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.

11/10/14

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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07/28/14

GAZA: Beyond Conversation

I asked a Jewish-American friend to cover the situation in Gaza. This is what she wrote in response explaining why she can’t do it. I found the text fascinating and responsive to the difficulties of a sensitive, ethical and intelligent person trying to talk about the issue– precisely the type of voice much needed in today’s discourse. I asked to publish an excerpt from her email. Here it is, with permission:

“In answer to your question, I have been considering writing on the Gaza question for weeks. But I don’t think I will. There’s a whole part of my past that I have to process, about being raised in a synagogue that was rabidly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian. The things that were said there would not pass muster thirty-odd years later, and attributing them to their speakers would probably count as defamatory. That’s really my story: the part I can add that is not the past fortnight’s worth of partisan pontification, which I believe is available in copious supply already.

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07/14/14

Ukraine/Russia and Ourselves

“The question is, where is Russia heading? This is the key problem with Putin — he is unable to deal with this issue,” said Pavel K. Baev, a Russia specialist at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. “Holding power has become the goal in itself, and there is a deep underlying feeling that this cannot end well.”

(Khodorkovsky & Lebedev Communications Center, June 9, 2014)

“Братие, друзи, славяне!” (“Brothers, friends, Slavs!”), so we were greeted weekly by Anna Stepanovna Novikova, our professor of Old Slavonic (known in the West as Old-Church-Slavonic) at Moscow State University, where many years ago I started on my academic path as a major in Russian language and literature. In my memory, I still see her vividly: a somewhat overweight, stout woman with a wild hairdo reminiscent of a coonskin cap sitting askance, dressed in a too tight brown costume, with a big black leather bag over her shoulder and a stack of books and papers under her arm. She always arrived at the very last minute, bursting into the classroom suddenly at the precise moment when our hope that the class might be cancelled this time would begin to dawn.

She used to interrogate us mercilessly about Old Slavonic verb paradigms and phonetic laws. Her frowning displeasure over mistakes was terrifying. Oppressive silence and an unforgiving gaze usually accompanied her disapproval. She was adamant that whatever we aspired to be, not knowing Old Slavonic was not an option. We were scared to death of her imperious ways. And yet, her weekly greeting sent to us from the door, with a big smile on her plain face, has stayed with me until now as a declaration of good will.

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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.

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01/10/14

Cooper Union Lives or Dies Today

CooperUnion

Cooper Union – as a unique institution of higher education; as a legacy of  visionary founder Peter Cooper; as a dream – lives or dies today. Just so you know.

Free is Not for Nothing – The Vote to Save Cooper Union by alumni trustee Kevin Slavin:

If the vote goes one way, a new, lean, careful Cooper Union will tiptoe forward, tuition-free. It will require equal parts deep sacrifice, wild ambition, and straightforward pragmatism. And it will uphold a 150+ year tradition of free undergraduate education.

If it goes the other way, all of that will disappear. Not just the free tuition, but everything that was built on it. In its place we’ll find a tragic fraud. A joke. A zombie.

Here’s some background from Felix Salmon, who has been drawing attention to the foresight of Cooper’s vision and the perfidy of recent Presidents and Boards.

The Cooper Union story recapitulates, in miniature, a shockingly large proportion of the various aspects of the  global war on public-serving higher education. Here’s to hoping the tide is turning, today.

11/19/13

Toward a plural theory of Anthropocenes

easterFor all I know this has been said before, but: the anthropocene is a world-concept.

The normal way to understand the Anthropocene is as a historical period, defined more or less as the era when human beings acquire the capacity to affect the ecology of the entire planet, thereby opening the door to mass extinction, disastrous climate change, and, at the limit, the disappeareance of the species. Generally people want to date it to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, though you see arguments for dating it to the beginning of agriculture. Since the challenge we are facing collectively at the moment (and for the next centuries) is the immediate result of the dramatic expansion in carbon-based energy (oil, gas) use that comes from the Industrial Revolution, my impression is that most people are inclined towards that date.

But that’s just because the scope of this environmental event is in fact the entire planet Earth. I want to suggest that we become aware of/wish to designate the Anthropocene at this crucial moment precisely because of that scope, that because like the various other -cenes (the Pleistocene, the Holocene) this era involves ecological/geological/meterological activity that is planet-wide, we feel comfortable declaring it to be “epoch”-worthy. That is, the epoch (that which can be designated by the -cene, that which is a scene for the -cene) is partially a temporal metaphor for spatial scale.

This is true of all world-concepts, and trivial. But now what we can do is to scale down the Anthropocene from the world to world, and recognize that, unlike the Pleistocene or Holocene, we can use the concept to refer to any “world” (that is, any relatively closed totality, relatively closed because like our totality it can be potentially escaped from, in our case via rocket ships/space colonization) that is capable of producing self-extinction through the manipulation of its environment.

In that case there have been other Anthropocenes, some of them, perhaps, not even human. Any virus that kills its host too rapidly–before the host has a chance to infect others–is Anthropocenic in this sense. We might also think of the series of extinctions on Easter Island as one example of a quasi-Anthropocene (resolved by the arrival of European explorers). Or, an extreme and fanciful case, of a literary character like Raskolnikov.

I am not sure that it is politically useful to think of the Anthropocene this way — it may be that there’s more traction in terms of getting people to think about how to live, or die, in it if they can have the narcissistic pleasure of imagining themselves to be historically unique. But it may also be that philosophers and other humanists could benefit from a plural theory, a theory of Anthropocenes, both as a structure for comparative analysis and as a humbling reminder that self-desctruction, when it happens, is usually a matter of degrees of difference, not kinds, from ordinary life.

10/22/13

Scott Adams is a strange man

…with lots of ideas about the future of online education.

I suppose by “strange” I mean that his politics (if you look at his blog) operate from a position that imagines itself as entirely apolitical but is nonetheless quite interested in politics. So it produces frequent pox-on-both-houses language, but also pragmatic suggestions for various kinds of things (including online ed, in the link above) with no real concern for what I think of as the “normal” language of American politics (involving concepts like the moral, the just, and so on).

And then you ask yourself — well, who would Dilbert vote for? — and you realize that Adams’s politics are perfectly in tune with the strip, because the answer is totally unknowable. Even the grounds on which Dilbert might vote for someone are unknowable.

08/7/13

For External Use Only

usage-ext

One of the things I am always asking France– because, vous savez, lovers are always full of questions– is why the ideas that are taken to their worst extremes of actualization elsewhere have so often begun here. France, mère des arts, des armes, et des lois, I know. But that’s not all. Alongside a lot of civilisation and rayonnement, égalité and parité, it was on French territory that the theory of the fascist state grew to completeness (so that Mussolini could then borrow it from the Action française), that racism and antisemitism took their modern forms (Gobineau, Drumont), that the most eminent medical researchers, decorated with Nobel prizes, advocated a strong eugenics program (Charles Richet, Alexis Carrel). But in comparison with other places, France had a mild case of fascism, antisemitism, racism, eugenics, etc. These could achieve a loud minority, a persistent subtheme, but not (so far) domination of French political life.

You might say: Vichy. But Vichy was a capitulation to invaders who came waving a monstrous growth of bad French ideas. Vichy is an example of what happens when the precarious balance of things that kept people like Maurras and Barrès on the loud lunatic fringe got broken. And no, I am not denying the existence of plenty of nasty racists and exterminationists in la grande patrie, some of them elected officials.

How were moments of crisis averted, by and large, the moments when the same ideas jumped into the saddle elsewhere? My theory is not that French people are uniquely virtuous or that France has some secret ingredient (too bad for me; I could be writing best-sellers and New York Times Magazine pieces about the special Frenchness of the French!), but just that the democratic process kept going here despite the many coups, restorations, revolutions, wars and invasions. Not immaculately; just enough. We can all take encouragement from that.

08/1/13

Where Were You From?

Living in the UK and in North America as an ethnic minority, I am often asked in different situations: “Where were you from?” And in fact, with the growing ethnic, linguistic and cultural complexity of the Hong Kong population, I was asked that question fairly frequently even there. How this question is being asked of course indicates different sociopolitical presumptions and connotations of the questioner. While some people are sincerely and genuinely curious about who I am, others often turn the conversation into a kangaroo-court-styled investigation, making me feel not only uncomfortable, but also violated.

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05/27/13

The Liberty to Deny You Equality

The demonstrations against “marriage for all” have shown a surprising side of French democracy. If you’d asked me three months ago, I would have said that France was immune to Tea Party stratagems. They have worked out a social order with ample (never adequate, because there’s no such thing as adequate) provision of life’s essentials, and a political system with an imperfect (like all of them) representation of a wide variety of interests through four or five major political parties, whose bases and alliances shift with time but who have a lot of consensus among them; and they recently threw out a plutocratic president suspected of illegal campaign financing, among other things, in favor of a bland but decent technocrat from the squishy Left. It didn’t seem to me that there were the ingredients for intense polarization of the electorate by politicians who had recently lost a vote and wanted to get even. The ranters and extremists were focused on immigration, the reliable hot-button issue in those prosperous countries that have relied for two generations on cheap labor from nearby poorer countries.

But “Mama and Papa” have done the job, it seems.

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03/7/13

The Problem With Recognition

Hegel, as you know, started his account of social life with the struggle between master and slave. The master’s dependency on the slave meant that ultimately the slave was stronger. Alexandre Kojève (born Kojevnikoff) read this struggle as a combat for recognition, in which only humans could engage. Need a definition of “the human”? Recognition makes us human. At the ends of the spectrum of which ordinary human consciousness occupied the central band, you had pre-human animality (mere struggle for resources) and post-human dandyism (purely aesthetic competition, with no material stakes).

This always seemed to me a heretical revision of the Marxist-materialist account of society. But an immensely successful one. Napoleon used to marvel at how he could make men brave death for the sake of little plaques of metal tied to bright ribbons. By choosing to translate economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy into the common currency of recognition, Kojève launched a lot of ships, including a certain Lacanian armada and multiculturalism in its Charles-Taylorish version.

But there’s a problem with recognition: it works all too well.  Continue reading

03/6/13

Debatable Propositions in a Book I Otherwise Thought Important

If Bildung comprises a reactionary alternative to revolution, it shares this pacific spirit with modern human rights law. The French declaration of rights similarly articulated, after the event, how the revolution could have been avoided, and how future revolutions might be avoided through the reproductive mechanics of popular sovereignty. Although they emerged from the context of revolution, both human rights law and the Bildungsroman are reformist, rather than revolutionary… both human rights law and the Bildungsroman project individualized narratives of self-determination as cultural alternatives to the eruptive political act of mass revolt…

Both human rights and the Bildungsroman are tendentially conservative of prevailing social formations. Plotting novelistic and social evolution as an alternative to civil and political revolution, the idealist Bildungsroman narrates the normative constitution of the modern rights subject…. What emerges from the process is a socially contingent personality imagined to prevent certain antiestablishment collective and collectivizing revolutionary actions.

(Joseph R. Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc., pp. 115, 135, 136)

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12/18/12

Duck and Cover

I grew up in a small Kansas town that seemed at the time far removed from just about everything except the Soviet Union. Most of the U.S.’s planes were put together in Wichita (still known as the “Air Capital of the World”), which meant it was a first-strike target by that other superpower. Wichita sits about 130 miles east out on highway 50, and according to predictions and all sorts of maps bloomed with damage estimates, we (give or take a few megatons) would be erased with it.  I somehow understood all of this relatively early.  We practiced ducking and covering in the middle-school hallway, ostensibly to prepare for tornadoes, but the weather contributed little to the ambient fear of the time.

Shortly after Sandy rewrote the East Coast, my son told me about his class’s hurricane drill.  They turned out the lights and were instructed to huddle away from the door and to be very quiet.  In the wake of the Newtown shooting — a town just 60 miles north of us — we received messages from the school principal and our kids’ teachers advising us to talk to our children about what happened (best to get out in front of it all) and offering suggestions about how to go about that.  The upper grades would dedicate time to questions and discussion.  At home we broached and comforted and consoled more or less as advised.

This will be the legacy of Newtown:  Mass shooting is a children’s fear now, one they practice for and live with — one that, unfortunately, can no longer surprise even them.

12/8/12

Goodbye to Aleppo

For Inna, Jörg and Ilonka

 

Clashes are raging in the Syrian city of Aleppo as government troops and rebel forces battle for control. (DemocracyNow! Headlines, July 24, 2012)

Whereas I used to follow the reports on the popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, I have caught myself shunning news from Syria, especially the visual footage from the urban battlefields: Daraa-Damascus-Hama- … When about two years ago the tumult of the Arab Spring broke out in the Middle East, an anxious thought of Syria immediately crossed my mind. I expected Syria to join. Knowing the country’s uneasy political past, I sensed how badly it was likely to turn out. The long-lasting silence from Syria was ambiguous: It could be a sign that Syria was doing better and would be able to solve its long suppressed conflicts by taking a path of reform. Or maybe it was the silence of a population too broken in spirit to mount a protest. Deep down, however, this silence gave me hope that Syria might be spared this time the bloodshed of post-revolutionary Egypt and especially that of the excruciatingly brutal civil war in Libya. When the protests finally started, I did not follow them. Glancing only briefly at the headlines, I inexplicably and for a long time hurried to turn away to something else. I did not want to dwell on my reaction, until suddenly in mid-summer I saw Aleppo in the headlines.

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12/2/12

Republicans on Copyright

A few years ago at the instigation of Paul Saint-Amour Ted Wesp and I spent a few months thinking and writing about copyright (results in Paul’s edited book, here). Ever since I’ve been convinced not only of the importance of copyright for thinking about the history of aesthetic production, but also of its vital contemporary impact on the entire economic life-world, ranging from patent law (and its implications for technological or medical developments) to the field of culture.

Crooked Timber points me to the Republican Study Committee’s new thinkpiece on copyright, which argues against it from a radical capitalist/libertarian perspective. I am not going to read the entire RSC piece, and neither are you, so here instead is the quote CT pulls out:

Copyright violates nearly every tenet of laissez faire capitalism. Under the current system of copyright, producers of content are entitled to a guaranteed, government instituted, government subsidized content-monopoly … It is a system implemented and regulated by the government, and backed up by laws that allow for massive damages for violations. These massive damages are not conventional tort law damages, but damages that are vastly disproportionate from the actual damage to the copyright producer. … we do know that our copyright paradigm has … Retarded the creation of a robust DJ/Remix industry … Hampering scientific inquiry … Stifling the creation of a public library … Free 12-year copyright term for all new works – subject to registration, and all existing works are renewed as of the passage of the reform legislation. If passed today this would mean that new works have a copyright until 2024.

Ummm. Amen?

11/8/12

Oh, so that’s why

Stanley Kurtz explains Obama’s reelection:

Just before the election, Jay Nordlinger reported that the proportion of Princeton University faculty or staff donating to the presidential candidates was 155 to 2. Only a visiting engineering lecturer and a janitor gave to Romney. It’s an almost entertainingly extreme example of academic bias, but when you think about it, also a deadly-serious explanation for Obama’s victory. The college educated professionals at the heart of Obama’s coalition are products of an academic culture that not only leans far-left, but is dedicated to producing precisely the national political outcome that Obama represents. Obama himself was both a product and a member of the elite leftist university faculty.

In contrast to Reagan’s appointees Bill Bennett and Lynne Cheney, the Bush administration avoided public battles with the academy. Republicans nowadays tend to write off academia as silly and irrelevant. Meanwhile, our colleges and universities have been quietly churning out left-leaning voters for some time. Not all graduates go along, of course, but many do.

Higher education is also connected to the demographic roots of Obama’s victory. Prior to World War II, college was still the path less traveled. By the sixties, it had become common. Now years of post-graduate professional education for a large percentage of Americans have pushed back the age of marriage, increasing the numbers of single women so crucial to Obama’s coalition. The phenomenon of extended singlehood is at the root of the new social liberalism as well, not to mention the demographic bust driving our entitlement crisis.

Yes, it was all those liberal university elites at those places thought silly and irrelevant by current conservatives.

11/7/12

Another day, another dawn

Big day for the party of compassion and bunnies yesterday! First time that a gay marriage issue has won at the ballot box (x 4, at last count); Prop 30 passes in California, assuring that those universities will stay open; and of course the Dems end up with the Presidency and a 55-45 lead in the Senate. Also a major victory for science and poll quantifiers over the gut feeling idiot pundits like George Will and Dick Morris.

It will be very interesting to see what happens in the next four years as Obama begins to govern without thoughts of re-election, and as the economy (which was going to get better anyway because of things he’d done, but for which now Dems will get the credit) improves. Clinton-Warren in 2016!

Oh, and for schadenfreude: depressed Republican reactions.

11/5/12

I’m so fucking tired

I am so fucking tired of people (mostly men) talking about banning abortion “except in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother” as if that were the compassionate stance. As if forcing women to carry through with pregnancies that they don’t want or can’t afford or are not ready for, for whatever reason, were a perfectly reasonable and ethical position to hold. As if the only way a woman could “deserve” to be a more worthy life than a clump of cells growing inside her were if she’s already been violated. As if there were some index of suffering against which such violations can be measured: If she wasn’t beaten up but good, then it wasn’t really rape. If she knew her rapist, then it doesn’t really count. If she wasn’t a virgin, then what’s the harm? And if she can’t prove that the pregnancy was a result of violence or could end in death, then violence will most certainly be visited on her, because god forbid she should enjoy having sex and not pay a price for it.

I’m pissed off that this veneer of reasonableness in the rhetoric of violence against women is the controlling discourse on abortion, that politicians can stand there and proudly spout their beliefs about the sanctity of life with no repercussions, and that even pro-choice groups treat the “rape, incest, and death” exception as an acceptable ideological difference. I find it bizarre that Nicholas Kristof  “respect[s] politicians like Paul Ryan who are consistently anti-abortion, even in cases of rape or incest” because such consistency, according to him, bespeaks a “heartfelt” position that could cost them votes, and therefore is “courageous” (no I’m not making that up!). If Ryan or Romney has a “heartfelt” belief that women who get pregnant but do not want a child must nonetheless be forced to continue the pregnancy and deliver, because anything else is murder, I guess they are free to hold that belief. But when they plan for the state to be in the business of forced pregnancy and delivery for the vast majority of women faced with an unintended pregnancy, then they need to be called out loud and often for the dangerous extremists that they are. Courageous? How about pathologically misogynist?