Monday, August 30, 2004

The New York Times > International > Europe > Terrorism: Hostages Urge France to Repeal Its Scarf Ban

Ayman Zawahiri, the No. 2 figure in the terrorist network Al Qaeda, condemned France for defending the freedom of nudity and depravity and fighting chastity and decency with the scarf ban, adding that such anti-Muslim acts by the West should be dealt with by tank shells and antiaircraft missiles.

Vive la France! Liberte, nudite, depravite!

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Nice Muslims

Crooked Timber: Light a single candle

I've heard that before the war there were even some fairly civilized Muslims in Iraq--who had electricity and indoor plumbing and didn't carry assault weapons or marry off their daughters to cousins at the age of 9. I can imagine how they must feel now that the US is negotiating with a gang leader whose "militia" consists of young, lower class males from a Bagdad slum--or how they might have taken this article from the NYTimes proposing tribal rule as the semi-final solution to the Iraq problem.

As a thought experiment, imagine that 50 years from now the EU, now the world's hyperpower, invades the US to dismantle WMD and establish democracy. In the process they destroy the electricity grid, disrupt the water supply and demolish the sewage system. But they aren't worried: the US is, after all, a third world country--how many Americans had electricity or running water anyway? how many had ever seen a flush toilet much less knew how to use one?

The looting, rioting and ongoing insurgency is something of a surprise and poses a dilemma. If occupying forces go in with shock and awe the collateral damage will get all Americans up in arms; if they pull their punches it will go on and on and on creating even more hostility from the general public. The puppet regime doesn't seem able to control it.

An editorial writer at the Times (not of NY) proposes empowering Mafia bosses to run the country. They're thugs and we may not like the way they operate, but they have traditionally had the allegiance of many Americans (some 40% of whom are "tribal"--like Iragis according to the NYTimes article) and can maintain order. Most however believe that televangelists and other fundamentalist clerics would be the best qualified to put the lid back on. Pundits debate about whether the cost of supporting them--a fundamentalist Christian theocracy--would be acceptable. Most agree that, while they would put women into purdah, administer shock treatment to homosexuals and burn heretics it's better than chaos and the potential for breeding more terrorism. There aren't that many homosexuals and heretics and third world women are used to being being treated badly--it wouldn't bother them in the way that it would bother people like us.

Meanwhile, diplomats are negotiating with a young hoodlum who, with his gang of ghetto youths from the South Bronx, is holed up in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine trying to parlay his way into a high position in the puppet regime. EU policy makers have learnt from their Cultural Sensitivity advisors that St. John the Divine is the holiest shrine in Protestantdom and that if they storm the place to get the gang out there will be a mass uprising. Here endeth the epistle.

If I were one of those civilized Muslims in Iraq I'd pray for the return of Saddam--or someone like him.

Friday, August 27, 2004

BBC NEWS | UK | Politics | Tory leader attacks 'PC culture'

Maybe the Brits have something to complain about--we in the US don't. Opponents of "political correctness" want a world where I don't get to do guy stuff. They want a world where things look right--where, even if a minority of elite women get to be lawyers and managers, most are concentrated in smarmy "helping professions" and excluded from blue collar work. They want to see to it that employers can hire people according to what looks right and that women are confined to jobs where they have to do boring repetitious work or be nice and help people, and in any case dress up.

"Political correctness" is a straw man. The gist of the argument is that opening genuine opportunities for women outside of the pink-collar sector or enforcing fair practices in hiring and promotion entails commitment to a whole host of silly, coercive and otherwise objectionable practices.

The issue is whether women can get commissioned sales positions selling electronic gadgets at Fry's Electronics--they can't--and whether they have the same chance as comparably qualified males of getting promoted at Walmart, being auto mechanics or working construction.
The Sleep of Reason

The embrace of relativism by many leftist intellectuals in the United States, while it may not be politically very important, is a terrible admission of failure, and an excuse for not answering the claims of their political opponents. The subordination of the intellect to partisan loyalty is found across the political spectrum, but usually it takes the form of a blind insistence on the objective truth of certain supporting facts and refusal to consider evidence to the contrary. So what explains the shift, at least by a certain slice of the intellectual left, to this new form of obfuscation?

When I was an undergraduate I volunteered to go door to door for Zero Population Growth to promote the liberalization of abortion laws. I thought that, as a philosophy major, I was just the person for the job: I had read Locke on personal identity and could explain to people that even though fetuses were human beings, living organisms of species homo sapiens, they were not persons. I was prepared to expand on this in great detail.

I was told that this was not a good idea. At the training session for volunteers, we were cautioned not to get into "philosophical arguments." If a contact attempted to argue we were to repeat (as many times as it took) that abortion was simply an issue of women's rights, and that was that. If we allowed ourselves to be drawn into arguments of any kind, we were warned, we were lost.

It was the same thing whenever I tried to work for the political causes I supported--argument was out. I don't know whether this was peculiar to leftist causes or a feature of politics as such but the idea was that sloganeering and manipulation were sophisticated while argument was, at best, naive. But it did seem especially entrenched in the Left--it was a commonplace that you couldn't dismantle the master's house with the master's tools.

This isn't an assumption peculiar to the French "intellectuals" Sokol and Bricmont exposed or to academic literati--it's feature of popular culture. I get it from students. Every year the freshmen in my intro logic classes, where I devote the first 3 weeks to "critical thinking" and debunking rehearse the theme. Many are grossly superstitious and almost all buy some version of mellow relativism. Most don't think logic broadly construed is important--in the words of one haunting course eval comment: "What's the good of being logical if no one else is?"

Talking to upperclassmen who were more articulate and reflective got some idea of their views. Conservative ideologues in my ethics classes believed that "rationality" was coextensive with the Market, which was perfectly efficient--any objections to the free operation of the Market were ipso facto irrational. Some were convinced that not only I, but Rawls and everyone on the syllabus apart from Nozick were warm-hearted sentimentalists who didn't know how the real world worked and that Sen just didn't understand economics. Most of the others believed that rationality was a matter of arbitrary convention. Rationality was a matter of memorizing and following arbitrary rules. To be rational was to be blinkered and constrained, conventional, obedient, rigid, simplistic and dull.

In less than a week I'll be back to teaching after my sabbatical--I've got a lot of work to do. On the whole I'm not a great enthusiast about teaching. But I do get a kick out of it in intro logic classes when students have their satoris and realize that the stuff makes sense--and I can say (it usually gets a laugh) "Hey--that's why they call it 'logic'!"

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The New York Times > Opinion > Guest Columnist: Chipping Away at the Wall

In his wonderful book, "Summer for the Gods," Edward J. Larson paints a picture of America in the mid-1920's that's oddly familiar: torn between modernism and religious fundamentalism, Americans felt an old-time burning need for a burning bush. Horrified by the moral and cultural declines of the Jazz Age, they turned away from internationalism and intellectualism.

Welcome to 2004 and "Summer for the Gods Part 2: Revenge of the Public Officials."

So far so good. I'm firmly in favor of internationalism, intellectualism and moral decline as well as stem cell research, socialism, the legalization of recreational drugs and putting redneck Fundamentalists in their place. But why should we worry that--

A crèche on government property is constitutional so long as the manger includes a Malibu Barbie; and state aid to religious schools is constitutional if it's triangulated through the alchemy of parental choice.

I have an idiosyncratic taste for religious displays, from creches in the park to Buddhas in Chinese restaurants. I'd like to see as much of this stuff in public space as possible. Where is the harm anyway? Every English town and village has a market cross but this doesn't seem to have made the Brits religious in any objectionable sense. I don't even understand why state support for religious schools or for that matter churches is a problem. Godless Scandanavian countries support churches but are not considering anything comparable to the Defense of Marriage Act.

Whatever meaning religious believers attach crosses, creches or restaurant Buddhas, to non-believers they are simply decor: I do not see why they should be objectionable to anyone. Churches are de facto public facilities like museums and theme parks: I don't see why they shouldn't be subsidized. We might not want to subsidize all such de facto public facilities but it seems to me we should fund those that provide access to important cultural artifacts and, similarly, we should subsidize churches that have historic interest or architectural merit.

The Scopes trial locked in a peculiarly American take on the role of religion in public life. We either see it as the bulwark of a decent society, imposing a code of conduct on citizens and exerting social control, or as a reactionary force and threat to individual liberty. In either case we see it as a potent ideology with the potential to transform public life, for better or worse. We do not see it as a package of myths, customs and visible symbols--church buildings, market crosses, holidays, ceremonies and practices--which are inherently powerless.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

It's Class Warfare...

...but who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

Since CNN colored Middle America red almost 4 years ago liberals have been meditating on the great mystery of recent American politics: how did the Democratic Party lose the working class? why was Joe Sixpack voting against his economic interests? what was the matter with Kansas?

The orthodox answer was that Joe and his fellow Kansans were bamboozled by the conservative noise machine. If only they could be shaken out of their false consciousness they would recognize that their real enemies were not latte-drinking liberals but the Republican plutocrats who used them to promote their capitalist agenda.

This however assumes that it is in the interests of the American working class to oppose the conservative program. It is not. As all good Preference Utilitarians know, what is in a person's interest is his getting what he wants--and most members of the working class do not want what latte-drinking liberals imagine they "really" want or think they ought to want.

35 years ago the Proles discovered that they could use the rich to promote their agenda. By throwing the plutocrats a few sops--tax cuts for the wealthy and policies that favored big business--they could get everything they wanted: more restrictions on sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, more war, more prisons and harsher sentences; the affirmation of their way of life and the humiliation of the effete snobs, hippies, professors, liberal journalists, feminazis and the whole latte establishment which, with good reason, despised them.

The working class is our enemy and the rich are their dupes. The Proles don't need their consciousness raised: they know very well what they want and they are getting it.

Monday, August 16, 2004

The Ethic of Love

By 1963 everyone knew that the Old Christian Ethic--the Rules, undergirded by Kantianism at its sourist and, above all, no sex--was bad. The trouble was that the Ethic of Love promulgated by J. A. T. Robinson and other liberal clergymen, was much, much worse.

The tenets of the Ethic of Love were three: (1) radical altruism, (2) personal involvement and (3) non-reflection.

(1) Christians, according to the Ethic of Love, were to "do what Love would do"--to give themselves unstintingly to the Other, without counting costs. So, in Honest to God J. A. T. Robinson rehearsed the story of a woman who cured a pederast by "giving herself" to him sexually. Quite apart from feminist objections to this recommendation and the fantastical suggestion that Love can cure pederasty, the fundamental claim that the whole of the law and the prophets was unstinting self-giving was oppressive. Buttoned-up clergy, accustomed to dealing with puritanical parishioners imagined that the Ethic of Love was liberating, but it was the opposite.

The Old Christian Ethic made limited, if stringent, demands: if you didn't steal, lie, commit adultery or worship graven images you could do pretty much what you liked. The demands of Love were unlimited. Love demanded constant sensitivity to the needs and wants of others: whenever there was a need or want, Christians were to jump to satisfy it--without thinking of inconvenience to themselves or counting costs.

(2) To make matters worse, Christians were supposed to give of themselves. Impersonal acts of charity were not good enough. Christians were to work in soup kitchen and enter into conversations with derelicts, volunteer for social service projects, keep informed about current events and work politically for a more just society. Contributing to political organizations and paying others to kiss lepers was just not good enough.

(3) Finally, reflection on the costs and benefits of the program was not on. It was, after all, Judas who worried that the ointment spilt on Jesus' feet could have been sold to provide for the poor.

Love was spontaneous and unreflectively generous. Love did not ask whether contributing a day's wages to Oxfam might not be better than spending a day dispensing sandwiches to bums on grates. Love did not even ask whether its beneficiaries wanted the kind of generosity it demanded: it did not ask whether poor families would have preferred an impersonal check coverning the costs of a decent Thanksgiving dinner to a church lady delivering a food basket and ministering to them. Love never asked about opportunity costs either: it demanded a spontaneous, unreflectively generous response to need as it presented itself, without consideration of other needs, most especially one's own.

The Ethic of Love was not so much about how people should behave as about what sort of people they should be--in particular, the doctrine that they should be like liberal clergy. It was liberating and comfortable to people who were uncritical, sentimental and sympathetic; it was flattering to people who wanted to "work with people" and got personal gratification from helping the needy. But it was miserable for people who were simply not like that--and clergy, who were self-selected for these traits didn't realize that for others who tried to practice the Ethic of Love, it was more oppressive and guilt-inducing than the old, sour puritanism.

In the end, most people didn't take it any more seriously than they took old style Christian Morality. They conducted their lives according to the conventions of their particular social groups, with attention to the exhortations of advertisers and self-help gurus. Conservatives looked to their churches to support the social conventions they followed; if a church failed to do the job, they found another that did. Liberals didn't pay any attention to the church at all.

The earth spun around, the sun rose and set, while clergy debated the fine points of sexual ethics, preached and exorted, and imagined that they were keeping it going.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Campaigns spar on war leadership |

Some time ago there was an article, I think in the New Yorker, describing a safety test comparing an SUV with a Porsche sports car. Predictably, the conclusion was that the Porsche was not only more fun to drive--it was a lot safer. Of course it depends on what you mean by "safe." If you are going to get into an accident, you're better off in an SUV. But you're much less likely to get into an accident in a Porche--if you're reasonably intelligent, have good reflexes and aren't drunk.

Gerald Ford billed himself as "a Ford--not Lincoln." Bush is trying to sell himself as an SUV--not a Porsche.

Don't worry that the SUV can't slalom around those cones. There's no point in going around if you can just roll right over them. Besides, changing direction is a sign of weakness: flip-flopping and diplomacy show you don't have the weight, power and guts to smash through.

Bring 'em on and...let's roll!

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The Right Rev. George W. Bush - Among the worshippers at the president's traveling revival show. By Chris Suellentrop

"All of you are soldiers in the army of compassion," the clergyman-in-chief tells the crowd. "And one of the reasons I'm seeking the office for four more years is to call upon our citizens to love your neighbor just like you'd like to be loved yourself." After his usual endorsement of the Golden Rule, Bush speaks of souls, which also isn't unusual for him: "We can change America one soul at a time by encouraging people to spread something government cannot spread, which is love."

Maybe the reason I don't trust George W. Bush is because I don't trust anybody.

I don't trust potential employers to assess my application on the basis of merit because I know that they will hire friends and relatives, and that, in any case, I will not even be considered for "men's jobs." That's the way the world works, and it's fine if you are a white male and have connections. It isn't fine for me.

I don't trust family and friendly neighbors to bail me out when the going gets tough. Apart from a casual greeting when I take out the trash I don't have any contact with my neighbors and I don't have a warm, extended family that pulls together in tough times. When my kids were sick and couldn't go to childcare, I had to take them to work--there were no grandparents, aunts or friendly neighbors to help out. When my kids are grown they'll move across the country or to Europe to pursue their careers--I don't expect them to take care of me when I'm old.

I don't trust "faith-based initiatives" to provide a safety net. I suppose that if I were destitute I would be able to get a bed at a Salvation Army shelter, but I certainly hope it doesn't come to that.

The picture of a friendly world where neighbors are neighborly and families take care of their own, where merit and hard work pay off and love conquers all, is a fantasy. Without the government enforcing equal opportunity and affirmative action policies, I don't have a chance of getting a job for which I'm qualified on the basis of merit. And without state benefits I have no safety nets beyond a bed in the Salvation Army shelter.

The Politics of Fantasy

American Prospect Online - ViewWeb

Some time ago I had a big fight with I., who reviews romance novel mss. for a living, about Princess Di. I couldn't fathom why I.'s readers not only followed her career and wardrobe but sympathized with her marital problems and mourned her death. I hated Di. To me it was all very simple: Di was was tall, thin, blond and rich; if she hadn't screwed up, she would be Queen of England eventually. What more could anyone want? Why should she care if Charles had a mistress on the side? Big deal. Yet she had the gaul to want even more--a Harlequin Romance with Charles.

I.'s readers apparently didn't feel that way. Those truckers' wives, waitresses and Walmart cashiers wanted Di to have even more.

Matthew Yglesias wonders why Americans, aren't more enthusiastic about Kerry's proposal to increase taxes individuals who make more than $200,000/year or why they resonate to Bush's stump speech:

Kerry "said he's only going to raise the tax on the so-called rich. But you know how the rich is: They've got accountants. That means you pay. That means your small business pays. It means the farmers and ranchers pay."

After all, Yglesias notes, only 2% of Americans make over $200,000 a year, and very few are small business owners, farmers or ranchers.

Yglesias ignores the Princess Di Phenomenon. Millions of women who were not tall, thin, blond or rich, but wished they were wanted Di to have even more. And millions of Americans who don't stand to gain from tax cuts for the rich or benefits to small business owners, farmers or ranchers, will get on board with Bush's proposal because, while they're fatalistic about their own prospects, they want people of these sorts to do well. They want the rich to do well--so long as they imagine them as entrepreneurs and benefactresses, heroic CEOs with well-dressed wives promoting suitable charities. They want small businessmen, farmers and ranchers to do well because they like that idea of Main Street with Gillis' Grocery Store and Cunningham Hardware, where Grandpa Miller gets his chicken feed and plowshares.

Main Street is as remote from their lives as Buckingham Palace, but it doesn't matter. They don't believe that politics can make any difference in the their lives so they opt for politics as fantasy--that vision of America where the Cartwright Boys herded and hunted, the Real McCoy menfolk worked the South 40 while Kate and Hassie cooked grits, and Archie and Veronica hung out at the Malt Shop on Main Street..

Monday, August 09, 2004


Oxfam - Sudan - Emergency - A long way from home - interview with Oxfam's logistics manager in Sudan

Incredibly, I discovered that some people are actually reading this blog! So I thought, shit, I should do something! So this is it: Please contribute some money to help the refugees from Darfur. The link above is to Oxfam--but there are plenty of other a agencies helping out that you can find on the web.

Just do it. This is a moral slam dunk. The origins of the conflict may be muddled--here's a link to a NYTimes Ob-Ed piece: the bottom line is that people are starving and getting sick and we can do something about it. So please hit the link to Oxfam, or some other, contribute, and pass this on.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

The New York Times > Magazine > The Way We Live Now: What Olympic Ideal?
What ever happened to Chariots of Fire, those brave British boys sprinting around the quad at their Oxbridge college, inspired by Principles--those amateurs?

There was a PBS documentary on the Romans yesterday, describing their passive-aggressive rationale for empire building. The Romans make the case that they have to subdue the tribes at their borders to be secure, so they conquer neighboring territory, ostensibly in the interests of defense. Then the neighboring territory becomes part of the Roman empire so, recursively, territory bordering on it has to be conquered to secure what has now become Roman territory. And so on, until the empire reaches the end of its lines of communication.

So, recursively, we create leisure pursuits, turn them into businesses, then create more leisure pursuits. which themselves turn into businesses.

I was in Texas last week visiting L. whose mother has a house on the Gulf of Mexico. We rented kayaks and explored the salt marshes while jet skis and power boats buzzed us. I can understand the jet skis--I'd like to try it--but the powerboats buzzing around and around the inlet, getting nowhere fast, were a mystery. I like sailing, fiddling with the lines, continually solving puzzles. But I don't understand why anyone would want to go round and in round in warm water 4 feet deep in a powerboat, getting nowhere fast and not doing anything interesting. It seems like playing slot machines--about as interesting as working on an assembly line.

We're geared up for puzzle solving and strenuous physical work, hunting wooly mammoths. Mercifully, we don't have to hunt or gather anymore, or farm or weave. So we can garden, do fancy needlework, play games, prove theorems, test ourselves against material and intellectual constraints purely for pleasure. But we don't. We turn sports into a business, make entertainment a life and death affair, and cheat.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Take my money--please take my money...

I've just finished my taxes for the August 15 extension deadline. I don't care about the money. I'd pay twice as much if I could avoid the record-keeping and paperwork and, given my wage rate, it would probably be cost-effective. It took me all day, a bottle of wine, and almost 2 runs of the Bach B minor Mass to get through it. And with all that I am paying the Feds in 3 figures and California in 4.

Ah but now we're on the Sanctus, with the soprano line circling around and brass blasting. I suppose I do like this better than the Russian church music--it is definitely cosmic and much more varied. My colleague J.D. had a short piece of his picked up by the newspapers, "Philosophy Professor Says Heaven Could Be Boring." Could be if they're singing Russian chant, but definitely not if Bach is going.

Baroque was a risk. You could keep chugging on with chant forever, hypnotically. But this stuff, forced up to squeeze out emotion (the sweet violin and tenor solos for the Benedictus, the bouncing Hosanna, and now this brooding Agnus Dei) is unstable and was bound to collapse, like a TV sitcom degrading to warmedy. Even the social critiques became nice: MASH lost its edge and Archie Bunker became a diamond in the rough with a good heart.

It did collapse. Bach begat Mendelsohn--who I LIKE, but whose blocky Lutheran chorales suggest blocky Germans singing Lutheran chorales rather than angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. That brooding Agnus Dei morphed into "Jesus Lover of My Soul" and lesser sentimental Victorian Jesus hymns. Baroque church architecture (I'm thinking of St. Paul's) took a funny turn, branching into smarmy Roccoco, with pink and white gilded putti, on the one hand and earnest secular federal style on the other, the stuff of every state capital in the US. I went with Graham W., to St. Martin's in the Fields where the rot had clearly set in and we concluded that the two fattest putti were Handel and Mrs Anne Kiligrew.

There's a moral in here somewhere but I don't feel capable of extracting it. Maybe it's about the risk of Incarnation, "nothing human is alien to me," taking on intellect, emotion, every human thing and incurring the risk that the whole religious enterprise would become merely human--as it did. Along the way though the parishioners at Thomaskirsche must have had a blast with Old Bach at the organ and his 27 kids helping out with his original productions in the choir and orchestra.

Oooo, must go. We're at "Et in spiritum sanctum dominum et vivificantem (I've gone back on the disk). This is where I came in. 35 years ago on a hot night I slept on the fire escape of my college dorm and when I woke up the fields shouted "Lord! Giver of Life!"

The Spittoon and the Veil

I've been trying to find an essay on spittoons I read long ago--the sort of thing Chesterton might have written. In lieu of it, the best I could do was this: The Spitting Syndrome

The gist of essay I couldn't find was that while spittoons were regarded as a necessity of civilized life--the assumption being that all men by their nature must spit--we now don't even miss them.

Veiling, purdah and all the machinery of female modesty were the first civilized response to sexual exploitation and male violence. I'm skeptical about the received view that the whole purpose was to isolate and control women--after all, it wasn't as though before purdah women were free and equal, running peaceful, prosperous matriarchies. Women were bought and sold, beaten, raped and enslaved. Men stole them and fought over them, individually and tribally, from the Rape of Dinah to the Trojan War.

Assuming that men's urges for sex and violence were uncontrollable, in the interest of civility, the obvious solution was to keep women inaccessible and out of sight. If men must spit, spittoons must be one of the amenities of civilized society. The trouble is that the more spittoons there are, the more people spit--and the more firmly entrenched the idea that they must spit becomes. And to right thinking people, radical proposals to unveil women or retire spittoons will seem like an invitation to barbarism--brutality, violence, public disorder and spit all over the floor.

Still, somehow we managed to become a spittoon-free society without even an unsanitary transitional period: without fanfare, the spittoons vanished and men stopped spitting. Women walk unveiled in the streets without the protection of male relatives, but men don't run amok. It's never even occurred to most that they should.