Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy (Cultural) Christmas

Like Richard Dawkins, we are to some extent 'cultural Christians' and will be exchanging a few gifts later this eve. (As well as taking part in some other general merry-making over the next couple of days.)

After all, even in officially atheist Soviet contexts, there seemed to have been for a little seasonal whoopee amongst the striving for a more revolutionary (or at least a more futuristic) future.

(And while we're at it, here's a nice MarX-mas postcard from the International Institute for Social History.)


We're sorry for the light posting over the last few days, but we've been focused on the kind of writing that has some relevance in our professional lives.

Thus, we've been neglecting you. For that, we apologise.

And promise to improve.

But until then, we wish all our readers and friends a happy and healthy holiday season, whatever that holiday might be.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Evolutionary noise I

A post at made me think of a brief rumpus that I had a few months ago with a bunch of post-structuralists. What would be the collective noun, I wonder – the equivalent of a “murder of crows“: a “puddle“? A “pompous“? A “perturbation“?

Whatever we want to call them, they can be unpleasant. (An “unpleasant” of post-structuralists?)

At a conference (about the concept of “veiling”, both in its literal and metaphorical senses), I found myself under relentless attack for my humble suggestion that any debate about this or related issues is meaningless if we don’t link cultural phenomena (or “discourses”) back to some material reality. More specifically, I suggested that we need to confront the question to what extent our bodies shape our senses of self long before culture kicks in.

This was triggered by the claim, made by a speaker who had spent twenty minutes jumping back and forth from Freud to Lacan to Derrida – with a juicy bit of violent Japanese porn thrown in for good measure – that “the wound”, too, is a type of veil which, when torn, reveals underneath it the epistemic void of which some of my colleagues seem to be so enamoured.

No, I said somewhat irately during the discussion, thinking of all the wounds that we get to see on a daily basis in the media and the reality that they quite clearly denote: if you tear open a wound there’s likely to be metres of intestine, pulsing and bleeding flesh and flabby fat underneath it. The body is not a text. It’s bloody, smelly and alive – and it hurts if you do that kind of thing to it.

Perhaps I was naïve in thinking that I could get away unscathed – not wounded, that is – in using the dreaded and indeed heretical b-word (biology) to support my point. Almost immediately I was set upon by a waif-like art historian in apparent anorectic denial of her body, who exclaimed:

“Show me the biological body!”

(The line comes across better in the original German, which combines the stilted politeness of the formal “you” with the exasperated condescendence of the unacknowledged avant-garde while introducing an undeniable (albeit probably unwanted) innuendo: “Dann zeigen Sie mir doch den biologischen Körper!”)

My healthy instincts of status-preservation prevented me from accepting her invitation in a literal sense. Though I must say I was tempted.

This exchange was followed by a kindly (or rather: friendly-aggressive) interception by another member of the auditorium, who patiently explained a “theoretical” position to me that I’d been aware of for at least fifteen years and in which, for a very brief period of my life, I also passionately adhered to:

“What we mean is that the body can only be accessed through the cultural codes that simultaneously describe and determine it.”

Or something along those lines, which I must have read umpteen times, in variations, over many years and might in fact have written myself at one point in my life – but whose heuristic significance veers towards zero.

Hearing these kind of statements only affirms my sneaking suspicion, shared by a number of sane colleagues, that the intellectual format of the humanities at present is deeply parochial and its presumably open-minded representatives intolerant at heart.

I mean: if all we can do is identify the famous codes that determine us down to our toenails, what’s the point of our work? Why waste our time at conferences slinging high-falutin’ jargon at each other to assert our status as alpha-theorists, when all this is just a discursive entanglement?

And, if that is the case, why was my discourse at this conference such an intolerable provocation?

But even more fundamentally: who makes those darn codes? Do they just hover around us like a nasty miasmic mist? Is there some gigantic computer programming them? Who programmes the computer? Who watches the Watchmen?

Open the pod-bay door, Hal!

Or might it be some intelligent designer, after all?

Still, I must say that, apart from being intellectually offended by such statements, I’m also personally hurt by being treated like a benighted moron requiring initiation into allegedly arcane realms of high theory that I’m entirely familiar with – especially if the people who feel they need to initiate me are intellectual fashionistas wearing the rags from three seasons ago.

(Comic credit: here)

Women beware women (too)

A few years ago, I read Jon Krakauer's excellent book Under the Banner of Heaven, about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), more easily referred to as Mormon Fundamentalists.

Amongst other things, this breakaway sect asserts that mainstream Mormons were wrong to abandon the 'plural marriage' that its founder, Joseph Smith, had advocated. Krakauer's book is full of accounts of what that innocuous-sounding term conceals: in short, systematised oppression and child abuse spiced with healthy doses of religious insanity.

More recently, a woman who escaped from both her 'plural marriage' and the FLDS has published her insider's account of the cult. An excerpt from Escape by Carolyn Jessop appeared a few days ago in the Guardian, and it makes for enlightening -- and chilling -- reading.

It also contains a few elements of near-comical absurdity, particularly when Jessop explains the circumstances of how the sect's 'Prophet' had arranged her marriage at age 18 to a man more than 30 years her senior:
I later discovered that Merril had married into my family only to stop my father suing him over a business deal that had gone sour. More humiliating still, he hadn't meant to marry me, but my younger and prettier sister, Annette. When he asked the Prophet to arrange the marriage, Merril got our names mixed up.
So much for divine omniscience.

There is much that is worrisome in Jessop's narrative -- such as, for instance, the apparent fact that the local police are cult members themselves. But I think the most disturbing element in the story -- and this was something I felt about Krakauer's book too -- was the key role played by women in maintaining the cult's twisted ideology. Jessop describes being indoctrinated by her grandmother:

I had been blessed, Grandma taught me, to come into a family where generations of women had sacrificed their feelings to preserve the work of God. My sole purpose on earth, she explained, was to have as many children as possible. I would not fall in love and choose my husband like gentile women did; instead, God would reveal him through the leader of our community, the man we called the Prophet. [...]

Because I loved her so much and this was presented to me as absolute truth, it would be years before I would flee my so-called destiny.
And the reality of relationships among the 'sister-wives' is, unsurprisingly, a ruthless one:

Men were supposed to treat their wives equally, but everyone knew that a woman who was in sexual favour with her husband had a higher value than the others. Because she had his ear, she would be treated with respect by his other wives and her stepchildren. She might be exempted from physical labour or other family responsibilities. She could make sure that the wives she disliked were assigned the worst jobs. A woman who no longer satisfied her husband, meanwhile, was on dangerous ground. No wonder that when a new wife entered a family, her priority was usually to establish power with her husband sexually.

Merril tried to keep all of his wives pregnant because it suggested he had an equal relationship with each of us. But he was a polygamist in body, a monogamist in soul. Barbara was the only woman he ever loved. She took full advantage of it to dictate every detail of her sister wives' lives, right down to our diet.

Barbara and many other of the women in Jessop's and Krakauer's books seem to have little doubt that their severely restricted lives are divinely ordained. This belief not only ennobles their very apparent suffering but it also ensures that their energy is channelled primarily into struggles with (and attempts to dominate) other women.

This aspect of the story reminded me of something Catherine Bennett wrote at the beginning of November, on the occasion of the Saudi king's official visit to Britain.

With the advance of young British veil wearers, proudly declaring their right to be invisible and their love of extreme modesty, this and many other forms of faith-related female subjugation have become complicated areas for liberal protest. If, as we're often told, many British Muslim women love their jilbabs, how can we be sure Saudi women do not also rejoice in their coverings, accepting, in the same dutiful spirit, total exclusion from civic life and physical chastisement by their devout partners? How can we be sure their would-be liberators are not - like women who adorn themselves and women who cut their hair short - just a few more Women Who Will Go to Hell?
I have no doubt that many (perhaps most) of the women remaining among the FLDS view Carolyn Jessop as just such a Woman Who Will Go to Hell. Is this surprising? Not really: as in practices such as female genital cutting or 'honour killing', women appear to very often be complicit in the oppression of other women (and themselves).

I can almost see Bennett's point about how this makes protest 'complicated' for liberals.


Because, surely, it doesn't make it all that complicated, does it?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Eats, shoots and leaves

Speaking of Taschenmunition...

There are various arguments in favour of allowing the civilian possession of firearms (some of which are rather good ones).

However, in the American case, I've always found the constitutional one to be the weakest. It is based upon the US Constitution's Second Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Whether taken literally or placed within in its historical context, I have always thought that the Amendment deals not with the possession of weapons for any reason, but only in terms of supporting a well regulated militia.

This is not to say that weapon possession for other reasons should necessarily be prohibited, but it does suggest that any 'right' derived from the Second Amendment is limited to a specific purpose.

(An extensive argument against this position can be found here.)

In any case, the Second Amendment's meaning is being revisited by the U.S. Supreme Court as it considers a lower court's decision to strike down Washington D.C.'s strict gun law.

And, apparently, one of the key issues in this case will be...comma placement.

In 'Clause and Effect', Adam Freedman considers the issue, pointing out the argument of the judge who sought to overturn the D.C. ban:

The decision ... cites the second comma (the one after “state”) as proof that the Second Amendment does not merely protect the “collective” right of states to maintain their militias, but endows each citizen with an “individual” right to carry a gun, regardless of membership in the local militia.

How does a mere comma do that? According to the court, the second comma divides the amendment into two clauses: one “prefatory” and the other “operative.” On this reading, the bit about a well-regulated militia is just preliminary throat clearing; the framers don’t really get down to business until they start talking about “the right of the people ... shall not be infringed.”

A brief prepared by a group that agrees with the judge's decision has made a similar point:
Nelson Lund, a professor of law at George Mason University, argues that everything before the second comma is an “absolute phrase” and, therefore, does not modify anything in the main clause. Professor Lund states that the Second Amendment “has exactly the same meaning that it would have if the preamble had been omitted.”
In his essay, Freedman looks at the issue of 18th century comma usage and, by way of a little Latin, reaches the following -- fully sensible -- conclusion:

The best way to make sense of the Second Amendment is to take away all the commas (which, I know, means that only outlaws will have commas). Without the distracting commas, one can focus on the grammar of the sentence. Professor Lund is correct that the clause about a well-regulated militia is “absolute,” but only in the sense that it is grammatically independent of the main clause, not that it is logically unrelated. To the contrary, absolute clauses typically provide a causal or temporal context for the main clause.

The founders — most of whom were classically educated — would have recognized this rhetorical device as the “ablative absolute” of Latin prose. To take an example from Horace likely to have been familiar to them: “Caesar, being in command of the earth, I fear neither civil war nor death by violence” (ego nec tumultum nec mori per vim metuam, tenente Caesare terras). The main clause flows logically from the absolute clause: “Because Caesar commands the earth, I fear neither civil war nor death by violence.”

Likewise, when the justices finish diagramming the Second Amendment, they should end up with something that expresses a causal link, like: “Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” In other words, the amendment is really about protecting militias, notwithstanding the originalist arguments to the contrary.

Not that arguments about punctuation are going to convince anyone who already has a strong view on this matter. But still, it's a well-written (and punctuated) essay.

Personally, my favourite collision between politics and punctuation must be Whig MP Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 'apology' to one of his colleagues in the House of Parliament:

"Mr. Speaker, I said the honourable member was a liar it is true and I am sorry for it. The honourable gentleman may place the punctuation where he pleases."

(Courtesy: Eigen's Political & Historical Quotations.)

Two peoples, separated by more than different languages?

In the US, the Merriam-Webster Online word of the year 2007: 'w00t'. (interjection; 'expressing joy (it could be after a triumph, or for no reason at all); similar in use to the word "yay"')

Meanwhile, the 'word of the year' in Germany (as chosen by the Society for the German Language) was 'climate catastrophe' (Klimakatastrophe).

And, in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, it was 'death tourism' (Sterbetourismus).

As I've written, it may be that the Germans have a real problem with happiness, at least in its more w00tful varieties. Of course, this year's favourite words might just be a fluke.

Interesting runner-up in Switzerland: 'Taschenmunition' (literally 'pocket ammunition', or, the ammunition that each Swiss soldier must keep at home).

Bizarre runner-up on the Webster list: 'sputum'.

(Via Atlantic Review)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Elite breeding

Can't say that this really surprises me.

How to Win a Fight With a Conservative is the ultimate survival guide for political arguments

My Liberal Identity:

You are a Reality-Based Intellectualist, also known as the liberal elite. You are a proud member of what’s known as the reality-based community, where science, reason, and non-Jesus-based thought reign supreme.

(Via that 'New Left Hipster' over at Faith in Honest Doubt)

Pedal to the metal

The last few days have seen quite a flurry of attention to the issues of genes and evolutionary change, issues with great relevance for providing at least some answer to the question of 'who we are'.

This struck me first on Tuesday, while I was perusing a copy of the Times that someone had abandoned in the Eurostar. Strikingly titled 'Why the human race is growing apart', it quotes one of the researchers:

“Human races are evolving away from each other,” said Henry Harpending, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Utah, who led the study.

“Genes are evolving fast in Europe, Asia and Africa, but almost all of these are unique to their continent of origin. We are getting less alike, not merging into a single, mixed humanity.

“Our study denies the widely held assumption that modern humans appeared 40,000 years ago, have not changed since and that we are all pretty much the same. We aren’t the same as people even 1,000 or 2,000 years ago.”

Hmm, I thought.

Having spent a fair amount of effort trying to come to grips with the connections among evolution, psychology and history, this gave me much to think about. This is particularly so as I have been largely convinced by the argument of evolutionary psychologists that human nature -- while not completely unchanged in the last dozen millennia -- remains shared enough to speak of the 'psychic unity' of Homo sapiens.

(I discussed this in an article published earlier this year. There were two responses -- by Martin J. Wiener and Barbara H. Rosenwein -- to that essay, and they, along with my response-to-the-responses has just appeared in Cultural and Social History.)

In any case, over the next couple of days, I received a few helpful e-mails from friends who know about my interest in such things, pointing me to other stories on the study. One of them came from a fellow historian who has become quite enthusiastic about the notion of 'recent' biological change influencing behaviour. He sent me a link to the Los Angeles Times report on the study, which opens:

The pace of human evolution has been increasing at a stunning rate since our ancestors began spreading through Europe, Asia and Africa 40,000 years ago, quickening to 100 times historical levels after agriculture became widespread, according to a study published today.
Hmm, I thought again, sitting in a London internet café and having relatively little time to do any follow-up.

I finally had a chance today to examine another story on the study, in the New York Times.

It opens with this...

The finding contradicts a widely held assumption that human evolution came to a halt 10,000 years ago or even 50,000 years ago. Some evolutionary psychologists, for example, assume that the mind has not evolved since the Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago.
...which is a rather curious statement, since I can't think of any reputable biologically-aware researcher in any field who thought that 'human evolution came to a halt' at some point in the past.

The argument evolutionary psychologists make tends to be one that -- while there has undoubtedly been 'recent' genetic change (lactose tolerance and disease resistance being prime examples) -- the relative influence of these changes compared to those during the much longer Pleistocene is probably minimal.

The breathless quality of the reporting on this is also somewhat odd, as the 'acceleration' doesn't seem all that surprising: since human populations became significantly larger, there will be more mutations on which natural selection can operate; as human populations were also inhabiting more diverse environments, this could have subjected some populations to new selective pressures. As the LA Times piece notes,

the research team was able to conclude that infectious diseases and the introduction of new foods were the primary reasons that some genes swept through populations with such speed.
I might be missing something, but even my non-expert understanding of evolution would lead me to expect exactly this result.

So, in some way, I'm not so sure what the fuss is about.

But while it is clear that different environments' variations (in plant-life, sunlight, disease prevalence) might lead quite directly to 'rapid' change (remember, we're still talking vast amounts of time here), it is not clear to me why psychological change would be quite so rapid. The key 'environment' in terms of psychologically-relevant genetic change would be other people, and, by and large, it seems that on this point, the differences among different regional populations would not necessarily push human development consistently enough in one direction or another.

Most of the articles I've seen on the 'accelerating evolution' issue haven't really discussed a psychological angle on this, but it certainly is lurking there, particularly in the wake of James Watson's comments regarding intelligence and Africa. Harpending, moreover, was also co-author of a study claiming a recently-acquired genetic basis for high levels of intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews.

The New York Times raises cautions that some other articles missed in their apparent enthusiasm to proclaim significant genetic change in recent historical eras:

David Reich, a population geneticist at the Harvard Medical School, said the new report was “a very interesting and exciting hypothesis” but that the authors had not ruled out other explanations of the data. The power of their test for selected genes falls off in looking both at more ancient and more recent events, he said, so the overall picture might not be correct.

Similar reservations were expressed by Jonathan Pritchard, a population geneticist at the University of Chicago.

“My feeling is that they haven’t been cautious enough,” he said. “This paper will probably stimulate others to study this question.”

As it should. But as the NYT piece also points out, the methodology used cannot firmly establish what happened in the last 10,000 years or so.

The high rate of selection has probably continued to the present day, Dr. Moyzis said, but current data are not adequate to pick up recent selection.

(This point is also made by the graph included with the article.) Which makes all of the speculation about changes within the last thousand years or so a bit more...well, speculative than they sounded in the other articles.

This whole discussion inspired me to revisit Gregory Clark's argument in A Farewell to Alms, which I commented upon at length a while ago. (Part one. Part two.)

One of Clark's key arguments (simplifying somewhat) suggests (though rather vaguely) that rapid economic development in England in the early modern period was significantly influenced by genetic predispositions toward bourgeois values that were transmitted through English society by the fact that the wealthy out-bred the poor.

Via Clark's website, I found a couple of very readable critiques of his work. (There are a wide range of opinions on his work on offer there, and Clark deserves some credit for bringing them together. Of course, no publicity is bad publicity...)

In 'The Son Also Rises' (pdf) at Evolutionary Psychology Laura Betzig points out the weakness in Clark's argument that enhanced reproductive success by wealthy English led to an economic advantage due to the spread of middle-class values. First, the English rich were far from unique in this regard:
Clark knows that civilization began thousands of years ago, somewhere around Babylon; and he devotes a full chapter to the question, “Why England? Why not China, India, or Japan?” Why weren’t the Near East and Far East the best candidates for the natural selection of a hard-working middle-class? Because, he says, civilization in and around Babylon was more “unstable” than in Britain; and because in China and Japan—it pains me even to type these words—“the demographic system in both these societies gave less reproductive advantage to the wealthy than in England.” Clark cites evidence that Qing emperors fathered only as many children as average Englishmen living at around the same time (pp. 89, 209, 271, Figure 13.4). But of course for Qing emperors, as for any other emperors, legitimate fertility was low: Chinese emperors, like Assyrian emperors, like all other emperors got heirs on just one empress at a time, their legitimate wives; but they got bastards on scores, or hundreds, of consorts. Who should have transmitted, if not the high ethical standards of their bastards’ fathers, at least their hard-working genes. So much for the evidence in A Farewell to Alms.
Wealth, status and reproductive success may -- unsurprisingly -- correlate, but the extent to which the 'values' associated with that success can be passed on genetically is another matter, as Betzig points out:

There are other gaps in the logic. I am aware of dozens of studies that show a relationship between reproductive success and wealth or rank...; but I’m aware of no study that shows a correlation between reproductive success and the “middle-class values” of patience, nonviolence, literacy, thoughtfulness, or hard work.

And, it goes without saying, for those values to provide any benefit, they have to be possessed in a society that rewards them, turning us to various 'institutional' factors (from cultural assumptions, religious beliefs, social organisation, political structures, etc.) that Clark so blithely dismisses.

It is also worth pointing out that even in relatively recent history, those 'values' have not been the only routes to success. As I commented before on an earlier paper by Clark, concerning the period 1250-1800 with regard to the available means of getting ahead in life:

One might be granted a peerage, for instance, for reasons that had little to do with capitalist success and rather more to do with simply being on the right side of a political squabble, making a good marriage or having success in war. (Just as losing one's wealth might have had to do with contingencies related to the above factors.)

'Wealth' and 'success' were being amassed in England in a variety of ways: slave trading, tobacco planting, empire building, monarch-bribing, textile weaving and goods trading (not to mention, at least in the earlier period, being good with a sword).

Which gene is it, precisely, that is going to promote success in all these different ways of getting ahead in life?
In her detailed critique of A Farewell to Alms, Dierdre McCloskey, I see, makes a similar observation. She divides Clark's argument into various elements and 'links', and as part of that discussion notes:

In light of Clark’s methodological convictions...the most embarrassing broken link is A, between “Rich breed more” and “Rich people’s values spread.” Nowhere in the book does Clark calculate what higher breeding rates could have accomplished by way of rhetorical change. It could easily be done, at any rate under his mechanical assumption about how the social construction of values works. Clark assumes that the children of rich people are by that fact carriers of the sort of bourgeois values that make for an Industrial Revolution.

To be sure, this is an odd characterization of the medieval or early modern relatively rich. A rich bourgeois of London in 1400 devoted most of his effort to arranging special protection for his wool-trading monopoly. His younger sons might well have taken away the lesson, repeated again and again down to Elizabethan England and Lou Dobbs, that it’s a good idea to regulate everything you can, and quite a bad thing to let people freely make the deals they wish to make. And a Brave Sir Botany who had stolen his riches, say, or was a successful courtier who had received them from Henry VIII dissolving monasteries, say, would not automatically, one would think, transmit sober bourgeois values to younger sons. A society that extravagantly admired aristocratic or Christian virtues could corrupt even a Medici banker into thinking of himself as quite the lord and yet also a godly son of the Church. In a similar way nowadays an extravagant admiration for the neo-aristocratic values of the clerisy corrupts the bourgeois daughter into scorning her father’s bourgeois occupation.
McCloskey's critique is worth reading, even if it's flawed. (She doesn't seem to know what a 'meme' is, for example: she sees Clark as promoting a 'meme' theory, but memetics actually tends to separate biological and cultural development. Also, she curiously lumps Clark in with Steven Pinker whose arguments tend to be both much better and much different than Clark's.)

To be honest, I'm not really sure what to make of all this. It's not my field, and I'm in the position of anyone who wants to make use of the insights from another field: you can educate yourself on it to the extent that your time and interest allows, but in the end, you depend on particular experts who are able to translate those findings in a language that is generally comprehensible. Unfortunately, those experts always seem to be at war with other experts in their fields.

But language and the history of human behaviour are two things I know a little bit about, which is perhaps why I don't like so much the leap from the molecular level to vast statements about how 'human races' are 'evolving away from one another'. (In particular when they get picked up in the press, where they are presented far less carefully than they should be.)

What does this mean? How relevant are these differences to determining what makes us human?

I have the sense that the overwhelming amount of what we share is being drowned out in the emphasis to focus on difference, as interesting as those might be. Both perspectives are not, of course inherently mutually exclusive: evolutionary psychology's emphasis on a common human nature would seem to admit some variation, and the differences found by population genetics are only meaningful in relation to that commonality.

At a certain level of specificity, the genetic differences seem vast, but step back a bit and they're relatively less so. People in different regions might tend to have different levels of disease resistance, say, but their immune systems all work the same way. Which of these observations is more important in understanding what makes us human? I would say the latter (while admitting that understanding the former is important for many reasons).

When Harpending (quoted above) says that 'we' are 'not the same' as people even 1,000 years ago, what does that mean? I am, for instance, not the same as you (whoever you -- dear reader -- might be). But that appears to be a pretty meaningless statement on the face of it. Were people 1,000 years ago different in any fundamental way than today? If so, what? It seems rather premature to make claims like that based only on counting changes in particular allelles without actually knowing -- in nearly all those cases -- what effect those changes have (on, for instance, behaviour).

But perhaps more significantly, it's unfortunate to see what could be a subtle and complex synthesis of different perspectives and levels of analysis of our humanness (shared across many fields) being shunted aside by a set of competing one-dimensional, either-or answers to why things work the way they do: institutions vs. genes, materialism vs. culturalism, similarity vs. difference, universality vs. particularity.

Maybe this is because academic work is partly driven by the very normal (indeed, human) cravings for attention and status (and maybe our innate tendency toward tribalism) which seem to affect every other human enterprise

I just don't think that's necessary a good thing.


A draft of the original paper (which is very technical) is available here.

Discussion and criticism of the article (also quite technical) can be found at Gene Expression.

There is also a long article from the Economist on the study is also freely available.

Monday, December 10, 2007

This land is your land (dammit)

One more thing:

A reference to some newly discovered Woody Guthrie material.

(Via A General Theory of Rubbish)

(PS: I'm still pleased to have seen Arlo live in about, say, 1991. A great show.)

The (semi-) naked (and hopping) truth

We're off to foreign places for a few days starting tomorrow, but we wanted to note a couple of happifying things for a change. (On the principle that joy is all the more meaningful when it comes unexpectedly.)

First, a photo series from Der Spiegel, featuring a calendar made by doctors from a cancer research institute in Naples. (Click on the block of images about halfway down the article to see the photos.)

The interesting feature: the doctors appear in their underwear. It's far from being the sexiest calendar you could imagine (as the following photo suggests), but it certainly has a charm all its own. And is for a good cause.

Second, the first film showing the long-eared jerboa living in the wild (in fact, the Gobi Desert) have made for mirthful viewing. Of course, there is more than a twinge of sadness involved, as they are also endangered (though rather less so than Italian doctors...though about as furry).

Still...if you're looking for a last-minute Christmas gift, I can think of a lot worse.

The site from which this adorable little picture comes (I know, I know, we can't just save the cute animals, but if you're looking for a poster child you're not going to choose something scaly or worm-like, are you?) is that of Edge (no, not that Edge, this one stands for Evolutionarily Distinct, Globally Endangered).

They seem like good people.

Till the weekend...

Friday, December 07, 2007

Found in translation

Simon has nicely posted my translation of Alexander Gutzmer's interview with J. G. Ballard. It was originally published in German, and Simon subsequently ran it through a Web translator and published the results.

Which were...interesting.

Not least since 'Ballard' was translated as 'Ball pool of broadcasting corporations' ('ARD' being the name for German state television), and bizarrely poetic text was generated such as:

Were not the dictators 20 in vain. Century fascinates in such a way of it.

The modernism lets dark impulses come upward, those into us schlummern. It gives no area to the unexplainable one, the Mysterioesen - and produces straight therefore a return to the Barbarei.
What my version lacks in poetry, is hopefully made up for in clarity.


(Thanks Simon. Thanks Alexander.)

Now playing at quality research libraries everywhere

The Wife and I are very pleased to announce the publication of our first jointly written article:

'Bringing the Past to Heel: History, Identity and Violence in Ian McEwan's Black Dogs', Literature and History, 16, no. 2 (Autumn 2007): pp. 43-56.

We plan on it not being the last.

What's it about? Well, according to the abstract, it goes something like this:

Ian McEwan's 1992 novel employs postmodern understandings of history while also critiquing these same perspectives. In particular, by depicting the efforts of its protagonist, Jeremy, to write a memoir of his parents-in-law, it draws attention to the subjectivity of historical writing. While this quality has led some critics to condemn the novel for its escapism and amorality, the authors of the essay argue that Black Dogs is a statement about the necessity of history rather than its futility. Indeed, they read the text as a dramatization of humanity's ability to bear rather than escape the often troubling burden of the past and an endorsement of the writing of history despite the awareness that historiography, while serving deep-seated human needs, is always problematic.
This essay has been some time in the making (and in the publishing...), but since we worked on it, I have to say that my appreciation for the novel has only increased. It is, I think, one of McEwan's lesser-known ones.

It shouldn't be.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Economy-class hero

Not least since a recent post's title was partly meant to evoke a particular Led Zeppelin song, I was pleasantly surprised by something that appeared in today's Telegraph and has just this moment reached me thanks to The Wife.

In it, Obscene Desserts idol Robyn Hitchcock (beloved not least since he sings songs about trilobites and various other, as Leviticus puts it, 'creeping thing[s] that creepeth upon the earth') comments on his own Led Zep connection.

Which is an intriguing one: apparently, John Paul Jones has been touring with Robyn (at least in Italy, Norway and, um, Dorset) and playing the mandolin.

'These days,' Robyn observes, 'his musical compass points to bluegrass.' Who'd have guessed?

And he offers a nice anecdote:

Like true Englishmen, we eyed each other suspiciously at first, but, after about five years, rang and arranged to meet for coffee. Hot drinks being the catalyst they are, within another two years we flying, economy class, to Italy to perform as an acoustic duo.

Alitalia having missed our connections and lost our gear, John looked surprisingly unwistful when a fan asked him to sign a photo of Led Zeppelin standing in front of their private jet.
A lesson in true humility were there ever one.

Apocalypse postponed

I'm feeling slightly less gloomy today than a few days ago. This might partly be because the sun shows every intention of shining today. It might also be related to the fact that I had a chipped tooth fixed with remarkable ease, rapidity and lack-of-charge last evening.

For the somewhat brightened outlook, I have also to thank Ario, who offered a lovely Nina Simone song in response to my apocalyptic musings.

And then, last but not least, there's the American intelligence community, whose new National Intelligence Estimate -- while not entirely reassuring -- appears to be somewhat less immediately distressing than recent statements from the US government. As the New York Times reports:

Iran is continuing to produce enriched uranium, a program that the Tehran government has said is intended for civilian purposes. The new estimate says that the enrichment program could still provide Iran with enough raw material to produce a nuclear weapon sometime by the middle of next decade, a timetable essentially unchanged from previous estimates.

But the new report essentially disavows a judgment that the intelligence agencies issued in 2005, which concluded that Iran had an active secret arms program intended to transform the raw material into a nuclear weapon. The new estimate declares instead with “high confidence” that the military-run program was shut in 2003, and it concludes with “moderate confidence” that the program remains frozen. The report judges that the halt was imposed by Iran “primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure.”

The report, no doubt, will be bickered over in the usual noisy way, and what it all adds up to is, as ever, a bit murky. (And are these not the agencies -- at least some of them -- who dropped the ball on predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union, preventing September 11th and proving the presence -- or lack thereof -- of Iraqi WMD?)

Now, it's far from prophesying an imminent Age of Aquarius, but the fact that 'international scrutiny and pressure' has had an effect is encouraging. (And a good argument for more of the same.)

Apocalypse delayed, then.

'Tis the season to be jolly.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Good times for bad times

Having invested so heavily in it, I'm pleased to see that the bull market in gloomy pessimism has shown no sign of faltering recently.

These are indeed good times for bad times, and the sheer variety and seriousness of crises (whether emergent or already hatched) seem -- rather like extreme weather, CO2 emissions or nuclear proliferation -- to be accelerating at a dizzying rate.

As is the amount of discussion about them.

This is hardly an, ahem, earth-shattering observation; however, I thought I'd take a moment on this rather gloomy Sunday (here where we are) to point out a few worthwhile stops on the apocalyptic reading express.

If the recent IPCC report wasn't intimidating enough, Spiegel points to more recent research that, if anything, suggests it may have been overly optimistic in its conclusions.

From a somewhat different but most likely not unrelated angle, Tom Englehardt, in 'As the World Burns', raises some very good questions and suggests that 'peak water' might be just as serious a problem as peak oil.

Not only do we learn the intriguing fact that last month the governor of an American state led a crowd gathered in one of that nation's leading cities to pray for rain (there's faith-based policy making taken to its illogical conclusion), but Englehardt provides a lot of very useful links to some of the rare serious reporting on the big picture of water scarcity.

The problems in question, as he points out, are not only confined to developing countries (thought these, of course, will most likely suffer more, having fewer opportunities for reacting to shortages), but are also a serious (and possibly urgent) issue in more economically advanced countries.

"Resource wars" are things that happen elsewhere. We don't usually think of our country as water poor or imagine that "resource wars" might be applied as a description to various state and local governments in the southwest, southeast, or upper Midwest now fighting tooth and nail for previously shared water. And yet, "war" may not be a bad metaphor for what's on the horizon. According to the National Climate Data Center, federal officials have declared 43% of the contiguous U.S. to be in "moderate to extreme drought." Already, Sonny Perdue of Georgia is embroiled in an ever more bitter conflict - a "water war," as the headlines say - with the governors of Florida and Alabama, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers, over the flow of water into and out of the Atlanta area.


In my own admittedly limited search of the mainstream, I found only one vivid, thoughtful recent piece on this subject: "The Future Is Drying Up," by Jon Gertner, written for the New York Times Magazine. It focused on the southwestern drought and began to explore some of the "and thens," as in this brief passage on Colorado in which Gertner quotes Roger Pulwarty, a "highly regarded climatologist" at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

"The worst outcome?. would be mass migrations out of the region, along with bitter interstate court battles over the dwindling water supplies. But well before that, if too much water is siphoned from agriculture,farm towns and ranch towns will wither. Meanwhile, Colorado's largest industry, tourism, might collapse if river flows became a trickle during summertime."

Mass migrations, exfiltrations?. Stop a sec and take in that possibility and what exactly it might mean. After all, we do have some small idea, having, in recent years, lost one American city, New Orleans, at least temporarily.

Yes, and that 'small idea' is hardly encouraging, is it?

But the thought that has been preoccupying me a bit more recently is that we may actually lucky if the multifarious results of global warming are the worst thing with which we have to grapple.

Ron Rosenbaum, in 'Talkin' World War III' has done a nice job of rekindling all those nuclear war nightmares that used to keep me up at night as a teenager in the 1980s. There is part of me that thinks that at least a portion of the fear of the 'Islamic bomb' is sabre-rattling hype aimed at creating the kind of environment in which armchair strategists can enthuse publicly about the invasion of Iran -- or the US occupation of Islamabad -- and be seen as thoughtful policymakers.

Then there is the other part that realises that this issue -- while one that can be used for all kinds of wrong reasons -- is not something merely cooked up by the Global Neo-Con Conspiracy but is also a genuine threat. I don't have all that much trust in the wise use of the American bomb (or the British and French ones for that matter) let alone those belonging to Russia and China. But, as Rosenbaum points out, things are in many ways worse than in the bad old Cold War days (which were bad enough):

Let's pause here for a bit of comparative nightmare-ology. Not to diminish the horror of a "next 9/11," but 3,000 died that day. At the height of the Cold War, the estimate for the number of killed in a U.S.-USSR nuclear war ranged from a low of 200 million to a high of everyone, the death of the human species from an Earth made uninhabitable by nuclear winter. Or, as one nuclear strategist once memorably put it, "the death of consciousness."

It didn't happen back then, in part, we now know, because of blind luck (misleading radar warnings on both sides that could have been, but weren't, taken as signals for launch). And because back then, despite the madness of Mutually Assured Destruction deterrence doctrine, there were only two main players, both semirational monoliths with an interest in their own survival.

Now, there are at least eight nuclear nations and who knows how many "nonstate actors," as the euphemism for terrorist groups goes. And some of these nonstate actors have adopted an ideology of suicidal martyrdom, even when it comes to nukes, and thus can't be deterred by the reciprocal threat of death.
I can't say whether Rosenbaum's evaluation is overly pessimistic or not. Nonetheless, I can't really see that it's anything but fundamentally correct in identifying the problem.

The solution, of course, is something else. And, much as with global warming, I'm rather sceptical that there is a realistic one that doesn't have serious downsides.

Unless you think that the world is going to display the kind of cooperation and self-denial that, at least to my eyes, been less than common in its history.

This is shaping up to be a very fun century.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A life and its times

Well, we're back, after a very good and productive research trip to London. Regular posting will resume shortly, after the blogging engines have been warmed up.

In the meantime, it is worth stopping by Der Spiegel to read an interview with historian Eric Hobsbawm. Born into a Austrian-British family in Egypt in 1917 and raised in Vienna and Berlin, young Eric was an active Communist during his teens and experienced the 'Weimar' period and the Nazi seizure of power before his family fled to Britain. There, he would become a prolific and renowned historian. (Just look at the picture: one of the most perfect images of 'the historian' I could imagine!)

As it turns out, he had a great influence on yours truly at university (though at one a few thousand miles distant from Hobsbawm's beloved Birkbeck). And, unlike E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, Hobsbawm is still very much alive and kicking.

The interview is in German (which seems to be the language that it was conducted in: at one point, Hobsbawm refers to his accent -- coloured by a youth spent in both Vienna and Berlin, with the Viennese remaining predominant) so those of you who don't speak it are out of luck. But even for you, the pictures may be of interest, featuring as they do images from 20s and 30s Berlin, along with a couple of the man himself. (One of the interesting facts is that the book department at the Kaufhaus des Westens in Berlin was influential on his intellectual development. How many department stores, one wonders, have generated Marxist intellectuals...)

Just briefly, three sections of the interview stood out, and I present them here in my own, humble translations.

The first refers to something I've written about: the power of contingency in the development of an historical worldview:
The historian, quite deliberately, doesn't write about himself. But it's also important for a historian to know the extent to which he's a child of his time and how he's influenced by it. How different it could have been! For example, had my uncle accepted the position he was offered in France and not taken the one in Berlin, I wouldn't have experienced Berlin in the early 30s up to the [Nazi] takeover, and I would certainly have been a different historian.
And there's a nice bit on how a real witness of history views the presumed invention of hedonism in the 1960s:

Young people's sexuality is another example for the anachronisms that I mentioned. There are, after all, a lot of people who think that they invented sexual freedom in 1968. The historical witnesses know that this sexual freedom was there much earlier, even in the middle-class Viennese circles of my youth or even in those of my grandfather! On the other hand, the sexual freedom that young people have today didn't exist then.

When asked what rules a young historian must follow, Hobsbawm offers the following, sensible, response:

The first rule is that you have to abide by the facts. When something is established, it cannot be denied. You can't lie or keep things hidden. One of the reasons I'm not exactly thrilled about post-modernism is its relativism: the idea that there is no reality. History may not be determined by desirability.
His autobiography, Interesting Times (interestingly enough, renamed Dangerous Times -- Gefährliche Zeiten -- in its German edition) is well worth reading, as are many of his other works, such as The Invention of Tradition, an edited collection.

I've never met him, but I was taught by people who did knew him, which seems a close enough relationship to feel glad that he's still around.

I would like to think that I'll be continuing to be so productive and insightful when I'm 90. Should I, of course, have the good fortune to make it that far.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Away from our desks

We're in London right now, where we'll remain till later in the month, so posting here will be slow. Or maybe even nonexistent. We'll see.

It's not, of course, that there's any shortage of Internet access in London, but spending lots of time in Internet cafes is not really our thing. Besides, there's a whole Real Life out there to be experienced in this city that inspires curiously intense and contradictory feelings of joy and frustration.

The weather has so far been fine, the natives not too hostile and the research is going well.

The prices, however, remain appalling.

Comments on previously written material are, of course, welcome, but it may take a day or so for me to approve them, so please be patient.

And thanks, as ever, for stopping by.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Proclaimers meet Belle and Sebastian at the Notting Hill Carnival

Thanks to Mr. Ogletree, we have come across another disturbingly happifying Northern European Band.

Behold the mysterious wonder of Suburban Kids With Biblical Names:

"Funeral Face"

"Rent a Wreck"

We shall be forever grateful, Mr. O.!


Dale, at faith in honest doubt, offered some thoughtful reactions to my comments on libertarianism. (My post had itself been partly inspired by his discussion of the topic, so I suppose this could even been seen as a dialogue of sorts.)

Simon, at Ballardian, offers a post on a series of German car-crash test photos that I had sent him.

Our insidious influence spreads...

Road to nowhere

I had, actually, been planning on writing something drawing a connection between Cormac McCarthy's best-selling post-apocalyptic novel The Road (which I read a couple of weeks ago) and the recent UN Environment Programme report highlighting a bunch of very bad news about the future.

But it seems that George Monbiot beat me to it.

Cormac McCarthy's book The Road considers what would happen if the world lost its biosphere, and the only living creatures were humans, hunting for food among the dead wood and soot. Some years before the action begins, the protagonist hears the last birds passing over, "their half-muted crankings miles above where they circled the earth as senselessly as insects trooping the rim of a bowl". McCarthy makes no claim that this is likely to occur, but merely speculates about the consequences.

This is, in fact, one of the strong points of McCarthy's novel: its vagueness about the crises that led to the bleak, ash-covered world through which his protagonists travel. (However, it seems to most closely resemble a nuclear winter.)

The Road was my first McCarthy novel, and I have to say that I'm impressed. The spare, restrained language is grimly beautiful. The hushed stillness of a world that has -- except for islands and instances of horrifying brutality -- effectively come to a standstill makes even the smallest gestures of its characters somehow significant.

Having looked around a bit, it seems that there are interpretations of the book which see it as a story of religious faith and redemption. I have to say that I disagree. I admit that the ending left me a bit confused (and perhaps disappointed) at first, as it seemed to betray the novel's hitherto relentlessly hopeless logic.

However, thinking about it in retrospect, the conclusion is far more ambiguous than it at first seems. Rather than salvation, I think the novel's denouement might equally be seen as a mere prolongation of the horror.

Furthermore, its final passage, following immediately upon a character's expression of theistic hope, suggests what might be the author's more grim naturalism:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

It is perhaps too simple, as Monbiot does, to see The Road as simply an 'environmental book'. It is a haunting book about the end of the environment and the collapse of, essentially, everything.

But in a wide-ranging and intriguing essay on the novel at the New York Review of Books, 'After the Apocalypse', Michael Chabon observes,

Horror fiction proceeds, in general, by extending metaphors, by figuring human fears of mortality, corruption, and the loss of self. The haunted house (or planet), the case of demonic possession, the nightmare journey to or through a charnel house, the transubstantiation of human flesh into something awful and foul, the exposed wolfishness of men, the ineradicable ancestral curse of homicidal depravity—all of them tropes to be encountered, in one form or another, in McCarthy's work—trade on these deep-seated fears, these fundamental sources of panic, and seek to flay them, to lay them open, to drag them into the light.
He concludes:

What emerges most powerfully as one reads The Road is not a prognosticatory or satirical warning about the future, or a timeless parable of a father's devotion to his son, or yet another McCarthyesque examination of the violent underpinnings of all social intercourse and the indifference of the cosmic jaw to the bloody morsel of humanity.
Chabon is right that the book is not simply about either of these, and his own focus on the novel's expressions of specifically parental fears is correct enough. But I think that in itself might be too limiting, and a strong element of that latter trope Chabon mentions is obvious: the book is not only about where we might be headed but also about whence we have come and, thus, about who we are.

'There is no God and we are his prophets', says one of the few characters the father and son protagonists encounter on their journey: 'People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didnt believe in that. Tomorrow wasnt getting ready for them. It didnt even know they were there.'

That's the thing about the universe that many people seem to have a hard time grasping: it doesn't care about us. Human relationships and imagination do, on the other hand, provide meaning, as the book effectively and movingly expresses. But these are fragile things.

I plan to read more McCarthy soon, probably No Country For Old Men, which, I see, is soon to be a film by Joel and Ethan Coen. The trailer looks...well, terrifying. (Considering that McCarthy focuses on the intersections between masculinity and violence, I'm surprised it's taken me so long to pay attention to him. I think this was because I had him pegged as a 'western' writer, and that's not a genre that has typically appealed to me. Time to reconsider...)

One other association occurred to me while reading The Road. It called to mind somehow the music of Tom Waits, in particular his album Blood Money. (If ever there were a soundtrack to the end of the world, Tom Waits would have to be on it.)

The opening track, 'Misery is the River of the World' contains lyrics which could have served as an epigraph for McCarthy's novel:

All the good in the world
You can put inside a thimble
And still have room for you and me

If there's one thing you can say
About Mankind
There's nothing kind about man
You can drive away nature with a pitch fork
But it always comes roaring back again.

And it also contains the beautiful song, 'All the World is Green', which, in the context of The Road, comes across as a fitting lament for a lost world:

The moon is yellow silver
Oh the things that summer brings
It's a love you'd kill for
And all the world is green
He is balancing a diamond
On a blade of grass
The dew will settle on our grave
When all the world is green.

(Tom Waits, 'All the World is Green', live on the David Letterman Show, 8 May 2002.)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Northern Europe rocks!

Two very good songs, and two very creative and relatively low-budget videos.

From Belgium:

The Tellers, "Second Category"

From Sweden:

Jens Lekman, "You are the light"

("You are the light by which I travel into this and that" it!)

A good weekend to you all. Well, to most of you anyway.

I don't know what nothing is

This Sunday, it seems, the Miami Dolphins will be playing the New York Giants at Wembley stadium in London. It is, apparently, the first NFL regular-season game ever to be played outside the United States.

So, sports history is being made. And some players seem to be taking it as a real learning experience.

Miami Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder has admitted not knowing people speak English in London.

The NFL player might want to check a map before he gets on board a plane for Sunday's prestige game against the New York Giants at Wembley Stadium.

Crowder, who comes from Atlanta in Georgia, may be praised on the field, but confessed geography was not his strong point.

Humility, as we know, is the first step on the road to knowledge.

He admitted he did not know until now where London was - or that Londoners spoke English.

"I couldn't find London on a map if they didn't have the names of the countries," he said. "I swear to God. I don't know what nothing is. I know Italy looks like a boot. I learned that."
Well, at least he learned something. Although this part was interesting too:

Crowder added: "I know (Washington Redskins linebacker) London Fletcher. We did a football camp together. So I know him.

"That's the closest thing I know to London. He's black, so I'm sure he's not from London. I'm sure that's a coincidental name."

Yes, Mr. Crowder, that must be the answer.

In defense of naturalist green libertarian social democracy...or something like that

There was quite a remarkable essay by George Monbiot at the Guardian a few days ago that manages to combine zoology, libertarianism and the near-collapse of Northern Rock Building Society.

In particular, he discusses one Matt Ridley, who was not only chair of Northern Rock but is also a well known author of several fascinating books on human nature.

Silly me, I've never made the connection before. (But, then again, I have a difficult enough time remember whether it's Matt Ridley or Mark Ridley, let alone checking on the political allegiances and possible bank chairmanships of the zoologists I read.)

Monbiot gives Ridley's (quite astoundingly radical) libertarian philosophising a good drubbing, but the more interesting bit is where he brings up evolutionary psychology:

I studied zoology in the same department [as Ridley], though a few years later. Like Ridley, I am a biological determinist: I believe that much of our behaviour is governed by our evolutionary history. I accept the evidence he puts forward, but draw completely different conclusions. He believes that modern humans are destined to behave well if left to their own devices; I believe that they are likely to behave badly. If you belong to a small group of intelligent hominids, all of whom are well known to each other, you will be rewarded for cooperation and generosity within the group. (Though this does not stop your group from attacking or exploiting another.) If, on the other hand, you can switch communities at will, travel freely, buy in one country and sell in another, hire strangers then fire them, you will gain more from acting only in your own interest. You'll have an even stronger incentive to act against the common good if you run a bank whose lending and borrowing are so complex that hardly anyone can understand what is happening.

Ridley and I have the same view of human nature: that we are inherently selfish. But the question is whether this nature is subject to the conditions that prevailed during our evolutionary history. I believe they have changed: we can no longer be scrutinised and held to account by a small community. We need governments to fill the regulatory role vacated when our tiny clans dissolved.
In general, I tend far more toward Mobiot's arguments on this issue, even if I think he should avoid the use of the word 'determinist', particularly since so many evolutionary psychologists have been struggling to free themselves of that label and have rightly emphasised interactions between genetics and environment in describing behaviour.

But the larger point that becomes clear is the utter diversity of political views that can emerge from taking human nature seriously.

I note this aspect of Monbiot's reply partly because I have more than once run up against an assertion that evolutionary psychology more or less automatically entails some version or other of radical laissez-faireism and/or the creation of social policy that is 'conservative' in all kinds of undesirable ways. ('Undesirable' from the perspective of the generally liberal people with whom I have had these discussions.)

This is, as I think Monbiot nicely demonstrates, not the case, and I think he is right that the bulk of the evidence on human nature does not lead us to the conclusion that people -- left to their own devices -- will necessarily act in ways that are good. He is right that, for instance:

Human welfare, just as it was a million years ago, is guaranteed only by mutual scrutiny and regulation.
Precisely what the parameters and means of 'mutual scrutiny and regulation' should be is, of course, the tricky bit. Nevertheless, I think there's enough evidence from enough quarters to suggest that what is arguably the most successful form of human social organisation so far (with all its faults and shortcomings) -- i.e., liberal social democracy -- is not Homo sapiens's default state.

There are a lot more things that could be said on that, of course, but just to be brief, Monbiot's article has gotten me thinking about libertarianism again since it's something, actually, with which I have a not entirely hostile but somewhat conflicted relationship.

On the one hand, there are many ways in which I find libertarian thinking and commentary to be very insightful. For a while, for instance, I became a regular reader of Reason, with which I typically found myself in, alternatively, nodding agreement and seething disagreement. (In many ways, they're interesting for asking the right questions if not necessarily coming up with the right answers.)

And there have been various other places where I've found some intriguing thinking from the libertarian corner, particularly by those who seek to develop that thought humbly and consistently (i.e., not just screeching about low taxes and free-enterprise but advocating the passing of liberal immigration laws, the ending of the intrusive legislation of morality and the increased protection of civil rights).

Indeed, I would say that, along with social democracy and naturalism (by which I mean recognising our animal natures and connection to the ecosystems in which we live), libertarian principles of freedom form an important source for my -- admittedly perhaps somewhat ramshackle -- worldview.

Unfortunately, many (though not all) of my personal encounters with real, existing libertarians have tended to be rather negative. They have often held strangely simplistic (ranging to naive and fundamentally ahistorical) perspectives on the world and a relentless (ranging to bug-eyed and ranting) distrust of any concept of social or community good beyond (typically very narrowly conceived) individual interests. Libertarianism in these cases seems to only be an ideology for successful entrepreneurs: what it offers for people don't fit that category -- either because they are not entrepreneurs or because they are not successful -- tends to remain either unclear or be quite obviously vicious.

These, furthermore, have often been accompanied by two things.

1) A tendency toward hyperbole (e.g., 'all taxation is theft', sensible gun control laws are 'oppression' and the UN/EU/WTO/IMF/ATF -- and their fleet of black helicopters -- are plotting a tyrannical world government) and a slightly shouty form of unpleasantness


2) Almost limitless self-aggrandisement (i.e., seeing themselves among an extraordinarily creative and productive self-sufficient elite that, obviously, would thrive in the radically privatised world they envision creating). (The latter I blame partly on excessive reading of Ayn Rand, but that's another topic for another time. Or, preferably, for never).

Strangely enough, I have also encountered precisely these same two characteristics in many discussions with the radical left (mainly Trotskyists for some reason I'm not interested enough to speculate about). So, rest assured, I'm quite capable of being equal opportunity with my scorn.

Oddly enough, just about all the libertarians I've met have identified themselves as right-wing, even though a lot of the things that dominate right-wing parties (whether in Europe or America) these days -- xenophobia, religion, militarism, a strong desire to regulate morals -- are anathema to what I would see as 'real' libertarian thinking.

There's not, of course, anything inherently 'right-wing' about the notion of 'freedom' or about being suspicious of the state, or of emphasising forms of voluntary self-organisation to provide mutual assistance. These have long been elements in anarchist and some socialist thought, and the European green movement ('neither Left nor Right: Green' being one of their early slogans) has also long had the libertarian notion of decentralising power as one its core principles as well, even if at times it has been emphasised rather less than more. (Just to note one of the more obvious practical examples: green thinking on energy focuses on decentralised, even household, power production, freeing people not only from the centralised power of the state but also from the concentrated power of large corporations.)

Of the two general strands of thought that emerged from the 60s (and which have in various ways been around for long, long before that of course) -- i.e., 1) making a new world and 2) being left alone to do your own thing -- my own emphasis has been shifting toward the latter: partly because it's increasingly clear to me that the first -- whether in its left or right-wing form -- generally leads to Very Bad Things. (NB: Making a better world is, I think, still on the table though.)

Now, I know there are a lot of reasonable and very insightful libertarian ideas out there. (And I know that the Left has its own ideological silliness to answer for.)

Thus, it is encouraging to see, as Dale has pointed out, a thoroughgoing libertarian argument for tackling global warming published recently at Black Sun Journal.

In response to what seems to be a rather unhinged critique of the science of global warming, the journal notes:

Actually, it is the AGW [Anthropogenic Global Warming]-deniers who are the collectivists. They support allowing wealthy individuals and corporations to keep engaging in practices that essentially levy a heavy tax-burden on the rest of us. By depleting natural capital, the extractive robber-barons are externalizing their costs to other citizens and future generations. A true individualist libertarian would insist that everyone pay their fair share in the present-day rather than sloughing it off on their children, right? If you want to refrain from sounding completely ignorant and backward on this subject, you need to read and understand the concepts of Natural Capitalism, Externalities, Sustainability, and the Tragedy of the Commons. If you don’t, you have no business claiming to be a true Capitalist.
This article follows another (here), which contained the following:
Let’s look at the nature of our situation: Aside from radiation coming from the sun and other parts of space or the occasional meteorite coming in, and whatever heat is reflected or re-radiated into space going out, Earth is a closed system. Each of the 6.5 billion people who live here therefore have the right (an inherent human right as opposed to an arbitrary legal right) to fully use 1/6,500,000,000th of its resources and atmosphere, which are decidedly finite. If Stelene or Matt Drudge or Michael [Crichton] want to use more than that share of atmosphere or non-renewable resource, they need to purchase it from the people whose share they are consuming. That’s the free-market, right? It’s a classic problem of the commons, and even smart libertarians recognize this.

I imagine there are a lot of things that the writers at Black Sun Journal and I would disagree about. (I'm far from a 'true Capitalist', and they have that Strange Affection for Ayn Rand that I mentioned before and that I Just Can't Comprehend....)

The longer I spend blogging, however, the more I find it is difficult to find anyone with whom I completely agree anyway. But I'm also coming increasingly to the conclusion that, given the enormous decline in the civility of political discourse on the internet (described well, if with a certain justified incivility, at Whiskey Fire here and here) that I have come to see even a reasonable disagreement as, somehow, something precious.

And I am pleased to see the folks at Black Sun Journal take on crackpot irrationalism masquerading as secular, rational and libertarian free-thinking.

There are enough serious discussions to be had, after all.

[Update:] Just after posting this I found (via Pharyngula) a link to China Miéville's recent critique of libertarianism in In These Times. Worth reading. (As is his science-fiction novel Perdido Street Station, which I read recently on vacation.)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Melborea Moronica and other scary creatures

And before I forget...

I've been meaning to draw attention to an excellent essay by Simon Sellars at Ballardian on the disturbing interactions he observes between J. G. Ballard's dystopian imagination and day-to-day life in Melbourne.

It sounds...well, grim.
Worryingly, inner-city Melbourne is becoming increasingly lawless. Each day brings newspaper reports of gangs attacking passengers on trams, bashings involving Sudanese refugees, drunk patrons of nightclubs targeted for muggings… The true sound of Australia is no longer ‘Advance Australia Fair’ but rather the sickening thud of a skull hitting the pavement. Well, that’s what you read in the papers anyway, and while I have never been one to trust the sensationalized Australian media for my eyes and ears on the world, my attitude changed once it started happening to me. In the past couple of years I have been punched to the ground, unprovoked, by a gang of drunken/drugged up men in the main street of Byron Bay, in full view of passers by, for the territorial crime of being a ‘tourist’. Minding my own business, walking home, I have been set upon by a group of football fans leaving the Melbourne Cricket Ground after I made the mistake of protesting when they tried to tackle me to the ground.
And he hasn't even gotten to the part about the 'bicycle wars'.

In my view -- for all the psychological eccentricities of his fiction -- Ballard is quite strong on sociology. (In fact this is one of the arguments of paper I presented not all that long ago at a conference in Norwich which I hope will see the light of the published day at some point. We'll see.)

Along with many other things, Simon offers a different perspective on life in one of the world's 'most liveable cities'.

Great essay, Simon.

And be careful.

Tacky luggage for the masses

Speaking of overpriced handbags...

Yes, that's Mikhail Gorbachev (and a fragment of the Berlin Wall) starring in an advert for Louis Vuitton.

I'm...somehow speechless.

(At Mark Simpson via Geoff)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Conspicuous (-ly stupid) consumption

Some interesting thoughts on the 'smoke and mirrors' of luxury consumerism from Access Asia (via Boing Boing) in a review of Dana Thomas's new book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre.

From the review:

An increasing number of brands manufacture in China. Those luxury handbags women crave? Mostly now invariably made in China, though manufacturers sign strict confidentiality agreements with the brands never to reveal this fact. Several Guangdong factories make bags for a range of brands you pay fortunes for – hence a nice 15% minimum margin on bags. Access Asia was recently in a Chinese factory where the same workers on the same production line were making US$2,000 bags for an Italian brand, and US$35 bags for JC Penney, at the same time. Ever wondered why Coach has so many stores in China? Easy – they make virtually all their bags here. Prada, LV, Furla – all now largely made in China. And that’s where the cost cutting starts, and then continues, with no linings and cheaper thread, glue rather than stitching, as well as cheap labour. Still feeling classy? And typical mark ups on bags once you move to China? Think roughly under US$100 to make a bag, which then retails for US$1,200 upwards. Still think you’ve bought status? And it’s also the high-end ties and scarves. About US$25 max to make in China, and retailing for somewhat more. Still feel exclusive? Or just conned?

Tell me...

Via Faith in Honest Doubt, an excellent Sonic Youth clip.

"Bull in the Heather", live, apparently, in Germany

Dale has more. Go watch.

Killing things

One of those odd moments occurred last week in which a distinctly coherent topical thread seemed to emerge out of my usual relatively-random media perusal routine.

And that thread was, cheerfully enough, on the topic of killing and/or being killed.

1. At Orion Magazine (which I only recently discovered and which seems to be generally quite good) Robert Michael Pyle, in 'Licence to Kill', considers nature, which he finds, indeed, to be rather red in tooth and claw. We are all, he also suggests, in some way complicit in the slaughter:

Thoughtful people can take fewer lives than those who stomp every spider without a thought, or worse. Yet there remains the matter of exerting our weight upon the earth, so richly populated with tiny lives. Of eating, whether cattle, pigs, or krill, grains, beans, or spuds, butchered or harvested by the diners or their paid proxies. Of clothing, since cultivating cotton and hemp means displacement (read: killing) of prior residents with pesticide and plow, and the harvest exerts its own toll. And of shelter, because putting up houses means taking down trees. Our transportation, whether Hummer or Prius, train or plane, mines living mountainsides for metals. Communications and energy? Try mountaintop removal for coal, open-pit mines for copper, salmon-stream dams, and the entire oil imbroglio, none of them noted for their nonlethal qualities.

I'm not entirely convinced by his essay's final argument to suspend our judgements of the choices others make in the broad spectrum of killing (I mean, there seems to be a somewhat broader distinction between using antibiotics or swatting flies on the one hand and lion hunting, say, or conducting medical experiments on apes on the other, and this gets a bit lost here). However, I do think his thoughts here are a useful antidote easy moralistic posturing on the matter.

2. Cruelty toward and the treatment of animals, of course, is an important issue. As Alex Renton points out in 'This is one happy cow' at the Guardian, more humane versions of cattle farming have also made economic sense.

It may seem screamingly obvious that there's a connection between the way you treat an animal and the taste and quality of its meat, but it is a notion that has taken a while to penetrate the cost-driven consciousness of the modern meat industry. 'What's interesting,' says Tom Gatherer of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 'is that what would seem commonsense is now being scientifically proven. It's true that the best-raised animals make better meat, and the industry is taking that on board.' Andrew Lane, one of the founders of Loch Fyne Oysters, and in charge of sourcing meat for the group's shops and restaurants, says simply: 'You can tell the mood of the cow by the taste of the meat.'
The article still deals with slaughter, so it may not appeal to the more faint-hearted or convince the committed vegan; nonetheless, the practices he examines seem to mean a great improvement in the quality of life (and death) of the cattle in question.

3. In The Observer, Thomas Quinn goes hunting in the Scottish Highlands and kills a deer. The piece is somewhat interesting, even if its narrative framing as a city-boy-becomes-a-man-in-the-wilderness story gets a wee bit relentless by the, um, bloody end.

He's right about one thing though:

Telescopic sights aren't as straightforward as you'd think from the movies. Your eye has to be exactly the right distance from the lens. A half-inch either way and shadow obscures the view.

4. I also ran across an older (2004) article by Dave Cullen at Slate on the Columbine school shootings which is fascinating. Based upon FBI investigations into the massacre, it gives a clearer picture of what happened and dispels a number of inaccuracies and myths about the killings and the killers.

The killers, in fact, laughed at petty school shooters. They bragged about dwarfing the carnage of the Oklahoma City bombing and originally scheduled their bloody performance for its anniversary. Klebold boasted on video about inflicting "the most deaths in U.S. history." Columbine was intended not primarily as a shooting at all, but as a bombing on a massive scale. If they hadn't been so bad at wiring the timers, the propane bombs they set in the cafeteria would have wiped out 600 people. After those bombs went off, they planned to gun down fleeing survivors. An explosive third act would follow, when their cars, packed with still more bombs, would rip through still more crowds, presumably of survivors, rescue workers, and reporters. The climax would be captured on live television. It wasn't just "fame" they were after—Agent Fuselier bristles at that trivializing term—they were gunning for devastating infamy on the historical scale of an Attila the Hun. Their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.

5. Also less than recent, an interview by Ron Hogan with Jim Crace in which Crace talks about his novel Being Dead, which centres on the murder of a couple on a beach and then traces their process of decomposition over several days.

I recently read it and found it to be incredibly engrossing and emotionally moving. Highly recommended. (A good summary is given in this Salon review.) And my enjoyment of the book is not diminished in the slightest by the knowledge that Crace had not -- as I at first thought -- done extensive research to make his book realistic:

RH: Uh-huh... One of the things I like about the narrative structure is the way that it not only peels back from the moment of death, it also goes forward, even before their bodies are discovered, to continually isolate what is happening to their bodies as they lie there. One of the most remarkable chapters is the one where you describe the animals discovering the bodies, and provide intricate detail on what happens as each species approaches the corpses to feed.

JC: And I have to tell you . . . I mean, I wonder where you're heading there, but of course it's not researched, and the description is bogus. If you're like me and you do any country walking or you do any beach walking, you encounter dead otters or a dead squirrel or a dead seagull, and you go up with your boot and you turn it over and you see what happens, you see what putrefaction is. You see how the body decomposes. You might even look, peer in and you might see all sorts of bugs there. It doesn't feel like a morbid analysis of death, nor does it seem disrespectful or undignified. It seems like part the natural world. So I wanted the bodies [of Joseph and Celice to just rot away and I could have gone and done some real research, but being the kind of writer I am, I made things up. None of the animals that you encounter going into their bodies are real animals. They don't exist. The detail is actually invented because this whole book is a narrative rather than a work of natural history. They [the insects] don't exist. I've invented them. Did you realize that?

RH: No, you had me fooled with that one, too.

JC: But it doesn't matter. It's only modern day conventions that make one feel nervous, that everything's got to be real if you read it in a novel. What a ludicrous reaction to the novel! Why should everything be real? Make everything up. This is the traditional way of storytelling. If you look at any of the old stories...the cyclops doesn't exist, the minotaur doesn't exist. The whole traditional way of storytelling always uses gross inventions, and I think that's the tradition that I'm part of.