Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni

This is becoming a sad series of posts about classic European film directors taking their leave.

Michelangelo Antonioni has died at the age of 94.

I only know two of his films, but they're both fascinating. Blow Up is perhaps the one he's best known for, and it's long been a favourite.

Zabriskie Point is maybe a bit less known, but it's certainly at least equally interesting. (Not least for the soundtrack) It is certainly a big mess of a film (it was an utter flop at the time) and may have its somewhat dated moments, caught up as it was in the Zeitgeist of its time.

Nonetheless, it managed to capture some beautiful images of both dreamy utopianism (some visible in the trailer)...

...and furious--but still dreamy--destruction (set to music by Pink Floyd).

And, somehow, it managed to bring them together, if not completely coherently.

Its incoherence, though, was one of the more charming qualities, I always thought, of both the film...and the time from which it emerged.

Though, I suppose this film is more a farewell to whatever potential the 60s had than a celebration of it.

And on that note...

Ciao, Michelangelo.

Monday, July 30, 2007


Ingmar Bergman has died.

This is sad, even if he was 89 and apparently had a peaceful end. I've seen fewer of his films than I should have, but those I have seen have stayed with me.

And it's not hard to see why.

(From Wild Strawberries)


(Thanks to Anja for informing me.)

Friday, July 27, 2007

The end (at least of the semester)

A guest post, from The Wife.


Finished, finito, Schluß .... The semester is (finally) over. But just as there are still a few things that I need to get off my desk before I start thinking some serious thoughts, I need to get some things off me chest before I can settle down to recharge my batteries. So, this is just a brief cathartic rant about the last few frustrating weeks – after which I shall hold my tongue. Ignore at leisure.

Why rant if you have a cushy job with a semester’s sabbatical ahead of you? Because the institution in which I work is undergoing a Kafkaesque metamorphosis from which it will never recover and which has altered the profession I initially “went into” (back in those innocent days when it still seemed desirable) beyond recognition in a way that makes me weep. Don’t worry, I won’t go into the details of the current intellectual Gleichschaltung of German academia, other people have done that much more eloquently than me.

I just want to ventilate the lingering frustration of the past months (for the sake of above-mentioned catharsis). And I want to take this opportunity to emphasise how painful it is when, as you are trying to merely survive on less than six hours sleep a night for weeks on end (including weekends), a well-meaning colleague – though in the nicest and kindest possible way – tells you off for not showing up at a conference warming on the one single day that provided an opportunity to write a lecture during normal daytime hours rather than as part of yet another endless-seeming nightshift. And this, after telling me in her preceding sentence that I need to 'take some time out'.

So which advice should I follow. Or should I, at best, do both simultaneously?

Apparently these days, NOT to be schizophrenic is considered undesirable. Go, split up in as many selves as you can come up with to increase your bloody availability. I am, in fact, tired of being available and doing seven things at the same time. I too would like to be able – like apparently most men – to cultivate the old tunnel vision and FOCUS.

In the face of these demands, which are at complete odds with what academia was suppose to be at one point in my imagination (a safe ecological niche for misanthropic bookworms such as me) I’m getting increasingly exasperated by overeager students setting out on their GACs (Grand Academic Careers – herewith copyrighted) in their second semester (without anybody ever suggesting to them that they should).

Say no more – especially since Zadie Smith hits the nail on the head in the following description in On Beauty:

Zora was on her way to Dean French’s office to empty her hypothetical future into his lap. She was particularly concerned about her failure to get into Claire Malcolm’s poetry class last semester. She hadn’t yet seen the boards, but if it happened again then that could have a very adverse effect on her future, which needed to be discussed, along with many other troubling aspects of her future in all its futurity. This was the first of seven meetings that she had taken it upon herself to schedule for the initial week of the semester. Zora was extremely fond of scheduling meetings with important people for whom her future was not really a top priority (140).

No comment.

I have an odd relationship with Zadie Smith, whose books I tend to give a wide berth (because the wrong kind of people seem to like her for the wrong kinds of reasons) until some specific reason compels me to read them, typically with the effect that I then enjoy them so much that I wonder why the heck I hadn’t looked at them before. This was the case with White Teeth, which I’ve reread several times and set for classes.

On Beauty, too, is already a couple of years old, but maybe because of the title I feared an unfunny, clever-clever tract about art and lies à la Jeanette Winterson.

As usual with Smith I’m disconcerted by her humour, which strikes me as facetious and potentially unkind (and hence is embarrassingly close to my own). Yet ever so often she comes across as sane and clever – like in the following passage (featuring aforementioned Zora and Claire, about whom the former goes to complain to Dean French):

The food arrived. Claire was still speaking about the land. Zora, who had been clearly brooding on something, now spoke up. “But how do you avoid falling into pastoral fallacy – I mean, isn’t it a depoliticized reification, all this beauty stuff about landscape? Virgil, Pope, the Romantics. Why idealize?”
“Idealize?” repeated Claire uncertainly. “I’m not sure I really … You know, what I’ve always felt is, well, for instance, in The Georgics –“
“The what?”
“Virgil … In The Georgics, nature and the pleasures of the pastoral are essential to any …” began Claire, but Zora had already stopped listening. Claire’s kind of learning was tiresome to her. Claire didn’t know anything about theorists, or ideas, or the latest thinking. Sometimes Zora suspected her of being barely intellectual. With her, it was always “in Plato” or “in Baudelaire” or “in Rimbaud”, as if we all had time to sit around reading whatever we fancied. Zora blinked impatiently, visibly tracking Claire’s sentence, waiting for a period or, failing that, a semicolon in which to insert herself again.
“But after Foucault,” she said, seeing her chance, “where is there to go with that stuff” (218-19).

Reading this, I felt uncannily reminded of a conversation I had had with a student a few weeks previously – an unusually bright student, I have to add, whose optimism and enthusiasm I should applaud rather than ridicule – who in the course of this conversation suggested that I should “make more gender trouble”.

Not that I haven’t read Ms Butler (which the student implied, probably finding me “barely intellectual”) – actually, I did read her about 10 years ago, the well-thumbed and heavily annotated version of Gender Trouble in my office upstairs is testimony to that – but this day and age, with my need for sleep extending proportionally to my going grey, I can’t see the point in all this anymore. I wouldn’t even know how to make gender trouble (and didn’t know then). I don’t think the student knew either – but then Ms Butler remains completely abstract about the whole concept herself (unless what she means is being some kind of academic Melissa Etheridge without make-up and a propensity for garbled writing).

This makes the passage from Smith’s novel all the more disconcerting. On the one hand and from my momentary perspective, I identify completely with 53-year-old Claire. Although well over a decade away from that age I have developed a very mature appreciation of humble animals (oh, our hedgehog!) and plants (one of the greatest successes of the year, my tomatoes. I now have become the kind of person who hands out freezer bags with home-grown produce ….) as well as a penchant for weeding.

On the other hand, Zora is exactly what I was like not too long ago: madly into subversion and anything needlessly complicated. But since my halcyon days of postmodern transcendentalism are over, I have developed a new appreciation for people who say intelligent things about complicated things in a clear and straightforward manner (audio file).

Anyway, against the schizophrenia and fucking aging process, here’s some music:

Watch out for the great line: “Our earthly pleasures distract us against our will.” Dig this, Judith Butler! And then of course the wonderful question: “Are you hopeful or just gullible?” – which reminds me of, oh, several professional acquaintances.

Cheers and happy weekend!


A couple of ads from Charles Wilp for German soft-drink brand, Afri-Cola, from the 1960s.

While it does contain a large amount of caffeine, it does not, as far as I know, contain the hallucinogens that the ads might lead you to believe it does.

(Via David Thompson)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Time to leave the nest?

Geoff has taken a few lovely photographs of some barn swallows at his house.

Here's one:

He thinks it's high time they stopped sponging off their parents.


They do seem greedy.

Animal watching is actually one of our favourite activities here at OD, and we're blessed with a garden that hosts an amazing variety of wildlife.

I'm convinced that a little time spent considering nature in action will tell you a great deal more about life than all the holy books ever written.


...the answer is: very carefully. And loudly.

A prickly situation indeed:

BERLIN (Reuters) - German police called to investigate unusual noises in the garden of a Bremen house late on Monday were surprised to find that a pair of amorous hedgehogs were to blame.

After illuminating the garden with spotlights, officers discovered the animals making love beside the pond.

"The pair were loudly engaged in ensuring the continuity of their species," said Bremen police spokesman Ronald Walther.

"All those spectators did not worry them in the least, indeed they even intensified their activities, so the officers turned off the lights," he added.

The hedgehog breeding season runs from April to September and their lovemaking is typically accompanied by very loud puffing and snorting, usually by the female as she tries to ward off the male.

(Via Atlantic Review)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The bravery of being out of range

Max Blumenthal has made a very interesting little film called 'Generation Chickenhawk', which he has posted at his blog. (It is also, in slightly rougher quality, embedded below.)

He visits the College Republican National Convention and asks a few questions of the eager young things who have gathered there to, apparently, root for America, hate gays, oppose abortion rights and (though this may be hearsay) drink lots of beer.

It makes for very good viewing.

The 'College Republicans' that he deals with are well known to yours truly...even, actually in the context of a war against Iraq. The one before this one, in fact. (It seems that every generation from now on may have its war in Iraq, the way things are going...)

And we certainly had a good old time back then in the late '80s and early '90s as we debated...well, pretty much the same things that are being debated today. (The more things change, eh?...)

Actually, as I recall, we debated and they just made lots of noise and threatened physical violence when they got frustrated that their stupid arguments didn't hold any water.

As Blumenthal's film makes clear, they remain the same jabbering cretins (with a latent tendency toward thuggishness when pressed) that they were back in my generation.

Blumenthal is, of course, in some ways unfair, and, of course, he has the power of the film editing room (or, more likely now, PC) to tweak things so that they look even more embarrassing and hypocritical than they undoubtedly did.

I also don't entirely buy the argument that if you think a war is just you have to automatically just head out there yourself and take part in the action. (This is, after all, perhaps the point of having a civilian controlled democracy and a professional army.)

But...I could feel more sympathy for Blumenthal's victims if they weren't quite so blindly gung ho about the whole thing and if they hadn't apparently had the same brain-chip implanted that made them spout puerile garbage like the 'We gotta fight 'em there so we don't have to fight 'em here' line so beloved of our chimp in chief.

(And, of course, if they weren't quite so fucking homophobic, religiously bigoted and arrogant).

See them for the insecure losers they are....

A sudden and sad departure

We were saddened to read today of the death of actor Ulrich Mühe, who is probably now best known around the world for his role in the Oscar-winning Das Leben der Anderen ('The Lives of Others').

We saw him in a remarkable stage production of Sarah Kane's Blasted (in German) at the Barbican earlier this year. He had remarkable presence in a role that is...not an easy one.

And he was only 54.

Die Zeit has a retrospective and a nice collection of images (text in German).

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Free at last

This is very good news.

Six Bulgarian medics (one, a Palestinian doctor, was given Bulgarian citizenship), who were held by Libya on apparently trumped up charges of deliberately infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV, are now free.

Recall: they were tortured and sentenced to death, a sentence which was then confirmed before the deal had been worked out, by EU and other negotiators. And they've been imprisoned for eight years.

Most likely, for having done nothing wrong and after having come to Libya to help.


Welcome home!

The unbearable slightness of being (Oprah)

I know that there are many many more important things going on in the world today than the thing I am about to talk about.

Nonetheless, I think we should all take a brief moment to consider the infinite intellectual vacuum that is Oprah Winfrey.

This may be blindingly obvious, but it hasn't stopped her from becoming jaw-droppingly wealthy and influential.

What is galling is that she's done this by showcasing precisely that version of vaguely 'spiritual' tear-stained sentimentality that is one of the worst cultural plagues besetting the land of my birth. Having now achieved enormous wealth and influence--when, in short, she is in the position of really making a difference--she's continuing to peddle the same old crap.

I suppose if you're not American, you may be wondering a bit about all this bile, particularly as her image is such a nice one.

And, yes, she has certainly been on the right side of some of the issues that she has taken up, such as gay rights and civil rights. (Very few of which causes, though, have really been controversial or involved her taking any risks.)

Moreover, I don't think that what she's promoting is necessarily very nice at all.

Having never met a bit of meaningless psychobabble that she didn't like, she has for the last couple of decades been one of the reasons that Americans have that distinct habit of blathering endlessly on about their 'issues' and 'codependencies' and inability to 'relate' to their 'significant others' and their never-ending search for 'closure'.

She is one of the reasons why American politics have become so unbearably focused on the minutiae of personality rather than the debating of policy.

And she is part of the reason why so many Americans are susceptible to the comfortably vacuous murmurs of people like Deepak Chopra. (PZ Myers has taken on the tiresome task of addressing Chopra's 'thinking' many times, on issues such as genes, evolution and religion.) Oprah's show was one of the vehicles that made Chopra such a success, so even on that simple ground, she has a lot to answer for.

Oprah-land is an odd alternate-Earth where there are no problems that cannot be solved by a nice chat involving a few tepid burblings about 'healing' and a big dose of positive--to the point of delusional--thinking. All questions have a simple, morally uplifting answer. No obstacle cannot be overcome with the right dosage of spiritualist drivel and 'belief in yourself'.

It is the sugary ease with which such trite views go down that has even made her a 'spiritual leader' of sorts, something that at least some more orthodox believers seem to be concerned about, since Oprah's version of God is rather more ecumenical than theirs. In perfectly post-modern fashion, she takes spoonfuls of yummy spiritual goodness wherever she can find it.

But what kind of message is she flogging, really?

Well, let's take a quick look.

'When you lose a loved one, you gain an angel whose name you know,' she said at a memorial service in the wake of September 11th, concluding, 'May we leave this place determined to now use every moment that we yet live to turn up the volume in our own lives, to create deeper meaning, to know what really matters.'

Oprah, you see, thinks that life always has a message for us. And that message is always, in some way, a positive one.

For Oprah, there is always a pony.

And in this, I know, she is not alone. In fact, there are apparently enough people hungry for this sort of tasteless broth to make her a billionaire.

Its popularity is what makes this kind of nutrition-free blather so bothersome.

Not only does it not, in the end, mean anything, but it is in fact a hindrance to finding meaning. The answers it provides put a stop to further thinking and shut down any possibility of recognising Very Important Things in life: the power of contingency, the essential smallness of our existence, the impossibility of reconciling the contradictions of being a human being.

Her message is the antithesis of one of the most important virtues in the world: humility.

If the main meaning she can find in the carnage of September 11th is a call for each of us to focus even more on ourselves, then I think that in some serious way she may have missed something more important.

But it is clear what Oprah thinks 'really matters'.

Consider the death of her own two-year-old golden retriever, Gracie, which Oprah writes about in the current issue of her magazine, O (and which is the thing that has caused me to go on about this at such length).

Now...in terms of one of those crucial binaries of life, I'm much more a cat person, I have to admit. But, still, I have had enough experience with dogs to know it is possible to develop an emotional attachment to them that, to all appearances, they are capable of reciprocating.

Moreover, one of the key perspectives of a naturalistic world view is the recognition of what we share as living creatures, among them the ability to suffer and feel fear.

So, I think it is difficult to read the story of Gracie's sudden death through choking on a plastic ball without feeling, in some way, moved and saddened.

And then...and then we get to the part where we all are taught The Lesson, from the big O herself.

Because, of course there must be a lesson.

Weirdly, though, it is, more-or-less the same lesson to be learned from mass death caused by terrorist atrocity.

So through my tears and stabbing pain and disbelief and wonder and questions about how and why this happened, I leaned over my sweet and wild and curious and mind-of-her-own Gracie, and asked, "Dear Gracie, what were you here to teach me that only your death could show me?" And this is the answer: This lovely little runt whom I'd brought home sick—on his first visit with her, the vet told me to return her and get my money back—did more living in two years than most dogs do in 12.

Now, I'm not sure how Oprah knows about how much 'living' Gracie did (or about whether, maybe, she'd have preferred to go on living that pampered, raucous lifestyle for a good long time). But, OK, it was her dog, not mine, so perhaps I should not judge.

But...is it just me, or is there something not entirely nice about a dog owner kneeling over their beloved pet just after it has gone through its death throes, and, in effect, posing the following question: 'What's in it for me?'

Because, it seems to me, that is what Oprah did. And that is, in the end, the basis of the lesson she draws.
Her life was a gift to me. Her death, a greater one.

Ten days before she died, I was getting a yearly physical, and to lower my blood pressure I'd think of Gracie's smiling face.

Just days before the "freak accident," the head of my company came into my office to have a serious talk about "taking some things off your schedule—you're doing too much." Maya Angelou called me to say the same thing. "You're doing too much. Don't make me come to Chicago," she chided. "I want you to slow down."

I'd broken a cardinal rule: The whole month of May I'd had no day off, dashing from one event to the next. But though I appreciated everyone's concern, I still had to finish the season. Wrap up the year's shows. Have foundation meetings. Meet with auditors. Review plans for a new building, and on and on. So many people on my list. I literally forgot to put myself on the list for a follow-up checkup.

When the doctor's office called, I confessed. I hadn't heeded what I know for sure. I said, "Doctor, I'm sorry. I had so many meetings with different people, I forgot to put myself on the list."

The next day, Gracie died.

Slow down, you're moving too fast. I got the message.

Thank you for being my saving Gracie. I now know for sure angels come in all forms.

Does this story not suggest a deeply self-centred personality, the sort summed up in the line, 'Her life was a gift to me. Her death, a greater one.'?

Even worse: this is solipsism of the most tenacious and unpleasant variety being sold under the cover of sweet sentimentality.

And this, I think, is one of the keys to Oprah's success.

It's OK, she says, go ahead, see yourself as the centre of the universe. Everything that happens to you happens for a reason. And, to quote a well-known book, it is good. And it is something she 'knows for sure'. No evidence, mind you. She just knows.

Of course.

But who gave this 'gift'? Is Oprah saying the dog sacrificed herself for her owner?

If not, it never seems to occur to her that she is therefore suggesting that whatever force she thinks is guiding the universe thought it was OK to choke a dog to death to give her the simple message that she needs to chill out a bit.

Because, it would seem to me, that is what she is saying happened.

And that strikes me a very nasty world view indeed.

Sadly, it is not one held only by a dimwitted talk show host.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Mother nature on the run

This...is nice.

And, somewhat oddly enough, the person who reminded me of how much I liked this song was none other than Ricky Gervais.

His--surprisingly moving--'Desert Island Discs' appearance (thanks to Anja for the tip) is available at his website, along with a delightfully foul-mouthed (and not at all sentimental) response to the criticism he has lately been receiving....

Not only having proven himself in possession of good musical taste but also now having outed himself as an atheist and childfree-by-choice, Ricky has cemented his status as one of the patron (secular) saints of Obscene Desserts.

While we're on the topic...

...here's one of our favourite moments from 'The Office':

'The spins are the most empowering.'

I have seen the future of feminism, and it is...pole dancing.

Hilarious stuff from Stephen Colbert, via Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Remember: 'Pole dancing is better than classical feminism in every way possible.'

(Presumably because it lets you 'get in touch with your sensual creature'.)

And: 'Point your toes, always.'

Laugh till, um, 'your face hurts'.

How high's the water, mama?

A new study reveals the mind-bendingly enormous glacial floods that made Britain an island.

This is fascinating.

How long will it be, I wonder, before creationists try to claim this as 'evidence' for that business with Noah and the ark? No, that'd be going too far, wouldn't it?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The year of blogging aimlessly

Well, here we are, exactly one year since this blog began.

It seems we have a birthday of sorts.

It all started with some rather melancholy thoughts on the death of Syd Barrett. (And the mood certainly perked up the next day with some ruminations on social collapse....)

But I like to think that, as the subtitle promises, it's not all been doom and gloom and that the whole gamut of emotions and topics have found their place here.

Closing in, as we are, on 10,000 visits (though with no great rush...and in the somewhat sobering awareness that there are blogs that have this many visits a day...) it is worth pausing to spare a few thoughts for this aimless little venture's brief lifespan.

There have been some high points, certainly.

Having one of my longer and more bilious posts re-published by Butterflies and Wheels, say, or catching a glimpse of the fleeting presence of Momus in the comments to a post inspired by his thoughts on Britain.

It has also been a very fine (though somewhat rare) event to receive supportive comments (and even an award) from people who have bothered to read the letters I have so carefully set in such neat rows. (And being nominated for another award was very pleasant, if ultimately hopeless.)

There was some joy in watching the number of 'blogs that link here' rise steadily to as many as 20 (and then there has been some confusion as they equally steadily dropped to their present 14).

There was the pleasure of hosting the wisdom and wit of the world's best guest contributor.

There was, finally, the satisfaction of managing, through eagle-eyed observational skills, to effect a minor (but, I think, significant) correction in an otherwise flawless piece of journalism in New Scientist (see the comments).

Oh, and the words, yes, there have been so many of them.

There was a series of longer (and somewhat combative) essays I wrote on multiculturalism and integration in response to a debate at Sign and Sight; they were not only enjoyable to write, but also, I think, managed to generate a few worthwhile insights. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.) And there was the needed strangling-at-birth of an insidious and dishonest neologism which--considering that it hasn't re-surfaced in a while--seems to have been effective (though I suspect that this has more to do with its inherent poor design rather than any efforts on my part).

I think, over all, I have managed some quite readable (if lengthy) prose on favoured topics here like war, consumerism, education, death and godlessness.

I've rambled a bit about travel, adored a particular polar bear, and sketched out my own somewhat random development of a historical perspective (and pointed out a few of places where you can see that thinking in action).

We've also, of course, managed to have a little fun too (since 'all work and no play' is...well, it's simply the kind of puritan drivel that is just not in our genes, man).

And I'm very pleased to have made the virtual acquaintance of good people such as Geoff, RJ, Ophelia, Ralph (via here), Sharon, Rosie and Ario.

So, not a bad year, all things considered.

And I like to think that it's been as much fun for some of you as it has been for me.

Well, there we are. There's that one candle blown out.


The waiting is the hardest part...

More criticism of the American way of life, this time from those pinko radicals over at Business Week:

Of the countries surveyed, 81% of patients in New Zealand got a same or next-day appointment for a nonroutine visit, 71% in Britain, 69% in Germany, 66% in Australia, 47% in the U.S., and 36% in Canada. Those lengthy wait times in the U.S. explain why 26% of Americans reported going to an emergency room for a condition that could have been treated by a regular doctor if available, higher than every other country surveyed.

The rest is also worth reading.

(Via Atlantic Review)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Education, adventure and really wild things

Yes, this sounds like the university I remember:

It was a time when you could discover a new poet, meet a lifelong friend, fall in love and completely alter your world view, all within a single term; and then do it all again next term. I never, for one minute gave thought to what I would do to earn my living.

Yes...which has had its downsides, I must admit. But also, and to a far, far greater extent, its upsides.

Such is the wisdom of the sports journalist:

Education has changed course since then. Those poor young people at university nowadays send me their CVs and have five-year plans and targets and loans to pay. For them, education is about transforming themselves into an effective economic unit.
Sad, really.

(via here)

Goin' mobile

Anyone of you who has made the move from from America to a European country might have had personal experience with the suggestion--be it from friends or family--that you're not just changing nations but undergoing a far more significant transition: you're 'leaving freedom behind'. This might not be said so directly, but I have found that it comes packed in many different forms, from vaguely hostile to slightly pitying.

(Sometimes it's just bewildering. During a phone call with a dear college friend shortly after I arrived here, the issue of German politics came up: 'So,' he asked, 'do they have democracy there?' I felt it necessary to set him straight, of course, and explained to him that the complicated system of feudal rights and obligations had been somewhat reformed, and that on the third Wednesday of every month the king was now willing to listen to the complaints of his subjects. Better than nothing....)

Of course, Euro-critique of the more venomous form requires that you're dealing with people at least a few ticks to the right, politically speaking. Liberals, especially in recent years, make the opposite mistake, seeing Europe as some form of enlightened social utopia. I have come to the conclusion that, for Americans, 'Europe' is simply a projection of their own fears or desires. As a real place, it simply doesn't exist.

Anyway, while there are many facets to this argument, it usually ends up being about 'opportunity' and 'social mobility', those foundations of what some still refer to, with no apparent irony, as 'The American Dream'.

The New York Times (via Atlantic Review) had an interesting commentary on this issue last Friday:

When questioned about the enormous income inequality in the United States, the cheerleaders of America’s unfettered markets counter that everybody has a shot at becoming rich here. The distribution of income might be skewed, but America’s economic mobility is second to none.

That image is wrong, and these days it abets far too many unfair policies, including cuts in essential programs like Head Start or Medicaid. The poor, we are told, can use their own bootstraps. President Bush got away with huge tax cuts for the rich in part because non-rich Americans, who make up most of the population, believe everybody has a chance of making it into the club. Unfortunately, the American dream is not that broadly accessible.

Recent research surveyed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a governmental think tank for the rich nations, found that mobility in the United States is lower than in other industrial countries. One study found that mobility between generations — people doing better or worse than their parents — is weaker in America than in Denmark, Austria, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Spain and France. In America, there is more than a 40 percent chance that if a father is in the bottom fifth of the earnings’ distribution, his son will end up there, too. In Denmark, the equivalent odds are under 25 percent, and they are less than 30 percent in Britain.

America’s sluggish mobility is ultimately unsurprising. Wealthy parents not only pass on that wealth in inheritances, they can pay for better education, nutrition and health care for their children. The poor cannot afford this investment in their children’s development — and the government doesn’t provide nearly enough help. In a speech earlier this year, the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, argued that while the inequality of rewards fuels the economy by making people exert themselves, opportunity should be “as widely distributed and as equal as possible.” The problem is that the have-nots don’t have many opportunities either.


I may print this out and keep it handy the next time I'm stateside. It might save me a lot of talking.

And protect me from a few pitying looks.

Also via Atlantic Review, I discovered an Economist article that will tell you more good news about the German economy than you can shake a Würstchen at.

This being the Economist, they manage a certain amount of gloom about anything that deviates too far from current economic orthodoxy in the Anglosphere. For instance, they seem strangely appalled by the fact that German shops--with a few exceptions--close on Sunday, something that I've come to see as one of those many Really Nice Things about living here.

There are a few bits in the article which strain my economic knowledge, but a couple of particularly interesting nuggets stand out.

For example:

Confusingly, Germany has two definitions of unemployment, and both rates are falling fast. On the basis used by the Federal Labour Agency, unemployment was 9.1% in June, down from 10.8% a year before; on the International Labour Organisation's definition, which is comparable with other countries' figures, the rate was 6.4% in April, down from 8% 12 months before. That is well below France's 8.1% and not so far above Britain's 5.5%.

I don't know the history of this curious difference, but it's an intriguing one.

Of course, the Federal Labour Agency numbers are the ones that Germans hear day in and day out, which, as you can imagine, has been getting them all rather down in recent years.

How much more happy might they be if they paid attention to the ILO figures, which show them doing not all that badly (or at least much less badly) compared with other countries, particularly the ones they are always told they need to emulate?

Also, trying to explain to Germans (particularly those who look fondly back to the golden age of the Deutsche Mark) that the euro has benefited them is nearly impossible.

Thus, this, is very interesting:
Since 2001 Germany's unit labour costs have fallen by around 20% relative to Italy's and Spain's. Viewed another way, however, this is as much a reflection of an old German virtue as of a new one. In the days before monetary union, German business time and again sharpened its blade on the hard stone of a strong D-mark: to get France and Italy, in particular, out of trouble, devaluations of the franc and lira were dressed up as revaluations of the D-mark. In the euro zone, however, national currencies no longer exist, so nominal national exchange rates cannot change. Real rates can be devalued—but only through having a lower inflation rate than other members of the club. Since the euro was born, the Germans have proved themselves as competitive as they ever were.
And, finally, the following is also worth thinking about:
By luck or by judgment, Germany is in the right businesses at the right time: China, India, Russia and other countries in central and eastern Europe are growing fast and wanting the goods in which Germany specialises. Indeed, exports to Russia and other European countries to Germany's east now exceed those to the United States.

Friday, July 13, 2007

War is hell

The stories collected in 'The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness' at The Nation are certainly harrowing. They make for very hard reading.

But anyone who is surprised by them is being naive. This, after all, is what war is like:

"I'll tell you the point where I really turned," said Spc. Michael Harmon, 24, a medic from Brooklyn. He served a thirteen-month tour beginning in April 2003 with the 167th Armor Regiment, Fourth Infantry Division, in Al-Rashidiya, a small town near Baghdad. "I go out to the scene and [there was] this little, you know, pudgy little 2-year-old child with the cute little pudgy legs, and I look and she has a bullet through her leg.... An IED [improvised explosive device] went off, the gun-happy soldiers just started shooting anywhere and the baby got hit. And this baby looked at me, wasn't crying, wasn't anything, it just looked at me like--I know she couldn't speak. It might sound crazy, but she was like asking me why. You know, Why do I have a bullet in my leg?... I was just like, This is--this is it. This is ridiculous."
Yes it is.

And four years in, it's still not exactly clear what this was all about.

Were there a clear and unequivocal answer to that question, the horror might be easier to bear.

But, it seems, such an answer is not all that easy to find.

So it goes...

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Dawkins vs. Wilson

Geoff, I have just seen, has an excellent post discussing the current spat between Richard Dawkins and David Sloan Wilson regarding religion and evolution.

Very much worth reading.

The vital 5 percent

Although I think the idea of websites that enable people share their innate creativity with millions--those like, say, Flickr--I normally don't spend any time looking at them, since...well, most people are not, in the end, all that innately creative.

(See 95% of what's on YouTube. Or most blogs...um...I realise I'm moving on to thin ice here, so I'll just stop now, shall I?)

However, A General Theory of Rubbish does us all a great service by pointing out a delightful set of photos (sorry, 'photostream') taken by 'Martinish'.

It contains, for instance, many scenes from everyday life in Britain (and, based on my incomplete browsing, several from abroad).

Among others, it includes this fine photo of the Barbican Centre, which nicely brings out the ways that it is both wondrous and hideous at the same time. (I go back and forth on whether I'd rather live there or see the thing demolished.) Some others capture something truly...British: for example, 'sunday', 'market cafe' and 'bowling green'.

And there are many other themes as well.

Thank you, Martinish, for helping to confirm my theory that while 95% of things are crap it is that other 5% that helps make life worth living.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A rather apocalyptic shade of gray

Among the many commentators on the modern state of affairs I have cause to read, John Gray is in a relatively small class: those with whom I agree on many things but who also manage to seriously challenge my thinking even--or especially--when I disagree with them. His False Dawn, for instance, is an excellent tour through the perils (and failures) of unfettered global capitalism, and his book Straw Dogs was one of the most unsettlingly powerful things I think I've ever read. Even when I disagree with him, I find it worthwhile to read (and wrestle with) what he has to say.

And that's not all that common an experience.

He has a new book coming out, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, and there is an interview with Gray about the book at the Guardian which makes clear not only the clarity of Gray's thinking but also his unfortunate tendency to take a good insight rather too far.

The argument sounds familiar to that discussed in his Al Qaeda and What it Means to Be Modern and the essay collection Heresies.

That is: religious thinking never disappeared from Western society but rather emerged in new and ostensibly secular forms, in particular through the notion of Progress (in all its 19th-century capitalised glory). The key theme in Straw Dogs was to question this notion (which Gray sees as still deeply embedded in most forms of scientific humanism) by emphasising the true insight from science: we humans are all animals. This naturalist truth thus makes any notion of Progress, Gray says, illusory.

So far, I think, so good, and there are some very eloquent--and even darkly poetic--passages in Straw Dogs (and other works) which argue against that all-too-human pitfall Gray condemns in his Guardian interview: hubris.

But then there come those seemingly inevitable moments where Gray recklessly drives his very good idea off the cliffs, adopting a notion of history as merely cyclical (partly via a sometimes intriguing but also sometimes questionable enthusiasm for eastern mysticism) and dismissing any possibility of positive social change.

In Gray's terms, arguments that history has brought with it many meaningful and significant improvements or that point to the possibility of significant social reform are the mark of the utopian dreamer. And, since he (rightly) points out that efforts to create utopias almost always end in tears and blood (when they're not simply farcical), today's utopian is, by implication, tomorrow's totalitarian.

Amidst all of the valuable warnings about the dangers of hubris and the reminders of our essentially animal natures, it is difficult to see any possibility even for measured, incremental improvement in our collective human condition. This is, ultimately, a problem, since, while I share a great deal of Gray's pessimism, the historical record--in many times and places--is not simply one of relentless misery.

This is so beyond the merely technological improvements (anaesthesia, antibiotics, the flush toilet, etc.) that Gray admits as a kind of progress.

Just as one example that I've spent more than a little time thinking about, there is the long-term diminution in the Western European homicide rate over several centuries. If a 20 or 40-fold decline in murder isn't a directional historical phenomenon as well as an improvement of a kind, I'm not sure what is. (Not, of course, that we should get complacent: what goes down, in this case, of course, may someday go up, especially since the underlying biological basis of who we are hasn't changed in the meantime.)

One could, of course, mention several other forms of small-p progress, from the tortuous abolition of slavery in the West or the hard-fought expansion of civil liberties. To admit that none of these has led to a new Golden Age or to be aware that human life will most likely always be plagued by insoluble problems that result from our being mammals with conflicting desires and needs does not, I think, require the claim that these achievements have been meaningless.

The problematic result of this all-or-nothing (or, rather, taking Gray's often agreeable pessimism into account, 'nothing-or-all') view of the world is that a lot of finer distinctions get lost. For instance, his continual critique of people such as Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson or Daniel Dennett as hopelessly utopian believers in the big-p version of Progress.

In his Guardian interview, for instance, Gray seizes on a statement he found in Dawkins's The God Delusion about the human potential to 'rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators' (i.e., our genes) as evidence of Dawkins's affirmation of 'human uniqueness' and ultimate reliance on a 'Christian world-view'.

The comment is actually one that Dawkins made some time ago, first, I think, in The Selfish Gene. In fact, it was the closing sentence to the last chapter of that book, the one on 'memes'. In the revised edition I have, Dawkins has footnoted it, leading the reader to a lengthy discussion of the negative reactions this statement raised, particularly among those who saw it as contradicting the rest of his book (which argues, you might recall, that all living things are essentially 'survival machines' created by genes).

To his critics (among them Steven Rose), Dawkins responds:

What they don't understand...is that it is perfectly possible to hold that genes exert a statistical influence on human behaviour while at the same time believing that this influence can be modified, overridden or reversed by other influences. Genes must exert a statistical influence on any behaviour pattern that evolves by natural selection. Presumably Rose and his colleagues agree that human sexual desire has evolved by natural selection, in the same sense as anything ever evolves by natural selection. They therefore must agree that there have been genes influencing sexual desire--in the same sense as genes ever influence anything. Yet they presumably have no trouble with curbing their sexual desires when it is socially necessary to do so. .... We, that is our brains, are separate and independent enough from our genes to rebel against them. As already noted, we do so in a small way every time we use contraception. There is no reason why we should not rebel in a large way too.
(The Selfish Gene, 1989 [1976], 331-32)

Now, some (maybe like Gray) might conceivably take the last sentence as a grand utopian promise.

But I humbly suggest that recognizing the limits to our abilities to be rational (a good thing to do, I think) need not lead to the conclusion that we cannot ever be so.

(Moreover, to 'rebel against' something is not necessarily to be successful: Dawkins's argument might be seen as a call to an endless struggle rather than a prediction of an easy victory, as Gray seems to interpret it. His choice of sexual urges as his main example would seem to lead to that conclusion, don't you think?)

I think it is clear from Dawkins's body of work that he is 1) aware of the significance that humans are animals and 2) rather sceptical about the possibility of revolutionary change in human nature.

The same, I'm quite sure, could be said of Dennett, Wilson and Hitchens.

Nonetheless, I'm looking forward to reading Black Mass sometime, and will probably do so with the usual mixture of vigorous nodding and occasional frustrated head-shaking that have known with his other books. (Here is a cyclical pattern if ever there was one.)

I think, in the end, that it's a perfectly reasonable (and, more importantly, fully accurate) position to say, borrowing from Norbert Elias, that there are progressions in history, but no Progress. That is, while there is nothing inevitable and foreordained about where we're going as a species (nor necessarily anything ultimately positive about that direction), the patterns that emerge from perusing our past add up to something more than merely 'one damned thing after another'.

And I think Gray would be a much greater thinker if he could admit that and refrain from creating debates where they aren't necessary.

There's too much real strife--intellectual and otherwise--out there for indulging in shadow boxing with people who, I think, are fundamentally on the same side.

But there's me being (perhaps uncharacteristically) optimistic.


Won't happen again.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Angry (but creative) old men

Realising I hadn't visited it for some time, due to travel and needing to get some other work done, I took a look at Ballardian yesterday and discovered that there are a lot of new and interesting things up over there.

The most recent is Mike Holliday's 'Angry Old Men', an interview with author Michael Moorcock mainly about his work and that of his friend J.G. Ballard. I don't know most of his writing, but I have very much enjoyed his Elric series since I discovered it at about age 15.

After reading the interview, though, I'm hoping to read more.

There are few points at which the interview meanders rather further into the minutiae of science fiction publishing in the 1960s than your average reader would maybe prefer (though this is great for those who love that stuff), but if you persevere there is not only a cool photo of Moorcock on stage with the Blue Öyster Cult (?!) but also some interesting discussion:
Jimmy had been through that Japanese prison camp. I had been through the Blitz. These were, if you like, extreme experiences, yet seemed to us to have a lot to do with how it was in the world we lived in. Neither of us were bothered by the H-Bomb, for instance, as such. Jimmy felt it had saved his life, probably. I saw it as keeping the peace; Brian Aldiss, too, saw the Bomb as having saved him being involved in the invasion of Japan. We were both impatient with the themes of the chattering classes of our day.
An impatience, I think that any sane person (in any day) should share.

Thanks to Mike Holliday, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting at the recent Ballard conference in Norwich. He's not only a great guy, he runs his own J. G. Ballard site, available here.

Speaking of impatience with the 'themes of the chattering classes', I was led via the comments at the end of Mike's interview to a posting by Alex at The Yorkshire Ranter justifiably taking Terry Eagleton to task for chattering the following:

'For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life.'

Now, I think Eagleton, when he's good (or perhaps, when he was good...I begin to fear that that time may be passing), is very good. His eviscerations, for example, of the wackier excesses of literary theory (most anything with a 'post-' attached to its name) make for inspiring reading.

But when he's bad, he can be...quite dreadful indeed, and there are signs that something has gone rather badly off the rails in Eagleton country.

There was, for instance, that astonishingly bizarre review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. (Something to which, in these pages, The Wife responded.) And now, his curious despair that all has gone quiet on the questioning the 'western way of life' front.

I'm not even sure what to make of that.

As Alex suggests, it may be that Eagleton is simply overlooking a lot of literature that in fact does what he's suggesting it doesn't.

On the other hand...even if he were more awake to forms of literature which don't generally reach the rarefied air of Serious Literature, I'm not really sure to be honest what Eagleton means by 'questioning the western way of life' (or at least being 'prepared to' do that).

And even if I did know that, I'm also not sure that I'd be all that enthusiastic about seeing it. In some ways it seems that for Eagleton 'questioning the western way of life' merely means sharing his political views, and I'm not all that certain that what the world needs now is more explicitly 'engaged' political literature. I mean, any literature that is too clearly driven by ideology ends up being pretty dreadful tripe.

Isn't the point of literature to question more thoroughly the enduring complexities of 'life' and not simply obsess about its more curious (and perhaps more transient) 'western' way of living it?

I, for one, find that the more interesting books do just that...

(Moreover, since some of the ideological foundations in parts of the West have become rather too infected by cultural relativism, a blinkered version of multiculturalism and just a bit too much fucking 'tolerance' for nonsensical ideas, I humbly offer that some of the authors he so scornfully mentions are doing just the sort of questioning he suggests is necessary.)

Finally, I'm not at all opposed to the idea that life in the west is up for some questioning (pretty much like life everywhere else). I'm just a bit sceptical about the notion that, assuming some Politically Right-On Important Fiction gets written, some new novels are going to have much affect on said way of life.

Literature is interesting and important. But--outside of a few exceptions (none of which occur to me right now, but I'm just covering myself here by raising the possibility they might)--its political effects always seem to have been pretty negligible.

To borrow and bend one of his own lines: Serious literature, Terry, never stormed the Winter Palace.

I know, the dream of utopian transcendence dies hard.

But, like us all, it dies nonetheless.

Monday, July 09, 2007

I'm not sorry there's nothing to say

The Wife and I settled down to watch Wong Kar-wai's film 2046 just the other night, which she gave me as a very welcome birthday gift not all that long ago.

We had both enjoyed his earlier film In the Mood For Love, and 2046--which is, in a sense, its sequel--certainly lived up to its predecessor, mixing wistful and romantic with cruel and sexy (and combining dreaminess with hard-edged realism) in a way that few films manage (and which even fewer attempt).

Stories of love lost or chances not taken, even when they're beautiful, are brutal, and of all the terrifying forces in the world, maybe one of the most frightening is simple contingency.

Which, somehow, maybe not quite by chance, leads me to this song, which I've liked since I first heard it and which the film made me think of:

('Your Ex-Lover is Dead' by Stars)

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Let's Talk About Sex (-ratios)

Speaking of sex videos, I can think of few better ways to spend a spare half-hour on the Sabbath than watching Richard Dawkins give a 'brisk run-through' on sex-ratio theory and sexual selection.

Not only do you get a rare opportunity to see Dawkins lecture in casual beachwear, there is something special about hearing the Oxford professor utter words like 'copulation' and 'Bull sea lion' in the same sentence. (Dawkins, for instance, seems genuinely moved by the unjust plight of the 90% of 'bachelor sea lions' who 'never get a look in'. His pronunciation of harem as 'har-eem', though, is a bit mysterious. Perhaps things are done differently in Oxford...)

(While we're on the topic of sexy animals, it has recently been suggested that even sparrows have some kind of notion of what it means to be cutting edge, musically speaking. Thanks to Anja for the tip.)

Also this Sunday, I'm concluding my reading of Christopher Hitchens's book, God Is Not Great. I've enjoyed it very much, although much as in the case of my reading of Sam Harris's The End of Faith, or Dawkins's own The God Delusion, there is an odd feeling--almost a kind of exhaustion--that comes with reading so much intense argument with which one agrees.

I am struck, though, by what I see as an unexpected mildness of tone in Hitchens's critique of religion. Not that he doesn't have his (enjoyably) splenetic moments, but I found the book to be surprisingly balanced.

(A General Theory of Rubbish has posted just today some quite good video of Hitchens in fine, though restrained, form. Hitchens's mildness is all the more remarkable given the sunny, superficial inanities uttered by John Meacham, the other guest. I mean, please: 'I believe in God for the same reason I believe in love'? This is what Meacham builds his life around?)

Of the three, it strikes me that it is Harris who comes across as the most angry, whereas Dawkins is the most relentlessly rational. He (Dawkins) is also the most optimistic. There is a weariness in Hitchens's book, I think (for all its energy and venom), which perhaps derives from a pessimism about how likely it is that the fanatical madness he chronicles can be subdued. If so, this is a doubt I share.

Not, of course, that he (or I) would for a moment suggest that we should stop trying.

As it was pithily put recently, in a message directed toward the most recent attempted outrage by religious fanatics: 'We'll just set about ye'.

And I, for one, can't top that.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Getting back on track

I've been away for a while and will slowly be getting back into the swing of things blog-wise.

While away--in London--I was gearing up to write a long screed about the increasing unreadability of British newspapers, as it struck me again (as it has more and more over the recent decade) that even the serious ones have been taken over by a combination of tabloid sensibility and nouveaux-riches solipsism. Why, for example, Glastonbury was front-page news for about 4 days remains a mystery to me...

(For those of you who read German, the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a nice commentary about the more general problem of the sinking standards in the press for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Thanks to Anja for the tip.)

Then, of course, there were the failed attacks on London and Glasgow, which, were the murderous intent and potential not so horrendous, would be almost laughable.

I mean...is it just me or is there not something darkly comical about a man--enraged by the failure of his ineptly built bomb to explode--dousing himself in gasoline and screaming 'God is great!' while trying to punch at a police officer who was trying to put out the fire?

This brings to mind the sad New Jersey wannabes who hoped to attack Fort Dix and were ultimately discovered because they wanted to transfer their nifty self-made jihadist training video to DVD...and did so at the local electronics store. Well done, lads. (Strangely enough, the prevalence of images of thugs-with-guns is one of those areas where jihadism and gangsta-rap seem to come together...)

A reminder, if needed, that along with whatever other sensible attitudes one adopts toward terrorists, a healthy dose of contempt might also be appropriate.

Losers. Dangerous losers. But losers all the same.

Anyway, the other thing that seems to have received an astonishing amount of commentary over the last couple of weeks is the EU-produced video clip labelled 'Film Lovers Will Love This', a montage of sex-scenes from award-winning films aimed at advertising a new EU fund to promote European film.

It's safe to say in this case that it was not only my generally federalist political leanings in all things European that made me like it....

I think reactions to the film have in some way been instructive, as it raised almost enragingly predictable negative responses from euroskeptic Britons (Are there any other kinds? No, really, I don't think they exist...) and also from the--increasingly annoying--world of Polish politics.

"They do have an image problem," Conservative MEP Chris Heaton-Harris told the BBC in reference to the EU, "but I think cobbling together 44 seconds of soft porn on the Internet is not a brilliant way of solving it."

Thanks Chris, but labelling films like 'Amelie' and 'Breaking the Waves' as 'soft porn' only tells us more about you than it does about either European cinema or the EU.

And this is even better:

Euro-skeptic MEP Godfrey Bloom told the tabloid Sun that it was "cheap, tawdry and tacky."

Godfrey was speaking of the video montage, of course...but the 'it' in that sentence is delightfully, and appropriately, ambiguous, don't you think?

It is unfortunate, in some ways, that the video in question has so overshadowed the others in the series, which highlight the same message (the EU helps distribute European films) by striking different tones.

The method--themed montage with matching mood-oriented music--is terribly simple, but I think the results are quite effective. (All the EU-themed videos are available at the 'EU-Tube' site. Information on them is available from a European Union media page here.)

Here are, for example, themed clips on joy and sadness.

One, to which I am for some reason particularly partial, strikes a romantic note:

Of course, if I wanted to promote the romanticism of European cinema, I might have included something like this...

(From Un homme et une femme.)