The Antidote

In Washington DC with my three small boys. Breakfast dispatched, and it’s off to Air & Space! Where else, you may ask. It was a sunny, mild day on the National Mall, a barker sold my six-year-old a baseball cap, and soon we were looking at rockets, spy planes, biplanes, jets and telescopes.

And any visit to a big science museum requires an Imax. The thing on offer was “Journey to Space.” The little guys were restless and the 3-D glasses kept falling off. I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted: it was like a trance. Long perspectives on mountains, coastlines, lit-up cities at night, from an aerial and then from a space perspective. Teams of engineers working together on making things go: folks who understand the concepts of truth, consistency, operability and experiment. Teams of astronauts floating around in space, running experiments, exercising, having a laugh. Handshakes and hugs between members of different national astronaut teams: in space, it doesn’t matter what country you’re from, human company is rare and precious. The weightlessness of the bodies and the omnidirectionality of the corridors inside the ISS (up and down are matters of convention) matched the mannerisms of the men and women sharing the craft: cheerful, competent, tolerant, non-hierarchical, task-focused people.

I’m one of those Americans whose belief in this country is aspirational: my patriotism connects with a set of ideals and not with “my country right or wrong.” Knowing how massively we have failed, over time, to honor high-sounding commitments, I can’t imagine living in a self-congratulatory narrative about “the greatest country on earth” that depends on obliterating memories of slavery, murder, genocide, fraud, and theft. Even the space program, I know, was cooked up out of military objectives and public relations. We need to know ugly history. The uglier, the better for our morals. But watching crews of science-minded people creating amazing adventures for our whole species, with indifference to the race, gender or income of the scientific talent brought to bear, allowed me to forget for a few minutes of blissful relief the ignorance, resentment, bigotry and sheer non-fact-based screaming that seem to have overtaken “the American way.”

A few hours later, it comes to me that a Miltonic Satan would look on that pragmatic, inquisitive, open-minded, multinational group in zero-gravity not with admiration but with envious resentment, and find satisfaction in the explosions that killed fourteen members of that “élite.”


Credunt quia absurdum

A sensible analysis of the disposing conditions to a certain voting pathology. Lofton gets to the point without invoking trailer parks, missing teeth or deer carcasses.






Do you think that wife-beating, gay-baiting and race-raging are what make a Real Man Real?

Or do you find that a Real Man, by definition, despises and combats such activities?

If you answered yes to the first question, you must be a Trump supporter.

If you answered no to the first question and yes to the second one, congratulations, you are a normal person.

Hold onto that insight.


The Ex-Files

It’s one of the most famous Gotcha! moments in the history of the social sciences. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) presented language, economy, and kinship as variants on the same logical “structures”: the exchange of messages, the exchange of goods, the exchange of women. Women might suspect something strange was going on with their transformation into analogues of messages or objects, with men doing all the exchanging, but Simone de Beauvoir reviewed the book graciously and added: “although a woman is something other than a sign, she is nonetheless, like language, something that is exchanged.” Then Gayle Rubin questioned the objectivity of Lévi-Strauss’s description, making it complicit with the objectification of women (“The Traffic in Women,” 1975). Levi-Strauss’s feminist cred was not augmented by the fact that, as Jean-Pierre Mileur observes, in Tristes Tropiques (1955) it is “only after around three hundred pages” that Lévi-Strauss “gets around to mentioning that his wife accompanied him on his expeditions– and then to say that she fell ill and he had to leave her behind.”

What a dreadful pig, you may be saying. But another piece of the puzzle emerges from Emmanuelle Loyer’s biography (Claude Lévi-Strauss, Paris: Flammarion, 2016). Lévi-Strauss wrote Tristes Tropiques at top speed during several months in 1955, typing up his reflections and old notes with constant advice, input and critical reading from his wife Monique, who received every batch of thirty pages fresh from the machine and returned them with interleaved commentary (Loyer, 415-17). A partner in dialogue. But the “wife” who fleetingly and belatedly appears, like a suppressed excuse, in TT is not Monique but the first wife, Dina. Could it be that an unwillingness to dwell on his ex and the collapse of his first marriage in this sustained communication with his second wife accounts for Dina’s near-invisibility? If a marriage is an exchange of women between groups of men, already a scandalous idea, the exchange of a woman (or of a sign representing her) between a man and a woman must be so complicated a matter that it can hardly be allowed to happen. In the fuller account of the book’s composition, it’s not that women are invisible, it’s that one woman is a topic that the male narrator would like to avoid in his address to another woman. The two women are thus both out of the frame–but in two different ways and for two different reasons. The invisible omnipresence of the one explains the near-invisibility and near-absence of the other.


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?).


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

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.