Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Caleb: On Memorial Day

You'll want to read Caleb's reflections On Memorial Day.

posted by Fido the Yak at 5:37 AM. 4 comments

Insults and Injuries

Passion of the Present is reporting on the case of Paul Foreman, the MSF (Doctors Without Borders) worker who has been arrested by Sudanese authorities for publishing the truth about systematic rape in Darfur while protecting the anonymity of victims. Mohamed Farid, the attorney general of Sudan, is reported to have said that "These kind of false reports damage the image of Sudan." If only they were false. Unfortunately, the evidence for systematic rape being perpetrated in Darfur is voluminous. The most thorough and best documented reports come from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and of course Doctors Without Borders. Scores of independent journalists have collected testimony from victims, witnesses, officials and humanitarian workers. Taken as a whole, their reports corroborate the truth of the charge that the government of Sudan in partnership with its proxy militias have systematically raped the African women and girls of Darfur. They continue to do so even now.

I've provided a few links to prominent reports, but of course there are many thousands more. The evidence is so voluminous, I've found it useful to break it down into categories. One proviso, if you please, before proceeding. While not wishing to minimize the violence and oppression visited upon millions of people on the African continent, I feel that it's important to note that hundreds of millions of Africans are not currently suffering under tyrannical regimes actively seeking to wipe them off the face of the earth, that a majority of African nations live in peace, and that prosperity and the enjoyment of the fruits of civilzation are hardly unkown in modern Africa. Undeniably Sudan is "the open sore of the continent," as several wry commentators have observed. But the wound is deeper than that. All of humanity suffers from the ongoing atrocities in Darfur, while the government of Sudan pursues a global public relations policy equivalent to rubbing salt in our wounds. I intend to give my elected representatives an earful this morning. I encourage you to do the same.

posted by Fido the Yak at 5:10 AM. 2 comments

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Bergson as Resonating Existential

I stumbled across an interesting essay by Robert A. Conner, Person as Resonating Existential. Really I should learn to introduce topics. Having posted numerous times on issues of personhood and existentialism, what sense does it make to say that I stumbled across such an essay? Well, I was searching for commentaries about Henri Bergson, and quite understandably Conner's essay caught my attention. Conner's mention of Bergson, via a secondary source, doesn't touch so much on what resonates with me (more of which in a moment), but it does go the reason for my search for commentary, namely to discover why Bergson is held in such disrepute.

Henri Bergson held in disrepute? Indubitably. Outside a Deleuzian revival of Bergson in some quarters, particularly film studies, serious intellectuals scarcely mention Bergson, and if they do, they typically emphasize that he was absolutely wrong. Wrong about what? Life, the universe, everything--whatever it is that philosophers are supposed to get right. In my own intellectual journey, I recall at one time having decided that Bergson was wrong, but I can't put my finger on precisely what he was wrong about or how I came to such a conclusion. I'm sure it had either to do with the constitution of Time or Memory. Oh, that's convincing. Would you care to examine my early refutation of asparagus?

I did, incidentally, escape university with a samizdat copy of Bergson's Laughter, which explores the thesis that "All that is serious in life comes from our freedom." By "samizdat" I mean bought it a used book store and kept it from my professors. Laughter is the finest treatment of its subject this side of Monty Python, evidence of a superlative genius if one were needed.

All kidding aside, at the moment I'm interested in how Bergson wraps up his discussion of duration and extensity at the end of Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (trans. F. L. Pogson):

Hence there are finally two different selves, one of which is, as it were, the external projection of the other, its spatial and, so to speak, social representation. We reach the former by deep introspection, which leads us to grasp our inner states as living things, constantly becoming, as states not amenable to measure, which permeate one another and of which the succession in duration has nothing in common with juxtaposition in homogeneous space. But the moments at which we thus grasp ourselves are rare, and that is just why we are rarely free. The greater part of the time we live outside ourselves, hardly percieving anything of ourselves but our own ghost, a colourless shadow which pure duration projects into homogeneous space. Hence our life unfolds in space rather than time; we live for the external world rather than for ourselves; we speak rather than think; we "are acted" rather than act oursleves. To act freely is to recover possession of oneself, and to get back into pure duration.

(pp. 231-232)

There you have it: Bergson as resonating existential. And now that my memory's been jogged, I recall having specifically rejected Bergson's idea of "inner experience," though why I should have rejected that idea while tolerating Husserl's "internal time consciousness" or Buber's ich-du (with which I am still in conversation, having reached no firm judgement) is not altogether clear, and quite probably groundless. In any case, my recent foray into the works of Paul Ricoeur has prepared me to revisit the duality of existence, which I might have come to by alternative routes, though Ricoeur's is as good as any and better than most, and that has reawakened my sublimated fascination with Bergson. Ricoeur, of course, being a serious thinker, repudiates Bergson in no uncertain terms--but that's neither here nor there. Actually, it may be instructive to back up and consider the paragraph immediately prior to the one quoted above, which is in fact one that roused my attention.

Inquiring then why this separation of duration and extensity, which science carries out so naturally in the external world, demands such an effort and rouses so much repugnance when it is a question of inner states, we were not long in perceiving the reason. The main object of science is to forecast and measure: now we cannot forecast physical phenomena except on condition that we assume that they do not endure as we do; and, on the other hand, the only thing we are able to measure is space. Hence the breach here comes about of itself between quality and quantity, between true duration and pure extensity. But when we turn to our conscious states, we have everything to gain by keeping up the illusion through which we make them share in the reciprocal externality of outer things, because this distinctness, and at the same time this solidification, enables us to give them fixed names in spite of their interpenetration. It enables us to objectify them, to throw them out into the current of social life.


And henceforth. Here we see the problem for Ricoeur, namely Bergson's positing of Time as immeasurable, and probably the source of my initial dismissal of durée (le temps durée, to be clear) as constituitive of "inner experience." But I suspect it's not very kind to Bergson, certainly on my part, or true to what we might have discovered had we suspended judgement a while longer; because Bergson absolutely did not deny the measurability of le temps espace, and if Ricoeur didn't ponder the same sort of dilemma in a differnt key, I'm a monkey's uncle. Or a yak. Not just any yak, and not the Mad Yak, mind you, but Fido the Yak. I'm very particular about who I claim as relations, you see. So there you have it: Bergson as resonating existential.

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:57 AM. 0 comments

Friday, May 27, 2005

Expert Witness

I am pleased to see that Debarati Guha-Sapir and her colleagues at the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) have made public an analysis of mortality in Darfur (pdf). (Nod to Coalition for Darfur, naturally. There have been many posts there over the last two weeks worthy of discussion, but since I made a point to criticize Guha-Sapir, I couldn't let this one pass by unremarked.)

Guha-Sapir et al. estimate the range of excess deaths between September 2003 and January 2005 to be 120,000 according to what they call the CRED method, or, using the State Department method, the estimate for excess deaths between March 2003 and January 2005 is either 63,000 or 140,000, depending upon whether one chooses a low or a high estimate of crude mortality rate (cmr). It's my opinion that the lowest reported cmr estimates have tended to come from small, accessible, secure, well-managed camps, whereas the larger cmr estimates have tended to come from very large camps with persistent security issues. I cannot regard the latter as unrepresentative because they in fact account for more people, although extrapolations based on such numbers are problematical.

The CRED estimate relies upon a number of assumptions and a certain interpretation of events that may be called into question. By far the greatest factor accounting for the discrepancy between the CRED estimate and the estimates provided by the Coalition for International Justice et al. concerns the question of whether the WHO data have been misunderstood:

The WHO mortality survey and the WHO mortality projections have often been confused and misguidedly used interchangeably. This has led some to misinterpret a WHO statement indicating exclusion of violent death from the WHO estimate, as also meaning violent deaths were not included in the WHO mortality surveys. This wrong assumption has led to double counting of violent deaths in many subsequent projections.

I tend to agree with Guha-Sapir et al. on this point, although Eric Reeves has indicated that this is not the whole story, and that a clarification from the WHO would settle the matter of whether the survey reported just some or all violent deaths.

I disagree with Guha-Sapir et al. on other key matters, such as the nature of the data from the Atrocities Documentation Team (ADT), the progression of events in Sudan which is crucial to their disaggregation of data, and how best to characterize the overall situation--pockets of high mortality that contain hundreds of thousands of people tell us more about the overall situation than pockets of stability that contain far fewer people. Therefore I am inclined to regard the CRED estimate as rather low, and the low estimate of the State Department as not particularly credible. However, as the CRED estimate appears to be rather credible at this stage--it is certainly well argued--and as it is significantly lower than my rough sense of how many people have died, I will have to reevaluate my views.

I am grateful to Guha-Sapir and her team for giving this matter the serious attention that it deserves.

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:37 PM. 2 comments

Freedom and Nature

I've been reviewing Paul Ricoeur's Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary (1966, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, trans. Erazim Kohák). The following passage encapsulates what it's all about:

If we remain faithful to living experience, barely elaborated by metaphors, we shall have to say that existence is a paradox for analytic understanding and a mystery for a more covert unifying consciousness, for it is both willed and undergone. It is a focus of acts joined to the state of living. The expression, state of consciousness, which is otherwise so erroneous, finds its justification here. The state of living is the state of consciousness par excellence. The act and the state of existence are conceived as two and lived as one: my act and my state are one for us in the "I am." In this sense alone the Cogito as act includes the fact of existence: "Cogito, ergo sum." But "ergo" is not a logical connection: it is a paradox encroached upon by a feeling of mystery. Existence in the Kierkegaardian sense includes existence in a Kantian sense, but this implication is a supra-logical bond which holds by connivance and pact, and which breaks up as soon as it is thought into act and state, into freedom and necessity of existing.

Thus we reach the third and ultimate expression which the paradox of freedom and necessity assumes. Freedom is bound not only to a finite manner and an indefinite matter, but also to the pure fact of existing "in life."

(p. 414)

Not sure what to say. I imagine Ricoeur will inform my reading of Martin Buber's Ich und Du, freely and necessarily. Already is. Buber speaks to me aphoristically and sytematically at once, which makes it difficult for me to give an honest account. I find my mind racing off six ways to Sunday, yet I remain cognizant of a Buberistic sphere of interpretation. If Cassini-Huygens were to suddenly achieve reflexive consciousness, I would expect it to feel just so ambivalent. Do we really want to be able to posit ourselves? Egads.

Reviewing Freedom and Nature, I'm struck by a continuity in Ricoeur's life's work. Was he consciously striving to elaborate a monumental hermeneutic project, or was it more like revisiting themes out of habit--or, let's be honest about our thinking--an everyday kind of affection? (If Sisysphus smiles, it surely cannot be for quite the reason Camus offers--that really would be absurd.) With Ricoeur, I don't see the dilemma of the voluntary and the involuntary being dispensed with so easily. But it can't hurt to ask.

I just happened upon an apropos passage in Time and Narrative, Vol 3 (1988, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer):

This connection between self-constancy and narrative identity confirms one of my oldest convictions, namely, that the self of self-knowledge is not the egotistical and narcissistic ego whose hypocrisy and naiveté the hermeneutics of suspicion have denounced, along with its aspects of an ideological superstructure and infantile and neurotic archaism. The self of self-knowledge is the fruit of an examined life, to recall Socrates' phrase in the Apology. And an examined life is, in large part, one purged, one clarified by the cathartic effects of narratives, be they historical or fictional, conveyed by our culture. So self-constancy refers to a self instructed by the works of culture that it has applied to itself.

(p. 247)

Okay, so maybe "happened upon" is too handy. It seemed like at the moment I became fully conscious of the passage as speaking to me, I had reached for the book, opened it, and voila. But surely I must have made me happen upon it in such a way. I scan faster than I realize, percieve without affixing meanings, assigning great swaths of the conscious field to hums and blurs. This seems to be the normal state of consciousness, yet upon introspection it cannot be completely without purpose. It too is activity, composed of acts or gestures intended to facilitate meetings, what might be called experiences. If Buber is right that one can only experience its, that is if experience fundamentally occurs in the modality of a third-person relation which cannot be the whole of being or its relations (NB Buber speaks here of Erfarhung rather than Erlebnis), then the recognition of the happening upon as an experience requires a non-recognition of the conscious agency that enabled it, for otherwise it would not be an experience but some other sort of encounter, and the non-recognition may itself be arranged in such a way so as to avoid bumping into oneself--it could hardly be you, could it?--which may be as good as saying that serendipities are a perfectly normal feature of our everyday consciousness. It shouldn't surprise us, then, that although serendipities happen in the empirical space, we can't very well predict our own serendipities, allowing of course for certain deviations of personality type or modus operandi. On the other hand, who's to say that Buber is right? Paul Ricoeur? Well, he does insist on a certain duality of existence. Beyond that, I reckon he has his own story to tell.

posted by Fido the Yak at 2:37 PM. 0 comments

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Paul Ricoeur has Died

Paul Ricoeur has died.

Brandon links to a chapter from What Makes Us Think?

I recommend reading Ricoeur's acceptance speech for the 2004 John W. Kluge Prize in the Human Sciences: Asserting Personal Capacities and Pleading for Mutual Recognition.

posted by Fido the Yak at 4:23 PM. 0 comments

What's in a Lincoln Navigator?

In any real movie, people walk out. They brush past you, spilling popcorn. You make eye contact, but it doesn't last. And you want to know what they're thinking. You're thinking like, it can't be completely unlike what I'm thinking, can it? Maybe I'd walk out too if only....

But these thoughts aren't quite original. What the bloggers are saying about Crash:

  • The Pop Culture Addict: "I should mention there were quite a few walkouts during Crash which I liked in that typically, I find it interesting to think about what causes people to walk out of movies. My brother thought it was because people were offended but I thought it was because they wanted an action flick and it turned out to be an arthouse type thing. Anyway, most people stayed."

  • Wholesome Goodness: "Perhaps Haggis meant for us to get this fleeting sense of the multitudes of plots and players: he simply wanted us to crash into each one to get that brief sense of touch. Each character collides with another, or with him or herself, or with the environment in which they find themselves, in every scene, whether mentally, physically, or emotionally."

  • As Little as Possible: "The movie's narrative is deep and wide, and it falls back on itself many times, and there are so many racial and moral conundrums, and so many awful and frustrating and beautiful parts that keep one-upping each other."

  • Matt Dentler: "I would sooner call Crash a film made up of amazingly powerful moments, than call it an amazingly powerful film."

  • CT's Finest: "What Haggis asks us to consider is that in this country where we are so disconnected from one another, there is quite possibly some cosmic connection that binds a random group of us together where the fate of one becomes the fate of all."

  • Chutry Experiment: "I think that what I found most frustrating about this film was the 'shallowness' of its characters. By that, I mean that virtually every character seems to have two sides, one side heroic and tolerant and the other side fearful and, quite often, racist."

  • Chutry Experiment: "I'm beginning to think that my original review was far too generous."

  • Maurice Broaddus: "At some point, we, as a people, 'lost our frame of reference.' We live in a multi-cultural world, whether we want to call it a melting pot, tossed salad, or whatever new paradigm we choose to live under. We don’t often get the humiliation of going through life always being treated as a suspect, guilty until proven innocent. We don’t often get the humiliation of casual victimization. We don’t often get how our reactions to those constant humiliations fuel our anger and further hatred. Where even what should have been a binding moment of shared commonality can instead have tragic consequences."

  • No Cyberhate: "The rest of the women in the film are similarly sexualized and/or frigid, shrill two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs of real women. Clearly, Haggis was so preoccupied with racial politics here that he couldn't be bothered to address the intricacies of gender politics as well."

  • Rire et Apprendre: "I think the naysayers claim to be 'beaten over the head' because this topic makes them squirm."

  • Vince Patton: "Crash is a rare ensemble piece. It is magnificently efficient. It is a collage of brief scenes and verbal exchanges that are at times shockingly brutal. Crash is comprised of moments---moments of little detail but relevatory importance, for the power of what is clearly spoken and even what is not lingers well into the next scene. Crash is as much a study of how racism affects the lives of people in LA as a riveting display of the way inner angst triggers race-based acts that are shocks to humanity itself."

  • Life and the Movies: "The film has a few unusually poignant moments that are a testament to strong filmmaking, but I don't think that the film is ultimately as successful in doing what it wants to do. It got me thinking about humanity in general, but not about racism."

  • Brandon Fibbs: "The one thing that occurs consistently in every encounter the film presents is that peoples' assumptions prevent them from seeing the actual person standing before them. They take moments at face value, forgetting that all incidents have steps that led the person there—steps which they may not have ordered or steps that represent a transitory and atypical stumble. No one knows the whole story. All have fallen short and are in desperate need of lavish grace."

  • Fringe: "Without a doubt, Haggis holds up a very large lens to magnify the myriad of racial prejudices which guide not just politics and civics, but interpersonal relationships that string together to form a massive chain of humanity at its darkest and most despairing. Haggis spares no one, but he doesn't villify anyone either, letting each character carry the weight of his or her prejudices and fears as a matter of course--the realization that these are people like any one of us is a startling and effective tactic, one which Haggis uses to point out how racial hatred is built upon the foundations of human hearts and minds."

  • Heathen Commando Mission: "the violence and vitriol on screen made me feel so tense I wanted to throw up."

  • From the Salmon: "On the surface, Haggis’s film is wholly concerned with the pervasive evils of racism, or rather, Racism. And to this end, it’s about as subtle as a Lincoln Navigator doing 65 through downtown LA."

What Fido the Yak is saying about Crash:

  • If a hypermodern intertextualizing atom smasher didn't exist, it would have to be invented to explain Paul Haggis' new film. Resonances: Magnolia, Amores Perros, Do the Right Thing, 13 Conversations About One Thing, Traffic, Code Inconnu, Short Cuts.... The list goes on. The allusions to Magnolia are overdone, and perhaps unfortunate. Snowflakes possess a quiet thrill all their own.

  • People still say that Lincoln freed the slaves, often right before they say that Lincoln didn't really free the slaves. (A long story, if you have to ask.) The dead presidents featured in Crash might be there by accident, but don't bet on it.

  • Quilting, northstar motifs--not directly, but pointed to by the invisible traffic cops of the metaphoric.

  • Haggis accomplishes through transposition what other storytellers accomplish through transformation. The characters survive being plugged into mythemes rather nicely. A testament to the power of fictions, good acting, and the close-up. Trajectory does not enter into it.

  • Trajectory really doesn't enter into it, but Haggis plays with the viewer's expectation that it should--so it does enter into it. We could say this is a case of projection rather than trajectory, but I'm saying Haggis has calculated the trajectories of his film's many leads and their refractions through wetwire viewing apparati. These calculations do make it into the film, become part of what it means to see the film. What could possibly be left on the cutting room floor? The Uncanned.

  • It would be really cool to instantaneously become aware of the totality of Ibn al-Haytham's optics. Crash's epiphanies occur against a panoptic horizon, absent fixity, immutability, or totality. Sometimes they are painted on a garage door, and we think we know the characters, where they live, but we don't. What exactly is it that we want our epiphanies to reveal? Ironies?

  • Safety belts. One minute they save your life, the next minute....

posted by Fido the Yak at 1:12 PM. 0 comments

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Iraq Living Conditions Survey

The United Nations Development Program has published the results of its Iraq Living Conditions Survey 2004 (ILCS). The survey addresses a couple of controversies that were highlighted by George Galloway's testimony before the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. One issue concerns the number of deaths caused by the imposition of sanctions on Iraq. Galloway charged that the sanctions caused one million deaths, most of them children. The ILCS found that although Iraq's child and infant mortality rates have been increasing, they were unexpectedly lower than figures offered by previous studies. The ILCS authors entertain a previously published figure of 500,000 excess deaths due to sanctions, but suggest that if declining fertility rates were taken into account, that figure would be significantly lower. Generally the ILCS authors lump sanctions, wars, and economic mismanagement together as causes of the deteriorating conditions of life in Iraq. This makes it difficult to draw clear moral and political conclusions about the effects of the various sanctions--assuming for the sake of argument that a case for or against sanctions might be perfectly clear. Nonetheless, because the ILCS data are thorough, comprehensive and robust, one can reasonably conclude that (a) the sanctions did indeed have significant deleterious impacts on the living conditions of the general population of Iraq, causing far more death and suffering than was advertised or intended by the diplomats who crafted them; and (b), George Galloway's figure of one million deaths is an exaggeration.

A second controversy concerns the number of people killed as a result of the invasion of Iraq. Galloway used the figure put forward by Roberts et al. for the Lancet: 100,000 excess deaths. I believe Senator Coleman may have scoffed at Galloway's citation of this figure, a disdain Galloway took as disrespect for the dead. The ILCS indicated a figure of "24,000 deaths, with a 95 percent confidence interval from 18,000 to 29,000 deaths." That includes civilians and military personnel who died directly as a result of violent acts. It covers a two-year retrospective period from April or May of 2004, with some areas reporting from August of 2004. Thus it does not include the many people who have since been killed, but it does include people who were violently killed prior to the invasion, which I suspect is neither negligable nor greater than the number killed since the survey was completed. Therefore I imagine that 25,000 is a reasonable low estimate and any number in excess of around 50,000 ought to be substantiated. The estimate by Roberts et al. has the weight of authority and currency, but serious doubts have been raised about the data, methods and analysis used to arrive at that estimate. The ILCS estimate is, despite its shortcomings, the most robust and reliable measure of mortality in Iraq to date.

Clearly George Galloway uses inflated figures to depict his political opponents in the worst possible light. This weakens his credibility among those who are not entrenched on his side. More than that, I think, it undercuts the moral force of his chief argument against the Iraq war, namely that the case for going to war was based on lies. Was it really based on lies, or were they merely exaggerations? Or even honest mistakes? Or partial truths? For while it is ridiculous, as we now know, to imagine that Saddam Hussein had the capability to launch a nuclear warhead against his neighbors, much less the UK or the USA, it is not ridiculous to imagine that connections between Al Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam and agents of the Iraqi Mukhabarat might have led to the transfer of chemical weapons materials or technology into the hands of terrorists determined to use them against citizens of the United States or its close allies. Yet neither has the case been made that such transfers were imminent, or indeed especially plausible. It seems rather odd to consider the question of whether preventing such a transfer might be a righteous casus belli while the case for its plausibility is little better than a hodgepodge of conjecture and frankly shoddy intelligence.

Such is politics? Not exactly. It remains eminently within our grasp to discuss momentous decisions without resorting to abuses of rhetoric. Yet so long as we allow our political leaders to engage in such abuses, we can expect that the effectiveness of our public debate will be circumscribed by obfuscations, dissemblings and appeals to our basest emotions. Will we hold our politicians accountable for their excesses? That seems unlikely. In the first place we will seek to hold them accountable for the consequences of their actions or failures to act. We can assess those consequences realistically and intelligently, but I don't suppose that we will. The relative obscurity of the ILCS testifies to our collective unwillingness to confront the hard facts.

posted by Fido the Yak at 1:40 PM. 0 comments

Monday, May 16, 2005

Comme une Image

Agnès Jaoui's Comme une Image --wow. It's playing in theatres under the title "Look at Me," which is a line uttered by the film's central character, Lolita Cassard (played by Marilou Berry), who craves the attention of her father primarily, and secondarily everybody who comes into her life. Lolita's father, Étienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri), ensconced in his own celebrity as an author, can't be bothered to celebrate daughters, wives or friends. But he does make an effort to keep up appearances. Vainly. His efforts are as phony as the phoniness he means to prop up, and it shows.

If you remember Bacri from Jaoui's first feature, The Taste of Others, you might be surprised at his ability to convincingly play such an unsympathetic cad as Étienne Cassard. Étienne, however, is not merely presented as an object of malevolence for viewers. Insofar as we come to care about Lolita--no easy task, as she herself is deeply flawed--we want to see her wishes fulfilled. She wants her father to notice her, to listen to her, to listen to her sing. Is that asking for too much? For Étienne, yes, that is too much. Our frustration with the character never ends, and yet it seems that our frustation mirrors his frustration with himself. Étienne cannot be happy as a writer unless his life in his shambles, and if the world won't conspire to do him in, he's only too ready to do the job. For the sake of his art? Or his reputation as an author? We have reason to question the depth of Étienne's commitment to his work or his self-loathing. Nevertheless, while it is easy to hate the things he says and does, it is rather difficult to hate the person who may join us in hating those same things.

The translation of the title as "Look at me" colored my initial sense of what the film was about. It's about vanity and narcissism. It's about needing attention, how primary attachments form under the attentive gaze, and in its absence. The film comments on the invisibility of women, which many critics have rightly identified as one of the film's central themes. It also presents a strong critique of the ideal female body image--Lolita is a chubby young woman who resists internalizing a negative view of herself, yet in the accommodations she makes to get by in her cultural world, that negativity never completely disappears. Lolita's constant struggle with and against the third-class status ascribed to her shapes the way she interacts with others in every aspect. Had the film been called in English "Pretty as a picture," or "Like a picture" perhaps that theme would have jumped out, but then it may have been misleading in other ways. Comme un Image reflects on the beautiful: the beautiful body, the beautiful voice, beauty as attainment, artifice and simulation. It's also very much a film about narcissism and selfishness, so "Look at me" seems to sum it up rather well.

Jaoui and Bacri, who share writing credits, have already won several awards for the script. The performances are uniformly excellent. Comme un Image, though, does not feel like merely a play brought before the camera. It speaks a cinematic language, communicating through syntax, tempo and an adroit use of music. The cinematography is not vividly earth-shattering, but there are a couple of memorable scenes, such as when Lolita tracks down Sébastien on her bicycle, at once breathtaking and understated. All in all it's a brilliant film, easily the best so far this year.

posted by Fido the Yak at 6:15 PM. 0 comments

So Much Depends Upon a Donkey

Catez at Allthings2all has invited submissions for a Darfur Collection to raise awareness of and stimulate blogging about Darfur. This post is meant as my contribution, though I've just missed the deadline.

What does the following image say to you?

Sudanese refugees struggle to raise a collapsed donkey

©2004 Private, Human Rights Watch

What does it mean that these people have come as far as they have with their donkey? What would it mean to them if their donkey died? What would it mean to us, we who watch from a distance? I wonder if there is a safe distance from which to observe the collapse of civilization--but there I go, getting ahead of myself. After all, how much could a donkey really be worth?

Donkeys range in price from over $1000 US for rare breeds, to well under $100 in many African markets. Market prices in Sudan, home to nearly seven million of the world's roughly 42 million donkeys, have been exceptionally unstable due to campaigns of massive violence aimed at the livelihoods of rural communities. Generally the price has trended upward, as many donkeys have been slaughtered or have died en masse due to starvation and cold, while the small markets where donkey breeders would normally sell have become inaccessible, and, finally, most people, whether or not they have been displaced from their homes, are reluctant to part with their donkeys.

For millions of Darfuris, particularly among those who have been displaced, the value of a donkey cannot properly be measured in dollars, dinars, or bags of millet. The Physicians for Human Rights report on the destruction of livelihoods in Furawiya village, Darfur (See my previous post, When A Whole Way of Life is Destroyed) made the case that although one can attempt to place a monetary value of the camels, sheep and other livestock that have been looted or destroyed, what is really at stake is a way of life. Surely nothing is more essential to daily life in the sahel than the ability to transport water across great distances. For that and many other transport needs Darfuris rely upon donkeys. This simple fact has been noted in various reports:

Roger Thurow, writing for the Wall Street Journal, succinctly captures the systematic quality of the violence in Darfur:

In famines where drought has killed crops, farmers are largely able to recover when the rains return. Darfurians have had experience with this; they protect seeds for the next planting season and try to keep their animals alive. This time, the hunger has been willfully engineered by destroying all aspects of the agricultural system. Seed stocks have been burned, animals stolen or killed, and the tools of cultivation, such as hoes and tractors, smashed.

Donkeys are sometimes counted as livestock in agricultural or economic surveys, but a donkey may also be regarded as a tool, durable heavy equipment, or most often a mode of transport. As such, Donkeys are not only essential to the daily lives of rural people, they constitute a crucial element of the market infrastructure in Sudan and throughout the region. It may even be reasonably argued that donkeys have formed the backbone of civilization as we know it since the time of the Pharoahs. "I don't think it's wildly speculative to suggest that the use of donkeys, which were the first tamed transport animal, played an important role in the unification of distant cities," says Albano Beja-Pereira. "It marks the boundary between human societies concerned with survival and agriculture and stabilized people who wanted to explore and trade." Beja-Pereira directed a research team whose genetic study found that the donkey (Equus asinus) was first domesticated in Africa on two separate occasions, once from an ancestor of the Nubian wild ass, and once from an ancestor of the Somalian wild ass.

Sudan's historical importance as a crossroads of trade between subsaharan Africa and the ancient oikomene is perhaps well known. Certainly the routes of the camel caravans have been studied in depth. Donkey trade routes have been relatively understudied. However, at least one major artery passing from Darfur to Dongala in Northern Sudan is known. Currently in Darfur trade routes of all kinds have been disrupted, as no path appears to be safe, leading to the collapse of some smaller markets, and erratic supplies in large markets, with corresponding extreme fluctuations in prices.

Is this a proper scale on which to assess the catastrophe of Darfur? What does the history of civilization matter to the living? I see connections between the roots of civilization as it has developed over the past five millenia and the existential dilemmas faced by the victims of genocide in Darfur, but I can't say that I've made the case in any scholarly sense. Call it a suggestion, then, a point of view on the crisis that complements what we learn from personal narratives without presuming to stand for them, to say "this is what such stories must really be about."

So how exactly does the donkey figure into the existential dilemma of Darfuris who have fled their homes? In brief, when your household's been dispossessed of everything except what you and your donkey can carry, you quickly run out of resources to maintain both the donkey and the household, and yet the donkey is crucial to your ability to gather resources. Consider the situation of displaced people in Mornay, as reported by an MSF fieldworker last year. If you've been lucky enough to make it into the camp with your donkey, and you've recieved some WFP rations, you still need to gather firewood. The armed men who patrol the camp charge 200 dinars for the privilege of being allowed to collect a donkey load of firewood. That payment is no insurance against being beaten, raped or killed. "Every hundred yards, the carcass of a donkey lies contorted in the sand," we are told.

An even clearer picture comes from Adrian McIntyre of Oxfam, who describes a Darfuri woman's dilemma:

In the grey light that comes just before dawn, 38-year old Muna awakens to a heart-wrenching choice. Should she leave the relative safety of this camp for displaced people in the Wadi Salih region of West Darfur and go out into the surrounding plains and forests to collect firewood for cooking and grass to feed her donkey? If she does, there's a chance she will be attacked, beaten or raped. If she doesn't go out, she won't be able to cook breakfast for her five children. Even the donkey might starve. The piles of rotting carcasses along one edge of the camp are a constant reminder that many other animals have suffered a similar fate.

Not collecting firewood or fodder would have other consequences as well. Like hundreds of thousands of families in Darfur, Muna and her children receive monthly food distributions from the World Food Programme. The staple grains, protein-rich flour (a blend of corn and soya) and cooking oil are a welcome contribution, but Muna needs a few other ingredients to prepare even the most basic meal. So she will sell some firewood in the local market to earn a few extra dinars to buy onions, tomatoes, dried okra or chillies to supplement her family's diet. Without the firewood, she will have to sell a portion of the food ration itself in order to buy the additional items‚ but the amount she receives each month is already barely enough to survive.

The donkey fodder is also very important, since Muna needs her donkey to carry water from the nearby well several times a day. When that well runs dry, as it often does this time of year, she must travel even farther to fetch water. This, too, can be a perilous journey that exposes her to potential violence.

Some readers may be familiar with an issue of interpretation surrounding the poem "so much depends" (aka "The Red Wheelbarrow") by William Carlos Williams. Williams, a practicing physician, had been called to a farmhouse to treat a young patient who hovered between life and death. As Williams gazed out the window, the poem occured to him. Does that tell us anything essential about the poem? Is the red wheelbarrow really simply what it is? What, if anything, does the poem say about life and death?

And so what does one make of the image of a collapsing donkey? It cannot bode well for the people whose lives depend upon it. And it cannot bode well for the future of our common civilization--which isn't to deny that a donkey is what it is, or even to weigh in on matters such as whether the internal combustion engine will ultimately provide more benefits to humanity than the domestication of pack animals. Simply as a matter of how we will live with each other and with ourselves, the massive dispossession and violence signified by the collapse of a donkey indicts us all. Will we allow whole worlds to be swept away? Will this be our legacy? To put our fragility on display, forsaking bonds cultivated over millenia? Can this really be who we are?

posted by Fido the Yak at 2:11 AM. 2 comments

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch

General Wesley Clark reminds us of the historic significance of Dwight David Eisenhower's visit to Ohrdruf on April 12th, 1945. Ohrdruf had been the first of the Nazi concentration camps to be liberated by American forces. Technically it was not an exterimination camp, but rather a labor camp, a subcamp of Buchenwald. For the liberators of Ohrdruf, the difference was difficult to discern. Ohrdruf was a scene of mass murder and utter depravity. It was nauseating.

There had been rumors of atrocities, stories circulating about death camps in Poland. And the stories were met with disbelief. How could they not be?

Indescribable. Unspeakable. Those are words Eisenhower chose to communicate his sense of shock. At a later time he is reported to have used the phrase made famous by Edward R. Murrow, reporting from Buchenwald, "For most of it, I have no words." Though words seemed inadequate, Eisenhower was certain of the need to bear witness. On April 18th Eisenhower sent a telegram to Churchill: "Herewith a few pictures taken on the day that I visited the German internment camp near Gotha. I think they tell their own story."

I won't display here the pictures I have seen because some of them are deeply disturbing, too disturbing for me to impose upon you. At your discretion, then, see the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library's collection of photos and documents pertaining to Eisenhower's reaction to the Holocaust, more briefly Ike and the Death Camps from the Eisenhower Memorial, Holocaust Encyclopedia: Ohrdruf from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Ohrdruf Forced Labor Camp from scrapbookpages, Liberators: Stories and Photos from the Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust, and finally The Ohrdruf Photos.

What was it like to be behind the camera? David Cohen was with the 4th Armored at Ohrdruf on the 12th of April. He recounts:

I saw many buildings with bodies stacked in them. The first time I went in and walked out. I couldn't take it; I was sick; I felt like throwing up. I walked in three times; each time I became ill. I wanted to take pictures, but I couldn't. One of my buddies pushed me back inside to take the pictures.

I imagine Cohen would have empathized with the experience of William A. Scott III of the 183rd, one of the men who liberated Buchenwald:

I took out my camera and began to take some photos--but that only lasted for a few pictures. As the scenes became more gruesome, I put my camera in its case and walked in a daze with the survivors, as we viewed all forms of dismemberment of the human body. We learned that 31,000 of the 51,000 persons there had been killed in a two week period prior to our arrival. An SS trooper had remained until the day of our arrival and survivors had captured him as he tried to flee over a fence. He was taken into a building where two men from my unit followed. They said he was trampled to death by the survivors.

I began to realize why few, if any, persons would believe the atrocities I had seen. HOLOCAUST was the word used to describe it--but one has to witness it to even begin to believe it--and, finally after going through several buildings, with various displays--lamp shades of human skin, incinerators choked with human bones, dissected heads and bodies, testes in labeled bottles, so that they could be seen by the victims on a shelf by the door as they went in and out of the barracks (after two weeks of this procedure, they would be killed, but, we arrived before this ritual could be continued), my mind closed the door on this horror.

Eisenhower more than any one understood the importance of directly observing the horrors of the Nazi camps. He wrote to General Marshall on the 15th of April:

But the most interesting--although horrible--sight that I encountered during the trip was a visit to a German internment camp near Gotha. The things I saw beggar description. While I was touring the camp I encountered three men who had been inmates and by one ruse or another had made their escape. I interviewed them through an interpreter. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to "propaganda."

Four days later Eisenhower telegrammed Marshall:

We continue to uncover German concentration camps for political prisoners in which conditions of indescribable horror prevail. I have visited one of these myself and I assure you that whatever has been printed on them to date has been understatement. If you could see any advantage in asking about a dozen leaders of Congress and a dozen prominent editors to make a short visit to this theater in a couple of C-54's, I will arrange to have them conducted to one of these places where the evidence of bestiality and cruelty is so overpowering as to leave no doubt in their minds about the normal practices of the Germans in these camps. I am hopeful that some British individuals in similar categories will visit the northern area to witness similar evidence of atrocity.

The townspeople of Ohrdruf were marched through the camp, an event which prompted the mayor and his wife to commit suicide. Their last words to the world: "We didn't know--but we knew."

Today, according to Carl Peterson of the 83rd, there is no memorial for the victims at the site of Ohrdruf. The town of Ohrdruf continues to celebrate its heritage as a home to Johann Sebastian Bach. History records April 12th, 1945 as the day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. Buchenwald has supplanted Ohrdruf in the popular consciousness as the place where Americans first uncovered the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. Even Eisenhower seemed never to have quite remembered the name of the place where he "first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality." And yet it is largely because of Eisenhower that we undeniably know what took place at Ohrdruf.

posted by Fido the Yak at 5:33 AM. 2 comments

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Expert Non-Witness

Epidemiologist Debarati Guha-Sapir has repeatedly criticized high estimates of the Darfur death toll put forward by advocates such as the Coalition for International Justice and Eric Reeves. I agree with Guha-Sapir that it's of the highest importance for us to know approximately how many people have been killed, and to not let our judgement be clouded by mispresentations of the facts in this matter. So what do we know about the actual death toll in Darfur, more or less?

Reeves puts the number killed at about 400,000, based on his rather methodically laid out interpretations of available data, which he meticulously cites. One can easily criticize particular assumptions or extrapolations Reeves makes, or one can, as Guha-Sapir does, make one's criticisms more elliptically. There is the obvious point that Reeves is neither a scientist nor unbiased. Of course that does not mean that he is ill-informed, inaccurate, or inherently unreliable, but an ordinary healthy skepticism tells us that if one is unable or too lazy to do one's own analysis of the data, then his conclusions should be regarded cautiously, especially in cases where acknowledged experts disagree with them.

Unfortunately for Guha-Sapir's argument, Reeves conclusions are not especially inconsistent with the scientific data, and some experts have looked at the data and confirmed Reeves' high estimates of the death toll. Furthermore, since we have opened up the question of bias, it may be worth noting that the group of experts who express the most reticence about providing global mortality estimates tend to have a professional stake in the business of providing humanitarian aid, as does Guha-Sapir. Their reticence may be motivated by factors such as a need to demonstrate the effectiveness of an aid agency, or the need to avoid taking sides in political disputes, especially in countries like Sudan where the government is apt to expel, detain, harass or otherwise impede the work of humanitarians. Of course that does not mean that reluctance to provide estimates is not reflective of a genuinely scientific approach to the problem. However, it may be both scientific and biased, and we should therefore be cautious about accepting this opinion as the truth of the matter, especially since other experts disagree.

One study that has been cited by Reeves (and a handful of journalists) as confirming his dire view is the one done by Dr. Jan Coebergh, "Sudan: Genocide has Killed more than the Tsunami," in Parliamentary Brief, Feb 2005 (large pdf, also reposted as html without graphics here). Coebergh I don't believe is completely unbiased, but he has done us all a service in constructing three alternative models for interpreting the available data, and offering a reasoned defense of each. Regarding the death toll between February 2003 and December 2004, Coebergh concludes:

Many people have died as a result of conflict in Darfur. Figures of 218,449, 253,573 or 306,130 deaths since April 2003 are very rough estimates, but considerably more accurate than the numbers currently quoted in the media.

And which ever total you go with, it is an ever increasing one. This year looks worse than last.

Reeves' estimate for that time period was 370,000 dead, 64,000 more than Coebergh's highest figure, which is the one Coebergh favors, and 152,000 more than the lowest estimate. The differences--duly noted--seem rather huge, and yet compared to the estimates repeated in the news media at that time (variously "as many as 70,000," "up to 50,000" or "tens of thousands"), Reeves and Coebergh at least appear to be discussing the same phenomenon.

Still, I hestitate to accept Reeves' estimate as even roughly accurate without considering all of the arguments put forward by Guha-Sapir which call into question the extrapolations of Reeves, the Coalition for Justice, and also those used by Coebergh to obtain his highest estimate. A primary point of contention concerns the ratio of people killed by outright violence as opposed to starvation and disease attributable to unsanitary conditions in camps for the displaced. Guha-Sapir expresses the view held among some social scientists that normally in situations of armed conflict deaths due to starvation and disease greatly outnumber deaths due to violence. This begs the question of whether the situation in Darfur can be accurately descibed as essentially an armed conflict, much less a normal armed conflict. To support her view, Guha-Sapir adds that only 15% of the people killed in the Rwandan genocide were killed by outright violence. That's an extremely remarkable claim, as the commonly accepted estimate for the number of people butchered in the Rwandan genocide is about 800,000, and it seems unlikely Guha-Sapir is claiming that an additional 4.5 million people died in the events that followed the hundred days of mayhem (see Rwanda census puts genocide death toll at 937,000, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda: The Numbers from Human Rights Watch, Oxfam: What Happened in Rwanda in 1994?, Ghosts of Rwanda: Timeline). Reeves incidentally has cited and discussed the report from Human Rights Watch. Guha-Sapir cites no sources. On this point, then, Guha-Sapir's particular expertise may actually be preventing her from accurately assessing the facts more than it helps her to clarify them.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of respects in which I believe both Reeves and Coebergh may be unnecessarily leaping to conclusions about the number of deaths due to outright violence. In the first place, both examine the WHO retrospective mortality survey and assume that "the WHO figure did not include violent deaths." Reeves attests that Dr. Nabarro had confirmed this fact to him, and indeed Dr. Nabarro has said as much to the press. Nonetheless, my reading of the survey is that deaths due to injury or violence were in fact tallied. Thus the exercise of adding to those figures an additional figure of deaths due to outright violence would appear to be erroneous. (All of the other caveats Reeves adds to that report I agree with.) Alternatively, the report itself may be in error, or I may be missing something obvious. As it is, I cannot fully accept the interpretation offered by Reeves.

In the second place, Reeves' extrapolations from the survey by the Coalition for International Justice rely upon an assumption of average family size. As the AP reported, "projecting a precise death toll estimate from the survey is problematic because there is no certainty about the size of the group each refugee would consider to be 'family' — a key element in the calculation. Refugees included extended family — such as uncles and cousins — in their answers, said Stefanie Frease of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Coalition for International Justice, which conducted the survey with the U.S. State Department." Reeves' response to that criticism misses the point, in my view, although he is certainly correct to raise the other issues. Since Reeves projects in terms of deaths per family, it makes a huge difference whether one million people represent 200,000 families as according to his figures, or 85,000 families, for example.

For these reasons, I regard the high estimate offered by Coebergh and the estimate offered by Reeves with some skepticism. Conversely, their willingness to grapple with all of the available data concerning deaths due to outright violence has shown that death tolls improperly extrapolated from limited samples are clearly inadequate to convey the magnitude of the tragedy in Sudan. But if we would do well to regard all current mortality estimates as somewhat doubtful, surely there must be some range of doubt that can be applied to keep us from sliding into pure cynicism or ignorance.

One other issue raised by Guha-Sapir concerns the dangers of extrapolating from non-representative samples. That's generally a valid concern, however, by choosing to argue on the basis of anectdotal or hypothetical evidence rather than engage with the actual data, Guha-Sapir gives the impression that those who give high estimates are not basing their inferences upon statistically significant samples. That's simply not the case. Guha-Sapir mentions the work CEDAT (Complex Emergency Database) has done to survey mortality and morbidity in Darfur, and claims that they are "piecing together more than 30 survey results." The only CEDAT analysis of mortality in Darfur (pdf) of which I'm aware presents a table of mortality data from 12 samples collected by various agencies at various locations in Darfur. This is a smaller data set than Reeves et al. work with, but it nevertheless provides a basis for drawing reasonable conclusions about the mortality rate among Darfuris who have been displaced into camps administered to by international relief agencies. The average CMR (crude mortality rate, measured in number of deaths per 10,000 people per day) for all twelve samples was 2.65, while the median CMR was 2.15. There appears to be no evidence of improvement or deterioration over time, but rather unexplained variance. Therefore, I see no compelling reason not to regard the average CMR of 2.65 as more or less representative of mortality among Darfuris residing in displacement camps. (The median value tells us about the conditions at a typical camp, but not about the overall mortality rate.)

How many Darfuris have been displaced? Conservatively, there are now more than 2 million Darfuris internally displaced, and several hundred thousand who have fled into Chad. If we assume that (a) conditions have neither substantially improved nor deteriorated over the last nine months --my sentiment is pessimistic although there are contrary indications; (b) that mortality inside camps accessible to aid workers is equivalent to mortality in areas aid workers cannot reach, which is preposterous but warranted only insofar as actual mortality in such places is unmeasured; and (c) that excess deaths among non-displaced Darfuris are not due to same causes that displaced 2 million people into camps; then based on the CEDAT data we can reasonably estimate that the displaced people inside Darfur are dying at a rate of 530 per day, or about 16,000 per month. That number would be higher if we add in the refugees in Chad, although the CMR in those camps is probably a bit lower.

In sum, Reeves' estimates of total mortality in the Darfur genocide seem a bit high to me, but because he attempts to methodically account for every single person affected by the violence, he achieves a greater verisimilitude than many who have confined their projections to the small universe of people in camps accessible to aid workers, greater than those who have wrongly taken those projections as representative of Darfur as a whole, and far greater than those who have turned their backs on strong, statistically meaningful evidence of deaths immediately caused by violent attacks. We have seen over the past year abundant evidence of episodes of extreme violence, during which many people are killed, many of whom may not be well accounted for if at all. I fear that a large portion of the number of people reported missing have in fact been murdered.

My own best sense of how many have died is 300,000, give or take 100,000. I freely admit that this estimate is based upon attitudes, prejudices, assumptions and interpretions, rather than a rigorous analysis of statistical data, although I have also looked at the data and drawn conclusions from it. I don't believe at this time that precision is entirely warranted. I do however strongly feel that serious observers have an obligation to exercize their judgement and to the best of their abilities bear witness to the atrocities that are taking place in Sudan. I commend those who have done so.

I cannot fully comprehend why an epidemiological expert such as Guha-Sapir would suggest that Robert Zoellick's ridiculously low estimate is acceptable, whereas the high estimates provided by Reeves and others are misleading and unhelpful. She offers no real estimates of her own. Perhaps the WHO Collaborating Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters will see fit to put online its Darfur mortality data instead of Guha-Sapir's opinion pieces, but as that work was described by Guha-Sapir in the same terms as the work published by CEDAT, I doubt whether it would truly back up Guha-Sapir's claim. What reasons and data she has put forward might tend to justify Zoellick's highest estimate of 160,000 dead, were she to make the case. But she doesn't. Guha-Sapir rests her case on her expert authority, without fully applying her expertise to the most urgent task at hand: telling the world approximately how many people have died in Darfur.

posted by Fido the Yak at 3:27 PM. 0 comments

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Bloggled Up, Bloggled Down

The brain's too distracted to post coherently. Must be spring.

On the radar:

  • Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed in several editorials posted at Passion of the Present, including Don't Try to Say You Didn't Know, by Oregon State University graduate student Sanjai Tripathi. Regarding news cycles, and what deserves our attention, it appears to me that media attention to Darfur has dropped to half of what it was one year ago, although the number of people dying per day has clearly not been halved, despite the inpouring of humanitarian aid. This is because over the past year the violence has not been halted, and the number of people displaced from their homes has more than doubled.

  • Minds, Machines and Gödel by J. R. Lucas.

  • Time and space: The Abhidhamma perspective, ht: Alan Cook.

  • Brandon takes on Hume in his Enquiry Concerning the Origin of Religion.

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: History. Includes the wonderful line, "Genius watches the monad through all his masks as he performs the metempsychosis of nature." For context:

    The Gothic cathedral is a blossoming in stone subdued by the insatiable demand of harmony in man. The mountain of granite blooms into an eternal flower, with the lightness and delicate finish, as well as the aerial proportions and perspective, of vegetable beauty.

    (Makes perfect sense to me, but maybe you had to be there.)

  • The Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. I was able to stump the database a few times, either by oblongating the oblong, or arithmetical error. \/0\/ (*shrug*)

  • Time and Polarity: The Dimensional Thinking of Karl Heim (pdf) by Atso Eerikainen. File under theologians have more fun, although I have met a few people who claimed to be bored by rampantly Heideggerean dissertations on metaphysical topics.

  • Interesting discussions of emotion and responsibility over at the Garden of Forking Paths.

  • Sequence from Patanjali to Postmodernity, by A. V. Ashok.

    The message of centuries of meditation in the East and the West on the enigma of sequence is that sequence is the primordial "play" ("lila") and paradox of the One and the Many, the principal perplexity of consciousness, and the perennial teaser of meaning.

In the works:

  • A reading of Arendt's "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship," her reply to criticisms of Eichmann in Jerusalum. How that bears on current debates.

  • Do numbers take up space? An aggressively naive probing of the Pythagorean worldview. Getting hung up on Derrida's intro to Husserl's "Origins of Geometry," Husserl himself, high energy physics, some Gabirol, a need to actually read and understand Aristotle's Metaphysics.

  • Aristoxenus' Elements of Rhythm. This is leading me to reconsider Pythagoras, which I hadn't imagined, and also Kofi Agawu's critique of Africanist musicology. A note on the connection between schema and habitus. Need to reread Panofsky and Bourdieu.

  • Fido the Yak v. Wendy Hamblet on Levinas' ethics. It's virtually a tko for Hamblet at this point, but Fido the Yak perseveres, confident that he has the superior reading of Totality and Infinity despite all evidence to the contrary. Definitely need to study the Cartesian Meditations, possibly Edith Stein as well.

  • George Herbert Mead's The Philosophy of the Present. Can probably be folded into "Personal Responsibility" without recourse to Minkowski space-time.

  • War of Visionaries: Francis Deng v. Jean-Loup Amselle. Actually more binocular than oppositional. Actually, actually more embyonic than anything at this point. We'll see.

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:44 PM. 0 comments

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Waldron v. Yoo: Torture and Policy

Professors Jeremy Waldron and John Yoo recently debated torture at an event sponsored by Columbia Law School chapters of the American Constitution Society and the Federalist Society. Jack Balkin gives a summmary highlighting some key issues. Also, the discussion of the debate at Ex Post has been intelligent and passionate.

My personal bias on the question of torture leans towards Waldron's position. However, I hadn't really witnessed a serious defense of Yoo's position, much less considered it as if it were valid. So to hear the debate in this format was edifying to say the least.

How the issue is framed will in large measure determine the conclusions that are reached. If the question is presented as "Is torture ever acceptable?" then most people would agree that Waldron's position is the correct one: morally and legally torture is not acceptable under any circumstances. However, if one adopts the framing Yoo prefers, that it is a matter of foreign policy in the conduct of a historically original form of warfare, the question becomes "In what way, if at all, do existing laws that prohibit torture place restraints on the exercize of executive power in the war against terror?" That really is, in my view, a more difficult sort of question to answer.

Yoo presents the alternative framings as a difference between a Kantian view exemplified by Waldron and a consequentialist view, which he claims is typical of policy makers at all levels of government. It would seem as if the two sides were talking past each other--but that would not be entirely accurate. Consider one point on which Yoo engages Waldren, in response to Waldron's argument that to entertain the notion that a prisoner can be tortured, one must imagine changes in the culture of the military and the legal establishment that can only have deleterious moral and political consequences for the United States, and that indeed such appears to be the case:

About the culture arguments. I mean I think it's a, again, I think it's a very rhetorically powerful argument. It's a very difficult one to prove or to disprove, right? How do you prove or disprove that people who worked at Abu Ghraib were affected by the culture of the changes that the government sought after 9-11 to fight Al Qaeda. Alright, it's something that's inherently disprovable or provable one way or the other, because it depends on sort of this abstract culture which is hard to pin down. So he can say, "I think," if he wants to, "that we're engaged in this big cultural change that's going to have lots of negative effects on everything else the intelligence agencies, defense agencies, that law enforcement does." I can also say that "I think that would be quite limited, because the purpose is limited and we haven't seen its widespread use yet." But how would we prove or disprove it causally, one way or the other? It is a plea I think, a more of an emotional or rhetorical plea about culture than something that actually gets to the facts.

One problem here is that Yoo's position can and perhaps must be understood within something approximating a Kantian framework, rather than the purely consequentialist view he invites us to consider. His appeal to reason in this context is surely consistent with Kant's idea of a practical reason which governs moral conduct, and there are plenty of indications that Yoo has an understanding of duty that would not be unfamiliar to Kantians. Here's the rub: Yoo would like us to believe that culture belongs to the purely theoretical in this case, and yet he himself had previously invoked an aspect of the cultural as a contingency bearing on the interpretation of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 for the protection of victims of war, and other prior international law. So the logic would seem to be that when one wishes to emphasize discontinuity with historical tradition, the cultural context of a law or treaty is of immediate, practical concern; yet when one wishes to emphasize continuity, it suddenly becomes hard to pin down and not very useful. That strikes me, to be perfectly quaint about it, an instance of special pleading. (And indeed were I to dwell on it I might discard my criticism as too, too quaint, but I'll record my impression regardless as it may yet point to a worthy argument.)

When it comes to interpreting the applicability of the Geneva Conventions, it's perhaps not particularly germaine whether those who drafted and ratified them held to a Kantian view of moral reason. It does seem highly relevant, that, as Waldron argues, such laws as prohibit torture were intended to be of consequence to the culture and social-psychology of military institutions. So indeed there would seem to be an imperative against torture in international law which envisions a cultural horizon as a practical matter and not merely in the abstract, and, for whatever reason, this imperative is not inconsistent with Kant's second categorical imperative, "So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case an an end withal, never as means only."

Yoo puts himself in a tough position for while refusing either to affirm or deny something akin to Kant's second imperative, he accepts the legal (and probably moral) imperative against torture, but wishes to limit its meaning and applicability based upon changing circumstances. On what philosophical grounds then? As I've indicated, I don't believe Yoo makes a case based upon genuine pragmatist thinking, but instead uses consequentialism to disguise an instance of special pleading. Nevertheless he does press good points and raise compelling questions, so that by the end of the debate Waldron's position is not as firm as human rights advocates might wish it to be. It is not clear at all that members of international terrorist networks should enjoy all of the rights commonly afforded to combatants who wear the uniform of a nation state. What imperatives or practical considerations should govern our conduct towards those accused or convicted of terrorism? Waldron and Yoo contribute a lively installment to this ongoing public debate.

posted by Fido the Yak at 2:10 PM. 1 comments