Thursday, January 31, 2008

For Sayed Pervez Kambaksh

As some of you might have read, journalism student Sayed Pervez Kambaksh has been sentenced to death by an Islamic court for...well, apparently doing what you might think a journalism student would do. As the Independent reports:

He was accused of blasphemy after he downloaded a report from a Farsi website which stated that Muslim fundamentalists who claimed the Koran justified the oppression of women had misrepresented the views of the prophet Mohamed.

Mr Kambaksh, 23, distributed the tract to fellow students and teachers at Balkh University with the aim, he said, of provoking a debate on the matter. But a complaint was made against him and he was arrested, tried by religious judges without – say his friends and family – being allowed legal representation and sentenced to death.

This is, obviously, outrageous, but, also obvious, not at all unusual for 'Islamic courts'.

Unfortunately, as the BBC (via B&W) has reported, the sentence has been backed by Afghanistan's upper house (though apparently without being voted upon).

The Independent (also the source of the above photo) has started a campaign to put pressure on the Afghan government to free Mr. Kambaksh.

There is a petition. It's a small gesture, but we urge you to sign it.

[UPDATE]: Not too long ago, Dale made some very fine observations about this case:

Civilized people cannot accept this. The giving and receiving of offense is not and cannot be allowed to be a life-or-death matter. If it is "Islamophobic," "blasphemous," or merely "disrespectful" to affix the name "Mohammed" to all of my rolls of toilet paper, then so be it. I agree it is. It's a scurrilous, provocative, immature, and probably counterproductive thing to say. But it's nothing but words.

Respect gravitates to ideas and actions that deserve it, whether or not the respect is requested. Requiring respect is roughly as meaningful as requiring happiness or requiring love -- it doesn't work and it's a good thing it doesn't.

Killing people for impiety is indefensible barbarism, and is far more hurtful and dangerous than any series of words or any cluster of thoughts.

Indeed. Someone remind the Archbishop of Canterbury. Of course, he's busy campaigning to do important things like suppress 'thoughtless or cruel words'. Meanwhile, his colleague in Rome is doing the vital work of warning against the seductions of science.

Religion: building a better morality every day, in every way.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Godzillas of screechy self-righteous bitterness

Andrew Hammel at the always interesting and readable German Joys tackles the, no, not the Battle of Britain version but rather the poster-friendly 1970s terrorist organisation (Wiki D/E) responsible for, among other things, the political tension and violence since referred to as the 'German Autumn' (D/E) some thirty years ago.

Andrew links to an interesting essay by Paul Hockenos. I need to spend some more time looking at it, but this passage immediately stood out:
For anyone who lived through the German Autumn, the images remain vivid: Schmidt’s grave television addresses to the nation; the “wanted” handbills with blurry black-and-white photos of the fugitives; the public spaces crawling with police; and the eerie high-tech maximum security Stammheim prison near Stuttgart, its seventh floor constructed specially for these political prisoners. The violence—part of a broader pattern in West Germany in the ’70s—shook the state and terrified ordinary Germans who had overwhelmingly backed the Schmidt government’s efforts to crush the militants and their networks. With the administration accused of illegal surveillance, torture, and murder, Germany’s young democracy, created from the ruins of the Third Reich, faced the deepest crisis of its existence.
I wasn't even in Germany then and was attending grade school in the American Midwest, but I can recall late 70s and early 80s news reports dealing with the group. 80s German politics (mainly via the Greens) played a formative role in my own development, and, there too, one always seemed to come up against the ghost of the RAF, and I swear that most of the arthouse German films I saw in college seemed to have something to do with that political milieu. Since I've lived here, I've been struck by how much alive that topic remains in the media, such as in award-winning films such as Volker Schlöndorff's Die Stille nach dem Schuss (the English title of which I have just discovered, to some dismay, is The Legend of Rita.)

In any case, though I need to spend more time with the article, I do agree with Andrew when he says the following:

The RAF itself is, as a subject of study, unedifying. Having spent some time researching them for a project, I came away feeling nothing but vague contempt for it, and complete mystification at the attention it still receives. Active RAF members fell, as near as I can tell, into two general groups: ruthless monomaniacs or deluded dupes. What united both camps was their second-rateness and insufferable pomposity. Their "manifestos" are dull and turgid; their personalities one-dimensional and unappealing. Once they began their RAF careers -- at the very latest -- most RAF cadres morphed into Godzillas of screechy self-righteous bitterness.
And they accomplished...well, nothing as far as I can tell.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Home movies

Having recently been quite saddened by the announcement of J.G. Ballard's ill health (there were vague rumours last year at the Norwich conference on his work, but nothing definite) I'm pleased to be able to announce something more positive.

In conjunction with the upcoming publication of Ballard's (much awaited, at least in these here parts) memoir, Miracles of Life, Ballardian has announced the 1st Ballardian Festival of Home Movies.

The rules:

1. Shoot a film using your mobile phone’s video function, no more than one minute in duration, and using no post-production or processing — the film must be shot entirely ‘in camera’.
2. The theme: anything at all to do with either one or both of the Collins English Dictionary definitions of ‘Ballardian’:

(adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (J.G. Ballard; born 1930), the British novelist, or his works. (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels & stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes & the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.

There are prizes to be won.

Full information is available from Ballardian.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Dreaming of great tomorrows

At a time when the real historical relationship between liberalism and fascism has become more than somewhat muddled (h/t), Eric Hobsbawm, at the LRB, remembers Weimar, that short-lived republic that has been far more loved in retrospect than during its own time. (Well, you know, some relationships are just like that.)

What, looking back, was so characteristic about the culture of a shortlived German republic that nobody had really wanted and most Germans accepted as faute de mieux at best? Every German had lived through three cataclysmic experiences: the Great War; the genuine, if abortive German revolution which overthrew the defeated Kaiser’s regime; and the Great Inflation of 1923, a brief manmade catastrophe that suddenly made money valueless. The political right, traditionalist, anti-semitic, authoritarian and deeply entrenched in the institutions carried over from the Kaiser’s Reich (I still remember the title of Theodor Plivier’s 1932 book, The Kaiser Went, the Generals Remained), refused the republic totally. It regarded Weimar as illegitimate, the Versailles Treaty as an undeserved national shame, and aimed at getting rid of both of them as soon as possible.

But almost all Germans, including the Communists, were passionately against Versailles and the foreign occupiers. I can still recall as a child seeing from the train the French flag flying on Rhineland fortresses, with a curious sense that this was somehow unnatural. Being both English and Jewish (I was ‘der Engländer’ at school) I was not tempted into the German nationalism of my schoolfriends, let alone into Nazism, but I could well understand the appeal of both to German boys. As Weitz shows, the authoritarian right was always the main danger both politically and, through their persistent and popular hostility to ‘Kulturbolschewismus’, culturally.

Among other things, he reminds us of what was lost.

This was the last time Germany was at the centre of modernity and Western thought. It might have held out better if the Weimar Republic had been followed not by Hitler’s wrecking crew but by a more traditional reactionary government. Yet in retrospect this option was as unreal as was the prospect of stopping Hitler’s rise by a comprehensive anti-Fascist union. The fact is that no one, right, left or centre, got the true measure of Hitler’s National Socialism, a movement of a kind that had not been seen before and whose aims were rationally unimaginable. Not even his intended victims fully recognised the danger. After the summer election of 1932 which left the Nazis as much the largest party, but short of a majority, the (Jewish) editor of the Tagebuch, a left-liberal weekly we took at home, published an article whose headline struck me even then as suicidal. I still see it before me: ‘Lasst ihn heran!’ (‘Why not let him in!’) A few months later, with very different intentions, the reactionaries around the aged President Hindenburg manoeuvred Hitler into office thinking that he could be controlled.

All attempts to make the Weimar Republic look more firmly established and stable, even before the world economic cataclysm broke its back, are historical whistling in the dark. It moved briefly through the debris of a dead but unburied past towards a sudden but expected end and an unknown future. For our parents it promised only an unrecoverable past, while we dreamed of great tomorrows; my ‘Aryan’ schoolmates in the form of a national rebirth, Communists like myself, as the universal revolution initiated in October 1917.

Among other things, a reminder to be careful about the dreams we dream.

(Recently, I pointed to the German interview that Hobsbawm mentions and translated a few passages.)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

On the road again

We're headed off to the hinterlands till next week, so that means probably no new posting and if you leave any comments they might take a while to appear.

In the meantime, you could do worse than to take a look at the Nuremberg Zoo's new arrival. (Video, with annoying but brief advert at beginning).

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Giving credit where it's due

It turns out that, in the face of heavy competition (among others: the Pope, the Westboro ("God Hates Fags") Baptist Church and Chuck Norris), Dinesh D'Souza has won the New Humanist award for being the 'most scurrilous enemy of reason'.

And well deserved it is, if only for his totallyfuckingmoronic claim that the 'cultural left' was 'responsible' for September 11th.

Having seen D'Souza perform live in about 1990, I can confirm that this is certainly worthy as a lifetime achievement award. The man is, truly, an ass.

In this vein, I already have a nominee for this year: Jonah Goldberg, who makes the roughly equally retarded (though historically more long-term) claim that fascism is fundamentally a liberal ideology.

(Quite excellent responses to Goldberg's swill have already been provided by Dave Neiwert, John Holbo and John Scalzi).

In the meantime, though, congratulations Mr. D.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"Judicial activism": Get real

'The systematic erosion of the rule of law in America has many aspects, and one significant one is that conservatives have been trained that they have the right to have judges issue rulings that produce outcomes they like, and when that doesn't happen, it means the judicial process is flawed and corrupt. Put another way, those marching under the banner purportedly opposed to "judicial activism" have been taught that they are entitled to have courts ignore the law in order to ensure the outcomes they want.'
So says Glenn Greenwald, in a lengthy, erudite and rather angry article about right-wing whingeing about 'judicial activism'.

He seems, as far as I can tell, to be right.

(Via Faith in Honest Doubt)

Good thing there's that 2/3 majority rule thingy

Just so we remember what's at stake this year.

"I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution," Huckabee told a Michigan audience on Monday. "But I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living god. And that's what we need to do -- to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view."
Republican presidential candidate (and, depending on today's Michigan returns, possibly the front-runner) Mike Huckabee.

(Quote and video here.)

Cold War thinking?

Quite apart from the argument in question, something struck me about this passage from an article in today's Washington Post about war-fighting in Afghanistan.

Let's see if you can spot it:
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Bush at his Texas ranch in November, U.S. and German officials said, she told him that while Bonn would step up its contribution in quiet northern Afghanistan, any change in Germany's noncombat role would spell political disaster for her conservative government.

Really violent

I liked this comment from Norm, responding to Nigel Warburton's thoughts on Slavoj Zizek's book Violence:

Whether broadly or narrowly conceived, symbolic violence isn't actual violence, and whatever the relation between them, it is useful to know the difference. Political and social systems are backed by violence, in the last resort and sometimes day to day, but this doesn't mean that all the negative features of such systems are - themselves - violence. We need some linguistic means of making distinctions, otherwise we should not be able to talk clearly. Or, put differently: there are other evils in the world than violence.

I haven't yet read Zizek's book, but I agree heartily with Norm's view and with Nigel's critiques. (Zizek, I think, is sometimes interesting and thought-provoking and sometimes merely maddening.)

Violence interests me a bit, and I've become wary of expanding the concept beyond the bounds of precision, i.e., beyond meaning something like 'the infliction of non-consensual physical harm'.

There are, as Norm says, many 'evils' in the world other than violence, and the left has long had a good (though evolving) vocabulary to describe them, such as 'discrimination', 'exploitation', 'social exclusion', 'injustice', or 'poverty'.

I doubt that any analytical gain is made by referring to any of these things as 'violence' (whether 'systemic' or 'symbolic' or whatever).

Those are good words for bad things: more precise and (at least potentially) better focused on what's actually going on in each case. Replacing them with 'violence' sounds more dramatic but seems to muddy the matter. (Even within the realm of physical violence, after all, the term can be too broad, including, as it does, everything from school-yard bullying to mass-murder.)

Whence comes this violence-creep? One reason may be that the post-modern academic obsession with text to the exclusion of reality might make this kind of free-association easier. Another, I think, may have to do with a loss of confidence by some on the left about the validity of their traditional political vocabulary. This may arise either because they feel uncomfortable with it themselves or out of a more tactical consideration that population at large may no longer be moved by appeals in such a vocabulary.

Some may think, then, that 'violence'--being widely seen as a Bad Thing--can be taken over and used for any purpose.

I doubt that very much.

Stranger than fiction. No, really.

Via the New York Times, I learn that actor Wesley Snipes will be tried for non-payment of taxes. Snipes, it seems, counts himself among that interesting coterie of people who have elevated their personal dislike of taxes (which is not all that hard to fathom) into an elaborate self-righteous ideology.

Nothing too strange there, just another day in Ron Paul's America.

However, this story leads down paths that are far, far weirder.

Snipes, according to the Times, has had an 'association' with a group called the 'Nuwaubians', which it describes as 'a quasi-religious sect of black Americans who promote antigovernment theories and who set up a headquarters in Georgia in the early 1990s.' (The 'association' allegedly extends to Mr. Snipes having sought a permit to build 'a federal permit for a military training compound on land next to the Nuwaubian camp' in 2000.)

That rather bland summary was interesting enough to make me want to know a little more about this curious-sounding corner of American madness.

I wasn't disappointed: a quick check at Wikipedia brought up a description of the Nuwaubians that is so dense with esoteric weirdness that I thought I might present it complete and with all of its very helpful references intact:

Nuwaubianism borrows from a wide range of sources which include Theosophy-derived New Age movements such as Astara as well as the Rosicrucians, Freemasonry, the Shriners, the Moorish Science Temple of America, the revisionist Christianity and Islam of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the numerology of Rashad Khalifa, the ancient astronaut theories of Zecharia Sitchin, the works of Richard Shaver (a proponent of the Hollow Earth theory), David Icke, the UFO mythology of greys and reptilians, the political and legal theories of patriot mythology, modern scientific and pseudoscientific legends like those of Area 51, the Philadelphia Experiment, Project Blue Book, Montauk Project, and MJ-12, popular conspiracy theories such as those about the Illuminati or the Bilderberg Group, and even a paperback on fortune-telling.

A 'wide-range of sources' indeed.

Along with some intriguing racial theories (Caucasians, in one myth, were 'originally created as a race of killers to serve blacks as a slave army'), the movement believes that Saturn is not a planet and that the Earth is hollow.

And...Yoda is apparently part of their cosmology.

According to the Wikipedia entry, the founder of this charming movement is apparently Dwight York, though his most common alias appears to be 'Dr. Malachai Z. York'. He has, however, also been known by dozens of other names. Many of them are very creative, such as 'Imperial Grand Potentate Noble: Rev. Dr. Malachi Z. York 33°/720°' or 'Chief Black Thunderbird Eagle'.

It also turns out that Mr. York (or whatever) is currently serving time in a maximum security prison after being convicted of multiple child molestation counts. He's due for release in 2119.

For Oxford American, A. Scott narrates his photographic slideshow of the Nuwaubian's (now mostly demolished) ancient-Egyptian-themed 'Tama Re' compound in Putnam County, Georgia (and he refers--among other things--to a ceremony involving 'hundreds of men in red fezzes who were parading around one of the huge pyramids '.)

An earlier story on Snipes, 'tax resistance' and the Nuwaubians appeared in December in Radar magazine.

And if you're wondering, it seems that Nuwaubians, as a rule, vote Republican.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Reading roundup

Some rather randomly assembled things worth reading that I've noted in the past week or so:

1. A new series has started at the New York Times called 'War Torn', examining the violent crimes committed at home by Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans.

This is an interesting topic, and many of the stories are indeed remarkable and sad. (I must also say that “Matthew knew he shouldn’t be taking his AK-47 to the 7-Eleven,” is one of the more striking sentences I've read in a long time.)

Concerns about 'brutalised' soldiers returning from the front lines to wreak havoc in civilian life is hardly a new issue, as the article briefly notes. Last year I saw a fascinating paper (scroll down to the second plenary speaker to see the abstract) by Clive Emsley at a violence history conference in which I participated on precisely this issue. He looked at concerns about returning soldiers and violence in England, Germany and France after the First World War.

In some cases, he found a great deal of concern about such violence (and some stories about ex-soldiers committing crime as a result of 'shell shock'), but relatively little evidence that there was anything remotely like a violence wave caused by veterans. (Obviously, in Germany, the role of Freikorps in causing post-war social unrest is an exception, but this was a special case.)

Worries about this sort of thing have nevertheless cropped up in individual cases.

Quite by chance, while looking for something else entirely last November, I ran across the following newspaper headline story from 27 July 1929:

Sidney Harle was alleged to have (and confessed to having) killed a child in circumstances that are not entirely clear. In any case, he claimed 'that he was not normal at the time, his mind having given way under the influence of drink, which is forbidden to him as the result of malaria and shell shock contracted during the war.'

Surprisingly, since it was a case of child murder, the tone of the article was generally sympathetic (thought this might have had something to do with the suggestion that Harle had to be rescued by police from an enraged mob and was then, allegedly, roughed up by French police themselves).

As the reporter explained:

The crime is undoubtedly a terrible one that has stirred public opinion here, but on reflection people are now inclined to extend sympathy to him as a victim of war conditions, and the authorities are being asked how it came about that a man with such a medical history was at large and able to settle in France when superficial examination by a doctor suffices to show that he is not normal and at any time liable to become a menace to those around him.

Perhaps it's not entirely the same as the stories in the Times, but it's not entirely different either.

It's a difficult issue: playing down the effect of the wars seems, in many of these cases, to risk ignoring the real trauma the perpetrators might have experienced in combat. On the other hand, one is wary of over-doing the 'brutalised veteran' angle, since, as one of the quoted experts notes, most veterans seem to manage some kind of normal post-war life. Very few are ticking time-bombs.

Furthermore, even in some of the quoted cases, the connection with between military service and the crime committed seems rather tenuous: some of them sound pretty...typical.

Moreover, the Times cites 121 confirmed cases of killings by veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, presumably since those wars began. Which sounds bad, maybe, until you consider there are about 16,000 homicides a year in the US.

This is not at all to detract from the individual tragedy in each case; but, so far--and even if the Times count missed a lot of cases--it seems as if we are far from an epidemic of war-related crime.

2. At Freezerbox, 'Megatons and Memory Holes' by Alexander Zaitchik takes a nice trip down nuclear-terror nostalgia lane by talking with Stanislav Petrov.

Who is Stanislav Petrov, you ask?

The occasion of our meeting was the 24th anniversary of a historic nightshift Petrov worked at the Serpukhov missile command center. What happened was this: half past midnight on September 26, 1983, the radar screen in the Serpukhov bunker showed several missile launches on U.S. territory. Petrov was the ranking officer on site. The protocol that he himself had authored dictated that he inform his superiors immediately. They, in turn, would have contacted the ailing, paranoid, and hawkish Soviet premiere at the time, Yuri Andropov.

With his computer screens beeping havoc, Petrov was forced to think fast. Under unimaginable pressure, he reasoned that because of the small number of launches, the alarm was likely false. "In a real first-strike, they would have hit us with hundreds of missiles," he said. And so he sat tight and never kicked the alert up the chain of command.

It was the right call. It turned out the alarm was the result of sunlight reflecting off low-altitude clouds above several U.S. missile silos. A satellite misread.
As they sometimes do...

Thank you, Stanislav.

3. Two interesting articles related to animal rights have appeared at the New York Times in the last month or so, and both of them highlight either difficult dilemmas or the dangers of unintended consequences. One is recent, the other I read quite a while ago and never got around to writing about.

A few days ago the New York Times wrote about the fate of horses that are shipped out of the US for slaughter.

In an apparent victory for animal-rights supporters, horse slaughter was virtually banned in the US last year. However, this has meant that many horses are being shipped to Canada or Mexico for slaughter. Good news? Bad news?


“It’s a step closer to the long-term goal of banning slaughter in North America,” said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. “There are fewer horses slaughtered.”

Indeed, even with the busy export to Canada and Mexico, the Agriculture Department estimates that 105,000 American horses were slaughtered in the three countries in 2007, down from some 138,000 the year before.

For many horses, though, export means hundreds more miles of strenuous transit in large trailers. “It’s difficult for them to keep their balance, they’re often crowded, they have no access to food or water while en route,” said Timothy Cordes, a senior veterinarian with the Agriculture Department.

Of particular concern to advocates is the treatment of the horses once they reach Mexico, to which exports have more than tripled. American protections simply do not apply there, Dr. Cordes said.

The American slaughterhouses killed horses quickly by driving steel pins into their brains, a method the American Veterinary Medical Association considers humane. Workers in some Mexican plants, by contrast, disable them by stabbing them with knives to sever their spinal cords, said Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

“My worst nightmare has happened,” Dr. Grandin said. “This is an example of well-intentioned but very bad unintended consequences.”

Another article from early December was extremely interesting. In 'Kill the Cat that Kills the Bird?', Bruce Barcott looks at the conflict of interest between cats and birds...or, actually, between cat lovers and bird lovers. The conflict between the animals themselves is real enough, but it's pretty straightforward: that between their respective human supporters not so much.

The story considers the plight of birds--many of them rare--living on the Gulf Coast near Galveston. On top of the other environmental challenges they face, these birds, it seems, have been subject to devastating predation from feral cats (though just how much of a problem this constitutes is debated).

The article opens with the actions of a locally renowned ornithologist, who, seeking to take action to protect the local birds (particularly piping plovers, an endangered species) shot a feral cat.

And was arrested and put on trial.

It's a fascinating article and there are, as the Dude would say, a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous.

Still, I have to say that I come down in the side of the birds (and the vigilante ornithologist) in this one. I like cats just fine, but it's not like they're about to go extinct or anything, unlike some of the wild bird species we're talking about.

And the argument that they're just doing 'what nature intended' is hardly convincing when not only are the cats only there because of human stupidity but, it seems, one of the most vociferous cat lovers in the story seems to be feeding them cat food.


4. Finally, and on a much different note, 'Château Scientology' at the New Yorker is well worth a read.

It examines the landmark building in Los Angeles where the 'religion'...well, does what it does:

Celebrity Centre is used for Scientology courses and for “auditing,” a mainstay of the religion, in which a person undergoes a guided talk-therapy session, usually while holding a device known as an E-Meter, which is supposed to measure one’s spiritual state. The goal is to eliminate “mental image pictures” associated with traumatic events; when a person is “Clear”—freed of all such associations—he can advance to the mystical and esoteric levels of Scientology. The path to becoming an “Operating Thetan,” or pure spiritual being (“thetan” being Hubbard’s word for the soul), is laid out in a table called “The Bridge to Total Freedom: Scientology Classification Gradation and Awareness Chart of Levels and Certificates.” Scientology is a technological religion and claims to have developed “exact, precise methods to increase man’s spiritual awareness and capability.” Completion of the Bridge takes years, and each stage requires a cash investment. An initial twelve-and-a-half-hour auditing session costs between six and seven hundred dollars, Greg LaClaire, a vice-president of Celebrity Centre, says. (Aspiring Scientologists can mitigate the expense by choosing to be audited by a fellow initiate rather than by a staff member.) In the Holiday 2007 Dianetics and Scientology catalogue, a deluxe Planetary Dissemination Edition E-Meter—billed as a “tool for Golden Age of Tech certainty,” to assist in “faster progress up The Bridge”—was offered, in “Diamond Blue,” for five thousand five hundred dollars.

It also has a restaurant, and there are...musicals. Gift certificates are no doubt available for the aspiring 'Operating Thetans' among your friends.

Friday, January 11, 2008

That's Entertainment


More violent films=less violence.

More pornography=less sex crime.

Excellent. If only all solutions were so easy. Bring it on...

(And people made a fuss when J. G. Ballard argued there should be more sex and violence on television. What a visionary.)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Evolving views

At Reason, there's an interesting survey by Ron Bailey of U.S. presidential candidates' views on evolution.

The dividing line between the two parties is relatively clear on this issue, which is not surprising. Of course, all candidates express some kind of Christian belief--if they didn't, they would not, of course, be viable candidates--so even the relatively rational Democrats seem to be adopting one variation or another of the (wrong-headed) NOMA principle.

Which is not what I'd prefer, but given the strictures of acceptable American political discourse, I'll take what I can get.

There are a few slightly disconcerting notes on the Democratic side, though. Some candidates haven't even expressed an opinion. Barack Obama, for instance. As Bailey points out, it may be that he hasn't been asked. (Christopher Hitchens, however, recently took a look at the church to which Obama belongs and found enough grounds for concern.)

Trying to combine religious belief and scientific rationalism requires intense forms of mental contortion in the best conditions: being a politician in America (where, Obama quipped, 'more people...believe in angels than they do in evolution') is far from such a context. (Note: it seems he's right.)

So, OK: I'm uncomfortable with all the well-meaning spiritualist blubber coming from the Dems, but I'm pretty sure that at least science classes would be safe with one of them at the helm.

Speaking of mental contortion, though, the comments on Bailey's article (and responses to an earlier confirmation of Ron Paul's apparent creationist leanings) are instructive.

As I've noted, there are many elements of libertarian thinking which are appealing; however, nearly all of my personal encounters with self-described libertarians have been disappointing or disturbing. (There are exceptions, such as one Dale pointed me to. He also eloquently and thoughtfully responded to my thoughts here.)

And if the comments at Reason are any thing to go by, the movement has a problem, as it seems to be substantially composed not of thoughtful rationalists but rather of naively pathological anti-staters, conspiracy theorists, committed creationists and global warming deniers. Many of them are people who also seem to spend an awful lot of time screeching at the slightest heresy and debating who may and who may not call themselves a 'libertarian'.

Which, I think, is very grown up.

So much for free-thinking rational scepticism.

Not that this is surprising: their enthusiasm for Paul's highly troubling candidature is telling enough. (Via Cliopatria and Pharyngula.)

The Democratic candidate with the best answer on the evolution issue is former Alaska senator Mike Gravel, (who has about as much chance as winning the nomination as I do):

When LiveScience asked the senator if he thought creationism should be taught in public schools, Gravel replied, "Oh God, no. Oh, Jesus. We thought we had made a big advance with the Scopes monkey trial....My God, evolution is a fact, and if these people are disturbed by being the descendants of monkeys and fishes, they've got a mental problem. We can't afford the psychiatric bill for them. That ends the story as far as I'm concerned."
As it should be. (Though, of course, he may be right: all on its own that psychiatric bill might make any of the candidates' health-care proposals prohibitively expensive.)

If it feels good, do it

The prize for the most interesting quote of the day goes to John Loughrey, reported in the Daily Mail:

"I've always been a Diana fan, but last year I woke up one day and decided to paint her name on my forehead - it just felt right," he says.

John is, as you can tell, quite committed to his idol. As a result, he has spent 48 days sitting in on the inquest examining the Spencer girl's death.

He sounds, actually, like quite a nice bloke. And, compared to some of the other people sitting in the public gallery of Court 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice, he seems to be relatively sane.

"I tend to get on with everyone, although I don't like all the chat from the Diana Circle - they say lots of nasty things about Camilla Parker Bowles, and talk about conspiracies, and play Candle In The Wind a lot."

No surprise there, of course, and it is well established that excessive exposure to Elton John's music can damage anyone's sanity. But what is more interesting is that some of the 'Diana Circle'--unlike Mr. Loughrey, who believes the crash was an accident--seem to not only talk about conspiracies but rather see themselves as caught up in one (or, more likely, several).

Such as one 'very well-spoken lady with immaculate make-up and pretty coral nails, dressed in a plum-coloured tweedy jacket.'

"I'd tell you my name, my dear, but when you've been threatened in the past and people have tried to kill you, it makes you more careful," she says cheerily.

"There are quite a few regulars, but first one has to differentiate which are MI5 and MI6 - they're everywhere.

"That couple who were here earlier, for example. He seemed a genuine man but he has the type of shoes that police wear, if you know what I mean."

It barely seems worth asking if she thinks Diana's death was an accident.

"I think there are a lot of people telling a lot of lies - I used to live with the mistress of a Viscount, in Fulham, so I've got inside knowledge - but dare I say that? Oh well, they want to kill me anyway."

I must admit that I find something endearing about Mr. Loughrey's rather excessive form of fandom. It's harmless enough, entertaining for the rest of us, and he seems to be enjoying himself tremendously.

And, however eccentric, he also maintains a very practical approach to things:

And the huge blue Diana on his forehead - isn't it all a bit of a palaver? "My sister Geraldine paints it on with a little make-up brush.

"If I do it myself in the mirror, it's backwards and hard to get the letters the right way round."

Kind though Geraldine is, she won't get up at 5am for him: "She does it at night, so I have to sleep on my back, which I hate, so it doesn't smudge on the pillow."

Monday, January 07, 2008

Words, Words, Words...

There is, of course, an enormous and exhausting amount of text being written on the U.S. presidential primaries right now, but I found these comments from Ezra Klein to be astute:

There's been a lot written about the rhetoric of the Democratic primary lately (much of it on this blog), and for good reason. Words are playing an atypically central role in the Democratic primary [...and] the race has really come to center around three distinct speaking styles, each being used as a stand-in for actual accomplishments. There's the soaring, spirit-of-history narration offered by Obama. The workmanlike, knowledgeable, wonkery of Hillary. And the fiery, people-focused populism of Edwards. In all cases, the candidate is using this rhetoric to argue that they are the true "change" agent. But none of them have a particularly distinguished record enacting change at the national level. This is, the reality of a campaign where the three viable candidates are Democratic Senators who all served after George W. Bush's election -- which is to say, during a period when they lacked a president willing to sign their legislation into law. So realistically, they had neither the time nor the alignment of forces to get very much done.

But the end result has been an election heavily focused on the rhetoric of getting things done. Hillary proves her advantage by overwhelming you in details, and multipoint plans. Edwards proves his by flashing his passion, his outrage. And Obama proves his by being the most inspirational, the most elevating.

I've not quite decided which style I'd most prefer to listen to for the next four years (though I'm tending Obama-ward). On the other hand I'm feeling rather more distant from the whole thing than I have in the past: the leader with the most relevance to my current life speaks a different set of words entirely (and these more in the vein of 'workmanlike' and 'knowledgeable' than 'soaring' and 'inspirational'.)

Any of them, however, would be more euphonious than what the other team has to offer.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Language of Cranes

Over at there is an excellent essay by Daniel Dennett on the possibility of understanding human creativity in Darwinian terms. In it, he expands on his famous “crane” and “skyhook” metaphors. Although the essay is foremost an intervention in the cultural evolution debate, it also touches upon other important issues. Among them is the question why it is so difficult to reconcile the humanities with a Darwinist perspective – to which it also, albeit only implicitly, provides some kind of an answer.

To recall: Dennett uses the metaphor of the crane to capture the painstaking mechanisms of R[esearch] and D[evelopment] through which human creativity is tried, tested and expressed. Its processes and scope derive from a naturally sculpted mental structure and thus have a solid grounding in evolutionarily relevant functionality. “Skyhooks,” by contrast, are explanations plucked out of thin air, suspended from nowhere and hence in all likelihood metaphysical. While Darwinians adhere to the former, anti-Darwinians endorse the latter.

From this distinction derives the “mutual suspicion” that Dennett detects between “Darwinians” and “Anti-Darwinians”:
Darwinians suspect their opponents of hankering after a skyhook, a miraculous gift of genius whose powers have no decomposition into mechanical operations, however complex and informed by earlier processes of R and D. Anti-Darwinians suspect their opponents of hankering after an account of creative processes that so diminishes the Finder, the Author, the Creator, that it disappears, at best a mere temporary locus of mindless differential replication.
Dennett’s notion of “genius” is materialistic to the core: “It is important to recognize,” he points out, “that genius is itself a product of natural selection and involves generate-and-test procedures all the way down.” And it is precisely for that reason that a Darwinian point of view may lead to a critique of “the old essentialist, Cartesian perspectives” that uphold a more metaphysical concept of art and creativity.

Now all this sounds strangely familiar, although we are used to hear the terminology from a very different camp. After all, “anti-essentialism” has been one of post-structuralism’s many rallying cries. In this context, it has tended to mean the denial of any form of reality (material, biological) outside of textual/discursive constructions.

To a naive observer it would seem that Darwinians and post-structuralists might here find a source of strategic solidarity, based on the old wisdom that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The potential is there: I mean, don’t the words Dennett uses to describe the fears of the anti-Darwinian camp, even echoing Roland Barthes’ famous proclamation of the “death of the author”?
We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. (“The Death of the Author” in Image, Music, Text, 146.)
Somehow, however, people who would quite happily use this citation as a springboard for a nifty little literary deconstruction are irritatingly wary to go the whole hog and rethink their anti-essentialism from the Darwinian angle suggested by Dennett. On the one hand, this has to do with an all too frequent general distrust, in the humanities today, of the very concept of explanation. On the other, it might also be down to the fact that – for all its avowed anti-essentialist street cred – much post-structuralism, deep down, remains essentialist in its inability to part with the last vestiges of a human specialness divorced from “nature.”

Hence Dennett is slightly myopic in suggesting that a Darwinian’s only enemies are old-school essentialists dreaming their Romantic dream of creative genius: the people who believe in “the Author,” his (of course) intentions and the good old spark of (often divinely inspired) superhuman creativity. For, as said Darwinian is bravely battling that lot, he or she is simultaneously obliged to ward off critics from the opposite faction at the same time.

Here, a brief report from my frontline:

I have an ongoing debate with a dear colleague and friend of mine who considers herself a “radical constructionist” – a stance which for her not only appears to be an academic identity but also the royal road to a better world. Our discussions tend to follow a predictable pattern: after the ritualistic opening gambits (she suggests that I might be a “biological reductionist,” I point out the thin line between benevolent constructionism and totalitarian social planning), we inevitably agree that the solution might lie somewhere on the level of the individual.

While this kind of shift of focus is entirely in keeping with the (i.e.: my) Darwinian perspective, it creates a troubling dilemma for my post-structuralist friend. According to her theory, culture supersedes nature as the power determining human identity and society; however, she also – like most other self-avowed post-structuralists – is adamant that individual agency can subvert and transcend cultural limits. Needless to say that the terms “individual” and “agency” on which these perspectives are based, are never really defined. How culture gets processed, how agency manifests itself, and what ends individuals seek (whether consciously or not) with their actions are questions that are not so much accidentally overlooked as deliberately avoided.

In this critical context, crane-like explications that might go a very long way towards solving these questions are rejected as banal, deterministic and positivistic. At the same time, the cultural determinism posited against them poses a problem in itself: where does it differ from the “determinism” typically laid at the door of biology? Some post-structuralists quite elegantly skirt this problem by slipping in a few skyhooks into their otherwise anti-essentialist line of argument – for instance by the use of esoteric concepts such as “individual agency.” We’re culturally determined, but not quite – and this “not quite” must not be investigated. Never. Ever.

The discussions I have with my colleague tend to reach their absolute nadir when I not only ask The Questions That May Not Be Asked, but also make suggestions as to how to answer them, usually by tentatively bringing in adjectives like “Darwinian” and “evolutionary.” By my friend’s embarrassed silences whenever I do so, I realise that to ask “why” and “how,” especially in conjunction with said adjectives, is about the biggest intellectual faux pas one can commit these days. And this is usually the point when we stop talking shop and start telling each other what we did at the weekend.

Coming back to Dennett’s “mutual suspicion,” it seems to me that the most important intellectual battlefield is not between Darwinians and Cartesian essentialists, but rather between the deep, complex and differentiated anti-essentialism that a Darwinian perspective would allow and its more shallow and contradictory post-structuralist counterpart. Right now, it would seem that the latter represents the intellectual and moral majority in Western academia. And I while I appreciate that, after decades of producing tortured prose flagellating the Cartesian paradigm, too many critics resist opening up to different world views, I find their resistance annoyingly unproductive. I really am fed up with having to waste the little time that I have on this planet reiterating the same old (to me obvious) truths.

But I suppose I'll have to.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Nice pictures, shame about the paper

Though it pains me to admit that I sometimes read the Torygraph (Know thy enemy!), I will have to come out of the closet now. But just to draw your attention to a bunch of very nice photos of various animals (some cute, some disturbing) at play with a male of the species Homo sapiens with photogenically unruly hair (already before the adolescent gorrilas had ruffled it).

Yes, it's David Attenborough, who has been doing this kind of thing for fifty years or so. Well done, David. Keep up the good work!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Dream the Unlimited Dream

Ballardian hosts a digitised film of Sam Scoggins 'quasi doco' on J. G. Ballard, 'loosely structured' on themes found in his novel The Unlimited Dream Company.

Very interesting.

Go watch.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Welcome to the Year of Sanity?

Now this is a good omen: Christoph Schlingensief (cuddly cultural enfant terrible and Bayreuth-director with the kind of hairstyle sported by 1980s pop stars) has a few things to say in an interview with Der Spiegel that chime well with the general tone of this blog.

Unfortunately, the interview is only available in German, but I'll translate the passage that seems the most relevant to me:
Since [the death of my father] a lot of things have changed; in fact, they keep changing on an hourly basis. His death was no theatrical production, no artistic image, no discourse. It's no use to keep deluding ourselves. Some things are more real than "we artists" allow them to be.
Did you read this? "No discourse" A kindred spirit who believes in reality. Who knows, he might even believe in the biological body!

Thanks Christoph, you made my day!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Close your eyes, I'll be here for a while

Today marks the eleventh anniversary of the death of singer-songwriter Townes van Zandt. I had the very good fortune earlier last year to be introduced to his music by a good friend of ours, to whom I will remain eternally grateful for that fact.

There are unfortunately not all that many concert performances of his online, but this is a nice version of one of his better known songs, 'Pancho and Lefty'.

Steve Earle wrote a tribute to van Zandt after his death, 'Fort Worth Blues'. Which is lovely.

That was the year that was

It has often struck me as odd that so many 'year-end' retrospectives take place before the year has actually ended, thus excluding the possibility that something truly exciting (or terrible) might occur or be written about up to the midnight hour on the last day.

In the case of this blog, as it turned out, that was not to be, and we spent the holiday season at a healthy distance from all things bloggy.

Which, all-in-all, has been refreshing.

Still, before flinging ourselves with full enthusiasm into the new year it is worth pausing to consider some of the high points (or at least higher points) of the Obscene Desserts Blogging Year 2007. It was, after all, the first full calendar year of our humble existence. And that is, perhaps, worth celebrating.

So what did we get up to over the past 12 months?

There were, as ever, opportunities to have a go at some of the more mush-brained witterings emerging from internet journalism and commentary. We tried to set Madeleine Bunting straight, for instance, on one of the top god-bothering memes last year, i.e., the one that claims atheism is 'just another faith'. We took on Rod Liddle's strange attack on J. G. Ballard's novel Kingdom Come, and we demonstrated a lack of sympathy with Oprah Winfrey (though not with her unfortunate pet).

We also did our best to contribute to what Bing (via Dale) has referred to as 'skeptical humanities', whether that meant considering genes, prize-winning literature or the dreaded 'biological body'. In this context, we had fun with captioning propaganda posters with postmodern texts, a party game that generated a gratifyingly enthusiastic reaction.

Wordiness, as ever, was in vogue. In three consecutive doses we engaged with the 'multiculturalism debate' sparked off at Sign and Sight by Pascal Bruckner's unjustified and thoroughly over-the-top maligning of, among other things, Ian Buruma's book Murder in Amsterdam. (Parts one, two, three.) Later in the year, we took issue -- at some length and with no shortage of verve -- with some of the arguments Gregory Clark has made about genetics and capitalism in A Farewell to Alms and elsewhere. (Part one, part two.)

We announced various real-world publications to which we wrote individually (or jointly) or to which we contributed chapters.

We had a great time in Norwich.

We were outraged at right-wing nastiness and issued a ringing defence of...clotheslines.

We fretted a bit more about the end of the world, and a bit less about zombies. We sought to combine apparently contrasting political flavours in a way that is hopefully both tasty and nutritious. And we thought, as ever, about the importance of contingency.

There were also a few curiosities. One of us waxed all nostalgic about some old time rock'n'roll.
Sports matters played an unusually important role in our writing in 2007, even if we sometimes managed to wrench them into more familiar contexts. (E.g., using the Superbowl as an excuse to quote some memorable passages from the good doctor on Nixon and football.)

And we considered a political sex scandal in Germany that struck a little too close to home.

Seeing the way 2007 ended, we're sure that the year just begun (that of the rat, recall) will offer no shortage of opportunities for more of the same. Out like a like a lion.