Thursday, August 31, 2006
"Any moral or intellectual confusion about who and what is right or wrong can weaken the ability of free societies to persevere."
-Dick Cheney, not only blatantly lying, but also taking a firm stand against the critical thinking skills and sense of nuance that has heretofore characterized post-Enlightenment societies. And why am I guessing that the fanatics who got that Queen tribute party shut down made exactly the same argument?
I'm going with Mykel Board here. A war between two groups of paranoid, anti-Enlightenment flat-heads? I'll support the fish.
People who obviously read this blog...
Kevin Smith, who is going to take a 'complete left turn' from his Clerks schtick to make a horror film, after I bitched on this blog that he really needed to try something new...
And Salon, who recently published an article arguing that American pop culture "'booty popping' will do to Islamic fundamentalism what rock 'n' roll did to Stalinism" a few days after I posted that the war on fundamentalism would be won by sleazy hip-hop videos, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Spielberg movies.
What can I say? I know how to call 'em.
Oh, this is the last straw! "Organizers of a 60th gala birthday party for the late Zanzibar-born rock star Freddie Mercury, have cancelled the weekend event after outraged Muslims threatened to disrupt it." You know what? I don't care what your religious beliefs are. If you can't even listen to Queen covers and party, then in my book, you're evil.
Poor Freddie Mercury... You know, he's paid his dues... time after time. He's done his sentence. But committed no crime And bad mistakes, he's made a few. He's had his share of sand kicked in his face. But, he came through...
And we mean to go on and on and on and on!
We are the champions - my friends...
The Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery has pulled a documentary from its show Arts and Islam after recieving a complaint from the Muslim art group Artists Circle. The complaint came because the film, by Bangladeshi-British photographer Syra Miah, contains an image of a half-naked mentally ill woman. According to the Artists Circle, partial nudity is offensive to Islam, etc. etc. etc. This is getting to be depressingly commonplace, isn't it? And after the museums standing up for free speech against the Jessie Helms Brigade in the 1980s and 1980s! Now, private phone calls are made, the public isn't consulted, and art works simply disappear. Well, I'll say the same thing now that I did then: Artists are people who mine through their soul and subconscious and bring the treasures that they find into the sunlight to present to the rest of us. If any of those tunnels are ever considered too dangerous to mine, and blocked off, you run the risk of suffocating them completely.
Just read a fascinating article in which Rebecca Goldin shrewdly dissects the Washington Monthly's Best College List. College rankings are a rather bizarre aspect of American academic life. Not only because they generally don't help all that much in predicting what university life will be like, but because they suggest that different intellectual experiences can be ranked like new car models. "Well, Socrates is a teacher who has high student satisfaction, so we'd give him a 9 there, but his published output is relatively non-existent and his students tend to be less successful later in life than the Sophists." The lists are honestly weirder than that. In fact, I've long said that the US News & World Reports Yearly Ranking of Colleges, the big and important list for American universities, is pretty much worthless. The way they do it includes a lot of interviews with students. So, when I was at William & Mary, they would come around and interviewed harried undergrads towards the middle of the year. I remember one year, the ranking read: "This university is known as 'the bootcamp of academia', largely because of its work load, which is reportedly 'obscene'", obviously quoting from one of those stressed kids! So, don't get the idea that it's incredibly scientific.
Happily, Canadian universities have started refusing to go along with this nonsense. A number of them have told McLean's to 'go hang it, eh!', including the University of Toronto, arguably the best University in the country. (I am required to say that because I still owe them some tuition money) It would be great to see American universities start standing up for themselves as well... universities and not consumer-driven package tours. But, they'll get there. Eventually.
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
This one isn't that surprising either, but it's kind of amusing.
You know those anti-drug ads that the US government films with people frying eggs and driving over little kids while stoned? Think they're actually effective? What? Are you high?
"A Government Accountability Office report on research tracking the impact of the federal government's $1.2 billion anti-drug ad campaign concludes that "the evaluation provides credible evidence that the campaign was not effective in reducing youth drug use, either during the entire period of the campaign [1998 to 2004] or during the period from 2002 to 2004 when the campaign was redirected and focused on marijuana use."
"In fact, during some periods and for some subgroups, exposure to the ads was significantly associated with an increased tendency to smoke pot."
On the other hand, they were less likely to fry eggs, so that's good...
According to the Alliance for Excellent Education (why do I imagine Bill & Ted doing their ads?) two year institutions spend $1.5 billion each year on remedial education for incoming students. Okay, and...? Isn't that the point of community colleges? Am I weird for having thought that some people go to community college because they have to get up to speed to go on to university? I mean, sure there are problems with the High Schools. Don't get me wrong. I see that every year. But don't a lot of people go to community college who just got their GED? Or who have been out of school for ten years? What's the problem with developing the skills of the work force, especially considering that they pay tuition anyway?
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
The first day of classes is done and I am exhausted! I got up at 7:00 this morning to get to the first lecture, and sat in on two others after that. I also met with two of the profs that I am doing exam readings with and checked out a bunch of books to that end from the library. Then I drove back home, took a nap, and woke up to write the Research Report that is due by Friday. I'm pretty much done with that, and so I'm going to bed. The Blogger clock is screwed up- it's really about midnight here.
I like being back to the grind in a lot of ways. It's nice to be busy. It's nice to make the hour-long drive while listening to classical music in the car. It's nice to burn my candles in my study while writing proposals and notes. Mall University still has the mopey vibe that it did last year- the seminar that I sat in on today was filled with master's students bitching about having to attend a grad seminar! But, it seems a bit easier to get into my head space and relax there so far. Also, it's very nice to be given lists of books and told to go read them! That I can do.
Today, I read: French Historians and Romanticism, by Ceri Crossley.
"There is no alternative to the peaceful coexistence of cultures. Promoting that is a task that literature ought to set itself. You see, fundamentalists believe that we don't believe in anything. In their view of the world, they are in possession of absolute certainties, while we are descending into decadence. We will be able to triumph over terrorism not by waging war on it, but through a conscious, fearless way of life. If there is a choice between absolute safety and freedom, then freedom must always prevail."
Monday, August 28, 2006
Here's Amy Wink on rediscovering the pleasure of writing in ink when her PC went bust...
"I have, in fact, delighted in the sensual pleasures of the flowing ink and the lovely Japanese paper that fills the notebooks. That paper does provide, as the cover proclaims “most advanced quality” and “gives best writing features.” I love the way the ink works with this paper but I usually reserve that pleasure for my journal writing, preferring the illusion of speed in my other work. “Work” proceeds more effectively on the computer, or so I told myself.
In my break from computer assistance, I discovered a new truth: writing by hand can make my thinking go faster. "
I take a bit of ribbing for my habit of writing out my notes and essays by hand before putting them on the computer. But, she's right- you tend to think more clearly when you're inscribing your thoughts by hand. The practice roots your thoughts in the physical world, and makes thinking a form of action. After you do it all day, as I have today, doing this starts to feel very disembodied and strange.
Is the Bush Doctrine dead? Norman Podhoretz says "No freakin' way, dude!" and then quotes Mark Twain's painfully over-quoted line about his own death being greatly exaggerated. If you remember, the Bush Doctrine states:
"Any nation seeking to fight Islamo-atomic-evil-fascist-terrorismo-mambo-Italiano-expialadocious will be rewarded with an all-you-can-eat coupon redeemable at any Sizzler's Steak House from now until freakin' forever!"
So, on and on he goes about how great the Bush Doctrine is, and how people misunderstood the Truman Doctrine in its time, and when we realize how wrong we've been we are going to feel so stupid, but by that point it will be too late; we'll have broken Bush's heart. Ugh! Is it just me, or is this whole issue getting to be painfully boring?
Should we be worried about the increasing influence of evangelical Christians in US foreign policy? Foreign Affairs Magazine says No. Walter Russel Mead argues that the fundamentalists tend to stay out of world affairs, while the people that are getting involved are evangelicals, who see foreign policy as a means to increase religious freedoms and aleviate poverty throughout the world. So, think of Bush not as some wild-eyed holy crusader, but a great ethical thinker in the model of (cough-cough!) 'greats' like Woodrow Wilson.
The evangelists do have a temperment that I can deal with a lot more easily than the fundamentalists. However, they seem to share a belief with Schelling, Hegel and Quinet that the unfolding of history is the progressive revelation of the Absolute. So how will they respond if History turns out to have other ideas? The French idealists turned pretty quickly to moaning about the mal de siecle after the 1848 commune, and pretty much gave up on the unfolding of history. Not to mention how many starry-eyed Communists eventually gave up on the idea of the end of history and the withering away of the state. If Bush is Woodrow Wilson, will Iraq be his Weimar Republic?
Sunday, August 27, 2006
(Old post- now with the appropriate clip added. Play when reading that section. Okay?)
Weird all-night dancing in the lukewarm streets of Nantes; today is a fête de la musique and every block has a different group of musicians playing on it. I wander around and listen to bagpipers, Greek singers, African drummers, French rock bands and Spanish music. The French rock band is older and constantly frowning, but they’re still swinging. At one point, the singer has one side of the street sing “Rock me” and the other sing “all night long”. However, with his thick French accent, “rock me” comes out more like “Rocky”, or perhaps “Roquey” and “all night long” is more like “au nee loh”. Soon the entire block is singing “Roquey- au nee loh!” and roquing out like crazy.
In the alley, a French woman huffs at me- this might not make any sense if you’ve never had a French person huff at you, but it’s really funny; like “Boff!” which is sort of a common French exclamation. I’m dressed very strangely this evening; Claire can attest that nobody in France has a jacket like mine, and I swear that I get the funniest looks all evening for my attire. This amuses me to no end, and I laugh at the woman, because honestly, how else can you respond to something so ridiculous? And I keep walking. And roquing.
It is strange how the musicians are split off into these little “it’s a small world” nation-states. Every nation on earth seems to claim its “own” music- and almost all of them are hybrids of other musical traditions. So, bluegrass comes from Scottish and African musical forms, the blues come from country music and African traditional music, New Orleans jazz borrowed from Carribean and Mexican styles along with gospal and field hollers, French musette is really a hybrid of polka and jazz, and on and on and on. Art has no borders, it mates with anything, and it draws from everything. The people who worry about cultural purity, who never seem to do a thing for actual culture, are worried about an oxymoron. There’s no such thing- there is no culture with purity, and vice-versa.
I keep thinking about this as I walk around the shopping areas of Nantes- is this all that culture is anymore? Endless malls? Mobs of people shopping every time they get a free moment? It's tough though because I'm not anti-consumerism. If people want to pursue pleasure, then why begrudge them this pursuit? There's no quicker way to become a Puritan than to spend your time worrying about how other people make themselves happy.
But, for some reason, it still depresses me. This is the 'clash of civilizations' we keep hearing about? Religious fanatics vs. the Mall? Two cultures- one whose heyday was in the 1400s and the other whose heyday was in the 1700s duking it out? I'm not afraid that the future will be violent at all. I'm afraid that it will be boring- just endless boredom punctuated by the occasional random act of violence. Just an endless middlebrow mall where everything flatters us and nothing is confusing, or strange, or difficult.
And yet, somewhere in this field of music and shoppers is another field. I find it standing between the musical acts, in a space that nobody else is occupying because it's confusing and loud and bizarre. Right here, where the chanting of North African drummers and singers clashes with the bagpipes of Scottland and makes a secret sound that nobody else is listening for. This chaotic cacophony of human breathing is something strange and beautiful and disorienting. And for me, it's the hidden key to the future, the only future that will move us forward- it's the secret beauty of cross-breeding, and mutation, and perversion, and the endless variations of human creation. The West keeps repeating the 19th century, and the East keeps repeating the 15th century, but outside of the geographical designations, new arts will be taking root. Oh, they'll be denied as insignificant and unimportant by most people because they won't be sold in the malls. But, they'll be there nonetheless- our alchemic arts, our hidden alchoves in these dark ages. And perhaps there will be a renaissance of humanist voyagers to explore the veiled recesses and search them out.
Okay, so I'm going to do great violence to the ideas of the political right and left by making them even dumbier than they already are. Kurt Vonnegut (keeps coming up lately, eh?) once wrote that the American right's ideas can be boiled down to something like "Winners are better than losers". Essentially, conservatives see history as a struggle between winners and losers, the weak and the strong, and side with the winners in every case. The reverse of this would be that liberals are people who always side with the losers.
I've said that there is a difference between libertarian leftists and vulgar leftists in that us libertarian types (drug-addled perverts basically) tend to focus on issues, while the vulgar leftists (crybabies and statists) tend to focus on groups and nations. The reason that vulgars are so often opposed to America is that America is huge and powerful and annoying- winners basically. The reason that vulgar conservatives believe that America should be able to do whatever it wants is that they see America as a big winner as well- might makes right. The extreme of the left is essentially self-loathing, and the extreme of the right is essentially authoritarianism.
Take, for example, homosexuals. Vulgar conservatives hate gays because 'God hates gays', and 'we love families', and 'what they do is disgusting', and blah-blah-blah. But, really, they hate gays because gays are a rarity- there are less of them, so they have little numerical power. They're an easy target. They're losers, in other words, and when they act like winners, they need to be slapped down by the winners, who are winners because there's more of them. Liberals, on the other hand, will pretend that gays, as losers, have some secret knowledge that the rest of us lack. They idealize homosexuals as bestowers of value, and argue that hetero families are just teddible, teddible. For the rest of us, in the sane world, gays just aren't a big deal. We don't hate or idolize them- we just accept that some cats dig cats, and some dig chicks, and so what? My postion on gays? They should have all the same rights as everyone else, and the state should not intrude into their lives. Surprising, I know.
So, vulgar conservatives support the rich, men, straights, Christians, the police, the military and every other group that generally comes out on top in this society. And, vulgar liberals support the poor, women, gays, non-Christians, criminals, guerrilas and every other group that is, in some sense, weaker. They tend towards a slave morality, while conservatives tend towards might as right- fascism basically. But, ironically enough, both extremes end in increased state power. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
The first thing to notice here is that Christianity actually is a slave morality, but it's not strange that it eventually became a victor ideology. Secondly, one should notice how fluid these vulgar ideas really are. If gays become numerically and socially superior, expect the Ann Coulters of the world to become their lickspittles. If Christians become an oppressed minority, expect the Michael Moores of the world to take up their cause.
Secondly, notice how bizarre this makes the War Against the Boogeyman. "Islamic-fascism" is hardly Islamic, but very much a fascist ideology. That is, it believes that might makes right. The reason that it has an aversion towards gays and women is that it sees them as weaker. Similarly, it has dreams of domination, and a mythology of past domination that was thwarted by clever schemers- and not surprisingly, Jewish schemers. Essentially, it is classic conservative fascism.
However, these people are a numerical minority that opposes the "winners"- so very vulgar leftists valorize them. For libertarian leftists like myself, this is repugnant- if there's anyone that Osama bin-Laden really hates, it's my friends, who are not only North American, but happy homosexuals, sluts, drug users and perverts. In fact, I've been saying forever that GLAAD needs to make posters in the old 1940s propaganda style, reading:
"If you're not gay, are you sure that you're really against terrorists?"
Nobody listens to me though.
So, I'm opposed to all fascists, but unlike the vulgar conservatives, I don't believe that the solution is to greatly increase state power (imagine that). I've seen how disasterous this tactic has been in fighting the Drug War, and conversely how successful education and advertising has been in opposing cigarette companies. In North America, smoking is becoming a rarity, while drugs...? Not so much.
Vulgar conservatives believe that you can promote our values through the use of great force. Vulgar liberals believe that our values are a cover for great force, and should be equally opposed. I think they're both full of shit. The values of the Enlightenment- religious tolerance, empirical reason, women's rights and minority rights, equality of opportunity and freedom, etc.- are worth fighting for, in my opinion. But, they're 100% worthless if they come at the end of a gun-barrel. If you want to torture me into loving kittens, expect that when you're done, I'm going to kill every kitten I see. Similarly, don't expect that you can bomb a country into religious tolerance and democracy. Terrorism and Democracy are not opposites of each other- sadly, they're often compatible.
But, don't try to convince me that Hamas has really good ideas, and we just need to listen to them. Fuck that. People who believe that my gay friends should be hanged? Not worth listening to. People who believe that Jews run the world, or that liberated women are a problem- not my allies. People who honestly believe in religious legalism- Phariseeism, in other words, and theocracy? Well, I hate them both over here and over there.
So, how exactly do we win the War on the Boogeyman? Well, first off, let's start admitting that the other side has no chance, okay? Nobody in their right mind thinks that Osama will rule the world- which is why both religious fascists and vulgar conservatives do expect this to happen. And then, let's start saying, very loudly and repeatedly, why it is that we support Enlightenment liberalism. Let's become evangelists against evangelists. Let's actually try to remember why is was that the founding fathers were so opposed to the idea of a state church in the first place, especially since we have people in power who would like one very much. Let's actually advocate for ideas, and not groups. Let's get the word out- liberated women are awesome! Gay rights just make sense! Marijuana does no harm! Free love is fun! Sex is healthy! Spirituality is healthy, but Osama bin Laden is a great example of why religion and politics don't mix. The government that governs best governs least. Only bullies believe that might makes right.
The ideas really are brilliant, and letting buffoons be the spokesman for them is a terrible idea. What we need isn't a war against terror and religious fascism. What we need is to throw a big fucking party against terror and religious fascism, and for increased and ever- increasing freedom. Let the religious nuts have their religious wars and thin out their mangy herds. I'd rather be mixing drinks. Like Emma Goldman said, if I can't dance, I don't want your revolution.
Now that Marxists are as threatening to the social order as members of the Bull Moose Party, can we possibly read Das Kapital in an objective way? Michael Fitzpatrick thinks so, and argues that there's nothing remotely like Capital.
One way of looking at the book is that the empirical social analysis in Capital works and the theory doesn't. So, Capital works as an analysis of Capitalism and its limitations, even if we reject the dialectic, which I reject simply as a sort of quasi mysticism. I think Marx pretty much nails industrial capitalism, although he didn't see the ways in which it could reform itself. But, Fitzpatrick says that I'm wrong there- the dialectic is not as Hegelian and mechanistic as people like me think it is.
"Marx shows how the process of capital accumulation tends towards falling profitability expressed in periodic crises. However, contrary to the interpretations of many admirers as well as critics, Marx does not advance a mechanistic thesis of collapse or predict the inevitable downfall of capitalism. He recognises that crises are both an expression of declining profitability and a mechanism for restoring it. He identifies a series of counteracting tendencies to the dominant disintegrative dynamic of capitalism. His analysis supports neither fatalists eagerly anticipating the fall of capital nor those who believe that revolutionary will is in itself sufficient to bring the system to an end. The key factor in the fate of capitalism was the role of class struggle, as the subjective bearer of change in the objective conditions given by the tendency towards breakdown."
And, for the most part, that was defeated before it got started. Point taken. Fitzpatrick is probably right that Capital is sociological analysis, and not mechanistic theory. It's worth remembering Marx's famous comment that he was not a Marxist. Also, he notes that Capital might be remembered best as literature, an area in which its value is most easily demonstrated. I'm not a Marxist either, but I understand why people return time and again to Capital to explain those aspects of our post-industrial world that are most bewildering and confusing.
Saturday, August 26, 2006
Today Claire and I traded in my car for a new one. My old car, which I bought from my Grandfather, was basically a huge Grandpa car- a Crown Victoria. I only drive three days a week, but it was costing me sixty bucks a week to do so! I traded it for a car that gets over twice the gas mileage. But, I also had to deal with a car salesman, an experience that is about as pleasant as pissing blood. Luckily, we had two secret weapons with us- Claire's father, who is the CFO of one of the world's largest accounting firms, so he knows about money and dealmaking. Also, we brought his best friend, who is a Toyota dealer- we were buying a Toyota. In other words, we were basically a car salesman's worst nightmare.
In the car business, they call customers like us 'grinders'- we're basically ready to argue all day to get the deal we want, and then walk out if we don't. This is exactly what we did, argued for a few hours. To be honest, I hate doing it, but the guy was wasting our time in a serious way. He even tried to change the price on the sales slip from the one he had quoted five minutes earlier! And then he pretended this was a mistake. Claire's father was great though. He very calmly said: "I just don't see how you could have made this mistake. Either give us the price we agreed to, or we'll go somewhere else." We were very close to leaving at this point anyway because the haggling was... well, as stupid as trying to add $100 to a sales slip and hoping we wouldn't notice.
I learned today that the Canadian dealers (at least the Toyota dealers) quit pulling this routine about five years ago. What they realized is that you have two extremes buying cars- the grinders, and the sweet old ladies. When a car dealer takes a bath on a sale to a grinder, they have to make it up by gouging the sweet old lady, and they can get away with it. So, they do. But, if you pay people the blue book value right out and don't haggle over it, you lose the grinders and keep the sweet old ladies. Not only is the experience of buying a car much less painful, but they end up with more sales. Buying a car is, thus, more pleasant in Canada. And their sales have boomed because they've eliminated the scam from the business.
So, it is possible to make a very nice living without basing your business on how much you can scam from people. I know, it's crazy, but true. I would like to see them apply this attitude here. It's healthy to have an honest society, and it's actually more profitable.
Friday, August 25, 2006
It's pretty late right now; Claire and I just got back from seeing Canadian punk legends Teenage Head play down the street from us. They're also from the Hammer, so they play here in town a lot. It was still great for me because I remember seeing them as a kid in the movie Class of 1984, which is one of my favorite movies. Every time we drive by the high school in Toronto where they shot the movie I point it out to Claire and annoy her to death. The crowd was great- very friendly and social. I was just thinking how humans form these social scenes and communities and extended families. Kurt Vonnegut once said that we'd be better off if we were all tied to tribes of about 40 people and responsible for each other in the tribe. I find little communities wherever I go. I think they must be hard-wired into us.
Not long ago, I poked fun at the second-raters who produced a poseurific article claiming that 'evidence-based' science was exclusionary and even borderline fascist. J. Carter Wood has felt compelled to deconstruct the article at some length because, be they poseurs or not, they're poseurs who claim to speak for lefties and acaedemics, and that really cheeses him off, being as he's the real deal on both counts. So, he's strapped on his writing irons and dared them to 'draw!' Read his critique, and watch him blow holes in them mangy varmints!
Good news for a change- George A.Romero gets to make another zombie movie! Well, it's good news for weirdos like me, anyway... Incidentally, this one will also be shooting in Toronto, like Land of the Dead did, which means that once again I will try to get myself cast as a zombie extra. It's not exactly a demanding role, but on Land of the Dead, they were only hiring Canadians to play zombies, and I don't have a work permit. Seriously. I'm sure there's a great joke there about Canadians being especially qualified to play zombies, but I'll refrain from making it.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
"As I was going home after the movie, I was heady for purpose. I knew that I could see the Virgin Mary - the real one, not Linda Darnell. I went home and up to the second floor where we had a closet. Chicky my dog had just had her pups so it was a dog nursery. I pulled the dog and the pups away and I got down on my knees and I prayed, "please Virgin Mary, please show up, I want so much to see you."
Then I remembered that Catholics tend to bribe the saints. "If you show up, I'll give up candy for a week - two weeks, okay? I opened my eyes and Chicky had brought one of her pups back. So I tried again. I said, "I'll give up candy and cannelloni and ricotta pie.(laughter) I kept counting to higher numbers each time. I counted to 167 and opened my eyes, sure she was going to be there - but she wasn't. Chicky had brought all eight pups back into the closet.
So I gave up. I walked to the window seat and looked down at the fig tree in the garden that was blooming. Suddenly it happened. I cannot say that reality outside changed, but suddenly I was part of a seamless web of kinship with all of reality and I knew absolutely that I and that fig tree and the pups in the closet and my idea of the Virgin Mary and my chewed up pencil, and fish off Sheep's Head Bay, and old ladies dying in Shore Road hospital, and new wheat in Kansas, was all dynamically related to everything else in symphonic resonance that made for an extraordinary unified cosmos. It was very good.
This went on forever. Lifetimes went by, but technically it was probably only two seconds. Then my father entered the house laughing (he was always laughing) and immediately the whole universe began to laugh - great, huge, joy. Years later when I was able to read Dante in Italian, I recognized the truth in the line deriso de l'universo - the joy that spins the universe. I was regrown out of the field of that experience - it became the template for everything in my life."
Nietzsche claimed that Platonism was disguised Christianity, a comparison that doesn't hold up. However, Platonism similarly sees the body as a distraction that hinders contemplation of the pure forms that the soul alone can grasp. The concept of Eros is often associated with Plato however, and is a sort of polymorphous bodily desire. Freud claimed that the Id was identical to eros, which is accurate. Both are synonymous for physical desires more generally, including but not limited to sexual desires.
Differs from Christianity in emphasizing orthopraxy, or 'right behavior', over orthodoxy, or 'right belief'. This puts it more in line with Judaism and explains the similar dietary restrictions and cleansing rituals in both religions. A Muslim friend tells me that kosher meals can be replaced for halal meals in a pinch. Physical cleanliness is also an important part of Islamic orthopraxy. While there is a body/soul split as in other religions, the Muslim must live correctly in the world, giving Islamic texts an emphasis on real-world life that is often described as more 'natural' than other religions. The body is not seen as a source of shame in Islam. However, the status of women is assumed to be subordinate in most Islamic literature.
The reason it differs from Judaism and Islam is largely because of Paul's emphasis on salvation through faith in Galatians. While the body is seen as a temple, the landlord of that temple is God. This means that Christians must not defile their bodies, but ultimately, the state of their soul is based in belief. What it shares with Platonism is the idea that the believer is of the world, but not in the world. That is to say that the devout Christian will focus on the hereafter and the state of their soul with little concern for bodily comfort. The extremes of this idea are visible in Christian martyrology and later flagellants. However, because the Christian's salvation is ultimately a matter between themself and God, behavior is less important than belief.
The body is seen as fragile and fleeting. In much Buddhist literature, it is criticized and attachments to the body are antithetical to all Buddhist thought. For instance, the monkish practice of asubha bhavana requires young monks to contemplate corpses in order to give up attachment to the physical, similar to the use of memento mori images in Christian art. For a similar reason, much Buddhist literature encourages disgust at women, who might otherwise tempt monks to physical pleasure. One charming comparison holds that a woman is like a jar of vomit and razor blades with honey smeared at the opening.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Foreign Affairs Magazine asks: "Is there still a terrorist threat?"
Answer: Uh, no, not really.
Apparently, they're suggesting that the threat has been way overblown, and they even go so far as to suggest that 20 ugly guys in a cave in Pakistan aren't really going to be able to topple Western civilization. Blasphemes! Next they'll be telling us that jazz music isn't really destroying the American family through its lewd jungle rythms!
But, lest you think they're suggesting that the five-year-and-counting 'War Against the Boogeyman' has accomplished nothing...
"The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists."
You don't say.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
The Department of Education has released a new list of majors that are eligible for federal grants under a program designed to reward university students who major in math, science, engineering, or various foreign languages. They're pretty much funding all of the sciences. Well... there is one science major that they won't fund. No points for guessing it.
Hey, look, if you want to believe in a scientific theory simply because there is massive and largely incontrovertable evidence for it, that's your business. Just don't expect your faith-based government agencies to go along with it, Heathen!
Once upon a time, there was a new Norton Anthology of Children's Literature.
It was of the same quality as your average Norton Anthology.
Many trees died in vain.
And so, Dorothea Israel Wolfson was sad.
The book was filled with gobbledygook nonsense speak that could rival Edward Lear.
For example: "Discourses such as reader-response theory, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminist theory, and postcolonial theory have proven to be valuable in analyzing children's books."
Do you know what that is children?
It's when an adult tells us how valuable their work has been because they cannot show us.
And so, Dorothea stomped her tiny feet and huffed and puffed, all to no avail, until she got to this sublime final paragraph:
"In a strange way, completely unappreciated by the anthology's editors, we have returned to the pre-Lockean age of children's literature. Locke wished to scrub stories clean of horrific images and premonitions of death—not because he was a naïf or a utopian, but because he believed it possible to build a more rational, humane world. The Norton editors break with him on this central issue. They do not believe in the possibility of a more rational world, or even, it would seem, in childhood itself. And so they have more in common with the New England Primer than they dare to admit. They, too, are obsessed with death and the apocalypse, only they don't believe in redemption."
And they all lived uncomfortably ever after.
Monday, August 21, 2006
Film from the Candy Eye Factory in Minneapolis
The old eighteenth century definition of terrorism was the use of violent means to achieve political ends. Modern terrorism is the abolition of ends by means. It is the destruction of context with content. It is the communication media of choice for those whose inner language contains no future tense- it can only send, not recieve. It attempts to bomb us back to the psychic stone age- a mental world in which we read oracle bones to divine the wills of angry gods and every bush is burning. The way to defeat terrorism: Use the future tense.
Sunday, August 20, 2006
With the fall semester fast approaching, expect to see more nervous editorials like this one entitled 'Writing off Reading'. I think the author comes off poorly here by warning us that some of his students (gasp!) like The DaVinci Code! Some readers will mistakenly write him off as a pedant, but the overall problem that he is discussing is mystifying, and more than a bit troubling. He finally asks the golden question on Page 2: "How does one explain the inability of college students to read or write at even a high school level?"
I have no idea. Personally, I love the students who read the DaVinci Code, or Harry Potter, or whatever. But, there's usually only a few of them. What's troubling for me is that at least 80% of them rarely do read, and at least 30% can't understand what they read. The technical term for this is that they're functionally illiterate. And this happens each year. But, for some reason, it's hard to get anyone else around me worried about this. And as some might remember, I've been accused of 'caring too much'. So, I'll let other people write about it.
According to some foreign policy wonks in the Washington Post, it's all over except the screaming. "By any definition, Iraq is in a state of civil war. Indeed, the only thing standing between Iraq and a descent into total Bosnia-like devastation is 135,000 U.S. troops -- and even they are merely slowing the fall. The internecine conflict could easily spiral into one that threatens not only Iraq but also its neighbors throughout the oil-rich Persian Gulf region with instability, turmoil and war."
No shit. The article goes on and on and gets more and more depressing. I'm starting to believe that old saw about wars being little more than intellectual failures.
We went to a friend's wedding last night, and it was lovely, and everyone had a great time. We took some good-natured ribbing about living in 'the hammer', but I quickly defended our town, which is, in my opinion very 'punk rock'. As opposed to Toronto, which is too 'pop punk' for my tastes.
It's funny how often people make jokes about the Hammer. I've found it to be true that every area I've lived in has had its black sheep town. What's brilliantly funny about the Simpsons' 'Shelbyville' is how important it is to the people of Springfield. It's a dead-on, and sweet-natured, parody of provincialism, with all of its attendant charms. When I lived in Fairfax, Virginia, the jokes were about Manassas, Virginia. When I lived in Williamsburg, the jokes were about Virginia Beach (in spite of the Neptunes and Missy Elliot). Every place has its doppleganger.
What the Simpsons winks at is the fact that nobody else really cares. People in Ontario have heard of the Hammer, but when I go home to Virginia, nobody has any idea what I'm talking about. Actually, most of them don't know anything at all about Toronto (the Springfield to our Shelbyville), which would shock half of the people I know in Toronto, who are convinced that it as important a city as London or New York. But, for most Americans, Toronto is "in Canada, right?"
I get a sort of delight out of living in Southern Ontario's Shelbyville. Actually, even more than I did when Claire and I lived in Springfield. We used to live near people who really really gave a shit what other people think of them. It was a trendy neighborhood, and boring. That's not the case here at all. A while back we watched a woman walking a shopping cart full of chairs down the sidewalk in her bath towel. Nobody else batted an eye. This is what I love about Shelbyville. It's punk rock.
British passengers on a holiday flight freak out and refuse to let the plane take off until the staff gets rid of two freaky-looking Asians. I can't say that I haven't considered doing the same thing to avoid sitting next to bratty children. What's interesting about the article is that it pretty much leaves the story there. Did the guys get to fly later? Weren't they passed by security in the first place? Did they turn out to be terrorists? Apparently, they were searched twice. I wanted to know what happened later.
But, I'm not even sure that these news stories are really about terrorism, so much as about the experience of being afraid. Entertainment media like newspapers tend to focus all of their stories on experiences. What was it like to be afraid? What was it like to 'experience fear', or 'experience racism'? I don't even think the terrorism aspect of it matters at all. We just have two experiences- the experience of being afraid and the experience of being singled out and ostracized. Readers can decide which experience they want to imaginatively project themselves into and thus who they want to identify with. Either way, it's entertaining.
I forget what a blast people are having coping with terrorism. In upstate NY, most people could care less- what terrorist would attack Utica or New Paltz? Who would notice if a bomb went off in downtown Buffalo? But, when I was back home in the DC area, everyone followed the news stories. Every day, my boss would come into work flushed and breathless and say something like: "Did you hear about the trash truck that the police have stopped because they think it might contain a bomb?!" Woo-hoo! Excitement! Then, I'd never hear about it again, and have to assume that the police had been wrong. Last week it was the cell-phone bombers, who turned out to have been dopey kids trying to sell cell phones and not bombers. They don't print corrections to these stories. What's the point? Again, the stories aren't about terrorists, or terrorism. Any logical study of these stories and their follow-ups would have to conclude that the threat of terrorism is being exaggerated- and that's no fun. The point is the experience of being afraid. People keep saying that we need to stop being so afraid of terrorists, but they're missing the point. Terror gives life a focus, and makes it participatory again. It involves us in cloak and dagger interaction. Our mediocre and boring lives are suddenly very meaningful- we have a reason to pay attention again, and that's a valuable thing. So, who can blame us?
We're having too much fun being afraid to actually stop.
Friday, August 18, 2006
A woman gets her throat slit in Italy by her Uncle and father for dating a non-Muslim when they wanted her to marry her cousin instead.
1) This isn't 'the conquest of Europe by Islamists'. This is more like the lynchings in the 1920s US South- an act of angry brutality from a group of losers whose way of life is slipping away in the face of modernity. This too will pass.
2) The Italian government requires applicants for citizenship to embrace "fundamental" rights, including the right of a woman "to choose her own life". This is as it should be.
3) This is indeed a fundamental Western value. You can thank the Enlightenment for that too.
As might be obvious from the quotes, I'm reading my way through Plato right now. Here's synchronicity for you. Recently, the Guardian published this article on whether or not we should still be reading The Republic. The author, Simon Blackburn, decided that we should, and got in a little swipe at Leo Strauss. Can you spot it?
Okay, well it's this line: "This line has occasionally been taken by weak-minded commentators in love with the idea of hidden, esoteric mysteries penetrated only by initiates, among whom they are pleased to imagine themselves." Oooh! Take that, bitch! The fur will fly When Nerds Attack!
Anyway, yes The Republic is meandering and a bit authoritarian in its conclusions (although nothing compared to The Laws), but it's also the best analysis I've yet seen as to how democracies become tyrannies, and well worth reading for that alone. Do we have to agree with Plato? I'd hope not. But, do we have to grapple with him? I like to think we do.
I noticed in Northern Virginia that there are a lot of hispanics. So, for example, when you go into IHOP to eat, the staff are all English-speaking immigrants from South America. However, I also noted that legal immigration has been going on in the area for at least 30 years, and so it has steadily 'changed the face of Northern Virginia', as the pundits like to say. So, you have two contradictory facts:
1) In NoVa, there are plenty of people who feel that the area cannot handle the 'massive influx of illegal immigrants', and who believe that 'the illegals are taking over', etc.
2) But, what you quickly realize is that there are actually only a handful of illegal immigrants. There isn't a massive influx of illegal immigrants. They may be putting a strain on the home-building labor pool, but they're fairly isolated, and the feds are very vigilant in the area, which keeps the illegal population very low and isolated. The staff at IHOP are legals, and in fact, most service sector jobs are done by second-generation legals. I use IHOP as an example because we know the manager and the staff there.
So, what I think is happening is that the legal population of immigrants is very large and is also very socially isolated. My sense is that most people complaining lump in the legals with the illegals, and are essentially upset by Spanish-speakers and even English-speakers with accents. I've worked something like 18 low-income jobs in NoVa (I know, it's ridiculous), and so I've seen who works at almost every service sector or blue collar job in the area. Again, they're legal everywhere but in home building, which tends to be day labor, and is harder for the feds to track.
However, behind all of the bitching is, I think, an indication that upward mobility has all-but-stopped in NoVa due to other structural problems. The computer industry has stalled (Cisco Systems just layed off my mother, for example, along with most of their employees), and the influx of programmers to the tech corridor is suddenly without work, and with obscene rents to pay. I think what's happening is that the economy was very over-inflated and is now completely stalled. The legal immigrants, who do most of the service sector jobs in the area, are taking the brunt of it because they are socially isolated as is, but I think the real economic problems are simply inflation and sudden deflation.
So, the good news is that the immigration crisis might not be as pronounced as it seems, although I have no idea what the situation is like in Texas, for example.
Of course, the bad news is that the national economy in general might be about to collapse.
Have a Good Day!
Thursday, August 17, 2006
"I am that gadfly which God has given the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. And as you will not easily find another like me, I would advise you to spare me."
-Socrates, quoted by Plato in The Apology
So why shouldn't I say something about George Allen's 'Macaca' comment? Do I have anything to add? Not really. I grew up in Virginia and left there because I was in love with a sexy Canadian. Allen was my Senator for years, and so I can say with some authority that the man is an idiot.
Is 'macaca' a racist term? I have no idea, and actually let's just say it isn't. I can see that argument going on forever and getting increasingly surreal. "Well, actually, in ancient Swahili, macaca means 'beautiful boy'." So, fine. He's not a racist. He loves the people of Macaca. Some of his best friends are Macacas. Let's just drop that.
That's not what grates at me about the video. It's watching this California rich kid carpetbagger put on cowboy boots and pretend to speak for the 'real Virginians'. It's the faux populism- the opponent hangs out with rich Hollywood types who don't know the 'real world', while Allen hangs out with rich Fairfax County types who know a lot about the real world because their cleaning lady plays Garth Brooks for them while she scrubs the rug. Nobody in Virginia is more annoying than those fat multi-millionaire yuppies who blast neo country out of their SUVs while weaving through traffic and pretending that their basic poverty of human spirit makes them somehow more 'genuine' than the rest of us. Screw them. My America isn't mean and bullying and selfish, and my Virginia didn't used to be that way. But, maybe a poseur bully like Allen really is welcoming the rest of us to the new American status quo. Thanks, but I'll stick with the 'fake' Americans.
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
I've been reading a lot to get ready for this coming year and another semester of teaching. Will it be any easier this year? Well, I sure hope so. It gets easier all the time, and rarely harder than that first year. To be honest, the key to the job is having support from the university administrators. I don't think that they will be any better this year, but I've been assigned to a professor who is notoriously demanding. I am in Heaven about this because it's what we need as assistants. It's like being a soldier for a great General.
The hardest part of teaching in the humanities is that doing so drafts you into the culture wars. Whether you'd like to be a conscientious objector or not, you're enlisted to fight because everything you do is intrinsically combative. And what I think a lot of humanities people are in serious denial about is the fact that we are, by our calling, 'cultural conservatives'. Now, of course, this is a controversial thing to say in some regards. So, let me explain what I mean by 'cultural conservative', a word that has at least three different meanings.
- The first meaning tends to be one who wants to preserve a national culture, its language and beliefs and arts, against imported foreign culture. This isn't me. Oh, I will mark down any student who abuses the English language in their papers. But, as any artist will tell you, culture has always borrowed across borders and always will. Art is universal, and when it attempts to be narrowly national, it becomes kitsch. The same is true of philosophy, religion and all other aspects of the human-made world. So, let other people defend American culture or Western culture against other forms of high culture. I will defend culture. Period.
- Secondly, a cultural conservative can be someone who wants to protect the entire culture from gays and strippers and divorce, or whatever. This isn't me either. Not only because I think a world without gays and strippers is like a day without sunshine, but also because the canon was created by plenty of gays and perverts and is a lot more perverse than the whitewashed version would have it. Read Sexual Personae some time. Well, or just read The Taming of the Shrew with a dirty mind. It's there, believe me. Trying to limit art and culture to only the 'pure' stuff limits the imagination itself, which is the death of culture.
- The third meaning of cultural conservative is one who wants to preserve what they consider to be high culture, and to do so, recognizes that it must be defended as more worthy of preservation than low culture. This is an 'elitist' position to take, and more than a little at odds with mass democracy. It's an aristocratic value, as Nietzsche understood. This is me, the elitist.
What Nietzsche was getting at was the fact that high art has always been preserved by the aristocracy, who need it in order to spiritualize their position of power. Walk through the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art and you will see the propaganda of former religious and political leaders, who often came to power through force, but who legitimized that power through culture. Some of the most sublime and beautiful works of art ever created were created to make power itself seem sublime and beautiful. High culture is the aestheticization of authority.
Nietzsche realized that mass democracy would come to oppose culture for the same reason that the aristocracy supported and preserved it- because it is not easily accessible. For the aristocracy, financing a work of art that only a handful of people appreciate is a stunning success because this appreciation distinguishes them. But, in a mass democracy, such art is a failure. Art that 'the guy on the street' can't appreciate is a failure in populist terms, and a success in aristocratic terms.
Socrates argued that democracies love liberty so much that they inevitably invert all hierarchies and pave the way for tyranny. Nietzsche's major theme was also this transvaluation, even though he opposed Socrates. But he recognized that mass movements are guided by resentment more than anything else, and that this resentment is opposed to anything or anyone higher.
So, the mass democratic party line about culture is something like "Who can say that Proust is a better writer than Stephen King? It's all a matter of opinion." Good and well. But, unfortunately, Marcel Proust is a better writer than Stephen King. This is why he will endure and Stephen King will not. Our job as academics is to repeat this truth, and to repeat that all of the passing, infantile fancies of society will fade, and truth will endure. This makes us worthy of resentment in a democracy that is sustained by the belief that we could all be Proust if we just applied ourselves!
Similarly, populist movements inevitably oppose all forms of authority. The left opposes economic and social hierarchies. The right opposes cultural hierarchies. But, they use the same barrel-scraping rhetoric that attacks 'elites' for being distinguished in some way. "Who are they to think they know more than you do, just because they know more than you do?" And this rhetoric comes from the same place. Populists across the board support the same resentment of distinction (a position that is unthinkable in an aristocracy), and this is the source of their power. Aristocratic power comes from distinction. Populist power comes from levelling.
Academics love the masses, we love egalitarianism, but we must defend the dead values of the aristocracy. We must oppose cultural levelling, whether we'd like to or not. We must defend the beautiful and the sublime and all of the other aestheticizations of authority. Academics in the humanities are the stewards of culture. We are what Matthew Arnold called the clerisy. We have no other mission than this. We have to preserve Shakespeare and Aristotle and Emily Dickinson, and Confucius, and all of those other boring old distinguished thinkers for the next generation. Because of this, we are inherently elitist. Not only that, but we are the true counterculture. We are the opposition to all transvaluations of culture. And you start to realize this when you're teaching. Because the culture at large, young and old, in love with the sound of its own voice, thinks that philosophy is 'worthless since it can't get you a job', just as they did in 400 BCE . They believe that culture is 'boring, boring, boring', that poetry is 'gay' and that knowledge of these things has no real-world value. And we, intrinsically, oppose this.
Not all of us do, of course. There is a snarking, sarcastic, arrogance against culture that persists in the humanities as well. It results in bizarre over-the-top allegations against those 'dead white males' who the culture at large can't stand. (Sucking up to the popular crowd as always) It results in bizarre defenses of cultural garbage too- how many academics have waxed poetic on the merits of the Ghetto Boys in seminar papers! Moreover, it results in a real denial of what it is that we do in the humanities.
We are boring, boring, boring! We read old texts and draw out the wisdom in them. Of course, we question them, and criticize them, but not out-of-hand, not simply because they existed before we did. We take them seriously, and in doing so, we implicitly argue that they are more worthy of being taken seriously than the garbage of the current culture. We are hierarchical by our very nature. We are elitists.
Ah, I'm getting tired of all this nonsense anyway. It's not my job to correct everyone who says something stupid, is it? Why do I feel obligated to? Especially in this medium, which is like writing on water?
I've read the wisdom and decency of Socrates' encomium on Love in the Symposium, or Schopenhauer on Compassion in The Basis of Morality, or Confucius on the heart of learning in The Annalects, and these are writings that endure. But, arguing over the left and the right, two masks that hide the face of resentment, is just totally pointless. And to think that Plato wrote in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, or Confucius during the Warring States Period, these times of great chaos and hatred- not a lot different from our own. And they came up with new ideas that have endured. Terrorists won't endure, and neither will warmongers. These are the shifting faces of resentment.
So, where do we find it?
Lebanese writer Hazem Saghieh on why progressives who support the Lebanese experiment in Arab democracy (a miracle that few Westerners even know about) can condemn Israel all they want, but they should also condemn Syria, Iran and Hizbullah, who hijacked Lebanese democracy a long time ago. My friend Mohammed (yep, that was his name!) who came over from Lebanon described it as a near-paradise before it was turned into a battlefield. Housing was cheap, society was tolerant, and the economy was on the rise. And then came the warriors...
I think we saw some of this dynamic yesterday, when both the Syrians and Israelis were gloating about their great military victories, while your average Lebanese citizen was crawling back to the rubble to rebuild their lives. If progressives should support anyone, they should support those average citizens and condemn the warmongers on all sides who would make them rocket-fodder in order to achieve some glorious end times that will never come.
Saghieh ends with the line "If Karl Marx knew that his followers had donned Iranian clerics' robes, he would be turning in his grave." Which assumes that all progressives are 'followers' of Karl Marx. Some of us progressives have found his followers to not be a hell of a lot different from religious fanatics you know. They've also been pretty willing to kill off innocent people to achieve some glorious 'end of history' that will never come.
That said, why would any leftist with half a mind carry around a picture of Hassan Nasrallah? Don't they know what he would do with our gay rights if he half a chance? Or our uppity women? Or our rock music? Or the rest of the things we believe in for that matter? I sometimes think that there are two types of progressive thinking, one traditional and one vulgar. Those of us who are traditional progressives tend to focus on issues while the vulgar progressives tend to focus on America. I can only assume this is why the vulgars champion religious warmongers like Nasrallah or proto-fascists like Che Guevara. But, in this case, it's not even a matter of 'no enemies to the left' because Hizbollah and Hamas are way off to the fucking right of us. I mean, they're to the right of the Moral Majority for Christ's sakes!
This isn't to say that our homegrown warmongers aren't just as sickening- forever promising a glorious end in Iraq no matter how many people have to be bombed to get there. But, it is to say that, in this Renaissance of warmongers, we're in a legitimate position to call them out, and we should do so across the board. Because when you listen closely to any of them, their 'end of history' starts to sound a hell of a lot like the start of hegemony.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Laugh at anti-Semitic humor? Well, you'll die trying. Jamie Glassman, who writes for the Ali G Show, saw a bit of Jew-bashing at the Edinburgh Festival and thinks that there's "a growing trend among left-thinking people in this country and around the world to accept as dogma that those on the Left should hate Bush, Blair, American imperialism, Israel and, while we’re at it, the Jews." What's worse is that the jokes he cites are painfully unfunny.
I don't know if he's right about these people being anti-Semites because they're on the left. I mean, comedians aren't exactly the most healthy people psychologically. But, I am getting pretty sick of running into anti-Semites on the left. There are perfectly legitimate criticisms to be made of Israel, so I've got no time for those stupid people who have to trot out the same old anti-Semitic tropes about world control and secret cabals and what-not. People on the left should be more intelligent than this, and we should be as compassionate as we always claim to be. The endless hatemongering, demogoguery, and dehumanization by both the Israelis and the Palestinians has led to nothing but a pile of ashes in that part of the world, and piling on isn't ethical, or compassionate, or liberal, or logical. It's just piling on. The world is too clogged with demogogues as it is, and the left needs them like a hole in the head. Maybe we need a few anti-anti-Semitic jokes...
Why did the anti-Semite cross the road?
To escape reality.
How many anti-Semites does it take to change a lightbulb?
None. They'd rather blame the Jews than try to fix anything themselves.
What do you call an anti-Semitic roofer?
Shit on a shingle.
A batshit crazy anti-Semite.
Piss off! We don't want any!
Here's a pretty amusing review of left-wing performance artist Ann Coulter's latest prank on gullible conservatives entitled Godless. It's a funny review, although I think maybe the reviewer is taking her a bit too seriously. Arguing with Coulter is like arguing with the Iron Shiek or any other pro-wrestling fiction. Arguing with her fans is as depressing as arguing with people who are sure that pro-wrestling is real. But, the guy still gets off some zingers...
"If Coulter just knows these things by faith alone, she should say so, and then tell us why she's so sure that what Parsees or Zunis just know is wrong. I, for one, am not prepared to believe that Ann Coulter is made in God's image without seeing some proof."
Monday, August 14, 2006
Proving my personal theory that this is the single most important issue of our times, Salon has posted a letter from a young woman who complains "All the guys I'm dating want me to shave down there. Doesn't anybody like the full bush anymore?" And they've gotten 330 letters from people who want to hash this issue out. So, apparently, it's hit a nerve.
The people who love shaved women argue that it has nothing to do with infantilization, and everything to do with what men have seen in porn. Which is good news, I suppose, although it sort of suggests that they've never thought too deeply about porn at all. Does porn trade in infantile images of women a bit? Mmmm... yes, Daddy!
Of course, the problem is that the rest of us are quiet about what we find sexy, so "sexy" becomes equivalent with the porn aesthetic- as stupid as a heavy metal video and synthetic as a rubber nipple. I find it odd that so many people are attracted to women... so long as they're not the original model, but have been modified in some way. Doesn't anybody just have a fetish for human beings anymore?
It's probably impossible to make one of these bio films and have the final product not feel a little bit formulaic- not only do the films generally follow the typical 3-act story arc, but every scene has to be a vital moment in the person's life. The final result is that you see a singer sitting around and writing his songs, or a politician practicing his speeches in front of a mirror, but not a lot of those moments in their life that weren't vital. We don't get a feeling for who the person was so much as what big things they did.
Walk the Line has the same problem in this respect. When we see Johnny Cash glance at a boy shining shoes while he walks down the street, there's no wonder that he will sing about a shoe shine boy a few scenes later. When June Carter tells him that he had better get sobered up and "walk the line", we know exactly what's coming next... Not only does the film feel formulaic, but it feels like the writers and filmmakers didn't try very hard to get past the limitations of the genre.
Which is a shame because Reece Witherspoon, that human transliteration of a Betty Boop cartoon, is fantastic here as June Carter Cash, and the original Johnny Cash songs are as heartfelt and genuine as ever. In fact, there's a disconnect between the filmmaking, which feels rushed and mechanical, and the music, which burns like a shot of Jack Daniel's whiskey going down... still.
Johnny Cash deserved something better than this. Juaqin Phoenix has his stance and stare down, but mistakes stumbling and mumbling for acting. The worst sin; he's boring. Walk the Line isn't terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but it's tepid. Cash's intensely-felt Christianity has been largely left out, and his parents have been made into one-note stock "Southern" characters- the father is drunk and abusive and mom won't stop singing hymnals! Instead, the focus is on his drug abuse, which was important, but one gets the feeling that this was the only aspect of the story that the filmmakers had any genuine feeling for. Drug movies follow the same 'redemption' storyline that, in this case, further mechanizes things. Every little thing in Act 1 pushes the main character to the drug abuse in Act 2, which is finally resolved in Act 3. This is movie-of-the-week stuff.
So, it's a good question- why isn't there an anti-HIV vaccine by now? Surely the potential profits for the first individual to create one are an incentive. Think whatever you want about the drug companies, but all a researcher has to do is create a vaccine and sell it to the world at a slight profit to make a fortune. Surely, that's an incentive, right?
Apparently, the problem is the science of creating a vaccine. Being a novice at biology, I'm going to cut and paste the answer I found on AIDSmap:
"The doctors explain that HIV has three properties that have complicated the search for an effective vaccine. Firstly, HIV converts its genetic material from ribonucleic acid (RNA) into DNA after it infects cells, before hiding this DNA away within long-lived CD4 T-cells, ready to start producing more HIV particles at any time. This means that an effective HIV vaccine must be able to stimulate a long-lasting immune response to prevent new HIV production within the body. "
Which was what Patrick was saying about HIV hiding out in the body for years.
"Secondly, HIV damages the very immune cells that are needed for an effective vaccine; and thirdly, HIV is genetically diverse, with three main groups containing distinct clades, which are found at different proportions across the globe."
The Discovery Channel focused on the second problem last night. It's apparently difficult to destroy HIV without the immune system's help, and as HIV is sugar-coated (believe it or not) the body won't attack it, thinking it's supposed to be there. Then HIV weakens and finally destroys the immune system, which a vaccine would need to be healthy to work with.
"While vaccines for infections such as polio are designed to stimulate the body to produce antibodies, this approach has failed in HIV vaccine research, as the variability in the virus’s structure, both within and between patients, has resulted in responses to vaccines being too narrow and too weak."
From what I understand, a retrovirus can be startlingly diverse in structure. Supposedly, this is why we still can't cure the common cold.
"What’s more, the doctors point out, the two vaccines that have entered large phase III trials were designed to target the envelope proteins (gp120 and gp160) on the surface of the HIV particle. It is now understood that these proteins change shape and position when they bind to the receptors on the surface of a human T-cell, rendering the antibodies ineffective."
To get an image of the HIV virus, imagine a living rubic's cube that is constantly changing itself...
So, the attempts to create an artificial antibody against HIV haven't worked, but the idea is that we can create a vaccine that makes the cells themselves immune to HIV. From the sound of it, a vaccine is still our greatest hope against HIV, but is still far off. I still think our best hope for the future is in reducing infection rates, but a vaccine would be a godsend as well.
"This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector."
-Plato, The Republic
A startlingly apt comment in light of later 'protectors', such as Robespierre or Hitler. The section of The Republic on how a democracy passes into tyranny (book 9) is one of the most fascinating documents of political philosophy yet written, and an uncanny premonition of Weimar era Berlin.
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Notes on the 16th International AIDS conference that we've returned to in Toronto:
The news about AIDS is always alarmist. But, it seems likely that we'll have eliminated AIDS from the planet in the next 50 years.
There is no cure for HIV and no vaccine against it. However, the use of anti-retroviral drugs can seriously diminish the virus. I recently read in Newsweek about an HIV+ woman who is having a baby. The father does not have the virus, and there is only a 1% chance that the baby will be HIV+. This would have been impossible ten years ago.
So, while there is no cure, the virus seems to be becoming a chronic ailment, but not necessarily a fatal one. This surely counts as one of the greatest accomplishments of medical science in world history. In a secular society, doctors can become a sort of priestly class, and this can lead to the sort of hubris and arrogance that writers like Foucault warned about. On the other hand, if medical science had done nothing more than cure polio, it would be worth it.
There will not likely be a cure, but there will likely be an anti-virus pill or cream to prevent transmission. This along with aggressive anti-retroviral drugs will gradually slow the rate of new cases down to nothing. Even in Africa. Again, I think it will take at least four or five decades, but I do believe that it will happen and that the news stories that come out every few years about 'superAIDS' etc. are nonsense.
One day we will remember the people who wiped out this disease the way we remember Jonas Salk.
One day we will remember people like Jessie Helms the way we remember those poor misguided souls who burned incense to ward off the plague.
Saturday, August 12, 2006
Charles Taylor demonstrates his understanding of that guilty pleasure- Jayne Mansfield movies. If you get the chance, watch The Girl Can't Help It- a live-action version of a Tex Avery cartoon with a great Little Richard theme song. Taylor:
"When she frolics in the Atlantic in a yellow bathing suit, it’s the closest that cheesecake has ever come to lyricism."
Here's a doozy of a line from the paper Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism, as pointed out on the blog Bad Science...
"It is fair to assert that the critical intellectuals are at ‘war’ with those who have no regards other than for an evidence-based logic. The war metaphor speaks to the ‘critical and theoretical revolt’ that is needed to disrupt and resist the fascist order of scientific knowledge development."
Ahem... scientific knowledge = based in evidence, and therefore = fascist?
Interesting again though how the 'postmodernist' argument is nearly identical to the 'intelligent design' argument. After all, Revelation from God is another form of knowledge development in opposition to evidence-based logic, is it not?
Thursday, August 10, 2006
"I don't know much about other countries. And I thought for a while that Americans might actually increase their wisdom through experiments with their body chemistry, or with meditation techniques borrowed from Asia. I now have to say that all such voyagers have returned to American banality without any artifacts, and with adventure stories stimulating only to themselves.
So I now believe that the only way in which Americans can rise above their ordinariness, can mature sufficiently to rescue themselves and to help rescue their planet, is through enthusiastic intimacy with works of their own imagination."
One part of DC that has stayed the same is Ben's Chili Bowl. Opened in 1958, the restaurant has survived the decline of DC's 'black Broadway', the 1968 riots, the long lean years for U street, the five-year Metro project that almost killed the neighborhood, and now gentrification. The place is still there, and actually when Claire and I ate there yesterday, I found that the same people were working there. It's one of my favorite spots in the city, and I've always found it funny that DC residents never ask if I've taken Claire to see the White House or the Smithsonian, but they always want to know if she's been to Ben's Chili Bowl yet! Well, now she has. Admittedly, the building's a bit bigger now, and the alley next to it has been renamed 'Ben Ali Way' after the legendary owner of the buisiness. One interesting thing- Mr. Ali is a Muslim, so supposedly he has never tried his famous chili-dogs. But, I have and trust me, they're worth the trip!
We walked around DC yesterday, listening to our friend David explaining the history of every street we crossed. David has been taking the walking tours of DC for a few summers now, and lives downtown, so he knows the history of every building. Some of them were quite surprising. One of the boarded-up townhouses we passed was the home of the fellow who started black history month.
It was nostalgic for me to visit the old neighborhoods that I used to roam as a teenager. DC is a strange city in a lot of ways. It's as economically disparate as possible- within a block you can cross from a neighborhood that looks like Bosnia to a yuppie mecca. Because of the extremely uneven development of the city, it's actually possible to walk down some streets in which nearly every house is boarded up and condemned and have the street end at a shopping district.
Chinatown, where I spent a summer trying to learn how to play mah jong, now looks like Disneyland's 'Main Street USA'. Everything is a chain store and the architecture has been remade to look like 'vintage Americana'. They have left the old Chinese gate over the street, and some of the signs include Chinese lettering, but otherwise it's all GAPs and Fudruckers. On some streets, the only way you can tell it was once Chinatown is by the Chinse animal tiles in the sidewalk. And forget about seeing any Chinese people. It's now part of "Touristland" which knows no boundaries, no traditions, no history, and no ties to reality.
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
Gay flight? Andrew Sullivan claims it's happening, right here in Virginia. The state's been trying to enact increasingly ridiculous anti-gay legislation for years now, since long before gay marriage was a sparkle in anyone's eye. Remember that the Moral Majority and Liberty University and all of those people are centered in Virginia. I remember last time I was here they were trying to deny people the right to have non-relative roommates- it didn't get too far. But, everyone I knew here who is gay has moved out. So, maybe Sullivan is right.
I think they should leave. I know it's noble to stay and fight, but it's also a drag, and stress gives you wrinkles! Leave the madhouse to the mad. Gay men are, on average, a lot wealthier than anyone else, and they have a surprising amount of disposible income. So, they're absolutely welcome in upstate New York! Our county is nearly broke, and we'd love to have new residents with lots of money. Hell, we'll help them move in and show them the best restaurants!
Another weird thing- we went to sleep to crickets and woke up to a fleet of lawnmowers. First thing this morning, a truck loaded with about five or six Mexican guys drove in and started cutting all of the lawns in the neighborhood. We don't have many spanish speaking people in the Hammer, although we have some. But here it seems like all the labor is done by crews of Mexicans. They show up and mow the lawns, their wives will be in the neighborhood soon to clean the houses, which their friends have built. It's pretty fascinating- the land of cotton with a permanent underclass? It's not a complete surprise.
On the other hand, this is how everyone else layed down their roots in America, right? From the Irish to the Polish, everyone had to start out doing the lousy jobs and work their way up. I don't know why it seems strange here. It could be how much the Mexicans fade into the background here. They show up to work after everyone else has left and leave before they get home. Their money is in an envelope in the mailbox. There's absolutely no social contact, which seems to be a necessary part of integration. It's weird.
One of the things that varies from region to region in North America is the sorts of animals and insects you encounter. When I got to Ontario, I was surprised to find black squirrels and relatively tame racoons. Last night, Claire was surprised at how loud the crickets are at night in Virginia. They sound like an alien invasion here. But, this was what I went to sleep to throughout my childhood, and they have yet to invade and take over (I think).
Monday, August 07, 2006
Claire and I are driving down to suburban Virginia, so I'll let everyone know how things are going in the land of deer and McMansions. I'm looking forward to it. Not only do I get to see my family, but I can stock up on all the food you can't get here in Canada. Crab chips, here we come!
Sunday, August 06, 2006
Here's an absolutely great photo gallery of downtown NY culture in the 1970s. Allan Tannenbaum took one of my favorite (non-Mappelthorpe) pictures of Patti Smith, which is here with a whole bunch of other great photos. The pictures of nightlife before plastic surgery are a revelation! Big noses, weak chins, fat asses, bushy pubes, small breasts, receding hairlines, zits, and all of the things that make human beings look like human beings. Wow! I'm seriously developing a fetish for the real!
Stephen Baldwin, the star of the film Threesome, has the vapors because his little town of Nyak, New York might be getting a sex store. Apparently after 9/11, Baldwin became a born-again Christian, his thinking going something like: "An all-powerful and all-loving God who allows 2,000 innocent people to die? Boy, I gotta get on that team!"
According to Spiegel's (rediculously slanted) article, not too much has changed since that anti-porn film from the 1950s that I posted. God still hates porn, and American born-agains will still try desperately to link their personal crusades to more legitimate concerns. To wit- 1950s: if you're serious about fighting communism, you'd better fight girlie mags! 2006: If you're serious about fighting terrorism, you'd better fight girlie mags!
Baldwin: "Ever since I became a religious person, I've noticed how much our country is deteriorating."
The same thing happened for me when I saw Biodome.
Most of what Baldwin has to say is recycled nonsense about people marrying their dogs and so forth, and most of the Spiegel article is patronizing snarking about Americans as a whole, but one quote stood out for me. Just like the old saying goes: "A shitty actor is right at least twice a day" (I'm paraphrazing), listen to this...
Baldwin: "How can people who are so concerned about the environment allow a porn shop? The answer is easy. We stare at our constitution, which is so full of rights that everything gets mixed up and there are no more limits."
That's the real enemy, isn't it? Forget about terrorists, or pornography, or the environment, or drugs. Those are all temporary threats. What these people are most consistently opposed to is the constitution.
Saturday, August 05, 2006
One of the websites that I enjoy, "Real Climate", has been discussing how it is that untruths get disseminated so quickly these days. In this case, they're talking about Peter Doran, whose 2002 study on the climate in Antarctica was, according to him, misquoted and misrepresented. What Doran found was that "climactic changes in Antarctica were resulting in cooling conditions on certain parts of that continent." Quite quickly however, the study was bandied about on the Internet and cable news as having argued that global warming is nonsense. "Scientific Findings Run Counter to Theory of Global Warming. Oh, Dear! What Will the Doomsayers Say Now?"
But, incredibly enough, his study actually supports the theory of global warming!
What's amazing though isn't that people misunderstood the study. But, according to Doran, news sources actually quoted him as saying that his study was being misrepresented in the same articles that then went on to misrepresent it!
So, what caused this perfect storm of horseshit?
1) The Mass Media: If you ask liberals, they will tell you that the media is conservative. 'Just look at Fox News!' If you ask conservatives, they will tell you that the media is liberal. 'Just look at the New York Times!' It seems to me that they're both wrong. As far as I can tell, mass media operates on only one principle: A controversy, no matter how manufactured or stupid, will pull in a larger audience than simply reporting the facts. So, they would rather have the 'global warming debate' than figure out whether or not the planet is getting hotter.
2) Various corporations: The talking point that 'there is a serious debate as to whether or not global warming is a myth' may well come from industry sources, for obvious reasons. I don't really blame them, and I don't think they've created the debate, but I do think they have financial reasons to keep it going.
3) Bloggers and Internet Loudmouths: I think the easiest way of spreading misinformation is to post it on the net. For example, I assume I could post to a newsgroup that the sun is actually in the process of cooling and expect that it would be unquestioningly linked to all over the Internet. But, why are people who have no interest in the global warming debate so quick to repeat whatever nonsense they read on the net? I think for the same reason that if Saddam Houssein was to claim tomorrow that he had developed weapons of mass destruction and had been planning to use them on Los Angeles, we could expect Daily Kos and other left-wing news sites to post that he was 'forced to lie by the US government'. To put it simply, there are plenty of people who make politics their religion.
My father used to say that there are plenty of people who just need to belong to a church. What he meant was that there are people who need to think they're part of a team, to filter every decision through the interests of the group. I don't think that Joe Blogger, who will dutifully post any misinformation about global warming that he sees on WorldNet Daily, cares one way or the other about climate science, and he certainly doesn't care about the oil industry. What he cares about is that there are people who are 'liberals' who must always be wrong for him to be happy. Similarly, there are people on the left for whom America must always be wrong, or at least, Republicans must always be wrong for them to be happy. So, no matter how reasonable 'the other team' is being on some issue, they need to fight them.
I think this is another reason that people willfully believe things that aren't true- they simply hate the people who claim they are true. It used to be that various denominations would argue viciously about triffling points of Christian doctrine. Now people would rather argue night and day about various social and political problems without really caring if they're right or wrong- so long as they can prove the other side is wrong.