07/31/14

Low-Information. High-Indignation.

One of my relatives is a reliable supplier of Tea Party propaganda. It’s useful to know what people think the hot issues of the day are, and how we as a nation should be responding to them. This morning I received the following item from my relative, forwarded from Soldier of Fortune magazine:

oil

 

So it appears that some self-styled conservatives don’t know the first thing about how free markets work– and they are supposed to be the ones pushing the idea of free markets.

Continue reading

07/26/14

The Communicative Action of Trolls

Habermas’s theory of communicative action rests on the idea that social order ultimately depends on the capacity of actors to recognize the intersubjective validity of the different claims on which social cooperation depends. In conceiving cooperation in relation to validity claims, Habermas highlights its rational and cognitive character: to recognize the validity of such claims is to presume that good reasons could be given to justify them in the face of criticism.

Thus spake the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Those of us who have been participating since, say, 1993 in humanity’s biggest communicative enterprise so far will recognize the problem: that there are plenty of actors who are not at all interested in “intersubjective validity” or “social cooperation,” but hijack the rituals of conversation. Trolls, griefers, astroturfers, bots of various make… One’s impulse is to treat such people as flies in the ointment, parasites, bugs, noise– exceptions that crop up alongside a better rule. But proper confrontation with any paradoxical consequence, not sweeping under the rug, is what is needed, if we are ever going to work out this rationality thing. What if we were all secretly trolls? How would that affect communicative behavior going forward?

07/23/14

Fish, Bicycles, etc.

Le Monde, nearing its 70th anniversary, has been running a series of “remember when” articles. Today’s is about the first time a woman was named to head up one of its daily sections. The section was Culture, the year was 1971, and the nominee was Yvonne Baby.

“How will she manage to show up for work at 7 in the morning, when we do the layout?”

“I was wondering how you’d handle the evenings out, theater showings, art galleries, cinema, and all that with your two boys at home.”

“Journalism is a hellhole of a profession… How old are you? Fine: at that age, you’re not going to have any more children.”

(Spoken to a journalist wearing a granny dress) “So you’re pregnant?”

C’est à vous rendre féministe! But at least they have the excuse that the date was 1971.

 

07/18/14

Mugged

Irving Kristol famously said that a conservative is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” But when you look at the record of some of the people who proudly wear that slogan on their sleeve (e.g., Melanie Phillips, who doesn’t believe in vaccination or the dangers of climate change but thinks that Blair’s advocacy of war in Iraq “showed a very high level of courage and statesmanship“) it appears they were mugged by an alternate reality.

(Thanks, I guess, to Ellen for reminding me of this Murdoch scribbler.)

07/3/14

Automatic Paper Generator (China Studies Version)

Insert your favorite X:

“ABSTRACT. This paper discusses the topics, goals, values and methods of Chinese X. It holds that the goal of the research in Chinese X is to reveal its structures, content, rules, and essential character, as well as to reveal both similarities and differences between Chinese and foreign X. The value of the research is to carry forward and develop the outstanding heritage of Chinese X. Its method is to annotate original works of Chinese ancient X with the tools of modern X in order to reveal both the particular nature and the universal qualities of Chinese X. The method also explores the differences and similarities between Chinese and foreign X. In recent years, research in Chinese X has developed considerably; it has also logged many important achievements. Future research will build on the merits of different kinds of X, promote Chinese X, and increase communication between Chinese X and foreign X.”

That ought to do it.

Reference: Sun Zhongyuan, “Meta-Research in Chinese Logic,” Frontiers of Philosophy in China 2 (2007), 50-69.

06/28/14

Do You Remember Where You Were When You Learned Archduke Franz Ferdinand Had Been Shot?

I have a copy of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. That’s not so special; lots of people do. Most everyone does, in a certain sense, now that it’s available in digital form (though done with bad OCR). The limp leather volumes from Cambridge University Press are nice, as is the thick volume of Index, and the type is crisp on the thin bible paper. This was the last Britannica to be written, article by article, by specialists and not by committees. But what I particularly prize is the Supplemental Volumes from 1921. Three thick volumes inventorying all the great things that had come about in the world between 1911 and 1920. Aerial Warfare. Chemical Warfare. Somme, Battle of the. Tanks. Verdun. And so on. Hard to believe in progress after you’ve flipped through those three volumes. Welcome to the twentieth century.

Born 46 years after the shot was fired in Sarajevo, I learned about it fifty-odd years after the event, I guess. The channel that opened my historical awareness was the song “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” released in 1966. The imaginative beagle took to the skies in his Sopwith Camel (I didn’t know what one was, but the name stuck) to duel with Baron von Richthofen’s red Fokker triplane. A red triplane, now there was a striking and improbable flying machine! I remember getting my father to buy me a plastic model kit of the Red Baron’s Fokker and taking out books from the library about the aces of the air. This was definitely a more heroic, aristocratic and archaic vision of the conflict than I would have had if Charles Schultz had decided to make Snoopy fantasize about long watches in the trenches, or machine-gun nests along the Chemin des Dames. It was a short step from there to the opening scenes of La Grande Illusion; pity I had to wait until college to see that.

sjff_03_img1093

In between, of course, Hemingway. It strikes me as strange that for a kid growing up in the 1960s, the First World War had more imaginative presence than the more recent Second. As for the war itself, it had a more comprehensively structured and tragic story going for it. A tiny act of terrorism perpetrated in a sub-prefectural town that merits two paragraphs (but an independent entry! spelt Serajevo) in the 1991 EB; an ethnic grievance far from the concerns of the major Powers; saber-rattling and appeals to honor; a pretext for self-reinforcing volleys of escalation and refusal to negotiate; deluded calculations (“we’ll be home by Christmas”); all the technology that could be thrown at a problem that was not in essence technical; unimaginable wastage resulting only in the end of the kind of world that had led to the initial revolver shot. The story matched the handbook definitions of tragedy in that the very thing that had kept the peace and been the basis of European political order for the preceding hundred years, the balance of powers and system of interlocking alliances, was exactly what brought it all down.  I suppose Gavrilo Princip got what he wanted, the dismantling of the eastern provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but at what a cost.

10457925_10154304910510300_5967034154031584600_n

(Thanks to Jason Escalante for this last photo.)

 

06/27/14

The Second Amendment Is Just a Piece of Paper

One of my Tea Party-leaning relatives (yes, like all of you, I have them) sent me an image from some gun owners’ association. It shows a curly-haired young woman leaning against a wall with an assault rifle slung over her shoulder. In large type alongside her: “Because a Restraining Order is just a piece of paper.” With the www address of the National Gun Rights Association. (I’m not going to link to the webpage because I don’t want to give them the clicks.) The rhetorical move here seems to me so typical of our moment that our regular programming will be suspended while I indulge in a little rant.

The ad makes the claim that gun ownership is virtuous because it does something most of us would agree is virtuous— protecting women from abusive exes. That’s a blanket claim that would collapse under a cursory statistical examination: the number of female gun owners who have found guns as helpful as or more helpful than a restraining order, and who have not suffered the side effects of e.g. having the gun pointed at them, or seeing it harm someone in an accident, must be very small compared to all the other gun owners. It makes the classical move of Anecdotage– getting you to think that one possibly fictional example is The Example that extends to cover all cases. But that’s just ordinary BS-ing. What irks me is something else.

A gun would be useful against— whom exactly? The kind of person who thinks that a restraining order is just a piece of paper. Now what kind of person is that? Someone who has no fear of the police, no respect for the law, no concern about having to pay fines or do jail time, but who just wants to shoot his (it’s usually a “he”) way out of his problems. A psychopath, in short, like the famous copycat shooters who get their names in the paper for performing bloody commando operations against kindergartners in this country. You might think that that is the problem. But the ad endorses this nihilist view of the law. It tramples the law underfoot as “just a piece of paper.” And the solution to the problem that it has just created is what? To get a bigger gun, which is certainly not a piece of paper, so that you too can shoot your way out of the problem constituted by people who think that you ought to shoot your way out of problems.

This is a widespread move in the world this summer. Putin’s Russia has just violated its previous treaties in which it promised to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine, and among the justifications was this, that “the US did it too in invading Iraq.” The Chinese are installing oil rigs and artificial islands in the “exclusive economic zone” of other countries, and intimidating vessels of other nations, on the grounds that China is a powerful nation and this is what powerful nations always do (e.g., the colonial powers of the nineteenth century). The spoiled children who fly the Gadsden flag at every opportunity and suck up federal largesse at every opportunity also wave their guns around and threaten to kill people on the grounds that the Guvamint, somewhere, somehow, has used its awesome power against ordinary Americans like them. Everybody has to create enemies, so that they can claim justification for going out and being that enemy.

Well, I say: the Second Amendment is just a piece of paper. I also say that the rest of the Constitution is just a piece of paper. And the Bible, and Euclid’s Elements, and so on. But if you are going to respect any piece of paper, you had better get wise to the reasons that make that paper cogent. They might be logical reasons, legal reasons, social reasons. And if you are going to tear up some piece of paper, let’s hear an explanation for why we’d be better off without it.

The underlying theory of diplomacy, I surmise, is that everybody wants peace, other things being equal; war is much worse than the next better outcome. Of course, there are times when a group of people is so upset about something, or so mistreated, that they have to take up arms. There are also situations in which people are not terribly oppressed, but make the calculation that they can get something out of violence that they can’t get out of negotiations or legislation. These disruptors (to allude to the New Yorker piece that was much chatted about this week) have less stake in keeping things as they are than they do in a possible future world that gives them more advantage, and sometimes they have the means to follow up on their bravado (an advanced weapon, a population of sacrificial lambs, a weakened neighbor). Acts of bluff by such people, like the annexations and Anschlüsse of the 1930s, often go unanswered because the other players have more invested in keeping the peace. Those who would rather keep the peace quite naturally see the costs of a preemptive battle written in large letters, and hope the menace will go away.

Supposedly the collective security agreements of the UN and other bodies were designed to prevent another period of escalation like what we saw in the 1930s. But here we are, experiencing one, and not very clear on what to do about it. I think it would just continue to feed the monster if the US were to take unilateral action against any of these gamblers— just as it would be bad policy for the FBI or the IRS to attack Tea Party nihilists directly. (Of course those nihilists will always believe that the direct attacks are and have always been real.) Multilateral action to preserve the parts of the status quo that are pretty good for everybody, and policy, diplomacy, legislation, law enforcement and reasoned debate (based, but I know this is asking a lot, on scientific research) to improve the parts that drive people to violence for lack of better alternatives— this old incremental recipe is what needs reviving.

 

 

06/25/14

In the House of Advanced Primates

In French you can say, without blushing, “les sciences de l’homme”; in German you can say “Geisteswissenschaften”; but if you say “the human sciences” or “the sciences of the spirit” in American English, you have the feeling of perpetrating a mistranslation, a misconception, or even a fraud. Why is that? Well, one reason jumps off the page of Jamie Cohen-Cole’s The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014):

As it was originally organized, the National Science Foundation did not include a specific mandate to support the social sciences. This was because the public, Congress and many natural scientists either equated the social sciences with socialism or did not find them to be sciences at all. … Speaking for the “average American,” Congressman Clarence Brown (R-Oh.) [said]: “If the impression becomes prevalent in Congress that this legislation [for the National Science Foundation] is to establish some sort of organization in which there would be a lot of short-haired women and long-haired men messing into everybody’s personal affairs and lives, inquiring whether they love their wives or do not love them and so forth, you are not going to get this legislation.” (p. 96)

So that’s why anthropologists and others of that tribe have mostly depended on private foundation money in this country. And at the beginning, at least, the bargain didn’t seem Faustian at all. Private money was interested in generating innovative, consequential research, with a lingering aftertaste of the great interdisciplinary efforts that had won the last war for democracy. When there was bounty, the ideas bubbled quickly to the surface. Already in 1955, the Wenner-Gren Foundation was underwriting the founding conference of environmental studies, “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth.” Also a taboo topic today.

Though Cohen-Cole’s book is a bit repetitive and overuses the passive voice, it tells an important story from which I pull this corollary: The humanities and social sciences aren’t “irrelevant.” It’s the definition of “relevance” that shrank, as the community of interest and support behind academia changed its objectives from building worldwide support for “the American way of life” (pluralistic, democratic, plentiful, permissive) to guaranteeing the highest return on investment. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small” (Sunset Boulevard).

06/6/14

Do Feed the Public Intellectual

(Introducing Paul Farmer, Human Rights Program Kirschner Memorial Lecture, June 5, 2014)

Good evening and welcome to tonight’s Kirschner Memorial Lecture. I’m delighted to see so many of you here tonight, a direct acknowledgment of the significance of our Human Rights Program and a hint that our benefactors’ generosity has not been totally misplaced. The questions examined in the Human Rights Program are among the most serious questions raised in a university, and I would say that for us, specifically, in this country, with our history and assumptions, the area of health and human rights has the greatest power to change the way we see ourselves and others.

For many of us in Paul’s and my generation in the United States, the first time we heard about human rights as a field of activism, it was in connection with the denial of people’s rights to free speech and assembly, their right to emigrate, their right to seek redress, their implicit right to representative government. And we learned about this in the context of the Cold War, when it seemed self-evident that people in some part of the world benefited from the recognition of those rights, while people lacked them in many other parts of the world—not only the Soviet bloc and China, but also Latin America, Asia and Africa, where the client states of the great powers all seemed to repress their dissidents with the greatest indifference. Of course, it didn’t stop there. The response to human rights activism by official representatives of the socialist countries and by some of our own home-grown leftists was to point out how inequitably the market system distributed such basic goods as food, housing, education and medical care, goods which, it was implied, were a fair trade for civil and legal rights. The funny thing about this answer is that it was taken just as a rebuke of the West’s hypocrisy. Despite some laudable exceptions, we did not experience, even in the Carter era which made such a noise about making human rights the driving force of our foreign policy, a large-scale effort to wrap social and economic rights around the uncontestable but rather abstract goods of free speech and fair elections at home. The struggle for civil rights and equality within the US, which had concluded in the courts with a handful of imperfect measures for instituting fairness in civil life, did not carry over into an effective War on Poverty. The Great Society spent most of its surplus on weaponry, with a small percentage allocated to nagging our rivals about their bad human-rights record.

Continue reading

05/17/14

A Spacewalk With Joseph Frank’s “Spatial Form”

(For “The Novel as a Form of Thought,” a conference commemorating Joseph Frank, Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, May 15-16, 2014.)

Joseph Frank was fully developed before he came to the Committee on Social Thought. His essay “Spatial Form,” first published in the Sewanee Review in 1945, is an astonishing piece of synthesis when you consider the state of play at the time. Joe Frank, born in 1918, had already at age 27 the stylistic authority and the full deck of reference that we find in his older contemporary Clement Greenberg, for example; but Greenberg, who preceded Joe at Erasmus Hall High School, had a proper BA (Phi Beta Kappa) from Syracuse, whereas Joe cobbled together his few semesters of college education between bouts of paid work and was largely educated through talking with freelance or underemployed intellectuals. Later, joining the class of underemployed intellectuals as a copy writer for the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington D.C., Joe was again walking in Greenberg’s footsteps; Greenberg’s non-academic jobs were with various federal agencies until he became a full-time editor at Partisan Review and The Nation in the 1950s. And like Frank, Greenberg made a strong impression with an early essay, in his case “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939), which showed him to be fully up to date with the conversation about art, ethics and politics then underway in what would later be known as the Frankfurt School.[1]

Joe’s biography is too big a subject for me today. My reason for enumerating these facts and making the parallel with Greenberg is this. For people who came of age in the 1930s and 40s, art mattered in a way that we can hardly recover, even as a theme for nostalgia. It was important to discern what made modern literature and art modern, because in the adequate description of those representational artifices lay, one thought, a diagnosis of the spirit of the age, and it was important to get that right. Part of the reason lay in the contending teleologies of the day, theories of history with vastly divergent political formations behind them, structures of intention that claimed the power to determine one’s day-to-day actions and options. How we got where we are today, in a much weakened state of mind, onlookers if not scroungers at the remote edges of a frightfully well-financed commercial culture, is a complicated story. You have heard the recurrent laments for the demise of the public intellectual, specifically the sub-species of public intellectual whose habitat was outside the universities. From a U.S. point of view, the relative but steady rise in living standards, the massification and commodification of university education, and the cultural assimilation of previously excluded groups must all have had something to do with it, as these generally good things both undermined the cause of the Left as people of the 1930s understood it and broke down the difference between high culture and mass culture. If “Spatial Form” had been published in 1965, it would have been an academic, formalist exercise, and it’s often been mistaken for one since.

Continue reading

04/15/14

It’s How You Say It

Further thinking about the difference between Soviet speech and this new, pseudo-Orthodox (OrthoFOX, can I say it?) claim to defend Western civilization and Christendom against the hordes of gender studies and moral relativism. Soviet speech was internationalist, universalist. The style was that of people who are sure they’re right and will eventually triumph worldwide. In contrast, this claim of exceptionalism is the style of people who know they’re wrong and just want to set up a rule that will preserve them from rational critique. As we say in Chinese: “cover your ears to steal a bell,” 掩耳盜鐘, you’re deceiving nobody but yourself.

04/15/14

Black Picture Indeed

The Russian media these days are full of denunciations of European modernity. “Western civilization puts on the same level families with many children and same-sex partnerships, faith in God and faith in Satan. Excesses of political correctness have reached such a level that one seriously discusses the registration of parties whose goal is propagating pedophilia. People in many European countries are ashamed to talk about their religious beliefs in public” (Vladimir Putin, trans. OBC).

Funny thing that, because a lot of the most brilliant and challenging modernity came out of Russia. Malevich’s famous installation in the Constructivist exhibit of 1915 was just denounced by one Sergei Andriaka, art director of the Moscow School of Watercolor, for blasphemously putting the Suprematist black square in the place where, in a conventional Russian home, an icon would be installed.

malevich1915 copy

 

Blasphemy charges! Fear of gender studies! The War on Watercolor! It’s as if Fox News had got control of a state and its media and was promulgating cultural policy.

04/9/14

I, Too, Can Push National Boundaries Around

Cook County Clerk David Orr
Bureau of Vital Records
Attn: Current Records
P.O. Box 641070
Chicago, IL 60664-1070

Dear Mr. Orr:

            I wrote your office a few weeks ago to note that the Certificate of Live Birth issued for my son Kirill Anatole, born March 19, 2014, lists his mother’s place of birth as “Russia, United States.” This seemed a bit strange to me. Not that I am a Russian patriot (I have no reason to be one), but I do want to spare my son the trouble of explaining an apparent absurdity for the rest of his life.

It is generally recognized that Russia and the United States are distinct countries. In fact they have never been the same country (excepting Alaska, which was a Russian territory before being sold to the United States in 1867). There is no such place as “Russia, United States.”

After I pointed this out and requested that the birth certificates be reprinted with more accurate information, I received a telephone message from someone in your office that I will transcribe integrally:

 Hi, Haun. This is Tina with the Cook County Clerk’s Office. I received your letter about your child’s, ah, birth record. There was no error made by anybody. The error was made on you reading the birth record. If you read the birth record carefully, it says Mother, ah, country of birth, Russia. Underneath there it says mother, co-parent, residence. That means where the mother is living. The country is the United States, and she’s living in the State of Illinois, in the County of Cook, in the City of Chicago. The birth records are correct. You did not read the birth record correctly. If you have any questions you can give me a call at area code 312-603-6623. So, there is no error on the birth records. You just didn’t read the birth records carefully on what section you are in. You can give me a call. My name is Tina. Bye.

Now I am willing to believe that the “birth record” contained separate blanks for “Mother’s Place of Birth” and “Mother’s Place of Residence,” filled in as Tina says. But the “birth record,” wherever it is, is not visible to me or to any other reader of the birth certificate, which says, absurdly, that Kirill’s mother was born in “Russia, United States.” Perhaps this is a problem that should be addressed at the level of reporting and transcription. Chicago has long been a city of immigrants (a reason for local pride), and I’m sure ours is not the only family with members born in a foreign country. Do other people’s birth certificates list their parents’ place of birth as “France, United States,” “Australia, United States,” “Czechoslovakia, United States” and the like?

I am enclosing the faulty birth certificates along with a stamped and self-addressed envelope, in the hope that you will see fit to correct the record and reprint the birth certificates. If that is not the case, then please return the birth certificates to me. But I hope you, too, believe in getting things right.

                                                Yours sincerely,

 

04/4/14

And His Eyes Have All the Seeming

… of a demon’s that is dreaming, if you remember the old Edgar Allan Poe verse.

We all know the purposes that are served by demonization. By making someone or something the cause of an absolute evil, we mobilize loyalties and energies against it. The US political machinery found it useful against Saddam Hussein, against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, against the Taliban, and so on. But as in the story of the boy who cried wolf, when used too many times, this technique creates a cynical response. One begins to ask, “Who’s the villain of the month and what’s really behind this?”

On the other hand, what purposes are served by accusations of demonization? That is, arguments that have the form, “X is demonizing Y,” or “Stop demonizing N”? These arguments should send us back to the prior question, “Is Y or N really being demonized?” Is there an area of blame, censure or protest that amounts to telling Y or N that they’ve done something wrong and shouldn’t continue, without making the improbable and in sum theological argument that Y or N is pure evil and any opponent of Y or N, for whatever reason, is therefore an agent of good?

When there has been some legitimate cause of protest, the accusation of demonization comes across as childish and petulant. It amounts to saying, “Any criticism of Y or N is inherently a total rejection, and as such, unreasonable.” Or even: “You claim I am totally bad! But you must be wrong (because nobody is totally bad all of the time)! Therefore your criticisms are null and void! I’m actually totally good!”

Such absolutism leads nowhere but to the stupidity of black-and-white thinking. It is amusing to note that the protests against demonization occur within a political and media environment of relative pluralism (more than one political party within reach of power, an independent judiciary, press organs owned by bosses who disagree amongst one another sometimes, etc.) and are meant to protect single-party state apparatuses from criticism. Those apparatuses, that is, that can really put on the dog, demonization-wise, with their monopoly on media channels and governmental power, and are prone to do so when it suits them. Deem on…

(and, footnote: it is amazing that an article in The Nation should quote Henry Kissinger as an authority on diplomacy)

03/29/14

When Speech Has Consequences

Back in the Cold War times, we used to say that Russian writers were significant because they’d get punished for what they wrote; American writers, who could write and say anything, were treated as insignificant. That was the irony: the freer the speech, the lower its value. As if “free as in speech” really were the same as “free as in beer,” and the economic law of supply dictated its price. Not that any of us wanted to see speech restricted, and therefore more precious.

In Putin’s Russia, publishing an op-ed can secure you dismissal from your teaching job and a new but dangerous career as a “national traitor.” Let’s hear it for the new generation of Enemies of the People! In one step aimed to force the traitors out into public visibility, the Ministry of Education has, I hear, distributed to all schoolteachers a stack of PowerPoint slides and directed them to use class time to present the official view on the annexation of the Crimea and Russian destiny.

This is no joking matter. Nor should those of us who live under a less coercive regime envy, even for a moment, the dangerous meaningfulness of the Russian public intellectual.

Meaninglessness? Follow me. In February 2003, I was one of about three million people worldwide marching against the invasion of Iraq. It was already obvious that the purported “weapons of mass destruction” were a pretext and that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks–obvious, at least, if you didn’t watch TV but read The Nation. We brandished handmade signs and cluttered up the main arteries of certain cities. I was coincidentally in New York, so got to exercise my voice and legs, not to mention my free speech rights, on Broadway.

We were, of course, ignored. “Taking it to the streets” used to be a powerful mode of action. Now it’s just a traffic jam on the way to whatever destination our Fearless Leaders have determined for us.

But it shouldn’t be this way. The right of the people to express grievances and offer policy advice does not reduce to punching one or another pre-set alternative on a ballot every four years. Americans and Europeans have become passive, acquiescent, mere spectators in the political forum,  because the rulers have treated them as such and folks can tell when they’re wasting their time. Frustration and outrage burst out in other ways, for example in voting for nonsensical “protest candidates” or in ill-directed episodes of violence.

The Occupy movement was something of a self-righteous kitchen sink, but it was healthy and ought to be revived. Now that temperatures are moderating, who wants to go to the park and chant “Down with” something? (Hey there, students of Taiwan.)