Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Whose Text? Whose Message?

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Beyond "iPod Oblivion"

I see that one of my posts at the beginning of this month addressed the topic of "iPod oblivion," the ability of the iPod to "shut off reality" that has been proving to be hazardous to both motorists and pedestrians. According to Candace Lombardi's Half Baked blog for CNET, the distractions provided by ear buds may well be only part of the problem. Ms. Lombardi found an Associated Press report in the Chronicle documenting yet another story of a distracted motorist:

A California man whose car drifted into the opposing lane and caused a head-on collision may have been using his laptop at the time of the accident, according to reports.

I suppose that this will be greeted with the same kind of response that we find in reports of accidental shootings: Technology does not cause automobile collisions; people cause automobile collisions! While there may be some merit to this slogan, my guess is that there is a stronger motivating metanarrative behind this story that we may never know. Why should a "28-year-old computer tutor," who, by all rights, should know better, be trying to operate a laptop and a 1991 Honda Accord at the same time? What kind of pressure was pushing this guy to defy common sense so blatantly, or was he just as detached from reality as he would have been after having consumed a full bottle of cheap red wine? There is a nasty context that is impacting all of our lives; and the sooner we come to understand it, the more likely that we may be empowered to do something about it!

Beyond Satire

I just did a tag search on my previous blog and discovered that I had written three entries with the tag "satire." The first of these was written in praise of Assimilated Press, which I felt had displaced The Onion as my favorite (if not the best) source for satirical journalism. The Assimilated Press post that inspired my writing had the headline, "Kansas Farmer See Cheney's Face In Cowpie;" and what I realized from reading it is the way in which satire presents "reality with far more accuracy than conventional prose could ever do."

What happens, then, when a site with such a reputation for quality satire comes out with a "modest proposal" that actually deserves to be taken seriously? Such I fell is the case with today's Assimilated Press post, "A Call To Arms On The War On Error." The premise may be a play on the words of a phrase that has been beaten into meaninglessness by media propaganda, but the result has more meaning than we expect from most media sources. Here is the core of the message:

We need a War on Error that looks extremely closely at any reasoning calling for war with Iran. We need a War on Error that looks coolly and dispassionately on sending more troops to Iraq while not having enough troops in Afghanistan. We need a War on Error to find out where, exactly, the money promised to New Orleans and surrounding areas went, and for what, and to whom, and when was it sent and why has so little been accomplished?

We need a War on Error on all of the candidates from both parties. We didn't elect them to run around the country, raise money and create sound bites. We elected them to stay in the House and the Senate and do their jobs: preventing further errors from happening and fixing the errors that exist.

This is not the satirical language of Swift's "Modest Proposal;" it is the straight talk of Paine's "Common Sense." I applaud both the basic argument and the five "action items" derived from that argument.

My only concern is that this "pamphlet" will not receive the attention it deserves because Assimilated Press readers may be disappointed that it is not satire. It is the sort of thing that I would have expected to read on Truthdig, and it would be unfortunate if the Truthdig reader base remained unaware of it. Of course one of the advantages of a blog is that, as the author, you have no explicit constraints on what you can and cannot submit as a post. However, when a blog begins to develop a reputation for its posts, that reputation can engender reader expectations; and the author then faces an interesting problem in "managing the change" (to use MBA-speak) of those expectations. Novelists and filmmakers are well aware of this problem, and perhaps it is also a consequences of what happens when one's blog actually begins to cultivate a reader base!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

China is Near

The New Yorker may have Seymour Hersh's outstanding analyses of the messes the United States keeps getting into, but for a consistent diet of extended analyses across a wide variety of issues, my eyeballs keep returning to SPIEGEL ONLINE. Today's case in point is a massive (five-part) examination of the economic "success story" of the People's Republic of China, written by Andreas Lorenz and Wieland Wagner under the provocative title, "Does Communism Work After All?" It is hard to discuss an essay of this scope and depth after only a single reading, but it takes only an initial taste of their (translated) text to realize that these authors are not going for the best-seller market with either the usual gold-rush cheerleading or the neoconservative fear-mongering. By the time one reaches the end of this article, one is willing to concede that something is working; but it remains to be seen whether Communism is the deciding factor because, unlike other nations, China finally figured out how to "get it right."

Perhaps a more important issue in the Lorenz-Wagner analysis is that one must examine not only China's "performance," as it were, but also the underlying concept of "success," which, in this postmodern world, like it or not, is a social construct. As I read through the different phases of the study, an impish side of me kept thinking back to the slogan that was invoked to sell the most recent (and American) attempt to remake Godzilla: SIZE MATTERS! Is it just a matter that China has now grown into an economic force that can dictate the rules of the game, rules that had previously been under the undisputed control of economic elites such as the Trilateral Commission? Has this all just been a matter of finding the right place to put the lever to convert China's mass population into economic power? For that matter, could it have been that Mao's particularly take on Communist ideology really did not know how to deal with positioning that lever and thus impeded the conversion and that the conversion could not take place until the "Long March Veterans," who brought about the Revolution in the first place, were no longer around to interfere?

Having lived in Singapore, I have a great appreciation for the value of "social engineering done right," even when success may depend on governance practices that are as authoritarian as those of most corporate organizations. This is why "Red China, Inc." is such an appropriate epithet. Whatever the governmental ideals of institutions such as the United Nations may be, China seems to have recognized that it needs to run itself like a major corporate conglomerate, where questions of such matters as social welfare can only be addressed in the context of their value to the greater corporate interest. If corporate success depends heavily on resource management, then China can position itself with both an abundance of resources and an ideological framework under which they can be managed. This is not "the American way of life," nor will it ever be; but it is a set of rules by which China knows how to play and can play with great skill.

Ultimately, the most important thing about the Lorenz-Wagner analysis is the way in which it obliges us to recognize that the Western tradition under which most of us were educated in no longer defining and overseeing the rules on the economic playing field. Is this another one of those "messes" that we have blundered into through the mismanagement of our own leadership? I prefer to think (as my wife keeps trying to remind me) that, in the "long view of history," things change. Neither Arthur's Camelot nor Hitler's Third Reich could endure. China has now decided to come onto our playing field, and they are there with their best players and their own ball. Whether we like it or not, they are in a good position to control the rules; and there may be little to gain in fussing over whether or not that control constitutes a "triumph of Communism."

Monday, February 26, 2007

Let the Symbols Crash!

Last night Francois Murphy filed a report for Reuters from Paris reminding us that semiology still rules in France. The story concerned the extent to which the presidential election may be decided on the basis of two puppet caricatures of the leading candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal:

The idea may seem far-fetched but satirical television show "Les Guignols de l'Info", a scathing daily spoof of French public life inspired by Britain's "Spitting Image", has been accused of tipping the balance before.

Indeed, the idea is not far-fetched at all. The puppets are signifiers, concrete artifacts cleverly designed to make deep impressions on the memory. The "signifieds" are not so much the "real" candidates as the policies represented by those candidates; and this is a territory of abstractions into which few voters care to venture. So, just for the record, we should make note of how Les Guignols de l'Info has decided to design those signifiers:

Now, the show features conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy guzzling tranquilizers to suppress the authoritarian interior minister within, then telling voters: "I've changed."

His Socialist rival Segolene Royal, though less omnipresent, is shown as vacuous, spouting platitudes at half-speed.

Can those images determine an election. Yves Le Rolland, who produces Les Guignols insists that the show has "no influence on people." That should probably just be read as a professional disclaimer, sort of like those Law & Order episodes that claim to be "based in part" on fact. People are influenced by what they can grasp, and the puppets have been designed to be easily graspable. On the other hand Le Rolland may have a point when it comes to mapping these signifiers to signifieds:

"I think we have no influence on people," he told Reuters at the show's studio in a northern suburb of Paris.

"We generally reinforce their own opinions, so people who don't like like [sic] Sarkozy think that Sarkozy in Les Guignols is very accurate and very funny and people who don't like Segolene Royal think the character of Segolene Royal is very accurate and very funny," he said.

In other words, while the puppets can be easily grasped, they may not provoke a change of opinion. This is not like Thomas Nast taking on Boss Tweed back in the days when Tammany Hall owned the ballot boxes of Manhattan. This is more a matter of equal ridicule for both sides without making either side appear egregiously foolish or incompetent. If Le Rolland is right in his argument, it is not so much because his viewers understanding the distinction between signifier and signified as that the difference between these signifiers is just not "significant" enough. Still, it is nice to know that there is still a corner of the world in which signs are not, as a matter of reflex, always reduced to their most literal reading!

Chutzpah for Oscar Week

That same illness that seems to be responsible for performers cancelling out around the world (including the visiting conductor in San Francisco this past weekend) is about the only excuse I can give for being late with the Chutzpah of the Week award. However, had it not been for my wife wanting to follow the red-carpet coverage outside the Kodak Theater last night, I might not have realized how appropriate this week's award was to the "week of Oscar fever." If I may have the envelope, please, the award goes to the film Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West, which is billed as a documentary but, as was reported in The New York Times, was better described by Professor Arnold Leder, who teaches a course called "The Politics of Extremism" at Texas State University, San Marcos, as polemic.

In her Times article, Karen Arenson provides the following context for this film:

Three years ago a video produced by a pro-Israeli group featuring Jewish students’ complaints of intimidation by Middle East studies professors at Columbia set off a campus-wide debate over freedom of speech and academic freedom, prompting an investigation that found some fault by one professor but “no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.”

Into this milieu stepped the producer of “Obsession,” Raphael Shore, a 45-year-old Canadian who lives in Israel, with the documentary. It features scenes like the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Muslim children being encouraged to become suicide bombers, interspersed with those of Nazi rallies.

The film was directed by Wayne Kopping of South Africa, who had worked with Mr. Shore previously on a documentary about the failure of the Oslo peace efforts in the Middle East. Mr. Shore said in a recent interview that they had not set out to make a film for college students but to spur action against Islamic terrorism. “We want to spread this message to all people that will stand up and make a difference in combating this threat,” he said.

It would thus appear that Mr. Shore would not dispute Professor Leder's classification of his film as polemic, so it may be more appropriate to direct the award to campus organizations, such as Hillel, that have been arranging screenings of the film under the pretense of initiating an objective discussion of the current problems in the Middle East. As Arenson pointed out, the real chutzpah may lie in how these "discussion forums" are being managed:

The documentary has become the latest flashpoint in the bitter campus debate over the Middle East, not just because of its clips from Arab television rarely shown in the West, including scenes of suicide bombers being recruited and inducted, but also because of its pro-Israel distribution network.

When a Middle East discussion group organized a showing at New York University recently, it found that the distributors of “Obsession” were requiring those in attendance to register at, and that digital pictures of the events be sent to Hasbara Fellowships, a group set up to counter anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses.

“If people have to give their names over to Hasbara Fellowships at the door, that doesn’t have the effect of stimulating open dialogue,” said Jordan J. Dunn, president of the Middle East Dialogue Group of New York University, which mixes Jews and Muslims. “Rather, it intimidates people and stifles dissent.”

Yesterday I wrote about the danger of compelling rhetoric that reinforces an opinion we already want to have. If the operative metaphor for the Middle East is the powder keg, then Mr. Shore may be offering a lighted match to anyone wishing to check if the keg is empty. It is the last thing we need to try to restore a sense of stability and civil discourse, and to pretend that it is being done in the name of furthering discussion is chutzpah indeed.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Beloved Infidel?

Speaking of articulate, today's Chronicle ran a review of Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I first become aware of Ali through Ian Buruma's book about the murder of Theo van Gogh. Then, over this past week, I watched the VTR recording I had made from Book TV of a talk she had given at the American Enterprise Institute. So I was hardly a tabula rasa when I approached Sandip Roy's Chronicle review, which was probably not to Ali's advantage.

Ali put on a first-rate show at the American Enterprise Institute. Lynette Clemetson might have called it the sort of show that has given the adjective "articulate" such a bad name. I would prefer to ask just how much of it was show. Perhaps I would have been less skeptical had I not (again, through the good graces of Book TV) heard Karen Armstrong's lecture about the ways in which the Western world had come to misunderstand Islam. This set me to wondering to what extent, in both her book and her lecture, Ali was cultivating Western distrust of Islam on the same grounds that Armstrong was calling serious misunderstanding. In other words I found myself caught in a she-said-she-said story, desperately looking to the metanarrative that would bring some clarity to my confusion.

Then I remembered seeing a documentary entitled In Satmar Custody, and I realized the extent to which the story in that film could fuel highly indignant feelings of anti-Semitism if one assumed that all Jews (or, for that matter, even all Orthodox Jews) behaved (particularly towards women) the way this small Satmar community did. When we encounter a category noun, such as "Muslim" or "Jew," we have a natural inclination to seek out a bunch of generalizing propositions that, in a sense, justify that noun standing for a category in the first place. However, one of the most important lessons from Wittgenstein is that there may be very view of those propositions, if any at all. He occupied himself with less inflammatory nouns, such as "chair" or "game;" but the lesson is still the same. Whatever generalizing proposition we may propose, we inevitably run into exceptions; and sometimes there are far more exceptions than we initially anticipate.

Sometimes the best we can do is pull together as many sources as we can. It is not that I doubt the sincerity of Ali's testimony. I even believe it is important that she has done such a good job in documenting it. I can also understand anyone who wishes to challenge me on turning to Armstrong, an ex-nun, in search of a counter-narrative. In this respect the Internet can sometimes serve us well. Back when Virgil Goode was raising a stink about Keith Ellison taking his congressional oath of office on a copy of the Qu'ran, I decided to do a bit of digging into the value of the symbolism. In my previous blog, I reported on a Web site that laid out a series of value statements from the Qu'ran, all of which seemed more than appropriate for any man or woman about to assume legislative responsibility. My guess is that Ali would not dispute that evaluation, even if she had personally experienced Muslim practices inconsistent with those values. So, once again, we have to work these things out for ourselves, because when compelling rhetoric is applied to reinforcing an opinion we really want to have, the result is almost always tragic for everyone involved.

What the Words Tell Us

Yahoo! News released an Associated Press story, which, in the surface, is a curious bit of irony. It turns out that Al Sharpton is descended from a slave who had been owned by a member of Strom Thurmond's family. Very little has been released by way of "official" comments (which is probably as it should be); but there is always someone who will not keep their mouth shut. In this case the "source" was Thurmond's niece, Ellen Senter:

Some of Thurmond's relatives said the connection also came as a surprise to them. A niece, Ellen Senter, said she would speak with Sharpton if he were interested.

"I doubt you can find many native South Carolinians today whose family, if you traced them back far enough, didn't own slaves," said Senter, 61, of Columbia, S.C. She added: "And it is wonderful that (Sharpton) was able to become what he is in spite of what his forefather was."

Now I am sure that Ms. Senter was trying to be nice about this revelation, but that last sentence of hers is a strong indication of just how hard old values die. It sits right up there with Barbara Bush's comment about Katrina victims having better facilities at the emergency centers that they had had in their pre-hurricane homes, a comment that Spike Lee did well to immortalize in When the Levees Broke. It is not that we should attack either Ms. Senter or Ms. Bush for making offensive and prejudicial remarks but that we should examine what it is about our social context that enables (facilitates?) such casual speech that is as damaging as the now notorious use of the word "articulate."

Friday, February 23, 2007

Wikipedia Strikes Again (and Fuzzy Strikes Back)?

One would have thought that Wikipedia would have learned a thing or two in the wake of the bad news surrounding the Seigenthaler mess, the less-than-good-humored ribbing and response in exchange with Stephen Colbert, and the Onion story from last August. Unfortunately, the only response seems to have been some verbal pap from Jimmy Wales about the need for "really smart people," revealing what may have been willful ignorance of the role that editing plays in the preparation of information content for the general public. Well, history is repeating itself; and, at least as far as Fuzzy Zoeller is concerned, it is definitely not farce on this cycle. Apparently, his Wikipedia page has been hacked and now accuses him of a variety of abusive practices; and Zoeller is doing his best to track down the source of the hack and remedy the situation. Unfortunately, as The Smoking Gun has observed, in the world that the Internet has made, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get the genie back into the bottle:

In fact, a mirrored version of the vandalized Wikipedia page can still be found on the web site

It is all very well and good to try to be a critical reader, but sometimes it feels as if the very sources you try to use are out to undermine you!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

More on Alienation

I would like to follow up on my analysis yesterday of the report of three suicides at Renault. Yesterday I made a passing reference to the book, Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry, by Robert Blauner. I thought it would be appropriate to supplement yesterday's analysis with Blauner's characterization of alienation, as he expresses it in the first sentence of the second paragraph of his Foreword:

Domination, futility, isolation, and discontent are each aspects of experience that have been identified as elements of the general condition of alienation, a leading perspective in modern social thought.

I should also point out that the last time I tried to address the question of alienation was in my previous blog, where I drew upon the Habermas characterization, which he based on deprivation and domination. Habermas was more interested in the general quality of life, rather than life in the workplace; and, even though the Renault suicides were "knowledge workers" (remember when we were all being told that, as knowledge workers, we would have a better "quality of life?"), rather than factory workers, I think that Blauner's approach is more appropriate to the situation. So let us see to what extent each of Blauner's characteristics is appropriate to yesterday's report:

  1. The focus of the police investigation appears to be on harassment, which is certainly one of the less rational (but still) popular ways to exercise domination.
  2. This brings us back to the "stinger" at the end of the report, Renault's "plans to roll out 26 models including 12 new ones by 2009." We all know that life is pretty rough in the garden of the automobile industry, and it would be fair to say that every leading player is fighting for its survival. Is this Renault's way of invoking the desperate-times-call-for-desperate-measures strategy? Did they seriously believe that this was a realistic plan, or were they trying to make a rhetorical move to cow the competition? In the latter case, even if top-level management knew that the plan was unrealistic, did they decide that the strategy would only succeed if the rest of the organization actually believed that this was the plan? Put another way, are these suicides the result of a confidence game gone wrong, where too many good "knowledge workers" were being driven to the futile task of satisfying an unrealistic plan?
  3. If all this is due to the backfiring of a confidence game, did the confidence game come about in the first place because of the social gulf that isolates senior management from what is happening in the rest of the organization; and, if so, is that gulf the result of a senior management what is more eager to please its stockholders than its workers?
  4. If the arguments of points 2 and 3 are valid and if point 1 is just the backlash of middle management trying to achieve the goals against which evaluation takes place at the end of the year, then there is more than enough discontent to spread across the entire enterprise. The question then is how one deals with that discontent. One benefit of the "isolation of the top" is that one can try playing the denial game and just go about "doing one's job," however void of realistic semantics that phrase may be. At the next level down one cannot deny. but one can harass to relieve one's own pressure. That then takes us to the level of the suicides, who may just have been stuck with no other way to deal with the multiple layers of discontent whose consequences were accumulating on their shoulders.

The conclusion, then, is that at least this particular division of Renault was very likely a hotbed of alienation. This raises a more interesting and poignant question: Is Renault the exception or the rule and in what space? Are we talking about the anomie of the automobile industry, the whole production economy, or just about any workplace in this new age of globalization? Is anybody putting resources into examining these questions?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

News that IS Fit, not News that Fits!

Why has Al Jazeera English become my preferred RSS feed for general news of the world? Is it just because it is at the top of the list in Google Reader's alphabetic ordering of my selected feeds? Is it a contentious reaction to the reception they received when they first launched, when the consensus seemed to be that, while it was important to recognize their coverage of news from the Middle East, they were not yet up to the speed of either the BBC or CNN in managing the full breadth of global coverage (otherwise known as the circle-the-wagons reaction)? If there was any validity to that consensus at all, Al Jazeera seems to have dealt with it by January 12, which is the first time I read a story they had released about the House of Representatives. So is it really the case that the main reason I keep finding the good stuff at Al Jazeera English is just because of their alphabetic advantage? I decided to try a test.

I am writing this less that half an hour after Google Reader fed me an Al Jazeera article about an investigation into three employee suicides at Renault. This has not yet surfaced on my other major feeds: Reuters: International,, SPIEGEL ONLINE, and Times Online (which has actually been very quiet for at least a week). I then went over to the BBC site and did a search on "Renault." My primary hits involved either racing news or consumer reports! Finally, I decided to try Google with "Renault" and "suicide" as my only search terms. The Google Web search was not particularly helpful, but the News search turned up the Al Jazeera article and only two other reports, one from the British, which requires a subscription, and the other from TV3 News in New Zealand!

So why did I go to all this trouble for this particular story? I think the primary reason is that I have been nursing an intuition that workplaces in just about any sector are getting more and more alienating (as in Robert Blauner's classic study, Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry). Whatever pundits like Tom Friedman may be preaching, the "world that the Internet has made" is turning out to be a really ugly place, where those who benefit are in an almost microscopic minority compared to those who suffer. So, without trying to present these three Renault employees as candidates for martyrdom, I figured that a bit of text analysis on the wire sources that Al Jazeera used might teach us all a thing or two about the contemporary workplace. Here goes:

French authorities are investigating working conditions at carmaker Renault following the suicide of three employees in four months at one of its plants near Paris.

One 38-year-old worker hanged himself in his home in the town of Saint-Cyr-l'Ecole west of Paris on Friday after leaving a note in which he complained of problems at work.

The first step in reporting this story was to establish that the metanarrative behind the events of the suicide is likely to have something to do with problematic working conditions at one of the world's major automobile corporations.

All three employees worked in the main building of the complex known as "The Beehive" where new car designs are developed.

Next, to build on Blauner's legacy, this is not a story about factory life and its associated conditions; to draw on a piece of jargon that has polluted our conception of work in more ways than can be enumerated, we are dealing with people whose "work" is "innovation."

Renault management said the latest death "has left us with many questions and each one of us must reflect on our share of responsibility".

In other words every one needs to get their ass covered before anyone gets smart enough to start asking the right questions!

Investigators have opened a criminal investigation into work conditions at the Technocentre in Guyancourt, outside Paris where the three employees worked.

Silent march

The prosecutor's office in Versailles said they intended to look into offences such as harassment, which may be linked to the death.

We now come to the first really loaded word in the report: harassment. How do you manage someone whose job is to innovate? What criteria of achievement and accountability can you invoke? Can it ever involve anything more than "give me stuff I like;" and, if so, what happens to the relationship when the manager doesn't like the "stuff?" Something has got to give; and most of the time that "something" is the psyche!

Three weeks earlier, plant employees held a silent march in memory of two colleagues who had committed suicide in October and January in Guyancourt.

In other words we all know what is really going on, so we better show our sympathy before more of the same comes down on us!

One of the employees threw himself from the fifth floor of a building at the plant.

Jean Hotebourg, a union official, said that another employee drowned in a nearby pond after leaving his computer screen displaying an account of a bitter exchange with management representatives.

Harassment claims

Hotebourg accused management officials of "harassing" employees, saying they had been humiliated when their boss criticised them in front of colleagues.

We now get an answer to the question I posed above: What do managers do when they do not like what the innovators are innovating?

Renault said in a statement that "there was no correlation, for the time being, between work conditions" and the three suicides.

The next management strategy is to hide behind the gospel according to Management Science 101: Reduce everything to the abstractions of a mathematical model. If the model doesn't indicate anything, then there is "no correlation." If any important bits of context never made it into the model, then they must have been too complicated to be included.

"We have impassioned engineers who conceive vehicles and it is very difficult to draw a link between the workload and the Renault contracts for 2009," said a management statement.

Renault has announced plans to roll out 26 models including 12 new ones by 2009.

This is almost (but not quite) the usual Bush rhetorical device ("you have got to understand"). The story that management wants to tell is that everyone is under the gun. (If it were Clinton instead of Bush, it would be "we all feel the pain.") This would be the point at which someone like Rice would probably start using "systemic" in every other sentence out of her mouth. Well, it probably is the case that Renault is operating under one or more policy decisions that may very well be driving everyone in the organization crazy! It may even be the case that things have gotten so crazy that no one in the organization as a clue about how to get out of the mess. By all rights this should be the time when the external perspective of a Board of Directors could step in and tell the management that this insanity must cease. So we may find ourselves in the beginnings of an even more interesting metanarrative about the Board and whether they attach more priority to the people who work for their company or the people who hold stock in that company! It could be very interesting to see where this investigation leads!

Whose Democracy?

Ian Buruma's latest review for The New York Review is of Paul Handley's unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. This is a well-timed article. Thailand is facing considerable instability stemming from both the military overthrow of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and increasing Muslim unrest in the south near the Malaysian border. Buruma writes at great length about the active role that the King plays in efforts to maintain stability and the strong public mandate he has supporting such activism (which is not addressed by the constitution). Ultimately, Buruma makes a case for two underlying propositions:

  1. The general public of Thailand believes that their monarch has their best interests is heart in any decisions he makes.
  2. They are probably correct in believing this.

One would think that this might be an opportunity to promote the Hegelian view of monarchy as the "ultimate" form of government; but Buruma does not go in for such neoconservative Kool-Aid. His final paragraph takes quite a different tack:

To describe royal charity as a form of populism would seem to be a paradox, for what could be more elitist than a monarchy? But it is not unusual for aristocrats and kings to claim to be on the side of the common man against the greedy rich. What we see in Thailand, then, is two competing forms of charismatic autocracy: a traditional type, seeking its legitimacy in religion, culture, history, bloodlines, and superior virtue, and a new kind, based on money, celebrity, and media savvy. This is not unique to Thailand. Anyone who has seen The Queen, the movie about the British royal family in Tony Blair's United Kingdom, will recognize the phenomenon. But the drama in Thailand is especially acute, because unlike Britain, Thailand is still struggling with democratic institutions. Those who applaud too loudly, for understandable reasons, the victory of the old guard over the new should think of the damage done whenever people look to kings and generals to solve problems they should really take care of themselves.

For my part my applause goes to Buruma, particularly for that concluding sentence, since, by looking at Thailand, he seems to have cut to the core of what I have called the "secular messianism" problem in our own country. Unfortunately, over here we do not face the refinement of aristocratic values as an alternative to "money, celebrity, and media savvy" gone wild. As I was reminded on Monday night while listening to Amiri Baraka read a fictionalize account of the civil rights movement at its most tumultuous, the alternative that confronts us is the concept of "Homeland Security" as a new way to legitimize the government beating up on whomever they choose. This is the consequence that has come from our opting out of the responsibility to see to our own problems, so it is no wonder that the rest of the world attaches so little credibility to anything we now say about democracy.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Big Brother is Mining You

One of Amy Goodman's guests on this morning's Democracy Now! was Canadian human right attorney Maureen Webb, discussing her book Illusions of Security, Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post 9/11 World. As a lawyer she had a strong command of both legal principles and specific cases, but she went further than this and discussed her own efforts to comprehend the nature of current data mining technology. This gave her the informed position of addressing the consequences of what the technology can do, what developers would like it to do, what it probably cannot do, and why all four of these issues are cloaked in secrecy, because just about all of the technology has been developed for private-sector organizations that need to keep the algorithmic details proprietary. The whole thing made for a highly chilling story.

Ironically, the chill factor was enhanced by today's report by Victoria Shannon for The New York Times (which I happened to read at SPIEGEL ONLINE). For all the threats to human rights and civil liberties that are rooted in this new culture of data mining, it would appear that there are some very strong sentiments in European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, to follow the American lead. Like it or not, Orwell's vision is now very much with us; and it appears to be with us on a global scale.

Fortunately, NPR brought on a guest who could talk about an alternative strategy for dealing with terrorist threats. This was Stephen Flynn, discussing his book, The Edge of Disaster. The most important message from Flynn's interview is that any effort to prevent terrorist acts is, at best, an exercise in frustration:

Officials should think less about security than about resiliency, Flynn says.

"We're focused almost myopically on preventing every act of terror, which is... frankly an impossibility," he says. "But what we can do, what we can control, is how we respond when terrorist incidents happen or when accidents happen."

Flynn's logic is that, if you can demonstrate that your system is less vulnerable to attack (meaning that, even if an attack occurs, it can come back "up to speed" quickly and with few ill consequences), then that resiliency contributes to lowering the likelihood of attack. I tend to buy into this, but I suspect it will not find much support from those who derive their power from keeping the general public hiding under their beds!

Shunning: Stage Two

Katie Nguyen is continuing to cover the convention of Anglican leaders in Dar es Salaam for Reuters, and I am continuing to follow her dispatches. She came to my attention for reporting what I (but not Katie) called the "shunning" of presiding United States bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori by seven archbishops with strong conservative views on the matter of homosexuality. Yesterday's report indicated that this conservative sentiment will extend beyond the "Holy Table" at a single ceremony in Dar es Salaam:

The Anglican Communion gave the U.S. Episcopal Church a September deadline on Monday to stop blessing same sex unions, but did gave no clear indication of what action it would then take.

However, if the statement by the Anglican Communion was unclear about action, it did not mince words over attitude:

If the reassurances requested of the House of Bishops cannot in good conscience be given, the relationship between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as a whole remains damaged at best, and this has consequences for the full participation of the church in the life of the communion.

In other words the "shunning" strategy has now escalated from a single service to a global policy. If there is any moderating force at all, it appears in the failure of that highly-charged adjective from last Friday, "broken," to yield to the softer language of "damaged at best." That does not say much for those who would prefer to see diversity encouraged, but I suppose it is better than nothing at all!

Monday, February 19, 2007

An Unexpected Advocate for Fiction

Giles Foden, who wrote the novel on which the film The Last King of Scotland was based, went to Uganda for the African premiere of the film and filed a fascinating account of his trip that is now at As a good novelist can, Foden accounts for a broad spectrum of perspectives surrounding the event; but, from my point of view, all of that breadth faded into the background as the chronology of events came to the end of the screening of the film and attention turned to the current President of Uganda:

After the film, President Museveni gave his reaction to the film, revealing it was the first time he had been in a cinema for 47 years.

"When you have a lot of drama in your own life, you don't need to seek it in a movie," he explained. He thanked the film-makers for bringing Ugandan history alive, despite the necessary fictionalisation.

Then, to my extreme embarassment, he summoned me on stage for an off-the-cuff critique of my novel. "I studied English literature but I forget what type of fiction this is!"

"Historical novel," I ventured.

"That's it! We need more historical fiction about Uganda, on film and in books, if we are to understand our history properly."

There is nothing unique about this insight, given that I recently cited J. M. Coetzee's recognition of it in his review of The Castle in the Forest, a novel that certainly deserves to be examined in the same light as The Last King of Scotland. What is important, however, is that this particular statement of the insight came from a head of state who seems to now appreciate his past study of English literature. Furthermore, that last sentence (inadvertently, I am almost sure) casts an unfriendly light on our own President, who would rather engage confabulation in the interest of promoting an ideology than penetrate the depths of fiction in the interest of a better understanding of history! On the other hand in the interest of fairness it may just be that President Museveni is better at coming up with the mot juste than President Bush is!

If at First You don't Succeed

Saturday was a bleak day for the Senate Democrats. While the House had no trouble passing their non-binding resolution opposing Bush's current plan for Iraq (246-182), a special Saturday session of the Senate convened to vote on whether or not such a resolution should even be debated. (Is this how we are teaching all those other countries around the world about the benefits of democracy?) Sixty votes were needed to debate the resolution; but, even with the assistance of seven Republicans (time for a new edition of Profiles in Courage?), only 56 votes could be mustered.

Fortunately, the abuses that the Senate Democrats suffered when they were in the minority have taught them not to give up in the face of adversity. According to the Al Jazeera English wire sources, party leaders are already at work on a Plan B. According to Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the current candidate for best approach is "a proposal that would revoke the October 2002 authorisation that allowed Bush to invade Iraq." This could be a good move, particularly since it moves the debate away from the symbolism of a non-binding resolution and into the heart of the fundamental Constitutional principle of Separation of Powers. In the simplest of terms, what a Congress dominated by White House ideology could grant to the White House can be taken away by a subsequent Congress with a different world-view. Levin was also quoted as saying that revoking the authorization granted to the President would not entail withdrawing support for troops currently in harm's way:

Levin said the Iraq war resolution approved by the Senate more than four years ago "was a wide open authorisation which allowed him [Bush] to do just about anything and put us now deep into combat in Iraq, and now into the neighborhoods of Baghdad.

"I think we'll be looking at a modification of that authorisation in order to limit the mission of American troops to a support mission instead of a combat mission, and that is very different from cutting off funds," he said.

What we have, then, is a Senate that is determined to do the people's business, in spite of any political impediments imposed by the remaining ideologues; and this is far more important than (choose your favorite metaphor) crying over spilled milk or licking your wounds!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

"Our Myra"

I found it interesting that I was trying to take on the subject of the nature of evil only a couple of hours before the first screening of Longford on my HBO East feed. There are so many paths one could go down in discussing this excellent piece of work by Tom Hooper with a script by Peter Morgan. However, what may be most important for me was the way in which the film reminded me of how much I had learned about text analysis from my mentor, Seymour Chatman, now an Emeritus Professor at Berkeley. It was from Chatman that I first learned about the text types of argumentation, description, exposition, and narrative; and it was also Chatman who brought my attention to how Alain Renais had tried to structure a film around argumentation, rather than narrative.

I say all this by way of prologue because Longford is definitely not your standard cinematic narrative. Indeed, if I accept Chatman's analysis of Renais, then I would like to hypothesize that Longford has taken an expository approach in the same way that Renais' film, Mon Oncle d'Amerique, took an argumentative one. The narrative of the events in the lives of Myra Hindley and the Earl of Longford provide the background for a serious expository approach to the nature of evil. I call this expository because the film really does not take an argumentative position, using those events to warrant the position and defeat counterarguments. Rather, it is an attempt to weave a fabric of context around a small group of individuals and how they react to their confrontations with evil. By refraining from critical judgment in an almost clinical way, Hooper has probably set himself up for the sort of film that receives "critical acclaim," the usual euphemism for the neglect of the general public. Nevertheless, the film is an important piece of work, particularly at a time when so many politicians seem to be staking their reputations on some really sloppy thinking about a really challenging concept. Unfortunately, the lessons to be learned from the Earl of Longford will probably not follow most of us into the voting booths; and more is the pity for that.

Because the dramatic impact of this film may be weakened if one knows too much about the synopsis, let me just reproduce the basic set-up paragraph from the HBO synopsis page:

In 1965, he [Longford, played by Jim Broadbent] begins visiting Myra Hindley [Samantha Morton], a young woman serving a life sentence for murdering children with her lover Ian Brady [Andy Serkis]. Though Longford encountered public outrage, discouragement from his wife Elizabeth [Lindsay Duncan], doubt from his family, and criticism from his colleagues and the press, he continued to visit and exchange letters with Hindley. After learning that she once converted to Catholicism, Longford encourages her to return to the church and ask for God's forgiveness.

If we accept Aristotle's premise that tragedy is about characters who are noble, while comedy is about characters who are base, then the noble characters of Longford and his wife definitely make this the stuff of tragedy. Furthermore, in classical tragedy the non-noble characters are presented to us through the chorus; and it would not be too far-fetched to call Ian Brady the chorus figure who provides a sense of orientation as the events in Longford's life unfold.

This is the point I would like to explore in terms of how Morgan structured his text. The fundamental dilemma in Longford's life concerns the contradictions between the impressions he forms of Hindley and those conveyed to him by Brady. In writing words for Brady, Morgan fell back on a traditional turn of phrase that I had encountered when the lower classes of British society refer to their children: "our ." Brady practically sneers the phrase "our Myra" every time he refers to her in his interviews with Longford; but eventually we discover that he is not merely mocking a somewhat archaic social convention. Rather, in the role of chorus, Brady tries to get Longford to see Hindley as an agent whose atrocious acts were motivated by her character, where the character was that of "textbook hysteria." Brady's argument is that Hindley's only concern was to present herself in a manner that would please whomever she encountered. He could speak first-hand of how she had presented herself to him as an accomplice to a series of ghastly murders; and he tries to convince Longford that she is now presenting a different character to a Lord with a reputation of trying to help prisoners in need. Thus, "our Myra" is not the scornfully ironic use of an idiom but a more literal invocation of the first person plural. Brady's point is that "his" Myra is not the same character as "Longford's Myra" and that this discrepancy is an act of calculated design on Myra's part. Needless to say, making this "work" in a film is no easy matter; but Morgan and Hooper pull it off, due, to a large extent, to the ways in which they employ not only Elizabeth but also one of the first prison wardens we encounter.

It is through this technique that the actual events take a back seat to the expository approach to evil. Gradually, Myra is revealed to us as a "character without character." She is more like a mirror that reflects back to others the images they want to see, whether they are the images of Longford coping with his convictions as a Catholic or the images of Brady the serial killer with nothing but contempt for the society that spawned him. Indeed, because she can never do anything other than reflect the images of others (in some blend of the literal and the metaphorical), she lacks all capacity for self-reflection; and that is where this exposition of the nature of evil leads us. We are left with the hypothesis that evil amounts to this uncanny detachment from the world-as-a-whole, thinking only of one "other" in the "immediate present" and never reflecting on one's acts, neither what they are nor what their consequences may be. That hypothesis is not resolved for us. It remains with us as we read the documentary evidence of the deaths of the major characters in this story before the final credits roll, but Hooper and Morgan have planted the hypothesis in the consciousness of anyone who takes to trouble to view their film. They should be honored for this achievement, even if it is never backed up with any of those awards associated with the glamour of their trade.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Yesterday's news reminded me that, while scientism may be as much an article of faith as is evangelical fundamentalism, the latter offers one thing to its adherents that the former pretty much ignores. That item is the question of the nature and origins of evil, and I was reminded of it when I heard the BBC report that, not content with their "ethnic cleansing" in Darfur, the Janjaweed Arab militia were now following the non-Muslim refugees from Darfur into their camps in Chad to continue with their massacre. (It may also be that evil was on my mind, having not only read J. M. Coetzee's review of Norman Mailer's The Castle in the Forest but also seen Mailer interviewed by David Ulin on Book TV.) As Berlin points out in "The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West," one of the essays in The Crooked Timber of Humanity:

Knowledge, for the central tradition of western thought, means not just descriptive knowledge of what there is in the universe, but as part and parcel of it, not distinct from it, knowledge of values, or how to live, what to do, which forms of life are the best and worthiest, and why. According to this doctrine – that virtue is knowledge – when men commit crimes they do so because they are in error: they have mistaken what will, in fact, profit them. If they truly knew what would profit them, they would not do these destructive things – acts which must end by destroying the actor, by frustrating his true ends as a human being, by blocking the proper development of his faculties and powers. Crime, vice, imperfection, misery, all arise from ignorance and mental indolence or muddle. This ignorance may be fomented by wicked people who wish to throw dust in the eyes of others in order to dominate them, and who may, in the end, as often as not, be taken in by their own propaganda.

In other words scientism objectifies evil and reduces it to an "error of knowledge," thus disregarding the dramatistic perspective that evil is the result of one or more motivated actions. For better or worse religion tends to honor this dramatistic perspective, which is not to say that it offers the sorts of "solutions" we would expect from scientistic thinking. Indeed, we could say that religion is more realistic in confronting evil because most religious teachings address, in one way or another, means for enduring the experience of evil, a methodological stance that is not part of the scope of scientism. The moral question then arises of whether or not one should merely endure evil or commit to opposing it. Now we are definitely in the thick of the stuff of dramatism, but we need to remind ourselves that the opposition of evil in narrative (particularly fiction) is a far cry from its opposition in "real life." Fortunately, there are many non-fiction narratives that address how ordinary people have managed to oppose evil with means at their disposal, rather than the heroic exertions of the Homeric epics. As I have already observed, such narratives tend to be shunned by the commercial mass media; but the stories are still there. They may not further the ends of consumerism; but, in our current state of affairs, we probably need them more than ever!

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Latest Arena for Intolerance

Having recently used the conflict between religious fundamentalism and Cartesian skepticism to observe that tolerance is in short supply, I had not, at the time, anticipated that is could be found in a relatively closed community. However, according to a Reuters report from Dar es Salaam by Katie Nguyen, this is precisely what is happening at a convention of Anglican leaders:

Seven conservative Anglican archbishops refused to take communion with the head of the U.S. branch of the church on Friday, in protest at her pro-gay stance in a row pushing the Church toward schism.

"This deliberate action is a poignant reminder of the brokenness of the Anglican Communion," said a statement posted on the Web site of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, led by Archbishop Peter Akinola.

"We are unable to take the Holy Table with the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church because to do so would be a violation of the traditional Anglican teaching," it said.

Now while I am unfamiliar with the details of Anglican practice, I know that if you strip the word "communion" of its religious connotations, you are left with communication and social contact. Thus, to draw upon the practices of a smaller religious group that we tend to associated with rural Pennsylvania, these seven conservative archbishops have decided to make their point by shunning Katherine Jefferts Schori, the above-cited presiding bishop for the United States. By turning their back on Bishop Schori in the setting of a central Anglican ritual, these conservatives a denying any possibility that differences can be resolved through communication and social contact. By then calling the ritual itself broken, the conservatives seem to be saying that differences cannot be resolved with the entire Anglican community. Once again, we can find the metanarrative simply by examining the choice of words!

Ahmadinejad's Discourse

First of all I would like to thank Al S. E. for providing a comment with a pointer to quotes from Iran's President Ahmadinejad. I think this is one of the best ways to pursue what, in an earlier post, I called "the way of Berlin" (which might also be called "the way of Appiah"); and, in the interest of following that way I would add to the quotes compiled that far the transcript of the interview that Ahmadinejad gave to Diane Sawyer. This transcript may be valuable, in part, because it is not a collection of excerpts; but, in all fairness, its value depends heavily on the reliability of the translation. Unfortunately, I am in no position to judge that reliability; and, presumably, any Farsi speaker watching the broadcast would not have been able to hear the original text very well (if at all). So, unless another version of the transcript is released by another source, what ABC provided is all we have.

Having said all of that by way of disclaimer, I can now put on my text-analysis hat! There is much to impress the reader here. Since the adjective "articulate" has become off limits, let me appeal to the Medieval Trivium and admire Ahmadinejad's command of both logic and rhetoric. (His grammar can only be evaluated in the original text.) Nevertheless, my initial examination of the texts revived a question I had raised about the "Presidential material" of the would-be candidates for our own forthcoming election. That question can also be attributed to "the way of Berlin," this time with respect to his "Political Judgement" essay. In this context I would argue that, while logic and rhetoric may be as important in today's classroom as they were when the Trivium was constituted, the classroom is not the political arena; and this is particularly important where logic is involved. It is not that we should disregard logic but that, in the worlds of politics and diplomacy, the force of logic inevitably gets pushed into the background, partly by rhetoric but more substantially by action. Thus, while President Ahmadinejad can be very skillful in his post hoc accounts of actions that many members of the world community (not just Americans) have taken as provocative, whether he likes it or not, those accounts take a back seat to the actions themselves. This is why Berlin's essay identifies Bismarck as a paradigm of political judgment while making it clear that there was nothing particular memorable about Bismarck's intellect!

Here again, however, we have to be fair about the limits of our understanding of what Habermas has called the "action situation" in Iran. Actions, after all, result from decisions; and, to draw upon recent White House jargon, we really do not know who the key "deciders" are in Iran. We do know that there are parallel political authorities, one secular and one religious. We also know that, while Ahmadinejad is the secular authority, he is a man of deep religious conviction, not likely to oppose the religious authority. This is not to reduce him to an apologist for actions over which he has little, if any, control but simply to call out our own ignorance of how decisions are made in Iran. At this deeper level of understanding, Ahmadinejad's texts, whether in translation or in the original Farsi, may not tell us as much as we would like!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Necessity of Fiction

While many of these posts have addressed the problem of what and how we communicate through narrative, I have not written very much about fiction, which was one of the themes I explored from a variety of points of view on my previous blog. I was reminded of the communicative value of fiction when I read J. M. Coetzee's review of Norman Mailer's "speculative fiction" about Hitler's youth, The Castle in the Forest. (I had to read this in its on-line version due to "complications" involving the delivery of my subscription; but that, as they say, is another story!) I was particularly taken with the way Coetzee chose to introduce the strategy behind Mailer's effort:

There are limits to what we will ever know for a fact about young Stalin and young Hitler, about their home environment, their education, their early friendships, early influences on them. The leap from the meager factual record to the inner life is a huge one, one that historians and biographers (the biographer conceived of as historian of the individual) are understandably reluctant to take. So if we want to know what went on in those two child souls, we will have to turn to the poet and the kind of truth the poet offers, which is not the same as the historian's.

I find this perspective particularly valuable in a world in which so many significant decisions are being made that strongly impact such "inner lives" but never bother to take them into account, usually on the grounds that such an accounting would make the decision-making task far too complex. This is why we fall back on technology-based strategies that "objectify the subject;" and there are no end of horror stories, some of which I have cited, about how "subjects" suffer under such strategies. Have we lost our taste for fiction in the wake of all the "facts" from Google and Wikipedia that now overwhelm us; or have we just resorted to laziness to retreat from a world that floods us with more information than we can handle? There is no simple answer to this question. Indeed, the question may well go unanswered until some good novelists decide to write about it!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Moving the Battle to Linguistic Turf

One of the most contentious issues surrounding the arguments over abortion is whether or not aborting a fetus is an act of murder. This is strong language, but you never fail to see it on placards when the opposing sides face off against each other on the street. Indeed the position is implicit in the very choice of the name "Right to Life." Nevertheless, at least at the metanarrative level, we can recognize that this is an argument over whether or not there is validity in the use of words like "murder" and "death."

Associated Press (by way of Yahoo! News) has now reported that the state of Tennessee will debate whether or not to settle this argument by legislation:

Legislation introduced in Tennessee would require death certificates for aborted fetuses, which likely would create public records identifying women who have abortions.

Rep. Stacey Campfield, a Republican, said his bill would provide a way to track how many abortions are performed. He predicted it would pass in the Republican-controlled Senate but would have a hard time making it through the Democratic House.

"All these people who say they are pro-life — at least we would see how many lives are being ended out there by abortions," said Campfield.

The number of abortions reported to the state Office of Vital Records is already publicly available. The office collects records — but not death certificates — on abortions and the deaths of fetuses after 22 weeks gestation or weighing about 1 pound.

In other words, whatever Representative Campfield may say about his record-keeping motives, the records are already there; so his real motive is to validate the use of the word "death," which could then validate the use of the word "murder." Now I am glad that Associated Press is optimistic about the State House of Representatives; but, unless I am mistaken, this is the state that once legislated that the mathematical constant π be declared equal to 22/7 to simplify test questions on mathematics. So I am not one to hide behind the too-absurd-to-warrant-attention argument! We should know by now that nothing is too absurd where legislative processes are involved!


It would appear that President Bush is beginning to exercise a bit more caution in the language he uses, or so we might believe from the Associated Press (via Yahoo! News) account of today's press conference:

Challenged on the accuracy of U.S. intelligence, President Bush said Wednesday there is no doubt the Iranian government is providing armor-piercing weapons to kill American soldiers in Iraq. But he backed away from claims the top echelon of Iran's government was responsible.

Bush's strategy was to try to anchor his comments to "what we do and do not know about the Quds Force:"

Three senior U.S. military officials, at a weekend briefing in Baghdad, said the highest levels of the Iranian government had ordered the weapons smuggled into Iraq. They based their claim on the belief the weapons are moving into Iraq through the Iran's Revolutionary Guards elite Quds Force.

But Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said later he was not ready to conclude that Iran's top leaders were behind the attacks. Some lawmakers also have questioned the administration's statements.

Wading into the debate, Bush said the Quds Force was instrumental in supplying the weapons — "we know that," he said — and that the Quds Force was part of the Iranian government. "That's a known," he said. "What we don't know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds Force to do what they did."

Pressed again on the subject, Bush displayed some irritation and said, "Whether (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad ordered the Quds Force to do this, I don't think we know. But we do know that they're there and I intend to do something about it. And I've asked our commanders to do something about it. And we're going to protect our troops." Ahmadinejad has denied Iran was behind the attacks.

The Boston Globe is hoping to provide a clearer picture by bringing in more "knowledge sources:"

Daniel Serwer, a specialist at the US Institute for Peace, a Washington-based think tank, said he was not convinced that the Iranian government had decided "at the highest levels" to provide weapons to target US troops, as the three US officials told reporters.

"The question is not so much about whether there are Iranian weapons inside Iraq," said Serwer, who served as executive director of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan commission on Iraq. "Sure there are. The question is whether there is a conscious policy by the Iranian government or some part of the Iranian government to support lethal attacks against Americans. I haven't seen any proof of that yet."

This would appear to provide some support for Pace's position. Meanwhile, Senator Christopher Dodd has decided to recognize the dead moose on the table and wonder aloud whether or not the White House is crying wolf again:

A senior Democratic senator compared the US allegations to the charges against Iraq's former President Saddam Hussein in the months before the US invasion in March 2003.

"I am deeply troubled by this administration's escalating rhetoric against Iran, especially intelligence from unnamed officials that is not fully documented," Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, said in a statement. "It is frighteningly reminiscent of the pattern we saw in the drumbeat that led to the war with Iraq."

As I suggested earlier this morning, this is a case where we have to assume that all the narrators are unreliable (particularly now that the whistle has been blown on Rice's credibility). So, while Bush is now trying to cover his own ass with more judicious use of language, the prospect that this mess will be resolved by informed decisions seems pretty bleak.

Condi's Chutzpah

Having been late with last week's Chutzpah of the Week award, I once again seem to be running the risk of assigning this week's award too soon; but, I have to confess that, when it involves Condoleeza Rice, the temptation is very strong! The story broke on Reuters (delivered through Yahoo! News) about an hour and a half ago; and it concerns her reaction to having the whistle blown on her. The whistle blower was Flynt Leverett, who worked for her the National Security Council; and he is accusing Rice of misleading the Congress about an invitation from Iran in 2003 for talks with the United States:

Speaking at a conference on Capitol Hill, Leverett said "this was a serious proposal, a serious effort" by
Iran to lay out a comprehensive agenda for U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.

"The Bush administration up to and including Secretary Rice is misleading Congress and the American public about the Iran proposal," he said.

Rice's reaction has been to accuse Leverett of incompetence:

She faulted him for not telling her, "We have a proposal from Iran and we really ought to take it."

Fortunately, Leverett is not taking Rice's chutzpah-laden reaction lying down:

Leverett said he deserved an apology from Rice for calling his competence into question.

He said he had left the National Security Council, which advises the president on security issues, in March 2003 before the Iranian proposal was received. He returned to the
CIA where he previously worked and soon after that left government.

Hence, he wasn't in a position to made this case directly to Rice, nor was it his responsibility, he said.

But among other things, Leverett said that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a discussion about the Iranian proposal, told him he "couldn't sell it at the White House." This was evidence it had been discussed there, he said.

So, even if we are not sure what the rest of the week will bring, I shall stick my own neck out and assume that Condi will not be done (at least for the rest of this week)!

Another Repetition of History?

The question of whether or not the White House is now pursuing "designs on Iran" is larger than the sound-byte scale of most American media coverage. So we should all acknowledge a debt of thanks to Bernhard Zand for the extended analysis he filed from Dubai for SPIEGEL ONLINE. With my own interest in narrative analysis, I see this as a situation in which we are obliged to assume that all of the narrators are unreliable (which is often the case when the dispute is really contentious and clouded by excessive ideology). Zand provides a nice summary of this position:

Iran and Iraq's neighbors in the Gulf have watched this diplomatic escalation with understandable concern. They don't trust Iran's expansionist foreign policy -- including its secretive nuclear program -- or the American strategy in Iraq. Different versions of three basic scenarios have circulated on the opinion pages and blogs of the region for the past weeks. First, an imminent US military strike. Second, a unilateral Israeli attack like the one on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. Or, third, the scenario everyone hopes for -- that one of the two antagonists, preferably Iran, will back down before the war of words degrades into violence.

What makes Zand's analysis particularly interesting, however, is the way in which he includes Israel among those unreliable narrators:

Mohammed Al Naqbi at the Gulf Negotiation Centre in Abu Dhabi also believes Israel, not the United States, is preparing for war. He says the process is long past the stage of psychological warfare. "Everything is in place, from the US point of view, for a war most probably this time on Iran," says Naqbi, adding that the US administration is "sleepwalking" to its next conflict. He expects military operations to begin in March or April, shortly after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) presents its next report, and in time for Admiral William Fallon, the new head of US Central Command, to get acquainted with his job.

I was particularly struck by the choice of that progressive verb "sleepwalking." While I do not recall Barbara Tuchman using the verb explicitly, that verb captures her own position in The Guns of August on how Europe basically blundered its way into the First World War. We are thus once again up against Marx' reading of Hegel on the repetition of history, except that, in this particular situation, it is far too grim to think of the repetition as farce!

The Hedge Fund Debate goes Political

If it was Germany's attention to use the past weekend's G7 meeting to call attention to the need for greater scrutiny of hedge funds, then they seem to have succeeded with at least one French politician. According to Martin Arnold, reporting from Paris for The Financial Times, Nicolas Sarkozy has decided to bring that scrutiny into his presidential campaign:

“We did not create the euro to have capitalism without ethics or morals. I am extremely worried about speculative movements,” he said. “Who can tolerate a hedge fund buying a company with debts, firing 25 per cent of staff and then reimbursing them by selling it in pieces? Not me.

“I want to make France the country that rewards wealth creation, but which also knows how to hit predators.” His comments echo the traditional Gaullist suspicion of capitalism and financial investors, for which Mr Chirac has become well known.

Unfortunately, I am not sure that Sarkozy is approaching this issue on the right rhetorical footing. He seems to want to elevate a debate about regulation to one involving the higher standards of ethics and morals. Here in the United States, the very word "ethics" is likely to turn off most voters, at least until the Congress comes up with several more solid demonstrations of its ability to manage oversight of unethical behavior. On the other hand many French may react to the word "regulation" the same way as many Americans, particularly on the Republican side of the fence: as a code word that signals further impositions by "big government."

It may be that Sarkozy decided to jump on the hedge fund bandwagon before the ink from Essen had dried and had not really put his thoughts in order before making his first public statement on the matter. Since his opponent has also come under attack for making some "reckless" public statements, this may even the balance between the two candidates a bit; but it does little to advance the state of political discourse for either. Now that the Germans have "opened the season" on discussion of hedge funds, we should at least hope for more consideration behind the discussion, even if, in the "real world of politics," that hope is not particularly realistic!

The Activist's Valentine

ABC News' Blotter site is celebrating Valentine's Day with a story by Justin Rood about worker exploitation at South American flower plantations. This morning Amy Goodman promised a story that would cover both flowers and jewelry, but it got preempted by KPFA. Instead they chose to run excerpts from the soundtrack of When the Levees Broke, which is probably part of their fund-raising campaign. As I write this, the flowers/jewelry story has not yet been released on the Democracy Now! Web site. Nevertheless, it is nice the see a couple of sectors of the media finally decide to push back against a holiday that was clearly invented for solely commercial purposes, as if the extent of one's love is measured by the number of products one chooses to buy on this particular day!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Tribe has Spoken!

If, as I had suggested, Putin's weekend attack on the United States was a well-played move in the "great game" of diplomacy, then Reuters has now issued a "scorekeeper's report!" The "scorekeeper" was Emnid, which conducted a poll for N24 television. They polled 1000 Germans; and 68% percent supported Putin's remarks, while only 22% disagreed with him. This should not be surprising since Germany has shown little sympathy for Bush's "adventures" in Iraq, whether in the corridors of power or on the streets. We may thus conclude that Putin not only made a good move but, by making it in Munich, made it on the right playing field!

Research is not about the Answers!

This morning's Yahoo! News had an encouraging Associated Press story from Middlebury, Vermont. In concerns a policy statement by the history department at Middlebury College regarding the use of Wikipedia in writing research papers:

Wikipedia is not an acceptable citation, even though it may lead one to a citable source.

One of the professors put this in the best possible way:

History professor Neil Waters says Wikipedia is an ideal place to start research but an unacceptable way to end it.

In my last blog I wrote several articles on the "question of whether or not tools such as Wikipedia and Google are eroding our skills for being critical readers." It would appear that Professor Waters is concerned with the same question. I am glad to see that there is one liberal arts college that is still standing and recognizes that there is more to education than delivering answers!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Scientific Method as an Article of Faith

The Truthdig debate over "Evangelicals Make War on Evolution" continues to rage; and "rage" certainly seems to be the operative verb among most of the contributors. My reaction to all of this is to try to build on my previous line of reasoning and focus more on how the adoption of scientific method is, itself, an article of faith. This argument has less to do with teasing apart the texts and more to do with the nature of practice.

The “rigor” of science is nothing more than a commitment to play by its own rules; and, from a purely dispassionate behavioral perspective, that commitment is not that different from a commitment to play by the rules of Catholic dogma, a system that is as much a product of strenuous logical thought as scientific method is. Where faith comes in is in the belief that either commitment (or any similar commitment) will lead to truth about the natural world. However, as Isaiah Berlin points out in a variety of different ways in the essays in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, the very idea that there should be a truth about the natural world is a product of a cultural world-view that can be traced back (at least) as far as Plato, which is a far cry from a formal logical proposition whose truth-value may be assessed.

The credibility of scientific method has always been strained, just as has been the credibility of any religious conviction. Even when scientific method enjoyed the prestige of a lingua franca, the solipsists were applying their own rigor to the hypothesis that, for any practical purposes, the natural world was a construction of our own subjective processes. The twentieth century saw this perspective expand from the subjectively constructed reality to the socially constructed reality. At roughly the same time mathematics, always regarded as the ne plus ultra model of scientific rigor, discovered that, for all that rigor, all but the most trivial logical systems harbored undecidable propositions, revealing that the very concept of “truth” could be questioned, even in the objective world.

Berlin believed that, if we all recognized that all of our belief systems were guided by faith at some fundamental level, we might be more tolerant of each other’s faiths. I would like to cast my lot with Berlin. Unfortunately, to use “scientific language” that Karl Popper brought into fashion, the evidence of falsifiability (which I prefer to call “internal inconsistency") has been spread across all of the inflammatory discourse of the comments that have accumulated in the Truthdig debate. All we seemed to have learned is that the conviction of many faiths seems to beget intolerance, which does not speak well for our future.

Better Late than Never

Yes, I know that the chutzpah award should have been announced before the end of last week. However, nothing really piqued my attention until I was listening to Amy Goodman's DemocracyNow! on KPFA this morning (now my preferred alternative to NPR). While I "parsed" the broadcast as a single item, the Headlines summary page at the DemocracyNow! Web site broke it down into two conjoined parts:

FEMA Gives $3 Million to Restore Jefferson Davis' Home
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has agreed to pay about three million dollars to help repair the former home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Davis led the Confederacy in the South during the Civil War. Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed the 150-year-old home in Biloxi Mississippi.

New Orleans Public Housing Residents Fight For Homes
In New Orleans, low-income residents are still fighting to prevent their homes from being demolished. On Saturday some residents of the Central City public housing complex defied government orders and moved back into their old apartments. The city is planning to demolish four large public housing developments even though tens of thousands of low-income New Orleans residents remain displaced.

Personally, I find the conjunction to be entirely apposite, particularly after NBC News reported last Friday that FEMA was getting "high marks" for its response to the Florida tornado. This is where the real chutzpah resides, not so much in FEMA's distorted sense of priorities in their post-Katrina management but in NBC's attempts to tell a "good news" story about FEMA while the state of affairs in the wake of Katrina continues to be a disgrace. This is not to argue against historical preservation (even when it involves the history of the Confederacy); but, between the continuing extent of homelessness and that inflammatory language about slavery that Spike Lee managed to document, one would have thought that the historical preservation could have been put on hold and the $3 million applied to more immediate needs of the living.

Too Much for one Day?

In his blog for The Nation, Christopher Hayes has decided to express (articulate?) his disenchantment with all of the Obama symbolism in Saturday. I am not sure I was ever enchanted enough to be disenchanted, but I was skeptical even as the crowds were gathering. That is because I happened to be listening to C-SPAN on my XM Radio that morning and discovered that they were the only media source giving any coverage to Tavis Smiley's "State of the Black Union" symposium in Jamestown, a site with its own symbolism for the African-American community. So, while Springfield had Obama, Jamestown had Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, whose pioneering efforts in presidential politics have now been forgotten in order to cast Obama as a "first." Needless to say, Obama made no reference to Jamestown, let alone the Covenant with Black America, one of the organizations that supports Smiley's annual symposium. Hayes' misgivings have to do with the abundance of symbolism and rhetoric as a cover for lack of substance, which is another way of saying "politics as usual." On the other hand the "powers that be," particularly in the media, seem to have made it impossible to get elected without "politics as usual;" but isn't hoping for something else the kind of audacity that Obama was writing about in his book? Personally, I think that both Jackson and Sharpton have offered us many lessons in audacity; and it remains to be seen how good a pupil Obama will prove to be.