Monday, October 30, 2006

I think...

As this blog creeps toward its 1,000th visit (and as I'm trying to get back into the writing groove after another lengthy pause), I'd like to take a moment to thank those of you who are dropping by now and then. When I started writing back in July (with an entry about Syd Barrett, since he was on my mind that day) I really wasn't sure what I expected. All-in-all, however, I've been quite pleased with the results and with the feedback I've received.

The visitor numbers have gone up and down (as does, most likely, the quality of my writing...though I have yet to identify any direct connection between these two factors), but at least I no longer feel like I'm talking to myself.

Regardless, though, of whatever moments of insight I might feel I have had in these postings - I do think there have been at least a few - I am quite sure that I'll never match the pure inspirational genius of the entry Darwin made in his journal in the late 1830s, which is pictured here. The page is headed 'I think' and what follows is the first tree diagram expressing the progress of evolution.

I don't know about you, but there is something incredible and spine-tingling about the profundity of that thought, which is only enhanced by the elegant simplicity through which it is expressed here.

This page and many, many other pieces of Darwin's writing are available at the Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online, and I'm very grateful to my wife for bringing it to my attention.

On a not-unrelated note, while I was in London last week, I extended my membership as one of the Friends of the Grant Museum of Zoology. The museum is part of University College London, and I discovered it quite by chance earlier this year. It's small and a bit cramped, but it's got an incredible collection of animal specimens, and they do a lot of educational programmes on zoology and evolution. They also conduct research, including, according to their website, on something called 'morphometrics', which I don't know anything about, but which sounds tremendously cool.

As a Friend of the Museum (which will cost you less than a typical meal in London), you will not only be supporting their work, but you also get to 'adopt' a specimen. I adopted one of their axolotls.

An axolotl is an amazing little creature, which appeals to me mainly, to be honest, because it's dead cute; however, as one of their characteristics is that they remain in their larval form even as adults, it can also be said that in a sense they 'never grow up', and this is an added reason to like them.

And the dodo bones were already taken.

The museum is free to visit. So, the next opportunity you have, please do so.

And please report back to me on how my little adoptee is doing...

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The flowers of intolerance and hatred are blooming kind of early this year...someone's been watering them

And another thing...

As an avid reader of his writing, as a former midwesterner and, additionally, as the grandson of someone who suffered the ravages of Parkinson's: I point you to William Saletan's comments on the 'psychosis' of radio scumbag Rush Limbaugh (who is already on the OD shit-list), particularly with reference to his comments on Michael J. Fox's television ads supporting the Democrats this year.

I know this is a bit behind the curve on this issue...but it came up whilst I was away from my keyboard. But please, people, if you can vote in this election, think very carefully about what would be the more sane choice this year. It is, in most cases, unlikely to mean voting Republican.

But don't listen to me...

Arguing and insisting and asserting into the night...

I'm back now, but still somewhat in need of recovery from time spent in the often interesting (though always seriously tiring...and, despite years of economic growth, still inexplicably dingy) city of London.

What I've just run across, though, is a well-worth-reading interview with the often seriously brilliant (though, occasionally, seriously misguided) Christopher Hitchens. His arguments in favour of the invasion of Iraq were some of the few worth taking seriously, even if, in the end, I found them unconvincing. Nonetheless, his views on most other topics still tend to be spot-on, and his writing style and productivity remain awe inspiring.

Moreover, his openness to debate and single-minded determination, I think, is not to be underrated.

No debating opponent is too inconsequential to escape his efforts. At a debate on the war in New York the week we met, he responded one by one to a mainly hostile audience, then followed them outside to continue the conversation. He stayed glued o the sidewalk, deep in argument, until only a handful remained. Forty-five minutes later, the number outside the debating hall had shrunk to five, not including me: a janitor who seemed about to lock up, three students and Hitchens - enshrouded in cigarette smoke, arguing and insisting and asserting into the night.

There are, after all, worse ways to be described....

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Silent Running

Once again, a brief period of radio silence ensues...

I'm off tomorrow for a week of seminars and research in London and the very scenic little hamlet of Milton Keynes.

But be assured, around the end of next week, regular broadcasts will once again resume.

Until then, do feel free to peruse the archives, make comments or get in touch.

And, importantly, as they used to say on Hill Street Blues: 'Hey, let's be careful out there.'

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Arthur Marwick, 1936-2006

Somewhat belatedly, I provide links to obituaries of Arthur Marwick, who was a historian long associated with the department to which I now belong. I never knew him personally, but his books The Deluge, on British society and the First World War, and British Society Since 1945 were prominent among the important things I read in graduate school.

He is remembered by A W Purdue in the Guardian and by my colleague Clive Emsley in the Independent (requires subscription or fee; also available via War Starts at Midnight!)

Fittingly enough, sometime next year, an article on a contemporary novel which I co-wrote with my wife will be published with two epigraphs, one of which is from Marwick. It's a quote which we quite like:
... it is only through knowledge of its history that a society can have knowledge of itself. As a man without a memory and self-knowledge is a man adrift, so a society without memory (or more correctly, without recollection) and self-knowledge would be a society adrift.
The other epigraph we've used is from Marx.

This is company which Marwick would most likely not have approved of.

However: Men may receive tributes; but they do not always receive them as they please....

Novel Campus

Just as it seemed the Germans were beginning to emerge from the more onerous weight of their historical guilt-complex, historian William Clark reminds us of another scourge for which they can be blamed: the modern university system.

Anthony Grafton's review at The New Yorker of Clark's new book, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, makes for fascinating reading if you have more than a passing interest in that 'odd, unstable compound of novelty and conservatism' which characterises academic life. ('Odd' and 'unstable' being the operative words here.)

It may surprise many readers (those in the US in particular) that the contemporary institution of higher learning was very much shaped by its historical development in Germany (or, more precisely, in that crazy patchwork of micro-states which preceded the modern German nation). This story is laid out very nicely in Grafton's review, which also contains some very fine anecdotes, such as those about historian Theodor Mommsen:

Mommsen's fantastic energy and work ethic-he published more than fifteen hundred scholarly works-had made him a hero, not only among scholars but to the general public, a figure without real parallels today. The first three volumes of his "History of Rome," published in the eighteen-fifties, were best-sellers for decades and won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902. Berlin tram conductors pointed him out as he stood in the street, leaning against a lamppost and reading: "That is the celebrated Professor Mommsen: he loses no time."
(He certainly sounds wonderfully efficient and everything, but I hope it's not just envy speaking if I suggest that Mommsen might have been a bit...exhausting? ... to be around. I bet he was a lot of fun at departmental meetings.)

There is also the following inspiring story, which might be confidence-building for any doctoral candidate facing their oral exams:

When Dorothea Schlözer, the daughter of a professor, underwent her examination for a doctorate at Göttingen in 1787, she confronted a committee of seven examiners. In deference to her sex, she was seated not at the far end of the table, facing the professors, but between two of them. The examination-which was interrupted for tea-allowed for masterly displays of professorial snideness. One professor "pulled a rock out of his pocket and asked her to classify it. After a couple more questions, he said he was going to ask her one on the binomial theorem, but, as he reckoned most of his own colleagues knew nothing of it, he decided to skip it." The student calmly outperformed her masters. When another professor asked about art history, she noted that she had not listed this topic on her résumé, and thus should not be asked about it-but then she answered anyway. After about two hours, a professor who had been silent until then interrupted a colleague to note that "it was 7:30 and time to quit." Schlözer passed.
Yet beyond explaining the origins of some of the more eccentric legacies of university life (and, to be honest, the professors in Schlözer's story doesn't sound all that distant from today's), even Grafton's much-summarised version of Clark's book makes another useful point: 'the university' has always been an institution in flux, constantly renewed by shifting political, social and economic realities.

Although I'm far from an expert on this, I have had my own inside experience with the functioning (or, more often, malfunctioning) of present-day German universities, and I think Clark's work may provide a useful antidote to the contemporary national Angst about reforming these venerable institutions.

Now, just to make clear, there is a great deal of excellent research and teaching in German universities. It is, furthermore, being done in financial and institutional straits which, even in the grim 1990s, I never experienced in the US. (If you're not so familiar with Germany, its universities -- which are mostly still 'free', although modest fees are starting to be introduced in some states -- are presently undergoing an agonising funding and identity crisis.)

However, there is also an unbelievable amount of ossified administrative nonsense as well as a stubborn reluctance to stop thinking things can still be done as they were back in the good old days, when there was plenty of money and enough jobs for everyone. There are efforts at reform; however, as in any large institution, they are often hindered by the usual mix of personal vanity and departmental politics. There are also occasional signs of breathtaking naivety.

This happens even (or especially) on a large scale: concerned about German universities' international reputation, for example, the national government recently put into motion a selection process to name a group of 'elite' universities, which -- along with getting to throw their new 'elite' label around -- would also receive some (relatively paltry, all things considered) additional funding for a period of years. Of course, it is about as likely that a panel of experts can conjure up an 'elite' university as it is that a great novel will ever be written by a committee.

The (comparatively simple) idea that universities themselves should be given more freedom in designing their programs, organising their funding, rewarding their high-performance staff and selecting their students does not seem to have occurred to anyone at the ministry.

This may be in part because there's a widespread opinion that reforming the universities along more competitive lines is some kind of scary, neo-liberal import from the brutal capitalists and cultural philistines on the other side of the Atlantic. This is profoundly mistaken. As Clark's book points out, in a curious way, a reforming spirit was already present at the birth of the modern university, implicated as it was in the intricacies of the Holy Roman Empire's political map. As Grafton notes:

This complex assembly of tiny territorial states and half-timbered towns had no capital to rival Paris, but the little clockwork polities transformed the university through the simple mechanism of competition. German officials understood that a university could make a profit by attaining international stature. Every well-off native who stayed home to study and every foreign noble who came from abroad with his tutor-as Shakespeare's Hamlet left Denmark to study in Saxon Wittenberg-meant more income. And the way to attract customers was to modernize and rationalize what professors and students did.

Thus, opening up the education system to more institutional independence and competition would, in a strange way, be a quintessentially traditional and German thing to do. I would suggest that the architects of German university reform take a careful look at the above paragraph and that, much like Prof. Mommsen, they lose no time.

German scholarship has been vastly influential in the West over the last few centuries. For it to remain so -- and I, for one, hope it does -- the institutions which produce it will have to transform themselves into something very different. What results will be something which does not fully resemble the typical university of 2006.

But as Grafton's review makes clear that, in the history of the university, change (along perhaps with strange clothing and irrational rituals) has been one of the only continuities.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Thinking again

Norman Geras's perspectives on terrorism and the Iraq War, though I don't always agree with them, are things which I have come to respect for their thoughtfulness and careful reasoning. Thus, it is all the more remarkable to read (as someone who opposed the war) these words (by someone who supported it and has since been its committed defender):
Sometimes there is a justification for opposing tyranny and barbarism whatever the cost. Had I been of mature years during that time, I hope I would have supported the war against Nazism come what may, and not been one of the others, the nay-sayers. The same impulse was at work in my support for the Iraq war. Even so, I am bound to acknowledge that, though I never expected an easy sequel in Iraq, much less a 'cakewalk', I did not anticipate a failure on this scale, and had I done so, I would have withheld support for the war without giving my voice to the opposition to it.
For those of you on either side of the issue (or, I suppose, for those on neither), I recommend reading the rest of 'Failure in Iraq', which is available here, at Normblog.

Survival of the fittest (big fish in a small pond version)

A big pat on the back to yourself if you can guess at whom or what the following comments were addressed:
"They're like a furiously masturbating and horribly inbred zoo animal that only eats its own dung."

(And no, surprisingly enough, it's not a reference to politics...though, of course, it could be.)

Still wondering?

The here.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Orwellian sweet tooth

Don't look now (or, actually, please do), but someone's gorging himself on sugary sweet George Orwell essays.

As the next volume of an older edition of Orwell's collected journalism which I ordered has just recently arrived (one which includes quite a number of the 'As I Please' essays), I'm soon going to get back to working my way through his writing. It is addictive. And will probably result in my quoting him extensively...again.

But till then, one of the excerpts cited at Some Men Are Brothers is worth reprinting:
Now, it seems to me that you do less harm by dropping bombs on people than by calling them 'Huns'. Obviously one does not want to inflict death and wounds if it can be avoided, but I cannot feel that mere killing is all-important. We shall all be dead in less than a hundred years, and most of us by the sordid horror known as 'natural death'. The truly evil thing is to act in such a way that peaceful life becomes impossible.
I'm looking forward to getting my own Orwell addiction back on track. I promise, though not to spoil my appetite.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

When the walls come tumbling down

While most of the world seems to be most concerned about a strong North Korea, at The Atlantic Online, the often intriguing (and sometimes just plain wacky) mind of Robert D. Kaplan is thinking way ahead (an activity which has not been conspicuous among the current US administration) about the problems posed by the (inevitable? probable?) collapse of Kim Jong Il's regime.

His cheerful closing line: 'It is far too early to tell who ultimately will benefit from a stable and prosperous Mesopotamia, if one should ever emerge. But in the case of Korea, it looks like it will be the Chinese.'

(I don't know Kaplan at all...but with all that complex geopolitical strategising, I get the feeling - just from reading his article - that he's the kind of guy who really - I mean really - enjoys playing Risk. We here at Obscene Desserts, being big fans of strategery ourselves, can sympathise.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

We're going way out (that's where the fun is)

Obscene Desserts wishes its readers a very happy Powers of Ten Day. And what better way to celebrate than to watch this excellent film from Charles and Ray Eames.

Many thanks to Bad Science - where you will also find a Simpsons version - for bringing this to my attention. I recall seeing the film a few times as a child, both in school (back when that required a real film know, the kind that would occasionally melt what we were watching) and - I think - at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

This film brings back especially fond memories, as the picnic with which it opens is at just about the spot where my parents and I would often have our own picnics in the mid 70s and early 80s. In those days not only could you enjoy watching the lake and visiting the nearby Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium and Field Museum, but you could watch small planes flying in and out right over your head from the (now sadly closed) Meigs Field. What more could a little boy want?

Back then, I didn't realise that the makers of Powers of Ten were such amazing designers and architects. Of course, at that point I probably wouldn't have cared. But the film did make an impression. I remember being struck by the idea of the incomprehensible massiveness of the universe and the smallness of things like atoms. (A feeling of wonder which probably passed quickly as we then raced outside to try to injure one another by throwing rubber balls as hard as we could at each other. However, dodgeball, for all its faults, was perhaps a great - if painful - way to regain some feeling of significance in the great universal scale of things.)

I think it's a wonderful idea for a holiday: let's all take a moment or two (or ten) to contemplate - and celebrate - our fundamental irrelevance.

How long, I wonder, till it appears on a Hallmark card?

Hopefully by 2010.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Thoughts on rendering unto Caesar and turning the other cheek

Today's post will be a bit haphazard, as I'm still a bit freaked out by those tremors from that North Korean nuclear test which I felt earlier. There is, though, I promise, a coherent (if frayed) thread connecting the two main topics which follow - roughly, religion and non-violence - which I hope will become clear by the end. Oddly enough, though, these points will intersect in the Middle Ages.

At the New York Times (where, don't forget, free registration is required), Diana B. Henriques has a great, in-depth series on the increasingly accommodating relationship between church and state in America. Good stuff: I recommend going over there and printing it out before it becomes pay-only.

Part One, for example, looks at the growing number of regulatory exemptions being enjoyed by religious groups:

In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide “war on religion” that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations — from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples — enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.

Some of the exceptions have existed for much of the nation’s history, originally devised for Christian churches but expanded to other faiths as the nation has become more religiously diverse. But many have been granted in just the last 15 years — sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized “earmarks” benefiting other special interests.

An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.

The special breaks amount to “a sort of religious affirmative action program,” said John Witte Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at the Emory University law school.

Professor Witte added: “Separation of church and state was certainly part of American law when many of today’s public opinion makers were in school. But separation of church and state is no longer the law of the land.”

Part Two considers the erosion of employee rights for those who work in religious organisations. One of those rights is....unionisation, which is being interpreted by some faith-based entities as contrary to their 'freedom of religion'. This is odd, to say the least, as I don't really recall collective bargaining as ever coming up in the Bible; but, then again, it's been a while since I checked.

Parts Three and Four will be appearing, I presume, soon.

Then, moving on to non-violence (and nicely timed to follow my recent post about George Orwell and his criticism of pacifism), there is a review over at Reason by Katherine Mangu-Ward which takes a brief (and rather dismissive) look at a new book by Mark Kurlansky entitled Nonviolence: 25 Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea. I haven't read the book, though it admittedly sounds like a curious one, since, judging from Mangu-Ward's summary, it seems as if it makes a strong case that strict forms of pacifism have not been, historically, the most successful strategies.
But none of these interesting factoids can cover up the fact that Nonviolence consists mostly of revisionist history forced into thematic categories. "Lessons" like "violence is a virus that infects and takes over" and "warfare produces peace activists. A group of veterans is a likely place to find peace activists" feel like hasty attempts to generalize what specific anecdotes have already taken care of, without allowing for the subtleties that anecdotal storytelling permits. And none of the 25 lessons seem to offer much guidance about how to avoid joining the thousands upon thousands of corpses of the nonviolent which litter the pages of the book.
Thus, non-violence may indeed be a 'dangerous idea', particularly for its adherents.

The Dalai Lama wrote the foreword for Kurlansky's book. This is interesting, as there have been arguments suggesting that his (I mean Mr. Lama's) relationship to violence is, shall we say, somewhat more nuanced than many people imagine: topically enough - though I suppose the threat of atomic annihilation is evergreen - it is even claimed that he has a less than absolutely negative position on nuclear weapons. (Counterarguments against this interpretation of his views were made here.) Another perspective has agreed that, while indeed a pacifist, his commitment to non-aggression has morphed into a strange passivity which prevents him from offending his powerful (and sometimes unwisely violent) friends.

With regard to non-violence, then, one perspective says he's hypocritical and the other merely a fool. I leave you to decide. For myself, in any case, I have little interest in the message of people who claim to be divinely ordained, reincarnated or messengers for supreme beings, whatever it is they might say.

Suggesting, though, that there may indeed be nothing new under the sun, my copy of the Orwell book I cited earlier is still sitting on my desk, and I can't resist another relevant quote. In a response to pacifist criticism of his pro-war stance (World War II, remember) Orwell briefly discussed another international icon of non-violence:
As an ex-Indian civil servant, it always makes me shout with laughter to hear, for instance, Gandhi named as an example of the success of non-violence. As long as twenty years ago it was synically admitted in Anglo-Indian circles that Gandhi was very useful to the British Government. So will he be to the Japanese if they get there. Despotic governments can stand 'moral force' till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force. (p.262)
(This is not an argument that physical force is always better - though with fascists, this is usually the case - just one that the absolute rejection of using force is naive and a recipe for ensuring that your tribe, movement, nation or people, whatever its goals, will be short-lived. The unwise use of force, as I mentioned in my previous post, is, of course, also a problem.)

I may actually want to read Mr. Kurlansky's book (especially if his publisher sends me a free copy: hint, hint), as violence is a particular interest of mine as well. I wonder whether Ms. Mangu-Ward's review does him justice.

I'm also curious to see more of what he has to say about the Cathars - who are referred to briefly in the Reason review - a heterodox religious movement wiped out in the 13th and 14th centuries by means of a horrendously violent crusade. (Ah, religion, that great vehicle of tolerance and non-violence...) I have had the good fortune of visiting (on a couple of occasions) some of the spectacular Cathar fortifications in southwestern France; a photo of one of them, Queribus, adorns the opening of this post (further pictures available here). These are truly magnificent places, and worth seeing. (And the roads you have to drive to get to them - think 'twisting', 'winding' and 'sheer drop' - are their own kind of good time.)

A religious organisation, which wanted nothing from the state but to be left alone and whose pacifism may have proved their undoing.

A sad story.

But one which at least allows me to meet (though somewhat vaguely) my promise that this post would have a coherent central thought behind it.

Well, you get what you pay for.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Your weekend reading list

I'm still catching up on things which appeared while on vacation. So, as a service to my (few but elite) readers, here are three things to print out and consider carefully. You'll be glad you did.

1. At the New Yorker, Amy Davidson talks to Seymour Hersh, Jon Lee Anderson and George Packer about Iraq and the War on Terror (remember, kids, these were not always the same thing...though in recent years they've become ever more connected).

This is an enormously important, perceptive and readable analysis of what the past five years have amounted to in terms of making the world safe from terrorism. Or not, as the case may be.

As is so often the case, Sy Hersh has most of the best lines (though Anderson and Packer have a lot of worthwhile things to say too):
Hersh: [...] Like a lot of people, I accepted the premise of the Afghan war; I accepted the premise that it wasn’t that irrational, that we had to do something. I didn’t accept it the second time, in Iraq. If the Administration wants a role model for how to respond to grave abuses in terms of international terrorism, look at the Indian government and Mumbai, the train bombing there. The government treated it like a criminal activity. By going to war, instead of criminalizing what Osama bin Laden and his minions did—there’s no question that, in terms of military operations, this is the worst government in the history of America.


DAVIDSON: I want to go back five years, to the moment right after 9/11 when we talked a lot about justice, about bringing the perpetrators to justice, and to the question of whether there has been justice for 9/11. Sy, you mentioned Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is described as the mastermind behind 9/11. He’s actually in U.S. custody. Why hasn’t he been brought to trial?

HERSH: Because the Administration has chosen not to do so. I think that one of the reasons is that at trial he would talk about how he was treated. If somebody would come into a courtroom describing the kind of treatment he’s reportedly had at the hands of the United States, a conviction might be very hard to get. We simply decided very early on that it was acceptable for us to be goons, and we’ve been goons. It still goes on. It is beyond stupidity.


DAVIDSON: The White House would say we have to give up some expectations about, say, the privacy of telephone calls, to make sure that 9/11 doesn’t happen again.

HERSH: There are ways to deal with that within the confines of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and this Administration chose not to do that, for whatever reason—for security, or because it didn’t want people to know what was going on. They’ve demonstrated a contempt for the Constitution. We really have a constitutional crisis. We’ve got a crisis in terms of what’s going on in Iraq: as Jon Lee said, a civil war is going on there; we just don’t want to use those words.

DAVIDSON: Is America stronger now than it was five years ago?

HERSH: Oh, my God—nobody would argue that. Nobody would say that. You’ve just heard thirty minutes of conversation about how we are perceived. We haven’t done the right thing in terms of reconstruction; we haven’t done the right thing in Iraq. There’s no conceivable way we’re in better shape. Why there hasn’t been an attack in the United States—I don’t have an answer for that, but I don’t believe that’s going to be a political vehicle for George W. Bush. We’re not stronger, in any sense, because we’re not nearly as respected, and the invincibility shield is gone.

2. Sticking with the Iraq theme, though on a somewhat more polemical note, Tom Engelhardt has a good collection of 21 questions about George Bush's Iraq. Perhaps the most disturbing pair of questions (in terms of comparing the costs and benefits of the war):

How many Iraqis are being tortured in Baghdad at present?

Precise numbers are obviously in short supply on this one, but large numbers of bodies are found in and around the capital every single day, a result of the roiling civil war already underway there. These bodies, as Oppel of the Times describes them, commonly display a variety of signs of torture including: "gouged-out eyeballs… wounds… in the head and genitals, broken bones of legs and hands, electric and cigarette burns… acid-induced injuries and burns caused by chemical substances, missing skin… missing teeth and wounds caused by power drills or nails." The UN's chief anti-torture expert, Manfred Nowak, believes that torture in Iraq is now not only "totally out of hand," but "worse" than under Saddam Hussein.


How is Iraqi reconstruction going?

Over three years after the invasion, the national electricity grid can only deliver electricity to the capital, on average, one out of every four hours (and that's evidently on a good day). At the beginning of September, Iraq's oil minister spoke hopefully of raising the country's oil output to 3 million barrels a day by year's end. That optimistic goal would just bring oil production back to where it was more or less at the moment the Bush administration, planning to pay for the occupation of Iraq with that country's "sea" of oil, invaded. According to a Pentagon study, "Measuring security and stability in Iraq," released in August, inflation in that country now stands at 52.5%. (Damien Cave of the New York Times suggests that it's closer to 70%, with fuel and electricity up 270% from the previous year); the same Pentagon study estimates that "about 25.9% of Iraqi children examined were stunted in their physical growth" due to chronic malnutrition which is on the rise across Iraq.

3. An essay at Butterflies and Wheels from Jonahan Thake with the thoroughly excellent title 'On Multiculturalism and Religion - Jesus Doesn't Morris Dance'. Here, Thake considers a number of mistakes being made in contemporary debates about and discussions of religion.

One important point (among others):

In a free society you absolutely do not have to respect other people’s systems of ideas. That is the whole point. You have complete freedom to question them, improve upon them and mock them as you choose – and never forget that a religion is just a system of ideas with a magical fantastical dimension.

No particular deference should be shown to supernatural worldviews. If Paine can be mocked, so can the tooth fairy.

Furthermore, if the system of ideas in question is a repressive one, then as far as you have any duty, you have a duty to show disrespect. Stand up for freedoms other people bled to give you.

Anyone who asks for enforced respect is asking for some very serious powers. They would need a very large thought police squad to check all the libraries, consider all the minds and wipe all the lobes of any dissent. A quick list of interesting questions makes the multicultural credentials of this position look rather hastily stamped:

  • How can we study science if we have to check results to see they don’t make a mockery of x possible holy books?
  • How can we respect the voice of the democratic mass if we have to first respect the booming voice of a very large god?
  • Who decides if enough scraping respect has been shown?
  • Who decides the punishments if it hasn’t?

Don’t trust people who talk earnestly of respect. It is an elastic word that springs back very tightly.

Of course, when some people talk of respect they don’t mean obeisance, they just mean tolerance or accommodation. But we should not automatically assume that this gentlest interpretation of respect is the one religious people are using. The British government plays with extending the blasphemy law; a Sikh mob attacks a theatre; this is respect for religion enforced by prison and sticks.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Brutally criticised till he was spitting blood...

If things went down as this lawsuit (via This Modern World) claims they did, we are certainly witnessing an interesting extension of the concept of violence.

According to the lawsuit filed at U.S. District Court in Denver, Howards and his son walked to about two-to-three feet from where Cheney was standing, and said to the vice president, "I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible," or words to that effect, then walked on.

Ten minutes later, according to Howards' lawsuit, he and his son were walking back through the same area, when they were approached by Secret Service agent Virgil D. "Gus" Reichle Jr., who asked Howards if he had "assaulted" the vice president. Howards denied doing so, but was nonetheless placed in handcuffs and taken to the Eagle County Jail.

And there I was thinking that Cheney was such a tough guy (via Boing Boing and not safe for most workplaces, children and overly-sensitive republicans).

After all, he did shoot someone in the face.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

(What's so funny 'bout) peace, love and understanding?

One of the things I had the pleasure of doing during my recent vacation was spending rather a lot of time with a volume of George Orwell's essays and journalism. Orwell, like some other authors (e.g. Jack London and William Shakespeare), was nearly ruined for me in high school by being reduced to a caricature of what I later learned to be his true complexity.

Orwell, for instance, was presented as merely the anti-communist author of 1984 and Animal Farm. It was never even mentioned, for example, that he was a socialist or even that he had (to great injury to himself) fought against fascism; both of these facts are - putting it mildly - fairly fundamental bits of knowledge in making sense of what he wrote.

In subsequent years, I overcame this obstacle and discovered the joy of Orwell's other writing, the best of which, I think, is not so much found in his fiction (which, though, I have enjoyed, particularly Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up For Air) but in his essays. It was great to discover (or re-discover, as I'd read some of them before) some real gems among the texts collected in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, volume 2: My Country Right or Left 1940-43. Orwell has a variety of things to say in these pieces, about war, literature, fascism, socialism and the responsibility of art in a time of crisis. (His wartime diaries, contained therein, are a great insight into the complexities of an often over-simplified period.)

Among other things, there's a review of a novel by Alex Comfort (yes, that Alex Comfort) called No Such Liberty, which was, in essence, a pacifist tract critical of British participation in the Second World War.

Orwell was, to put it kindly, not fond of the book, but he used it for a thought-provoking examination of the philosophy of pacifism in a time of emerging fascist dominance. Orwell was, quite rightly, a determined critic of pacifism in its more absolutist forms. His reasoning is the subject of the following excerpts from his essay 'No, Not One' which appeared in Adelphi in October 1941 (pages 195-201 in the above mentioned volume) after the country he was living in (about which he was quite critical) had been at war for more than two years.

1. Civilisation rests ultimately on coercion. What holds society together is not the policeman but the goodwill of common men, and yet that goodwill is powerless unless the policeman is there to back it up. Any government which refused to use violence in its own defence would cease almost immediately to exist, because it could be overthrown by any body of men, or even any individual, that was less scrupulous. Objectively, whoever is not on the side of the policeman is on the side of the criminal, and vice versa. In so far as it hampers the British war effort, British pacifism is on the side of the Nazis, and German pacifism, if it exists, is on the side of Britain and the U.S.S.R.


2. Since coercion can never be altogether dispensed with, the only difference is between degrees of violence. During the last twenty years there has been less violence and less militarism inside the English-speaking world than outside it, because there has been more money and more security. The hatred of war which undoubtedly characterizes the English-speaking peoples is a reflection of their favoured position. Pacifism is only a considerable force in places where people feel themselves very safe, chiefly maritime states. [...] To abjure violence, it is necessary to have no experience of it.


The notion that you can somehow defeat violence by submitting to it is simply a flight from fact. As I have said, it is only possible to people who have money and guns between themselves and reality. But why should they want to make this flight, in any case? Because, rightly hating violence, they do not wish to recognize that it is integral to modern society and that their own fine feelings and noble attitudes are all the fruit of injustice backed up by force. They do not want to learn where their incomes come from. Underneath this lies the hard fact, so difficult for many people to face, that individual salvation is not possible, that the choice before human beings is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils. You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil: or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. There is no other choice before you, and whichever you choose you will not come out with clean hands. It seems to me that the text for our times is not 'Woe to him through whom the evil cometh' but the one from which I took the title of this article, 'There is not one that is righteous, no, not one.' We have all touched pitch, we are all perishing by the sword. We do not have the chance, in a time like this, to say 'Tomorrow we can all start being good'. That is moonshine. We only have the chance of choosing the lesser evil and of working for the establishment of a new kind of society in which common decency will again be possible.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Ready and willing?

It seems that, according to a recent Gallup poll (provided here at the National Review Online, via Lawyers, Guns and Money and Ezra Klein), 84 percent of Americans think that their country is not 'ready' to elect an atheist as president.

(Whatever 'ready' means in this context. Do people actually think: 'I wouldn't vote for an atheist candidate next time. I need time to get used to the idea: ask me again in 10 years and maybe I'll be ready'?)

Anyway, it does seem that my career opportunities are even more limited than I'd thought.

I suppose one should greet the majority 'readiness' to elect a female, black or Jewish president (wondering, though, how a candidate who reflects combinations of these categories would electoral readiness additive or subtractive?).

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Come together, right now.

As it is on every October 3rd, it's once again the German Day of Unity. You can tell, since the very excellent film Good Bye, Lenin! is on public television and - other than gas stations, train stations and many restaurants - just about every business is shut. On this auspicious occasion, a few things come to mind.

The first is that I can't believe it's been 17 years since the Berlin Wall fell. Now that I think about it, this means that just about half my life has been lived since the end of the Cold War. This is a very odd thing indeed, because, during that first half the Cold War seemed like one of those things which would just continue on pretty much forever. This was a widespread (if not universal) assumption at the time, something which was, quite coincidentally, brought home to me last night when I started reading Philip K. Dick's classic novel Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep (the basis for the film Blade Runner). Alongside its unsettling depiction of android intelligence, ersatz animals, interplanetary travel, laser weapons and hover-cars, the book, most weirdly in hindsight, envisions a still-extant Soviet Union in the mid 21st century.

(One thinks also - sticking with the science fiction genre - of the Cold War backdrop in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course, come to think of it, I think that film also included typewriters of all things. )

To me at the time, the only alternative to an almost eternal stasis in the superpower struggle was an apocalyptic vision of nuclear annihilation (which incidentally, it appears, has made a comeback). So, all things considered, I suppose that the reality we have - as grim as it seems - is not so bad after all. (Sorry, that's as close as we're going to get to true optimism here at Obscene Desserts.)

If nothing else, though, this should be a reminder that any particular period of history is not eternal (so, in theory, not eternally grim) but a passing phase in an eternal (by human standards) cycle of historical events. We should not assume that the way things are now are a good indication of the way things will always be. This is perhaps simple-minded, but I find it's a pretty useful mantra.

The second thought is a realisation of how - after a mere five years in country - I have managed to develop a profound, I suppose patriotic, emotional connection to my chosen homeland. During the preview broadcast tonight on ARD for Sönke Wortmann's new documentary film Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen I was nearly moved to tears, as memories of the emotional ups and downs of last summer's World Cup bubbled up once again.

When Germany was actually reunified, I was quite a distance away (I was, in fact, in the midst of my sophomore year at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois; thus, it's hard to think of a place which was more distant from where it was really at that year). Still, since I've been here, I've realised how attached you can get to a place which once, really, seemed incredibly foreign.

I'm now thoroughly convinced that Germany is one of the finest places on this Earth, and, if you want to disagree with me on that, you'd best be up for a bruising, pal, so be careful.

Third, as an American (in origin, if not in current primary loyalties), I'm struck by how little German holidays resemble American ones. On most German holidays, everyday life for the most part comes to a stop. In fact, this would seem to have become, for me, to be the definition of a 'holiday': a time to stop and reflect on the subject of the holiday...or, failing that, to at least have some time off to...hang out and drink beer.

Most American holidays, on the other hand, seem to have simply degenerated into business-as-usual with an Added Reason to Sell Crap You Don't Need. There are no 'Day of Unity Sales' in Germany, and I think that this alone is cause for celebration. I hope I am not the only one who finds the notion of a 'Veterans Day Sale' to be perverse.

A country in which the overriding motivation is the commodification and selling of human experience is not, I suggest, one that's going to be around for all that long.

Fourth, and perhaps most tangentially, I'd like to bring your attention to a translated speech by Jürgen Habermas, perhaps Germany's best-known intellectual. (That hypocrite Grass doesn't count.) Habermas, in this case, was speaking earlier this year about a different kind of unification: that of Europe.

I have long been on record as a supporter of greater efforts at European unification, so it was a delight (via Click Opera) to recently have my attention drawn to this excerpt from a speech by Habermas on the occasion of being awarded the Bruno Kreisky Prize for the advancement of human rights (translation and commentary provided by signandsight).

I want to focus briefly on to two issues Habermas raises.

First, he - rightly - points out that opposition to the establishment of a European constitution is not resistance to neo-liberal globalisation, but rather a means of making such a future ever more likely. This is an important point, I think, as there has been a great deal of criticism levelled at the constitution from the Left (particularly - and shamefully - from the French Left, which effectively helped to scuttle the French referendum and - perhaps - also tipped the balance in the Netherlands).

This is not to argue that the constitution text as it was presented was perfect, but it seemed to me that it was far from the neo-liberal nightmare which some on the irresponsible far left presented it to be. Globalisation in some form is inevitable, and the constitution would have been an imperfect - but useful - framework for shaping its further development. As Habermas points out, the alternative to closer European integration (presumably more or less along the lines of the current constitution text) is not a more progressive Europe, but rather a collapse into a kind of lowest-common-denominator EU, which, in effect, will turn nation against nation in a neo-liberal race to the bottom.

Here the only defence is offence: winning back political clout on a supra-national level. Without convergent tax rates and medium-term harmonisation of economic and social-policies, we are in effect relinquishing our hold over the European social model.

I would urge critics of the constitution to read it once again and consider it in terms of what we might (with a tip of the hat to Cold War nostalgia) call Real Existing American-Style Capitalism.

Ask yourself: where would you rather live?

Second, Habermas surprises with an astonishing call for Europe to not only get its house in order in defending its version of the social-market but also, in essence, to defend itself in more literal ways: politically and militarily. I have to admit that I find it refreshing to hear someone who would generally be thought of as a left-wing thinker advocating that Europe get its act together militarily, as this is something I've been thinking for some time.

As Habermas points out, the current world situation is characterised by:

The return to ruthless hegemonic power politics, the clash of the West and the Islamic world, the decay of state structures in other parts of the world, the long-term social consequences of colonialism and the immediate political consequences of failed de-colonisation – all of this points to a high-risk international situation.

It is time, as Habermas argues, for Europe to dare to achieve a more independent position, in a world which is dominated by large military powers such as the US, Russia and China and relatively small but threatening ones such as Iran and North Korea.

It is precisely in critical cases of joint action that we must break free of our dependence on our superior partner. That is one more reason why the European Union needs its own armed forces. Until now Europeans have been subordinated to the dictates and regulations of the American high command in NATO deployments. The time has come for us to attain a position where even in a joint military deployment we still remain true to our own conceptions of human rights, the ban on torture and wartime criminal law.

In some ways, many of the arguments were well rehearsed some time ago by Will Hutton in his important (though hardly pulse-quickening) book The World We're In. And the intervening time has, of course, not been entirely encouraging for supporters of a more united EU.

Nevertheless, Habermas's lecture is a call worth considering.

German unification, after all, has been nothing but arduous and characterised by many misjudgements and many petty (and some more serious) disagreements. However, all-in-all, it's certainly been worthwhile.

Happy Unification Day, my fellow residents of Europe. Let's get together!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The race is not (always) to the swift...

Here, you see two rather exhaused but quite happy participants in today's Gau-Algesheim 10km run. Their time, 58 minutes, is hardly record-breaking, but it does represent a personal best about which they are - justifiably - proud.

And tired.

And, um, sore.