01/17/15

And Now the Conspiracy Theorists

Komsomolskaya Pravda opened its columns yesterday to the head honcho of the French far-right, anti-immigrant party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has theorized that the murder of the Charlie Hebdo editorial board was permitted, if not actually orchestrated, by the French government as a means of discrediting the Front National. (Charlie was relentless in satirizing that bunch of neo-fascists.) This is likely to be received as a rational analysis in a country where not only are conspiracies stranger than fiction a matter of course, but the government itself weaves elaborate counter-scenarios to deny its involvement in things it almost certainly has been involved in.

And in the suburbs of Paris, a teacher is heard (and recorded) telling her students that “nobody ever saw the bodies of the journalists” and the “so-called dead policeman” was just a puppet in a soap opera dreamt up by the French government to incriminate the Muslim religion–which religion, by the way, “authorizes killing if it’s necessary to defend religion.” She was immediately fired. I’m sure people will leap to her defense, as to Dieudonné’s.

Meanwhile, in a Marseilles high school, some students elaborate. The whole thing was a manipulation by the French secret services, to destroy Islam. And simultaneously, it was a trick of the Mossad, to punish France for its recognition of the Palestinian proto-state. “A Muslim who dies in the course of the story, that makes it more believable, doesn’t it? And the dead policemen, one French, one black, one Arab. How symbolic!”

No one has a completely open mind. Our prior beliefs act as filters on new information. When a piece of information comes at too high a cost– when accepting it would mean sacrificing some long-held beliefs or elements of identity– people will confabulate until the (sacred) cows come home. This observation also suggests a test for the kinds of beliefs that compel an exorbitant expenditure in ad-hoc theories in order to defuse new information; and for me, perhaps an economic rationalist for today, that would be the sign that maintaining such beliefs would be a losing proposition. But the literature on “cognitive dissonance” shows that people’s behavior is otherwise: a challenge actually reinforces the unlikely belief. I suppose there are people who would be more comfortable living their lives in a village of fifty people, where little information trickles in from outside. But here they are, carrying their village explanations onto the world stage.

01/17/15

Feasibility Study

How can you have anti-blasphemy laws in a country with more than one major religion? What is permissible for one group will be forbidden to another, what is obligatory for you is optional or absurd or immoral to me. You can’t be a good pluralist and mandate inoffensiveness.

A story comes to mind, told me by a Maronite friend from Lebanon. As children, he and his friends used to gather on the corner and play marbles. There were Christian kids, Muslim kids, maybe a Druze or two. And as they played, they shouted at each other in Arabic, learning each other’s favorite swear words and oaths. The little Muslims said: “Mother of God, I will knock your marble out of the circle!” The little Christians said, “By the beard of the Prophet, that was a good shot!” The parents heard this and had a little meeting: henceforth, when they played, the children would have to speak French or English.

But what if there’s not another language to take refuge in?

01/11/15

Plus c’est la même chose.

Since the Printculture archive isn’t easily searchable from the front page, I take the liberty of putting up a direct link to one of our oldies, about caricature and the sacred, contending that the prohibition of images and the freedom of expression are at root the same thing. Thou Shalt Not, Or Thou Hadst Better Not, from 2005. (Incidentally, many of the ideas there were sparked by conversations with O Solovieva.)

And I am sad to see that, no more than in 2005, are people (many of my friends among them) willing or able to make some essential distinctions. Not only do people take it for granted that any jerk with a gun who shouts “Allah akbar!” speaks for all Muslims, they also make the Sassen Error (named for the sociologist Saskia Sassen, who in 2001 opined that the attacks on lower Manhattan were the revenge of the poor world against the rich world, conveniently ignoring the fact that the vast majority of the victims of the Taliban et consortes are poor people in the poor world); they have even found it “ironic” that the policewoman shot by one of the self-styled jihadis was a black woman from the Caribbean, as if operating on the assumption that all people of color are on “the same side.” Come on, people. You would demand subtlety and fine distinctions if someone were analyzing your social world. Do the same unto others, at least a little bit.

01/2/15

Big Dill.

There’s a kind of writing– I’d call it Pninian– that challenges translation in its specificity. Not, as some theories of the untranslatable would have it, because it calls on utterly singular and irreplaceable qualities of the language it uses, but because it is made of the interweaving of two languages at a specific moment of their histories. In Nabokov’s Pnin, it’s the combination of 1950s American English and early-twentieth-century émigré Russian that creates the discordia concors. In Lydie Salvayre’s Pas pleurer, a new novel I unwisely bought for a friend who was seeking to raise the level of her French, it’s the overlay of Spanish and French, or the revelation of the Spanish hidden in French, that brings the savor. I particularly loved the device whereby the narrator makes this stylistic effect a sign of both character and plot (motivirovka, the O.PO.JAZ would have called it):

Depuis que ma mère souffre de troubles mnésiques, elle éprouve un réel plaisir à prononcer les mots grossiers qu’elle s’est abstenue de formuler pendant plus de soixante-dix ans, manifestation typique chez ce type de patients, a expliqué son médecin… Elle qui s’était tant évertuée, depuis son arrivée en France, à corriger son accent espagnol, à parler un langage châtié et à soigner sa mise pour être toujours plus conforme à ce qu’elle pensait être le modèle français (se signalant par là même, dans sa trop stricte conformité, comme une étrangère), elle envoie valser dans ses vieux jours les petits conventions, langagières et autres. (82-83)

This gives such sentences as:

Et moi je grite encore plus fort: Je me fous qu’on m’ouit, je veux pas être bonniche chez les Burgos, j’aime mieux faire la pute en ville!… Plutôt morir! (14)

To translate this into, say, English, one would have to either imitate the effect of Spanish-tinged French– by appropriating the characteristics of Spanglish, say; but this kind of similarity soon points up the dissimilarity of associations between the two kinds of interlanguage. French-speakers readily recall the influx of Spanish-speakers following the defeat of the Spanish Republic in 1939, but the associations of North American Spanglish have to do with different conditions of migration and resettlement. Another, braver, method would require finding an analogous situation valid for the relation of Spanish and English and then rewriting, or restating, the whole novel as a function of that. Does anyone want to reimagine Pas pleurer as a story of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans (etc…) residing in San Diego as a consequence of their difficult history?

Lydie Salvayre, Pas pleurer. Paris: Seuil, 2014. Awarded the Prix Goncourt.

01/1/15

Performatives That Look Like Constatives, And Their Consequences

The difference between performatives and constatives was articulated by John Austin fifty-odd years ago, and has kept us busy in all cultural domains, usually extending the reach of the former at the expense of the latter. As you’ll remember, there’s not always an explicit marker of performativeness. Some performatives look exactly like constatives, and it’s only the context that makes the difference. For example: “He is not guilty” (said by a newspaper reader in reference to some ongoing trial), versus “Not guilty” (said in the course of entering a plea). When entering a plea in court, “Not guilty” does not mean “It is a fact that I am not guilty of the matter I am charged with”: if it did, pleas could become subject to charges of perjury, and defendants who were later found guilty would undergo extra punishment for having attempted to assert their rights in court; which is repugnant to the idea of a fair trial. Rather, it means, “I hereby challenge you to lay out the most convincing proof you can to the effect that I am guilty.” It’s one of those speech acts that can only be answered by another speech act, one that says, “I accept your challenge and here’s my brief.” An old but good article by Carl Selinger, “Criminal Lawyers’ Truth: A Dialogue on Putting the Prosecution to Its Proof on Behalf of Admittedly Guilty Clients,” clarifies the distinction.

01/1/15

An Unlikely Solution for an Impossible Problem

Over the last few months, we’ve seen a number of rape accusations on college campuses, and some significant muddying of the waters by the colleges themselves, by journalists, and by people passionately taking one side or the other; and also a lack of will on the part of law students and faculty to spend much time considering the judicial treatment of such egregious offenses as rape. I’m fortunate not to be in an administrative role that requires me to be making decisions about such matters, but I can’t help feeling that the present means for dealing with sexual offenses on campuses aren’t working.

Continue reading

12/29/14

The Blood Will Tell

I was walking around a big European museum with my four-year-old son lately. He wanted to know what the hell was going on with all the beheadings, cauterizings, arrow-piercings, massacres of the innocent and kindred spectacles that make up such a big part of European art before 1700. Now here is a puzzling task. He deserved an answer, but which answer to give?

a) “People in those times did a lot of horrible things.” (This I know will prompt the follow-up question, why then are these scenes painted in such loving detail with gold-leaf backgrounds?)

b) “The victims are martyrs and the pictures celebrate their suffering.” (Now explain the concept of martyrdom.)

And because this was an excellent Franconian museum with a rich medieval collection, four or five unavoidable, life-size and powerfully affecting Jesuses hung on their crosses in every room, not to mention the ones being mourned by Mary in Pietà poses or laid in the tomb by the last few disciples. A lot of blood and nails, and a lot of faces howling their grief. Continue reading

12/8/14

Old Trunks and Papers

The French National Archives have mounted a show about collaboration, 1940-1945, and it couldn’t be more timely. The far-right parties, apparently on the way to general normalization and acceptance, are back at their old themes of “Vichy wasn’t so bad” and “cosmopolitanism is the death of France.” This exhibit, stuffed with artifacts and papers as you’d expect from an archive, displays all the pettiness, resentment, willed ignorance, infighting, cowardice and opportunism of those years. Lessons for the present are there for the taking.

A few reflections.

The authorities of occupied France and the “free zone” of Vichy put the Nazis in an unduly favorable negotiating position out of fear, because they had persuaded themselves that it lay in the Germans’ power to annihilate France, and it was a special mercy, for which the French should be duly grateful, that they had not done so. From this starting position, anything becomes acceptable. You want our foodstuffs? Well, at least it’s not our lives. You want our young men to work in your factories while yours are fighting the Russians? Well, at least you’re not drafting them directly. You want our Jews? How many? Would you take a few more? With their attitude of fear they made themselves absolute straw men.

The legal framework of Vichy stank (it has this in common with many contemporary governments). On the wall in one of the rooms of the exhibition is a two-page proclamation outlining the prerogatives of the head of the French State (chef de l’Etat Français). He commands the army and navy, names and retires ministers, receives the ambassadors’ letters of accreditation, decides the budget, and so forth. Signed: Philippe Pétain, head of state. (And he uses the royal “we”!) This is wonderfully nonsensical, because authority doesn’t generate itself: it can only be transferred from one source to another. Now a majority of the Assembly had voted to give Pétain full powers, which I suppose they had the right to do, but to see the consequence of having done so in this brief document is to watch tautology in action. One thinks of Emperor Norton. (If only all autocrats were as harmless as he.)

The Germans very cleverly kept not one, but multiple nationalistic parties going in occupied France, each with its charismatic leader, its panoply of badges, buttons, sashes, armbands, flags, etc.. All of these parties huffed and puffed about recovering the greatness of France, and doing it on their own (sc. without the help of “the Anglo-Saxons”); none of them had any chance of accomplishing this, and they all cancelled each other out. When one or another of these chauvinistic parties got too popular, the Germans would think of a way to decapitate it. They dealt with Jacques Doriot by getting him to go fight on the Eastern Front with a French volunteer battalion, making quite clear to any patriot that he was not his own man. (Doriot’s trunk and German army overcoat occupy an interesting place in the exhibit, staged in a plexiglass case from which they are visible from both the “micro-parties” subsection and the “fight against Bolshevism” section. Doriot, like so many fascist sympathizers, started out on the far left; he was elected as a communist in the 20s.) The “spoiler” technique is still relevant, as parties that decent people would not admit voting for nonetheless garner a big enough fraction of the vote to compel the two major parties to make concessions to them, not to mention the general strategy of frustrating all initiatives of the European Union.

Bad economic times drive people into fascistic patterns of thought. People are impoverished, unemployed, afraid, and they appreciate a good scapegoat. One room is full of appalling propaganda against Jews, appalling because it plays on the actual discomforts of the population and transforms them into anger. For example, a cartoon showing a fine, tall, slender young man who has just been demobilized after the armistice. He presents himself in an office populated by thick-lipped, hirsute, overweight Jews sitting on sacks of money; they tell him, “You’re looking for a job! You must be joking!” Now there were certainly a lot of idle demobilized young men in 1940-45, as there had been for much of the previous decade, but I doubt that obesity was much of a problem among the Jewish population of Paris at the time. Imagine walking down streets lined with such imagery, and having the kind of mind that would be persuaded by it: horrible. But of course today the anger of populations is still easily decanted into simple solutions. Those who think austerity programs are a necessary evil ought to have a good long look at this room.

Propaganda always treats the viewer as an idiot. But sometimes the visual style is especially brutal. After a while spent with these posters and leaflets, one can pretty well gauge the ideological direction of the cause by mere exposure to its visual rhetoric. (I have not yet been able to digest this sensation into a formula.)

Opportunism and compromise are fraught, mixed, messy currents. One reaches for the firm boundaries of evil and virtue. Look at Pierre Laval on the one hand, Jean Moulin on the other. But what is really instructive, not in the sense of providing dogmatic guidance but in the sense of reviving the perplexities of such times, is a case like that of Colonel de la Rocque, the leader of the Croix de Feu, another of the many nationalistic parties. It is true that the Croix de Feu marched around in an intimidating way, talked about banishing Jews (though they were willing to make an exception for those who had been in France for generations), and their leader stayed on good terms with Pétain until quite late in the war. So far, so fascistic-looking. But La Rocque tore into Pétain for his collaboration and in June 1940, at about the same time as De Gaulle’s London broadcast, came out with a speech urging French people to resist at any cost. It is also reported that La Rocque never lost his commitment to legality and parliamentary government, and when he had an opportunity to overrun the National Assembly, he told his troops to stand pat. Arrested and deported by the Germans, he came back home the day after V-E day, only to be put in “administrative detention” for another six months while the Resistance organized the new government. It does give the impression that La Rocque’s major crime, seen from the postwar perspective, was to have been an anti-Gaullist nationalist resister. If you want to understand what people were thinking, and how they were being swayed this way and that in that dark period, a case like La Rocque’s opens many cans of worms.

12/6/14

Victim Mentality

I don’t have anything useful to add to the outrage generally felt (in the nearer nodes of my social network anyway) about the string of recent deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers. I think Jon Stewart absolutely nailed it when he threw Fox News’s accusation back at them: the “victim mentality” is a fixture of conservative politics. Not only conservative politics, of course: playing the victim is a perpetual strategy used to turn the tables or motivate violence, and it’s particularly dangerous when the self-styled victim is in fact the more powerful party in an interaction. But do we have a good language for describing the parts of this role-play? It seems to me that the advantages of self-victimization depend on there being an audience, a third party deemed to hold the power of legitimation. (In the most frequent dramas of victimization and retaliation which it is my privilege to witness, the “third party” is the parents to whom small children appeal for recognition or swift justice: “He pulled my hair first!”) And that third party, ladies and gentlemen, is us: Public Opinion. We can’t do much directly, as drops in the sea of Public Opinion, but we can try to push the drops around us and form a current, so to speak, that would flow away from the themes and obsessions that make it seem OK for a white man with a gun to kill a black man on the slenderest pretext of feeling “threatened.” We are the grander grand jury, but thus far a disorganized and slow-moving one.

12/2/14

The King of Copycats

This article by Michel Charles tells of his pursuit, with wide eye and raised brow, of Professor R.-L. Etienne Barnett, a shadowy individual most of whose contributions to major humanities journals turn out to be lightly rewritten reprintings of articles by other scholars, or sometimes re-reprintings of articles he’d already appropriated from others. (English summary here.) I read manuscripts for several editorial boards, and while I can pick out a bad argument or a sloppy paragraph, I’m not always alert to the possibility of plagiarism; for that, I would have had to read and remember a monstrous amount of writing in an ever-expanding world of publications. Will editors start google-checking every manuscript, or feeding them through Turnitin as if authors were undergraduates? Michel Charles fingers the ultimate culprit: the pursuit, by individuals and institutions, of the highest possible “impact factor,” calculated automatically.

And speaking of impact factors, I wonder if you will get negative points by contributing to the following:

 

Call for Papers for a Special Issue of Neohelicon: Discourse of Madness
(Special volume of Neohelicon [43, 2016]. Guest-Editor: R.-L. Etienne Barnett)

PROSPECTUS

Contributions on any aspect of madness in (of, and) textuality are welcome for consideration. Possible areas of focus, among a plethora of other options: literary representations of the alienated mind; mad protagonists or mad writers; madness as a vehicle of exile, as a form of marginalization, of dissipation, of disintegration, of revelation or self-revelation; interpretations of madness as a manifestation of structure, style, rhetoric, narrative; madness as a reflection of cultural assumptions, values, prohibitions; madness, as prophetic or dionysiac, poetic, or other; the esthetics of madness; philosophical, ethical, ontological, epistemological, hermeneutic and esthetic implications of the discourse/narrative of madness..

From an alternative vantage point, one might question: how does the deviant mind-set of authorial figures and/or fictional characters determine the organization of time, space and plot in the narrative? How does the representation of delusional worlds differ from the representation of other “non-mad” mental acts (dreams, fantasies, aspirations) and from other fictional worlds (magic, imaginings, phantoms) — if it does? Contributors are welcome to address these and other questions in a specific work, in a group of works, or in a more general/theoretical reflection, in and across any national tradition(s), literary movement(s) or œuvre(s).

SUBMISSIONS

Theoretical or applied contributions focused upon “discourses of madness” in the literary “arena” are invited and will be accorded full and serious consideration.

Manuscripts in English, French German or Italian — not to exceed twenty (25) double-spaced pages, including notes, bibliography and appendices, where applicable — are welcome. Contributions written in any but one’s first (or native) language must be scrupulously reviewed, edited and proofed by a “native” specialist prior to submission.

Format and submission requirements: Papers must prepared in strict accordance with APA (not MLA) guidelines and are to be accompanied by an abstract and 6-8 key words or expressions in English. (A second abstract and set of key words in the language of the article, if not in English, is strongly recommended.)

Submit via email in the form of a WORD document (attachment) to: R.-L. Etienne Barnett (Guest-Editor) at: RL_Barnett@msn.com (primary submission address) with a second copy to RLEBarnett@editionsdegresecond.be (secondary submission address).

SUBMISSION DEADLINE: OCTOBER 1, 2015

Prof. R.-L. Etienne Barnett
RL_Barnett@msn.com (Primary Email)
RLEBarnett@editionsdegresecond.be (Secondary Email)
Email: rl_barnett@msn.com (primary email)
Visit the website at http://www.springer.com/education+%26+language/linguistics/journal/11059

 

Then again, if you like windy administrative nonsense, this one is pretty good too.

11/29/14

Unpacking My Imaginary Library

The French paperbacks that I used to buy always contained a little card from “La Maison des Bibliothèques,” rue Froidevaux, Paris. The card showed a wall covered with shelves all crammed with books, the commercial assumption being, if you were the sort of person who would acquire modern fiction in the collection “J’ai Lu,” you would sooner or later fall for the products of La Maison. I was a nomadic boy then, but used to imagine that one day I would have an apartment somewhere with walls covered with shelves, each shelf crammed with books, and me feasting my eyes on print as long as the light lasted.

Eventually, it happened. I had plenty of walls and got them covered with shelves, then packed the shelves with books, and sat reading day in and day out. That should have been the happy ending of the story– the closed circuit of desire– but no one can ever leave well enough alone. Now here I am thousands of miles away from those hard-won shelves, thinking about a book that contains a piece of information I need, complemented by a sheet of scribbled paper wedged in at exactly the page where that information resides. But thinking doesn’t make it come back; it’s a material thing, that scribbled note, and I can’t quite make myself think again the thought it contains. And from the book I surreptitiously glanced at in a bookstore today, hoping to substitute for the missing information in my all-too-physical book at home, there fell out a colorful advertisement for “La Maison des Bibliothèques.”

 

11/25/14

“A Lot of Wildness and a Lot of Construction”

As anyone who has had more than three drinks with me has already heard, I used to cut grass for Mr. Allen Tate in Nashville, Tennessee. He must have been in his middle 70s, I in my early teens. When I was done cutting the grass, we would sit on the porch with a glass of lemonade and Mr. Tate would tell me about Paris in the 20s. Not only that, but he urged me to read Baudelaire, the best literary advice I ever got.

For a number of reasons largely to do with his identification with the antebellum planter society of the South, Mr. Tate is not talked about much these days. So it was a surprise just now to run across this series of fleeting glimpses, the walk-on version of a literary life: “Talking Tate: A Fake Oral History.”

mareymotion

11/25/14

Remedying

Another article about the failures of international aid, this time from the New Republic, and I fear the overall effect of such think-pieces will be to validate the indifference of people who were looking for a reason not to help others anyway. It’s true that celebrity jaunts to Africa, etc., have little lasting effect except perhaps on the celebrity’s public image. That’s a problem with the culture of celebrity, not of aid. It’s also true that sudden infusions of money into an economy are apt to destabilize and to have perverse effects. That’s a problem of bad planning. White Land Rovers? I would recommend steering clear of any project that involves the purchase of many white Land Rovers.

The article suggests that low overhead is not in and of itself a good marker of charitable effectiveness, that spending money on fund-raising is often a precondition for having an effect: well, here I think you must use your judgment about what is the tail and what is the dog. A low tail-to-dog ratio matters when deciding where to put one’s donations, but it’s best to concentrate on questions such as these (also legible between the lines of the article): have the intended beneficiaries themselves expressed a desire for the planned interventions? Is there a concrete plan for engagement on the part of the beneficiary population, rather than a scheme in the heads of well-intentioned First Worlders to build something, feel good about it, and abandon it? “First, do no harm” is a rule worth following even if you’re not a medical worker.

Most important is to have an accurate sense of the economic flows among which a development-assistance plan will exist. How much of the money flowing in and out of a given country is dedicated to arms procurement, to food assistance, to financial whizzbangery (including corruption)? How much does the local economy rely on expatriates remitting their paychecks? What’s up for sale, in terms of natural resources or the vital interests of the residents, and what is protected (and how well) from rent-seeking investors? The perplexed, such as yours truly, appreciate a sense of proportion about all these things.

11/11/14

Le Buzz

An article in Le Monde supplies background to the latest French best-seller, a work of cultural polemics that whines about the eclipse of “la vieille France,” bemoans the rise of feminism and makes excuses for Vichy. The purpose of this sad amalgam, which apparently pleases enough people that it is close to outselling Modiano, the recent Nobel laureate, is to make respectable the positions of the far-right Front National. And why are we even hearing about it? Because of such cultural entrepreneurs as this:

Catherine Barma, a formidable business-woman… daughter of the star producer of the French Radio-Television Network, ex-party girl, no great student, cultivates the big names of the time and picks the participants of her TV panels like the counter of a bar. She knows how clashes that make for “le buzz”  on YouTube and those who sigh that ‘you can’t say anything today’ are beloved by the 21st century.

When asked to explain her support for this Eric Zemmour who minimizes the issue of extermination camps and champions Pétain and Le Pen, Catherine Barma reads from prepared cards her excuse that “I haven’t read Robert Paxton [the historian who made it impossible to keep sweeping pétainism under the rug]. In general, when there is a conflict, I’m always on the side of the oppressed.”

And in the magical world of French TV, the “oppressed,” we are to infer, are the reactionaries. So this man who owes his existence to the egalitarian institutions of the Fifth Republic inasmuch as he would have been cheerfully exterminated by Vichy now exploits his good fortune to complain about the fact that Pétain’s “nationalist revolution” is no longer in favor. I really have no polite words to designate such trash, so will simply roll my eyes and make the international gesture for vomiting.

And a PS for Ms. Barma: if you don’t have the time or energy to read Robert Paxton, perhaps you or one of your assistants could read his Wikipedia page. Or here, I’ll make it even easier for you by pulling out a few high points:

Paxton bouleverse la lecture de l’histoire du régime de Vichy en affirmant que le gouvernement de Vichy a non seulement collaboré en devançant les ordres allemands : il a aussi voulu s’associer à l’« ordre nouveau » des nazis avec son projet de Révolution nationale…. Pétain et Laval ont toujours recherché la collaboration avec l’Allemagne nazie, et multiplié jusqu’au bout les signes et les gages de leur bonne volonté à s’entendre avec le vainqueur, allant souvent spontanément au-devant des exigences allemandes.

Loin d’avoir protégé les Français, le concours de Vichy a permis aux Allemands de réaliser plus facilement tous leurs projets — pillage économique et alimentaire, déportation des Juifs, exil forcé de la main-d’œuvre en Allemagne.

This is what you “haven’t read,” and a fair outline of what, by your choice of protagonists, you’ve chosen to support. Ignorance is no argument. Even if, as people say, “nobody reads any more.”

11/10/14

Preconditions for Actual Politics

Once upon a time, in a country famed for its turkeys and large automobiles, little boys and girls learned in civics class and by watching the Perry Mason show that nobody could just bust into your house without a warrant showing probable cause. You might be sure that a person had done something wrong, but you couldn’t force them to confess to it. And you might be mad at them after you’d proved they’d done it, but you couldn’t subject them to “cruel and unusual punishment.” You couldn’t even make them swear on a Bible in open court if they didn’t want to.

I’m soon going to be explaining how the world works to a few little guys who rely on me for much of their information. And I’m afraid that when it comes to these old certainties, my message about inviolable human rights will be in the more complex form of “they aren’t supposed to violate them, but they will try, so be on your lookout.” Continue reading

11/8/14

Disincentives for Disincentivizing

Larry Lessig’s organization MAYDAY PAC attempted to support candidates who would push for comprehensive campaign reform and an end to the systemic corruption described in Lessig’s recent books Republic Lost, One Way Forward, and Lesterland. I was one of the many people who sent money to this effort. Sadly, not much came of it. In an email sent yesterday to supporters, Lessig drew a few lessons, among them:

A significant chunk of actual voters rank our issue as the most important. These voters are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. And in the right context, we believe the data show that they can be rallied to the cause.

The important qualification in that sentence, however, is also the most important lesson that this cycle taught me: “in the right context.” What 2014 shows most clearly is the power of partisanship in our elections. Whatever else voters wanted, they wanted first their team to win.

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10/18/14

Rosy-Fingered Barbara

One morning a few years ago, I was riding to the office after dropping off the kids at school. Slightly ahead of me, somebody opened the door of a parked car without looking back. I swerved, so the door didn’t hit me, but the kid trailer tangled with the edge of the door and left a scratch on it. Nobody was hurt. I stopped to size up the situation. It was obviously the driver’s fault– you’re supposed to look in the mirror before you open a door on a public street– but she wanted very much to put the matter on another footing. “You bicyclists!” she started out. “You guys just run all the stop signs and act like you own the streets. You must think having a fancy bicycle gives you the right to break the law! And I’m sick and tired of it! And now here you come along scratching my car! You’re going to pay for the damage!”

I tried to point out the irrelevance of these remarks and to get the discussion back to its main point, as I saw it, which was that we’d been lucky nobody got hurt and I hoped she would look in the mirror next time, and too bad about the scratch but it wasn’t something I was responsible for.

Eventually we exhausted our stock of pleasantries and I got back on the road. But the exchange reminded me quite specifically of something I usually try to avoid, but can’t entirely ignore. Namely, public discussion in the era of the comments page.

Continue reading

10/13/14

Philosophy Begins in Wonder

The University of Otago’s Department of Philosophy gives the curious visitor a roisterous picture of the life of the mind in Dunedin.

[The first hire in 1871,] Duncan McGregor, a graduate of the University of Aberdeen… was an electrifying lecturer with a well-developed ‘will to truth’ and pungent opinions on a variety of topics. … When it came to social policy, he thought that the ‘hopelessly lazy, the diseased, and [the] vicious’ should be incarcerated for life as a humane alternative to the process of Darwinian selection which would otherwise have weeded them out. McGregor resigned in 1886… and, fortified by his fifteen years as a philosopher, went on to become the Inspector–General of Lunatic Asylums.

[J. N.] Findlay … devoted a Sabbatical to sitting at the feet of Wittgenstein in Cambridge and acting as his official ‘stooge’. (His job was to feed Wittgenstein tough questions when the painfully long silences became too excruciating.) But before he could take up his position as stooge he had to own up to his philosophical sins. Sitting in a Cambridge milk-bar, Findlay had to confess to the frightful crime of having visited Rudolf Carnap in Chicago. Wittgenstein was magnanimous. ‘[He] said that he did not mind except that he would lose his milk-shake if Carnap [were] mentioned again.’

At a conference in Florence, [Alan] Musgrave read a typically forceful paper ‘Conceptual Idealism and Stove’s Gem’ which concluded with the ringing words: ‘Conceptual Idealism is a ludicrous and anti-scientific view of the world. … We should take science seriously, reject the Gem for the invalid argument that it is, and abandon the idealism to which it leads.’ There was a burst of applause followed by dead silence. The chairman, to get things going, asked if there any conceptual idealists present who would like to comment on Professor Musgrave’s paper. ‘Not any more’, came a voice from the back.

Every academic department should write a history in this mode. For the whole (delightful) thing, go to http://www.otago.ac.nz/philosophy/history.html.

For the philologically minded: the department’s Maori name is Te Tari Whakaaroaro. The dictionary tells me that “whakaaroaro” means “reflection or “meditation” but the elements, “whaka” plus “aroaro,” seem to add up to “making present that which is present.” Anyone with better insight into the history and connotations of the term is invited to straighten us out in the comments box.

10/7/14

Ebb and wane

The penguin trudged up the beach at the end of the day like a tired commuter returning home.

The tired commuter returned home like a penguin trudging up the beach at the end of the day.