Perhaps the most recurrent character in the Western tradition is the tragic rebel- from Ulysses to Christ to James Dean in East of Eden, he who defies the old gods and is struck down for his trouble embodies something of the spirit of the West. Oswald Spengler, who was actually a bit cracked, basically said this when he described the “western world soul” as Faustian. Others have used the term Promethian. In American culture, the tragic rebel is most often compared to Captain Ahab. It’s arguable, though, that the greatest tragic hero in western literature is Satan; he’s certainly the most fascinating character in Milton, and probably a close second in the Bible; it’s still radically subversive to have the tragic hero die for everyone else’s sin.
The great sin in the classical tragedies is intemperance. Their passion leads men to defy the order of the world and the supremacy of the gods and forget the central fact of their existence: “that all of us who live are nothing but ghosts, or a fleeting shadow.” In the case of Ajax, his passion is anger, but his sin was already committed before his transgression in believing that he did not need the gods’ protection.
As Sophocles’ play begins, Αίας has already transgressed: angered that his rival Odysseus has won the arms of the dead Achilles instead of him, Ajax intended to slaughter the Greek chieftains who awarded Odysseus, but Athena turned his hand against the flock of Danaans (Δαννων). Having lost his honor, Αίας despairs. “The noble man must live with honor or be honorably dead; you have heard all I have to say.” Appropriately, he kills himself soon after.
There’s a nice symmetry in the play: after Αίας impales himself on his sword, his brother Teucer and wife Tecmessa demand the right to bury him, which the gods deny them. But, his memory is defended by his former rival Odysseus, who has overcome the anger that foiled Ajax. “His excellence weighs more with me than his enmity.” He wins the right for Tecmessa and Teucer to bury Ajax.
The painful lesson taught by fate is the first lesson. “Even if a man has a mighty frame, he must remember that he can be brought down even by small mischief. Know that when a man feels fear and shame, then he is safe!” To learn to fear is the beginning of knowledge.
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Perhaps the most recurrent character in the Western tradition is the tragic rebel- from Ulysses to Christ to James Dean in East of Eden, he who defies the old gods and is struck down for his trouble embodies something of the spirit of the West. Oswald Spengler, who was actually a bit cracked, basically said this when he described the “western world soul” as Faustian. Others have used the term Promethian. In American culture, the tragic rebel is most often compared to Captain Ahab. It’s arguable, though, that the greatest tragic hero in western literature is Satan; he’s certainly the most fascinating character in Milton, and probably a close second in the Bible; it’s still radically subversive to have the tragic hero die for everyone else’s sin.
Here's an argument I get every semester, from an editorial in the Times about how "elite" got to be a bad word:
"After listening to one of my lectures, a college student told me that it was elitist to express alarm that one in four Americans, according to the National Constitution Center, cannot name any First Amendment rights or that 62 percent cannot name the three branches of government. “You don’t need to have that in your head,” the student said, “because you can just look it up on the Web.”
How would the rest of you respond to that point? It makes a sort of sense. I generally just say that my job involves testing them, but I'm glad their computer is smart. But, if that's how they see it, why learn anything?
Friday, May 30, 2008
(Note: This is part 5 of 5.)
As with any essay, most of this I was discovering as I went along: “essaying” in the sense of “trying out”. But, here are some tentative conclusions, which everyone is free to critique, of course:
1. The Culture Wars of the early 90s are over. The campus left has bigger problems to worry about now such as war and global economics, political correctness is fairly unpopular, and the traditional Western Civilizations program is now so watered down that it is effectively dead as a doornail. As for conservatives, they have no critique of the deleterious effects of capitalism on culture, and so can only defend western culture from a narrow sliver of the radical left that apparently has better things to worry about. This struggle is over: culture lost.
2. Nevertheless, there remains a real reluctance on the part of some academics to wholeheartedly engage with the western tradition for fear of appearing reactionary, conservative, triumphalist, nationalist, Eurocentric, or even xenophobic. Therefore, most students are introduced to the tradition through its critique: they learn to hate it before they know what it is. And so it remains dead.
3. So I think we need to re-engage with the tradition outside of all narrow political struggles, and indeed to treat it as if it is new. Our model for this can be the Renaissance, coming as it did after a period of similar strife and dogmatism.
4. And, in the same way that I have argued that Obama’s popular appeal is due to the fact that he makes it acceptable for liberals to be patriotic and civically engaged again, we need academics to explain their love of culture again- all culture- and make it live again, beyond outdated political categories. It is not “conservative” or “liberal” to make your life as a steward of culture- it is simply what the humanities entail. And it is needed now more than ever.
There are signs of life in the American university though. Quite a few people have written recent books on the topic. Margaret Soltan, whose University Diaries are required reading, is working on a text tentatively entitled Re-animating the American University. If I ever finish this dissertation, the second project (after turning the dissertation into a book) will be an intellectual history of pedagogy from Plato to the present, with an eye on understanding what pedagogy is, how it can exist in a modern state, and what it means to lose it. There are several books out criticizing the steady takeover of universities by corporations and bloated athletic programs. And the most encouraging fires in the wilderness, as always, are those students who simply want to discover things, not for the piece of paper or the future paycheck, but for the sheer joy of it.
It’s interesting: sometimes I will suggest to academics that we need a “new New School”; and invariably they know exactly what I mean. The New School for Social Research was where the blacklisted professors went during the Cold War, but when I evoke a new New School, nobody ever thinks of politics. We all imagine something like an Old School: more open discussions, no laptops or internet, interuniversity athletics without a sports program, students living in various houses, and professors living on campus, available to both family and students at once. It would involve a commitment to giving students the foundation in things like handwriting, grammar, vocabulary, and active literacy that they are not getting in High School, and which I have focused on in my TA work. And, finally, it would be a commitment to a real liberal arts education, with the requisite two to three years of intensive history and literature courses, and a stronger background in philosophy and the arts.
Then, when they actually have a handle on this stuff, they can begin to “critique” it in the senior year. But no more courses in which students are introduced to film through Laura Mulvey, the Enlightenment through Foucault, or literature through Derrida! Trust me: most students hate that approach. It’s unfair to expect them to knowingly comment on things that they don’t know about, and it’s exceedingly arrogant.
What I often see (and it strikes me as weird) are humanities professors taking a very unforgiving critical stance towards the Western tradition in the introductory courses that are just supposed to inculcate an interest in the topic. There are some of them that seem to teach the school of contempt and indifference to the Western tradition, or what I call The History of All Atrocities. Today we discuss the Holocaust, tomorrow we discuss Hiroshima, next week we discuss racial segregation, etc. etc. This goes on for the entire semester. The argument is that it’s necessary to counterbalance the “triumphalist” history that students receive in High School. But I don’t see chest-beating triumphalists in my courses as much as bored indifference and cynicism, so I suspect that High Schools also teach the atrocities quite well. You graduate from youthful indifference to Advanced Contempt, I suppose. If I had to guess, I’d imagine that this gloom about the west is a holdover from the culture wars and that liberal professors associate the Western tradition, unnecessarily, with conservatism, or even reaction.
But we too are part of the western humanist tradition, although most of us have little sense of it. And we don’t convey it; the students who learn the dark side of western history often have no idea why they have to study it in the first place. And they have no sense of how it applies to their lives. We need to go back to the beginning. What students need, as ever, is a sense of where greatness lies, an understanding of what civilization is, what truth and beauty mean, and how to cultivate inwardness. They need a sense of why these things matter, which isn’t chest-beating, but survival for our profession in a culture that is always suspicious of the liberal arts. Our profession is never not at stake.
But, more than ever, inwardness is also at stake. And I suspect that the next generation (after this one) will come to resent the way that they have been stolen from themselves, although not know why or how. God knows I don’t. But when this happens and they come to us, the stewards of all traditions, we will need to know how to approach these questions; not how to answer them, but how to look for the answers to them together. Fundamentally, I believe that a liberal arts education helps us to become human. And those of us who are senior scholars need to be much more aware of the needs- intellectual and spiritual alike- of the junior scholars.
Here's an example of what I was talking about below (and likely above as well):
An article from Salon about narcissistic female writing that contains this statement:
"We have to remember: There is nothing wrong with women writing about themselves, their youth, their indiscretions, their habits and values and personal development. Men have been writing about this stuff for thousands of years; they call it the canon. "
Okay, I caught of whiff of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism here. Maybe I'm just being too touchy, but it reads to me as that tired old American argument about how "the canon" (a term which nobody ever uses with a straight-face now) is just overrated intellectual masturbation. She really sells the western tradition short here- not to mention, completely ignores the women who wrote in that tradition. Worst of all, I don't get the feeling that the author has any idea what she's talking about.
But, again, maybe I'm touchy.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
(Note: This would be part 3...)
And, indeed, I did get a lousy education, truth be told. I am painfully aware of how middle-brow I still am. During those early years of the 90s, when my friends in university were out protesting the film Basic Instinct (seriously), I was working on the road crew and trying to read my way through every book I had ever heard was great. I watched as people who were getting the education I desperately wanted, but could not yet afford, denounced it as nothing more than “sexist, racist, anti-gay” rubbish. I can still remember a college feminist patiently explaining to me how the majority of Western art was a series of “rape scenes”. Well then, goodbye to all of that!
When I finally got to university, I tried to plug all of the holes that I could, but alas, even when I got to the “good school”, many of my courses were rushed and shallow. I remember being told to read scholars like Clifford Geertz or Jacques Derrida without having read the people who came before them. Derrida makes no sense without Plato, and perhaps not much sense with him; but I was never assigned Plato. It was always assumed that you got the foundations somewhere else- maybe in the German lyceum. Friends often commented on a notorious lit professor at our university who would frequently complain in her Modernism course that nobody reads Proust these days- but never assign anything by Proust.
The end result is that I am self-uneducated. I would say that I’m better read than most of the grad students that I meet, but there are constant reminders of just how much I still have to learn. I can see the road, dimly before me. And this is the most frustrating part of it: there is a road there; it really exists! I find myself always reading backwards in my studies. Say, for example, that I am studying 19th century travel-writing and I notice how much of it discusses the sublime; this leads me back to Burke and Boileau, and maybe Kant; and then back to Longinus, and eventually Cicero. Ultimately, all of those “dead white males” were able to take part in discussions that went back for centuries. The more you read in the Western tradition, the more coherent it becomes. It’s not self-contained or hermetically-sealed- there’s much that is eastern in the western tradition. But it is a tradition, or at least it was until very recently. Learning it is the work of a lifetime.
I find that the only people who really think that tradition is throwaway are those who are themselves versed in it and take it for granted. For the rest of us, there is much work ahead, and surprising rewards that we were never told about. Why did no one ever mention Plutarch for example? His Moralia are full of good advice and lively ideas. Why was I never assigned Longinus or Rabelais? Why was my education so damned passive when the tradition was once so much alive? It is hard to know who to blame for the fact that this tradition is now as dead as Dillinger.
And who cares who’s to blame? Maybe it’s just that a liberal arts education now has to be too many things for too many people. When I took Western Civ, we had a 1200 page text; now the course is called World Civilizations, in covers the entire world, and the text is about 300 pages. It’s like watching a train pass: oh, look, there are the Mongols! And there goes the Renaissance! Everyone wave! However, my hope that things will improve remains, rooted in one fact: I know that I myself received a good liberal arts education and was still cheated of a good liberal arts education. And I imagine that, one day, others will feel that they’ve been cheated as well.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
I'll slow down and let everyone read the old stuff.
One interesting thing today though- this interview with famed "neoconservative" Francis Fukuyama, in which he says any number of things that I agree with. Does this make me a neoconservative? Stay tuned....
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
(Note: This is Part 1 of a larger piece)
It is seemingly customary now when writing positively of the western tradition to begin the essay with the sentence: “The Western Tradition is under attack!” The words “culture”, “heritage”, or “civilization” can also be used, seemingly interchangeably, and the effect is basically the same. One imagines the ideal reader shrieking “W-w-what?!” like Mrs. Brovlovsky of South Park, and then crying, “Get in here Harold! This fellow says that the Western Tradition is under attack!”
At this point, the essays tend to dwell mightily on the “attackers” of the Western Tradition, or at least straw representations thereof, and spend almost no time at all telling us what the Western tradition actually is. Apparently, we all know this by now- it’s Plato, Shakespeare, and some other guys- and just need to know which attackers we should attack in order to become cultivated. Generally, the attackers to be attacked are: lousy professors, feminists, liberals in general, cultural relativists, immigrants, the media, the 1960s counterculture, and sometimes Enlightenment philosophes. It goes without saying that the defenders are generally conservative.
I should note though that it’s not so self-evident: after all, one could easily imagine a leftist making the case that Western culture is under attack by capitalist consumer culture, and in fact, Marx did make a similar case. After all, the opponents of globalization have long argued that mass marketed culture is destructive to traditional cultures; they have just avoided taking up the cause of traditional Western cultures for reasons unknown. Okay, perhaps, because they were assigned to the “other side” in the early 90s “culture wars”. It’s hard to join others in burning effigies of yourself.
(Note: This is part 2 of a larger piece)
The “culture wars” are over; culture lost. A product of the halcyon days of the early 90s, the “culture wars” refers to the debates over the western canon in American universities, as well as to the attempt, not so halcyon, of certain politicians to gain mileage from those debates, and of certain scholars to write about those debates for several years afterwards. Ah, what an era, in which the only “wars” people had to worry about were those centered on undergraduate reading lists!
It is now hard to remember a time in which undergraduates chanted idiocies like, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Western Civ has got to go!” and protested the dominance of “dead white males” in education. The more radical students wanted to expand the ‘canon’ to include women (who were always there), homosexuals (yep, them too), and people of color (again, this is new?). The conservatives wanted to “save” Chaucer from those who would throw him out. Believe it or not, it was once seen as “reactionary” to be studying the western tradition without a sufficiently derogatory stance. Now, you’re just seen as vaguely dorky and pathetic.
Nobody marches anymore. It is hard to imagine that anyone could be much offended by the current educational program, a sort of salad bar approach in which students are offered a dab of this and a dollop of that with no underlying coherence or depth whatsoever. Students are now given the idea of an education. So the image of them fighting for inclusion in that salad bar seems odd: you mean they were arguing for more books instead of less?
Well, perhaps. I’d imagine that some students were actually marching for less books. But, no matter. Neither side won: the conservatives didn’t get liberals out of teaching positions, and the radicals didn’t get any deeper discussions of those once marginalized authors; they get mentioned so that now one can come out of university knowing very little about Chaucer or Beloved. The process of watering-down education until it becomes a meaningless formality won out. After all, Universities are a business; at least, they’re determined to be.
This watering-down process: turning a liberal arts education into a formality for gainful employment, letting in waves of the same sort of bored, insensate slackers that have long clogged American high schools, and passing far too many of them while focusing largely on their “satisfaction” with the university “experience”: is commented upon only obliquely by conservatives, touching as it does on a critique of capitalism, and not at all by radicals, who seem to have moved on to larger concerns. When there are real wars and global empires, somehow Chaucer seems less threatening. In the end nobody really lost, except those of us who are still struggling to fill the gaps in the lousy education that we got at good universities.
(Note: More to come.)
Monday, May 26, 2008
The Cannes Film Festival handed out its awards last night and everyone was pleasantly surprised to see a French film, Entre les murs, win. The film deals with education and the struggles thereof, and is by all accounts, excellent.
I very much enjoyed this comment from juror Marjane Satrapi, whose own film from last year, Persepolis, is also supposed to be excellent:
"There's almost nothing I believe in anymore, but I believe that culture and education give us the opportunity to be less stupid," she said. "It's always better to be less stupid than more stupid."
When my friends visited Paris, they asked me about the "cool bubble cars" they kept seeing everywhere; they were talking about the Smart Car, which I think looks a bit like a rollerskate. They've had them in Europe for some time- completely logical if you've ever tried to navigate the cramped 19th century roads here. They've also been selling them in Canada for a while; in fact, Claire's mother owns one. It doesn't exactly look safe to me, but Claire's family are all gearheads and they claim that it's nearly impossible to roll and that it will hold up in an accident because its built with the same sort of skeleton that they use in racecars.
Anyway, they're finally selling them in the US, which is good because someone seriously dropped the ball on fuel efficient cars there. If the Smart Car people can convince Americans that they won't be pulped in an accident in one of these things, I think they'll clean up in the states too.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
If I see one more television 'emission' or magazine article about the Mai '68 uprisings, I might vomit paving stones! Here's a somewhat bleak op ed about 1968 that I don't entirely agree with, but which makes one big point- most of what we remember as 'radicalism' is basically the same language and ideology as consumer capitalism- that I would agree with. I think westerners just decided that they'd rather voice their belief in freedom and individual choice at the mall than in the streets. Less likely to make way for fascism anyway. You sweep away the residue of the past and the brownshirts, who actually live for street fighting, rush into the void. Like Saul Bellow once said, if you really want to overturn the culture, you need a Nazi Party. I think the greatest danger for the future is not fascism, thank God, or Revolution (same difference usually), but pleasant and empty boredom stretching out to eternity and punctuated only by occasional and meaningless acts of violence. Imagine a human face being groomed- forever.
Incidentally, here's a very entertaining article from the NYTimes about the "obsessive Sarkosis" that many French are suffering from. It's actually died down since when I first got here and would hear people angrily spitting out the word "Sarko!" to each other in conversations as I passed them on the street. Now all the talk shows here are having long conversations about whether the French care too much about him or not.
Okay, so France did not win the Eurovision song contest last night, but they certainly had one of the most entertaining numbers. To be honest, I can't remember the winning Russian song at all, which should give some idea how formulaic it was. My personal favorite was Bosnia-Herzegovia, but France was good, and the Finland heavy metal was tremendously entertianing. I'll try to post Spain's answer to Weird Al here later.
She who I had promised never to speak of again has been caught in a faux pas brouhaha that strikes me as eminently unfair: I speak of course of Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate comment that she might stay in the race because Robert Kennedy was still vying for President in the month of June when he was shot. All hell has broken loose in a society trained not to recognize vice so much as to spot offense. And unfairly I think- clearly the point of the statement was not to evoke assassinations or dead Kennedys, but to argue that Presidential nominations take time, and perhaps to recall a hero of the Democratic Party in doing so. She needn’t be vilified for being a bit tone deaf. But, people are quicker to take offense than to listen. Que Sirhan Sirhan…
That said, it was certainly tone deaf: an inelegant comparison with impeccably bad timing. If Barack Obama has the innate persona of aristocratic Grand Passion, and John McCain the warrior ethos of Imperial Rome, Hillary Clinton is a technician of a very twentieth century Industrial Liberal type. She is a Miss fix-it, ready to tackle any problem by rationality and book-learning, and hostile to the idea that a leader might face problems that resist both rationality and technique. She has no sense of the high drama of Western leadership, inherited from absolutism, but stripped of generations of family training through the sister Revolutions. She can’t hear the bugles.
The Greeks held that an art could be learned through a combination of: nature (in the sense of innate ability), reason (in the sense of gaining knowledge through learning), and practice. Obama seems to excell in Nature, and have reason on his side, but not practice. McCain has Practice, but not reason, and not really nature either. Clinton has Reason on her side, and perhaps practice, but not nature. In this sense, I would say that she is actually more suited to the American tradition than Obama, McCain, or any of the Kennedys. However, as a partisan of aristocracy, I have a natural affinity for Obama and I suspect that Americans are tired of warriors and not quite ready for technicians.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
One aspect of the article on married men and adultery that depressed me- possibly because I saw some truth to it- was the emphasis on evolutionary biology to explain the problems of marriage: men want to reproduce with a great number of mates, by nature, and women want to find a mate to provide and protect them as they raise children, also by nature. In some sense, this is an old argument: ever since Rousseau, people who are discontented with civilization have idealized a natural state away from civilized life where they can run free and the sperm flows like wine. Evolutionary biology is merely an extension of that.
There are two problems I have with evolutionary biological arguments. The first is that they're circular. Q: Why do I like Pepsi so much? A: It must be an evolutionary drive; perhaps the need for sugar. Q: What is the evidence to support this thesis? A: The fact that I like Pepsi. Most evolutionary biological arguments work this way, and frankly, I tend to see them as a bit of a parlor game.
The other problem is that of free will: I like to believe it exists. My college roommate and friend Aaron Henry once had a month-long argument about free will. His point was that there is no free will without the soul and I didn't agree. Eventually though I saw his point: if you reduce the mind to a switchboard, at some point you either see something as throwing the switches or not. Either everything we do is beyond our control, a confluence of forces, randomness; or there's something to "me" that is unquantifiable. Ultimately, there's something missing to the self however deep we quantify, some sort of ghost in the machine- provided that we still believe that we control our actions. If not, we have to right to hold others accountable for their actions, not even murder.
Okay, some people say that we can still jail murderers who lack free will, although I think this would be superstitious and odd. The free will debate is long and unending. What unnerves me about the rush to reduce ourselves to a chemistry set: if unhappy, add Prozac; if distracted, add Ritalin: is the sense I have that we don't really want selfhood, which really is a hell of a burden in the first place, and that we'd rather turn our souls over to the technicians.
And yet, I take Prozac. I don't like to, but when I stop taking it, I suffer panic attacks, inexplicable terror, and bizarre earaches. I like to see it as akin to my glasses- I need them to fix a slight flaw in my physical condition, but they don't alter the core of who I am. I would like to believe that I have a soul. But I have no concrete proof that I do.
yep. why can't men have flowers? this is a selection of stuff we have around the yard that won't be here when he gets home. excuse us for indulging.
front area: we got way more pink ones this year (bigger too) and some really funky yellow ones. the crocuses have already died. when they ripped out the area for the new driveway they sort of trashed the wooden barrier, but we shall replace that with my master plan of erasing the front lawn entirely.
your azalea is looking sweet, if not buried in lawn. i will post when it blooms.
the lilacs are budding and they smell amazing and look great too.
those are the funky tulips i mentioned earlier.
the daffodils you planted in the fall.
*also, rufus, i think these pictures solidify your role in the house as "gardener #1", because clearly, i can't be trusted to mow the lawn on a regular basis, or care if it happens. we could sic lola on it, but it would be a long tiring day for me, and she'd get distracted easily. i shall endeavor to tackle it soon...ish.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Wow... a top advisor to John McCain just left the campaign because he doesn't want to work against Barack Obama.
"Electing Obama "would send a great message to the country and the world," McKinnon said at the time, although he added that he intended to vote for McCain."
At that point, McCain sputtered, "B-b-b-ut "the world"?! The world inculdes HAMAS!"
Just kidding. Good for him. I think it would send a great message to the world too. (Aside from the "suck it, Europe!" message I pointed to earlier.)
I get the feeling from reading around that blog posts are generally supposed to be less wordy than essays. I'd sort of like to chat about these two articles:
1. A piece on Saul Bellow's novel Mr. Sammler's Planet, NYC in the 70s, and basic cultural conservative ideas, which struck me as weirdly nostalgic for the bad old days, and
2. A sort of depressing article on sexless married couples and affairs.
However, I could write essays about them. Maybe we could discuss them in chunks? Or just forget the whole thing?
So, inevitably, some of the reviews of the new Indiana Jones movie are going to be critical. It's too much like the other films, it's not enough like the other films, the CGI doesn't work, the jokes are still corny, etc. etc. But, again, remember people, we're not talking about Citizen Kane here. If I had to rank it, I'd put this one in third place out of the four: Temple of Doom just does not improve with age.
Also, I hope that this movie is the one that kills off CGI for good. It just looks fake and cartoony and unreal. Even in the best CGI effects, you know it's not there. There's a guy in a studio in front of a green screen pretending to talk to a demon or whatever. So, I don't think CGI will age well either. And this movie actually shows why. I never realized it before but the reason that stunt movies are exciting is because, in spite of all the safety precautions, the guy on screen might really hurt himself. It's a natural human response to have your heart rate go up when you watch a good stunt sequence. By contrast, there's a brilliant bit here with a sword fight atop two racing cars in the jungle, and it's just not thrilling because you know that this isn't a real jungle- it's a cartoon, and the jeeps aren't really moving, and the only danger is that the actor might get tired from acting in front of the green screen. There's no heft or weight to CGI. It's a cartoon, not reality.
Okay, now that that is all out of the way... I liked it. Of course I did. Harrison Ford is still a fun actor to watch; unlike his recent films, he actually enunciates here. Steven Spielberg is still a great director. I'm overjoyed to see Karen Allen on the screen again, and the idea that Marion Ravenwood was the love of Indiana Jones's life makes perfect sense: thank God it wasn't Willie Scott! Cate Blanchett is just brilliant as the Soviet villain, and Shi Lebouf does fine as Indiana Jones's greaser son. There's a great bit with some killer ants, and some nice setpieces involving respectively: a nuclear blast, a fight in a diner, swinging on vines, and a waterfall.
Granted, I would have liked more witty repertoire from Ford and Allen: they argue for five minutes and then they're in love. And they probably could have cut out some of the scenes explaining crystal skullology: it's basically the same old hokum and we don't really watch these movies for the macguffin scenes. And the film seems to be missing one big memorable scene like the bridge collapse in Temple, or the truck chase in Raiders. But, again, if they had that here, it would be in CGI, so it would look fake. Lastly, there's a bit of a lack of imagination here- the Amazon River features prominently and there's no piranha scene?
Anyway, it's a fun movie. It's not great, but none of these films, aside from the first one, are great. And it's worth seeing. Again though, stop with the CGI.
Monday, May 19, 2008
Also, for the satorialists out there, I have fallen in love with this shirt and plan to buy it. This is a reckless and foolhardy gesture on my part, as I am a grad student and paid like one; but check out that pattern! It's just amazing. (you might need to click the picture and open it)
Strolling up and down the Champs Elysees every day to the park with wifi, I am developing expensive tastes. Or, maybe my tastes are becoming “refined”. I think most people, when they talk about “refined” tastes, really mean “expensive” tastes. One dead giveaway that someone is new money: they see another person with something incredibly gaudy and expensive and the first thing they say is, “Well, there’s sophistication!” Of course, I’m not personally old money or new money; I’m no money.
All the same, I can look can’t I? After a while, you develop an eye. I suspect that I could, by now, tell you how long most clothes will last by looking at them. I can also identify my favorite designers: Jean-Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen presently: at sight. I can also tell you what lines I don’t care for: Lacoste is what you wear on the tennis court while waiting for your rich parents to die (well, or as an ironic outfit to wear while committing a violent homicide), American Outfitters is a national embarrassment, and Versace, for me, is like the fall of the Roman Empire, but worse.
Parisians, of course, dress very well, and it makes it easy to spot the tourists, but impossible to spot the gay male Parisians. I have no idea how they find each other honestly. You generally see more lesbian couples here. It was Claire who pointed out to me that there really are some lesbians who dress really well; all of them I’d ever known by and large dressed like they were on their way to a barn raising. She has also pointed out to me while watching The L Word together that there are lesbians with some really incredible watches, which is honestly something that I wouldn’t have noticed in a million years.
Which all leads me in my rambling way to the point of all this: I believe that the Hublot watch known as the Big Bang is the greatest watch I’ve ever seen. Specifically, the all-black aero bang model; the model with jewels is a bit much. But the all black ceramic model looks like the sort of thing that James Bond would have worn to the moon. If I saw a lesbian wearing this thing, I’d let her fist me. Of course, tastes are subjective. And my own tastes aren’t that refined: after all, I usually dress like a landscaper. But, in my estimation, this watch is paramount.
Digging through the archives can be a bit like trying to find your keys in a junkyard. You dig and dig for hours and when you’ve finally found something, you still aren’t sure if you’ve found anything. The dream for most of us is to find a stash of papers that have been totally forgotten and make something out of it. The trick is to make something from the sources and not make something up from the sources, to read the sources and not read into the sources. There have been a number of histories written that were more creative than sound.
Detective work always looks more interesting in the movies than it actually is. What it really involves is cobbling together a handful of scattered facts and trying to establish a pattern with them. It’s as much fictionalizing as it is truth-telling. We have a responsibility to tell the truth, but in those gaps where the truth falls out, we fictionalize in order to maintain the consistencies that make sense to us. This, incidentally, is also how we upright primates maintain our idea of the world around us on a daily basis.
When you get into the archives, it’s actually amazing how dull and unimportant most of the archived items actually are. We tend to think of our lives as much more interesting than they are, and the time we live as being far more momentous than it actually is. For the most part, our record is left in flotsam and jetsam, and most of the crises of our time thankfully amount to very little.
I think some people get depressed by this. I’ve read historians talk about pouring over journals of long-gone people who genuinely believed that the Fourth Lateran Council or the Citizen King Louis-Philippe would change the face of human civilization only to wonder if the things that seem weighty and monumental to them will also be revealed as trivial à la longue. (Answer: Yes) Maybe the end result of historical awareness is a sort of radical nihilism. Nothing is true, everything is historicized.
And yet, I see no reason not to take our dreams for reality. When I study history I am often amazed at the fecundate imaginations of human beings. We seem to have fictionalizing in our blood; we create these vivid and complex realities, all of them a little bit different from every other one. It’s not that any of them is necessarily wrong; it’s just that all of them describe only a small part of the world. When I see something as vast and complex as Catholicism, for instance, I don’t see the “mind forged manacles” that other non-believers tend to see. Instead, I am taken aback by the immense construction of centuries of human dreams.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
The first thing is that at least a third of them are in a state of existential suffering at any time. The mere fact of living in a crowded city with other people is a serious blow to their pride. You watch them in the Metro stations and they’re each and every one rolling their eyes, lamenting, frustrated beyond belief with all of these vague nondescript blurs moving around them, which are, in some exotic cultures, referred to as other people. And then, every now and then, some world-historical tragedy will take place, such as the train will be delayed by five minutes, and they despair like Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden. Their entire body goes into spasms of aggravation. Well this just fixes it! This is the cherry atop the pile of merde that is their life! OH! If the Parisians could just find a way to make histrionics profitable they would never have to work again.
If Americans are aggressive in public, and Canadians are passive, the French are passive-aggressive. I am convinced that, when the French Army goes to war, a major part of their strategy is icy stares. I am also convinced that this is why every Parisian who was alive during the war considers themselves to have been aligned with the Resistance. Oh, well some of them might have been running guns; but me, I was sighing loudly in public places! I was part of the Jean Paul Sartre Sneering Squad! I rolled my eyes against all odds! I’ve actually read a book that claimed that Picasso (who, of course, was not French) was a major part of the Resistance against the Nazis because during the war he was, get this, living in Paris painting nude women! This was intellectual freedom fighting! Oh to live as happily up one’s own ass elsewhere as it is possible to do in Paris!
And, in a sense, you can understand the suffering- life in Paris is remarkably and stupidly complex. There are thousands of unwritten rules about how to walk, how to dress just so, how to comport oneself, how to relate to the opposite sex and the same sex, how to eat, and so on and so forth. As Thom Yorke put it in an interview here, it is at once brilliant and completely mad. Have any of you had a stranger stop, look you up and down, scoff, and throw their nose in the air? For most of us, it hasn’t happened since High School. It’s happened to me at least a dozen times now in Paris. The other day, a sophisticate on the sidewalk stopped and gave me a glare that could seriously translate to, “You! You killed my father!” I think it was due to my pants.
And there’s finally something depressing about how stylish, how elegant, and how perfect Parisians are. They’re like WASPs! You couldn’t imagine them ever having sex- after getting together in an expensive hotel room and wearing extremely sexy haute couture, screwing would be completely superfluous. And here’s something that took me years to figure out- flawless women are profoundly depressing to be around anyway. There’s no joy and nothing living there- you could display them in as museum as an artifact of their society. They live by checklist.
Don’t get me wrong: Paris is a great city with an incredible amount of culture, fashion, art, imagination, and a brilliant French patrimony. But, as a Canadian, Parisians strike me as taking themselves, and everything else for that matter, entirely too seriously! If I ever live here again, I’m wearing gold lamé and a pink cowboy had every day. It’s a shame that the phrase “get over yourself” makes no sense in French.
Friday, May 16, 2008
Among the myriad and sundry spam emails I've gotten was one memorable one that read:
"They're going to allow gay couples to adopt in Florida! Do you know what this means?!"
"That back-to-school clothes are going to be fabulous?" I responded.
I never heard from them again.
I have to admit that the first thing I thought when gay marriage was made legal in Canada was that whoever made little plastic gay couples to put on the top of cakes was going to get rich. It turned out though that they were already out. Claire and I were planning our wedding at the time and the wedding shows had all sorts of glitz and frippery for both gay and straight couples. The law changed a few days before our wedding, which means that gay marriage has been legal for nearly three years now, right? (Just kidding honey!)
Since then, Canadian society has not collapsed, nobody has been turned into a pillar of salt (not that I know of), and nobody in Canada has married their pet. That was the iron clad argument against gay marriage, right? Everyone could marry their cat? The law is actually interesting that way in that it doesn't change like that. For example, by law, I can get a pilot's licence; however, my cat cannot get a pilot's licence, even if I dress her like a pilot. I'll stop boring you with the complex legal mumbo jumbo.
Nevertheless, there are people who want the law changed back here, but they don't have much of an argument at this point. Are they going to claim that Canada is like really, really gay now? Have they ever seen the mountie uniforms? Do they realize that Celine Dion became famous in Canada? Even more annoying is the fact that many of these "Canadian" organizations are actually located in the US and trying to get our laws changed. (Many of them are also located in the Cenozoic Era) To his great credit, Stephen Harper handled the debate by asking the Parliament, "Hey, you want to debate gay marriage? No? Then the issue is now closed." Forever. Canada has gay marriage. Hot gay marriage, I might add.
The first thing to point out about California is that the ruling yesterday has nothing whatsoever to do with "judicial activism". It was a group of judges deciding that the way they current law was being carried out was insufficient and unconstitutional. It was the opposite of "activism"; it was also the opposite of "special privileges" as it extended an exclusive privilege to all citizens. Lastly, when the anti-gay groups come out with the inevitable constitutional amendment, which I have no doubt will read, "Marriage is between a man and a woman, so suck it, les gays!", this will be extremist activism. And hopefully it will be struck down. Lastly, could some journalist explain the legal system in these articles, so people will stop thinking that it's roughly like American Idol and judges study and develop expert legal opinions just to "give the people what they want"? I'd be ever so grateful.
The last thing to say is congratulations! Maybe it really won't last, but for a short time ten percent of the nation will live in a place where they can marry whoever the hell they want. (Just not cats.) This is great news. Especially for Ellen DeGeneris, whose fiancée is hot. Jesus, the news can be depressing; if it's not about who just shot up a mall, it's about who just bombed a neighborhood. But, for a few days, we will get to see pictures of happy people in love basking in the glow of one another. I have no idea what sort of cramped and narrow soul you'd have to own to be angered by that, but it can't be good for your health, your family, or your culture. I never used to cry at weddings, until I got married. But now, seeing other people in love celebrating that love, only strengthens my feelings for Claire; it doesn't weaken them. But, as I've gotten choked up reading the news stories, this means that I'd better not go to any weddings there, or I'll be crying like a baby!
Oh, and you know what else it means, right? Fabulous wedding showers.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
I hesitate to even post this here, because I hate to think what it will do to the collective blood pressure/IQ/mood, but it seems worth pointing out that this is (at least for a few hours) considered headline news... an Op/Ed about how universities are being selfish and antisocial by protecting and growing their endowments. I guess the part of it that really chaps my ass is the flat statement that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, having the same size endowment as Harvard University, is doing good medical work, while Harvard is simply propagating radical professorial views.
I'm forced to wonder why schools like Harvard have such a rep for cranking out the next generation of the power elite, which is historically a conservative cadre, if what they're ACTUALLY doing with all that money, which they mostly got from the last generation of the power elite, is corrupting the fragile little minds of the sheeple.
I rate this Op/Ed 'what the fuck' out of 10, and worry about what the people who get their opinions from CNN will make of this.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Back in my bachelor days, I briefly dated an obnoxious atheist. Maybe you know the type. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in Gods; it was that anyone who did, as far as she was concerned, was guilty of a stupidity as gauche and embarrassing as backwoods incest. She would talk ad nauseum about how she just couldn’t see how anyone in the modern world could believe in anything as idiotic as God or the afterlife. She probably still does.
I would try to argue that religious faith isn’t a matter of intelligence, but of conviction. Believers don’t decide to believe after finding evidence of God in the lab; that would render faith meaningless. It has to be absurd or it isn’t faith. I was obviously a young Kierkegaard. But her mind was made up. “It’s so obvious that there’s no God; there’s no evidence of a God.”
She actually had the same tone of voice as an Armenian orthodox believer who I tried to date in High School. We would have very similar discussions, but with me trying to understand her faith, which I’ve never shared. “Of course there’s a God,” she would say. “We have the Bible; that’s our proof.” Ultimately, I decided that believers and atheists are living in two different realities, and that their experiences of the world are as dissimilar as a blind hearing person and a deaf seeing person’s might be.
I think I’m about as open to faith as one can be without actually believing in God. And yet, quite often, a believer will say something that knocks me for a loop; I just can’t understand their thoughts, even on an abstract basis. Clearly, that’s what happened when I read this Robert Novak column about certain American Christians who aren’t sure who they should vote for this year. Their problem stems from their belief that Barack Obama's candidacy is along the lines of a Biblical plague and they need to find God's candidate in order to defeat him.
I’m not even going to touch the racial politics here. However, to me, there’s something just way too bizarre about not only deciding that public figures represent Biblical plagues, but that you personally know which ones God likes and which ones are the plagues. I feel like the next step is deciding that God is leaving you coded messages in the phone book. After that, you’re pretty much just waiting for the neighbor’s dog to tell you which sinners to pick off with your rifle.
I understand that, if you believe, then everything in your life reflects your faith, including your vote. But, I can’t understand how a believer could think that God would care about something as petty and stupid as American elections, or any political elections. It just seems arrogant on their part; like thinking that God wants your favorite singer to win on American Idol, or those athletes who thank God for having won in a sporting event. I’d like to imagine that God has better things to think about.
The American marriage of faith and politics has been commented on ad nauseum as well, but it bears repeating how strange it is within the context of modernity. The only parallel I can think of in the Western world in the Modern era would be those nineteenth century nationalists who believed that history revealed God’s will based on which nations rose and fell. It’s no revelation, so to speak, to point out that many of these people in the US are basically Christian nationalists. But, the question is how in the world we ever got to the point that politicians and pundits are sitting around in some smoky room right now discussing how to capture the Biblical plague vote.
If reality television has taught us anything it’s that rich people are stupider than we are. Beverly Hills is clearly something like a cross between Ancient Rome and a sorority kegger, and we jaundiced viewers are given the no-longer-rare opportunity to chuckle at the fact that our aristocracy is now largely composed of doped-up, botoxed, bulimic, lazy white trash. Juicy Couture Uber Alles, Vegas Brahmin, etc. etc.
A growing number of writers have worked in what one could call the venality genre- they do humiliating jobs for rich people and then write amusing stories about how humiliating those jobs were. In the first and second acts, the would-be gilded attempt to rub off gilt from those who have it in abundance. Inevitably, in the third act, they quit the humiliating job, and it’s often impossible to tell if they did so because they discovered their conscience, or felt that, as a whore, they should be treated with more respect. The venality genre is an offshoot of the Confession genre; but seemingly lacks the element of insight or reflection. Given that rich people have apparently given up on even the most basic forms of independence, and young middle class kids are willing to do anything to be close to notabilities, I’d imagine that we’ll eventually see sitting on bookshelves: “Toilet Assistant, Beverly Hills: I Wiped the World.”
Here’s a Newsweek article that tells us nothing we couldn’t have guessed: dumb rich kids pay companies to do their schoolwork for them. The plucky young author did said schoolwork for a few years, and then left to write about it for Newsweek. Did she feel guilty about committing fraud? Clearly so. Did she feel like she was treated with too little respect, as a whore? Probably. Her morals put her writing a bit above the pack. In the venality genre it’s usually hard to tell if the writers are confessing in order to clear their conscience about toadying, or if they toadied so that they’d have something to confess to an audience that is clearly fascinated by watching others debased. But it's just not thrilling writing. I’d rather read about heroes than whores.
Monday, May 12, 2008
Since we now know that burning carbon is terrible for the atmosphere, not to mention our lungs, should we be turning instead to nuclear power? I would say absolutely, and here's an article from Discover in which Gwyneth Cravens explains exactly why.
The fears about nuclear power are easy to understand. But it's also hard to understand why an industry with only one accident- and that in a totalitarian country with massive corruption and therefore no real safety standards!- and one near-accident in four decades is so deeply feared by the public. I'm currently writing in a country (France) that gets 85% of its electricity from nuclear power plants. Safely, cleanly, and efficiently, I might add. Since I charged my laptop battery from the wall outlet, let's just assume that this post is nuclear-powered.
Postscript: That French company we're talking about in the comments below is called Areva. I'll see if one can buy stock in the company because this would be a very good time to do so.
Clearly, I only read a handful of online writers any more. So, here's yet another quote from Andrew Sullivan, saying what I was trying to say yesterday, just doing a lot better than me. After this, I will stop talking about these depressing people forever. It's bad for the spirit:
"But like any southerner, Clinton also knew how to navigate racial resentment. In 1992, he interrupted the primary campaign to return to Arkansas to sign the death warrant of a mentally retarded black man. He made a point of attacking the radical black hip hop artist Sister Souljah in his first campaign. He signed off on welfare reform. His genius was in holding together a coalition that included enough Reagan Democrats to win, while never losing wide and deep black support.
But he never ran against a black candidate and neither did his wife. They are used to loving and supporting minorities – as long as the minorities know their place and see the Clintons as the instrument of their salvation. Obama broke that dependency and that relationship. And that was why the Clintons had to do all they could to destroy and belittle and besmirch him."
Okay, Holly asked about the French housing crisis a while ago. I finally found the answer after asking and reading around. But, I've been negligent in posting it because the answer I found is rather lame. Oh, well. Here goes:
Yes, there is a French housing crisis.
It's a shortage in affordable housing and it is probably the result of high rates of immigration and rising housing prices. It is believed that there need to be at least 80,000 more dwellings, mostly in Paris. (On the other hand, I am convinced that at least that many Parisians are permanently living up their own asses, so no problem! I'm kidding! I'm kidding!)
But, yes, that's the answer. I should have posted it earlier since it's fairly anticlimactic.
[Note: Holly has made the point that, if we post about great books we've read on the net, lazy students can cut and paste what we write for their papers.
I definitely hear that, but I just feel like it's a good thing to hype great books that I've read, just to get the word out there. If you are a student who is cutting and pasting this, please understand that you are too stupid to be in school and you should drop out now and save your parents the money. Thank you.]
Reading Faulkner was quite the thing to do when I was in college; I went to school in southern Virginia, where raw cotton would blow across the road and people still follow countless rules of decorum; and Faulkner was still remembered as the writer in residence at UVA as well as perhaps the greatest American writer of the Old South. One summer I remember seeing nearly everyone I knew walking around with one of his books under their arm.
I tried reading Absalom, Absalom! in my freshman year and got very little out of it. I think you have to read Faulkner fairly slowly and I tried to breeze through it in a Saturday afternoon. To be honest, I barely remember it. A bit later, I read As I Lay Dying, which I enjoyed quite a bit more (it actually reminded me of Beckett for some reason), and actually planned for some time to write a sprawling novel with several narrators and a dead body set in the South. I imagine it wouldn’t be as good.
The Sound and the Fury was the first Faulkner novel that I really found moving. It’s essentially a Gothic novel about an old Southern family that is, by all accounts, cursed. One son is a mongoloid who is castrated after trying to rape a town girl. Another son has incestuous feelings for his sister that end in suicide. The third son is embittered and hateful. The daughter is a fallen woman whose own illegitimate daughter becomes another fallen woman. Clearly, no good can come of this family.
Nevertheless, a major theme is how the characters try to escape their ill-fate by all means possible, from changing a son’s name to smashing a watch; of course, this doesn’t work- it’s impossible for humans to escape time after all. Faulkner is fascinated with the way that the past affects the present through human consciousness. The first three chapters are told from the viewpoints of the three brothers, and he is good at showing how memories are experienced in the present. Nevertheless, this makes it a bit hard to follow at times: Faulkner actually considered having different time periods printed in different colors. Again, I would read it slowly.
The other difficulty I has was reading the chapter narrated by the son Jason, who is an insufferable prick. Nevertheless, there is something Shakespearean in Faulkner’s ability to inhabit characters at such odds with each other; these diverse chapters play off of each other and create an entire dying world in a dilapidated southern farm.
Sunday, May 11, 2008
If you remember, Marshal McLuhann argued that movable type altered the way our central nervous system worked. So it's not suprising that neurologist Susan Greenfield thinks that psychoative drugs and computers are altering the ways our brain works. She's worried about a number of things happening. Here's her very interesting article. I've wondered myself if we're not expecting psychoactive drugs and technology to make us better than human, and if that's not a bit Promethean.
Any thoughts from the other post-humans out there?
In a related note, Mark Bauerlein thinks that technology is actually making this "the dumbest generation" (in America, it should be noted). The Boston Globe lays out his argument in an article that is, ironically enough, dumbed down to about the People Magazine level of prose.
Someone once pointed out to me that most white people have no racist thought whatsoever... until a black person does better than them at something. In my experience, at that point, a certain percentage of them become conspiracy theorists. Well, she cheated! The system was rigged! He had an unfair advantage! She played too rough! And so forth.
(Sigh) It's still sad to watch it, eh?...
Let me know if you can watch this video. I can't, but I think it's due to my laptop. Anyway, this is the official video for the song Stress by the Parisian band Justice. It is getting all sorts of attention over here, as much negative as positive. It should be obvious why it's fueling debate...
Saturday, May 10, 2008
Albert Hoffmann, the Swiss chemist who developed LSD has died at the age of 102. So far, the best line I’ve seen was in the Onion, where one of the on-the-street interviewees commented: “I keep telling my kids this- you mess with drugs and you’re going to wind up dead!”
I took acid a number of times back when I was a kid and it was still possible to find (admittedly weak) LSD. I could be wrong, but I get the feeling that the War on Drugs has won against acid. I haven’t heard anyone talk about taking it in years. Admittedly, I’m not a roadie for Phish or anything, so I might just be out of the loop.
I enjoyed acid- it struck me as pleasant way to spend a Friday night and somewhat helpful for visualizing things or thinking though a problem from Point A to Point Blue. I figured out pretty quickly that it should not be taken on a daily basis, unless you’re looking to establish a long and meaningful relationship with a fire hydrant. But I will admit that at times, when I was struggling my way through a difficult question, I would jolt my brain with drugs and alcohol and, about 50% of the time, get through the mental block.
I realize that’s not a trick that’s going to wind up in a lot of self-help books. But, I’ve heard of other acid casualties, such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or every computer programmer I’ve ever met, doing the same thing. You mess with drugs and you’re going to wind up owning Google! Nevertheless, my advice for young people: only use drugs in moderation, and stay away from the bad shit.
It’s hard to judge the impact of acid. The NY Times article sort of plays it down, aside from its influence in Silicon Valley. In my estimation, acid has led to bad poetry, music of widely varying quality, really bad “acid films”, and some genuinely cool paintings. The exaggerated expectations for acid- from the drug war acid freak horror movies to the Timothy Leary lysergic evangelical encomiums were mostly off beam. But that’s not to say that LSD hasn’t forever altered the culture, perhaps in ways that are not yet evident- as most people who have used it will tell you, it’s necessary to wait a while for acid to take effect.
Wherefore, villain, hast thou failed? In an enlightening article, R.W. Johnson explains where Robert Mugabe went wrong in the recent elections in Zimbabwe and why his downfall is now unavoidable. The only problem, of course, is that this could be a very long and dreadful goodbye, given a beast-man like Mugabe. Let’s hope not. The opposition party Movement for a Democratic Change (MDC) has now agreed to return for an unnecessary Presidential run-off, having won the election rather handily. If this election is run fairly, they’ll win; but I wouldn’t bet the farm on that happening. If Mugabe clings to power, the West will, undoubtedly, deal with this cheerless situation by treating Zimbabwe as a quarantined zone and making it clear that they will pump all of their resources in once Mugabe is gone. He will then either leave or rage against the dying of the light. But, given his age, what’s inevitable won’t be long in coming either way. At present, the example of Robert Mugabe serves, if nothing else, as an argument for assassination.
Friday, May 09, 2008
In an almost unbelievably lame editorial, Daniel Henninger bashes Barack Obama for being too much like Jimmy Carter and wanting to talk to our enemies. That's neither here nor there, but the editorial is unwittingly enlightening for this line:
A grand Enemies Tour awaits President Obama – Iran's Ahmadinejad, Syria's Assad, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, North Korea's Kim Jong Il, an al Qaeda "diplomat" from Osama bin Laden, Sudan's Hassan al-Bashir, Zimbabwe's Mugabe, Burma's junta.
Okay, so the bit about how Obama is going to talk to al Qaeda is just too fucking stupid to believe. But look at the Bowery Boys that are now considered our enemies. There are seven nations there, of which maybe only two could be considered a legitimate threat in any sense of the term. I take it the Zimbabwe army is not going to defeat the US through their crack strategy of starving. And Burma? Really? We're supposed to worry about fighting Burma right now?
What's important here is that back in the 70s (when that Carter joke actually made sense), there were something like 80 authoritarian regimes, or even just dictatorships, in the world. It really was a much more dangerous world. South America, for instance, was full of dictators. Now, I'm really hard pressed to list 10 in the entire planet. Again, if the trend continues, they will be about as rare as hen's teeth in the future. I'm willing to bet that Cuba, for example, will be a democracy within a decade. Mugabe will probably be dead within that time. Legitimately, the only possible threats on that list are North Korea, which let's be honest, really isn't going to do shit, and Iran, which Bush will probably bomb before he leaves office. Which will, of course, make the situation worse.
Okay, so let's just assume that the Middle East isn't becoming Switzerland any time soon. Nevertheless, it appears that the world is indeed becoming safer, largely due to economic globalization and not at all due to the US bombing shit or rattling sabers.
Thursday, May 08, 2008
It's a good time to be alive.
In Newsweek International, Fareeed Zakaria also talks about the emerging multipolar world:
"In 2006 and 2007, 124 countries grew their economies at over 4 percent a
year. That includes more than 30 countries in Africa. Over the last two decades,
lands outside the industrialized West have been growing at rates that were once
unthinkable. While there have been booms and busts, the overall trend has been
At the military and political level, we still live in a unipolar world. But
along every other dimension—industrial, financial, social, cultural—the
distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance. In terms
of war and peace, economics and business, ideas and art, this will produce a
landscape that is quite different from the one we have lived in until now—one
defined and directed from many places and by many peoples."
He calls this the "Rise of the Rest" and the "Post-American World", but that's perhaps just an attention-getting term. After all, it's not really post-American; it's just a world in which America isn't really in charge, which is unambiguously a good thing for the United States. An age of peace and prosperity, without having to play cop of the world, will benefit the US in ways that are obvious. Perhaps not obvious to politicians who run on "protecting" us all from the evildoers, but it will be good for the rest of us.
Later, I will explain why the political and military world is also shifting for the good.
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
More good news- In a new book, conservative pundit Fareed Zakaria points out something that has been fairly noticeable to us history dorks for a while now- it's quite possible that we're actually living "in more peaceful times than at any point since the early 1950s, and perhaps in several centuries. (Harvard's Steven Pinker says, "the most peaceful times in the species' existence.")
In fact, one of the things that is most interesting for me about the emerging multipolar world is just this possibility that war might actually be largely vestigial at this point for over half the globe, and it might well be dying out everywhere else. Know hope, as Andrew Sullivan says.
Former Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has gone on the warpath against all of those so-called “experts” who think that just because they’ve gotten advanced degrees in complex economic theory that they know more about economics than… well, plumbers for example, or professional bowlers. At this point, hoping to capture the ever-critical idiot vote, she’s also on the warpath against expertise in general, not to mention informed opinions, or maybe even just knowledge.
Scienceblogger James Hrynyshyn, who saw her speak in NC:
Only ordinary Americans, and, because this Clinton campaign stop was in a
rural corner of the state, only small-town Americans, can be trusted to do
what's right. It's sad, really. Not only is everyone else the enemy, but
intelligence itself is suspect. What we need, she seemed to be saying between
the lines, is someone at the top who's just a simple yokel. More of the last
eight years, in other words.
Upping the ante a bit, Ben Stein has said in an interview that he doesn’t trust scientists because, after all, science gave us the Holocaust. It’s a banner year for the know-nothing party.
In the humanities, we used to have a handful of “postmodernists” who said the same sort of thing. I remember reading a book that actually had a sentence to the effect that there was a straight line leading directly from the Enlightenment to Auschwitz. In various places I’ve argued against such claptrap, which seems to me to ignore the entire nineteenth century, race theory, Romanticism, and the whole bloody Counter-Enlightenment; and yet, the Ontario Science Center, as recently as two summers ago, was running an exhibit on “the Dark Side of Science”, blaming scientists not only for the Holocaust, but American slavery as well. I suspect however that the Sokol Hoax pretty much put the kibosh on anti-science talk in the humanities, not to mention the fact that creationists have been quick to co-opt that talk.
And, lest I be mistaken here, of course there has been a god-awful amount of pseudo-science and tragically mistaken expert opinion over the years. I’m not about to argue that everything in the scientific tradition has been right or just, and yes, the “scientific establishment” has the same blind spots as all other establishments. The Tuskegee experiments, lobotomies, phrenology- I’m not trying to say that these things weren’t once called science, or that they aren’t also a part of the tradition that gave us relativity and the polio vaccine. But, when I think of “science”, in the sense of a constantly evolving body of knowledge about how the world works, it’s very hard for me to understand that as somehow innately threatening to anyone aside from those people who already know how the world works, thank you very much, and who don’t want a bunch of egg-heads mucking that up. My point: the answer to bad science is better science, not anti-science.
As you might have noticed, anti-intellectuals are legion now- they’re as common as resentment- and of course, the political parties, who have long since given up on searching for new ideas, will gladly exploit that resentment. In the age of the Internet, the ill-informed opinion is King. Truthiness, and all of that.
So, maybe it’s time for me to get in on it too. Here’s what I’m proposing: a Wiki-Hospital. Because, let’s face it, isn’t there something snobby and arrogant about the so-called “medical establishment” telling me that I can’t perform brain surgery? And why is some fancy-pants, New York City, voodoo shit like “X-Ray machines” and “Magnetic Resonance Imaging” better at detecting heart problems than, say, tapping on the person’s ribs and listening to their chest with an empty milk glass? And who are those loafer-wearing, egg-heads to say that some supposed “medical doctor” understands cancer better than my Uncle Larry, the plumber? Maybe Larry isn’t an “expert”, but wouldn’t the combined knowledge of say ten plumbers, collaborating online, be better than one oncologist? Of course it would! We all know that!
Besides, what does some doctor have that I don’t have? I’ll tell you: the only thing that makes him different from me is a piece of paper; that’s it! Granted, he earned that piece of paper through several years of arduous study, hard work, and experience in a clinical environment. But, nevertheless, I have lots of pieces of paper all over the place!
So, please, I’m calling out to all of the regular people now, the real Americans, the silent majority: if you’re sick of those “experts” with all of their effete book-related “knowledge” looking down their noses as us, jes folks, and if you’re in desperate need of medical attention, well by all means, come on out to my Wiki-Hospital. It’s in my basement, right behind the washing machine and the cat box. Now, I’ll admit that it’s not really all that clean down there at the moment. But, what kind of snob needs a so-called “sterile” operating room? You’re not some kind of elitist, are you?
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
I am sorry- I gave one of your post cards to David Lynch. It had a painting of an old time movie director on it, and I suddenly realized that it looked just like him. Also, he helped me remember the word Atman. All of this made sense at the time. also, I have several other post cards fo you. love,
Monday, May 05, 2008
The great actress Tilda Swinton is interviewed in the latest issue of the mode magazine Mixte, and pictured in Yves Saint Laurent and Givenchy. At one point, the interviewer asks her about what it’s like to work for Disney, as a communist, and she gives this answer:
French: « C’est ça qui est drôle. Ils ne m’auraient jamais ouvert la porte s’ils avaient su que j’étais communiste. J’adore l’idée qu’une communiste puisse participer à la participation d’une filme qui coûte des billions des dollars. Tout est une question d’équité, et vive le glamour pour tous ! C’est très communiste… »
English: “That’s what’s so funny. They never would have opened their doors for me if they knew that I was communist. I love the idea that a communist can take part in making a film that costs millions of dollars. It’s all a matter of equality: glamour for everyone! It’s very communist…” (translation: Moi)
I know that some people think that actors shouldn’t discuss their political views, but I’ve never understood that. Why not? In my personal experience, if anybody should keep their political opinions to themselves, it’s cab drivers! But, if George Clooney wants to critique supply side economics, or Winona Ryder wants to discuss Lenin’s contributions to Marxist thought, what harm can it do?
I’ve never been a communist myself. To me, the idea of living in a communal society is a total nightmare; it would be like having 30 roommates! I’d much rather be left alone for the most part. Also, I remember a communist once telling me that, come the revolution, the workers would be working for ourselves, and asking him, “But what about me? I really don’t like to work.” We went around and around on that for twenty minutes, with him saying, “No, you just hate working because you’re being exploited,” and me saying, “No, seriously, I’m just lazy. Where’s my revolution?”
Also, I just can’t buy dialectical materialism. Marx borrows the dialectic from Hegel, where it’s essentially Providence, and tries to improve it by making it material- conflicts over modes of production. He sort of puts the idea forth in the Communist Manifesto that capitalism will fall due to its internal contradictions, but that it’s going to need a revolution. Then he works out those internal contradictions in Kapital in a very “scientific” fashion. Okay, maybe the word isn’t scientific; maybe the way to describe Kapital is ‘as arid as the Sahara’. Nobody should be allowed to write like that without being licensed as an anesthesiologist. But, when you wade through it all, you still have to believe in a quasi-mystical force that is driving history, and that allows Marx to predict the future, and I just can’t. The whole “direction of history” game is fun to play, until you get stuck with someone like George Bush who actually believes that history has a direction. It was worse, no doubt, for people living in actual communist societies, who kept “sowing the seeds of their own destruction” by being on the wrong side of history.
So, I was never a communist, although I’ve known plenty of communists and former communists. I never thought of them as “Stalinists” or “useful idiots” or bad people; most often, they just wanted a more equitable society, and while I’d certainly like that too, I barely trust the state to build bridges without fucking up, so it’s a real stretch to trust them to eradicate inequality. Besides, economic inequality is as longstanding and as salient an aspect of human societies as the culture and religion that arise from it. I don’t want to live in a society without poor people and rich people; I want to live in one in which the former are actually able to work hard and become the latter.
You see where I’m going with this, eh? I’ve had a wide variety of friends over the years, and it’s becoming obvious to me that I probably couldn’t be President either. Drug addicts, sadomasochists, commies, Maoists, swingers, Satanists, radical feminists, hard-line conservatives, libertarians, skinheads, anarchists, Muslim anarchists; not to mention Greg and Holly! I mean, there’s very little that upsets me and I have a hunger to understand what makes people tick. I remember we even knew a depressive Nazi at one point, which was really weird because most of the people that we hung out with were either Hispanic or gay and he didn’t seem to care. I remember that he used to moan about how nobody else was ever nice to him, and we would say, “Well, yeah! You’re a fucking Nazi!”
Anyway, my point is that none of this ever rubbed off on me. I’ve always been secure enough in my own opinions to change them whenever better evidence presented itself, but not to be easily swayed by anyone else’s “grand narratives” as academics like to call them. So I’m not really shocked by Barack Obama’s weirder friends. He’s always struck me as the sort of person who realizes that you have to be everyone’s best friend if you want to get anything done. But I also am trying to get where people are coming from who are upset with him. Someone like my father might not have any screwy friends and he could well see it as reflecting poorly on Obama. I don’t imagine Claire’s accountant father hangs out with many ex-Weathermen.
But, in the end, I suspect that most rational people will judge the man by his works. I know I bitch a lot about Americans, but to be honest, I've always found them to be eminently fair-minded people with a strong vein of common sense. I think they understand that living in the world often involves looking past people's flaws to their common humanity.
Sunday, May 04, 2008
Nothing new here. I'm trying to learn the art of forgiving tourists- I think this is one of the highest levels of Buddhist enlightenment, right? Not strangling tourists for crowding around you on park benches off the Champs Elysses complaing about how Paris is okay, but it sure 'aint no Lubbock? Well, it should be.
Reading around, Andrew Sullivan says that Obama should pick Clinton for his running mate. Ah, why not? Does anyone remember when Bush Sr. and Reagan were running bitterly against each other? They did okay as a ticket. Sullivan's readers think he's nuts though.
Anyway, hard to care about that. But, I am glad to see that China and the Dalaii Lama are talking today. I guess those wacky French and English protesters had a positive effect after all. Also glad to see that Israel and Palestine are talking again- when will they realize that they're just fighting because they can't admit that they're in love with each other?
Saturday, May 03, 2008
Sometimes I think it would be nice to have an adjective coined for me. (If I can’t get an adjective named for me, I’d like a syndrome.) David Cronenberg has said that he is proud of the term “Cronenbergian” and J.G. Ballard seems happy with “Ballardian”. I have no idea how they worked it out when they collaborated on the film version of Crash; was it Cronenbergian or Ballardian? Or can you even apply the adjective to the person? It seems a bit silly to say that Hitchcock made movies that were Hitchcockian. And it seems too obvious to say that Kafka’s stories were Kafkaesque.
And what if you feel limited by the adjective? Certainly, Freud didn’t think highly of many Freudians, and Marx actually said that he didn’t consider himself to be a Marxist. Rousseau’s writings were generally Rousseaunean, but it’s easy to feel bad for Machiavelli, whose writings aren’t really as Machiavellian as they’re supposed to be. Rubens was a painter, but no paintings are called Rubenesque, although women of a certain shape are. It’s hardest to sympathize with Major Vidkun Quisling, who really was a quisling.
I think I feel the most sympathy for Thomas Hobbes. Dick Cheney has said that his own worldview is essentially Hobbesian, which might lead a reasonable person to burn Hobbes. It’s also not entirely fair. When people talk about a Hobbesean philosophy, they basically mean a certain view of humanity in which human beings in a state of nature are in a war of all against all, and their life is therefore nasty, brutish, and short. Therefore, in order to have order in societies, governments need to be willing to use force to keep these savages from running amok. I’m not sure how this would play out in Iraq. It’s also not exactly what Hobbes was saying in Leviathan, although it's close: Hobbes really wasn’t as Hobbesean as Cheney.
I’m not particularly Hobbesean either. Oh, I have my moments of despair about humanity, which certainly was made of crooked timber, and particularly when I see Lou Dobbs, but overall, I have to say that people really aren’t too bad. It has occurred to me that, with as absentminded and autistic as I am, I really should be dead by now, having wandered out into traffic, stepped under a falling safe, or forgotten where my house was and frozen to death. However, I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.
This went through my mind last night, after I locked my keys in my room. After looking around, I found that the proprietress was on vacation. The French, of course, tend to go on vacation during all odd-numbered months. Being completely unable to get into the room, I tried to “jimmy” the lock (which I don’t doubt was invented by someone named Dave and not Jim), and quickly realized that I have no idea how to do this. Also yesterday I wasn’t wearing my shoes that have the skeleton key in the hollowed-out heel. So, no luck.
Thinking fast, I decided to sleep in the bathroom in the hall. This plan failed as soon as a neighbor showed up to smoke in the bathroom. He tracked down a cleaning woman, who did not have the spare key, but whose husband and brother thought they could jimmy the lock with items they had around the house. So the three of us went to work on the door with an x-ray, a paper clip, and part of a pen. After about thirty minutes, we had decided that none of us were criminal masterminds. I briefly considered tunneling under the door. (I’ve been planning in general to do more tunneling.)
Anyway, finally someone found the proprietress’s son. He didn’t have a key either, nor could he contact his mother. But he had the crazy idea of climbing onto the roof via a skylight and sort of swinging down to my window, which was open. Anyway, I was terrified by that idea, as I live on the seventh floor- technically, the eighth. But Batman here swears he’s done it many times before and, sure enough, he has no trouble. He lets me inside and I swear to keep the key with me whenever I go out. It turns out that the three of us cat burglars damaged the lock and now it’s actually impossible to unlock it using the key, but that problem is for another day.
Anyway, I don’t get the sense that most people are innately brutal. Sure, there are some assholes out there and even the occasional psychopath, and I wouldn’t say I have a Rousseaunean view of humanity (innately good, but corrupted by society). But, last night, as I fell asleep, in my own room, thanks to the combined efforts of the entire building, I had the overwhelming sense that the vast majority of people are kind, nature is not to red in tooth or claw, and that the universe is ultimately benevolent. Except for Dick Cheney.