Tuesday, February 26, 2008

With my own blood in my mouth

There's a new Mountain Goats album -- Heretic Pride -- about to be released.

And this is the first single.

It's very good.

Sax Rohmer #1

(Thanks to The Wife for noticing)


Damian Thompson, at Counterknowledge, draws our attention to a lecture scheduled today at UCL as part of 'Islamic Awareness Week' at the university.

The talk, entitled “the Collapse of the Evolutionary Theory”, was originally booked for the Darwin Lecture Theatre but, after protests from scientists appalled at the insult to Charles Darwin’s memory, has now been moved – to another UCL lecture theatre.

Quite apart from what kind of 'awareness' this is supposed to promote (other than that of how pathetic religion can be), it is a shame that the university is now providing a platform for the scheduled speakers.

As Thompson observes:

The publicity material says: “Dr Oktar Babuna and Ali Sadun Engin are from the Science Research Foundation, which produces the Harun Yahya series of books and DVDs. They will provide an insightful view into the reality of evolution and the shaky grounds upon which several of the theories are based.”

Insightful? Let me tell you a bit about Harun Yahya. It’s the pen name of a series of writers flooding the Islamic world with books and DVDs that present Darwinism as part of a diabolical conspiracy. This is a particularly poisonous form of counterknowledge.

I have in front of me a book by Harun Yahya called The Dark Clan, which explains that evolutionary science is inspired by “a dark clan behind all kids of corruption and perversion, that controls drug trafficking, prostitution rings”. Evolution is the “greatest deception in the history of science”.

Yahya's silly-but-slickly-produced Atlas of Creation found its way to The Wife's university department last year, so I got to have a look at the book sent round the world. (Though it was apparently not sent to everyone.)

I'm happy that UCL moved the lecture out of the Darwin Lecture Theatre. It would have been a travesty.

(As previously noted, the same building contains an excellent -- if tiny -- zoology museum. They deserve your support.)

Self-inflicted wounds

It is with some fondness that I remember a day in late spring 1999 when I was accused of being an 'imperialist'.

It was after a reading by Christopher Hitchens at Bookmarks, a left-wing bookshop in London. He was officially promoting a book on Clinton, but most of the discussion -- and debate -- focused on the bombs then being dropped by NATO on Serbia to compel them to withdraw their forces from Kosovo. Hitchens was in favour of this policy, though the rest of the room was divided, so the debate was a rather fierce one.

Afterwards, the audience gathered outside (at least those of us who then smoked) to continue the discussion. I, too, supported the NATO action; a couple of my interlocutors did not. Hence the epithet noted above that they hurled at me. (I might have it wrong: I might simply have been labelled a 'tool of imperialism', and there is a dim memory of the phrase 'NATO lackey' falling more than once that day, as strangely retro as that may sound.)

So, it is perhaps appropriate that I use Hitchens's Slate article, 'The Serbs' Self-Inflicted Wounds', from last Friday as the occasion to offer somewhat belated congratulations to Europe's newest independent state. (Via Will)

A little more than three years after the Battle of Bookmarks, I watched Joschka Fischer -- then Germany's Foreign minister -- defend his decision to support the Nato bombing and the subsequent deployment of German troops to Kosovo, the first foreign military operations ever undertaken on the part of the Federal Republic's Bundeswehr.

As Fischer represented the largely pacifist Greens, this was a significant issue in the 2002 elections, and when he came to Trier, where we then lived, as part of the campaign, the calls of 'Kriegstreiber' ('war-monger') from some parts of the audience were almost constant. Fischer, no stranger to political street-fighting (both literally and figuratively) interrupted his prepared campaign rhetoric and engaged in the debate with gusto.

It was impressive, not least since I had a hard time imagining an American Secretary of State debating policy in a provincial market square with such knowledge and passion.

At least nobody threw anything at him in Trier.

To round this off, the Süddeutsche Zeitung had an interesting article yesterday (in German) about the 'other Serbia', you know, the one that that is not demanding a new war, burning embassies, or carrying pictures of Radovan Karadzic through the streets. A more thoughtful, cosmopolitan nation certainly exists, which should be remembered while the raging nationalist thugs dominate the headlines.

In the last few weeks, I read Laura Silber and Allan Little's The Death of Yugoslavia (US/UK/D). It doesn't go up to the Kosovo war (at least the edition I have), but it is an excellent source of information about how this sad story began.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


In case you're looking for a quick read on a late Sunday afternoon, Der Spiegel has a good article by Irenäus Eibl-Eibelsfeld about the Galapagos islands as an evolutionary laboratory. Including pictures of finches.

Only in German, though. Sorry.

On a less pleasant note, the Sueddeutsche features watercolours of Disney-dwarves which a Norwegian museum director claims were painted by Hitler.

Proves the point: nature beats nurture any time.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

How the Mind Works (Twisted Tenacious Pinball Longstocking edition)

I'm in the process of marking an MA-thesis on Graham Greene which contains a chapter on Brighton Rock. This is why, for the past few days, I have had "Pinball" Wizard going through my head. You know: "From Soho down to Brighton, I must have played them all ...."

Brighton ... Brighton Rock? Oh, the mind works in mysterious ways! Or is it only my mind?

Speaking of videos and academic theses: last week saw another little cluster of associations, following John's absolute need to show me the video of "Kickapoo" by Tenacious D. OK, I said -- go ahead:

As we can see, this is a cannily intertextual clip, what with an unrecognisable Meatloaf playing dour Dad disallowing his offspring to rock -- which is nicely undercut (or -lined?) by the fact that this is recognisably an epically Meatlovian track. Apart from this little internal in-joke, "Kickapoo" is part of the enduring rock-to-the-rescue genre popularised by the likes of Twisted Sister. Which is why the husband, at that moment writhing with teenage nostalgia, made me watch the following, too:

Now, this isn't exactly my kind of music ... at least it didn't use to be. But for the first time in my life I became painfully aware of the true human suffering that is at stake -- in heavy metal in general and this video in particular. The evangelical moron of a father loosening his belt in order not to spare the rod ... on that poor little boy whose only crime is to want to ROCK (John informs me that he believes the correct spelling in this context is "RAWK". So much for American university education). This is painful to watch and saddening to consider. And I am not being facetious now! "We're not gonna take it" is a Blakean hymn to the oppressed, the tied, shackled and manacled, the wretched skinny boys of the Earth.

And this is where the free association kicks in.

On that same day, I had a discussion with a student writing a thesis on children's versions of Gulliver's Travels. She and I were disagreeing somewhat on the question as to what kind of characters children like. Bolshy cynic that I am, I suggested that most children would defy Rousseauian notions of virtue and morality and choose nasty characters instead. Someone like this pugnacious chap:

Now, some of you might not know this little guy. But for Astrid Lindgren fans this is the all too familiar visage of Karlsson on the roof -- a vicious cross between a proto-skin school-yard bully (look at that Ben Sherman shirt) and smug civil servant, who loves to make things unpleasant for Lillebror, a little boy living in the house above which Karlsson resides. Significantly, only Lillebror can see Karlsson, which makes the latter his uncanny Doppelgänger: Karlsson is actually Lillebror's dark alter ego -- his own Mr Hyde. Which in turn suggests that kids not only dig nasty guys, but ultimately have to in order to free themselves from the suffocating effects of either parental tyranny or love.

At least, that is how Astrid Lindgren saw it, whose characters -- well, some of them -- were ambiguous enough to call forth a host of anxious educators trying to put a stop to that kind of hazmat. This response included the one character who is probably most reminiscent of Twisted Sister:

She probably doesn't need introducing.

See what I mean?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Here's to the coroners of mississippi

I like to think of myself as a fairly unflappable guy who can no longer be fazed by tales of human stupidity.

However, Radley Balko has an article at Slate, 'The Bite-Marks Men', that really shocked me.

It opens with the release from prison of two men who spent many years behind bars (one of them on death row) for crimes they didn't commit.

Now, sadly, there's nothing all that unusual about such an occurrence.

The bit that gets more unsettling begins when Balko examines the records of Drs. Steven Hayne and Michael West, who did the forensic work on these -- and countless more -- cases.

It's...rather a bizarre little tale:

According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, a doctor should perform no more than 250 autopsies per year. Dr. Hayne has testified that he performs 1,200 to 1,800 autopsies per year. Sources I spoke with who have visited Hayne's practice say he and his assistants will frequently have multiple bodies open at once, sometimes smoking cigars and even eating sandwiches while moving from corpse to corpse. They prefer to work at night, adding to their macabre reputation.

Hayne isn't board-certified in forensic pathology, though he often testifies that he is. The only accepted certifying organization for forensic pathology is the American Board of Pathology. Hayne took that group's exam in the 1980s and failed it. Hayne's pal Dr. West is even worse. West has been subject to exposés by 60 Minutes, Time, and Newsweek. He once claimed he could definitively trace the bite marks in a half-eaten bologna sandwich left at the crime scene back to the defendant. He has compared his bite-mark virtuosity to Jesus Christ and Itzhak Perlman. And he claims to have invented a revolutionary system of identifying bite marks using yellow goggles and iridescent light that, conveniently, he says can't be photographed or duplicated.

There is so much wrongness packed into these two paragraphs that I don't even know how to begin to respond.

But it becomes even worse when Balko points out the institutional framework within which such ghoulish operators appear to be able to thrive. It seems bad enough that the county coroners are elected and are not required to have any qualifications beyond a high-school diploma (yes, that means they don't need to have any medical training whatsoever).

But it gets worse:

Under state law, this whole process is supposed to be overseen by a board-certified state medical examiner. The last two people to hold that office, Dr. Lloyd White from 1988 to 1992 and Dr. Emily Ward from 1993 to 1995, were appalled at the way the state was handling death investigations. Both tried to implement reforms. And both were met with fiery resistance. Dr. Ward's tenure was particularly raucous. West (who at the time was the elected county coroner for Forrest County) circulated a petition signed by slightly more than half the state's coroners calling for her resignation. The legislature has largely refused to fund the office since. It's been vacant since 1995.

Read the whole article. And there is a longer article by Balko at Reason on the topic.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A world of pain

At The New Yorker, "Killing Joke", by David Denby, offers an overview of the work of Joel and Ethan Coen.

I don't agree with all of Denby's comments (I think Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink are much better films than he does, and it seems I like Cormac McCarthy's novel far more) but it's still a good read, and he says very nice things about The Big Lebowski.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Give them what they (say they don't) want

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article on that perennial favourite: liberal bias in academia. (Via)

In my own experiences in the academic worlds of three different countries (the US, Britain and Germany) I have indeed found more 'liberals' amongst university teachers and researchers than there are 'conservatives'. However, those inverted commas should suggest to you that I think these are far from precise labels, especially across three different countries. (And I'm using 'liberal' to mean left(ish) of centre rather than talking about, say, 'classical liberals'.)

On the other hand, this general observation is more limited than it sounds.

First, by the faculties I've tended to be in -- humanities, languages -- which tend, I think, to be more liberal than, say, law, business and -- maybe -- science.

Second, by the fact that 'liberal' doesn't often mean that much these days and if you poke a liberal's opinions on many topics you may find that they're often what I would call quite 'conservative' about certain issues. Similarly, 'conservative' can mean anything from bug-eyed creationist wacko to moderate quasi-libertarian.

Third, by the fact that I think that whole discussion is often a very silly one: sure, the numbers might be skewed, but it has always been easy enough for me to find conservative scholars in any academic context I've been in. (They're usually pretty easy to identify, as they're the ones complaining loudly about how there aren't any conservative scholars). I'm not convinced that professorial indoctrination -- outside of some unfortunately very high profile exceptions -- is remotely as big a problem as is often made out.

In any case, the article at the Chronicle describes research by a husband and wife team of acadmics (he's conservative, she's liberal...I bet you can just feel the scorching Carville-Matalinesque frisson crackling away simply by reading the titles of their articles...).

Now, there are a few further points to note. First, their research seems to confirm what we might call common sense:

What they found was that students who believed their professors had the same politics they did rated a course more highly than students who didn't. The Woessners also found that students were less interested in a course when they believed their professors' political views clashed with their own.

Yep, m'kay. Then, called before the Pennsylvania legislature to testify about their findings, they gave some startling advice:

Since their research showed that students were turned off when professors expressed views that were contrary to their own, the Woessners told lawmakers that professors should do their best to present both sides of a political argument and tread lightly when it comes to expressing their own views.

Mmmmm...hhmmmm. Ok, I hope we've all learned something new today.

I'm not saying, of course, that having hard research that backs up common sense positions is a bad thing. It just seems to be rolled out with such fanfare by the Chronicle that I found myself a bit underwhelmed.

But I think my favourite little nugget of information doesn't get enough attention. Buried in there somewhere toward the end we find:

The research led the Woessners to conclude that if higher education wants to attract more conservatives to the professoriate, it should smooth the way financially, offering subsidized health insurance and housing for graduate students, and adopting family-friendly policies for professors.

Yes: to attract conservatives to academia offer them subsidies and liberal family leave policies.


Somehow I don't imagine that would make paranoid loon David Horowitz (sadly not a rare breed) quietly disappear.

Though it would be worth a shot.

And while all those conservative graduates are dazzled by the cheap housing and free child care, liberals can finally implement their long-term dream of taking over Wall Street.

[Cue maniacal, echoing laughter.]

Sunday, February 17, 2008

From the ridiculous ....

Since a nice person whom I don't even know personally has suggested that I ought to contribute more to this blog, a brief piece of trivia at the end of the day.

Avid Mail reader that I am, I've been following "Macca vs Mucca" with gleeful disgust (or disgusted glee, whatever you like) and was duly awed by -- was it Friday's? -- impressive divorce settlement (which my favourite tabloid put down to Ms Mills' "bizarre velvet power suit" -- "bizarre" being one of its favourite words at the moment, coming third after "baby bump" and "trout pout").

What I found even more astounding was her announcement that she is planning to settle in ... dig this: Poland or the Czech Republic.

Apparently it's because property prices are so much lower in Eastern Europe than in Britain. Is she aware that people speak different there, I wonder?

Whether or not this is some kind of revenge (masterminded, of course, by a certain xenophobic Tory rag) upon all those Polish plumbers, cleaning ladies, hotel receptionists and general maintainers of a state of orderliness in a certain insignificant (and tacky) sceptred isle in the North Sea, I don't know -- I reckon she's just letting all of us who care to listen know how hard up she is these days.

After reading about her plight this morning, I was excited to find evidence of a very similar exodus in the late nineteenth century. Sheridan LeFanu's Gothic novella Carmilla (1872) begins as follows:

In Styria, we, though by no means magnificent people, inhabit a castle, or schloss. A small income, in that part of the world, goes a great way. Eight or nine hundred a year does wonders. Scantily enough ours would have answered among wealthy people at home. My father is English, and I bear an English name, although I never saw England. But here, in this lonely and primitive place, where everything is so marvellously cheap, I really don't see how ever so much more money would at all materially add to our comforts, or even luxuries.

My father was in the Austrian service, and retired upon a pension and his patrimony, and purchased this feudal residence, and the small estate on which it stands, a bargain.

So there you go -- nothing new under the sun. Britons have always left their green and pleasant land for lonely and primitive places where everything is so marvellously cheap -- just ignore the rabid vampires that come with the demesne.

Might as well go to bed then (though I'll probably dream of Heather Mills as vampirella haunting a picturesque but draughty Bohemian castle).

Night, night, sleep tight .... don't let the bedbugs etc., etc.

The limitless abyss of the irrational mind

From a New York Times article on Susan Jacoby's interesting-sounding new book, The Age of American Unreason:

But now, Ms. Jacoby said, something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way.

Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.

She pointed to a 2006 National Geographic poll that found nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t think it is necessary or important to know where countries in the news are located. So more than three years into the Iraq war, only 23 percent of those with some college could locate Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel on a map. (Emphasis added.)

An anecdote from Jacoby's story explaining how she came to write the book is even more distressing.

It occurred on September 11th, 2001:

Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment, she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.

I'm aware that the fact such episodes cause me almost physical forms of discomfort may be a sign of a certain pedantic streak in my character; however, the extent to which people seem to hold such confused notions about basic geography and chronology leaves me no choice.

And I believe Jacoby's anecdote is largely true: a college-educated friend asked me a few years ago whether Germany had democracy or not. I was tempted to tell him about the hereditary monarch that rules over us and the onerous feudal dues that we owe to the local liege lord, but I resisted. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that he would have believed me had I done so.

In a different context today, Dale says some very worthwhile things about scientific illiteracy and what approaches may (and may not) be useful in addressing it.

He notes correctly:
There is nothing in the furniture of the universe that makes it inevitable that mankind will, on balance, choose reality (messy, difficult, counterintuitive) over delusion (comforting, easy, clean).
And a very fine example of that can be found in an article by Steven Novella at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry on the myths of the modern anti-vaccination movement. (Via A&L Daily and The Wife)

It is a depressing read in so far as it demonstrates how ineffective reason, evidence and the scientific method can be when faced with the contortions of conspiracy-minded rationalisation:

The forces of irrationality are arrayed on this issue. There are conspiracy theorists, well-meaning but misguided citizen groups who are becoming increasingly desperate and hostile, irresponsible journalists, and ethically compromised or incompetent scientists. The science itself is complex, making it difficult for the average person to sift through all the misdirection and misinformation. Standing against all this is simple respect for scientific integrity and the dedication to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Right now the evidence leads to the firm conclusion that vaccines do not cause autism. Yet, if history is any guide, the myth that they do cause autism will likely endure even in the face of increasing contradictory evidence.

As the article demonstrates clearly (if depressingly) there is no amount of evidence from the real world that can move a truly committed believer.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Carry On down the underground ....

Here's a piece of hypocrisy for you, if ever there was one. In the country of omnipresent tits and bums, where high street stores sell push-up bras for toddlers (as well as ambiguously named children's beds), a piece of serious continental European art like that on the left is deemed too risqué to be displayed on the Tube.

Please accept my apologies for being common tonight, but this is really painful to read.

Especially since Lucas Cranach the Elder, the painter, was a fellow Franconian. Separated by a few centuries, but still ....

And it is a truly beautiful painting. And not too sexy to be displayed here.

I've been Normed

My normblog profile has just appeared. It's an honour to be in such illustrious company.

Those of you arriving at our humble abode here for the first time may find the recent Best of 2007 post of interest.

Otherwise, welcome!

The memory of spaces

It is an odd thing when a massacre occurs in a place you know well. Not only Northern Illinois University or the town of DeKalb in general -- where I spent four years as an undergraduate -- but also more specifically Cole Hall, where yesterday's shooting occurred.

I don't want to over-do my connection to this event: after all, it's been a while since I graduated, and I'm now thousands of miles away. But I know well -- and spent many hours in -- the room where it occurred. I can still vividly recall a wonderful film studies course held there and rather less wonderful (and somewhat torturous) statistics class.

The building is adjacent to the one in which the history department is located, so for my entire time at NIU I'd walk through it on a daily basis.

The Cine Club would show its films there, making it the place that I was first introduced to European cinema.

So the video images from the snow covered campus have had a strange effect somewhere in my brain, dredging up a lot of memories. Most of them quite happy: DeKalb, though I'd never have thought it at the time, is the kind of place you later can feel nostalgic about.

My thoughts go out to the students and staff, and especially those directly affected.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Is it because I is Bright?

Thanks to Andrew, it occurs to me that I am among the only remaining groups that a majority of Americans say they would not vote for in a presidential election.

Don't worry folks: we shall overcome.

Darwin Day 2008

It is Darwin Day, once again, and I have nothing entirely new to add to the festivities.

Other than to point once again to this amazing handwritten graphic, in which Darwin helped himself to work out the beautiful, elegant and highly explanatory theory of descent with modification. As Richard Dawkins has observed, there are few theories that have given more bang for so little buck.

(Our Richard didn't put it quite so vulgarly, of course.)

It's difficult to know what to do on Darwin Day (Does one dance? Eat something special? Get drunk?), other than to mention that it is Darwin Day.

I can't think of a better thing to do than to support those humble institutions that promote real knowledge about science and evolution in particular.

One of my personal choices is the Grant Museum of Zoology in London. There is a personal connection there, as I often stay in Bloomsbury when I'm in that city and the museum is then right around the corner. It's a tiny place, crammed with skulls, bones and preserved critters of all varieties. But it's quite a lovely little oasis for quiet contemplation in a city that is increasingly hectic, superficial and loud.

They also allow you to 'adopt' a specimen. I've done this for one of their axolotls, about which I've come to feel quite attached. So please go and see him if you have a chance.

And, if you feel so inclined, become a member yourself.

Happy Darwin Day!

'If angels were to govern men'

By a quite unplanned series of links, I stumbled across The Federalist#51 and read it for probably the first time since high school.

It was far more interesting than I remembered it to be, and one passage struck me not only because of its insight but because of its odd poetry. (Eighteenth-century English is often tiresome and needlessly florid, but perhaps for that reason there are exceptions that stand out all the more clearly.)

It is part of an argument by the author, James Madison, about the necessity of 'checks and balances' between different departments of government:

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

There is, obviously, a great deal of context--both personal and political--in which this passage (and the essay as a whole) could be placed, and I'm far from an expert on this (or any other) period of American history.

But simply as a statement in itself, I think it has stood up quite well, over the centuries.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Argue amongst yourself

I haven't yet commented on the Archbishop of Canterbury's truly interesting suggestion to allow the introduction of sharia into certain areas of British law. This is partly because I've been busy doing other things and partly because other people have been doing such a good job in pointing out what a absolutely Bad Idea this is.

And now, I have just found another very fine argument against his suggestion:

The problem here is that recognising the authority of a communal religious court to decide finally and authoritatively about such a question would in effect not merely allow an additional layer of legal routes for resolving conflicts and ordering behaviour but would actually deprive members of the minority community of rights and liberties that they were entitled to enjoy as citizens; and while a legal system might properly admit structures or protocols that embody the diversity of moral reasoning in a plural society by allowing scope for a minority group to administer its affairs according to its own convictions, it can hardly admit or 'license' protocols that effectively take away the rights it acknowledges as generally valid.
Yes and yes.

It is, of course, curious that this very good argument against introducing sharia derives from a rare moment of clarity in the otherwise very muddy treatise written by the good Arch B himself.

The point made there is quite fundamental, and little of the tortured, jargonistic prose that Williams musters in working his way round it is remotely convincing.

Ophelia has waded in and dragged a few of the more important fragments from the swampy muck, including the one above. Working through the original is a tough slog, one that I must admit I've not yet completed and am not sure I will.

But I wonder: when did establishment Christianity start sounding so much like post-modern waffle? Or has it always been that way and I've just not noticed?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Gerda Taro

Der Spiegel has an article (in German) on the work of photographer Gerda Taro.

If you click on one of the photos at the article, you should see a series of her photographs.

I had not previously been aware of her work (she appears to have been overshadowed by her colleague and companion Robert Capa), but a quick look around also brought up a slide show at the New York Times.

I particularly like this one:

Captioned by the Times: 'A photograph of a woman in Barcelona, Spain training for a Republican militia in August 1936, taken by Gerda Taro. '

Her story is fascinating but sad:

Ms. Taro’s celebrity was short-lived but outsize. Shortly after establishing herself independently of Mr. Capa, she was sideswiped by a tank after jumping onto the running board of a car transporting casualties during the battle of Brunete, and killed. Her funeral in Paris (on Aug. 1, 1937, which would have been her 27th birthday) drew thousands who hailed her as a martyr to anti-Fascism. The French writer Louis Aragon and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda were among those in attendance. Alberto Giacometti, the sculptor, designed her memorial.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Tripped up by memory

Two comments related to the issue of historical memory and personal responsibility.

Norm has some words about memory and the Holocaust, responding to an article by Susan Neiman in the New York Times.

Neiman is concerned that the attention given to doomed resistance to the Nazi regime (say, the Scholls or Stauffenberg) may be a problem in so far as it suggests standing up to oppression, while noble, is futile. It runs the risk, therefore, of encouraging passivity against signs of emergent tyranny in the generations that follow, particularly among today's youth.

Her counterexample is the demonstration by a group of non-Jewish wives of Jewish men in 1943 in Berlin's Rosenstrasse against their husband's deportation. The result was a success that, Neiman says, is 'not well known'.

Norm observes:

Neiman is obviously right that cases like the Rosenstrasse protest should not be forgotten. But the fact is that in the overall story of what happened they are relatively rare. The only picture that will provide 'the right sort of memory' is a full picture - recording such episodes of heroism, to be sure, but also giving them their proper weight; and this means focusing very much on what happened to the victims and on the many attempts at resistance that were defeated. It means that there must be different modes, different episodes and details, of remembrance.

It is worth recalling that there are some who object to stories of Holocaust rescue, such as that portrayed in the movie Schindler's List, because stories of rescue supposedly tell you the 'good news' coming out of the Holocaust, when there was none. The objection is wrong-headed, in my view. There wasn't much good news, but some there was; and it has to be told, while being given its proper - proportionate - place. But adequate memorialization is bound to give full weight to the experience of the victims, as to the failure of so much anti-Nazi resistance, otherwise it will falsify what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945.

He's right, and I think the emphasis on the 'different modes, different episodes and details, of remembrance' is an important one. The idea that there is only one way of remembering the war (and what preceded it) is one of the reasons why there are so many recurrent and frustrating debates about competing ways to remember it. There are better and worse ways, more and less complete, and, not to be forgotten, quite radically different experiences to be remembered.

I am leaving aside, of course, the various forms of 'revisionism' and 'denial' which are not in any way legitimate forms of remembrance but are rather attempts at distortion, whitewash and forgetting.

But that leaves quite enough room for discussion about how to remember.

(Incidentally, I find Nieman's characterisation of the Rosenstrasse demonstration as somehow 'not well known' or obscure to be exaggerated. It was the subject of a reasonably high-profile feature film in Germany in 2003.)

One of the memorials I have found most affecting is referred to in Neiman's article: the Stolpersteine ('stumbling blocks') by artist Gunter Demning.

These brass plaques are set into the street in front of buildings where Holocaust victims once lived, and they bear their names and brief information about their fates.

One of the reasons I like them is the obvious way they avoid the centralised monumentalism of other memorials (not necessarily only a bad thing, but also somehow incomplete) and help to insert remembrance subtly into everyday life.

Although more attention seems to go to the stones in big cities, our small town on the Rhine has several. Any time I walk into town, for instance, I have to pass this group of Stolpersteine:

And I am reminded every time that the Marcus family, who were in some sense neighbours (separated only by one lifetime), were sent off to Theresianstadt and Auschwitz to die.

Is this an encouraging memory? One that inspires resistance to tyranny? I don't know. But it strikes me that it's both an honest and effective way of demonstrating how the enormity of the Holocaust--and that of the broader events in which it occurred--was built upon countless individual stories.

No form of memory is perfect, and some have expressed qualms about the project. Charlotte Knoblauch, now president of the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland thought it, as reported by the Telegraph, '"unbearable" that people would be "stepping all over" the names of murdered Jews.' A Boston Globe article also makes clear that they remain controversial.

But I find them very effective.

On a rather different note, but still on the topic of memory, Peter Ryley remembers Ruth and Eddie Frow, founders of the Working Class Movement Library. Along with being grateful for making me aware of this remarkable-sounding institution, I think his comments are worth reading:

Ruth and Eddie were unceasingly kind, patient and helpful, and were even willing to share a frugal lunch. And, as the Guardian obituary makes clear, they were members of the Communist Party. They were members through the Stalin years, through the invasion of Hungary, through the crushing of the Prague Spring; loyal members. At this point Oliver Kamm would be reaching for his worst epithets and calling them the moral equivalent of fascists. Yes, they were "fellow travellers" with Stalinism, yet these bookish people were a million miles away from the horror of the gulags and their hatred of oppression was palpable.

What this says to me is that, though totalitarian theory is an immensely useful tool for analysing types of regimes, ideologies and movements, it does not tell you much about the people who become involved unless you look at the aims and ideals that the movement purports to advance.

I can assure you that I would not have been comfortable in the company of fascists. Fascism celebrates violence, hatred and racism. Fascists also like to practice all three. Communists like Ruth and Eddie thought they were a part of a movement that would bring peace, justice and harmony; one that would end violence, hatred and racism. It is a big difference. They mistook the declaratory purpose for the reality and either blinded themselves to that reality or saw it as an aberration that could be reformed and the ideal restored. This didn't make them bad people. Others set out not only to apologise for Stalinism but to also falsify reality in full knowledge of their deceit and dishonesty. They are the villains of the piece.

The difference, I would agree, is an important one.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

That's a fact jack

At Slate, Fred Kaplan considers the size of President Bush's current military budget proposal.

The official amount requested is, shall we say, rather more than spare change, but Kaplan considers that real military spending is far higher:

As usual, it's about $200 billion more than most news stories are reporting. For the proposed fiscal year 2009 budget, which President Bush released today, the real size is not, as many news stories have reported, $515.4 billion—itself a staggering sum—but, rather, $713.1 billion.
Adjusted for inflation this is the largest military budget since the Second World War. And it does not include the supplemental funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To put this into perspective, the president from the party of 'small government' plans to spend nearly as much on the military alone (excluding the current wars, remember), as Spiegel points out, as Germany spends on its entire federal budget.

Now, I'm not against military spending per se (it's a nasty world out there), but one might well question the amount, considering that the US and its allies are outspending the potentially threatening nations by a fairly hefty amount.

And there is reason to doubt that the good citizens of America are really getting their money's worth. As Kaplan points out:

There is another way to probe this question. Look at the budget share distributed to each of the three branches of the armed services. The Army gets 33 percent, the Air Force gets 33 percent, and the Navy gets 34 percent.

As I have noted before (and, I'm sure, will again), the budget has been divvied up this way, plus or minus 2 percent, each and every year since the 1960s. Is it remotely conceivable that our national-security needs coincide so precisely—and so consistently over the span of nearly a half-century—with the bureaucratic imperatives of giving the Army, Air Force, and Navy an even share of the money? Again, the question answers itself. As the Army's budget goes up to meet the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force's and Navy's budgets have to go up by roughly the same share, as well. It would be a miracle if this didn't sire a lot of waste and extravagance.

Yes. A miracle.

Another faith-based policy in action.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Come fly with me

This is cool. An interactive panoramic view of the cockpit of an Airbus A380.

Worth noting: the many cup holders.

Long-haul flights are undoubtedly thirsty work.

(Via David Thompson)