Friday, September 29, 2006

White and Nerdy

In a world gone crazy, it's nice to have the genius of Weird Al. "White and Nerdy".


But, happily, The Onion has the good news.


Good Cop/ Bad Cop

Ah, now it all makes sense! Here's a hint as to why Republicans are pushing so hard to do away with habeas corpus, allow for torture, and all the rest of those 'emergency measures'.

"Five years after 9/11, the worst attack on the American homeland in our history, Democrats offer nothing but criticism and obstruction and endless second-guessing," Bush said at a Republican fundraiser."

That's going to be the tactic- keep pushing for more restrictive legislation to bait the Democrats into criticizing it, and then nail them as wimps. It's the old good cop/ bad cop routine. Expect a lot of pundits to say things like: "If the terrorists kill you, you won't have any rights! So shut the hell up!" Isn't it amazing, in retrospect, that Reagan came into office with the largest nation on earth as our sworn enemy, pointing thousands of nuclear warheads at us, and he didn't try to do away with any of the civil liberties that are now 'under review'. Meanwhile, we have a hundred guys in a cave in Pakistan vowing to use their box cutters against us, and we're ready to give up the farm.

Anway, here's the generic Republic campaign ad for this November:

"Okay, so we really screwed up in Afghanistan.

And, we really screwed up in Iraq.

And we really screwed up in New Orleans.

And, it's possible that we're total incompetents who are prone to chronyism.

But, if you elect a Democrat, they won't have the sack to torture our enemies.

The G.O.P.- We might be incompetent. But, they're pussies!"


The War on Borat

Kazakhstan is still waging a PR campaign against comedic genius Sacha Baron Cohen over his boorish Kazakh journalist character Borat. They've flown to the White House and taken out ads in major American newspapers to counter his satire, and in doing so, set themselves up as perfect straight men. This article has one of my favorite lines on the hilarious controversy. Imagine this being read very stoically by Stone Phillips:

"Nazarbayev and other Kazakh officials have sought to raise the profile of the oil-rich former Soviet republic and assure the West that, contrary to Borat's claims, theirs is not a nation of drunken anti-Semites who treat their women worse than their donkeys."

Cohen's response, in character as Borat is also brilliant:

Borat denounced an official Kazakh publicity campaign running in U.S. magazines as "disgusting fabrications" orchestrated by neighboring Uzbekistan.

"If there is one more item of Uzbek propaganda claiming that we do not drink fermented horse urine, give death penalty for baking bagels, or export over 300 tonnes of human pubis per year, then we will be left with no alternative but to commence bombardment of their cities with our catapults," Borat said.

Freedom is on the march in Eastern Europe.


Thursday, September 28, 2006

Merry Christmas


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Opera Vs. Divas

Okay, so the Deutsche Oper in Berlin cancelled a staging of Mozart's opera "Idomeneo" for later this year because of a scene in which the director planned to feature the severed heads of Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and Poseidon.

You can guess which one of those was controversial. Although, apparently, the Snorks were pretty pissed off about Poseidon, the fear was that Muslims would freak out about Muhammad and stab a nun or burn something. Christians apparently aren't that scary in Germany, and Buddhists don't burn anything, except themselves, in protest. But, Muslims have gotten the reputation for being... let's say overly excitable.

So, instead of waiting and seeing what would happen, the Opera cancelled the show before anyone could complain. This is the other sort of censorship- not just people being silenced for what they say, but not saying what they might out of fear. And it's just as ominous for those of us who like to be able to think and say what we want.

And then Chancellor Angela Merkel did the right thing by demanding that the opera not start censoring itself. Hopefully, she'll follow through with security. As much as I get nervous about the state involving itself with the arts, I think this is going to have to start happening. Because I can just see this getting worse. The Muslims are placated. So, then the Christians start demanding that they be placated as well. Jerry Falwell issues a fatwa against the Teletubbies. Then all religions need special treatment. Feminist groups start burning Girls Gone Wild DVDs and stabbing Hooters Restaurant owners. And eventually, the only sort of art you can create is kitsch and elevator music.


Lone Wackos

Salon has an article today about a country that used to reward those who denounce it with honors and riches- Holland, which now has clammed up a bit after the brutal murder of Theo van Gogh. His murderer, Mohammad Bouyeri comes of as more banal than we might expect.

"Bouyeri fits the profile of lone gunmen the world over: an intelligent young man whose efforts to "make it" in mainstream society met with reversals, and who gradually gave up, retreating into violent ideology and fantasy. Bouyeri did well in high school and tried several university programs, but found nothing to hold his interest. He got involved in organizing for a local Muslim community youth center, but had a funding application rejected. Then he fell in with a group of kids who liked to download videos of Middle Eastern terrorists sawing the heads off of infidels."

So not a lot different than the 'alienated loser' type that most violent criminals fit into. One of the scary things lately is this feeling that those alienated losers who have been waiting for an excuse to start killing people for years have found one in 'radical Islam'. How do you go to war against disparate groups of psychos who think they have a reason to lash out against a society they hate? Should we use the methods the FBI uses in tracking down serial killers? Why in the world are we trying to fight this like it was the Cold War instead?


Noam if you want to, Noam around the world

Just reading this Roger Scrunton piece about crazy old man Noam Chomsky. It's a decent over view of Chomsky's work, which can be summed up as:
1. Saussure was wrong about language (you don't say)
2. America is the worst country ever.
Obviously, Scrunton disagrees and wants to warn those readers of the Wall Street Journal who might otherwise pick up one of Chomsky's political books and quit their job in day trading to play in a crust punk band. Anyway, the article's decent, but this line threw me for a loop:

"And many of his public appearances are in America: the only country in the whole world that rewards those who denounce it with the honors and opportunities that make denouncing it into a rewarding way of life."

The whole world? So, there's nobody in Canada who makes money by bashing Canada? Or in Britain who makes money criticizing Britain? Is he serious? That can't be right.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Man, that last post was the angriest thing I've ever written. The scholar part of me is deeply embarassed that I allowed myself to biovate like that. But, the part of me that has spent the last three weeks reading Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper, Hume and Hannah Arendt is wondering if so much reading about liberties and civil rights hasn't warped my fragile little brain!
(Incidentally, the last line in that post is a paraphrase of a line from Montesquieu)


With Liberty and Justice for You

I'd like to say a few words about this Andrew Sullivan post entitled Legalizing Tyranny. To be frank, I don't think anyone will care what I say, or that I will get any comments, aside from a few lazy 'you're paranoid' comments. But, might as well try because I'm sick today and this pisses me off.

What Sullivan is talking about are the measures currently being pushed through the government relating to how we detain and try enemy combatants. Not only does the current bill allow for things like military tribunals, secret arrests, and endless detentions without charges being brought against the arrested person. "But in recent days the Bush administration and its House allies successfully pressed for a less restrictive description of how the government could designate civilians as "unlawful enemy combatants," the sources said yesterday."

Those of us who have been following the legal back and forth over these bills aren't terribly surprised about the new bill. But, Sullivan feels that: "Those of us trying to resist the Bush administration's seizure of permanent emergency powers have so far failed to alert the American public of the immense danger to their basic liberties that this administration represents."

I'm more cynical though. I think people have the ability to study these bills and find out what they allow and don't allow, and honestly just don't care. The classic Enlightenment argument is that people need to be 'educated' and then they will care about their basic rights. I think they know perfectly well about the threat that bills like this pose, but are willing to hedge their bets if they think that the bills will make life suitably miserable for the people they don't like.

Sullivan wants it to be clear for everyone, so here it is:

If the U.S. government decides, for reasons of its own, that you are an "illegal enemy combatant," i.e. that you are someone who "has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States," they can detain you without charges indefinitely, granting you no legal recourse except to a military tribunal, and, under the proposed bill, "disappear" and torture you. This is not just restricted to aliens or foreigners, but applies to U.S. citizens as well. It can happen anywhere in the U.S. at any time. We are all at potential risk."

But, this assumes that the way you appeal to Americans is to appeal to their basic selfishness. "This really matters because it could affect YOU!" But, the counter-arguement is simply: "No it doesn't. Don't worry- they won't come for you. They'll come for those spics and sand niggers that you hate. Your beautiful self will be fine!" And this is what people want. This is what they're counting on. I mean, let's cut the crap about how 'people are uninformed and dumbed down'. No, they're not. They're perfectly able to trace every public utterance of Dan Rather for the last twenty years to see if he said anything 'biased', but they can't read bills in Congress?

Sullivan continues:
"Whatever else this is, it is not a constitutional democracy. It is a thinly-veiled military dictatorship, subject to only one control: the will of the Great Decider. And the war that justifies this astonishing attack on American liberty is permanent, without end. And check the vagueness of the language: "purposefully supported" hostilities. Could that mean mere expression of support for terror? Remember that many completely innocent people have already been incarcerated for years without trial or any chance for a fair hearing on the basis of false rumors or smears or even bounty hunters. Or could it be construed, in the rhetoric of Hannity and O'Reilly, as merely criticizing the Great Decider and thereby being on the side of the terrorists?"

And the counter-arguement is: "But, they're really going to stick it to those radical Islamic freaks! If you haven't done anything wrong, it's not tyranny for you, buddy boy!"

And, let's be blunt: Most tyrannies are legalized. You don't need a tyrant for a tyranny. You don't need Generalissimo Moustache to stage a coup. All you need is for the laws to change in such a way that the executive gains certain powers and the citizenry loses certain rights. That's it. So, even if Bush is the nicest man who ever lived, if the country becomes a legal tyranny, there are no checks to stop the first tyrant who steps in. Maybe Hillary?

But, fuck it, if you're the average American, you just don't care. And the 'Then, they came for me!' stuff won't work with you. Because they won't come for you. Not if you're a loyal citizen who was born here. Not in a million years. What they're going to do is come for those goddamn foreigners that you hate, and maybe a few radical leftists who yearn for revolution. And maybe a few of those Berkeley leftist nuts. Your government is going to oppress the people that you want them to, and you will be fine. This is the will of the people, stripped of all its Enlightenment liberal residue. This is the true voice of the "post-911" citizenry. This is what you want.

But, remember this: In the future, when historians talk about this era as one in which the West was civilized and humane, others will be able to use you as a counter-example to illustrate brutality and savagery.


Pete's Couch

Hard to believe the government is trying the tactic of making realistic anti-drug ads. Instead of the "I smoked pot and wound up dead!" commercials, they've got a new batch of ads that argue that pot heads are usually safe, but they can be pretty damn boring. I'm guessing that 'Pete's Couch' will be the cult classic of the bunch. It's my favorite so far, although "Whatever" is pretty good too.

(It starts off with the 'Okay, kids, we're going to cut the crap' line)
Kid: I smoked weed and nobody died. I didn't get into a car accident, I didn't O.D. on heroin the next day, nothing happened.
(So, wait, all the other ads were not true?...)
We sat on Pete's couch for 11 hours. Now what's going to happen on Pete's couch? Nothing.
(We ate a lot of junk food and laughed at things that weren't very funny, and watched stupid movies, and relaxed for an hour or two...)
You have a better shot of dying out there in the real world, driving hard to the rim, ice skating with a girl. No, you wanna keep yourself alive, go over to Pete's and sit on his couch til you're 86. Safest thing in the world.
(Well, until the lunatic drug enforcement agents charge in and shoot the pet like your basement is a war zone.)
Me? I'll take my chances out there. Call me reckless.
("Me? I do cocaine because I'm into extreme sports!")

The next one would be: "I dropped acid, and I didn't try to fly, or wind up in a mental institution. But, boy did I write a lot of really shitty poetry!"

But, I like it. A commercial telling kids to get out into the real world and live. How about one that says: "Face book- it's really boring", or "Stop blogging and live". (Gulp!)

Of course, the obvious question then is, if pot doesn't actually put you in danger, why are so many kids like Pete getting locked in jail for decades for smoking it? And, if it makes people so boring, what kind of nanny state do we have that the government is allocating so many resources to making sure that kids are interesting? (read: 'more productive') And couldn't you smoke pot one day and go ice skating the next? Is it any healthier to be one of those athletic freaks that plays sports every day of the week? And, lastly, if pot doesn't make you wreck the car, or turn to heroin, why did you people lie for so many years?


Monday, September 25, 2006

Incredible Giant Humans

Not sure how interesting this is, but I just read in a book (Eric Hobsbawm The Age of Revolutions) that the average British male in 1800 was about five-feet tall. It's interesting to me, since the average Brit male today is about five ft. seven inches tall. Seemingly, the deciding factor for this evolution would be nutrition. People eat meat much more frequently than they did in 1800, and more red meat. I'm just trying to understand how this would work, since height tends to be passed along to one's offspring. Does the diet play a role in how the genetic disposition for height manifests itself? Are some people predisposed to be tall, but if they eat a shoddy diet, they don't get the protein to become tall. Because, I can't imagine that what has happened is what Darwin called 'sexual selection'. It's not as if shorter men have been unable to breed, or got killed off due to scarce resources! So, I think we see here that the physical attributes of the species evolve due to environmental factors, right? But, isn't this a bit more Lamarckian than Darwinian? I could be wrong. I am a history major, after all! Any bio people read this?


The Macaca Deepens

Today Salon has interviews with George Allen's old football teammates at UVA, who remember him as a creepy racist in college. To be honest, I don't really care. I thought he was a douche when he was my senator, so this doesn't really change a lot. Besides, we all make mistakes as kids, and what's really important is the complete moron he's become since then. I do have to admit though that I find this part funny.

"Allen said he came to Virginia because he wanted to play football in a place where 'blacks knew their place'."

Why funny? Well, I'm not surprised to hear that there are idiot frat-boys at UVA, but this sounds more to me like a rich Californian brat trying pathetically to ingratiate himself with the 'good ol' boys'. I have this image of him dressed in dickies like Richie Rich saying the following to his teammates...

"You know, chums, what I really like about you Southern people is that you're all a bunch of rednecks. I really admire that! I mean, you're all racist idiots, right? Well, me too, then. Now, can one of you lads run along and fetch me my gear so that I might play the game of American football with you fellows?"


Sunday, September 24, 2006

All Alone in the Supermarket

Walked around the grocery store with Claire the other night, tired and frazzled from studying all day. I felt like I was in a mental institution, with all of the bright track lighting and those rubberized floor tiles that are designed to make as little noise as possible. People wandering around like drowzy buffaloes. The place was designed to be calming and accomodating- why do I always feel trapped when I'm there?

Supermarkets are nothing like marketplaces- more like a museum dedicated to the memory of an actual marketplace. Instead of dealing with a dairy farmer, you get a glass display version of milk with pictures of cows, in case you've forgotten where it comes from. Instead of a pharmacist, you get rows after rows of abandonned creams and jells. There's something remarkably lonely about it all- All Alone in the Supermarket? Well, who isn't?

These are the important choices in my life? Regular or extra-strength? Paper or plastic? Is this what I get to look forward to in middle age? Consumer choices, but no real choices? One box store after another? Controlled environments and set schedules? Is this nursing home society where I'm going to spend the rest of my life?

God, I hope not. I'm glad I have the wife I do. We have so many friends who are trapped in these hideous tract suburbs, trying to collect enough shit to be officially deemed happy by our other friends. But, my wife doesn't want that life at all. Most of the people we know are up to their eyeballs in debt. Most of them are massively insecure. How did our culture get to this point in which any real alternative seems impossible? How did we end up in this Panglossian 'best of all possible worlds', which is really just the most boring of all possible worlds?

Isn't it time for something different? What could it be?


Saturday, September 23, 2006

Osama Bin Laden Goes To New Jersey

The French think that Osama bin Laden has already died in Pakistan. In fact, he died in New Jersey, as this short film shows.


Friday, September 22, 2006

The Problem with Multiculturalism 2

I previously stated my two big problems with multiculturalism, which are:

  1. It valorizes alienation, isolation and atomization. Not exactly a 'progressive' stance- more like the ideology of late capitalism- the ethos of the shopping mall.
  2. It conflates 'race' and 'culture', and links them in a way that smacks of 19th century racial theory.

Someone agrees with me here. Inside Higher Ed talks about Walter Benn Michaels, who has written a book critiquing multiculturalism, seemingly beginning from a similar point to my #2:

"To a large degree, Michaels says in his new book, “culture is now being used as a virtual synonym for racial identity.”

"For his part, Michaels will have none of this repackaging of racist pseudoscience as “anti-racist” cultural relativism. He draws a hard line: “Either race is a physical fact, dividing human beings into biologically significant differences,” he writes, “or there is no such thing as race, whatever it’s called.”

"If one chooses the second option — as Michaels does — then the unrelenting American emphasis on race as a fundamental basis for defining identity begins to look very strange.

His larger point seems to be that "cultural" consciousness tends to atomize the poor into tiny ethnic groups, preventing them from developing a real and necessary class consciousness- which dovetails nicely with my first point. So, great minds, eh?


Good News for us sick people

Two bits of good news for everone who is, like me, poor, American, and mortal-

1. You can now get cheap drugs from Canada without going to jail.
2. And Wal-Mart is now offering 300 generic drugs at $4 per perscription.

Good news all around for everyone but 19th century robber barons who are dressed like the guy from Monopoly and sputtering: "B-b-but, those sorts of people are positively bottom drawer! Next they're going to want linaments!"


Who will babysit the babysitters?

Can you remember ever seeing anyone on COPS getting wrestled to the ground after beating his wife and trying to kill the neighbors, and hearing the officers say: "Yeah, they always get crazy like this when they're on marijuana!"? Actually, I can't remember ever seeing a violent stoned person. Maybe pot doesn't make people violent. But, you know what can really turn them into rampaging maniacs, firing weapons in a home, killing the family pet, and pepper spraying an 11-year old girl? Being part of a marijuana bust.


Moral Limbo

Paul Waldman points out something sobering about John McCain, Colin Powell, and those other Republicans who have recently stuck their neck out for human decency:

"let’s recall what their brave position on this issue is: The United States of America shouldn’t torture people. It is a testament to how ethically diseased today’s GOP—those guardians of 'moral values,' remember—has become that this is a minority position within their party."

I'm more cynical. I think it's a minority position within America. Instead of judging ourselves by the values of our founders, we now judge ourselves solely by the values of our enemies. If "he hasn’t personally chopped anyone’s head off... you know he’s on the side of the angels." Nietzsche was right about staring into the abyss.

And this too shall pass.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

On My Cross (briefly)

I hate it when academics complain about the lousy money we make because it sounds so arrogant. Most people in the country are nickel and dimed to death, so what right do we have to complain from our ivory towers about the amount of money we get paid to read all day? I mean, I had it a lot tougher when I was getting paid to pick up road kill and pave highways with the road crew: not that I made less money, but it was more grueling. Actually, I made more money on the road crew, and as a janitor, and as a stock boy, and... To be honest, I don't think I've ever made less money than I do as an instructor.

I'm not mad exactly, but today I'm wondering how I'm going to do this. After the summer, I'm in debt. The research funding wasn't enough to do the research, and so things went on the credit card. No problem, right? But, now I've been teaching for four weeks, and finally, the state of New York has paid me. My paycheck? $459.76

I hate it when people tell me about their finances, but seriously, how am I supposed to pay off a mortgage, and car insurance, and eat food on that and a very occasional scholarship check? I'm fine with getting my videos from the library and my dental work from the dental school and all of the other shortcuts that we take to get through the month. But, I'm getting tired of this ponzi scam of higher ed. I'm tired of being told that I should be glad to be making less than a stock boy at Wal-Mart because other grad students can't get funding. I'm tired of being asked to starve for the first seven years of my career in order to secure another 'instructor' job at another university for another ten years or so, at a slight pay increase. And then maybe get denied for tenure and have to start all over again. Or perhaps I could go teach at a high school- and never get the pay increase. And listen to fatheads complain about how good I have it because I can take summers off!

Look, my point is that there is nobody who does this for the money, and they would be nuts if they did. We all do this job because we feel that it's some sort of sacred duty to society. There's no glamour to it, the pay is terrible, and there's really no respect conveyed by the role in this society. We do it because we think that in some grand scheme of things education is a noble profession- that it's a sacred role. And it is. But, man, it's hard to live a normal life in this role.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Pope's Right to be Silly

So, I didn't agree with some of the Pope's talking points. But, you know, I could imagine actually sitting down with him and talking about it. I mean, sure, it's not going to happen. But, I get the feeling that he's on a rational wavelength. Those people who are freaking out in the streets, who seem to have no clue whatsoever what he said? Not so much. Der Spiegel points out the important thing to remember while discussing the Pope's speech:

"What will come next? Perhaps a complaint that Allah feels insulted by the numerous European women who don bikinis during a summer trip to the beach. It could be anything really -- militant Islamists will always find something. But the response needs to be firm. Freedom of speech, after all, is a vital value and needs to be defended. Any attempt to make political speech hostage to some imagined will of God must be resisted."

That's right. Although, it should be pointed out that this Pope himself has actually taken the Radical Ideophobe line when other people have offended the crackerjack Middle East varsity riot team, arguing that we really shouldn't be going around saying things that slander religions.

But, it's still right.


The Other Hellhole

Ever wonder why American news has forgotten about Afghanistan?

I never hear about it when I'm in the states, but it's in the Canadian news regularly. It was constantly in the news when I was in France. Of course, Canadian and French troops are still fighting alongside our troops in Afghanistan and dying like everyone else. But, you knew that right? The angry guy who told you that "those damn Frenchies are utterly opposed to the US and constantly support our enemies" also slipped in "Well, except for all of the support they've given in Afghanistan and Lebanon..." right?

Apparently, the situation in Afghanistan is terrible. Key cities overrun by Taliban forces, various places turned into 'hellholes', girls getting forced out of schools, etc. etc. The good prognosis is that we'll be there for another decade. The bad is that it's already been lost. So, why isn't anyone talking about it in the states?


Poll Numbers

Americans are happy with the President again.

I'm guessing that pundits on the left will moan about how Karl Rove's evil schemes are working and people are being brainwashed, and we're doomed. Pundits on the right will argue that Americans are coming together to support the endless war, and offer their ringing support for torture. None of these are true.

Gas prices are better now, so the President's polls are up. If they get worse, or if taxes go up, his polls will go down. It's very simple. This is usually how polling works. Watch the polls for a few years and see if that's not right. People claim that they care deeply about 'our troops' or 'our nation' or 'the direction that we're taking'. But, that's wishful thinking. Most people want low taxes and good prices and then they're happy. They're educated shoppers basically.


Hitchie Bites Ratzie

Like I posted below, my problem with the Pope's speech was in all the things he left out. It might be unfair to say that his narrative was largely fantasy-based, but I'm not sure that would be inaccurate. Christopher Hitchens, meanwhile, has taken a few minutes out from writing the same column he's been writing for the last five years (roughly: "The War Against Terror is the most important fight of our lives, and some of my ex-friends on the left just don't understand that!"), to list a few other things Pope Ratzinger left out of his screed about faith and reason. The writing is most crisp and clever here:

"Most of all, throughout his address to the audience at Regensburg, the man who modestly considers himself the vicar of Christ on Earth maintained a steady attack on the idea that reason and the individual conscience can be preferred to faith. He pretends that the word Logos can mean either "the word" or "reason," which it can in Greek but never does in the Bible, where it is presented as heavenly truth. He mentions Kant and Descartes in passing, leaves out Spinoza and Hume entirely, and dishonestly tries to make it seem as if religion and the Enlightenment and science are ultimately compatible, when the whole effort of free inquiry always had to be asserted, at great risk, against the fantastic illusion of "revealed" truth and its all-too-earthly human potentates. It is often said—and was said by Ratzinger when he was an underling of the last Roman prelate—that Islam is not capable of a Reformation. We would not even have this word in our language if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to have its own way. Now its new reactionary leader has really "offended" the Muslim world, while simultaneously asking us to distrust the only reliable weapon—reason—that we possess in these dark times. A fine day's work, and one that we could well have done without."


Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Pope's Speech

So, plenty of people are mad at the "Pop" for his comments about Islam. Currently, the crack team of rioters that comes out every time someone somewhere says something bad about Islam has jumped into action and started rioting, apparently because they think that he implied that they were intolerant. In fact, the spokesman for the Pakistan Foreign Ministry is quoted as saying: "Anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence." To paraphrase Norm McDonald, maybe the spokesman's message is that he really loves irony.

I'm guessing that the Internet is currently divided between those who are unable to write about Islam without using the phrase 'murderous scum' and those who are unable to write about the Pope without comparing him to Hitler. (Unfair of course because he looks a lot more like Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars Films) So, the usual gang of idiots, then. What annoys me about all of this is that I'm guessing most people haven't read his actual speech, which was really beating up on us secularists more than anybody. You know, we don't pay enough attention to Jehovah, because we're likely too busy aborting babies, worshiping scientists, and cheating on our spouses. Since I actually believe in judging people's words before having a good old riot over them, here is the Pope's entire speech, with a few comments.

Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections

(Interestingly enough, he actually drops the memories a few paragraphs in.)

Your Eminences, Your Magnificences, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

(Starting with a joke?)

It is a moving experience for me to be back again in the university and to be able once again to give a lecture at this podium. I think back to those years when, after a pleasant period at the Freisinger Hochschule, I began teaching at the University of Bonn. That was in 1959, in the days of the old university made up of ordinary professors. The various chairs had neither assistants nor secretaries, but in recompense there was much direct contact with students and in particular among the professors themselves. We would meet before and after lessons in the rooms of the teaching staff. There was a lively exchange with historians, philosophers, philologists and, naturally, between the two theological faculties.

(Boy, the way Glen Miller played/
Songs that made the hit parade/
Guys like us, we had it made/
Those were the days...)

Once a semester there was a dies academicus, when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making possible a genuine experience of universitas - something that you too, Magnificent Rector, just mentioned - the experience, in other words, of the fact that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason - this reality became a lived experience.

(Paraphrase: See, we weren't against reason just because of that God thing.)

The university was also very proud of its two theological faculties. It was clear that, by inquiring about the reasonableness of faith, they too carried out a work which is necessarily part of the "whole" of the universitas scientiarum, even if not everyone could share the faith which theologians seek to correlate with reason as a whole. This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God. That even in the face of such radical scepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.

(This is essentially his argument- that reason and faith make up a whole, and that they should not be mutually exclusive. Again, they wouldn't be if it weren't for us damn meddling secularists!)

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on - perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara - by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.


It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur'an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between - as they were called - three "Laws" or "rules of life": the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur'an.

(Oh boy! Here we go!)

It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point - itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole - which, in the context of the issue of "faith and reason", I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war.

(Apparently, he's wrong about this Surah, which was written in the 24th year of Muhammad's prophethood. So, the prophet said this while in a position of strength... which changes the meaning of the quote. Was he willfully miscontextualizing? I don't know.)

Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached".

(And there's the one line of the speech that everyone has heard.)

The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably ("syn logo") is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...".

(Moving right along, eh? He drops the quote in and leaves it uncommented upon, as far as I can tell. He certainly doesn't say 'Boy, was he ever right about Muhammad!' On the other hand, the silences of a wise man are also telling. But, he's not exactly making the Hitler speech people have talked about either.)

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.

(And, let's be honest, he's kinda saying here that Muslims aren't bound to reason.)

At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?

(You say tomato, I say tomato.)

I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the "logos". This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance.

(So, the ancient Greeks and the Catholic Church can disagree about sodomy and agree about logos.)

The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf. Acts 16:6-10) - this vision can be interpreted as a "distillation" of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

('Why can't we be friends?')

In point of fact, this rapprochement had been going on for some time. The mysterious name of God, revealed from the burning bush, a name which separates this God from all other divinities with their many names and simply declares "I am", already presents a challenge to the notion of myth, to which Socrates' attempt to vanquish and transcend myth stands in close analogy. Within the Old Testament, the process which started at the burning bush came to new maturity at the time of the Exile, when the God of Israel, an Israel now deprived of its land and worship, was proclaimed as the God of heaven and earth and described in a simple formula which echoes the words uttered at the burning bush: "I am".

This new understanding of God is accompanied by a kind of enlightenment, which finds stark expression in the mockery of gods who are merely the work of human hands (cf. Ps 115). Thus, despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature.

Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria - the Septuagint - is more than a simple (and in that sense really less than satisfactory) translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity. A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act "with logos" is contrary to God's nature.

In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God's voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done.

(To be fair, we might have ruffled some feathers with that Inquisition. Also, let's remember that the great Augustine did cast some aspersions on empirical curiosity. Not to say that he was anti-reason, but that the tension between faith and reason, or spirit and body is very old.)

This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.

As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which - as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated - unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language.

(And, it is interesting how close the Pope is coming to Platonism here. A good thing, I'd say.)

God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, "transcends" knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul - "worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason" (cf. Rom 12:1).

This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history - it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.

(You got that?!)

The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity - a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age. Viewed more closely, three stages can be observed in the programme of dehellenization: although interconnected, they are clearly distinct from one another in their motivations and objectives.

Dehellenization first emerges in connection with the postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system

The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this programme forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.

(But, again, Augustine wasn't moving in this direction at all? And did the idea of sola scriptura deny metaphysics, or just the idea of 'good works'?)

The liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of dehellenization, with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative. When I was a student, and in the early years of my teaching, this programme was highly influential in Catholic theology too. It took as its point of departure Pascal's distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

In my inaugural lecture at Bonn in 1959, I tried to address the issue, and I do not intend to repeat here what I said on that occasion, but I would like to describe at least briefly what was new about this second stage of dehellenization. Harnack's central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favour of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message.

Fundamentally, Harnack's goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ's divinity and the triune God. In this sense, historical-critical exegesis of the New Testament, as he saw it, restored to theology its place within the university: theology, for Harnack, is something essentially historical and therefore strictly scientific. What it is able to say critically about Jesus is, so to speak, an expression of practical reason and consequently it can take its rightful place within the university.

(And actually it's appropriate to study Jesus this way in a university.)

Behind this thinking lies the modern self-limitation of reason, classically expressed in Kant's "Critiques", but in the meantime further radicalized by the impact of the natural sciences. This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology.

On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature's capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty. The weight between the two poles can, depending on the circumstances, shift from one side to the other. As strongly positivistic a thinker as J. Monod has declared himself a convinced Platonist/Cartesian.

This gives rise to two principles which are crucial for the issue we have raised. First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity.

(Oh, how things have changed in the 'human sciences' since the 1950s! We've given up on scientificity altogether... to our detriment, if you ask me.)

A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.

I will return to this problem later. In the meantime, it must be observed that from this standpoint any attempt to maintain theology's claim to be "scientific" would end up reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self. But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science", so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective.

(He's got a point here, but only so far. He reminds me of what bothers me about the Frankfurt School- this ultra-gloomy picture of science as a total system of emotionless positivism. Sure, it can be that, but what science-minded person allows only that into their life?)

The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.

(And attempts to base ethics in metaphysics aren't?)

Before I draw the conclusions to which all this has been leading, I must briefly refer to the third stage of dehellenization, which is now in progress. In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures.

(I know I say this about once a day!)

The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed.

True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself. And so I come to my conclusion. This attempt, painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvellous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us.

(And we're glad for all of the... uh, good things the Church has given us.)

The scientific ethos, moreover, is - as you yourself mentioned, Magnificent Rector - the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit.

(Right... except for without a Pope.)

The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons. In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith.

Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world's profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions.

(The irony of people rioting over this speech is too much. He's saying that positivists can't communicate with the world's religious people without pissing them off, and in doing so, he pissed them off.)

A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. At the same time, as I have attempted to show, modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based.

Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought - to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.

(Okay, fine. But, are the forces of scientificity really so opposed to Christianity? I mean, isn't it more a case of the Church warming up to science after a long cold shoulder more than the other way around? Have scientists actually done anything that is specifically anti-Christian?)

Here I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says: "It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being - but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss".

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur - this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.

"Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God", said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.


So, he's basically saying that Reason and Faith can live together. Well, actually he's saying that they should live together, and that they have the same roots. The Islam stuff is in there as a counter-example. Muslims who reject reason are acting against faith, in his opinion. I'm not entirely sure why this argument would provoke one to riot. But, I'm not sure he knows what he's talking about there either.

As for science and faith, I agree that they are at the center of European civilization, although one might expect him to recall that our science is derived largely from Muslim science and our philosophy was preserved by Muslims during the Middle Ages, and actually this preservation is what led to the Renaissance. In fact, for some centuries there, the Islamic world was significantly more devoted to science and Aristotle than Europe was. God, everyone and his brother knows that the Muslims invented algebra. I'm sure he knows all this. But, then why use Islamic scholarship solely as an example of anti-Reason? And why then brush over the fact that scientists are a bit wary of Catholicism because it has taken antagonistic attitudes towards science and reason a number of times?

I agree with the Pope that science should have an ethical dimension that it utterly lacks right now, and that this is depressing and scary (Now I sound like a Frankfurter!). How many athiest scientists think nothing at all of working all day on missle guidance systems! But, his silences annoy me more than what he's saying here.


Hop on Pop


Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Bitch is Backing Down

Elton John has ended his public feud with George Michael- and without UN peacekeeping forces having to get involved. I know that I, for one, will sleep a little easier tonight.


Friday, September 15, 2006

To Your Health

And here's good news for us... uh, Alzheimer's sufferers... Yeah, that's it.


To your wealth

Finally! Good news for us drinkers!


Thumbs up

I don't always agree with his reviews, but I've always found Roger Ebert to be a likeable, witty, engaging and humane writer. Let's hope he recovers from salivary cancer soon and for good.


Reading all day today. Maybe notes later. Here's a photo that I took in Haliburton, Ontario.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Piece Movement

Gang members in Colombia have something new to worry about- their wives and girlfriends have apparently seen Lysistrata at some point and are refusing to have sex with them until they stop killing each other. The "strike of the crossed legs" involves dozens of women in the city.


Read My Mind

Photographer Ashkan Sahihi has (unknowingly, of course) exactly replicated an idea I had for a photo series. It's sort of eerie actually. I thought it would be strange and surreal to combine bland studio portraiture with one of the um, leitmotifs of pornography. And then he did exactly what I was thinking of. So, we're apparently both weird.


Powell on Torture

Here's the great letter from Colin Powell speaking out against the use of torture, and joining the debate in Congress over the Geneva Conventions. It says many of the things that I've said here before. More importantly, it stresses something that some people legitimately don't understand- those who oppose the use of torture aren't doing so to protect the prisoners in question. They're doing so because they, we, believe that torture will ultimately hurt not only our own military, but the success of our country in the war against terror. From an existential standpoint, there are probably people in US custody who deserve to burn in the lowest depths of hell. But, the use of torture cannot stand up to the simplest cost/benefit analysis. It gains us little to nothing of value in this war, and loses us the moral high ground, the world's support, and quite likely the support of the civilian population, which will be crucial to making any progress in Iraq. A guerilla army wins by turning frightened civilians against the official army. And, for those of us who are history minded, the use of torture is exactly why France lost the startlingly similar Battle for Algiers in the 1960s.

Also, as someone who has to answer questions like "What does it mean to live in the West after the Enlightenment?" or "What is modernity?" on a regular basis, I know how central the convention forbidding torture is to our civilization. This isn't a small thing. It has to do with how we understand the individual's agency in relation to the state. The debate over the state's right to torture was one of the central turning points of the Enlightenment and hence a cornerstone of modern society. This is one of those key values that I'm supposed to pass on to the next generation. Understand this- a nation doesn't become a tyranny because bad people get into power. In fact, the leaders are largely irrelevant. What happens is that the social institutions themselves become corrupted. Even if the next president is Jesus Christ, living in a nation that allows for tortured confessions to be admitted as evidence, detentions without trial, and secret arrests is just asking for trouble. Whatever one thinks about the war on terror, having an administration in power that sees the Geneva Conventions, the Bill of Rights, and the ideas of the Enlightenment as hindrances to be overcome should be troubling.

And conservatives should ask themselves why they're not worried about the potential of President Hillary Clinton and Vice President John Kerry having these same 'rights' and nothing to prevent them from misusing them aside from their 'discretion'. It's bizarre to think that the Freepers don't think that President Hillary should be able to take away their guns (neither do I), but they think that she should be able to spy on them, arrest them secretly, keep them for months without a trial, never tell them what they've been accused of, torture a 'confession' out of them, and then keep them in jail for life or execute them. Maybe Bush really will just have these things done to al-quaida members (although he hasn't so far), but why hope that every single President who takes part in this endless war will do the same?


Wilting Ivy

Here's an interesting article on why even Harvard doesn't offer much of an education anymore. At the risk of cutting off the branch that I'm sitting on, this comment is spot on:

"In practice, moreover, a significant number of the courses in Harvard College are taught by graduate students, not as assistants to professors but in full control of the content. Although they are called 'tutors,' evoking an image of learned Oxbridge dons passing on their wisdom one-on-one, what they are is a collection of inexperienced leaders of discussion or pseudo-discussion groups. The overwhelming majority of these young men and women, to whom is entrusted a good chunk of a typical undergraduate’s education, will never be considered good enough to belong to Harvard’s regular faculty."

I'm certainly not at Harvard. But, to be blunt, I don't believe that I should have my job either. Three days of instruction isn't nearly enough to equal the skills of a seasoned lecturer. The students get limited contact with those experienced scholars, and more contact with those of us who have no qualifications aside from the fact that we've taken the course before and are a cheap source of labor. It's no way to run a business, even if we're talking about Mall University.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Our Companion and Friend


Uganda Goes Nuts

Some psychologist will one day write a great book, if they haven't already, as to why anti-gay people tend to use such bizarre rhetoric to make their points. After chapter 1. "But then people will start marrying sheep!!", we have the Red Pepper Newspaper which is currently leading a particularly revolting anti-gay witch hunt in Uganda. What they've been doing is printing photos of gays and lesbians, with their addresses, and encouraging readers to track them down in order "to prevent them from “polluting” the general population." Nice, eh? The police in Jina, the second largest city in Uganda, have been similarly hunting gays and lesbians, with full support of the President Yoweri Museveni, and his brother Salim Saleh.

So, this is all depressing and barbaric. But, check out this weirdo rhetoric from the newspaper:

"We are talking about men in this nation who are walking closely in the footsteps of Sir Elton Hercules John and the like by having engines that operate from the rear like the vintage Volkswagon cars."

Okay, so the first question is: They do know that Elton John is not a car, right? And the first analogy that came to their mind was with a Volkswagon? And what in the world does that mean: "engines that operate from the rear"? Does that apply to the pitcher as well as the catcher? Would a pitcher be compared to a Ford? Or maybe a pickup truck that has rear-ended a Volkswagon? Or should they just say that gays are like "The degenerate Western Herbie 'the Love Bug' who enjoys having things put into his tail-pipe." But, again, what the hell does that have to do with Elton John? And they also have targeted lesbians, whose sex organs are more in the middle, so I'm guessing that they could be compared to motorcycles. Actually, Dykes on Bikes would perhaps appreciate that. But, what about women who recieve anal sex? Are they more like Vespas? Would a bisexual be called a 'hybrid'? Let's not even get into what 'carjacking' could possibly mean. And is masturbation like 'pumping one's own gas'?

The paper goes on about "how fast the terrible vice known as sodomy is eating up our society". So, now the police are on anus surveillance, and the papers are waxing vacant about "men who enjoy taking on fellow men from the rear." In other words, a bunch of Ugandan assholes are overly concerned with Ugandan assholes. Ugh.


The Problem with Conspiracy Theories

Well, apparently, the idea that 9/11 was orchestrated by the government is 'gaining momentum'. Max Horkheimer warned that ideas become instrumentalized in industrial capitalist countries. In other words, they cease to have value in themselves, and start being valuable in-so-far as they are useful. I find Horkheimer to be painfully gloomy, but it's an interesting idea when we talk about ideas 'gaining momentum' as if they were advertising campaigns.

In some ways, I think we're better off with 'conspiracy theories'. The alternative is to decide that some ideas are simply verboten. In the case of the WTC attacks, why shouldn't people wonder how two planes can bring down a building? Much less the one next to it? Part of the answer is that skyscrapers are more vulnerable than we would like to believe. But, I think it would be useful for independent bodies to research the mechanics of what happened.

The problem with a conspiracy theory is that there aren't really any independent bodies. Conspiracy theories take on the character of blind faith, and have come to replace faith in our secular world, because they have two postulates to them:
1) A crime was committed,
2) There is a sweeping conspiracy to cover it up, which could include anyone or no one.
It is the second statement that makes them blind faith because it negates the first.

I've noted on here before that I agree with Karl Popper's idea that what makes a scientific theory is its falsifiability. Popper argued that in so far as a theory is falsifiable, it is scientific; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it is an article of faith. For example, we could never really perform an experiment that would prove that there is no God to the believer. But, for even basic scientific ideas, we have to be able to potentially disprove them, or they become closed systems of belief.

There have been numerous conspiracies throughout history. And, even given falsifiability, there have been plenty of close-minded scientists. But, the way that scientific knowledge proceeds seems to me to be based on the sort of open-minded research that Popper suggests. The problem with conspiracy theories is that they cannot be tested scientifically because they contain the second postulate. If I exhaustively research the claim that the crime was committed (here that a group of people demolished the WTC from the inside), and I find that a crime was not committed, the conspiracy theorist simply has to declare me part of the conspiracy. In other words, the second postulate can prevent nearly anyone from disproving the first.

The conspiracy becomes something like Satan. For the devout religious believer, God cannot be disproven, nor can the most unlikely parts of their Bible, because any proof that could seem to disprove it (say dinosaur bones) is the work of the Devil. Satan wants to tempt us, he wants us to disbelieve, in the same way that the conspiracy wants us to disbelieve. So anyone who argues against God is either seduced by the Devil, if we want to be charitable, or Satan himself, if we don't. Similarly, if I believe that we really landed on the moon, I am either a dupe or part of the conspiracy. No evidence that I can marshall can save me from that.

So, ideally, we should have no sacred cows at all. We should be able to explore these theories, but also able to reject them, if they are wrong. The reason I think that they give a sort of security to those who believe them is that they sense that their theory cannot be disproven, and therefore they can hold on to it forever. Any form of skepticism can become an equal form of blind faith.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Quote for Today

"The citizens' concerns that we're not enforcing religious and moral beliefs were very heartfelt and I don't want to be associated with their moral or religious beliefs because I've never read anywhere in the Good Book that the Lord wanted us to persecute those that did not hold the same morals and values."
- Synder, Oklanhoma City Councilman Clifford Bernard, who resigned from his job after being hounded by a bunch of local crybabies who demanded that he fire the police chief Tod Ozmun. Why? Well, apparently Ozmun allowed his adult wife to pose nude on the Internet (oh, the shame!). Admittedly, there is plenty in the Good Book about persecuting people. But, it's the thought that counts, right? The Mayor quit too, as did Ozmun.


Darwin, Lose, or Draw

So, I've read the Origin of Species for my exams, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I'm not sure Darwin's not being a bit too... Hegelian when he talks about 'perfect' forms evolving and replacing less perfect ones. But, he is clear that evolution can produce rather useless parts like our appendix or the giraffe's tail as well. But, I think that the idea of more perfect species can be very misleading.

That said, it was a bit annoying to find that the man himself answered many of the 'issues' that are still raised about his theory of natural selection. Thankfully, he answers what I consider to be the lamest 'problem' people have with natural selection theory- "How can the eye be so perfect?", which sounds profound, but can be translated to "I don't get it! Why's that happen again?" So Darwin repeats himself very slowly in the text for them. Too bad he's not still around to keep doing so.

I also wish that more people understood why the argument that evolutionary forms are 'highly unlikely mathematically' is based on bad, and even misleading math. I'm not sure about the ethical implications of lying very loud and very often for the sake of a religion that condemns lying. But, it really can't be good. And it suggests that 'intelligent design' is more of a political movement than a theological one.


Monday, September 11, 2006

David LaChapelle

What do you get when you combine Andy Warhol, Russ Meyers, Walt Disney, Salvador Dali, Federico Fellini, a neon tube, and a fevered mind that can blend all of these elements into art that is still strikingly original? Well, I'm not sure, but it's worth checking out the website of David LaChapelle anyway.


Friday, September 08, 2006


Today's Reading

The Origin of Species: Charles Darwin's epic novel about the lives and struggles of a huge and surprisingly diverse number of characters, many of whom come to an unsavory end. The book's moral: It is impossible to step into the same gene pool twice.


Foucault Redux

According to Richard Wolin, the usual understanding of Michel Foucault as an anti-humanist should be revised. Because, after all, Foucault himself revised his ideas to accomodate humanism. Apparently, he realized the biggest problem with works like Madness and Civilization, and The Order of Things- namely, that they (supposedly) reveal huge systems of control, and then eliminate any possibility to act against them. I once commented to a professor that it bothered me that, if I take Foucault seriously, there's no possibility of a non-alienated social interaction. There's no possible resistance- we become oppressive as soon as we resist in any way other than random acts of violence. People are just innately horrible. This, along with his glib writing style, is why I say that Foucault's books have a sociopathic tone to them. The professor pointed out that Foucault himself worked with prisoners, so he wasn't opposed to all attempts to improve things. I didn't think this was a great answer. But, it is very interesting.

Wolin thinks it shows that Foucault did indeed change his positions later in life, in his actions and in writings that haven't yet been translated into English. This is interesting.

He also notes the strangeness of academic identity politics such as 'queer studies' being so rooted in Foucault, when the man himself thought that, in modernity, 'the soul is the prison of the body', to quote from Punish and Dicsipline. When he talks about abolishing man, in The Order of Things, essentially Foucault is anti-identity politics. (And an interesting note, he's entirely wrong about Darwin in that section.)

Lastly, Wolin has a quote here from an unnamed German friend that is sublime:

"Identity politics: That's what we had in Germany between 1933 and 1945."


Rubbing it in.

So, for the record, I think the Democrats are as stupid for trying to get ABC to take their docudrama about 9/11 off the air as the Republicans were for getting the Reagan miniseries pulled. This is the sort of bullying move that Hillary Clinton tends to pull...

Whoops! I guess I just criticized Hillary Clinton. And I work at a New York state university, and so she is my 'boss'... So, according to Elder Anonymous's argument below, I should expect to get fired for criticizing her in this public forum. Actually, I should expect to get fired if I disagree with the government at all. Since, after all, they're my 'boss' as well. So, I'm guessing that I'll be fired pretty soon now, right?


Ohio State and Academic Freedom

Ideally, academic freedom includes the right to objectively consider varying points of view in a dispassionate manner. I really don't believe that it includes the right to be shielded from other points of view. Therefore, I also think that Scott Savage, a librarian at Ohio State, shouldn't have 'gotten in trouble' for suggesting a book for a freshman reading list that condemns homosexuality.

Savage apparently took offense to the fact that the suggested reading list for incoming freshmen includes books that are 'ideologically or politically or religiously polarizing', suggesting that he has his own problems with the concept of intellectual freedom. The idea of a critical debate does include 'poles' after all. In response to those professors who suggested that he look into these concepts, he suggested the book The Marketing of Evil: How Radicals, Elitists, and Pseudo-Experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised as Freedom, by David Kupelian be added to the reading list. Sadly, two gay professors responded by outing themselves as not particuarly conversant in the idea of intellectual freedom either, saying that even suggesting such a thing is a form of harassment. Oh my!

Final verdict: The idea of a list of books that all incoming freshmen are recommended to read with little to no explanation seems pretty idiotic in itself. That could be the real problem here. Savage sounds like a cold douche, but to suggest that recommending a book, or subscribing to an idea that offends you, is a form of harassment definitely violates the idea of academic freedom. At least, in my mind. People have asked "What if he suggested The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?" Good point, but why shouldn't universities be able to critically scrutinize the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Isn't this the best way to expose them as horse shit? And if this book, which sounds to me like the Protocols of the Elders of Fire Island, is also crapola, wouldn't it be best to subject it to rigorous intellectual scrutiny before ultimately deciding to use it as a door-stop?


The BYU Way of Thinking

People debate over and over about just what exactly the principle of 'academic freedom' entails. But, I think it's fairly simple actually. Should a professor or instructor be allowed to hold an unpopular view? Yes. The university administration has no right to dictate what views their employees hold in their personal life. Just as a professor has no right to dictate what views their students should hold.

And so, the professor has the right to believe that aliens have visited Earth, but he or she does not have to the right to propose this idea to their students as gospel truth and require them to agree to it for a grade, or even to imply such a requirement. In fact, the idea of 'gospel truth' is largely anathema to higher ed. In matters of opinion, we have the responsibility to present opinions, if we choose so, as opinions. That's it. We're not required to avoid all controversial opinions- nothing is verboten in a marketplace of ideas. But, we are required to keep all opinions, especially our own, under an unblinking lens of skepticism.

So, Brigham Young University seems to be out of their tree in suspending Dr. Steven Jones for holding the opinion that the 9/11 attacks were an 'inside job'. Whether or not he's right, and my cursory review of the State Department report and his own website leads me to believe the latter, is not what should decide his employment. In fact, his personal opinions, again, are not the property of the university. Did he present his opinions in a classroom as proven fact? It doesn't even sound like he mentioned them in class from the article.

BYU is not a good place to teach, clearly. They've fired other instructors for such petty infractions as writing letters to the editor of the local paper in support of gay marriage. And generally they seem to take the attitude that 'if you work here, you'll believe what we tell you to believe'. Such an attitude is poisonous to intellectual freedom.


Thursday, September 07, 2006

TA Madness

Another week of recitations down and no serious depression has set in yet. Actually, I'm enjoying doing it. But, I always enjoy the actual doing of it- I love the subject, and I'm getting to a point where I know all of the things in your basic World Civ text book. So, little oddities like Harappa don't throw me when someone asks about them. I'm getting better at this, and I like that.

What made me miserable last year wasn't instructing, or lecturing; it was doing it every week in front of pissy students who resent 'having to take' World Civ. But, so far, I'm really not concerned. I still have plenty of students who hate the course, but they're getting to be background noise for me. There are certain types that I get every single semester, so the "girl who despises me from the first word I say and then glares at me until the last recitation with utter disdain", for example, barely even registers anymore. The "hyperactive problem child who should never have gotten into university" doesn't bother me in the slightest. I'm detached.

This is the course that everyone has to take, and so a certain percentage of them just hate it. And they just hate us. And that doesn't change. So, as an instructor, you either focus on the material or you focus on the students. In the movies, a great teacher is one who focuses on the students. I don't find that works at all. At least, not in university. Here the great instructors seem to love the material and know it well, and focus on that.

I don't know- I'm still really happy after two weeks. Ask me again how I'm doing on week twelve! My game plan is just to read a lot of great books for my exam fields and try not to stare into the abyss of the American undergraduate population for any serious length of time. Mall University is what it is.

Rufus' Maxim #2: Until you can get out of it, try to stay above it.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Keeping Up With the Times

The Rev. John P. Minogue argues that the 20th Century University is Obsolete in an article which is written in an amusingly dry tone, but with a subtext of deep despair. Academia is increasingly driven by market forces, but isn't really keeping up with what the customers want. For one thing, we still have libraries, even though our students barely use them. Overhead is rampant everywhere in academe. So Minogue tells us to expect clever businessmen to make a fortune with glorified diploma mills and put the traditional university out of business, basically. I guess one could argue that we've been hearing this for decades, and that there are (of course!) still kids out there who are searching for something more meaningful in their life than an easy A, and that if you build a traditional university, they will still come...

But, the heck with it. I'm planning to keep up with the changes. I'm going to give the public what they want. The classes I'll be offering (when they let me)?

"Dude, Where's My Car? The Cinema of Ashton Kutcher in American Life"

"Economics 101: How to Find Super-Hot Clothes for Really Cheap!"

"English 211: How to Avoid Reading in Everyday Life"

"Shakespeare: What a homo, Dude! Seriously!"

"Women's Studies 236: Britney, Christina, J-Lo, and the Semiotics of Booty-Popping"

"History 326: The Beer Bong in the French Revolution"

and, of course...

"Intro to Postmodernism: Shallow Contempt for Fun and Profit"



Apparently, Florida Republicans have chosen Katherine Harris to run for Senate, and Salon is a bit bemused. To be blunt, Harris has always struck me as a shoo-in for Mayor of Crazytown. But, I'm not so sure that she won't be able to run on the 'poor me- those beltway just insiders can't handle how real I am!' meme that Joe Lieberman is currently running into the ground. And win. A sucker's born every minute, and that probably goes double for Florida. Salon optimistically tells us that: "For Democrats, her defeat could be little more than icing on the cake of a transformative 2006 election." (although they clearly think she might have a shot too) But, when we start talking about America being transformed, and turning to the Democrats, and all of that sort of thing I start remembering the last time I heard that prediction...


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Washington, DC


The Green Revolution

Back in the 1700s, the Marquis de Condorcet and Thomas Malthus had different predictions for the future. Malthus thought that human population increase would eventually outstrip food production and hundreds of millions would starve. Condorcet thought that we would solve the problem, and several others, through science and reason and hundreds of millions would be saved. Thankfully, Condorcet was right. We did solve the production problem through science and saved countless millions of lives.

Or, more specifically Norman Borlaug did. He's the man responsible for the "Green Revolution" in the 1960s that dramatically increased agricultural productivity through the painstakingly engineered dwarf wheat. In the 1960s, people were still predicting millions of deaths. It's impossible to calculate how many lives Borlaug saved, but if anyone who got the Nobel Prize ever deserved it, he sure did. Remember kids: Great things can be accomplished by meddling with God's creation.


Edmund Burke

"When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it. The wild gas, the fixed air, is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface. I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really recieved one. Flattery corrupts both the reciever and the giver; and adulation is not of more service to the people than to kings. I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government; with public force; with the discipline and obedience of armies; with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit while it lasts, and is not likely to continue long."
-Edmund Burke, On the Revolution in France.

Burke's classic text on the Revolution is largely spot on about the Revolution; pretty impressive considering that it was written, as a letter to a gentleman in Paris, in 1790. Interestingly enough, Burke echoes Socrates' speech in The Republic on how Democracy becomes tyranny- the desire for liberty spreads to all areas of society, upturning all fixities and hierarchies simply out of hand. Socrates worried that students would no longer listen to their teachers- for him, the teacher-student relationship is the model of all civilization. Burke's fear was that French citizens, having been disuaded of all the former ideas that had supported political rule- such as the idea of the gentleman or the tenets of Christianity- would cease having any reasons at all to support any rule, and the National Assembly would have to resort to the use of force. This is what Socrates foresaw as well: liberty turns to licence and anarchy, paving the way for a tyrant to 'take the day'. Burke was right about France: civil society broke down, the collection of revenue failed, the army mutineed, religion divided the nation, and eventually the National Assembly became the Directory.

It's also interesting to think of Burke as one of the intellectual cornerstones of conservatism. His argument here is for reason and caution: liberty is wonderful, but it must be preserved through order, and gotten through slow and patient work. It's impossible to know what he would have thought of our current attempts at fostering liberation in the world: one is tempted to replace "new liberty of France" with "new liberty of Iraq" in that quote above. Perhaps Burke would have seen this project as valid. He supported the English Revolution. But, the spirit of moderation and restraint that he championed seems all but lost in the new world that we live in.