Friday, March 30, 2007

Random wise words of the day, vol. 1

I personally really want to know what someone looks like. I'm a big fan of situatedness and embodiment. We are not just brains in jars, we're humans in bodies, with faces and histories and accents. Culture is not a neutral stream of abstractions. But when text is king, we're tempted to think of it that way. Text is so utterly useless at conveying what someone's like in person, where they're coming from, how they fish around for ideas, how intelligent or attractive or confident they are.

So saith...Momus.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Math, Republican-style

Obsidian Wings ensures that--propaganda to the contrary--we all still understand that 2+2=4:

So here's what Novak's "largest tax increase in U.S. history" actually comes to: the Republicans passed a series of tax cuts that they set up to expire. They intended to make them permanent, but never got around to it. The Democrats are proposing to leave their tax cuts alone. But this counts as a tax increase, apparently on the grounds that whatever Republicans sorta kinda thought they were going to do, but never actually got around to doing, counts as already done, and anyone who proposes to leave things alone counts as undoing the things they were intending to do.

The rest of the equation is worth reading.

Not as cute as Knut, but formidable as all get-out

Hail the mighty troglobite....

Which, despite being blind and a mere four millimetres long, has the power to stop billion-dollar mining projects in their tracks.

Story here.

More beastly than beastie

That there would ever be the necessity to write a sentence combining the name 'Karl Rove' and the term 'rap' is something I'd probably have bet against at one time.**

No more.

Here's the video. (Caution: these are images that you may never be able to banish from your tortured mind ever again. You have been warned.)

Explanation, if such a thing is possible, here.

**Except of course in the context of something like: 'Today in federal court, Karl Rove failed to beat the rap...'

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Helvetica turns 50

On a more positive note.

Momus has some comments on typefaces which are worth your while.

Apparently, Helvetica turns fifty this year. And there's a documentary about it.

Momus's comment about the ubiquity of the font in Berlin, where he lives makes me think. Yes, it is probably one of the most European of typefaces. It's certainly popular in Germany.

(This is maybe a good opportunity to link to an early post of mine--also inspired by Momus--on the dreadfulness of Bush-administration typography.)

For an interesting discussion about that 'parasite' typeface Arial, see this piece by Mark Simonson.

The many flavours of right-wing thought: Silly, nasty and scary

Many thanks to Lawyers, Guns and Money for bringing to my attention the flap surrounding conservative law blogger (and tenured law professor) Ann Althouse's meltdown while appearing on (Context and links are explained below, and if you don't know the background then the event itself is not quite so rich in meaning.)

Althouse came to my attention sometime last year--I believe it was during another Bloggingheads segment--and even then I couldn't quite understand the amount of attention she was getting as a commentator. I read her blog for a while but then stopped, since I found she was too often either a) boring, b) silly, c) unpleasant, or d) simply mouthing the sort of political platitudes that issue forth at regular intervals from Republican Party central office.

Sometimes, she managed to be all four at the same time. She, however, seemed to think of herself as some kind of rebellious free-thinker. I think it was the exhaustion that resulted from coping with this cognitive dissonance that made me just lose interest.

But, you know, that's fine; after all, there's no accounting for taste, and I know I have my own bad hair days when it comes to blogging. Nobody makes you read something. So I stopped.

Nonetheless, since I was already aware of her, I did note the bizarre little incident last September in which Althouse made snide comments about the photo of a female blogger who appeared in a photo with Bill Clinton. (Her comments, actually, referred to the prominence of said blogger's breasts in the photo.) When the blogger in question wrote to Althouse and took issue with Althouse's post, Althouse merely upped the criticism: in a further blog post--and in comments which followed--she launched into a crass diatribe which was both unnecessarily personal and ill-informed.

It's difficult to summarise the whole thing, but it revolved around Clinton, feminism and...erm...breasts. Excellent overviews are available from Michael Bérubé, Orcinus and, Althouse's target herself, Jessica Valenti, at Feministing. (With Bérubé's being the most entertaining and possibly insightful: he, rightly enough, identifies Althouse as a typical 'academic bully'.)

So, in the Bloggingheads episode from last Saturday, Garance Franke-Ruta, in the context of a discussion about nastiness and the blogosphere, referred to 'the Jessica Valenti breast controversy' and Althouse...well...seems to go into a kind of enraged-yet-still-somehow -self-pitying meltdown. (Which can be found at Bloggingheads if you want to watch the whole thing and look for it. However, it's also been excerpted by Crooks and Liars and is probably by now on YouTube somewhere. Firedoglake also has a very good overview.)

Now, this may be not so interesting in itself. The debate itself was kind of ridiculous, and as I said, I think Althouse is terribly overrated. (I don't, actually, find Feministing to be really my cup of tea either, though I agree with several others that Althouse's comments have been unfair and uninformed.) Moreover, I think Garance Franke-Ruta could have done a much better job of handling (and confronting) Althouse's odd rage. (But, you know, I'm not sure I'd have been all that quick on my mental feet in the moment either, so fair enough. I mean, there you are in a public debate where a certain professionalism might be expected and someone freaks out at you for nothing. )

Althouse has already received a fair amount of criticism (see above summaries and related links) so there's no point in piling on, other than, perhaps, to note that her latest comment on the matter (scroll down to the 'update') seems to mistake the issue at hand.

No, I don't think anybody would expect her to play nice in a debate or to pull punches (she never has in the past, quite the contrary): the point, however, is that her hysterical reaction to Franke-Ruta and her whinge about all the mean-spirited liberals online simply makes her look like a fool with a paranoid persecution complex and a delusional opinion as to the actual balance of ideological bile in American politics.

That's all.

This sorry episode is, actually, all mere prologue to the interesting things I ran across while looking into this story.

To take Althouse's comments at half face-value, I have no doubt that there are people with liberal/left politics out there who say illegitimately cruel, nasty things about their political opponents on the right. (And I've taken the opportunity to point out the failures of liberal and left thinking when I run across something egregious.) Sometimes that kind of invective goes too far, but sometimes it's just part of the rough-and-tumble of debate. (It is unfortunate when discussions about ideas are replaced by personal attacks.)

Sometimes, though, it may be that the targets of such invective actually deserve it.

I was driven to this thought by David Neiwert at Orcinus, who has compiled an excellent library of right-wing commentary which is truly offensive and not simply compiled from comments sections on obscure blogs. Neiwert suggests there is a noticeable tide of what he refers to as 'eliminationism' in some right-wing political thinking. What does that mean?

It's a fairly self-explanatory term: it describes a kind of politics and culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas for the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through complete suppression, exile and ejection, or extermination.
And he has written a fascinating 10-part series about this topic. I've only started looking at it, but it begins here with part one.

The appendix to his series is, in itself, a fascinating read, putting Althouse's comments about nasty liberals into context. (I don't, though, associate her views with those catalogued by Neiwert. They are truly nasty. She is just a bit silly.)

And it leads me to a point where, with a surprisingly short hop to the right, we encounter the sort of people interviewed by Louis Theroux in his gripping documentary, Louis and the Nazis.

This came out a few years ago, but I only ran across it a couple of weeks ago. It was then on Google Video, whence it seems to have disappeared. However, at least for now, there is a version currently at YouTube. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

It's...deeply uncomfortable viewing.

But excellent and insightful.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Lucky to be alive

Ah, one more thing I meant to catch up on.

It was Richard Dawkins's birthday yesterday, and I wanted to take the opportunity to note that, along with some heartfelt gratitude for his work.

The Selfish Gene is one of those relatively few books that I can describe as genuinely 'life changing'. The God Delusion, which I just read and have been meaning to comment on (someday...) didn't alter any views, but I could still call it 'life affirming'. The essays in A Devil's Chaplain not only had me riveted, but stand as prime examples of all that an 'essay' can be. The Extended Phenotype, though somewhat harder going, has certainly influenced my thinking on a number of things.

For all these books, for those I've yet to get to (a handsome, illustrated edition of The Ancestor's Tale is on my shelf, awaiting a time when I can give it full attention), and for sharing his wisdom so eloquently, Obscene Desserts sends sincere birthday wishes.

I thought I would post an excerpt of my favourite piece of Dawkins's prose. I see that it's actually part of something that the man himself has suggested to be read at his funeral. That's entirely appropriate, of course, as its an enormously thoughtful meditation the sorrow of death.

It is also, however, a moving statement about the joy of life, along with being a statement of the vast improbabilities that each of us overcomes in being able to enjoy it and a reminder--now that we're here--not to waste it.

It is, thus, perfect for birthdays as well.

And it is in that sense, that I quote it here.

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Here is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than 100 million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, 'the present century.' The present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century's being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. You are lucky to be alive and so am I.


Happy Birthday!

Catching up: Cute Knut, Europe's birthday and Sharia on the Main

If you've had the sense that things have gotten a bit slow around here (with regard to the amount of posting) then you'd be right. This awareness would also mean that you are what we might call a 'regular reader', and, as such, I thank you not only for your good taste but also for your perseverance.

The relative dry spell is partly to do with the amount of travelling around we've been doing recently. In the last month or so, we've been in the US, Greece and, last weekend, the Netherlands. As I mentioned, I'm not really that good at firing off quick insights spontaneously from some internet café somewhere. Others can do that well. Not me.

No: my insights, such as they are, require hard work, a comfy chair and a large pot of green tea.

But my online word-mill has also been grinding somewhat more slowly due to my efforts to make some headway in the work I have to do in the real world (or, let's say, the world in which I do work for which I get paid).

Which, I'm happy to say, has been going well. My contribution to the upcoming Ballard conference (which looks like it'll be fascinating...programme and new information can be found here) now at least has a beginning, middle and an end (which certainly makes things better for the audience). Crucially, it also seems to be roughly within the required length. (If you're a regular reader, you will also be aware that I do suffer from a bad case of chronic verbosity.)

Getting so far with the paper is important, as it is at this stage with conference papers that I begin to cease panicking. And, to be honest, I think the paper itself might not be so bad. We'll have to see. With any luck it may see the light of publication someday.

I've also been trying to make some serious progress on the main project I'm researching, about which, now, I plan a book. More on that as it develops. But, just by means of explanation, I've been busy.

Obviously, however, there have been a lot of events and debates which have touched on some of the long-term interests here at Obscene Desserts (nature, Europe, multiculturalism) so I didn't want to let them slide by without at least a few words... least with regard to those stories that have made it seem Germany was the centre of the universe over the last week or so.

Cute Knut

First, our household has of course been in the grips of a veritable Eisbär-mania since the story of Knut broke a few weeks ago. Undoubtedly you've heard of the the world's most famous Ursus maritimus, who, rejected by his mother, has been raised by a dedicated (if somewhat hirsute) ersatz-parent.

Now, the story of Knut's abandonment by his mother is, on its own, thoroughly heart-string-tugging (and I'm surprised that Eva Hermann hasn't rushed in to give that heartless career-bitch the dressing down she deserves), as was the decision by one of his keepers to take over parental duties.

But if that wasn't enough, there was a debate about whether he should be put to sleep. A few people based this argument on the ground that bottle feeding was not 'appropriate to his species', which, to be honest, I couldn't quite follow. (Bottle feeding is illegitimate because it's not species-typical...lethal injection, on the other hand, is an ancient polar-bear custom?)

What is somewhat irksome, though, is that during this discussion it was sometimes simply claimed that 'animal rights activists' wanted Knut put down. This gave the impression that this was some kind of broad environmentalist consensus. The resulting firestorm of protest made clear that this was not so. In the end, it seems, Knut will live. And that makes us here very happy.

Because we get to look at pictures like these. And watch videos like this. Which we do. Just about every day.

Considering the attention (and extra income) he's brought to the Berlin Zoo, I don't think anyone should be too concerned about the way he's going to be treated. Moreover, he has managed to make some friends in high places, including the German environment minister.

And, I see, he's also gotten some coverage in Britain. Perhaps, along with bringing attention to climate change he might thus also be able to ensure that when British children think of Germany, they think 'cute and cuddly' rather than 'Nazi and scary'. (Though he's probably got as much chance of doing that as stopping climate change.)

I have to say, however, that I hope the interest in Knut--as well as in the grim situation facing his counterparts in the wild--outlasts the 'Cute Knut' period.

As is true for all of us, he's not going to be small and adorable forever.

I also fear that an anti-Knut backlash is probably inevitable. Perhaps it will come from parents, driven mad by their childrens' new polar-bear obsession. (To which, I have to say, at least it chips away at the little beasts' Harry Potter obsession.) Perhaps it will come from those who will argue that it is somehow inappropriate to give all this attention to a little bear when so much of the world is going to hell.

I can understand that argument. On the other hand, I think it may be because of the latter that a simple story such as this one has had such appeal.

Happy Birthday, EU

It was remarked in the German media that the attention given to Knut managed to overshadow the signing of the Berlin Declaration by representatives of the 27 nations of the European Union. This is unfortunate (though I don't blame Knut himself, of course) since I think that the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome (which then formed the EEC, the precursor to the EU) is something to celebrate.

This needs a much longer discussion--which I shouldn't simply jam into an already long post about a baby polar bear--but suffice to say that I am a great admirer of what Jeremy Rifkin once formulated as the 'European dream'.

Precisely what that means is something open to debate and discussion and some contemplation. But I think the declaration (available in all European languages here) is not a bad start.

This is not the place--for the moment--to go into all the shortcomings of European politics and Brussels bureaucracy. There are many of those, and like any great admirer of anything, I've learned that the object of one's affections can sometimes seriously disappoint.

But what disappoints me even more are two things.

First, it seems to me that the current peace which Europe enjoys is too often taken for granted, hence, the importance of a strong and reformed EU in maintaining that happy situation is too-often overlooked.

Second, there is a very odd discussion around the idea of an EU constitution which seems to have little to do with the document itself. Some years ago, I indulged in a rather ill-tempered presentation of my perspective on some of the ways that Europe is viewed. (The ill temper, I maintain, was fully justified at the time.)

More recently, another version of kneejerk Europhobia was brought home to me in Crete, though not by the Cretans. In the midst of a (very tasty) dinner, the topic of Angela Merkel's popularity in Britain came up. Worriedly, it was observed (by a Brit) that, 'She's trying to revive the constitution', something that may negatively affect her standing in Britain.

Now, it is certainly true, in fact, that Merkel has made getting this process under way a priority of Germany's six-month presidency of the European Council. The Berlin Declaration was part of this.

However, the comment in question was said in an uneasy tone and with an anxious expression that would be more appropriate had it been, 'She's trying to foment anarchy, destroy our cities and poison our children.'

There are reasonable areas to debate in the constitution as it was proposed, of course, but I suspect that our companion's reaction to it had little to do with an informed opinion about the principle of subsidiarity.

Not, of course, that this kind of attitude can all be blamed on the British. It was the French and the Dutch, after all, who rejected the constitution. However, interestingly enough, at least a significant portion of those who voted against it (and this is something that many sneering critics of the EU overlook) did so because they wanted rather more of the social model than --they thought--they were getting.

A travesty of Justice? Ja. A reason to panic? Nein.

Finally, there was a story from not too far down the road in Frankfurt, where a judge refused a woman's request for an accelerated divorce proceeding at least in part based on her (the judge's) reading of the Koran. The woman, who had been abused and claims to have been receiving death threats from her hopefully soon-to-be-ex spouse, had sought to evade the normal requirement of a one-year separation before a divorce is granted on the basis of her treatment.

However...things took a surprising (and disturbing) turn (via Spiegel International):

The judge rejected the application for a speedy divorce by referring to a passage in the Koran that some have controversially interpreted to mean that a husband can beat his wife. It's a supposed right which is the subject of intense debate among Muslim scholars and clerics alike."The exercise of the right to castigate does not fulfill the hardship criteria as defined by Paragraph 1565 (of German federal law)," the daily Frankfurter Rundschau quoted the judge's letter as saying. It must be taken into account, the judge argued, that both man and wife have Moroccan backgrounds.

This story, justifiably, caused a storm of outrage across pretty much all of German society. And that's a good thing, as this was an outrageous decision.

However, listening to some of the media commentary and sampling blog commentary, I became more than a little uncomfortable about how the story was being used. For many, the incident seemed in one way or another to be just the latest sign in the Islamification of Europe, allowing some commentators (generally right-wing and generally hostile to Europe in any case) to dig out their favourite term, 'Eurabia'.

Now, I'm as convinced that this was a foolish and unjust decision as anyone. However, what it signals is, I think, far from clear.

There have been some who have claimed that such mistaken decisions are a widespread problem, and I'm sure that the observation that this was not an 'Einzelfall' (unique case) is probably correct.

However, I was listening to legal experts (professors of law from somewhere...sorry, I can't now recall where) on the radio last week who were commenting on the case. They made a couple of good points.

First, the practice of taking 'cultural background' into account in legal proceedings is neither something new nor did it emerge specifically in regard to Muslims. It was, instead, suggested that such considerations entered German courts decades ago mainly in response to cases involving southern European men who, let's just say, brought with them a different notion of when and where violence was legitimate, and who were killing each other as a result of some version of a culture of 'vendetta' or because of slights against their 'honour'. The courts, in facing these cases, took into account 'cultural background' as a mitigating factor in sentencing for those perpetrators who had been socialised from childhood into a particular macho subculture.

Now, this may or may not make sense from a legal, moral or policy perspective. But, it would seem to be correct--if my source was accurate--that the origins of the legal principle in question lie less in a cowardly caving into Muslims than in a much longer history of cultural-legal interaction that began, fundamentally, an inner-European problem.

Moreover, as even the original Spiegel article notes, the practice of treating cultural background as a mitigating factor in domestic abuse cases has been declining and has even become 'seldom' in recent years. This, too, was the view of the legal experts I heard on the radio.

Clearly, taking 'cultural background' of whatever sort into account in a court is a problematic principle. But is it fully inappropriate? I'm not sure. Courts, after all, accept a wide variety of mitigating and aggravating factors. And they have for a very long time. (In my book, I examined (among other things) ritual fistfighting among working-class men in England in the nineteenth century. The courts, in evaluating those cases, paid very close attention to whether the men involved had followed 'customary' rules in beating each other to a pulp.)

My point is merely this. There is a great deal of anger over this case, which I share. There is also, it seems, a use being made of this case which I think should be considered carefully. Is this evidence of the accelerating 'Islamification' of Europe (as the screaming 'Sharia in Frankfurt' headlines would lead us to expect)? Or, as a more sober look at this case suggests, does it seem more to be a sorry example of a declining (though misguided and still too common) willingness to allow cloudy cultural thinking to dilute clear legal principles?

As the recent sign and sight multiculturalism debate suggested, it's difficult to have a reasonable discussion about these things. There's a lot of stupidity, too, to go around, and this applies to all political persuasions. As I tried to suggest, though, I think a little differentiation in thinking and careful examination of the evidence in practice, might help.

There are times, though, that I think that reasoned discussion might be as endangered a species as the polar bears.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Assaulting the past (but not our readers)

I'm pleased to announce that a book to which I contributed is at last seeing the light of day.

Assaulting the Past: Violence and Civilization in Historical Context, edited by Katherine D. Watson, is now available to order from Cambridge Scholars Press. (Incidentally, Katherine D. Watson also published an excellent book about poisoning a few years ago, information about which you can find here.)

As the blurb puts it:

This book offers an important contribution to the comparative history of interpersonal violence since the early modern period, a subject of great contemporary and historical importance. Its overarching theme is Norbert Elias's theory of the civilizing process, and the chapters in the book recognise, as he did, that changes in human behaviour are related to transformations of both social and personality structures. Drawing on a vast range of archival and written records from five countries, the contributors explore the usefulness of the theory—the subject of much debate over the past two decades—to explaining long-term patterns in violence, but also point to the need for further empirical and comparative studies, to reflect current thinking and developments within historical, criminological, and sociological methodologies.

In approaching the subject from a variety of perspectives, Assaulting the Past: Violence and Civilization in Historical Context presents a comparative and qualitative assessment of violent behaviour and the experience of violence. Approaches used include the empirical and the theoretical, and the book is strongly interdisciplinary, drawing on the history of crime, history of medicine, criminology and legal history. The volume seeks to offer new insights on violence, the individual and society, to further illuminate the links between state formation, social interdependency and self-discipline that are so integral to the theory of the civilizing process.
The book arose out of what I thought was a wonderful 2005 conference that Katherine organised (and organised very well, I must say) and which was hosted by Oxford Brookes University. I have many fond memories of the conference, where I met several people whose work I had long respected and some others whose scholarship I had the first opportunity to get to know.

(The conference had the misfortune to commence on the same day as the 7/7 bombings in London, events which -- even though terrorism was not among the specific topics on offer -- certainly hung heavily over the next few days of discussion and debate about violence, disorder, cruelty and processes of 'civilisation'.)

Among this volume's varied and fascinating contributions, I'm pleased to say, you will find an essay of mine, 'Locating Violence: The Spatial Production and Construction of Physical Aggression'.

Other topics include: domestic violence, serial murder, insanity, violent/homicidal women, interpersonal animosities, ritual sacrifice, disorder, the prosecution of assault, state regulation of violence, social pacification (and its breakdown), blasphemy, and developments in moral sensibilities.

Please spread the word along to anyone you know who might be interested. And if you're interested but can't afford it yourself, get your local or university library to buy a copy.

You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

RIP, John Inman

Something else I missed whilst we were travelling...

...alas, another part of my youth, gone.

Though perhaps, in a truly final sense, 'free.'

Thanks for the laughs, John.

(Via, Crooked Timber)

The architects of delusion

Seeing as today marks the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, there will be no shortage of discussion and debate about what went wrong, who's to blame and -- most vexing of all -- what to do now.

(While I have answers for the first two, I have to admit that the third one still escapes me. However, since there are supposed experts with large budgets and administrative staffs who don't seem to be doing any better than I am at figuring that out, I don't feel so bad.)

Amidst all that noisy discourse, I suggest it is well worth your while to take a look at Peter Beaumont's two-part article in the Observer on changes within Iraq, where he -- poetically enough -- finds that the country's horizons have 'collapsed in on upon themselves like an imploding star, super-heavy with the weight of communal, insurgent and terrorist violence.'

There are those articles which can be scanned perfectly well on-screen, but I recommend printing out Beaumont's piece and paying close attention to it, as it's in details like the following that it really excels:

The relentless fragmentation and steadily constricting freedom of movement.

The futile but moving efforts of the city's orchestra to keep going, inspired by an old Soviet propaganda film about Leningrad.

The descriptions of the various species of barriers -- the 'concretes' -- that have become 'a defining physcial feature of the new Iraq'.

The surreal scenes from a half-deserted amusement park.

The enormity of a disaster brought home in the necessary changes in millions of ordinary lives:

So Baghdad merchants lock up their Karrada stores at 3pm to avoid the kidnap gangs linked to the militias who would trade them for the money that feeds the war. Women stay indoors with their children or close by the neighbourhoods where they are known. Weddings are deferred, mixed marriages break up and educations are left unfinished. Names are changed by deed poll to hide sectarian identities, while Sunnis place religious pictures on walls in Shia areas for dissimulation.

And, not least, this succinct conclusion:

But the simplest explanation for this disaster is that the invasion unpicked a complex and brutal state, invested with powerful competitions and contradictions. And having done it, none of its architects had a plan for putting it back together.

Ah, yes, the architects. No doubt, you must be thinking, they are certainly haunted by at least some regrets, and -- in reflecting on the way things have gone to hell in the reality-based community we call the world-as-it-is -- their own grandiose Weltanschauung just has to be be tempered today by a certain ...well, humility and willingness acknowledge the mistakes they have made.

Yes. You might think that. But you would be wrong.

As Jacob Weisberg writes, at Slate, the American Enterprise Institute recently hosted a gala evening which suggests that some neo-cons are not only willing to see but also to raise their geopolitical bets, with Bernard Lewis putting in a good -- and apparently well-received -- word for the Crusades.

As Weisberg notes:

Were you to start counting the ironies here, where would you stop? Here was a Jewish scholar criticizing the pope for apologizing to Muslims for a holy war against Muslims, which was also a massacre of the Jews. Here were the theorists of the invasion of Iraq, many of them also Jewish, applauding the notion that the Crusades were not so terrible and embracing a time horizon that makes it impossible to judge them wrong. And here was the clubhouse of the neocons throwing itself a lavish 'do, when the biggest question in American politics is how to escape the hole they've dug. Reality seemed to have taken up residence elsewhere for the evening.

Yes, it has.

But what is really sad is that such delusion has become such a normal part of life for this administration -- and for its friends and allies -- that it no longer has the power to surprise.

Waiting for reason to return to them is turning out to be rather like waiting for Godot.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Home Again

Our travels seem to be at an end for a while, so things should be picking up here again soon. Unlike some people, perhaps, I find it takes me a while to get back into the blogging rhythm. But it’ll come back. (Take that as a threat or a promise, as you choose.)

I’ve been catching up on some things I missed while being away from the internet for a while. I’m happy to find there are a lot of interesting and well-written things that have appeared, which I still need to work through before I can recommend and discuss them.

There is, of course, also the usual torrent of stupidity out there, and I’m wading through some of that as well.

But, trenchant social commentary aside, being on the road for a while—to the US and to Greece—did bring a couple of things to mind that I thought were worth mentioning.

The first was the reminder of how unrelentingly grim domestic air-travel in America has become. (Getting to an international flight is no easier, but at least in those cases—at least with Lufthansa—there’s some free booze awaiting you once airborne.) It begins with our friends in the Transport Security Administration. Now, I am well aware that the threat of terrorism is hardly a figment in the mind of George Bush, and I don’t even object so much to all the various little indignities which go along with the more intensive searching of bags and bodies (even if there is part of me that wonders how effective all that really is).

No, what I cannot figure out is how the American version of all this (since there is tight security within Europe as well) turns out to be such a cacophonous, zoo-like nightmare. Whether at O’Hare (which has long been a less than enjoyable place for various reasons) or even at BWI, hitherto one of my favourite airports (because it is relatively small and easy to navigate), there seemed to be a level of chaos and stress involved in simply getting to the gate that I’ve never experienced before.

Take dozens of uniformed people who, when they’re not chatting and joking amongst themselves are barking some not-very-well-enunciated commands; throw in a dozen or so different signs—in a dozen different typefaces and some of them handwritten, while others, I swear, included clip art taken from Microsoft Word and were printed on some crazily out-of-date colour printer—posted willy nilly in the ‘security zone’; finally, add a hefty amount of jostling from all directions by people who only realise at the last minute – despite all those shouted commands and confusing signs - that they have to remove their coats, shoes, laptops and little plastic baggie containing all their on-board liquids. This is a recipe for misery. (Not to mention the risk of serious burns among all those people I witnessed scarfing down the coffee they bought immediately before trying to go through security. Here lurks a future lawsuit….)

Since we were delayed by weather at O'Hare, we had several hours of listening to a voice intoning at regular intervals that our security alert level was ‘orange’; this was, simultaneously, unsettling, ridiculous and useless, a rare combination. We also had CNN running constantly on monitors strategically placed throughout the terminal so that you could hardly avoid them, and CNN on that day seemed to consist solely of a concerned (but strangely exhilarated) weatherman standing in front of a very nifty computer-generated map full of blobby looking green and orange shapes that, to be honest, told me nothing.

Or, at least, his frantic efforts and expensive technical wizardry aimed at expressing the horrendous severity of it all told us no more than the four words uttered by a helpful airlines employee earlier that morning: "We got weather comin'." Indeed. We did.

As I related this tale to someone at the crime conference we attended, he suggested that perhaps this would be a great opportunity for Americans to discover the joys of high-speed rail. It seems like a great idea to me. But I’m not holding my breath. (Perhaps America could buy some trains from France.)

In happier news, the conference in Crete was excellent. There were many thought-provoking and very informative papers, some good discussion and my own contribution seems to have been well received, which was nice. More importantly, though, the food and wine provided by the organisers was top-notch. Greek food, I discovered, is not only delicious but also comes in portions which I could barely comprehend. At the dinners we attended, new dishes just seemed to keep coming from all directions, and they were all great. From a culinary perspective, I can wholeheartedly recommend the place.

From the point of view of traffic, however…let’s just say there’s room for improvement.

It’s not so much that there is an enormous amount of traffic on Crete. No, it’s not that. It’s more an issue of quality rather than quantity.

As a historian at the conference with an insider’s perspective put it to me, Greeks see things like red lights and stop signs as ‘suggestions’ rather than imperatives. (The same is true, I noticed on the highways while travelling to and from Heraklion airport to the conference venue in Rethymnon, of ‘no-passing’ zones.) Likewise, parking is something that one does wherever an inviting space seems to present itself, regardless of what signs, double yellow lines or the safety of others might, um, suggest. The conference featured several papers about the figure of the ‘bandit’ in Greek history. In countless small ways, perhaps, his spirit lives on.

Finally, I had the delightful opportunity to meet for the first time several people whose academic work I have long appreciated. As ever, I was struck by the fact that authors never end up looking the way I expect them to. It’s not a question of better or worse: they're simply…different. I notice the same things with voices, and I have always been mystified as to why there is not some kind of greater match between people’s appearance and their voices (whether literal or literary). Maybe this doesn’t strike anyone else as strange. Maybe I'm just not good at putting face to voice.

Of course, then I get to thinking about whether others have thought something similar about me.


Well, onward we go…

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Touching back down to Earth again, ever so briefly

Your humble narrator and his beloved companion have been on the wing more than usual over the last couple of weeks, hence the shortage of commentary.

Unlike the common swift -- which manages everything necessary to its lifestyle without coming to rest -- I tend to find I need some familiar earth beneath my feet (not to mention a certain amount of solitude and my own desk) in order to really get anything done. In this it seems I am also unlike those hundreds of people I recently saw in airports crouching by power outlets in any free moment to write e-mail, manipulate databases and do things with spreadsheets that I don't even want to have explained to me. (Or, who knows, maybe they were just using airport wi-fi to visit Second Life.)

Nonetheless, I've found, some time away from the endless electronic world is actually not that bad a thing, at least once the first few days of withdrawal symptoms subside.

We're taking flight again tomorrow, though more briefly, to attend a conference on violence history in which I'm participating.

So, things will remain quiet here until some time next week, and, today, I really need to put the finishing touches on my paper and presentation.

However, I did want to quickly mention two things, while I have your attention:

First, a good friend of mine, Toronto-based artist Keith W. Bentley, has entered one of his artworks, Cauda Equina, in the 'Saatchi Gallery Showdown'.

As Keith describes it:

The hair of Cauda Equina comes from horse rendering plants and over the span of eight years, each hair was hand knotted into fabric. The end result being a near life size horse wearing the funeral veil of more than 250 slaughtered horses.

A lot of Keith's work deals with nature and death, and Cauda Equina can be seen here, where you may vote on it. I would recommend giving it a ten: when we were neighbours, I saw various stages of this work being produced and I know how much work went into it. The hair here was woven by hand and was incredibly time consuming. (Which is why completing the piece took eight years.) I think the end result works, both aesthetically and, once you know what's behind it, conceptually.

Second, I see that I have been 'tagged' by You Are Here as a 'Thinking Blogger', which is very nice indeed, and I didn't want to delay expressing my gratitude on that regard. Thanks!

This means, though, that it's my turn to nominate five blogs that make me think, and keep the whole thing going.


To be continued, when we again touch down.