Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A truly absurd distraction

Well, there I was getting ready to write a bilious response to Madeleine Bunting's silly comments in the Guardian yesterday and it seems that AC Grayling and Ophelia Benson have already beaten me to it.

But there are still a few things I would like to add.

The key passages from Bunting's column that triggered intense neuronal activity in that region of my brain devoted to tendentious-twaddle-detection centred on the issue of faith. Bunting is convinced that the following is a Serious Problem:

Faith - of all varieties - has become one of the phenomena against which a demoralised post-socialist centre-left chooses to define itself.

Let's take a closer look at this sentence, shall we?

First, 'demoralised post-socialist centre-left' seems like an oddly restrictive category for those most prominent figures who have in recent times been taking issue with the more pernicious aspects of faith in modern society. Is Richard Dawkins a 'demoralised post-socialist'? Did Daniel Dennett or Sam Harris reach their conclusions about faith in a post-1989 socialist funk? One may call the (definitely) atheist and (possibly) post-socialist Christopher Hitchens many things but 'demoralised' would not be one of them. And for some of the rest of us, Madeline, there is nothing 'post-' about our socialism.

Putting all that to one side, though, the rhetorical trick she is indulging in here is obvious, i.e., her dismissive claim that secularism is based on adolescent sulking rather than sound science.

Second, I would think it's obvious that a significant and vocal segment of the left has not at all turned its guns on faith in recent decades. Quite the contrary: Particularly in academic settings, some varieties of post-modern leftish theorising have led directly to their own kinds of extreme relativism, faith-based reasoning and bizarre attacks on reason and science. Condemning science or reason is one of those things where the pomo-left (which, as Brian Boyd astutely pointed out recently, seems more blissfully self-confident than 'demoralised') and faith-based right (of whichever faith, mind you) can come together.

Third: yes, Madeleine, some varieties of faith are well worth attacking and 'defining oneself against', even if that last phrase itself reeks of a much decayed post-modern fixation with identity and the Other. Most secularist critics of religion today are not clinging to religion as a handy evil against which to define themselves; instead, they are pointing out what is wrong about the assertive faith movements, which -- despite their great differences -- have a common defining factor in opposing not only (or not even) the worst but also the best aspects of modern Western life.

Bunting's commentary descends into something even stranger on this latter point, as it builds up to a vigorous frenzy against...something. To be honest, I'm not so sure what exactly she's against. Maybe you can figure it out.

First, she castigates Grayling's 'comic book history' which asserts the 'enslavement of the European mind by the absurdities of Christianity'. Bunting opines that Grayling's view

wilfully omits how Christianity (and, incidentally, Islam) has fostered learning and science (even arches and domes) in Europe for hundreds of years - as well as providing the foundations for human rights and secularism itself.

This sounded...strangely familiar to me. And, indeed, that was for a very good reason. In November of last year, Theo Hobson (in his own critique of another Grayling article) said something similar, even claiming that atheism is directly 'derived from' protestantism. (I responded at length at the time, and many of the same responses apply here, as Hobson and Bunting are reading more or less from the same script.)

And then...Bunting's argument became even more familiar. Hobson made the following claim (calling it an 'argument' would be too generous):

Atheism is more than the rejection of religion as false: it is the belief that religion is an evil that holds back human history. Once it is removed, a new golden age beckons. It adapts the Judeo-Christian belief in the "eschaton", the glorious climax towards which history has been straining.

Translated into Bunting's rather more voluble language and urgent, pseudo-Freudian need to reduce secularism to some kind of mental breakdown, the same claim goes something like this:

But it is his claim of the west's steady march of progress to the happy lands of a universal ideal of rationality and freedom that strikes so hollow. The more vehemently one hears liberal progressives claim progress, the more one wonders who they are trying to convince.

As I pointed out in my earlier critique of Hobson, there is a very obvious elision here being made between a claim that reason and science have helped to make life better (which is unquestionable) and an accusation that modern secularists are suffering from a kind of naive hyper-Positivism which makes them believe science will lead us to the promised land (which, so far as I've been able to find, none of the serious scientists and atheist commentators I read -- and I do read them quite a lot -- have claimed).

One can, I think, perform the not-all-too-difficult mental gymnastics of seeing that human beings have been capable of remarkable technological and (rather more ambiguously) social improvement over centuries without thinking that such developments have all been inevitable, have proceeded without conflict, have overcome deeply-rooted contradictions, have been evenly distributed or have been (or remain) irreversible. We can make things better, but whether we can actually be better (in the sense of ever fully escaping from the contradictions of our evolved natures) is another matter. (The late German sociologist Norbert Elias expressed something similar, I think, when he remarked Es gibt Fortschritte aber keinen Fortschritt, i.e., There are progressions, but no Progress.)

Besides which: Read Grayling's articles with an unbiased eye. Go ahead, read them. Do you find a relentless march to the 'happy lands' of universal reason? No. I didn't either. Our Madeleine must have somebody else in mind. Or, which is more likely, she's gone and invited our old friend the straw man to the party without warning us.

But then she veers off into something more unsettling:

Increasingly, the stridency with which the non-religious attack the religious belies their own profound insecurity - that the progress they like to attribute to western or enlightenment values is a much-compromised property. It is challenged by almost everything we see around us: climate change, rising levels of mental ill-health, growing economic inequality fuelled by debt and hyper-consumerism. As Oliver James's new book, Affluenza, makes clear, the nostrums of the west's "good life" - success, fame, wealth - mask an extraordinary vacuity of purpose, a desperate, restless discontent.

Even on a more prosaic level, Jade Goody and Branscombe beach have been such absorbing spectacles because they echo our fear that the "progress" of rationality and freedom has done nothing to enlarge the human spirit.

Er,...is it just me, or is Madeleine Bunting honestly nominating Jade Goody as an exemplar of Enlightenment reasoning? Is that where science and reason lead us, Madeleine? Is it? Come on, tell me honestly. Do you really think that 'Big Brother' sums up the West and 'enlightenment values'? Do Newton, Voltaire and Darwin have a lot to answer for here?

Wouldn't this be a bit like me pointing to any one of many ranting, hate-mongering shopfront preachers (like, say, this guy) and claiming he 'represents' Christian values? (One could also reverse your own query and ask whether the fascination we find in such loathsome nut-cases 'masks the extraordinary thought-killing singleness of purpose, relentless viciousness and comfortable self-satisfaction at the heart of religious belief', but that would be churlish, wouldn't it?)

Nor am I precisely sure what Branscombe beach is supposed to tell us about the Enlightenment and secularism. Is greed a product of the Enlightenment? Or just of atheism more generally? Is it something which exists solely in the soulless 'West'?

More than 30 years ago, John G. Rule wrote an excellent article on 'Wrecking and Coastal Plunder' which appeared in the seminal crime history collection Albion's Fatal Tree (Pantheon Books, 1975). As Rule points out, it was already necessary in the reign of Edward I to pass laws against coastal plundering, and an act of 1713 which sought to reinforce existing legislation against it stated that 'many ships of trade after all their dangers at sea escaped have unfortunately near home, run on shore ... and ... have been barbarously plundered by Her Majesty's subjects'. Rule's article opens with the following words, from the early 19th century:

Wreckers, often smugglers and their connexions, who inhabit those parts of the coast where vessels are most frequently wrecked. These hard-hearted persons, not only men, but women also, consider the stranded vessel as their property as soon as the waves have thrown it on their coast. -- Under this unhallowed impression they plunder all they can, although the owner should survive and protest against their proceedings. (All quotes and references from Rule, p. 167)

Say what you will about the morality of 'Her Majesty's subjects' and the fate of those goods which found their way to shore, but 'finders keepers' is hardly an Enlightenment slogan.

Madeleine, listen: a 'restless, desperate discontent' is a fundamental part of being human, and it hasn't only emerged alongside 24-hour shopping, reality television and navel-piercing. People choose all kinds of ways of dealing with it. For many that has long involved belief in a super-deity or cosmic force with gives them some kind of 'meaning'. For others, it involves the search for 'success, fame and wealth', but, again, your knowledge of history and anthropology must be narrow indeed if you think these are exclusive properties of either the West or the 21st century. People who take advantage of others can be found in all societies -- even (in fact, especially) in the more faith-saturated, God-fearing Britain of earlier centuries that you seem to imagine in such rosy hues. (A time which also had no shortage of talentless, ignorant, racist trollops...but, admittedly, before the development of television it would have been more difficult for them to become national celebrities.)

And Madeleine, your little rant about the horrors of life in the modern West sounds oddly like it's derived from Dinesh D'Souza, who also thinks that radical Islamists may have a point about the 'cultural depravity' of Western nations. While I might agree with you that some of the more vulgar and annoying aspects of modern, industrial societies are...well, vulgar and annoying, your implied claim that the only way to confront one absurdity (Big Brother) is by meeting them with another (The Even Bigger Brother in the Sky) makes no sense.

Furthermore, I have to admit there is something unseemly about very well-off people (and, taking the world's population as a whole, that pretty much includes all of us in wealthier countries) complaining about how 'incomplete' or 'soulless' all that abundance (of goods, information, leisure, etc.) makes them feel. There are very serious problems with modern life, (the fact, for instance, that it is environmentally unsustainable is first among them), but do you really think that 'almost everything around us' challenges the notion that science and reason can improve life? 'Almost everything' Madeleine?

This is not something, I think, that we need to take seriously.

Indeed, it is an 'absurd distraction' all its own.

Anyone looking for a more inspiring and insightful meditation on science and morality should look at Steven Pinker's recent article on that topic in, of all absurd places, Time Magazine.

In closing, though, I do think Grayling made a mistake in posing his 'challenge' to Bunting (to 'name one - even one small - contribution to science made by Christianity in its two thousand years') too broadly. A brief glance at the comments section (something which, all on its own, always stands as an effective refutation of overly optimistic notions of progress) shows that the vagueness of Grayling's wording here has allowed many very clever people to name figures who have indeed contributed to science who nevertheless can be linked -- some in more, some in less obscure ways -- to Christianity.

Obviously, in eras when science was far less developed, religious belief was a near-ubiquitous feature of popular and high culture and religious institutions were powerful and dominated education, it's unlikely that we're going to find many strict atheists untainted by any kind of connection to Christianity. I think what Grayling meant was a more specific challenge to point out instances when the religious method of thinking (whether you take this to be based on faith, dogma, revelation, scriptural literalism or some combination thereof) contributed to the advancement of science. Obviously, someone who is driven to understand nature in a religious age will see this as 'revealing the majesty of creation' or 'contemplating the mind of God'. But what is the specific contribution of religion either to their motivation for research or to the discoveries subsequently made?

Mendel, to take a favoured example of some 'Comment is Free' commentators, might have worked in a monastery; however, did he discern the principles of heredity through faith or divine revelation? Can anyone in fairness credit his discoveries to religion rather than to science? It might exemplify the fact that not all religious institutions or contexts have been equally hostile to science. But consider this: Work such as Mendel's has contributed to genetics and evolutionary biology, two cornerstones of the modern scientific/materialist worldview which the main monotheisms are fighting tooth and nail to resist.

Grayling might have put his case too broadly. But the essential point, I think, remains.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Protect me against my friends, and I will take care of my enemies

Another in a series of harrowing reports written by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad appears in today's Guardian. (I pointed to another one previously, which you'll find here.)

A few excerpts:

"We ask the families of the terrorists for ransom money," said Fadhel. "And after they pay the ransom we kill them anyway."

Kidnapping in Baghdad these days is as much about economics as retribution or sectarian hatred. Another Shia man close to the Mahdi Army told me: "They kidnap 10 Sunnis, they get ransom on five, and kill them all, in each big kidnap operation they make at least $50 000, it's the best business in Baghdad."


In one operation Fadhel took part in last summer, Iraqi interior ministry commandos attacked a Sunni area in Dora called "Arab Jubour". The raid involved 28 pickup trucks, he told me. Of them 16 were ministry of interior, the rest Mahdi Army.

The new Bush plan to secure Baghdad gives a major role to the Iraqi army and police units in securing Baghdad. Few in the city expect that these predominantly Shia forces will seriously challenge their fellow Shia.


"The Iranians are helping us not because they like us, but because they hate the US."

The help comes in different forms. "We get weapons from them, mortar shells, RPG rounds, sometimes they give us weapons for free sometimes we have to buy. Depends on who is doing the deal," said the same commander.


"We control most of Baghdad, our main enemy is the Americans," said Fadhel. Then he paused for a second and continued: "Also we can't trust the other Shia factions. Imam Ali says 'God please protect me against my friends and I will take care of my enemies.'"

What does Abdul-Ahad's commentary suggest to me?

What actually seems to be happening in Iraq does not seem to fit neatly into many of the analytical frameworks which are being applied to it. A 'clash of civilisations' it's not. Nor is it, strictly speaking, a pure insurgency against foreign occupiers. A civil war of some kind, clearly, is occurring; however, there seem to be serious divisions within both ethnic 'sides' as well as what seems to be something which looks as much as mafia-like structures as ethnic militias.

Religion, seems to be a key element here...but to what extent? Once the outsider-insider dynamic gets going between groups, something like real 'theology' seems rather too high-minded a factor. If anything, it seems to be a cover for more basic motivations.

Iraq has become part of a wider, regional struggle for power, but one in which the contours of allegiance are far from clear-cut.

And, finally, America's continuing involvement (whether the promised 'surge' occurs or not) seems to increasingly look like the support of a brutal Shia-dominated state built upon revenge and barely concealed gangsterism.

Excellent: on to victory we go...

Friday, January 26, 2007

To infinity and beyond

The Wife recently referred me to an interesting article in Der Spiegel on artistic renderings from the earlier years of NASA. They, and their 'retro charm' are definitely worth taking a look at.

While reading that article, I ran across a reference to another article and slide show on visions of space stations from the 1970s. (The article is here, click on the pictures to see the graphics, clicking 'weiter' or the photo itself takes you to the next one.) They are equally enjoyable, especially after image number 4.

Consider this one, which weirdly transports a particular brand of Disco-era suburban lifestyle into orbit. Ringworld was nothing like this...

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Pimp my (righteous right-wing) crib

Just as a follow-up...

As TBogg has pointed out, there is an aesthetic component to Dinesh D'Souza's politics. And...it's not pretty.

Since Dartmouth, the conservative fray has been quite remunerative for D'Souza. Six years ago, he and his wife bought their home in Fairbanks Ranch. The nearly 8000-square-foot house has six bedrooms, seven and a half baths, and a four-car garage, where they keep their maroon 1992 Jaguar XJS. A circular drive fronts the French country stone house. The cathedral-like front room, with its full-length mirrors and tapestries, has an 18th-century French decor of (veneered) golden maple burl furniture. The slick floors echo like a museum as one walks through. In his office, there's wall-to-wall leopard-print carpet; floor-to-ceiling bookcases are stocked with titles in history, politics, and philosophy. The view out back features a bright blue pool and the arboretum-like landscape.

Ah...the tasteless rich.

As an ardent defender of the ancien régime, it's no wonder our Dinesh goes in for the tacky trappings of absolutist glories past. (With a not-so-odd similarity to the modern Russian nouveaux riches, one might add.)

Honestly...with so much money, you'd think he could buy himself the intelligence which would allow him to avoid being such a pathetic, clichéd figure.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The continuing decline in right-wing commentary

It's not easy being on the left. It never has been, I suppose.

More recently, though, one has had to endure being accused of sharing a 'side' with the likes of people who carry around 'We are all Hezbollah' signs or, like a certain kitty-imitating British embarrassment to politics, who have found people like Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic to be the kind of folks we lefties should celebrate for standing up to the big, bad West

So, it's entirely enjoyable to see the absolute freak-show commentators that the right wing has to present to the world today and to note that they put our own nutcases to shame. Along with the Coulters, Limbaughs and Robertsons of the world, we have people like Dinesh D'Souza.

I once saw D'Souza live at my campus way back in about 1990 debating Stanley Fish. He was a punk and a ridiculous walking caricature of a right-wing hack even then, but it seems that age and experience have taught him less than nothing.

In 'Ayatollah D'Souza', at The Nation, Katha Pollitt does a more than exemplary job of eviscerating the latest mutant thinking to emerge from that particular has-been's smelly little laboratory of 'thought': his new book The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11.

Here's the gist:

"American conservatives should join Muslims and others in condemning the global moral degeneracy that is produced by liberal values."

Well, it's a theory. Specifically, as D'Souza acknowledges, it's a secular version of Jerry Falwell's contention that 9/11 was a divine rebuke to "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America."


When the left isn't coddling terrorists, it's alienating "traditional Muslims," a group D'Souza believes the right ought to win over. The way to do this is not by building schools and hospitals that might actually improve their lives; it's by defending their cultural values, which fortunately just happen to be D'Souza's own. (Honor killings and child marriage aren't Islamic, he claims, just things that regrettably happen in Muslim societies. As for the veil, he approvingly quotes Sudanese radical cleric Hassan Turabi, who claims it lets women be seen as human beings. It's nice to see the cultural-relativist shoe back on the far-right foot.)
Please do read the rest.

The argument that D'Souza seems to be putting forward is ugly. Not only that, it's a demonstration (were one needed) that there is a particular strain of heavily-religious, authoritarian-leaning, small-minded, all-American conservatism which merges very nicely into precisely the kind of ideas which are inspiring the very movements which, ostensibly, the War on Terror is being fought to contain.

So, who's the real enemy at home?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Retro Hour: Rockit van Dyke

When I was a child, I watched the Dick Van Dyke Show just about every day, I believe on Chicago superstation WGN. (Where I also was a regular viewer of The Cisco Kid, Charlie Chan films, the classic Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, and loads and loads of Cubs games.)

I also remember being a massive fan of 'Rockit' when it came out.

But a combination of the two is...strangely delightful.

And while we're at it, let's give MTM her due:

Monday, January 15, 2007

History lessons

This is...depressing:

In a recent survey of college students on U.S. civic literacy, more than 81 percent knew that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was expressing hope for "racial justice and brotherhood" in his historic "I Have a Dream" speech.

That's the good news.

Most of the rest surveyed thought King was advocating the abolition of slavery.

There is a lot to shake your head about in the article from today's Washington Post. It's not so much that students aren't experts about holidays as such, but what that suggests about historical knowledge more generally which bothers me. (For instance, that a significant portion of college students seem to think that slavery was abolished in the 1960s...)

But I think my favourite statement has to be this one, from a fourteen-year-old girl:

"Honestly, I never knew what Veterans Day was until last year"

Yes, erm,...I suppose the name of the holiday isn't enough of a clue...

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Oh yeah?!

I take offence at something the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote in a recent editorial:

Other than librarians, it's hard to imagine a less rambunctious group than historians.

One step above librarians?! Our rep is far worse than I thought.

(Via HNN)

'Dangerous bends ahead'

A few things worth reading this weekend. And it so happens that they all in one way or another revolve around my favourite topic.

1. A disturbing article at the New York Times by Adam Nossiter on violence in New Orleans:

Eight killings have occurred in 10 days. New Orleans, the United States’ murder capital by many measures in 2006, is well on its way to keeping that distinction in 2007. Since July 2006, there have been at least 95 murders per 100,000 residents, and possibly a higher ratio depending on how the city’s depleted population is counted, said Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the University of New Orleans.

Frightened citizens now see their city as a stalking ground, roamed with impunity by teenagers with handguns — an image that may not be far off the mark, experts here say.

Emphasis added and, just for comparison, the national homicide rate in the US in 2002 was 6.1 per 100,000.

Over the last few years, Germany's homicide rate has been around 1.0 per 100,000. Statistics on 'Mord und Totschlag' -- murder and manslaughter -- are available here (though only in German), showing Germany to be a relatively safe place. And this is so even if many Germans don't realise it.

2. Speaking of teenagers with handguns, an even more disturbing article appears at today's Guardian which looks at the shift from insurgency to civil war in Iraq. As a former Republican Guard commando puts it:

"I used to attack the Americans when that was the jihad. Now there is no jihad. Go around and see in Adhamiya [the notorious Sunni insurgent area] - all the commanders are sitting sipping coffee; it's only the young kids that are fighting now, and they are not fighting Americans any more, they are just killing Shia. There are kids carrying two guns each and they roam the streets looking for their prey. They will kill for anything, for a gun, for a car and all can be dressed up as jihad."

What is also striking are comments like this one:

He told me that one of his main suppliers had been an interpreter working for the US army in Baghdad. "He had a deal with an American officer. We bought brand new AKs and ammunition from them." He claimed the American officer, whom he had never met but he believed was a captain serving at Baghdad airport, had even helped to divert a truckload of weapons as soon as it was driven over the border from Jordan.

These days Rami gets most of his supplies from the new American-equipped Iraqi army. "We buy ammunition from officers in charge of warehouses, a small box of AK-47 bullets is $450 (£230). If the guy sells a thousand boxes he can become rich and leave the country." But as the security situation deteriorates, Rami finds it increasingly difficult to travel across Baghdad. "Now I have to pay a Shia taxi driver to bring the ammo to me. He gets $50 for each shipment."

And this one:

"Every time they arrest a Shia, we take their car, we sell it and use the money to fund the fighters, and jihad," said Abu Aisha. The mosque sheik or the local commander collects the money and it is distributed among the fighters; some get fixed salaries, others are paid by "operations", and the money left is used for ammunition.

"It has become a business, they give you money to kill Shia, we take their houses and sell their cars," said Rami. "The Shia are doing the same.

"Last week on the main highway in our area, they killed a Shia army officer. He had a brand new Toyota sedan. The idiots burned the car. I offered them $40,000 for it, they said no. Imagine how many jihads they could have done with 40k."

3. At Ballardian, there is a very good interview with Dr. Jeanette Baxter. She is a literature scholar and is organising an upcoming conference on J. G. Ballard. Asked about Ballard's expressed frustration with academic analyses of literature, she replies:

I suspect that Ballard’s attitude towards academia arises, in part, from the belief that the literary imagination is in danger of being compromised, and even tamed in some way, when it became the focus of academic discourse. Ballard’s attack on the “postmodernisation” of SF, for instance, seems to suggest that academic jargon might be nothing more than a linguistic strategy for explaining a text away without engaging with what that text is actually saying.

And, I'd have to agree, that in many cases, this is very true. Something else, then for me to avoid doing in future.

There's also a link at the above piece to another interview with Ballard, 'The Age of Unreason'. It is well worth reading and, very conveniently, also brings us back to the topic with which we started:

JB: Your latest cluster of novels tests the controversial theory that transgression and murder are legitimate correctives to social inertia. If we are at once disquieted yet invigorated by acts of violence and resistance, then what implications does this lack of moral unity have for the reader?

JGB: The notions about the benefits of transgression in my last three novels are not ones I want to see fulfilled. Rather, they are extreme possibilities that may be forced into reality by the suffocating pressures of the conformist world we inhabit. Boredom and a deadening sense of total pointlessness seem to drive a lot of meaningless crimes, from the Hungerford and Columbine shootings to the Dando murder, and there have been dozens of similar crimes in the US and elsewhere over the past 30 years.

These meaningless crimes are much more difficult to explain than the 9/11 attacks, and say far more about the troubled state of the western psyche. My novels offer an extreme hypothesis which future events may disprove - or confirm. They're in the nature of long-range weather forecasts. As I've often said, someone who puts up a road sign saying "dangerous bends ahead" is not inciting drivers to speed up, though I hope that my fiction is sufficiently ambiguous to make the accelerator seem strangely attractive. Human beings have an extraordinary instinct for self-destruction, and this ought to be out in the open where we can see it. We are not moral creatures, except for reasons of mutual advantage, sad to say...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

When historians run amok...

I...don't even know how to begin commenting on the following incident, which occurred during the recently completed American Historical Association conference in Atlanta:

On Thursday, just after noon, the Tufts historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto was arrested by Atlanta police as he crossed the middle of the street between the Hilton and Hyatt hotels. After being thrown on the ground and handcuffed, the former Oxford don was formally arrested, his hands cuffed behind his back. Several policemen pressed hard on his neck and chest, leaving the mild-mannered scholar, who's never gotten so much as a parking ticket, bruised and in pain.

Read the rest of this bizarre, sorry tale at History News Network, the source also of this photo, which I hope they don't mind me re-printing.

The story is bad enough in words. But...just look at that. Look at it! Just how many cops does it take to arrest one jay-walking historian!?

Apparently, about eight of them.

Is this simply a matter of police overreaction taken to absurd heights (at least the good doctor was not tasered), or do historians have a far more bad-ass reputation than I was aware?

HNN also seems to be maintaining a list of updates on this story, posted here.

One of them leads to the official incident report by the arresting officer. You would think that in his own words there would be something that makes this case sound less surreal. But...you'd be wrong.

The suspect...

approached the roadway from the Marriott Marquis and looked at oncoming traffic as if he wanted to cross the street. I blew my whistle and told him cross only at the crosswalks at either end of the hotel. He darted into traffic and crossed anyway. ... I asked him why he refused to use the crosswalk when signs are clearly posted and a uniformed police officer asked him to use it. He said, 'Thank you for the suggestion.' I said, 'Sir, it was not a suggestion. It was a lawful order.'

Uh..., yeah, absolutely, Officer Fife.

Obviously, I wasn't there. And a witness does say that Fernandez-Armesto was 'belligerent' and 'refused to cooperate'.

However...he was being harassed by someone who was repeatedly demanding 'identification', for crossing the street. A certain belligerence is, I would think, called for.

Fernandez-Armesto, however, had the best line:

Within about two minutes after the struggle began, backup arrived and assisted me in handcuffing Mr. Fernandez-Armesto. He said, 'Well now I believe that you are the police.'

Let it never be said that history is anything but an evidence-based discipline.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Nature and nurture

There's an excellent article which is well worth your time over at The American Scholar by Brian Boyd entitled 'Getting it all wrong' (which I found via Arts & Letters Daily).

It's about, in essence, the radically culturalist assumptions which have taken over much of the humanities, particularly Boyd's field, which is literature.

Boyd, however, is convinced that understanding people is about more than understanding texts:

Not everything in human lives is culture. There is also biology. Human senses, emotions, and thought existed before language, and as a consequence of biological evolution. Though deeply inflected by language, they are not the product of language. Language, on the contrary, is a product of them: if creatures had not evolved to sense, feel, and think, none would ever have evolved to speak.

Alongside culture (note: not in place of culture) Boyd insists that humanities scholars take seriously the impact of biology on human experience and knowlege creation.

A biological view of our knowledge shows both its insecurity and its dependence on older and poorer forms of knowing, while also explaining the possibility of the growth of knowledge. Derrida’s challenge to the basis of knowledge seems bold, but it cannot explain advances in understanding, evident in the slow gradient from single cells to societies and the steep one from smoke signals to cell phones. Evolutionary biology offers a far deeper critique of and explanation of the origins and development of knowledge, as something, in Derrida’s terms, endlessly deferred, yet also, as biology and history show, recurrently enlarged.

Very true, very true.

I have a couple of forthcoming articles making, in one way or another, similar points. And I'll let you know when the slow gears of academic publishing bring them out into the light of day.

In the meantime, spend some time reading the rest of what Brian Boyd has to say in this article. If you like what you find there, check out The Literary Animal, to which Boyd also contributes. The book is a very thought provoking and insightful contribution to debates around the relationship between culture and biology.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Something to look forward to...


I am extremely pleased to receive confirmation that my proposal for the J. G. Ballard Conference in May has been accepted.

Fortunately, though, I still have a few months to work out the details of my planned lecture: "‘Going mad is their only way of staying sane’: The Civilised Violence of J. G. Ballard."

Those of you who are not yet familiar with Ballard's work (and who thus cannot share my excitement) can find out more about his work at the excellent on-line resource, Ballardian.

Or, better yet, just read something by him. I'd recommend High Rise, Super Cannes, Kingdom Come, or The Drowned World as starters (two of which feature in my paper...) (All shops are UK versions...vary as required!)

Another man's done gone

It seems that Michael Bérubé has decided to quit blogging.

Which is sad, in some way, since it was high-quality blogs such as his (and a few of the others you'll find on the 'blogs I read' list) which made me think that it might just be a worthwhile endeavour.

His departing message displays some of the characteristics that his readers have come to know so well (mainly, um, verbosity and wit) and manages, very nicely, to include references to both Spinal Tap and Monty Python.

It also serves as a nice reminder of how fast things have been changing...

But I didn’t really know what I was doing; I continued working on a 56k modem until March 30, 2004, and I didn’t have the sense to turn on the comments until May 10 (that post also works as a kind of Guide to the Early Blog in itself).

Ah, 56k...those were the days.

It's strange to think about a blog ending. I don't mean the probably 20 million or so dormant blogs out there with about 3 posts each on them but rather the sort in which someone has invested time, effort and tens of thousands of words (in Bérubé's case, hundreds of thousands).

Obviously, all things come to an end.

But as the man said:

I don´t know, I may go down or up or anywhere
But I feel like this scribbling might stay

Monday, January 08, 2007

Unsore loser

Congratulations to the winners of the 2006 Cliopatria awards.

Reader, I was not among them.

But, as they say at the Oscars, it was an honour to be nominated. As I was, for 'Best New Blog', by Sharon Howard at Early Modern Notes. (Thanks, Sharon!)

The winner in my category was Digital History Hacks, which appears to be a very heavy-duty history blog indeed, even mentioning things like 'diegetic machine acts', autonomous learning and 'histories of the future'. I don't understand these concepts, really, but I offer my hearty congratulations to William J. Turkel, who, it seems, does.

To be honest, I haven't thus far devoted all that much time here to commenting directly on history (though a click on the 'history' tag below should bring up a few things); thus, winning an award as a 'history blog' would have been something like...well,...like awarding Jethro Tull a Grammy for best 'heavy metal band'. And that would be silly, wouldn't it?

Nevertheless, I like to think that a deep historical sensibility veritably oozes from the pores of all my writing, even when I'm writing about other things.

Don't worry, though, as it's the kind of digital ooze which wipes off easily.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Hello darkness my old friend

I like this idea:

Since the beginning of time, pure silence has been available only in the vacuum of space. Now conceptual artist Jonathon Keats has digitally generated a span of silence, four minutes and thirty-three seconds in length, portable enough to be carried on a cellphone. His silent ringtone, freely distributed through special arrangement with Start Mobile, is expected to bring quiet to the lives of millions of cellphone users, as well as those close to them.

"When major artists such as 50 Cent and Chamillionaire started making ringtones, I realized that anything was possible in this new medium," says Mr. Keats, whose previous art projects include attempting to genetically engineer God. "I also knew that another artist, John Cage, had formerly tried, and failed, to create a silent interlude."

Mr. Cage once famously composed four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, which was performed on a piano, in front of a live audience, back in 1952. By all accounts, though, his silence was imperfect, owing to the limitations of the technology available at the time. "John Cage can't be blamed," says Mr. Keats. "He lived in an analog age."

"My Cage (Silence for Cellphone)" dispenses with performer and piano and auditorium, instead utilizing a continuous stream of silence produced on a computer, and compressed to standard ringtone format. This silence can be heard whenever a call comes through, whether out on the street, at a noisy concert, or in the quiet of home.

To read more, see Bruce Sterling's Wired website here.

My Cage (Silence for Cellphone) can apparently be downloaded here.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Worth reading this weekend

1. Julian Barnes’s ‘The Past Conditional’: a humorous, sad and moving memoir of family life, death and belief:

At the undertaker’s, I touched her cheek several times, then kissed her at the hairline. No, she didn’t look awful: there was nothing overpainted about her, and her hair, she would have been pleased to know, was looking good. (“Of course, I never dye it—it’s all natural,” she once boasted to my brother’s wife.) Was she so cold because she’d been in the freezer, or because the dead are naturally cold? Wanting to see her dead came more, I admit, from writerly curiosity than from filial feeling, but there was a bidding farewell to be done, for all my long exasperation with her. “Well done, Ma,” I murmured. She had, indeed, done the dying “better” than my father. He had endured a series of small, then larger, strokes, his decline stretching over years; she had gone from first attack to death altogether more efficiently and speedily. When I picked up her bag of clothes from the residential home, it felt heavier than I thought it should. First I discovered a full bottle of Harveys Bristol Cream, and then, in a square cardboard box, an untouched birthday cake, shop-bought by village friends who had visited her on her final, eighty-second birthday.

2. DMZ, a graphic novel from Brian Wood (no relation). I stumbled across this by way of Slate.com, in a collection of comics ‘about’ Iraq. DMZ, on the surface, is not about Iraq as such, but rather about a future in which America is itself divided by a civil war. The depiction of Manhattan as the front line of a domestic insurgency, however, is clearly relevant to understanding today’s reality in Baghdad and other cities. The first issue can be downloaded for free (as a PDF file) here. (It is, as they say, intended for 'mature readers'.)

3. An interview with science fiction author Bruce Sterling about writer J. G. Ballard (at the excellent online resource Ballardian). I have liked a few of Sterling’s books, and, moreover, I have become rather obsessed with the works of J. G. Ballard over the last few years. Sterling, here, is quite clear-headed about the impact and aims of a remarkable fellow author:

But he’s not extrapolating anything. He’s not a futurist, is he?

Well, he is a futurist, and he’s always extrapolating something or other, but he’s usually extrapolating dark motivations.

More social science than physical science?

No, I don’t think it’s even social science. I mean, a book like Crash is like a guy who’s studied hardcore porn, like bondage porn. The kind of porn where people are so trussed up in like ropes and bags that it’s weirdly asexual, like latex porn, or one of these really extreme levels of fetishism that are close to mental breakdown. And he’s thought: why doesn’t someone do this with cars? That’s an extrapolation. It’s like saying, okay, given A and given C, given latex porn, what about people who have sex with car collisions? And in point of fact, there doesn’t seem to be a reason why people couldn’t get obsessed with car collisions. On the face of it it’s like saying, given a car, why not a flying car – which is a very standard sci-fi extrapolation.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

All the good adjectives have flown south for the winter, or what?

Of the many annoying words and phrases making the rounds last year (e.g., 'Blitcon', 'stay the course', 'Paris Hilton', 'Web 2.0', 'surge', and any clever techie neologism starting with a lower-case 'i') one of my least favourite is the one which Richard Bernstein used a couple of days ago: 'militant atheism'.

Apparently this refers to people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and I suppose I can understand Bernstein wishing to note what might be a new cultural trend signalled by the popularity of their books. (Furthermore, since he apparently spends the rest of his time 'writing about the enigmatic Gordon Brown' I can certainly sympathise with his desire to find another topic, any other topic, to type about.)

However, I have a humble request to make of Mr. Bernstein and anyone else who chooses to write about this subject in 2007.

Until the day that Richard Dawkins appears on television standing in front of a poster of Darwin while holding an AK-47 and screaming for the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, can we find a different, perhaps more appropriate adjective to describe his approach?

What's wrong, after all, with perfectly good words like 'assertive' and 'committed'?

And we'll just leave aside the bit about 'militant, proselytising atheists' as a weak attempt at humour, shall we...because otherwise it sounds suspiciously similar to the claim that science is just another faith, and that's the kind of absolute nonsense I'd rather not suggest Mr. Bernstein believes in.

(Thanks to Butterflies and Wheels for the tip.)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Did Derrida (not) shop at IKEA?

[Our first post of the new year comes courtesy of The Wife.]

I must have been under the spell of a recent visit to the huge blue and yellow box next to a nearby motorway exit when, on leafing through the opening pages of Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (in the hope to find some weighty cites for a paper I’m currently working on), I stumbled over a passage that seemed to fit my recent experience. Now, Derrida’s book is a reply to the “end of history” hype of the 1990s (though this sinking academic ship has by now been abandoned even by its former captain, Prof. F.), which investigates both the self-deceptive euphoria of that hype and makes a strong argument for the enduring relevance of Marxism in European culture.

Never in my life would I have expected to find a comment on the opium of IKEA – of which I, too, shamefacedly partake – in this book. Yet there it is, in the exordium, which begins as follows: “Someone, you or me, comes forward: I would like to live finally.”

Maybe because of said shopping spree, the English words somehow stimulated a part of my brain that brought up the ubiquitous “Wohnst Du noch oder lebst Du schon” (roughly translatable as: “Still dwelling or finally living?”), which is the slogan IKEA has been bombarding us with over here for the past few years.

Cunning though it may be by advertisement standards, I have never liked it.

Hoping that the late Godfather of deconstruction would help fuel my anger about the Swedish design democracy, I read on, and, lo and behold: I knew, this was all written just for me and my momentary state of IKEA rage.

“To learn to live: a strange watchword. Who would learn? From whom? To teach to live, but to whom? Will we ever know? Will we ever know how to live and first of all what ‘to learn to live’ means? And why ‘finally’?”

Exactly. That IKEA slogan is so preposterous it should make us all reel. Why would flimsy tinsel mass-produced cheaply in the East (both Far and European) and bought by thousands of people all over the planet to create the desired (though undesirable) effect of organised clutter championed by the IKEA-think tanks, make me “live”?

“For from the lips of a master this watchword would always say something about violence. It vibrates like an arrow in the course of an irreversible and asymmetrical address, the one that goes most often from father to son, master to disciple, or master to slave (“I’m going to teach you to live”). Such an address hesitates, therefore, between address as experience (is not learning to live experience itself?), address education, and address as taming or training [dressage].”

It’s true, IKEA exerts a sense of paternal mastery over its customers (and even those who don’t shop there) – especially because it uses the informal German pronoun “Du” in all its advertising, thus combining the familiar with the authoritarian. This has been getting on my nerves for ages (and I swear they didn’t do this in the early years, when IKEA was still truly hip and only for educated liberals with “Nuclear Power, No Thanks” stickers on their cars. These days, OAPs like to go to IKEA, because the breakfast is ridiculously cheap and you can have as much coffee as you like). The most hateful slogan is “Hier kannst Du Dein Geschirr abstellen” (“this is where you can put your dishes”) in the cafeteria – the unstated threat (a verbal gunpoint) being: or else!

There is a threatening undertone of all this, a latent violence (like that explored by Henning Mankell’s disturbing crime novels set in the south of Sweden), which only reflects the violence of uniformity dressed up as individual chic of Annika, Holstebro, Saltkrokan and co. And of course, as a clever person recently pointed out, the whole informality collapses when someone is told, via the shop intercom, to remove their car from the lot or their unruly offspring from the play area.

Most cunningly, IKEA defies its own claim to be hyper-democratic by being deeply exclusionary. It’s a little bit like Robert De Niro’s “circle of trust” spiel in Meet the Parents: either you’re with us, or against us. In IKEA terms, being against might mean having bought bedding anywhere but. If I want to use IKEA covers – which admittedly tend to be rather pretty, like all their fabrics – I will have to buy duvet and pillows there, too. But we already have plenty of bedding and it’s all in pretty good nick. Should I chuck it out (like Britons were told to chuck out their chintz a few years ago), just because it doesn’t fit the set I bought for €7 downstairs at I’s?

The picture frames, too, are always too small or way too big for the fancy posters you buy at spectacular conferences across Europe to wow your guests. Any flicker of individual taste outside the tightly knit (but expanding IKEA community) is punished – bang, shame on you, your are outside the circle of trust.

And sooooo alone.

“Duh”, says the Husband. “Didn’t you know? It’s like bloody Microsoft”.

So for those of you out there sharing my woes (which, admittedly, are maybe a wee bit frivolous considering its the beginning of a new year and time to reflect on how to improve on the last one), here’s more from Jacques D. on the issue:

“To live, by definition, is not something one learns. Not from oneself, it is not learned from life, taught by life. Only from the other and by death. In any case from the other at the edge of life. At the internal border or the external border, it is a heterodidactics between life and death.”

I leave you to ponder – and maybe dip into the whole book if you have the time. In the meantime: don’t go to that place. It’s full of consumption-eager people, screaming kids and cunningly-placed gadgets by the tills (“a purple furry plunger – I always wanted one of those!”).

Buy your curtains at the flea market. Or don’t bother to buy any at all.