11/25/14

“A Lot of Wildness and a Lot of Construction”

As anyone who has had more than three drinks with me has already heard, I used to cut grass for Mr. Allen Tate in Nashville, Tennessee. He must have been in his middle 70s, I in my early teens. When I was done cutting the grass, we would sit on the porch with a glass of lemonade and Mr. Tate would tell me about Paris in the 20s. Not only that, but he urged me to read Baudelaire, the best literary advice I ever got.

For a number of reasons largely to do with his identification with the antebellum planter society of the South, Mr. Tate is not talked about much these days. So it was a surprise just now to run across this series of fleeting glimpses, the walk-on version of a literary life: “Talking Tate: A Fake Oral History.”

mareymotion

11/25/14

Remedying

Another article about the failures of international aid, this time from the New Republic, and I fear the overall effect of such think-pieces will be to validate the indifference of people who were looking for a reason not to help others anyway. It’s true that celebrity jaunts to Africa, etc., have little lasting effect except perhaps on the celebrity’s public image. That’s a problem with the culture of celebrity, not of aid. It’s also true that sudden infusions of money into an economy are apt to destabilize and to have perverse effects. That’s a problem of bad planning. White Land Rovers? I would recommend steering clear of any project that involves the purchase of many white Land Rovers.

The article suggests that low overhead is not in and of itself a good marker of charitable effectiveness, that spending money on fund-raising is often a precondition for having an effect: well, here I think you must use your judgment about what is the tail and what is the dog. A low tail-to-dog ratio matters when deciding where to put one’s donations, but it’s best to concentrate on questions such as these (also legible between the lines of the article): have the intended beneficiaries themselves expressed a desire for the planned interventions? Is there a concrete plan for engagement on the part of the beneficiary population, rather than a scheme in the heads of well-intentioned First Worlders to build something, feel good about it, and abandon it? “First, do no harm” is a rule worth following even if you’re not a medical worker.

Most important is to have an accurate sense of the economic flows among which a development-assistance plan will exist. How much of the money flowing in and out of a given country is dedicated to arms procurement, to food assistance, to financial whizzbangery (including corruption)? How much does the local economy rely on expatriates remitting their paychecks? What’s up for sale, in terms of natural resources or the vital interests of the residents, and what is protected (and how well) from rent-seeking investors? The perplexed, such as yours truly, appreciate a sense of proportion about all these things.

11/11/14

Le Buzz

An article in Le Monde supplies background to the latest French best-seller, a work of cultural polemics that whines about the eclipse of “la vieille France,” bemoans the rise of feminism and makes excuses for Vichy. The purpose of this sad amalgam, which apparently pleases enough people that it is close to outselling Modiano, the recent Nobel laureate, is to make respectable the positions of the far-right Front National. And why are we even hearing about it? Because of such cultural entrepreneurs as this:

Catherine Barma, a formidable business-woman… daughter of the star producer of the French Radio-Television Network, ex-party girl, no great student, cultivates the big names of the time and picks the participants of her TV panels like the counter of a bar. She knows how clashes that make for “le buzz”  on YouTube and those who sigh that ‘you can’t say anything today’ are beloved by the 21st century.

When asked to explain her support for this Eric Zemmour who minimizes the issue of extermination camps and champions Pétain and Le Pen, Catherine Barma reads from prepared cards her excuse that “I haven’t read Robert Paxton [the historian who made it impossible to keep sweeping pétainism under the rug]. In general, when there is a conflict, I’m always on the side of the oppressed.”

And in the magical world of French TV, the “oppressed,” we are to infer, are the reactionaries. So this man who owes his existence to the egalitarian institutions of the Fifth Republic inasmuch as he would have been cheerfully exterminated by Vichy now exploits his good fortune to complain about the fact that Pétain’s “nationalist revolution” is no longer in favor. I really have no polite words to designate such trash, so will simply roll my eyes and make the international gesture for vomiting.

And a PS for Ms. Barma: if you don’t have the time or energy to read Robert Paxton, perhaps you or one of your assistants could read his Wikipedia page. Or here, I’ll make it even easier for you by pulling out a few high points:

Paxton bouleverse la lecture de l’histoire du régime de Vichy en affirmant que le gouvernement de Vichy a non seulement collaboré en devançant les ordres allemands : il a aussi voulu s’associer à l’« ordre nouveau » des nazis avec son projet de Révolution nationale…. Pétain et Laval ont toujours recherché la collaboration avec l’Allemagne nazie, et multiplié jusqu’au bout les signes et les gages de leur bonne volonté à s’entendre avec le vainqueur, allant souvent spontanément au-devant des exigences allemandes.

Loin d’avoir protégé les Français, le concours de Vichy a permis aux Allemands de réaliser plus facilement tous leurs projets — pillage économique et alimentaire, déportation des Juifs, exil forcé de la main-d’œuvre en Allemagne.

This is what you “haven’t read,” and a fair outline of what, by your choice of protagonists, you’ve chosen to support. Ignorance is no argument. Even if, as people say, “nobody reads any more.”

11/10/14

Preconditions for Actual Politics

Once upon a time, in a country famed for its turkeys and large automobiles, little boys and girls learned in civics class and by watching the Perry Mason show that nobody could just bust into your house without a warrant showing probable cause. You might be sure that a person had done something wrong, but you couldn’t force them to confess to it. And you might be mad at them after you’d proved they’d done it, but you couldn’t subject them to “cruel and unusual punishment.” You couldn’t even make them swear on a Bible in open court if they didn’t want to.

I’m soon going to be explaining how the world works to a few little guys who rely on me for much of their information. And I’m afraid that when it comes to these old certainties, my message about inviolable human rights will be in the more complex form of “they aren’t supposed to violate them, but they will try, so be on your lookout.” Continue reading

11/8/14

Disincentives for Disincentivizing

Larry Lessig’s organization MAYDAY PAC attempted to support candidates who would push for comprehensive campaign reform and an end to the systemic corruption described in Lessig’s recent books Republic Lost, One Way Forward, and Lesterland. I was one of the many people who sent money to this effort. Sadly, not much came of it. In an email sent yesterday to supporters, Lessig drew a few lessons, among them:

A significant chunk of actual voters rank our issue as the most important. These voters are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. And in the right context, we believe the data show that they can be rallied to the cause.

The important qualification in that sentence, however, is also the most important lesson that this cycle taught me: “in the right context.” What 2014 shows most clearly is the power of partisanship in our elections. Whatever else voters wanted, they wanted first their team to win.

Continue reading

10/18/14

Rosy-Fingered Barbara

One morning a few years ago, I was riding to the office after dropping off the kids at school. Slightly ahead of me, somebody opened the door of a parked car without looking back. I swerved, so the door didn’t hit me, but the kid trailer tangled with the edge of the door and left a scratch on it. Nobody was hurt. I stopped to size up the situation. It was obviously the driver’s fault– you’re supposed to look in the mirror before you open a door on a public street– but she wanted very much to put the matter on another footing. “You bicyclists!” she started out. “You guys just run all the stop signs and act like you own the streets. You must think having a fancy bicycle gives you the right to break the law! And I’m sick and tired of it! And now here you come along scratching my car! You’re going to pay for the damage!”

I tried to point out the irrelevance of these remarks and to get the discussion back to its main point, as I saw it, which was that we’d been lucky nobody got hurt and I hoped she would look in the mirror next time, and too bad about the scratch but it wasn’t something I was responsible for.

Eventually we exhausted our stock of pleasantries and I got back on the road. But the exchange reminded me quite specifically of something I usually try to avoid, but can’t entirely ignore. Namely, public discussion in the era of the comments page.

Continue reading

10/13/14

Philosophy Begins in Wonder

The University of Otago’s Department of Philosophy gives the curious visitor a roisterous picture of the life of the mind in Dunedin.

[The first hire in 1871,] Duncan McGregor, a graduate of the University of Aberdeen… was an electrifying lecturer with a well-developed ‘will to truth’ and pungent opinions on a variety of topics. … When it came to social policy, he thought that the ‘hopelessly lazy, the diseased, and [the] vicious’ should be incarcerated for life as a humane alternative to the process of Darwinian selection which would otherwise have weeded them out. McGregor resigned in 1886… and, fortified by his fifteen years as a philosopher, went on to become the Inspector–General of Lunatic Asylums.

[J. N.] Findlay … devoted a Sabbatical to sitting at the feet of Wittgenstein in Cambridge and acting as his official ‘stooge’. (His job was to feed Wittgenstein tough questions when the painfully long silences became too excruciating.) But before he could take up his position as stooge he had to own up to his philosophical sins. Sitting in a Cambridge milk-bar, Findlay had to confess to the frightful crime of having visited Rudolf Carnap in Chicago. Wittgenstein was magnanimous. ‘[He] said that he did not mind except that he would lose his milk-shake if Carnap [were] mentioned again.’

At a conference in Florence, [Alan] Musgrave read a typically forceful paper ‘Conceptual Idealism and Stove’s Gem’ which concluded with the ringing words: ‘Conceptual Idealism is a ludicrous and anti-scientific view of the world. … We should take science seriously, reject the Gem for the invalid argument that it is, and abandon the idealism to which it leads.’ There was a burst of applause followed by dead silence. The chairman, to get things going, asked if there any conceptual idealists present who would like to comment on Professor Musgrave’s paper. ‘Not any more’, came a voice from the back.

Every academic department should write a history in this mode. For the whole (delightful) thing, go to http://www.otago.ac.nz/philosophy/history.html.

For the philologically minded: the department’s Maori name is Te Tari Whakaaroaro. The dictionary tells me that “whakaaroaro” means “reflection or “meditation” but the elements, “whaka” plus “aroaro,” seem to add up to “making present that which is present.” Anyone with better insight into the history and connotations of the term is invited to straighten us out in the comments box.

10/7/14

Ebb and wane

The penguin trudged up the beach at the end of the day like a tired commuter returning home.

The tired commuter returned home like a penguin trudging up the beach at the end of the day.

09/30/14

Meeting the Boss

And now for a word from our sponsor. Here is the Coffea arabica tree, just starting to bud. I owe these green leafy fellows more than I can say. O Kaffeebaum, O Kaffeebaum, the forest shade thy berries!

coffea-arabica

09/18/14

Announcing “Travel Pentimento”

For a fee, we will take away the unnecessary things you’ve packed (as you realize, having arrived at your destination and sized up the weather or the social expectations), fly to your closet back home, pull out the things you should have brought, and bring them back to you, wherever you are. How much of a fee? If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be asking.

09/15/14

Hard Cheese

Tim Parks is a man who is pissed off because he had to do the footnotes for his own book. Big whoop. “It’s all available on the Internet, so why give page numbers?” Answer: Do you know how many dead sites there are on the Internet? Do you know how many “big” sites we all relied on are either gone or will be gone? Do you know how terrible the Internet Archive’s coverage really is once you start trying to use it for something useful? Do you know how often the “redundant,” “distributed” cloud services like Amazon AWS fail? Do you remember when Google just dropped its news reader service, used by countless millions? You probably don’t, Mr. Parks. Books are the original distributed database, seeded throughout the world in “austere libraries.” Wipe out one library, burn one book, the rest are still there. So put in those page numbers, and STFU.

09/14/14

Childcare in the Mode of the Gift

“We recognize that all tamariki come to us with their own mana. As such, the mana of our tamariki will be respected and kept intact at all times and in all situations. We preserve their mauri and their wairua alike.”

Sign me and my tamariki up! And if it’s not an impiety to do so, list Marcel Mauss as godfather.

09/14/14

Thrown For a Loop

The disorientation of the first days in a new country is familiar. The vowels are different; the natives have their own ways of packaging yogurt; you don’t know how to pay for the bus; people around you are helpful, amused, impatient, or all of these. But to look up into the night sky and see different stars– that’s almost the stuff of science fiction.

09/6/14

The Hoax of the Hoax

I was bracing myself for a round of Sokal-ish denunciations of “theory” and its supposed empire after it was revealed that Slavoj Zizek had lifted some paragraphs from a white-supremacist publication in an article he published a few years ago in Critical Inquiry. But maybe it was summer (the equivalent of the weekend in national news) and nobody was noticing. Or maybe nobody cares enough to shout. Continue reading

09/5/14

Everybody’s Crying Mercy

A. If he had tweeted, “Condoleeza Rice. Justifying racism since 2000,” I hope you would have been offended, even if you don’t like Condoleeza Rice.

If he had forwarded a tweet that called for Nicholas Kristof to be stabbed in a dark alley, I hope you would recognize this as a threat to journalistic freedom, even if you think Nicholas Kristof is a bit of a bore.

B. If a Provost is groping around for a Value on which to build a free-speech doctrine that will exclude the harmful stuff and enable the good, “respect” is a terrible candidate for such Value-mongering. Every small-time bully goes around looking for “respect.” The Geocentrists are offended that Heliocentrism is taught to freshmen. The religious misogynists are convinced that the provision of gynecological services to adult women on campus is an affront to their need for “respect.” Everyone’s appetite for “respect” is infinite. There is no way such a Value can contain a check on tyranny.

What you should have done, O Provost in charge of speech policy, is enunciate clearly the kinds of speech that are not protected. Threats of violence or retaliation, expressions of group hatred, that sort of thing. You don’t want to have a chilling effect. Thinking and exchange can and maybe should disturb, if they are to be effective. But the “freedom” to bully diminishes the freedom of the bullied and corrupts the space of conversation. And you don’t want to give yourself an unchecked authority to decide what demands for “respect” are going to be honored, and which not. Unless that was the point.

C. Brothers and sisters in the profession, “academic freedom” is not “the freedom you have because you’re an academic.” It is the freedom to do and say certain things without fear of retaliation, in the service of teaching and research. One grants the distinction readily in cases of cheating or plagiarism– such people have forgone the academic purpose. I think it would be neither wise nor moral to grant ourselves special caste prerogatives. People resent us enough already.

 

09/3/14

“Oh yes. English. Am not concerned with royalty though. Or patriotism in any form. Or soccer.”

In memory of Michael Toussaint Stowers (1963-2014)

Olga Solovieva became friends with Michael Toussaint Stowers on January 17, 2011 (FaceBook)

My friendship with Michael Stowers was fully and totally electronically mediated. I saw him at a conference in Cambridge in June of 2008: a somewhat baggy figure of a guy in dark blue jeans and a dark blue T-shirt with longish hair wandering around the lecture hall. He drew my attention because of his typical look of a lefty, alternative intellectual as I have known them only in Berlin. In the corporate American academic establishments that have been suffocating me for years you won’t meet free spirits, but in England you still can. So he drew my attention, nostalgically, reminding me of my European past and the type of people I loved to hang out with. Continue reading

08/31/14

Michael Toussaint Stowers

We at Printculture mourn the death on August 29 of our sometime contributor, questioner, joker, friend and all-round gadfly. If ever proof was needed that electronically mediated friendships can be as solid as those In Real Life, Michael’s many friends can provide it. Michael, we are hobbled without you.

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I met Michael at a conference at Cambridge where the remit was to show how the humanities and sciences could learn from each other. My piece was an attempt to reread Dilthey’s famous distinction between the natural sciences, which explain, and the human sciences, which interpret– and I forget what new spin I was trying to bring to the familiar chestnut. Michael came up afterwards and, in that quiet, diffident tone that in England usually signals that the speaker really knows what he’s talking about, confessed to being an engineer and raised a few questions about my talk, easily the best questions I got on that outing. We got into the habit of email exchanges about methodology, music, medicine, melancholia, and other marvels, and I’m proud that here on PC we occasionally said something that made him rush to his keyboard. He was someone I was counting on hearing from for many years to come.

08/29/14

But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.

While flying late this summer, I noticed while boarding that most of the passengers were frequent flyers, of the Gold, Silver, Platinum, Titanium, Molybdenum, Diamond, Sapphire, Emerald, Ruby, and Peridot varieties. They all boarded first, followed by customers of various airline alliances, followed by people who had paid $21 to follow them, followed by the ragtag rabble such as myself. My brother, who just missed out on Platinum this year, has explained that because all the airlines have merged, all their frequent flyer programs have merged as well. This has the effect of creating a permanent underclass of infrequent leisure travelers. I suppose, if there is anything to be thankful for, it is that the airline I flew did not arrange for passengers to deplane in order of rank, as I would have surely died of apoplexy.

08/20/14

War Theology

Karl Barth was studying theology in Berlin in August 1914. He later recalled that

The actual end of the 19th century as the ‘good old days’ came for theology as for everything else with the fateful year of 1914.  … One day in early August 1914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war-policy of Wilhelm II and his counsellors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. (Barth, “Evangelical Theology in the Nineteenth Century,” The Humanity of God, p. 14)

The “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three” was probably copied from press releases of the propaganda department. It strikes the usual notes of hypocritical humanism: no German soldier ever committed an atrocity, it was “with aching hearts [that they] were obliged to fire a part of the town [of Louvain], as punishment,” the “wild Russian hordes” are the real danger to civilization, and so forth. Anything bad you might have heard about the German armies is just a fantasy of the perfidious British and French propaganda units. Bits of it are still being recycled today, wherever the bullets fly and after-action press conferences are held. 

Here is the university library of Louvain, before and after the passage of the troops:

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The main author of the “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three” (published apparently in October, not August 1914) was Adolf von Harnack, the historian of early Christian dogma, first president of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gesellschaft (precursor of modern research institutions), etc., etc. Now a German professor of the nineteenth century had to be one of the proudest individuals on the face of the earth. His wife made him coffee; his adoring students poured him tea and copied down his every remark; he was the lord and master of his seminar room; he wrote books of never less than 1000 pages in order to confute his enemies; he went about in a silk hat and was addressed as “Herr Doktor Professor” or, if he had an administrative appointment, as “Eminenz.” If one was Harnack, one made a special point of insisting that no institution, no Church or State, could prevail against the demands of the individual conscience (see Das Wesen des Christentums [1902], pp. 171-172). Here is Harnack at the dedication of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gesellschaft in 1911, walking on the left side of the Kaiser, in his silk hat:

Einweihung des Kaiser-Wilhelm-Instituts in Dahlem

A proud man, a fine man, a much respected man, but not, in this instance, a very courageous or independent man. Rather, he assumed that the wind was at his back and that everybody thought the way the General Staff thought.

So before signing a petition that all your friends are signing, pause to think about Adolf von Harnack. And about Karl Barth, who went back home and tried to live out his personal reading of the Gospels by joining a workers’ cooperative. (Lucky man, he had a Switzerland to go home to.)

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