09/28/16

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.

07/22/16

Again, Never Again

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

From these survivors, I learned a few things.

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

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

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

07/5/16

Inflation Prophets

Around 2008– that is, for the non-USAns, two presidential election cycles ago– I remember a lot of dark muttering around various dinner tables about the “messianism” of Obama supporters. People on the left, that is, and some of the most philosophically and historically alert ones, were afraid that the expectations lifting the candidacy of the previously little-known senator from Illinois were going to swerve into something sinister. As it happened, nothing less messianic than Obama’s presidency could be imagined. Obama has governed within the limits of the law, not even testing those limits; far from that, he has failed to take a lot of opportunities that the law would have allowed him, and that would have made possible a deep change in our political culture (such as allowing war-crimes investigations to go ahead for the Bushocracy, before he got too deeply involved in the criminality of war himself). In Max Weber’s terms, he has let routine, not charisma, run the show. That’s the sign of a virtue. Maybe not the virtue we needed foregrounded for all of the last eight years. But a virtue nonetheless.

Messianism is certainly something to worry about. It is a symptom of an impatience that wants to throw off all legal restraints, the very restraints that make possible the “freedom” that Americans, those masters of paradox, trumpet loudest when they are trying to anoint someone as lord and master over them. For this we have historical parallels.

Countless “saviors of the twenties”… achieved a position of “great significance especially in the years of inflation from 1919 to 1923 and then again during the Depression of 1929 to 1933″… In 1922, a Berlin correspondent for the Kölnische Zeitung described these “prophets of the street” as follows: “For the past one or two years, the advertising boards in Berlin have been covered with announcements of disciples of the future and prophets who are advertising their lectures (often at considerable admission prices). Catchwords and quotations from the Bible always play a role in the advertisements. The old constellation of ideas surrounding the apocalypse has gained new life, as it did in earlier times of crisis… The existence of such prophets is a dangerous symptom of the mental state prevalent in Germany today.” (Klaus Schreiner, “Messianism in the Weimar Republic,” 311-362 of Peter Schäfer and Mark Cohen, eds., Toward the Millennium: Messianic Expectations from the Bible to Waco [Leiden: Brill, 1998], 338-339.)

The important thing about these saviors is that they promise to suspend all existing laws, treaties, and institutions, and simply “emerge as the bearer[s] of divine powers of mercy and fate” (337). One enthusiastic student essayist wrote in 1920:

In our misery, we long for a Leader. He will show us the way… The true Leader surely has no selfish motivation, just one, regal motivation, that he must be the Leader because he is it by nature…. The Leader is not guided by the masses, but by his mission; he does not flatter the masses; he proceeds harshly, uprightly, and ruthlessly, in times of good and evil. The Leader is radical; he is wholly that which he is, and he does wholly that which he must. The Leader is responsible; that is, he does God’s will, which he embodies…. God grant us the Leader and help us to achieve true fealty. (Käthe Becker, “Führerschaft, eine Rede vor der Vereinigung ‘Deutsche Jugend,'” in Deutschlands Erneuerung, vol. 4 [1920]: 563, cited in Schreiber, “Messianism,” 336.)

I have replaced “Führer” in Schreiner’s translation with the more ordinary term “Leader” in order to downplay the connotation that the word “Führer” has acquired in English as applying to one moustachioed individual only, because the date of the quotation proves that it’s not a matter of a manipulative individual or an evil genius, but of the fervent passivity of a mass movement begging to be led, pleading to be dealt with “harshly and ruthlessly.” There was a demand for a Führer, a howling demand, already years before the author of Mein Kampf stepped upon the stage. A well-prepared stage. I blame the preparers: the ones in Versailles as well as the pamphleteers, flag-wavers and revanchards.

And if someone had dealt with the root causes of the frenzy in a timely manner, perhaps the hero cult would have subsided. Inflation prophets will arise. They aren’t the evil itself but “dangerous symptoms” thereof. It shouldn’t be impossible to tap the top tax bracket, employ a few million people in infrastructure repairs, have an honest discussion about race, immigration and exclusion.

I didn’t worry too much about messianism in 2008. Perhaps I should have worried about disappointed messianism. But I do worry about it in 2016.

11/23/15

Battlefield Paris

This year in Chicago, I learnt about the recent massacre in Paris from a text message sent to me from Texas. Last year, when in Paris, I learnt about the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff from an email from a friend in Vermont. Wherever you are, trying diligently, as I do now, to dodge news from the simmering world war, it gets ricocheted at you by another eruption of bullets. The only difference in experiencing the massacre in Chicago is the absence of the incessant police sirens that haunted Paris for weeks after the murders, and which a Belorussian friend in Paris now hears again, non-stop, from her apartment near the Bastille:

Я в порядке, спасибо большое за беспокойство! Да, что-то дикое произошло вчера. Всю ночь под окном сирены. На улицу страшно выходить.

[I’m all right. Thanks a lot for your concern. Yes, something wildly horrible happened yesterday. There are the sirens under my window all night long. Scary to go to the street.]

The frontline, with its transposition to Paris, narrows. Now, I find myself at only one remove from the tragedy: I happen to know people who know those who were affected directly. Our landlady, a journalist, had been in the office of Charlie Hebdo just a week before the shooting to commission a caricature from the doomed artists for her newspaper.

A colleague whom I’d met in Paris emailed in distress to excuse himself from our dinner party on the night of November 13 because two of his friends were at the punk rock concert inside the Bataclan, one of them shot (but not fatally) during the escape:

I’m a little overwhelmed right now given the tragedy in Paris last night.  Two of my friends were at the concert hall where the attack took place. They both survived, but one was shot during their escape (he is stable and will be fine). I have been messaging with friends in Paris all night and will probably continue to do so throughout the evening and I just don’t think I will be up for catching up tomorrow.

To say I’m overwhelmed is an understatement.  I honestly just don’t know what i feel or how to feel at the moment and I’m not sure I’ll be much better off tomorrow.

I apologize for the last minute cancellation but I have a hunch you’ll understand.

So crazy.  So sad.  

He, himself a lover of rock music, would certainly have been at the Bataclan with them, had not he made the decision to return to Chicago a month before to finish his dissertation.

Another message from a friend in Paris reads like this:

Deep breath. Profoundly disturbing and unsettling on all fronts — as a human, as a mom, as a parent, as an American, as a Jew, as someone living in France. Hard to believe we’ve explained both Charlie Hebdo and this to our son in less than a year…and on right on the heels of Kenya, Beirut, etc. Unimaginably sad for those affected directly — horrible beyond words. Scary to drop the kids off at school and crèche, to see my husband leave for work, and to head to French class shortly. “Fluctuat nec mergitur”, but how to keep living our lives with kids to consider. My perception of the present aftermath –based on the news/streets/Facebook– is sympathy and empathy, but also anger — can’t let “them” win — gotta live your life. In principal, yes, but as a parent, I cannot wrap my head around it all. A friend set out on a jog with her toddler in a stroller yesterday (determined to not let fear rule) — just down the street — when she encountered a man sprinting in her direction chased by undercover police with guns drawn. She doesn’t know what/who/why was happening, but was deeply disturbed by what could have happened in those few moments. 

Even if one is not yet him- or herself inside the mess, as if skirting a battlefield, one senses already the sound of bullets, fire and smoke. One lives in the war’s tangible potentiality.

That Charlie Hebdo was just a beginning was clear from the failed scenario of multiple attacks: a jogger, a policewoman, a kosher store in Vincennes. By now the “self-haters” have elaborated on their plan to take as many victims as possible, and with the closure of France’s national borders the war has indeed taken on.

Many international actors covet today influence in France for its strategic geopolitical location. The real social problems with unemployment, racism and xenophobia, and the ossified, uncreative educational system failing to integrate immigrants created a pool of disgruntled youth striving for a purpose. What used to turn into local gang wars, a condition vividly portrayed in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995), now found an idealistic wrapping in an appropriated version of Islam. A resentful army of social losers, fired up by the Hollywood style image of all-around-shooting masculinity, discovered their Muslim origins as a palliative for getting over the fact that they are not more than the disposable tools of somebody’s will.

The criminal invasion of Iraq in 2001 that the French reasonably and rationally opposed predictably destabilized the region and led to the uncontrollable Syrian civil war as well as ISIS. I can’t help sending curses in the direction of G. W. Bush and Co. who brought this bright future upon us. As I can’t help thinking that Islamic terrorism in France is an uncanny present that the United States sends back to France in ironic exchange for the Statue of Liberty.

Saddam Hussein and the Assads were, despite appearances, the best allies of the US in the war on Islamic extremism. Whatever was the corrupt oppressiveness of their secular regimes internally, they effectively and brutally kept under control oppressive stirrings of the religious kind. Now the bloody orgy induced by the “opium for the people” doesn’t have any serious opposition, and the battle has spread to the cultural capital of Europe – Paris, with Kalashnikovs aimed at the fans of music and sport.

But what about those Kalashnikovs? – A year ago in Paris, I was struck by an image on display at the French newsstands: On a cover of a journal one could see a disciplined and determined Russian cadet. At a desk with a textbook of the Russian language, he looked yearningly to one side, presumably contemplating a Greater Russia. The caption announced: “Russia has returned.” Working toward this expansionist goal, Putin’s government is building right now a gigantic Center of Russian Orthodox Culture on the quai Branly, to serve as the propaganda platform for Islam’s religious competitor in the aim of destroying Europe.

The closing of French borders in response to the attacks is one of those first little steps towards the re-hermetizing of national polities that the project of the European Union, dear to me, was trying to overcome. With the Russia-funded Front National and the Islamist fighters working in cahoots, ardently catering to each other’s unholy ideological needs, and Brussels, the capital of the EU, shut down under the highest threat level alert, the battle for Paris as a bastion of a free, secular, united Europe becomes real.

What should be done? Above all, the war in Syria and Iraq should end. It is not possible without a serious collective effort of occupation and control of those territories by the Western and Eastern democratic powers (the demand for such help had been voiced by the Syrian pro-democratic activists already in 2012) and a colossal economic investment into a reconstruction of those territories à la Marshall plan in the postwar Germany (that should have been conducted in Iraq since the occupation but was desperately botched up).

Undoing the wrongs is more difficult, more painful, more costly (in all senses) than avoiding the wrongs in the first place. But this time the United States, above all, owe it to themselves, to Europe, and to the whole of civilization.

 

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.

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

06/6/14

Do Feed the Public Intellectual

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

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

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

Continue reading

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

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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.