Friday, December 26, 2003


I'm listening to some wonderful Russian liturgical music. I love this music because of its texture--the thickness of it and close harmonies--and because it's low. I'm an alto. I'm taken also by the visual arts of the Russian Church--dim religious light, guttering candles and gilded icons. I used to read Dostoyevsky to fantacize that world, where there was this pervasive religiousity and everyone was always at an emotional fever pitch.

The trouble is that the concommitant of all this lovely stuff is filth, ignorance and superstition. Isaac Bashevis Singer describes it in The Slave--the world of Eastern European peasants scraping for minimal subsistance--illiterate, filthy and brutal. Of course we can create a sanitized Episcopalian version of it, with all the appeal of Disneyland or Marie Antoinette's royal cow shed. We can duplicate the aesthetic surface, but unless there are authentic peasants around, lighting the candles because they believe it will give them babies or make the corn grow it isn't the same thing. The cost of that though is having people who are ignorant, bigoted and poor to light those candles in the simple faith or Dostoyevsky's fat merchant's wife.

In the same vein, we'd like to live on the edge of wilderness, in houses on large lots where deer and bunnies come to our gardens. But we don't want our children or pets to be mauled by bears or mountain lions. We want safe, marked hiking trails where we can enjoy old growth forests without the danger of being mauled or eaten, where we can camp in REI tents and sleeping bags.

We might as well be honest and admit what we want--and not impose our decadent tastes on the natives or make them serve as props in our romantic fantasies. It would be a shame if traditional societies were disrupted and wilderness were lost, but the price of romance is too high--ignorance, brutality, predation and the nasty, brutish, short life of people in the state of nature.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

The Vision Thing

We got 'im. Bummer. Now Democrats' ace in the hole has been trumped.

Maybe it's time for liberals to start being honest instead of cranking the Peace message for political ends. Brooks commented last night on the news hour that Dean came off badly vis-a-vis Bush because while Bush had a "moral vision" he only had niggling pragmatic recommendations. The irony is that liberals have a moral vision, articulated in the theoretical literature but are afraid to lay it out for the groundlings whom they wheedle with the tried and true issues they assume will get the troops out: peace, environmentalism and pro-choice.

Maybe Democrats should trust ho demos, a little more because the message isn't that hard to understand: it's just the old time religion of a really, and not merely nominally level playing field. Rig things in such a way that the effects of dumb luck are minimized, so that everyone has the basic resources to survive guaranteed, opportunities to better themselves, and safety nets so that they can afford to assume risk. It isn't hard, it isn't expensive, it isn't socially disruptive and it isn't particularly high tech.

Rhetoric about "working families" doesn't fool anyone--it's an updated attempt to invoke unions' appeal to working men with promises of a family wage. Everyone wants peace and environmentalism--the question is where and how much. Pro-choice is a fait accompli and no matter how much feminists attempt to work up fears that it's being eroded, no one is getting excited.

It's incredible that conservatives have succeeded in exploiting the rhetoric of freedom and level playing fields because that is precisely what they do not offer. Constraints imposed by the state in the US are negligible compared to the constraints imposed by the economic system and by social custom. Freedom insofar as it's valuable isn't the entitlement to hold and express dissident political views or religious heresies. Few people care about ideas or ideologies--freedom of speech, of religion, of the press and the like are luxuries for the elite. The freedom that counts is the freedom to do what you want, be where you want, not be physically constrained. If you are trapped behind the checkout counter in Walmart 8 hours a day because the only other option is living on the street you are not free.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Discount Nation: Is Wal-Mart Good for America?

Probably. At least in the long run when we're all dead.

Walmart is capitalism at its ruthlessly efficient best. It pays its employees minimum wage, without benefits, and extracts unpaid overtime because it can. It drives labor off-shore and wipes out manufacturing jobs because it can. It discriminates against women and hires illegal aliens as janitors because it can. This is as close to laissez faire as we get. If it weren't for minimum wage, Walmart would pay even less.

So much for right-wing nostalgia and the fantasy of a nation of mom-and-pop shopkeepers. Cold War propaganda set that fantasy against the bugaboo of a Socialist mass society where faceless slaves toiled in monumental factories until they were used up and thrown away. In fact that is what we are going to get when other retailers and firms in other industries emulate Walmart.

Maybe at that point, when we're all dead, the American electorate will catch on

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Seeking Balance: Growth vs. Culture in Amazon

Amazonian natives object to the exploitation of oil reserves in their hunting-gathering grounds, fearing that development will erode their Traditional Culture--so the headline suggests. But read a little further: it turns out that what sticks in their craw is the fact that they are not getting what they regard as their fair share of the pie. The state owns the oil reserves

However, without the cooperation of the natives, drilling for oil may not be feasible so savvy natives are doing everything they can to disrupt operations in order to blackmail oil companies and the government of Ecuador. In this project, for the time being, they've enlisted the help of environmental groups. Indeed, some natives run a profitable sideline in ecotourism.

The article ends piously with a quote from a native who affirms "We live barefoot like our ancestors. We like it that way."

Sorry. I'm not convinced. "Little Indian, Sioux or Crow/Furry little Eskimo/Little Turk or Japanee/Don't you wish that you were me!" Of course, not the Japanee--they're doing better than we are, and we're eating sushi and watching Anime.

As good liberal Americans, most of us detest our culture, such as it is, with good reason. For most of our history America was a provincial backwater. Our literature was largely derivative and anyone with a serious interest in the arts went to Europe to study. That's why American history, mandated for study in the public schools, was so profoundly boring: there was Jamestown, the Massachusetts Bay colony, the Stamp Act (whatever that was) and endless, boring politics--because nothing else was happening. Mercifully, however, we are allowed to appropriate European culture as our own, from the Greeks into the 19th century. I'm for according the same mercy to members of Traditional Cultures.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Liberal, Elitist and Angry - RNC chairman: Democrats increasingly 'liberal, elitist, angry' - Dec. 3, 2003

Guilty as charged--and it's about time.

The BBC world news tonight reported that Mugabe's political cronies have been appropriating farms that the local peasants siezed from white landowners in accordance with Zimbabwe's "land reform" policy. Incredibly, they presented this as news.

Populism has always been the last refuge of thugs. The proles have little understanding of their own interests and no concern about anyone elses. Any demogogue can, with little effort, set them against elites that exclude them, whether the elite of white commercial farmers in Africa or the Eastern Liberal Establishment in the US. African dictators, playing the race card, can get the peasants to grab land for them. Republican politicians can count on the American proletariat to vote them into office and support policies that benefit their coterie of plutocrats.

I'm for the elite, and the more of it the better--for people like me with PhDs who read the Times, watch PBS and promote those good liberal policies that would make it possible for everyone to join the club.