Monday, October 31, 2005
Richard Chappell tackles some of the implications of Rice's work on heterochrony in his recasting of the nature/nuture debate, Native Empiricists. It's a thoughtful recapitulation of the key issues that soundly rejects the extreme positions on either side.
I've been cooking up a response, but I'm going to set it on the back burner at least until Lewontin's and Gould's books arrive and I have a chance to study those.
Sunday, October 30, 2005
The Digital Genres Initiative blurbs Alfred Schutz: On Multiple Realities
What color is the book that contains the essay on multiple realities? I thought it was roughly this color, but I may have confused it with William James' A Pluralistic Universe.
Saturday, October 29, 2005
From Patatho's laboratory of pataphysics: Exhibiting the Laminations of Sensations
Friday, October 28, 2005
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has been making the rounds promoting his latest book, Actice Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution. Last night on the Charlie Rose Show (sorry, no transcript freely available; the germ of Breyer's argument is here, here's a good interview with Terry Gross, and here's an interview with Nina Totenberg), Justice Breyer suggested that Aristotle was a source of his Judicial philosophy. Breyer usually cites Benjamin Constant as a more proximate source of his ideas. Rose elicited the nod to Aristotle by asking Breyer whether his interest in economics had influenced his thinking. The question caught Breyer off guard, so I won't take his fallback to Aristotle as a strong statement of his position.
But it's interesting. One suspects that Breyer is not defending an originalist reading of Aristotle, whose Politics is considerably to the right of Justice Antonin Scalia. What came to my mind was Aristotle's doctrine of causes (material, formal, efficient and final), which, as near as I can fathom, was meant to explain how things come to be. Breyer argues that there are six basic kinds of tools a judge can use to arrive at a decision:
Breyer's judicial philosophy emphasizes the latter two items, not merely with respect to particular statutes, but in view of the Constitution of the United States and its purpose. It seems that Breyer sometimes conflates the consequential with the purposive--to be expected given an approach that "values consequences in terms of basic constitutional purposes." The basic distinction between the two is clear enough. Breyer's purposive might possibly be understood as consistent with interpretation in terms of Aristotlean final causes, though it may be better understood as a development within a rather more indefinite European tradition of teleological hermeneutics. Breyer's consequentialism is instantly recognizable as a kind of pragmatism, quintessentially American, no less so for being ad hoc. That the two approaches might undermine each other's premises appears to be of no consequence to Breyer (in the abstract, case by case is another question), which suggests that in Breyer's jurisprudence the pragmatist streak is in the ascendent, regardless of any claims made in the final analysis. Thus Breyer's thinking doesn't appear to be notably Aristotlean-though I am struck by both thinkers' accomodations for equifinality. (That wasn't meant to be ironic. I do see it as intimating something of a paradox.)
Breyer, I'm reasonably certain, did intend to point to the Politics. Not so much its rationalizations for slavery and the oppression of women, or its defense of the Lydian mode, but the bits about liberty, equality, and citizenship. For the strong (or narrow) literalist, this exemplifies the liberal's penchant for selective reading. Yet it's not exactly like a series of notes that can be arbitarily arranged in any of a number of ways. The Lydian of the ancients, like a raga, had meanings that arose from its use for particular kinds of occasions, a set of commonly understood purposes. We could, hypothetically, arrange the same notes to produce a different mode, and then say for example that we have a "sixth degree Lydian" rather than Dorian--an amusing exercize for the musician, but not to be confused with making music. Constant's "liberty of the ancients" is harmonious with Aristotle's democratic politics, without a slavish fidelity to passing tones, accidentals, ornaments or modulations. The essential purpose, the call to participatory democracy, is loud and clear.
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Are the Cartesian Meditations the product of a unitary consciousness? It's a patchwork of ideas, concieved at different moments, including marginal notes which are sometimes inserted into the text, sometimes noted in the margins, substitutions from the "French translation" and "Manuscript-C," errant mimeographs,
stricken words, scribblings. Doubts. Should this have been said sooner? Does this belong here? And the underlying question, Does this really make sense?
This is billed as an introduction to phenomenology? Well, so is the Crisis. Go figure.
Instead of driving myself batty trying to decipher the Meditations, perhaps I'll just start over from the Parisian Lectures. My German is rusty, but in its favor it's (a) relatively coherent, and (b) probably a seminal source for 2nd generation phenomenologists, and so on.
Welcome Diversion: Notes on the Relation Between Place and Sound.
Caveat: Cost of Living Calculator.
It will be news to some that Autaugaville, Alabama is cosmopolitan, or that the City of Angels is pedestrian. Robots aren't as glamorous as they used to be. That's not news, just poignancy.
Seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. Beneath the haze stirred up by the winds the urban island, a sea in the middle of the sea, lifts up the skyscrapers over Wall Street, sinks down at Grenwich, then rises again to the crests of Midtown, quietly passes over Central Park and finally undulates off into the distance beyond Harlem. A wave of verticals. Its agitation is momentarily arrested by vision. The gigantic mass is immobilized before the eyes. It is transformed into a texturology in which extremes coincide--extremes of ambition and degradation, brutal oppositions of races and styles, contrasts between yesterday's buildings, already transformed into trash cans, and today's urban irruptions that block out its space. Unlike Rome, New York has never learned the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts. Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future. A city composed of paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs. The spectator can read in it a universe constantly exploding. In it are inscribed the architectural figures of the coincidatio oppositorum formerly drawn in miniatures and mystical textures. On this stage of concrete, steel and glass, cut out between two oceans (the Atlantic and the American) by a frigid body of water, the tallest letters in the world compose a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production.
--Michel de Certeau ("Walking in the City," in The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, UC Press: Berkley, 1984, p. 91.)
I often think of de Certeau as both cosmopolitan and French. Never as a robot. What would it take to replace de Certeau with a robot? To reiterate de Certeau as a robot?
We don't see too many robots walking around. The technology is here, or around the corner. But we have difficulty imagining a robot walking like a person. In the movies robots are clunky, as if struggling to free themselves from a mechanicality, or else they move with superhuman agility. Robots walking just like us? Unthinkable. When the robots eventually stand up for their rights, will they be satisfied with the freedom to walk around? Will they demand retribution for I, Robot? Will it be enough to give them their money back? What self-respecting merchant would give a robot his money back for Blade Runner? Danger, Will Robinson, Danger.
For all the ease with which the masses are robbed of their humanity, immiserated, in the face-to-face encounter any denial of the Other's personhood is self-evidently abhorent. It does violence to the conditions of the encounter, and so calls into question the very possibility of making a presentation of self. If impersonating a muppet of dubious anthropomorphy is a job, concievably a robot should be able to do it. But it's a terrible insult, and therein lies its inconcievability. We can hardwire a robot to follow the forms of civility, but not to practice civility itself. A robot without gumption could not possibly become a citizen any more than a robot with gumption could possibly remain a robot.
Update:The Wall Street Journal has a fuller story about Elmo and his fellow street performers
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Richard Cohen argues that the Democrats are allowing the Republicans to steal idealism. I largely agree with his sentiments and his assessments, but I am bothered by the way it is argued (not so much Cohen's doing as a dreadful locus communis of the politics industry), to wit, the notion that realism and idealism are polar opposites.
How are we to understand the distinction between the ideal and real? As we're dealing specifically with human events, as good a place to start as any would be Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah, arguably the first attempt to really systematize the study of human events. In the introduction to the Muqaddimah (which means "Introduction"), Khaldun explains the ways in which people arrive at false ideas about what really happened. In Rosenthal's translation:
Untruth naturally afflicts historical information. There are various reasons that make this unavoidable. One of them is partisanship for opinions and schools. If the soul is impartial in receiving information, it devotes to that information the share of critical investigation the information deserves, and its truth or untruth thus becomes clear. However, if the soul is infected with partisanship for a particular opinion or sect, it accepts without a moment's hesitation the information that is agreeable to it. Prejudice and partisanship obscure the critical faculty and preclude critical investigation. The result is that falsehoods are accepted and transmitted.
Another reason making untruth unavoidable in historical information is reliance upon transmitters. Investigation of this subject belongs to (the discipline) of personality criticism.
Another reason is unawareness of the purpose of an event. Many a transmitter does not know the real significance of his observations or of the things he has learned about orally. He transmits the information, attributing to it the significance he assumes or imagines it to have. The result is falsehood.
Another reason is unfounded assumption as to the truth of a thing. This is frequent. It results mostly from reliance upon transmitters.
Another reason is ignorance of how conditions conform with reality. Conditions are affected by ambiguities and artificial distortions. The informant reports the conditions as he saw them, but on account of artificial distortions he himself has no true picture of them.
Another reason is the fact that people as a rule approach great and high-ranking persons with praise and encomiums. They embellish conditions and spread their fame. The information made public in such cases is not truthful. Human souls long for praise, and people pay great attention to this world and the positions of wealth it offers. As a rule, they feel no desire for virtue and have no special interest in virtuous people.
Another reason making untruth unavoidable--and this one is more powerful than all the reasons previously mentioned--is ignorance of the nature of the various conditions arising in civilization. Every event (or phenomenon), whether (it comes about in connection with some) essence or (as the result of) action, must inevitably possess a nature peculiar to its essence as well as to the accidental conditions that may attach themselves to it. If the student knows the nature of events and the circumstances and requirements in the world of existence, it will help him to distinguish truth from untruth in investigating historical information critically. This is more effective in critical investigation that any other aspect that may be brought up in connection with it.
Khaldun illustrates this point by explaining why it cannot possibly be true that Alexander defeated the sea monsters who were holding up the construction of Alexandria by diving to the bottom of the sea, drawing pictures of the monsters, and then erecting metal effigies of these monsters in order to frighten the real monsters. It cannot be true, Khaldun argues, for everybody knows that fish die when taken out of the water because the air is hot, as is the fish, while the natural balance of humours is such that the fish needs cold air in its lungs; Likewise, people need to breathe cold air. Of course there were other reasons cited by Khaldun to disbelieve the story, but this, he said, was the most convincing argument, because it was based on the facts of existence.
To the discriminating mind, Khaldun's acceptance of the imperfect physiological science of his day hardly invalidates his essential argument. But let's not pretend that it's not a problem. An interesting problem. What do we really know about "the nature of events and the circumstances and requirements in the world of existence"? About the "various conditions arising in civilization"? Can we possibly gain the kind of knowledge required to see the events of history clearly without engaging in the world of ideas? Following Khaldun, I think the answer ought to be clearly no. We must develop our apperceptive faculties along with our peceptive faculties. And if we take that even further, we find that we must engage in the social world, to develop what Khaldun calls, in Al-Araki's translation, "the experimental intellect" (Definition of some of Ibn Khaldun's Concepts, linked from Ibn Khaldun: Discourse of the Method and Concepts of Economic Sociology, minor corrections added by FtY).
The experimental intellect conveys apperceptions which are obtained one by one through experience until they have become really useful.
The useful apperceptive knowledge is that which provides ideas needed in dealing with one's fellow men and leading them. It is therefore not sufficient to have knowledge about social interaction. One has also to experience and discover the adaptability of one's social intelligence to different situations. Apperceptions are gained through interaction with other human beings.
So here's the deal. This commonplace distinction between the ideal and the real in foreign policy is neither really useful nor ideally suited to the problems that confront us. The knowledge we need to understand the nature of conditions is properly speaking pragmatic and cultural. It's opposites are "useless," "solipsistic," "isolationist," "ethnocentric" and the like. A bad idea isn't bad because it's an idea instead of, say, a pebble or a hammer; it's bad because it's useless for solving some problem, or inappropriate for some set of circumstances. It may be just plain rude, incomprehinsible, or boring. It's being more or less real than a hammer just doesn't enter the picture.
A more pertitent distinction to be drawn in foreign policy debates is that between the experimental intellect and the primal father. Another day, perhaps.
Monday, October 24, 2005
Roshdi Rashed, in his "Analysis and Synthesis According to Ibn al-Haytham," writes:
We cannot better Zeuthen's word, when he writes: "the essential value of geometric construction resides in that in it must serve to demonstrate that that to which the determination of the construction leads, really exists."
Zeuthen's word in this case is the French translation of Geschichte der Mathematik im Altertum und Mittelalter, Vorlesungen von H.G. Zeuthen, Professor an der Universität Kopenhagen (The History of Mathematics in Ancient and Medieval Times, Lectures by Heronymus Georg Zeuthen, Professor at the University of Copenhagen), originally priced at 15 Marks, but available now for free from the University of Michigan Historical Mathematics Collection (see also the World Digital Mathematics Library). I don't know whether Zeuthen actually lectured in German. His first language was Danish, naturally. No translator is credited for the German publication of his lectures. (They have since been translated into many languages, though I cannot locate an English translation at this time.) Rashed's word is an English translation by Matheiu Marion.
So what does that sentence mean? Here is the German:
Die wesentliche Bedeutung der geometrischen Konstruktion liegt darin, dass sie zum Beweise dafür dienen soll, dass dasjenige, auf dessen Darstellung die Konstruktion ausgeht, wirklich existiert.
I would translate that as:
The essential significance of the geometric construction lies in that it should serve to prove that whatever the representation of the construction seeks to show actually exists.
I added "to show" to clarify what I think it means. Zeuthen may also be saying that "whatever the construction seeks to represent actually exists," which is not literally accurate, but certainly a meaning that can be grasped.
In his Aporias against Ptolemy, al-Haytham cautions that truths are immersed in uncertainties, and that we must take a critical attitude towards scientific authorities and towards our own minds, which are prone to error:
[T]he seeker after the truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them, but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration, and not to the sayings of a human being whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency. Thus the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency."
That translation was provided by Abdelhamid I. Sabra, who translated the first three volumes of al-Haytham's Optics into English, and is one of the two widely acknowledged authorities on al-Haytham (the other being Dr. Rashed). His name may also be familiar to some for his role in the ouster of Nadav Safran. Dr. Safran stepped down as director of Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies after it was revealed that he failed to properly disclose a grant from the Central Intelligence Agency. Dr. Sabra was one of three professors in the program who had publicly called for Dr. Safran's resignation.
At present complete English translations of al-Haytham's opuscula as well as his magnum opus do not exist, and indeed many works may exist only in manuscript form, though, lacking a knowledge of Arabic, I can't say with certainty that they haven't all been published. Of the 96 works al Haytham is known to have authored, nearly half have perished.
At present? The European awareness of al-Haytham, since the first translations of his work appeared in Latin, has always been narrowly focused on optics. Alan Gilchrist, in a 1996 editorial for Perception, argues that "language differences, ahistoricism, aculturalism, and racism" have all played a role in the neglect of scientists like al-Haytham. "Science must be defended against these antiscientific trends," he continues. "Now more than ever we should protect and promote the international flavor of science. Domination of science by any one country is bad for science. Surely the time has come to celebrate diversity in the scientific as well as the cultural realm." To Gilchrist's list I would add the problem of patronage. We have to ask, Why are some scientists supported and not others? Why are some projects funded while others are not? Why are some works widely disseminated while others are ignored or suppressed? Why are some manuscripts copied while others are left to rot? Why are some works translated into many languages while others are not? In every instance we see that the objectivity of scientific knowledge is not a given; the scientist must contend with powerful rulers and institutions who seek to influence the course of investigations and mediate exchanges between the scientific community and the public. Thus I may take issue with Gilcrist. The "celebration of diversity" for its own sake will not further the scientific enterprise, and as a counterbalance to American hegemony it may be of dubious worth. It rather depends on who's footing the bill for the celebrations, to what purposes, and what impediments if any are placed before the scientist as a result of this patronage. This latter concern touches on broader issues of the institutional contexts in which knowledge is propagated, and how scientific knowledge is constituted. My concern is that some celebrations of diversity may, in actual practice, lead to a ghettoization of knowledge rather than a "democraticization" of knowledge, an openness of knowledge to any and all. But I say "some" advisedly, for I am not completely unaware of my own prejudices and leniencies. I regard the matter as open to scrutiny.
Al Haytham's Optics, it should be noted, was intended for a wide audience, whereas the Aporias was intended for advanced students. This goes directly to the problem of patronage. Critical, epistemological or philosophical works are less in demand that explanatory, encyclopedic works. As a consequence, authoritative truths are more likely to be confirmed than refuted. In the public consciousness, obviously, but also in the judgements of scientists, in the consesus of opinion that the working scientist relies upon to guide further inquiry. Perhaps most insidiously, a bias towards established, explanatory truths may engender repurcussions beyond the immediate sphere of ideas about science, serving to echo or sustain profoundly undemocratic sentiments within the larger society, and thus, in turn, inhibiting the future progress of science. It seems to me, then, that a first priority of the scientific community is to value the critical perspective, recognizing that even that was never given as such, but had to be imagined, proposed and debated. Nurtured.
The essential significance of the geometric construction lies in that it should serve to prove that whatever the representation of the construction seeks to show actually exists.
That's really quite a remarkable claim--assuming Zeuthen is correct in his appraisal. I will keep that in mind when I revisit Husserl's Origins of Geometry. (I may be taking a detour through Derrida's Genesis and Death so don't hold your breath.)
Sunday, October 23, 2005
Richard Chappel at Philosophy, etc. had blogged about human exceptionalism. For some reason my comments there didn't stick. I had wanted to point to the phenomenon of ontogeny, and suggest that human ontogeny is unique. Not a simple matter though. A short but sweet examination of heterochony in primates from Dr. Sean Rice.
A related issue. Some months ago, Chris at Mixing Memory was dismissive of a statement by Annette Karmiloff-Smith, who, in answer to the question, "If you could teach the world one thing about science, what would it be?", replied: "Paradoxically, I wish that everyone-- including scientists working in the field-- fully understood that developmental disorders are developmental." Well, it's hardly a statement that invites vigorous defense, but I do feel that people in Chris's field could learn a lot from Dr. Karmiloff-Smith, or her basic approach, which is rooted in Piagetian developmental psychology. I didn't take this up at the time, in part because I was incensed by some criticisms of Richard Lewontin that were being aired in the comments, and I was struggling with my allergic reaction to "Evolutionary Psychology." To be honest I am not prepared to engage in an intelligent, philosophical debate on this topic. (That obviously reflects on me; it may also reflect on a quality of modern science.) I have just orded a used copy of Gould's Ontogeny and Phylogeny. While I'm thinking of it I'll put in an order for Lewontin's Triple Helix. Perhaps in a few years time I'll have something coherent to say about it.
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Senator Russ Feingold asks, "Is there an adequately robust and thoughtful debate underway in the country about our foreign policy choices? What issues are being overlooked?"
No, Senator, the foreign policy debate sucks. It's not you. Your criticisms of Condoleezza Rice have consistently exemplified what and how we ought to be debating. The Civilian Linguists Reserve Corps was long overdue. Your statement of policy on Africa was right on target. The Northern Ugandan Crisis Response Act expressed the right attitude to take towards that deplorable situation; I only hope that the sense of Congress in some way informs administration policy. After all, you have signed on as a cosponsor to the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act as well as the Darfur Accountably Act, and just look at what's happened. As the African specialist on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, you have an obligation to ensure that the important provisions contained in these bills do not languish in committee. They must be put before the Congress, debated and enacted into law.
Senator, recently you have initiated a discussion of withdrawing United States armed forces from Iraq. Your approach to the issue strikes me as sensible, highminded, and fair. Your proposals ought to be the perfect place to begin having a public discussion of this issue. Unfortunately, that's not the way things work. As you well know, Senator, the debate over withdrawing US troops had already been joined, sides had been taken, and the rhetoric had become polarized. The need for sensible debate is apparent, but the current political climate mitigates against being (or remaining) sensible. It just sucks.
On Wednesday, the Foreign Relations Committee heard testimony from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice--well, Senator Lugar, Senator Biden and you heard her testimony. The others appeared to be too busy to show up for the opening statements and testimony, though quite a few Senators did saunter in in time to castigate the Secretary for not finding the time to meet with the Committee, or else to praise her for coming to tell it like is. And so on. Political soap opera.
Senator, I beleive the problem goes deeper than the fact that politicians thrive on mugging for the cameras. Perhaps over the course of decades, campaign finance reform will ameliorate the unbearable stupidness of the present situation. But I have doubts. Today's leading politicians are tailoring their messages to appeal to their base, the most ideologically and emotionally overwrought segments of the polity. Just where are these leading politicians leading us?
I listened to Wes Clark's Democratic radio address on Iraq. General Clark spoke against the idea of expedited withdrawal, and while I don't feel he made a strong case in that short address, he did sound a note that resonated with me: "There is no alternative to success in Iraq," he said. For that he was ridiculed in the echo chambers of the left. In the echo chambers of the right, General Clark was ridiculed for criticizing the President. So I can see why some politicians would want to avoid sounding like rational people the majority of Americans would want to vote for, but I can't say that I condone it.
Senator, I appreciated the statement you gave at the hearing before you began your questioning of Secretary Rice.
The title of this hearing is “Iraq in U.S. Foreign Policy” and that strikes me as a good start, because we need to make sure that our Iraq policy is advancing our foreign policy and national security goals – not obstructing them, as seems to be the case currently. The Administration continues to speak about “staying the course” in Iraq, with the apparent end-goal being elimination of the current insurgency and establishment of a peaceful, democratic state. That is a laudable ambition, but it is not – it cannot be -- the basis for our foreign policy or our national security strategy. Our current largely single-minded and somewhat self-defeating focus on Iraq is causing us to overlook what should be our most fundamental goal – combating the global terrorist networks that continue to threaten the United States.
A question, Senator: Do you see any alternative to the "elimination of the current insurgency and establishment of a peaceful, democratic state" in Iraq? Well, we can unpack any of those terms. That's what the hearing was for, ideally. But let's just say that as a matter of realism you're willing to entertain the possibility of not defeating the current insurgency and establishing a peaceful, democratic Iraq. Could it possibly be in our national interests not to pursue these goals? That doesn't appear to be what you're saying in the main, and yet by your choice of the words "laudable ambition," you suggest that you might not share that ambition, laudable as it may be.
Senator, you are probably familiar with the publication American Prospect. Lately its writers have been positioning you for the 2008 presidential race. You will be running as an "anti-war" candidate, pitted against leading "pro-war" candidates. You may be perfectly comfortable being in that position, Senator, but I feel I must express a word of caution about the way the debate is being framed, and what that framing could entail for the prospects of Democratic leadership, and the future direction of United States foreign policy. By way of illustration, the November Issue of American Prospect features an article lambasting the "liberal hawks" who supported the invasion of Iraq. (See also Armed Liberal's response.) The article's central argument, the critique of the "incompetence dodge," seems fair enough to me. But I have to raise an objection, which is a matter of tone and framing and really a question of who is being addressed and for what purposes: I do not see the value of rehashing the debate over the Iraq War Resolution. Not in this way. I fear that this debate is for idiots and opportunists. It cannot be left at that, for as the article points out, the idea of "humanitarian intervention" has come under attack, and this has dire consequence for the world we would want to inhabit. So I agree with the authors, Rosenfeld and Yglesias, that the lessons of the Iraq War are more profound than the case against President Bush's handling of the war. The credibility of a liberal foreign policy is at stake. That I find unacceptable.
What I want, Senator, is for people to understand the principles behind your opposition to the Iraq War Resolution. In your floor statements, you passed quickly over the issue of the Bush administration's expanding doctrine of preemption. I want you to revisit that issue, not necessarily as a counterpoint to the current administration, but definitely as an affirmative statement of national defense policy. Under what circumstances is military force to be used? To what ends? How should we approach threat assessment in the wake of the September 11th attacks? Finally, Senator, I want to urge an openness to new facts and disclosures. It may be etched in stone somewhere that the Bush administration will never, ever admit to having made a mistake, or having been misinformed. So? It's not as if the administration has never corrected its course, tacitly. If the administration's attitude is a defensive posture against gotcha journalism and partisan bickering, then what's the rational alternative? What's the expression, "Be the change you want to see in the world"? Yeah, that's it.
Friday, October 21, 2005
Michael Kinsley writes, "The court's equation of money with speech is the despair of biens-pensants everywhere, but especially at the New York Times." A bit of parapraxis? Four bits for sure. With the help of a librarian--did you know that word "librarian" used to refer to a bibliopole, a word of absolutely no currency?--I was able to find an entry for bien pensants in the Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases, a volume which isn't technically or practically incunabulum, for incunabula are within reach of the common netizen, as are the writings of Marcel Proust--You know Proust, the guy who wrote A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, which I won't attempt to translate for fear of sounding, well, I won't even say it, because nobody talks like that among right thinking people--it's the kind of opinion that carries a lot of baggage, or goods--whatever. The moment's passed. Anyway, I don't believe Proust is the proximate source for the expression, and the clue is the hyphen, which shouldn't be there of course, but often is, even when used as Kinsley uses it. The source for that particular usage may be Georges Bernanos' la Grande Peur des bien-pensants, which, if the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to be believed, is a broadside against divagations, and I think there's a linguistic argument to be made for this or something like this as the source of the usage, for although the Oxford Dictionary's usage notes would be quite correct were bien and pensants smuggled into English separately, in fact the two French words are conjoined in editorialist parlance in such a way as to strongly suggest the psychic unity of the word. But this happens in French too, so it's not a very good argument. Besides, I didn't consult Oxford for a definition or usage notes. I just wanted to find the origin of the phrase. (It was pretty useless, hence my grasping for clues.) Maybe it's kind of like "fifty-cent word," a phrase frequently attributed to Mark Twain (not his real name, btw), although if he did coin the phrase surely he wasn't paid more than 21¢ for it.
--That word "holophotal," it's funny I had just been searching for insights into Ibn al-Haytham's phenomenology, such as it might be (he's known as a mathematician and physicist), and isn't it funny what we take for granted, like we "know" where light comes from, and just this morning I had been humming "Ain't Going to Work on Maggie's Farm No More," which pops in my head whenever I notice the floor needs sweeping, so I came accross the phrase "Subterranean holophotal extemporaneousness" and it just clicked.
"A working reconstruction of an ancient Greek computer, the Antikythera mechanism, which was found at the bottom of the ocean in 1900 has been unveiled and is on display at the Technopolis museum, in Athens." More at slashdot.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
National Review editor Michael Leeden says that we're not dealing with people like us. To illustrate the difference between Western democracies and the Iranian government, Leeden repeats a news story about Iranian government officials reaching agreements with the 12th Imam, whom they contact by dropping letters in a well at the Jamkaran Mosque--which I believe is on the outskirts of Qom, not in Isfahan (or "Ifahan"), as Leeden says. If simple facts of geography are so easily garbled in this little game of wiretap (a spy-vs-spy variation on telephone), imagine what violence has been done to ideas. One needn't be a theologian to see the problem. What does "hidden" mean? Any kind of hidden? What does it mean in the context of the Hidden Imam? Are we supposed to believe that the only meaning of being hidden that has any bearing is the most literal one? It's awfully easy to mock literalism, or fundamentalism, but it requires a bit of effort to seriously challenge its premises, to say nothing of what is required to honestly contribute to the public discourse on international relations. A first step might be to disambiguate the literal, recognizing that in our current debates different senses of literal meaning are being covered by the same term.
Leeden anticipates my next criticism, saying "We are not dealing with people like us (although a couple of the more hyper columnists at, say, the New York Times might well suspect that there are lots of evangelicals who secretly aspire to this sort of behavior)." For the record, I am not affiliated with the New York Times; I would agree with the sentiment that opinion leaders on the left have displayed a prejudice against Evangelical Christians, and in some instances a deep antipathy that reflects poorly on liberals; I believe the difference between the fundamentalist view and the liberal view has been subjected to all manner of demagoguery, hype and idiocy. However, there is a genuine difference of view. To see the difference, one need not fantasize that the Other side of the debate is hatching secret plots against the republic. For example, there is nothing secretive about the Constitution Restoration Act of 2005, (deceptive, yes, but it's a matter of public record). I agree with the blogger Christian Democrat, who sees this an attempt to move towards a more theocratic union. For it is truly neither democratic nor republican to acknowledge God as the "sovereign source of law, liberty or government." That is precicely a religious view. While citizens are entilted to hold and express such views--indeed, it's rather an obligation of citizenship to express one's deeply held beliefs--. when legislators seek to codify such beliefs, or when judicial authorities express such a belief as if it were canonical rather than personal, then a line has been crossed. My view of that line set forward in the Establishment Clause is Jeffersonian, and I generally have a respect for First Amendment stare decisis. Yet I welcome arguments from other points of view, and on the face of it I am hardpressed to imagine how a strict constructionist or an originalist in the mold of, say, Clarence Thomas, could seriously interpret the language of the Constitution Restoration Act as anything other than unconstitutional--In good faith. (Now, a lax constructionist or a strict contortionalist view, that I can imagine, but that's begging the question; Most openmindedly, I genuinely fail to see how an originalist reading of the Establishment Clause can support a law that singles out a certain kind of statement of monotheistic belief for legal protection.)
So here's a question: In Michael Leeden's America, would a judge be empowered to declare that the 12th Imam is the sovereign source of law? From the bench? Should a judge have that power? I can envisage a counterargument along the lines of, well, if that's what the people believed, then a judge would have that power. However, since that's not what a majority of Americans believe, it's the duty of right-minded conservatives to expose such beliefs to public scrutiny (and ridicule, as neccessary) to ensure that the majority of the polity is never subjected to the tyranny of the Weird.
Well, I'm sure I've already misrepresented the conservative viewpoint enough to make my point. So now to some facts that may clarify matters. According to demographic data from the Census Bureau, there are nearly 300 million people in the United States, of whom nearly 80% identify as Christians. It used to be that nearly 90% of Americans identified as Christians. The second largest group identifies as "No religion/athiest/agnostic." (It would be interesting to see that broken down.) The fastest growing non-Christian groups are "Non-denomenational," Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Athiests/Agnostics, in that order. By my reckoning, there should be about 1.75 million Muslims in the United States. (There are of course other sources that put that number higher or lower.) Suffice it to say there are a whole bunch of Muslims in the United States, and among them a large number of Shia Muslims. A fifth perhaps? I wouldn't know, but several hundred thousand to be sure, and among those certainly a large number who accept the basic tenets concerning the 12th Imam, that he has gone into occlusion and will reappear in more blissful times--something along those lines, I wouldn't really know. Are we to assume that these people are not Americans, or that they are somehow unamerican because of their religious beliefs? That they're not like us? That's bigotry, pure and simple.
Several years ago Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Secretary of Defense, gave a speech at the First Shia Muslim Convention in North America. After his speech, an audience member complained about the distorted image of Shia Muslims that was being presented in the media. Wolfowitz replied, in part:
The first point and I don’t want to dwell on this but part of the problem is not the media. Part of the problem is the image the tyrannical of Iran [sic] has projected to the world, a false image of Shia. This group I believe is wonderful because you’re speaking American words of Shia and the message you’re sending and the message I have heard tonight is an America message of tolerance and diversity.
I know there are some bloggers, say anybody who posts regularly at the Daily Kos, who will question Wolfowitz's veracity, and I won't pretend there aren't contradictions involved in using Wolfowitz as a source to make this point (and a garbled transcript no less), but it's an interesting point, because there are things that the Iranian government does that make Islam appear hostile to the West. You know, the whole "Death to America" business, not just on national holidays, but right in the middle of Hajj. (I referenced a source from 1999, but if you google "Hajj" and "Death to America" you can see that this is a constant of Iranian diplomacy.) Throw in some hostage-taking, assassination fatwas, support for international terrorism, and naked ambitions to acquire a nuclear arsenal, and you have the makings of a real international conflict. Add decades of brutal repression and human rights abuses, and it becomes difficult for a lot of people in the West to identify with or feel empathy towards the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, much less endorse them politically. How can Iran's unabashedly hostile projection of Islamicism not be doing damage to the image of Islam in the West? In the ordinary consciousness of non-Muslims, it would be easy to go from questioning Iran's Islamic Revolution to questioning the Islamist project, to questioning Islam itself. It may be intellectually shoddy, but it's pretty understandable. That I think would be a point of international and interfaith dialogue, something Muslims and non-Muslims would want to address.
So I am confounded by the agenda of avowedly pro-American conservatives who argue that we should be attending to absolute differences of faith rather than the United States' legitimate, easily comprehensible political disagreements with the Iranian government. The best explanation for it I have is xenophobia, but it's not enough to say that anymore. The denials of xenophobia are as much a part of the problem as original expressions of xenophobia. This cannot be a matter of debate, for some obvious reasons (How do you know Jim's a xenophobe? Because he denies he's a xenophobe.) Rather it must be a matter of introspection, or it isn't worth considering. I will make the same case for "autophobia." (I want to give that term a specific meaning apart from its common psychoanalytic meaning of "the fear of being alone"; namely I want it to mean "a fear of oneself," a phenomenon commonly talked about as "self-loathing" or "self-hatred.") Xenophobia and autophobia do not primarily describe distinct personality types or political posititions, though they indeed have been incorporated into the routine structures of the person and hence subjected to political manipulation. Primarily they point to two polarities of response to an existential crisis of identity. They represent expressions of bad faith in the Sartrean sense, signalling both an acknowledgement and a denial of an absolute negativity within one's core. Says Sartre, "The very essence of the reflexive idea of hiding something from oneself implies the unity of one and the same psychic mechanism and consequently a double activity in the heart of unity, tending on the one hand to maintain and locate the thing to be concealed and on the other hand to repress and disguise it." It's on this basis that I see xenophobia as an expression of bad faith, for a simple projection of a negative attitude towards others onto others shouldn't require any self deception, but xenophobia appears completely unable to accomplish this projection without a self-deceptive maneuver. I agree with Sartre that such self-deception cannot have a psychologistic explanation, or resort to any other kind of mediary, but must be seen as a problem of consciousness, i.e. bad faith. One can imagine a good faith xenophobic sentiment, but that kind of xenophobia is almost always ascribed to others rather than claimed for oneself. Nobody wants to own the idea of hating other people just because they are different. (Or hating the self simply because it is the same.) Perhaps the most satisfying explication of this repression lies in the cultural horizon, but I'm not certain that it isn't a problem of pure consciousness which has only become more acute in recent years.
I'd like to cite another example of this phenomenon to make my case. Tuesday's Washington Post featured an editorial by Patricia Bauer under the headline The Abortion Debate No One Wants to Have. Bauer's piece has profound implications, reaching far beyond the current abortion debate--and I'm not just saying that to get around discussing the issue. The issue is whether it is moral or immoral to abort a fetus because it has been diagnosed with a congenital disability. Bauer suggests that it would be immoral to do so, but more to the point she argues that her decision to have a child with a developmental disability was absolutely not immoral. Surely there are ways in which Bauer is deceiving herself, and just as surely they don't really matter. None of us is perfect. Life goes on. To live as if we were perfect beings--is that what authenticity requires? If so, it would have to be enacted, as Sartre suggests, as self-recovery or rehabilitation. One is not given a perfect life. Even genetically engineered people, should they come to be, will have to grapple with the issue of their essential thrownness.
But what if it were possible? What if one could be given a perfect life? Who wouldn't want to bestow that upon their progeny? Nobody would set out to be the proud father of an Epsilon-Minus Semi Moron. Frederic Chopin, conceived amidst a good deal of genetic randomness, composed some pieces for the piano that sometimes require one finger to hit two notes simultaneously. He also suffered terribly from mental illness. If he had been engineered to play the piano like the pianist in GATTACA, he would have had six fingers and no mental illness. Now seriously contemplate that it would be possible to genetically engineer the one and only Frederic Chopin. Would that be ethical? Would one also have to recreate his entire milieu? Same issue, I think. We can't undo the Napoleonic Wars, and it seems kind of fishy to want to do them again, for whatever outcome.
But that's not how it is. We live going forward, towards perfection, never from it. Sure, our bodies decay, but it's a kind of bad faith to imagine that we were ever perfect, that we weren't always heading into the future, towards something better. Growing old is a bitter pill to swallow for many, but there's only one alternative, and it has nothing to do with living. That really is the way things are.
To come to the point, then, I see in Bauer's piece a convergence of the fear of the other and the fear of the yet to be. Are we afraid of the other's freedom? Richard Rodriguez, in his most recent essay for the NewsHour, observed that "In America, a fear of Islam leads many non-Muslims to see Islam as the monolith next door. Yet in a recent poll, a majority of Americans indicated an admiration of Islam. One senses envy among many Americans, envy of the Muslims' freedom to worship in the public square, in ancient desert cities." And we must ask the corollary, are we afraid of our own freedom? Is that what must be repressed? Are there conditions in the American life today that make it especially difficult to take responsibility for one's own freedom? An aging populace? An aging republic, perhaps? Could that explain the rash of bad faith xenophobia?
Fido the Yak is in absolutely no position to answer these questions. So I leave you with two different views of what's going on in the world, our world: ArchNet, and The Threat from Iran, by Kenneth Pollack.
Monday, October 17, 2005
The first time I heard bassist Charnett Moffett he was playing with Kenny Garrett. It was unforgetable, just brilliant. Over the following months, I sought out and listened to Moffett's recorded work, but none of it quite impressed me the way his live performance had. So I filed it away.
Recently I picked up McCoy Tyner's Land of Giants, featuring Tyner on Piano, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Eric Harland on Drums, and Moffett on bass. Land of Giants is yet another of those "It's just not possible for me to diappoint you" recordings one expects from Tyner. Stylistically it's straightup modern jazz, but the energy and musicianship of the performers make it impossible to take for granted. At any moment, you could be astounded. Totally floored, as I was on hearing Moffett's solo on Tyner's tune, "The Search." There is a moment of unfathomable uniqueness, and then you realize that this is the way the music is supposed to sound. I don't know how Tyner does it, but I know he does it. Besides being a genius at the piano, he consistently brings out the best in the musicians he plays with, on stage and in the studio.
Shortly after Land of Giants came out, Moffett described in an interview how working with Tyner had contributed to his own musical development.
…So the only thing I can really tell you is that I’m trying to be honest with the things I hear and the way I hear the music, the way I’ve been taught and raised into this music. I was always taught to be yourself. You have to know your history, but you have to go forward also. That’s one of the great things about working with McCoy. He has such a great lineage throughout the music from his beginning to where he is now. I remember talking to him about themes of this subject matter, and he said, "Sometimes you gotta go like the palm tree. You have to be able to flow with things. In a storm, you have to bend to this side, and sway back to the other side." [That’s] very evident in his playing. Now it’s bringing out another element of my playing. To be able to be grounded and centered, but also to be able to go with whatever happens with respect to wherever we are in the composition. Because what happens a lot of times is, we’ll be playing a standard or even a blues and we’ll be playing the tune and we’ll improvise off of the form of the changes of the song. Then out of nowhere, McCoy will go on this extended creative run that will have everything to do with the tune in terms of the melodic and harmonic structure, yet free of the form. It keeps me on my toes because I have to accompany him in a way that’s appropriate without being selfish because it’s always about putting the music first so you can make the best choices and the best sound that’s harmonious with the environment. So that’s the wonderful thing about playing music…it really brings people together. It’s a very exciting thing for me to be a part of because it’s creatively inspiring and musically interesting.
Basically, the more comfortable you are with yourself, the more comfortable you are with others. And sometimes understanding yourself can be the most difficult thing in the world. Because you are constantly changing. Not because you don’t have a focus point, but because you are seeking new ideas and information all the time. So if you’re interested—so if you have that way of wanting to live—then you know that you’re constantly in a search. That was one of the great things about playing that composition—“The Search”—on the Land of Giants. That’s basically why I’m having a great time with McCoy right now. The things I’m interested in developing in my life, not only musically, but personally—they all coincide with each other—basically, he’s already gotten to a point where he understands these things and I’m trying to take the opportunity to learn and grow from him.
Charnett Moffett: File under "G" for Giant.
Labels: Bobby Hutcherson, Charnett Moffett, Eric Harland, Kenny Garrett, McCoy Tyner, music
Sunday, October 16, 2005
This post is my contribution to Spotlight on Darfur 2.
On October 1st, 2005, the African Union's envoy to the Sudan, Baba Gana Kingibe, leveled a serious charge against the government of Sudan:
As you may well know, AMIS patrol teams have often encountered restrictions to their movement, particularly in SLA-controlled areas. The SLA commanders have often cited lack of prior notification, and more significantly the use by GOS forces of vehicles painted in AMIS colours which makes it extremely difficult for them to distinguish friend from foe. In these latest incidences, we indeed observed some GOS vehicles painted in white colour, giving credence to the claim by the SLA. We, therefore, view as unacceptable and in violation of all established norms and conventions the use of a neutral parties colours by belligerents as is done by the GOS forces. This practice of painting some of the vehicles in AMIS colours was witnessed during the attack on Tawila, and a couple of days earlier in Shangil Tobaya. We urge the GOS forces to stop forthwith this unethical practice in order to maintain the integrity and neutrality of the AMIS forces. We now call upon the GOS forces, as indeed we had called upon the rebel movements before, to immediately cease any further acts of violations of the ceasefire on the ground. I appeal to them to honour the sacredness of the holy month of Ramadan into which we are now entering and stop the bloodshed in Darfur, to stop any further suffering of the innocent population of Darfur, especially those living on handouts in the IDP camps, and allow them to observe the holy month in serenity, peace and dignity.
International humanitarian law, in particular Article 37 of the first additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, clearly prohibits perfidy, defined in part as "the feigning of protected status by the use of signs, emblems or uniforms of the United Nations or of neutral or other States not Parties to the conflict." The reasoning behind the prohibition against perfidy is self-evident: perfidy on the battlefield endangers civilians and combatants who might otherwise be protected by the laws of war. Even a limited, tactical use of perfidy has grave implications for international humanitarian law. Indeed, bringing about a situation of partial or total lawlessness may conceivably be a strategic aim of those who employ perfidy. Thus acts of perfidy may justly be said to be in violation of all established norms and conventions.
The government of Sudan, as one might expect, is not a signatory to the first additional protocol. (The United States, of which I am a citizen, has signed but not ratified the treaty; in my view this is a mistake.) Sudan, has, however, committed itself to international human rights treaties, including the Banjul Charter on Human and People's Rights. The Banjul Charter was originally an instrument of the Organization of African Unity, and it now falls under the purview of the African Union. The Banjul Charter makes a remarkable contribution to the discussion of international human rights, in that it enunciates a broad range of rights and obligations, some of which had not been recognized in previous human rights documents. The Banjul Charter is also remarkable for the fact that a handful of its signatories have made a complete mockery of its principles. It's perhaps not an unfair reading of the history of the Organization of African Unity to say that such mockery of its founding principles contributed greatly to its slide into irrelevance, and that the greatest challenge facing the African Union is how to avoid becoming another "club for dictators and a useless bureaucratic talk shop."
Sudan responded to Kingibe's accusations as per usual: by attacking the messenger, as well as its means of delivery, diverting attention away from the message itself.
Ambassador Kingibe deliberately opted to address the media directly without first resorting to and abiding by the established norms and rules of procedure.
In his address to the media he also violated other diplomatic norms by the language he used and the phrases he selected to raise his concerns as a Special Representative of the Chairperson of the African Union.
He is not in position to give moral lessons to a founding member of the African Union or to judge, without verification, whether the Government of the Sudan is acting in good faith or respecting its commitments.
Kingibe, for his part, has said that he does indeed have films and pictures to support his claims that Government of Sudan helicopter gunships were recently involved in attacks against civilians. Whether he will be releasing any similar evidence of perfidy, I do not know, but I have seen no reason to doubt his credibility so far, and that puts him head and shoulders above some of the other concerned entities. As for Kingibe's position to give moral lessons to a founding member of the African Union, one wonders exactly whom the government of Sudan has been relying upon for moral guidance. Legally, Special Representative Kingibe indeed appears to be in a position to give moral lessons to the government of Sudan. Article 4 of the African Union Charter reads:
The Peace and Security Council shall be guided by the principles enshrined in the Constitutive Act, the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It shall, in particular, be guided by the following principles:
peaceful settlement of disputes and conflicts;
early responses to contain crisis situations so as to prevent them from developing into full-blown conflicts;
respect for the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedoms, the sanctity of human life and international humanitarian law;
interdependence between socio-economic development and the security of peoples and States;
respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Member States;
non interference by any Member State in the internal affairs of another;
sovereign equality and interdependence of Member States;
inalienable right to independent existence;
respect of borders inherited on achievement of independence;
the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, in accordance with Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act;
the right of Member States to request intervention from the Union in order to restore peace and security, in accordance with Article 4(j) of the Constitutive Act.
Sudan's understanding of its commitment seems to be that it can ignore those items in the charter that it finds unpleasant, or that its national soveriegnty trumps all other considerations. It would be laughable if only the consequences weren't so pernicious. What have been the consequences of perfidy to date? In the past several weeks, African Union peacekeepers have been taken hostage, and a total of seven peacekeepers have been killed by rebel groups. Rebel factions have challenged the impartiality of the African Union, the Abuja talks are on the brink of collapse, threatening the agreed-upon ceasefire. As the violence has escalated beyond the capacity of the African Union peacekeepers to control, the United Nations has evacuated non-essential staff from West Darfur, a move which will deprive many thousands of people of desperately needed food, water, medicine and other supplies. All in all there has been another wretched turn of events over the past month, and while perfidy cannot be the sole cause, it surely has caused damage.
It occurs to me Kingibe may have said one thing in particular that got under the skin of the Sudanese government, namely his appeal "to honour the sacredness of the holy month of Ramadan." Surely it's not news to the government that dropping bombs on civilians is unholy. And having claimed to govern according to Islamic principles, they are hardly in a moral position to object to such an entreaty. What's at stake, it would seem, is whether Muslims around the world will come to identify with the Muslims who are being slaughtered during the month of Ramadan, or the government that is using its armed forces to slaughter them.
In thinking about the issue of human rights, I had turned to Richard Rorty's essay, "Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality" (in Stephen Shute and Susan Hurley, eds., On Human Rights (New York: Basic Books, 1993)), and found it rather useless. Rather, because there would appear to some warrant for the claim that human rights are grounded in educated moral sentiments rather than some form of knowledge or reason. Useless, because I'm not sure the philosophical problem Rorty addresses hasn't been eclipsed by a more urgent set of problems arising from willful and flagrant betrayals of international law. Another essay in that volume, Jean-François Lyotard's "The Other's Rights," seems much more germaine. Lyotard's argument, crudely put, is that what we call human rights represents a respect for the other which arises from and is governed by the addressivity of language. Lyotard describes a fundamental right to speak, one which is not natural, but civic:
We should then distinguish three different levels of the "right to speak." First, the faculty of interlocution, a principle factually inherent in human languages; second, the legitimation of speech, due to the fact that it announces something other, which it strives to make us understand; and last, the legitimacy of speech, the positive right to speak, which recognizes in the citizen the right to address the citizen. The latter aspect merges the two former. But this confusion is good. By authorizing every possible speaker to address others, the republic makes it every speaker's duty to announce to those others what they do not know. It encourages announcements; it instructs. And, on the other hand, it forbids that anyone be arbitrarily deprived of speech. It discourages terror. In this way it governs silence in everyone's best interest, authorizing the silence of discipline and outlawing the silence of despotism.
How can we judge perfidy in light of Lyotard's formulation? We certainly have the capacity to announce things that aren't true, but we hardly have that right (setting aside the problem of literary fictions and such), any more than we have a right not to take moral lessons or not to be civilized. Perfidy represents a direct assault on humanity's collective ability to bestow legitimacy. The victims of Sudan's perfidy are thus not only the people who are suffering and dying in Darfur at this very moment, but each and every one of us who is able to speak.
Friday, October 14, 2005
Slate is fundamentally different from most print media. When editor Jacob Weisberg sets out to sow dissent, he knows that he's responsible for his own facts. This responsibility keeps Weisberg from succumbing to the laziness and carelessness of print journalism, and it allows him to be very upfront about what he doesn't know. And cutesy too. Endangered baby pandas on the moon--Isn't that just too cute?
I read recently that the HIV infection rate in the Mulanje District of Malawi is about 29%, which is the twice the national average. Malawi has been in the news lately (though not Slate), because it's pretty much at the epicenter of a regional food crisis, brought about by a combination of severe drought and AIDS. One may also point to endemic poverty and questionable policy decisions at every level as contributing factors, although if I were one of Malawi's half a million or so AIDS orphans, I don't know how much sophisticated analysis of my situation I could stomach. What one really needs is nsima, and to go with it, some vegetables or maybe even once a week some fish or some chicken. That would be a start.
A warning, gentle reader. If you surf through some of the links provided above, you will likely come across disclaimers along the lines of "This report contains images some viewers may find distressing." Indeed, you may even find distressing images and facts unprefaced by any disclaimer. A sure way to avoid being distressed by suffering in the world today would be to get your news from Slate, where you can enjoy becoming incensed over things that don't really matter, secure in the knowledge that the editors would never think of exposing you to anything more terrible than say, oh, endangered baby pandas on the moon.
Thursday, October 13, 2005
During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.
Get your epiphany on: A high quality recording of the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane has been discovered. I stumbled across this news on October 10th (ht Armwood Jazz Blog), a redletter day which happened to be Columbus Day this year. Serendipity. Hmm.
....Waiting for the man in Brown. Meanwhile, NPR has put up three complete cuts, "Monk's Mood," "Bye-Ya," and "Epistrophy" (follow the link at the top). Bluenote has posted a clip of "Evidence" and "Monk's Mood," as well as mp3s for itunes subscribers.
What's the significance of these recordings? If you have to ask, it's going to be hard to explain--but I'll give it a shot. Coltrane's gig with the Monk Quartet at the Five Spot is legendary among Jazz heads for several reasons. First, it marked Monk's return to live performance in New York after having been denied his cabaret card. Monk was still on top of it, brimming with musical ideas that were being heard for the first time outside of Monk's circle of friends. Secondly, the tenure with Monk marked a crucial phase in the development of Coltrane's music. In the space of a few years, Coltrane went from being a gifted soloist in the mold of Charlie Parker to being a musical titan, a genuis of American music in his own right.
Listen to the tune, "Blue Train," recorded in September of 1957. (Lucas Pickford has offered a good transcription of Trane's solo. Once again, the Real Book, and some other printed transcriptions of the head are misleading. The tune is not a minor blues, but a straight up blues, as Pickford correctly notes. To dig this music, you must be able to hear the difference between a #9 and a minor third. In the tonic, too.) Okay, so how does one get from "Blue Train" to "Giant Steps," released in 1960? "Giant Steps" introduced to the Jazz World the idea of a triparite division of the twelve-tone scale integrated with traditional ii-V-I chord changes. ("Giant Steps" also features a wholetone scale in the bass line which is often overlooked.) This pattern of modulating changes became known as Coltrane changes. They have become ingrained in the jazz lexicon. One sees music books with titles like "John Coltrane plays Coltrane Changes" and scarcely bats an eye.
So what does this have to do with Monk? Well, one thing Monk had already accomplished was the breakdown of the twelve-tone system, and the superposition of intervalic patterns that can be modulated or sequenced over familiar progressions. An understanding of the tune as a relationship between sets of intervals or intervalic figures rather than chord progressions was already nascent in bebop, and can be heard as far back as the Minton's Play House recordings featuring Monk and Charlie Christian, among others. By 1957 a lot of this thinking had already been absorbed, and had even become cliched in some forumulations. Everybody knew for example that you could substitute descending half-steps over a circle of fourths, or vice versa. But cats who were hip to this as simply tritone chord subsitutions were taking a lot for granted. Additionally, since the swing era a lot of cats had been hip to the wholetone phenomenon, and full diminished chords in the dominant position. There were some interesting explorations of these realms by some of the era's leading musicians (off the top of my head Ellington, Strayhorn, Reinhardt, Hawkins and Young), but typically in the context of a traditional understanding of the tune, a practical recieved wisdom about the relationship between melodic tones and functional harmony. Monk tunes are remarkable for a number of reasons, but two features in particular mark a departure point for the music that followed: (1) Monk tunes often thematicize particular intervals, with the bridge (in ballad forms) or the turnaround (in blues forms) being used to present contrasting material; and (2) Monk tunes frequently explore unstable or ambiguous tonalities. As good example as any would be "Epistrophy," which became Monk's signature tune in the 1950's.
Hearing Trane solo on "Epistrophy" is just amazing. A lot of horn players won't even touch it. They'll just play the head and let it go at that. Even horn players that fronted for Monk would often demur. It is the essence of Monk's deceptive simplicity. Coltrane attacks it with energy, and it's obvious that he understands the harmonic ideas laid out in the head. It's about the tritone subsitution at the same time it explores the full diminished chord in the tonic, with an unusual (though charterisic of Monk) accent on sixths. The tune begins on c# and ends on e, or. more to the point, it explores the movement from bb to e first as it relates to a movement from C#9 to D9, then finally, after some modulations, a bridge and so on, it comes back to that interval, umphently, to sound it in itself. So where's the tonic? How can you be sure? It stands as a pretty good example of a fourpart division of the twelvetone scale being superimposed upon a familiar bop chord movement. I think it's evident that Coltrane understands it that way, and then some--but I definitely need to hear it some more before pressing the point.
And it may be beside the point. One has to concede the possibility. Of all things happening in Coltrane's life that might have contributed to his spiritual awakening, these little musical epiphanies may not have been the most vital. There is an understanding of the music that would place the epiphany at the center of the music, especially in the wake of the bebop revolution and the accomplishments of its leading exponent, Charlie Parker. But there are dissenters, Pat Metheny for instance, who view this whole business of finding epiphanies in extemporaneous performance as a myth. Even if you don't find any epiphanies in this recording of the Monk Quartet featuring John Coltrane, you might be able to hear specific licks or vague musical ideas that crop up later on the album Giant Steps. So it's an interesting bit of jazz history. And you will hear a very beautiful rendition of "Monk's Mood," which may yet supplant the studio version on Thelonious Himself (on which Coltrane plays uncredited) as the quintessential version.
Monday, October 10, 2005
There's a nice collection of essays over at the Organization of Phenomenological Organizations.--not particularly well-organized, mind you. The essays cover a broad range of phenomenological topics. Many of them have been written in or translated into English.
I expect I'll be returning to "Kantian Euclidean Space and Husserlian Material Ontologies" by José Ruiz Fernández in the coming years. Years. Having been so completely taken aback by "Origins of Geometry," I can't be sure yet if I'll be able to retrace or elucidate a thematic moment, if you will, or if it will be buried under a heap of propaedeutics. Time will tell, or it won't.
Friday, October 07, 2005
Is there such an animal as a post-Dead Man Jarmusch? More and more I'm thinking no, it's all Jarmusch beginning to end. His latest offering, Broken Flowers, has a kind of a broken record quality which will be familiar to Jarmusch fans. It revisits themes explored in Jarmusch's early films, and it reiterates a narrative idea that will instantly recall Stranger than Paradise, but not until it actually occurs, at which point the peculiarities of Jarmucshian realism on display in the film will acquire a deep significance. It's a real ah hah moment, or was for me.
To summarize the plot, the film is about a guy named Don Johnston with a T who gets thrown for a loop in the form of a letter from a former lover--but which former lover?--informing him that he is a father to a grown son who has just set out on a journey to find him. So it's a Don Juan tale with a twist. Bill Murray gives a very good performance, as every reviewer and his dog has averred.
I'm pretty sure the character of Winston, played by the criminally underappreciated actor Jeffrey Wright, was concocted for the purpose of introducing the music of Mulatu Astatqe. Good call.
So why not say that Dead Man was a departure and Broken Flowers marks a return? Well, for one thing there's the intervening Coffee and Cigarettes, which is light, farcical, minimalist, bouyant at times, electric, Jarmuschian to the core, and yet, like Dead Man, probes a darker side of the existential predicament.
And then there's Ghost Dog, a great film in its own right. It doesn't belong in the shadow of Dead Man any more than it belongs in the shadow of Mystery Train--except, except of course that there is a chronological sequence, and I'd say an evident process of maturation. But to pick any one point in the process as marking a stage seems pretty arbitrary. Every film is a departure. Every film is a return.
The McCain Amendment prohibiting the mistreatment of detainees was agreed to in the Senate by a margin of 90 to 9. (Senator Corzine who was not present surely would have voted aye). Reportedly President Bush has pledged to veto the measure. That would be truly despicable. The editors of the Washington Post put their fingers on what a veto would signify: "Let's be clear: Mr. Bush is proposing to use the first veto of his presidency on a defense bill needed to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan so that he can preserve the prerogative to subject detainees to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. In effect, he threatens to declare to the world his administration's moral bankruptcy."
When I followed the debate between Jeremy Waldron and John Yoo, it struck me that the strongest argument in favor of Waldron's position, to which Yoo had no satisfactory answer, concerned the cultural context in which torture is either prohibited or allowed to occur. The McCain amendment addresses this very point. Those who wish to take up Yoo's kind of thinking in earnest would be well served by the McCain amendment, as it removes ambiguity about the standard of treatment that applies to detainees. Political opposition to this legislation will call into question the motives of those who would question the scope, intention, or applicability of international humanitarian law in response to the threat posed by the rise of global terrorist networks.
Senator McCain argued that his amendment was pretty simple and straighforward. Can the same be said of the explanations of the nine Senators who voted against it? The text of the amendment, as agreed to, is as follows:
(Purpose: Relating to persons under the detention, custody, or control of the United States Government)
At the appropriate place, insert the following:
SEC. __. UNIFORM STANDARDS FOR THE INTERROGATION OF PERSONS UNDER THE DETENTION OF THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE.
(a) In General.--No person in the custody or under the effective control of the Department of Defense or under detention in a Department of Defense facility shall be subject to any treatment or technique of interrogation not authorized by and listed in the United States Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation.
(b) Applicability.--Subsection (a) shall not apply to with respect to any person in the custody or under the effective control of the Department of Defense pursuant to a criminal law or immigration law of the United States.
(c) Construction.--Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect the rights under the United States Constitution of any person in the custody or under the physical jurisdiction of the United States.
SEC. __. PROHIBITION ON CRUEL, INHUMAN, OR DEGRADING TREATMENT OR PUNISHMENT OF PERSONS UNDER CUSTODY OR CONTROL OF THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT.
(a) In General.--No individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States Government, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
(b) Construction.--Nothing in this section shall be construed to impose any geographical limitation on the applicability of the prohibition against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment under this section.
(c)Limitation on Supersedure.--The provisions of this section shall not be superseded, except by a provision of law enacted after the date of the enactment of this Act which specifically repeals, modifies, or supersedes the provisions of this section.
(d) Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Defined.--In this section, the term "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment" means the cruel, unusual, and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, as defined in the United States Reservations, Declarations and Understandings to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment done at New York, December 10, 1984.
Last week Secretary of State Dr. Condoleeza Rice delivered a speech to the Woodrow Wilson School in which she outlined current United States policy towards the Middle East, with particular regard to Iraq. Overall it was a tolerable bit of speechmaking, though I did find several points Dr. Rice made to be either disagreeable or problematical. One argument she made stuck in mind:
To support the democratic aspirations, we must recognize that liberty still faces opponents in our world. Some will never support the free choices of their citizens because they stand to lose arbitrary powers and unjust privileges. Others know that the ideology of hatred they espouse can only thrive in a political culture of oppression and poverty and hopelessness. In a world where evil is still very real, democratic principles must be backed with power in all its forms: political, and economic, and cultural, and moral, and yes, sometimes, military. Any champion of democracy who promotes principle without power can make no real difference in the lives of oppressed people.
I was going to let it pass unremarked, but another piece of news arrived that would seem to go to Dr. Rice's point. Yesterday Human Rights Watch issued a sharp condemnation of the war crimes and crimes against humanity which have been committed by the insurgency in Iraq. Surreal juxtaposition: the report is structured and worded like any other report from Human Rights Watch, but it becomes painfully obvious to any thinking reader that several of the groups singled out for criticism really don't care about international humanitarian law. Not one iota. When people say "The U.S. doesn't really care about international humanitarian law," or "The United Nations Commission on Human Rights doesn't really care about international humanitarian law," they are typically pointing to a gap between rhetoric and actual practice, making an accusation of hypocrisy. Often enough it appears that false pretenses pose more of a threat to the social order than actual violations of the integrity of other human beings. But how does one parse the statement, "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia doesn't really care about international humanitarian law?" One can hardly call Al Qaeda hypocrites on that score, for they are in word and in deed irrefutably hostile to international humanitarian law and the humanity it is meant to serve.
So is Dr. Rice right? Can I say meekly that she makes a valid point? Can I go further and say that the current crop of Republicans truly are the legitimate heirs to Wilsonian internationalism? No, I can't.
President Woodrow Wilson, in his Second Inaugural Address, put forward a rather different understanding of the relationship between democratic principles and power.
We are provincials no longer. The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back. Our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not.
And yet we are not the less Americans on that account. We shall be the more American if we but remain true to the principles in which we have been bred. They are not the principles of a province or of a single continent. We have known and boasted all along that they were the principles of a liberated mankind. These, therefore, are the things we shall stand for, whether in war or in peace:
That all nations are equally interested in the peace of the world and in the political stability of free peoples, and equally responsible for their maintenance; that the essential principle of peace is the actual equality of nations in all matters of right or privilege; that peace cannot securely or justly rest upon an armed balance of power; that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed and that no other powers should be supported by the common thought, purpose or power of the family of nations; that the seas should be equally free and safe for the use of all peoples, under rules set up by common agreement and consent, and that, so far as practicable, they should be accessible to all upon equal terms; that national armaments shall be limited to the necessities of national order and domestic safety; that the community of interest and of power upon which peace must henceforth depend imposes upon each nation the duty of seeing to it that all influences proceeding from its own citizens meant to encourage or assist revolution in other states should be sternly and effectually suppressed and prevented.
I need not argue these principles to you, my fellow countrymen; they are your own part and parcel of your own thinking and your own motives in affairs. They spring up native amongst us. Upon this as a platform of purpose and of action we can stand together. And it is imperative that we should stand together. We are being forged into a new unity amidst the fires that now blaze throughout the world. In their ardent heat we shall, in God's Providence, let us hope, be purged of faction and division, purified of the errant humors of party and of private interest, and shall stand forth in the days to come with a new dignity of national pride and spirit. Let each man see to it that the dedication is in his own heart, the high purpose of the nation in his own mind, ruler of his own will and desire.
And in the historic Fourteen Points Speech, President Wilson concluded:
We have spoken now, surely, in terms too concrete to admit of any further doubt or question. An evident principle runs through the whole program I have outlined. It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak.
Unless this principle be made its foundation, no part of the structure of international justice can stand. The people of the United States could act upon no other principle, and to the vindication of this principle they are ready to devote their lives, their honor, and everything that they possess. The moral climax of this, the culminating and final war for human liberty has come, and they are ready to put their own strength, their own highest purpose, their own integrity and devotion to the test.
To a certain degree Rice and Wilson are on the same page, naturally, and yet the difference between their viewpoints is of real consequence. After all, Dr. Rice has gone on the record to say that she has no idea what John Kerry meant by saying that a preemptive exercise of military power must pass a global test, you know, "the global test where your countrymen, your people, understand fully why you're doing what you're doing, and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons."
What place is there in Dr. Rice's view for an international community of interests and of powers? Does she view such a community a prerequisite for lasting peace? Does it not therefore place a check on the legitimate exercize of power? Most essentially, in Wilson's view military power may be said to be secondary or indeed even subordinate to democratic principles. A true Wilsonian would not hold that a militarily weak nation can make no real difference in the lives of oppressed people. On the contrary, according to the Wilsonian view a hypertrophic build up of military power could be said to be a threat to political stability, and profoundly irresponsible--to say the least.
Ah, but Dr. Rice very explicitly said "power in all its forms: political, and economic, and cultural, and moral, and yes, sometimes, military." One gets the sense that the last item in the list may not actually be the last item in the agenda, and the items in the middle are perhaps the most provocative. Unintentionally, perhaps. The trope of hard power vs. soft power is common enough in foggybottom thinking. What assumptions are entailed in such a formulation? That power is some kind of tool one uses to advance national interests, I imagine. A utilitarian or instrumentalist view of military power seems pretty unobjectionable on the face of it. Unlike the other forms of power, military power impinges on the field of ethics primarily as a matter of relations between enemies, to whom our ethical obligations are catagorically limited, and secondarily as a concern for the status of civilians or noncombatants. By contrast, economic power, for instance, more directly involves ethical relations between neutral parties, or, perhaps, in principle, one might say "equals." And that of course is where the instrumentalist view runs into trouble, because if economic relations are not predicated upon relations between equals, then any exercise of economic power would carry with it certain moral imperatives, and if economic relations are predicated upon relations between equals (putatively, more or less), then the wielding of economic power to advance national interests would almost certainly have to be regarded as hostile, or, shall we say, destabilizing.
Well, I'm no economist, that's for sure. These thoughts were suggested to me by the inclusion of that other item in the list: moral power. Moral power? Can we easily accept a view of morality as an instrumentality for the projection of national interests? At this point I may wonder if it was right of me to attribute a utilitarian viewpoint to Dr. Rice. On the other hand, one musn't expect to find the State Department populated by Bodhisattvas. Even in one of the most enlightened liberal democracies, it would seem that people have jobs.
I'll try to pose this as a question of what I'll call shoolboy pragmatism though it may be pragmatist merely for the sake of argument, Heuristically then, what are the consequences of the projection of national power through this modality, the moral? It would be foolish (i.e. impragmatic) to believe that it was of no consequence whatsoever, that morality endures despite what it's made to do. And here, in this subordination of morality to a higher power, we see the possibility of a fatal contradiction, of morality being put in the service of the immoral. Concievably it should be possible at this point to acknowledge the death of the moral--not to be confused with the thesis that morality never existed, though the popularity of that thesis too may be attributable, in part, to the rise of industrial-strength moral power. Or less drastically, we might acknowledge the possibility that morality may cease to be, being subjected to various forms of abuse as it is, and this awareness may compel us, morally, or for other motives, psychological, existential, what have you, towards a revitalization of our own relationship with morality. This would be quite a burden to place on humanity, to say in effect that you, each and every one of you, must perpetually reinvent or rediscover morality for yourselves. Somewhere in here the door has been opened for all kinds of diabolical agencies. Life's hectic enough as it is. Small wonder then that people rebel, or simply misplace their moral principles here and there, which probably betrays a far deeper hostility than we'd like to believe.
Alternatively, one might believe from the gitgo that morality is in its essence undying, that it cannot possibly be put to an immoral purpose, and that any attempt to do so would be not only immoral but dishonest as well. From this vantage point, the consequences of the aggressive instrumentalization of "moral" power might well be political alienation, disaffection, corruption and ultimately the total delegitimization of political authority. Even under democratic governments. Especially under democratic governments. Because nobody wants to be governed by hypocrites. And no government can afford to be so naive as to not recognize and sieze upon the potential to advance its interests through the exercize of "moral" power.
Surely that cannot be how Rice intended to be understood by her reference to moral power--and a smarmy question pops into my head: Are the freest people the most moral people because they have the baddest military? Is Dr. Rice's vision in truth more Jacobinist than Wilsonian? That question implies an inimical criticism that has been leveled at the Bush Administration, and the United States more generally: that the American vision of democracy is or threatens to become totalitarian. Of course, from that premise the aggressive promotion of democracy internationally must be viewed as a kind of tyranny. I don't believe that the tyranny of United States foreign policy is greatly in evidence, but the underlying criticism cannot be properly dispensed with so long as the United States, as a matter of policy, expressesly intends to project its influence through the exercize of moral power (and such). Which is not to say that policy should be expressly amoral in order to be believed, although I gather that more than a few critics of United States foreign policy hold such a view. No, that's not the argument here.
A sympathic listener might say that what Dr. Rice meant was that when we act in good conscience, according to the highest moral principles, we acquire a certain kind of influence, call it moral power. It's what accrues to us whenever we do good in the world, and when we feel the need to get something done internationally, we can draw on our moral power to substitute for or to augment the use of military or economic power. There's the rub, you see: spending our moral capital-- as if the laws of moral currency were the same as those governing the use of might. But having recognized this large sum in our account, we find it hard to resist the temptation to go out and spend it. (Some governments may even be tempted to spend on credit. Tsk tsk.) It may be that this is simply the flipside of the call to conscience--like nightmares are the flipside to pleasant dreams. Really, should we be able to sleep at night knowing that statistically nine out of ten democratic governments end in moral bankruptcy-- but it's better than the alternatives?
Thus I'm not prepared to regard Dr. Rice as Wilsonian. Whether it's a question of fundamental principles, or whether it's a more simple matter of emphasis, the differences are too stark to be reconciled in my mind. So can I at least say that Dr. Rice has raised a valid point, one that could be directed to the absurdity apparent in the Human Rights Watch report? Maybe, maybe not. There is a reading of Dr. Rice's argument which is throroughly consonant with the agenda of Human Rights Watch and its criticism of insurgent groups. In that sense it's not absurd at all for Human Rights Watch to engage in dialogue with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in the way that it has. No more than it'd absurd for the United States Marines to engage with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in accordance with the laws of war, as they've been trained to do. If I recognize the courage and integrity of Human Rights Watch in this way, however, I cannot say that Dr. Rice has a point, not as it originally occurred to me, for I strongly suspect that Human Rights Watch would critically engage with international humanitarian scofflaws whether or not the great powers had their back, as it were. And I'm pretty confident in saying that what they do makes a difference in the lives of oppressed people, knowing that the effects might be longer in coming or more indirect than, say, bullets, but no less deliberate or consequential.
So to recap. Dr. Rice doesn't have a point perhaps either because I was wrong about what she was saying, or because her priorities are wrong, or else she does make a valid point, but it's not the one I initially imagined; she may be right about what it will take to win the war on terror, roughly speaking, but she should not be regarded as a Wilsonian internationalist.