Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Barbarians at the Gates

One in 20 primary and secondary school teachers in the UK has experienced sexist bullying from their students. This is, of course, repulsive, and there's really no excuse for it being tolerated.

But alas.

Struggling mightily to say something stupider than "Boys will be boys", the National Union of Teachers' general secretary, Steve Sinnott succeeds in saying that such behavior is "completely unacceptable" but that schools could not "close society out at the gates".

Oh? And why not exactly? Isn't that what hierarchical cultural institutions tradionally do?


Good News About Universities

I complain a lot about universties; but it's because I genuinely love education, and I worry about how so many universities seem to have become these huge shopping mall bastions of Philistinism. What frustrates me about Mall University is that the administrators seem to believe that a University should follow the trends of the culture at large, with its love for 'one damned simplicity after another' as Philip Reiff phrased it. I remain firm in my conviction that universities should hang back from society at large, be a world apart that patiently studies those fixities that deserve to be fixities.

So, for once, let me note a trend in education that seems positive: "Dividing a large university into cross-sectional residential colleges..." The article is encouraging. Not only because a few of us actually went to small residential colleges and found the atmosphere to be intellectually exhilarating; but because a lot of students seem to be excited as well. For many of them, this reminds them of Hogwarts, and I'm guessing that part of the appeal of Harry Potter is that a lot of people wish they went to Hogwarts. And that's the irony here- this 'new trend' is basically a return to the old model of universities, some of which were the models for Hogwarts.

Note: I think the blogger's code requires me to add "Hat tip: University Diaries" because I saw this linked there.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Warning: Education Might Offend the Uneducated

A University of Idalo film professor is having his students sign a “statement of understanding” acknowledging the potentially offensive or repugnant content they’ll be viewing in class. Apparently, this is something new. Usually professors who are worried that people will be offended by course material put a note in the syllabus to that effect. This guy is the first to have the kids sign an agreement saying that they might be offended, and so they might want to take something else.

My opinion: So what! I know that people will complain that students should be challenged in University, and that this is giving in to the consumer mentality of education, and that life can sometimes be offensive. But, honestly, I don't see a problem here. He shows A Clockwork Orange, and, apparently, some students complain about that. So, he makes sure it's clear beforehand. Sure he's previously said this in a syllabus; but plenty of students don't read the syllabus. And since plenty of profs do warn about these things in their syllabi, I'm not sure that he's doing anything that unique.

Now, it could still be said that University pedagogy should be about challenging the perceptions of students and not placating them by refusing to challenge those perceptions. And actually a few people are quoted along those lines in the article. But, you know what? Maintaining the traditional role of the University, or determining it's new role (something they seem to do every two years now) should be the role of the administration, and I'm guessing, based on my experience with administrations, that the ones at U of O don't have that opinion of education at all. Therefore, they're likely not going to take up for the guy if Bratty McCrybaby calls for her lawyer after seeing a bare tit in a movie in class. I just don't think the guy should be the one to take a bullet for the standards of education.


Madonna Music

Here is one of my favorite numbers from the Madonna special. This one made Claire and I very happy.


Friday, November 24, 2006

Serious Business

Claire and I have no computer, so I'm posting at her parents' house. Out of everything that's been happening in the world, and in my life, I think the most important thing to comment on is this:
The Madonna concert on NBC was absolutely great.

Best thing I've seen her do in some time. I mean, her new material is pretty strong; but lately, she's looked way too strained and stressed out. She's been dancing as fast as she can, poor thing. This evening, she looked like she was having fun. Okay, maybe the Dancing Queen of Outer Space motif got a bit tired at times. But, there was something exuberant about the show that hasn't been there in her last few videos.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Yesterday I was late to lecture because I lost my passport, and I need it to cross into the states. Actually, I missed the lecture entirely, having spent almost an hour tearing apart the house, desperately trying to find my passport, which it turned out was wedged between the passenger side door and seat of my car. By this point, my heart was pounding and I was covered in sweat. I hate losing things: it makes me feel helpless and frustrated.

And yet, I go through a variation on this ritual at least four times a week; if it's not my passport, it's my keys, or my wallet, or the book I needed to bring to class. Last week, I forgot to bring the graded exams to my recitation and had to tell them to wait while I ran back up to the TA office to find them. They were next to the coffee maker. I am what you might call a scatterbrain.

But, it's actually worse than that. People who get to know me usually call me 'the absent-minded professor'- to give an example, last week I started walking to the convenience store and suddenly realized that I had no shoes on! These sorts of things happen all the time to me. What people eventually realize is that it's quasi-pathological with me. I lose nearly everything I have to hang on to, and can remember whatever it is I'm currently studying, but have no idea what bills I need to pay, or where I need to be tomorrow. I often forget how old I am.

This used to drive my parents crazy; they would say that I was 'in my own little world', and sometimes, in desperation, moan that I was just 'totally lost'. And it never improves greatly. The worst thing I ever did was to leave $800 at a bar- as you can guess, I never saw it again. But, even the casual confusion that I suffer is debilitating. I have to stop everything I'm doing and spend an hour looking for a check, for example. Or I get into debt because I forget to pick up my paychecks for two months. My license got cancelled a few months back because I forgot to get the insurance straightened out.

When I lose something, it feels like the world has conspired against me- I understand the concept of fate- cruel mechanisms that can't be controlled or stopped by mere humans once they've begun! I've spent entire days looking for a book, for example. Today, I am at the library, where I forgot to go yesterday.

(Sigh) I can live with this, but I hate the thought that Claire will be living with me like this for decades. It would be worth suffering the forgetfulness of Einstein if I ever had a brilliant idea like Einstein's. But, alas, I'm usually thinking about something banal or to do with the cat when I lose the rent check! Anyway, just wanted to get this off my chest. You know, before I forget to.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Quote- Unquote

'Sublimity is the echo of a great soul.'
-Longinus, 1st century C.E.


All We are Sayyyiiinggg... is Take off Your Pants...

A group of peace activists is planning to all have an Orgasm for World Peace on December 22nd. The idea was founded by Donna Sheehan and Paul Reffel, the last remaining pair of hippies in the wild, and can be... uh, participated in by groups as well as lone activists. (Faking is not recommended, as it will likely prolong the war.) Immediately folllowing the Global Orgasm for Peace will be an International Nap Against Global Warming, and in some cases an Uncomfortably Dishonest Promise to Call a One-Night Stand Back Sometime Against Meat-Eating.


News from the Raw and Violent World of Genome Biology

Researchers this week announced that they have retrieved over 1 million of the paired chemical constituents of Neandertal - of an approximated 3 million. Researchers at the Max Planc Institute say they can now retrieve DNA from nuclei, which is news in itself, and plan to have the complete sequence within 2 years. Given the fact that we're now also figuring out how to carry out the 'program' contained in DNA code, will it be long before we have cavemen among us, trying to understand our strange ways, and clubbing us for taking their parking spaces?


Notes on Happiness in the Developed World

Studies suggest that young people in developed countries might be a lot less happy than their poorer counterparts in the developing world. Actually, the same generally proves true for adults as well. The poorest countries report the highest levels of satisfaction with life. Two possibilities on this:

1) There's an idea in sociology that societies with a dozen problems are often less troubled by them than societies that only have a few problems left. With subsistence and shelter taken care of, we have more time to worry about whatever problems we have left over. Woody Allen goes on about this idea in Stardust Memories.

2) Teenagers in the developed world are overworked, having been drafted to do the psychic work of their parents' generation. Adults live through their children and require them to take part in these exaggerated pleasure-cruises that are never as much fun as the parents expect. The kids are required to experience all of the enjoyment that their parents are denied. It's grueling, this overemphasis on 'happiness'. Being happy makes it impossible to enjoy life.


Notes on The Fly (1986)

I just watched the director's commentary version of The Fly, which we recently discussed. A few things worth noting:

1) The film is definitely set in Toronto. notes here that most of his films are set in, and in some sense are about, the city of Toronto. This is fascinating to me because Cronenberg's films remind me of how I personally experience Toronto- intellectually stimulating, but socially and emotionally chilly.

2) A number of people speculated that The Fly is about AIDS when it was released. Cronenberg says that some of the people involved thought of the film that way; but he saw the transformation as a metaphor for disease, and mortality more generally. He says that it's much harder for him to watch now that he's twenty years older- the idea that we're slowly falling apart physically is much more real for him. It hasn't quite become real for me; but I suspect that my own love of horror films, and other sublime arts, is a way of mediating my own fears about decay and loss.

3) Of the constant videotaping that the characters do in the film, Cronenberg says that he was commenting on the increasing tendency of people to remove themselves from their own lives through technology, which incidentally I think could also apply to blogging.

4) Apparently, the film is being made into an opera. I noticed how operatic it is, with the tragic love triangle and its single set. The music in the film is similarly operatic.


Saturday, November 18, 2006



25 Greatest Science Books

Discover Magazine has listed the 25 Greatest Science Books of All Time. I guess if anyone should know... It surprised me how many of these I've actually read. They put Darwin at Number 1 and 2, which surprised me a bit. I would have put him right after Newton's Principia Mathematica, which I would have made number 1. Gallileo is, oddly enough, right above Copernicus at 4 and 5 respectively; I might have switched that around. Aristotle's Physics is number 6, which actually makes a lot of sense. It's not exactly the most accurate work; but it's the beginning of empirical science, so let's give Aristotle a hand for that.

They've also got Einstein's explanation of the special and general theories of Relativity, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, and a favorite of Claire and myself, The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The Feynman Lectures on Physics are here, which are pretty good reading, and they also include Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which was previously listed in that dreadful list of the Most Dangerous Books I made fun of a while back. So, it's pretty good stuff all the way around, although I suppose the geologists might well be pissed off a bit.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Notes on Guerrilla Warfare

Guerrilla warfare is a modern way of waging war against an army that is superior to your own. It dates back to the Napoleonic Wars, and was (perhaps) invented by the Spanish landowners and peasants who fought off the French Army. Remember that Napoleon lost a two front war: while his troops were fighting in Russia, they were also fighting in Spain. This is remembered today as the Spanish War of Independence, although Spain was only briefly 'dependent' on France, and it is where we get the word 'guerrilla' or 'little warrior'.

Guerrilla warfare was revived in the Twentieth Century by Mao's troops in China. Here, as well, these were peasant fighters acting against an urban army. Guerrilla troops have been compared to a slowly-tightening noose that comes from the rural area and closes in upon the urban.

Guerrilla warfare is worth understanding because it is largely the method that has been used against US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the US military is superior to any in the world in regards to traditional warfare (which is why they defeated the Iraqi military in a matter of days), they are generally not good at handling guerrillas. Neither are most traditional Western armies. The Spanish guerrillas defeated Napoleon, remember? The French were later mired and defeated by guerrilla fighters in Algeria, and the US by the same in Vietnam.

Guerrilla warfare is ideal for an army that cannot possibly win in face-to-face combat on a level field of battle. It is carried out in secret, often in the dead of night. It involves methods of ambush, booby traps, and snipers. The goal of guerrilla warfare is to force the superior army to expend their energy and resources. What makes guerrillas particuarly difficult for armies to deal with is that they blend into the surroundings so easily. Usually, but not always, indigeneous to the area, they have superior communications networks, and can hide themselves among the local population.

One reason that Western armies may fall prey to guerrillas so easily is that they see them as lowlifes and criminals, and expect civilians to think the same. This is not always the case.

For the guerrillas, the trick is to force the invading army to waste its time and resources trying to capture the 'banditos'. Guerrilla bands tend to be fairly decentralized, by necessity, which can make them more difficult to break. However, this can also work against the guerrillas; rival groups of guerrillas can start working against each other. Also, there will sometimes arise groups of bandits, essentially, who will take adavantage of the chaotic situation to better themselves. Some of these groups are simply opposed to any sort of social order being reimposed. They can force a breakdown in ethical standards throughout the society. Therefore, in guerrilla wars, violence can reach astounding levels of savagery.

Guerrillas tend to terrorize the local population to some extent- generally through targeted executions of 'collaborators' or those who wish to remain neutral. In reagrds to Iraq, we can see a general effort to make life unlivable for civilians. However, this can easily backfire, and I think it has in Iraq. Guerrillas have to terrorize civilians, but they also have to provide protection for loyal civilians, in much the same way as any organized crime network does. In Iraq, we see the danger that guerrillas face in 'overdoing' the use of force. The population, to the best of my knowledge, is still opposed to the 'insurgents' who seem to be indiscriminate in their use of force. Also, these guerrillas are often newcomers to the region. Local guerrillas can provoke nationalistic feelings (resisting the occupiers for the homeland), while the insurgents cannot do so in Iraq.

For the occupying army, the trick is to best protect the civilian population, including through the use of police repression, without turning the society into a prison camp. This is where the French failed in Spain and Algeria, and where the US has had the most trouble in Iraq. It is necessary to rid the population of guerrillas through military sweeps, or what the French called a ratissage (raking over) in Algeria. However, if force becomes excessive, or carries on for too many years, the population will turn against the occupying army. Understandably, they want protection; in a Hobbsian sense they want social order. But, they do not want to be unduly repressed by their protectors. One main reason to oppose the use of torture is exactly what we have seen in Iraq- civilians who still rely on the US presence for protection, but who have been horrified by images of torture. Torture can never be kept under wraps- not without 'disappearing' its victims. Moreover, it displays a lack of control, and a disloyalty to the civilian population. It acts directly against the interests of the army that uses it.

What the military that is fighting the guerrillas needs to do is maintain order, while still allowing for a relative amount of liberty on the part of the civilian population. They need to be allies of the civilians, instead of superior-minded invaders. What this means, especially in Iraq, is being aware of the local culture. In Spain, Napoleon's troops turned the conservative elements of society against their army by repressing the local Priests. The Revolutionary French were much more anti-clerical than the Spanish were. In Iraq, it is most important to work in concert with more conservative religious insititutions. For instance, protecting the mosques should be a top priority. And troops should be forbidden from using anti-Islamic interrogation techniques, which is as stupid as torture given our military goals.

Moreover, they should work to publicize the attrocities committed by the guerrillas, while also publicizing whatever areas they themselves have secured. Even something as benign as paving a road is a vital step towards restoring order, and should be treated as equally important to combat missions. In a sense, the scenes of troops giving toys to children helps. But, they also need to supply basic services to those childrens' parents. To this end, the US needs more troops than they have now, and may even consider the use of a draft.

Since this is a sectarian conflict in Iraq, the US should use groups of insurgents against each other. This may involve making deals with specific groups and using those groups to repress their rivals. Obviously, this will be ugly business, very ugly business, in fact. However, I don't think the US can put down rival groups of guerrillas while trying to stop a potential civil war from developing. At this point, the best hope they might have is in finding the least noxious group of guerrillas and deputizing them.

The situation in Iraq is quite-likely doomed for the US. However, I don't believe that an 'immoral' war can be made more moral by US troops leaving the region to fall into chaos. I think the US needs to take responsibility for the mess it's made, and try to leave a stable and functioning state. By any account, the situation is FUBAR. But, that is the cross that the US should bear. Here are my suggestions to fight the guerrillas in Iraq:
1) Secure all public services and keep them manned by troops for the indefinite future. Things like water and electricity must be kept functioning.
2) Try to get the support of every willing nation, including Iran, in securing the nation.
3) Secure the borders first, and then work inwards, tightening the noose.
4) Police sweeps are, unfortunately, necessary. Torture, however, is a quick way to convince civilians that we are the enemy.
5) All works that are usually done by the peace corps: such as road-building, bridge-repair, well-digging, and so forth, are critical here. Life must return to normal as much as is humanly possible.
6) For God's sakes, learn the damn culture! And be aware not to present yourselves as being against that culture. As occupiers, the best we can be seen as is protectors. The worst thing we can be seen as is the enemy of the average Iraqi.
7) Demonize the insurgents in the popular media- Propaganda is critical here.
8) Use insurgent groups against each other.
9) Accept the fact that a functioning Iraq state may well be run by Sunni Muslims and sharia law. This is preferable to Shi'ite rule in that Sunnis distinguish between the politcal ruler and the religious rulers, while shi'ite do not. A secular democracy in Iraq is not going to happen.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Rent-a-cops Gone Wild

A UCLA student got in trouble for being in the computer lab without his ID. Apparently, they walk around and check at some universities, which sounds fairly irritating. But, anyway, the kid didn't have it, and so he had to leave. While the kid is walking out, one cop grabs him, the kid yells at the cops, and they taser him repeatedly, all the time yelling the classic punch line (so to speak) "Stand up, or we'll tase you again!" And then the cops threatened to tase the witnesses! No word yet as to if the student, Mostafa Tabatabainejad (oh, like you expected his name was going to be Chad Smith!) is doing well. The taser incapacitates the person shocked with it, which made the cops repeatedly tasering him for 'refusing' to stand up after the initial blast all the more hilarious, in a cop sort of way.

It's usually these private police forces, like the Campus Cops, that tend to be the jackoffs, isn't it? I mean, state and federal police officers can be tough, but when you get the rabid dick-with-a-badge types, it's usually these private security guards. I've actually had very good luck with the federal officers. (Because I cross the border) But whenever I've been screamed at by some Robo-Thug for shopping too slowly or whatever, it's usually one of these private security officers. I wonder if real cops hate these guys.

One heartening thing about all of this: when a poster at the Hit & Run blog made the typical bedwetting authoritarian argument about cops being able to act like savages- basically something like "When a cop tells you to do something, you'd better listen and listen good Mister!", another responded with this absolutely great line:

"Strawman aside
, you speak as if the act of a police officer using reflexive, excessive force is simply a law of nature, unalterable and something only a fool would challenge. I think if people had taken that view throughout history, we'd all be a lot worse off."


Don't Ask

The Pentagon has given into pressure, and now no longer classifies homosexuality as a mental disorder. Now, they consider it a "condition" akin to bed wetting. I'm not making that up.

I'm actually surprised that they haven't changed the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy yet. Especially since they have such a need for soldiers. I figured by now it would be: "We won't ask, and you don't tell. But, if you do tell, we'll pretend we didn't hear it. Just please stay in Iraq!"


Thomas Pynchon Vs. R.A. Wilson

Here Adam Kirsch sums up Thomas Pinchon's new book, and writing style in general:

"For the writer who lives by the list must die by the list, and Mr. Pynchon, in pushing the form to its limits and beyond, demonstrates what a list-like novel cannot do. Multiplicity, it turns out, is not the same thing as complexity: Complexity requires syntax, and syntax is just what the maker of lists must forswear. Human meanings — psychological, social, spiritual — require other kinds of structure than the infinitely repeated "and" of the shaggy-dog story. That is why Mr. Pynchon's meanings, in "Against the Day" as in his better books, are finally inhuman, Manichean, utopian, and dystopian. He believes in conspiracies, not histories, including the individual histories that the novel was invented to tell."

It's weird too because many of the things that I enjoy in Robert Anton Wilson's novels- the endless array of characters and events, the silly surrealism, the corny names, and complex physics and philosophy thrown in- annoy me in Pynchon's novels. And I think maybe it's partially because Thomas Pynchon is supposed to be a great novelist, and Robt. Wilson is a "stand-up philosopher". I definitely don't think of Wilson as a great novelist; but then again, I don't think of Voltaire as a great playwright either. It's the fun of watching a deeply humane gadfly tossing out ideas that I enjoy. Maybe the reason that I like R.A.W. more is simply that I've never felt any pressure to take his books seriously in any way, while the massively overestimated Pynchon has always been presented to me as A Great Writer.

I don't think of Pynchon as a great writer any more than I do Wilson. But, there's something deeply childish about Pynchon's novels that irritates me. They seem to have been written by someone with very little interest in humanity. Robt. Wilson is deeply humane, and I just don't get that with Pynchon, even with his sympathetic characters. Of course, a novelist needn't be humane- many of the best aren't! But, a pile of fascinating minutiae should add up to something aside from a paranoid/austistic tangle. And I'm not convinced that it ever does in Pynchon.


Another sign of my nerdiness? When I read the news today, I actually thought to myself:

"Oh my god! Milton Friedman is dead!"


I. Am. A. Nerd.

How much of a "nurd" am I? Well, let me tell you, I am excited for this weekend because I picked up a copy of a book called The Authoritarian State by Eric Voegelin and am going to start it tomorrow. Why is this exciting? Aside from it fitting into my reading topic, it's exciting because I am totally unfamiliar with Voegelin. The library has 24 volumes of his essays, and yet, I've never heard of him. So, I am positively quivering with anticipation to find out if he's any good. Does this sort of excitement make me a nurd? I think it probably does.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Tunnel of Oppression

I've recently gotten an email about a new program that Mall University is setting up for our undergraduates to undergo entitled The Tunnel of Oppression. At first, I childishly imagines a giant vagina. It's more like a museum tour that gives students a feeling of what it's like to be the target of hate speech. Apparently, they do these things at a number of universities. I've found webpages here, here, here, and here. And there are a number of critiques of them on-line, mostly by people who think that they are too "PC", or "therapeutic", or "multicultural". Paradoxically, they've also taken flack for being too graphic and shocking. Some of them sound like they're based in the museum model, and others sound like they're modelled after Halloween haunted houses.

Anyway, I've been thinking about why it is that university programs like this irritate me, and I've decided that it's not the projects in themselves that bother me. In fact, I think universities might as well keep them. I imagine that some students do get something out of these programs. And, as my social worker wife would point out, many of these kids will actually experience oppression in the outside world. So, I think it is healthy, or at least, not particularly unhealthy.

I think my irritation at these programs is that they're intended to make the students more well-rounded, and they could; but, it's not like most students come into university, or leave, overdeveloped in any particular area. In fact, they often have serious academic deficiencies, in addition to whatever insensitivities they might have. What I'd like to see is the continuation of programs like this, and the addition of academic programs that focus on those fundamentals that nobody seems particuarly interested in right now.

At our University, I've suggested a semester-long course in grammar, for example, because I'm constantly grading essays in which the student doesn't know what a paragraph is, or how sentences work. Often, they don't know what very commonly-used words actually mean. And I've seen very troubling problems with reading comprehension as well. But, when I suggest that we focus on these things, the administrators don't seem particuarly interested. I've been told that a grammar course would be insulting, or that students wouldn't sign up for it. And then, they usually complain that students should know these things already, but that they aren't taught them in High School! Which, apparently, is true.

But, I also see a real disconnect between the students and any sort of cultural tradition. And I don't point these things out to complain about the students, because they really aren't to blame. But, since so many TAs that I know see these things, and complain about them, I don't really understand why it's so easy to get programs like the tunnel of oppression off the ground, and funded, and not rigorous academic programs in the fundamentals going as well. I mean, maybe these things are generally run by volunteers and students can volunteer to go through them. I don't know. I know that ours is run by the University. So, maybe they figure that a Tunnel of Grammar wouldn't go over well with the students! Which is probably true.

But, I think that people who complain about "the PC University" might be missing the point a bit. Kids are going to test out new ideas, and political stances, and beliefs in university; they always have. And so what if they want to stage the Vagina Monologues, or chalk pro-gay statements in the parking lot, or stage a tunnel of oppression! Those things aren't the problem in themselves. The problem is, if they want to have these 'experiences', it should be in addition to the fundamentals that make up a university education, and in most cases they aren't as far as I can tell.


Flight Passengers are Frequently (not so) Secretly Fond of Each Other

A mid-40s North Carolina couple engages in "sex play" aboard a Southwest airlines plane and gets in trouble.

Two things I find funny about this:

1) The male nuzzles his face in his lady friend's 'vaginal area' while she smiles, and the other passengers get uncomfortable and ask the flight attendant to talk to them, and then the couple takes offense that they're being asked to stop! How rude of that flight attendant!

2) They have run afoul of the Patriot Act, a set of laws apparently designed to prosecute everyone except actual terrorists. Now, they will be on surveilance until their trial. I know I'm hoping that they don't turn out to be terrorists. I mean, it could go either way, right?


Monday, November 13, 2006

Film Notes: Protocols of Zion

Why do people hate the Jews? Even asking the question feels vaguely anti-Semitic: should we even look for the reason? Besides, what's fascinating, when we look at the history of this long-lived ideology of Jew-hatred is that we can talk not of anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitisms.

Medieval Jew hatred was based in Biblical beliefs reinforced by social structures. The Christians, as a Jewish sect, sought to distinguish themselves from Judaism proper, and did so by claiming that the Jews had Christ put to death. Supposedly, the Jews watching Christ's crucifixion cried out that his blood was on their hands, and this became the 'blood libel'. In the same way that Christ redeemed mankind after the fall of Adam, Christianity condemned those who had been deemed the Chosen People. This is an example of the anxiety of influence- the sons condemning the fathers.

But, the Blood Libel was reinforced in Medieval Jew-hatred by a social structure in which Catholics were not allowed to handle money, and so relied upon Jewish "money-changers" and "court Jews". Jews were put in the horrible position of being legally restricted to working in areas of finance that they were then socially condemned for working in! Jews were considered parasites, partly because of their nation-within-all-nations status, partly because of Aristotlean and Biblical taboos about money, and partly because of their legal position in the principalities of Europe. Interestingly enough, many of them fled to the Ottoman Empire, where they were protected by the Sultans as 'people of the book', who are protected within Islam.

'Anti-Semitism' proper is a product of the 1800s and a response to the progress of liberalism in Europe. Hannah Arendt was right in arguing that the fate of the Jews was tied to the fate of liberalism throughout Europe. The ideas of religious tolerance and the universal rule of law protected the Jews and made their ghettoized existence an issue to be solved, a Jewish Problem. But, anti-Semitism is not of this mindset- it's more a rejection of these ideas in line with social-Darwinian ideas of struggle and the survival of the fittest.

Nationalists tended to be anti-Semites for two rather obvious reasons- How can a nation consider itself to be superior if another tribe is 'the chosen people'? And how can an order of nationally self-determined states allow the existence of a separate nation that exists in all nations? So, in the era of nationalism, Jews were the victims of nationalism, and paradoxically turned to nationalism in the ideas of Herzl.

So, the Jews are condemned for assimilation at the same time as they are condemned for not assimilating- charges that are incidentally made of 'illegals' in contemporary Amerca. They are condemned for being too clannish and not clannish enough- for being what Arendt called "parvenues and pariahs". Incredibly enough, they are supposed to be genetically inferior, but capible of the superhuman intelligence required to secretly run the world.

Enter The Protocols of the Elders of Zion- a product of the Tzarist secret police that claims to record the secret Jewish plans for world-domination. The book is a fraud, a lie, a myth- horseshit- and has been exposed as such over and over and over again. But, still it exists, and still it is taken as truth in many parts of the world. The question that Marc Levin hopes to understand in this documentary is why?

And I'll get right down to saying that he never does answer this question; but maybe it can't be answered. Instead, Levin shows us who believes the Protocols are genuine, and why they also tend to believe the contemporary blood-libel "The Jews stayed home on 9/11". We get the usual suspects- uneducated black Muslims, uneducated white supremicists, uneducated Arab Muslims, the Middle Eastern press, and briefly, the anti-War movement. Levin wimps out here a bit I think. We see briefly that the anti-War movement has siezed on the lie that Jews in power created the American war in Iraq, which Levin calls out as nonsense. But, he never interviews those members of the anti-war left who blame all of US foreign policy on the 'Zionists'. They can't be hard to find. I've encountered them coming from all backgrounds, and sadly often from the sort of progressive liberal backgrounds that should be the first to reject such horeshit. So, where are they in this documentary?

Levin also shies away from confronting the pro-Israeli warmongers. The salient point that Palestinian warmongers and Israeli warmongers are poisoning both cultures with their jingoistic 'we must kill them before they kill us' rhetoric is hinted at in the film, and then we move on. But I've found myself, in the last five years, alienated from both those on the left who "hate the Zionists" because I believe that Israel has the right to exist as a state and to defend itself, and from those on the Right who also support Israel because I believe that the Palestinians have the same rights, and that there will be no peace without a two-state solution. So, I've found that there are corners of the left that dabble in anti-Semitic crapola, and corners of the right that dabble in anti-Muslim crapola. But, where are the "partisans" of reason?

Levin, who is clearly a partisan of reason, answers the charge that the Jews who worked in the World Trade Center stayed home on 9/11- they didn't- and shows us Jewish communities rightfully terrified by the post-9/11 resurgence of jew hatred. He shows us a white power publisher who sells the Protocols and who thinks that Rupert Murdoch is a jew! And he shows us how prevalent anti-Semitism is in the arab media, including a horrifying interview with a three-year-old Palestinian girl who already sees Jews as the enemy of her religion. Like so many other documentaries of this sort, we come to realize how serious and widespread the problem of ethnic and religious hatred is in our culture, which can be taken as both a call to action, and a serious reason to become depressed!

But, Levin tends to interview liberals who agree with him and wackos who don't, which is sort of stacking the deck. Also, the documentary is quite rambling. We learn that anti-Semitism has had a Renaissance as of late, on the left and the right. We learn that many Arabs hate Jews, and vice-versa. But, many of us knew these things already. What needs to be asked is how the modern Enlightenment tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance (and state secualarism and scientific rationality!) can possibly be salvaged. All the other questions are irrelevant.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Whatever Happened to Boys in Dresses?

I'm sitting here reading an essay in a zeroxed insert from an old anthology LP ("This Inheritance Must be Refused"), and just like a history student, I'm wondering if it is indicative of its time and place. It's only from 1994; but the booklet reads as archaic and outdated to me. It's so radical, and so archly radical- so aware of its own radicalism. Are punk rockers still this way? Did I just grow up and get new friends? Or were there a lot more kids like this back then? The essay is about boys in dresses. I haven't seen a boy in a dress since... well, about 1994, actually. Let's analyze, eh?

Crito writes:
"Slip into the androgyny. It isn't hard and it doesn't hurt and is much more exciting than your petty, mundane existence. This is about boys wearing dresses."

We used to call this sort of double dare you writing style "Berkeleyer-than-thou". It's trying to provoke, while also trying to be tongue-in-cheek. Does anyone even use the word 'androgyny' anymore?

"Unfortunately grrrls are screwed over again since androgynous wear is much commonly accepted... unless ya wear a smooth boy suit and all that jazz. But, who the fuck wants to dress like a boy, right?"

Note the 'boys-r-dumb' undertone. I remember that.

"Anyway, this is about boys and the their fabric, 'cause we need help. Punk is accepted, or at least tolerated, so why not push the bastards one step further. Fashion CAN be a catalyst for change and if I see distrust in your eyes, then think about this- we can make it a catalyst. You, me, we push every fucking awakened twitch past the point of that fateful decision."

He's got a point here- punk is not only accepted, it's downright conservative. If you want to freak out society, wearing the punk-rocker costume isn't going to do it. It's strange to think that a boy in a dress would still do it- not in New York! But, definitely where I live. My neighbors would have a heart-attack if I wore a skirt. And, if one of our students did it, the other ones would shit their pants.

Is society always more conservative than it used to be?

I usually imagine gradually increasing liberalism. So, if people are freaked out by interracial couples today, they won't be in ten years. And then, if they're freaked out by gay couples or single mothers, wait another ten years and they won't even bat an eyelash. I look at the world around me, and it sometimes seems to have progressed this way. It seems like people are increasingly more and more open-minded. When I was 10, nobody was gay- nobody had AIDS. Now I'm 32, and even HIV isn't a killer.

But, sometimes, society seems to be going the other way- becoming more and more reactionary. The old Conservative storyline is that we all tried to be free from social norms when we were younger. But we found that freedom can go too far, and it led to social nightmares. All around us, we see the wreckage caused by our narcissistic demands for social freedoms.

This same story has been told for over 200 years. This was the story that was told during the Bourbon Restoration- the Revolution had shown Europe the folly of Enlightenment liberalism. Then, the Revolution of 1848 showed us the folly of liberalism and socialism. And then the Paris Commune showed us all the folly of socialism and liberalism. And so on, and so forth. For Americans, it was the liberalism of the 1960s- which apparently led directly to AIDS, widespread divorce, poverty, and the horrors of Communist Russia. We've had over two centuries of the progressive liberalisation of Western society- from aristocratic states where the Church and Crown are divinely ordained to democracy, sexual freedom, secularism, free-speech- you know, all of those wacko ideas that destroyed the world. And Conservatives always tell the same story- "Well, that sort of progress was all good and well. But, now we know better! So, let's stop all this nonsense!"

But, whatever happened to boys in dresses? Whatever happened to trying to freak out the neighbors? How did our society become so reactionary? Did everyone grow up? Did we all learn better from our 'youthful indiscretions' and become born-again douchebags?

And the worst part about it is that this counter-support for social norms- wearing a dress because you live in a society where boys don't wear dresses- is just perfunctory anyway. If you're wearing a dress to freak out the neighbors, then you aren't liberated- just opposing the fact that you're not liberated. It's bizarre to me to think that, because of the time and place that I was born, I'll never know if I actually like wearing dresses. What a random taboo!

How will we ever be free if every act of liberation we undertake is just a childish slap in the face of the reactionary authoritarian fucks who really run the joint? How will we ever know who, or what, we are, if everything is in contrast to the Proper and Upright Way of Living? To them? How do we ever get past them? Because it's really just a lie, isn't it? We never really learn from the errors of our ways? We never really learn that "freedom can go too far". We just get tired of being beaten down by the stupid and lazy people around us who will never try to be free anyway. We just give up on trying new things, or the possibility of living in a better world. We put back on the proper clothes and get back in line.

So, maybe that's what happened to boys in dresses? They're still out there, but the one inside of me is dead.


Saturday, November 11, 2006

Today's Quote

"Personally I'm bored with all the little sexual identities we've been offered, whether by the advocates of maleness/womanliness, or by the advocates of gayness, lesbianness, pedophileness or whatever. I recall the 'genderfuck' movement of the 70s with fondness; I'm sorry we lost our nerve."
-Hakim Bey, 1993.


Friday, November 10, 2006

Dan Zeller

This is one of many astounding pen and ink drawings done by Brooklyn artist Dan Zeller. Reminding one of alien landscapes, cellular disivion, and imaginary topographies, Zeller has created a body of work that forces long and careful attention. Le Monde describes his work as "un monde d'une infinie poesie" which describes perfectly the world in minature that he has charted in incredible detail, having fully explored the terrains of his own subconscious. Already displayed at MoMa in NYC, Zeller is currently being introduced to the French. So, if you're in Paris, check out his show at the galerie g-module, 15 rue Debelleyme.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Lord, am I exhausted. This week was rewarding; but very tiring. As I walked home from the convenience store this evening, it occurred to me that I don't really write the way I think. I'm not sure why that is. This is true in my essays, journals and here. I might try to work on that.


More on Academic Freedom

Okay, so now I have time to write more about this article on academic freedom.

Like I said, we don't really have many radical leftist students at Mall University, probably because we're a very blue-collar commuter university, and our local population tends to be moderate-conservative. But, I do see a problem with their arguing skills. Specifically, most people I encounter, be they students or adults, don't like to argue and don't know how to.

This section sounded a bit familiar:

"Then there are students. Once seen as being among the most progressive, or certainly the most open-minded members of society, today more and more of them are increasingly ban-happy, responding to controversy not by having the argument out – by ‘questioning things vigorously’, as Kaminer puts it – but by demanding censorship, silence, an end to words or images that might potentially upset fragile members of the student body."

I think his examples are pretty limited- they stole a print run of a paper at Brown in 2001? This shows a widespread trend in American universities? But, I often see a pattern in which Person A gives their very strong opinion, and nobody else will say anything, even if they disagree, because they don't want to look 'rude'. And, he's right, that that's not a great situation to have in an 'open marketplace of ideas'.

Also, I've noted that a lot of people have what Camille Paglia calls the Alcoholic Arguing Style. Instead of stating their opinion, and then calmly backing it up with a series of well-reasoned and calmly-stated supporting points, they simply state their opinion in a vehement way, and sort of intimidate those around them. So, they say things like:

"You're opposed to the war? That's totally stupid and anti-American!"
"I am totally disgusted and horrified by this evil and immoral war!"
"Of course I believe in evolution: you'd have to be a total moron not to!"

Instead of taking their statements as arguments that can be calmly responded to, it's hard not to clam up in the face of their vehemence. They clearly take it very personally, and will likely be insulted by disagreement. I see a lot of students argue in this way, and most will not respond to these sorts of arguments.

The problem, as I see it, is that professors aren't willing to challenge their students ideas, be they liberal or conservative, because the students, and the population at large, seem to take their arguments so personally. They conflate their 'beliefs' with their 'identity'. This is a notoriously thin-skinned generation, and I don't think that professors do a good job at all of explaining what academic arguments are and how they should be conducted. So, that's what I have seen.



I don't usually complain about Rush Limbaugh. A lot of liberals see him as the devil incarnate. But, I tend to think of him as a radio personality, and he seems pretty talented at that. Also, to be honest, I don't pay much attention to talk radio, aside from occasionally listening to the Howard Stern show on satelite.

Okay, so that having been said, I find this article by him (from the Drudge Report) to be totally astounding. Read this and tell me: Is he saying that he's glad now to not have to lie to his listeners anymore now that the elections are over? Holy Moses! I mean, yeah, I pretty much figured that entertainers like Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken claim up and down to be 'independent thinkers', while essentially shilling for the Republican and Democratic Parties. But, how does their audience buy that?

"I feel liberated, and I'm going to tell you as plainly as I can why. I no longer am going to have to carry the water for people who I don't think deserve having their water carried. Now, you might say, "Well, why have you been doing it?" Because the stakes are high. Even though the Republican Party let us down, to me they represent a far better future for my beliefs and therefore the country's than the Democrat Party and liberalism does."

So, why didn't he say exactly that for the last several months? He says he didn't lie. Okay, well, maybe not. But, why not speak your mind, if your schtick is that you're the guy who speaks his mind? It's mindblowing.

I guess I'm lucky that nobody reads this. I can pretty much complain about whoever I want to. So, sure, most of my views are liberal to libertarian. But, I don't have to worry about saying that I think the Democrats have no idea how to end the war without dooming Iraq, and so I'm not particuarly excited that they won these elections. Also, they need to grow a spine in regards to "cultural issues" and stand up to the religious nuts, be they Christian or Muslim. Moreover, their playing the "Who's gay in DC?" card to win the election was totally repulsive. Which I said at the time. So, yeah, I might not be as entertaining as Limbaugh, but at least I'm not carrying anyone's water.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Academic Freedom

This Spike article about academic freedom and tolerance is well worth reading. I'll have notes on it when I have a spare five minutes. Offhand, I'd say that it doesn't remind me much of the universities that I've attended. On the other hand, I've never been anywhere as politically engaged, and specifically engaged to the left as Brown Universtiy, which is mentioned here. My undergraduate education was at a very tradtional southern university that was a lot more conservative than Brown- out Chancellor was Henry Kissinger, for example, and our commencement speaker was Margaret Thatcher. Mall University was quite radicalized in the 60s; however it's fairly apolitical now. Something like %3 of our students voted this week, if that gives you any idea of the atmosphere. So, I'm not really experienced with the sort of campus in which politically incorrect speech is shut down. On the other hand, I do know the silencing argument style more generally, and I'll get to some thoughts on that when I have a free five minutes!


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Lowering the Level of the Discourse Slightly

Look, I don't care about these elections tonight. I'm just hoping that at least one news source goes with the headline: "Pennsylvania blows Santorum out its Ass". I'm not holding my breath that it will be Reuters.


Marcel Proust

Becky mentioned Proust... which reminds me- the cultivated person will have read Proust. Certainly, his pace is languid and his sentences are like huge tangles of cotton candy; but, once you're accustomed to the style, you realize that he's like this all-seeing eye in his soundproofed room- he notices every single aspect of French upper class life as it slowly comes to an end. What is startling about In Search of Lost Time is that it is possible to open any of the volumes at random and find a glistening insight on the page you've opened. He is like an anthopologist among a strange tribe cataloguing every one of their thoughts, aspirations and self-deluding lies. About three volumes in, we're struck to realize that he's been condemning them all along, and at the end, we realize that he's condemned his younger self as well. It's a breathtaking accomplishment, and one of the true masterpieces of modern literature. As one of our erstwhile Professors put it: "He's only like the greatest novelist ever!"


Sunday, November 05, 2006


Still can't figure out what to get your loved ones for the holiday season? Well, a group of undertakers has published a calendar that combines girls in sexy underwear with coffins. So, you can get that for them, you sick bastard!


In other news

Saddam Hussein has been sentenced to death for crimes against humanity, and will most likely be hanged. Sic semper tyrannus!


God's Angry Men

Ten Zen Monkeys has a great profile of one Michael Crook, and of a psychological type more generally- God's angry man, drifting aimlessly through a world that he hasn't the capacity to understand, which hasn't the capacity to understand him, seeking out targets to direct his righteous anger towards. For a while, Crook is trying to purge to the Mormon church he was raised in, and then he is raging against the Military that wouldn't enlist him for "overpaying the troops", then he is on a crusade to defeat the "crimmigrants", and now he is trolling Craiglist, desperately looking for men who want to have sex with 19-year old girls, who in his crusader/protector mindset are naive victims. Posing as an 19-year old girl who is looking for sex, Crook gets to play the victim, and then post the men who respond to his ad on his webpage as "perverts", and "pathetic men", and so play the defender of feminine modesty. The writer characterises Crook as a "jerkoff", but I wonder how many others there are like him out there, with a sort of free-floating hostility that craves "degenerates" to persecute. I shudder a bit, thinking of Crook... just another alienated and lost child, waiting for his own Ayatollah to come and justify the cleansing fire that burns inside him, and give him something to destroy in vengeance against a world that never understood or cared for him.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

I wanted to mention the recent passing of cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz at age 80. Geertz' s work has also been influential in historiography, largely through the work of his student Robert Darnton. As another French history geek, I have mixed feelings about Darnton. His work on clandestine publishing in France is quite good. His work on Brissot... well, I totally disagree with. But, he's well worth reading.

Geertz is the same way. Many of his conclusions seem, to me, to go a bit far. Balinese cock-fights as their culture's Shakespeare? Sometimes I think he stresses cultural differences in a way that is a bit patronizing. And yet, as frustrating as his works can be, they're also important and liberating in other ways. I think Geertz has been a bit overrated, frankly, but his best works are conceptually daring in a way that is increasingly uncommon in academia.


Ted Haggard

As you've perhaps heard, a certain Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals, who apparently gets to have weekly conference calls with the President, has admitted to buying meth from a male prostitute, who gave him massages, but not having sex with him. The prostitute has said that he did have sex with Haggard, and now there's some sort of kerfuffle afoot. Where is Jerry Springer when we need him?

People keep asking what effect this will have on the election next week. I think the effect of this will be that serious discussion of things that actually matter will be postponed for another week, and people who wanted to vote one way or the other will still vote that way.

The Conservatives will continute to cast stones at the prostitute and the left more generally, which is sort of their default setting. If it turns out that the guy is an adulterer, I'm not expecting the right to ask if he should be the one instructing the rest of us on how to have a happy marriage, or arguing that marriages can only work between a man and a woman.

And forgive me for thinking that the glee on the left in regards to the story is a little self-righteous and vaguely gay-bashing for my tastes. Also, I disagree with Andrew Sullivan, who has been willing to give Haggard the benefit of the doubt, but also keeps suggesting that he's a closeted gay man! I've said before that it's possible to be bisexual, or even straight, and enjoy occasional gay sex. This might be news to Sullivan, and actually most people, but is it more enlightened to stick the wrong person in a closet marked "Gay" than in a closet marked "Straight"?

Lastly, I've got to give credit to Patrick for arguing that Haggard might want to consider worshipping Priapus instead of the Christian god!


Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Now that I'm trying to do it, I find it daunting to determine what a cultivated person must know. It's quite easy to second-guess yourself, and to decide that what one learns is simply a matter of personal choice. The idea of cultivation seems elitist and arrogant; although, of course, that's not an argument against cultivation! Since so many texts are available on-line, it isn't a matter of wealth- the richest to the poorest can become cultivated in our society. But, it is a matter of time- the poor in our society are poorest in having the least amount of time to themselves.

The other question about 'cultivation' is whether or not it tends to be Eurocentric, or culturally limited in some other way. However, I can't imagine a cultivated person who has no familiarity with Confucius or Mencius. Since cultivation is essentially a matter of becoming well-rounded, it would seem to be the antithesis of any sort of 'centricity', except 'eccentricity'.

So, the first salvo in my culture crusade will be this:

The cultivated person will have read Dostoyevsky.

I was horrified in a graduate seminar a few weeks back to find that the Master's students were not only unfamiliar with Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but couldn't see the merit in reading his works. To call Dostoyevsky the greatest of all novelists is debatable. But, he is one of the greatest. And, thanks to the Internet, you can read many of his greatest works right here on Project Gutenberg. At the very least, read The Idiot, Notes from Underground, and Crime and Punishment. All are available for free on the site.



I was sitting in on a third-year undergraduate course the other day when the prof showed part of a DVD of La Boheme. This was a course on the history of Paris, and she quipped that this would give the students the cultivation they were looking for when they signed up for a class like this. They found this amusing, and she was very light-hearted about it. But, I realized that I haven't even heard anyone use the word 'cultivation' in years, much less use it in regards to higher ed. On the other hand, why study the humanities, if not to become a cultivated person?

So, what is cultivation? And what should you learn in order to be a cultivated person? I'm going to make some suggestions. I'd love to hear from you too...