Drink
  7. Television

Again, Never Again

So, about thirty-five years ago, my mother’s parents were alive and well, and in the summer, went to bungalow colonies in the Catskills. These were the abode of elderly people of modest means; the younger people went to the big hotels for nightlife. There was no development, no noise — just Jews in the country. As it happened, at one of these bungalow colonies, I noticed that most of my grandparents’ social interactions were with these strange, quiet people with numbers on their arms. They dressed modestly, but they didn’t cover the numbers up. And at some point, as a kid, I had to yell out the question, “Hey, Dad, why do Grandpa’s friends have numbers on their arms?” The resulting discussion was very brief; it had little to do with history, and dealt more with my asking the wrong question at the top of my lungs. But I was told that these were survivors of the Holocaust, and that they should be treated very kindly and gently. I think they adopted my grandfather because he had been very visibly maimed by the Cossacks in the run-up to the Russian Revolution, and they loved my grandmother, because she was so kind and was a wonderful cook; many of them ate very simply.

From these survivors, I learned a few things.

  1. Life could change very quickly.
  2. Hitler explicitly wrote and said what he was going to do, years in advance.
  3. People could not believe that Hitler could come to power in a democratic election
  4. The rich people sat the election out on the theory that they would make deals with Hitler once he gained power.
  5. Once Hitler gained power, he did everything he said he was going to do, and more.
  6. The day that they lost their citizenship and human rights dawned like any other.
  7. Everyone tried to save themselves, but most died trying — or of depression, or of disease, or of starvation, or of bullets, or of gas.
  8. They survived for a reason — to tell young people like me that it should never happen again.
  9. Always support the State of Israel, because it will be your home when America spits you out, as it will in time.

I believed them, little Zionist that I was. Now, of course, things look different. Israel is not a place for Jews like me. So, what’s left is America. And who appears when I check off the first few boxes on the above checklist? You know, exactly.

So, for me, this election is not about good or bad policies, ways of governing, styles of leadership. This is about life and death. And it’s about those elderly people, thirty-five years ago, who had a message to convey to me as a little boy. Never again.


The Vienna Circle’s Tangent


On the main marble staircase of the University of Vienna, brass letters set into the floor mark the event. “On 22 June 1936 Moritz Schlick, a leading member of the Vienna Circle, was murdered on this spot. An intellectual climate poisoned by racism and intolerance contributed to the act.”

I had always assumed that Schlick’s assassin was inspired by race hatred. It turns out, though, that the only Jewish thing about Schlick was the philosophical case he made for Einstein’s relativity theory (a piece of “non-Aryan science” according to the Nazi thought leaders). His murderer, a former grad student with a grudge who blamed Schlick for his own failures in love and career, had been stalking him for years. Stalkers will stalk, malingerers will malinger. But it was 1936 in Vienna. The murderer made no attempt to run away. Once arrested, he had his fan club. He claimed to have done the deed to purify the nation of a quasi-Judaic philosophical “decadent.” And with the benefit of a pliant jury and a bit of an insanity defense, he was out of jail within two years.

Schlick’s murder set other members of the Vienna Circle on their path out of Austria. Carnap came to Chicago, and another story began.

A climate of hatred and violence: it not only precipitates murder, but retrospectively justifies it. The university is right to call this to the attention of everyone going up and down the stair.


Ebola and Ethics

Ebola and ethics? Sure. Don’t listen to anyone who thinks that an emergency calls for desperate measures including the suspension of that pesky distinction between right and wrong. In fact the existence of an emergency calls for us to be especially attentive to all that ethics stuff, not to treat it as annoying paperwork that you sign your way through on the way to doing something ruthless and necessary. See the Letters column of the British Medical Journal if you don’t believe me.



“An Armed Society is a Polite Society”?

Really? People go around saying it. But, please, ma’am or sir as the case may be, I beg to differ, if you don’t mind. Seek the proof in the pudding. We have got ourselves the most heavily armed society on earth, and I don’t see us being any less rude, overbearing, hot-headed, irrational, stubborn, nasty or mean than any of the neighbors– indeed, our behavior speaks louder than the words of a hack sci-fi writer, sometimes abusively attributed to Jefferson. Pretty soon the only form of politeness we’ll know is the twenty-one-gun salute.