January 31, 2004

More on Paleo-Marxism

Posted by shonk at 11:37 PM in Geek Talk , Politics | permalink | 3 comments

I think Curt’s analysis of Slavoj Žižek’s “What Is To Be Done (With Lenin)?” is spectacularly dead-on. This, to me, is especially prescient:

While no one could agree more as to the vacuity and superfluousness of the meaningless choices with which we are confronted every day, especially that between the twin puppets of electoral politics, insisting that we reject them wholesale and embrace on a societal level the “real,” “dangerous” choices which lie beneath them, the sort of massive overturnings embodied by Lenin, seems to me to be an attempt to apply a parablist’s psychology to politics, a hideous monster in my opinion.

As I see it, the “parablist’s psychology” of the piece stems from the fact that Žižek’s (and Lenin’s) distinction between “formal” and “actual” freedoms has a lot to do with their frustration that people simply cannot choose the impossible. For example:

Can you no longer rely on the standard health insurance and retirement plan, so that you have to opt for additional coverage for which you have to pay? Why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either better life now or long-term security? And if this predicament causes you anxiety, the postmodern or “second modernity” ideologist will immediately accuse you of being unable to assume full freedom, of indulging in the “escape from freedom,” of the immature sticking to old stable forms. Even better, when this situation is inscribed into the ideology of the subject as the psychological individual pregnant with natural abilities and tendencies, one automatically interprets all these changes as the results of their personality, not as the result of being thrown around by market forces.

When Žižek says this, he clearly thinks that there is some third alternative other than “better life now or long-term security”. However, the reality is that no system can give people long-term security without degrading their present condition to some extent. This is no less true under socialism, though the fact that the citizenry is given no choice but to forego present wealth for future “security” makes it seem otherwise.

On a somewhat related note, when he discusses the death (if only) of State Socialism and Western Social Democracy, Žižek has this to say:

What these two defeated ideologies shared is the notion that humanity as a collective subject has the capacity to somehow limit impersonal and anonymous socio-historic development, to steer it in a desired direction.

It is in this context, I think, that it is more appropriate to ask Lenin’s fabled question: “yes, but for whom? To do _what_?” Because it is not just these two ideologies which share “the notion that humanity as a collective subject has the capacity to somehow limit impersonal and anonymous socio-historic development”; this is simply fact. For those that disagree, consider the social norms that prevent you from detailing to their face the character flaws of each person that annoys you, or the aggregate of human actions which makes the suburbs an attractive place to live. No, what distinguishes these two ideologies are two premises that underlie the final clause, “to steer it in a desired direction”.

To even talk about a “desired direction” is to imply that collective desires exist, that there is some collective consciousness existing semi-independently from individual consciousness which has its own desires, perhaps antithetical to the individual desires of its components. When I say a “collective consciousness”, I mean this in a very real sense, as something more than a mere statistical aggregate of individuals. A cynical observer (such as myself) might find a bit of irony in this mystical belief on the part of confirmed materialists, but the presence of the belief is quite real, most prosaically evident in the virtually uniform appellation of a definite article when ideologues of this stripe talk about “the people”.

The second implication underlying this notion of steering “in a desired direction” that distinguishes the ideologies of state socialism and social democracy is that the state reflects the desires of humanity, of the collective consciousness. Note that the emphasis of the above-quoted sentence undergoes a subtle shift: starting with “humanity as a collective subject”, it ends with a call to state action. One would think that a person like Žižek, so critical of current states acting against the needs and desires of people, would recognize that any state is necessarily exclusive and, as such, cannot capture the totality of human desire, that any “desired direction” embraced by a state can, at best, be a poor approximation of what “the people” (to use the usual nomenclature) really want. And that, even were this not the case, the only distinction, fundamentally, between state action and any other action lies in the legal use of force, which means that even if “the people” really do desire what the state supposes they do, they may very well not value that desire above the effects of the application of force necessary to achieve it.

Which brings us back to where we started: one cannot do what is impossible. Much as I am sure we all desire it, there is never a choice that does not have its associated costs, no matter how much thinkers like Žižek talk about undermining “the coordinates of the existing power relations”. That is not to say that many of these “coordinates” should not be undermined, but rather that altering the existing power structure will not make the impossible suddenly possible.

Paleo-Marxists revived!

Posted by Curt at 03:27 PM in Geek Talk , Politics | permalink | 2 comments

I find much fodder for further intellectual rancor in what I suppose purports to be a “re-valuation” of freedom along Leninist lines, with a title that plays off the title of a pamphlet by Lenin. The author and I start off, at any rate, on similar ground. His implicit question, which will find much sympathy at least among the angst-ridden, is the question as to how it is the case that, in a society in which no appreciable political or social limitations constrain us from achieving material and social prosperity that happiness is not more wide-spread. Rather than cavilling as to whether limitations do in fact constrain those whose desires lie outside certain societal norms, kleptomaniacs or serial killers for example, suffice us to re-open the question as to whether free choice can really be equated with happiness.

Lenin, for one, formulated a theory which separated “formal” from “actual” freedom, i.e. tried to make people aware that the simple ability to choose between several alternatives did not necessarily constitute true freedom, because the finite number of options presented to them itself represents a limitation on their freedom. To cut through all the gibberish in the article, the author’s point, quite simply, is that while this distinction in Lenin’s particular case may have been entirely self-serving, a ploy by which one could strip a people of all of their personal liberties in the name of freedom, his wider point has valid application in our society as well as his. And indeed it is not a false distinction to contend that the ability to choose between certain alternatives may not constitute freedom in the wider sense. However, it does not follow that such incomplete freedom necessarily equates to unhappiness, nor that the converse, total lack of constraint, would produce happiness.

In fact, I think the author has a good deal of sympathy for Lenin’s ultimate goals, and recognized that to achieve them would require a good deal of destruction. But this idea should sound the alarm for the rest of us. If the “actual” freedom propounded by Lenin requires the death of millions, not only the means should be criticized but also the goal. If the obstacles to existential freedom are the lives of so many, what kind of an ideal is this? Of course this is the root of my detestation for idealists of any stripe: for them, like mystics and Platonists, this existence we inhabit means nothing, is only a shadow obscuring the ideal, and hence the separate, actual existences of all the many peoples of the world can ultimately not be of the slightest concern or relevance to them, for they are simply the disappointing precursors to the ideal.

Hence, the very notion of “actual” freedom has a whiff of madness lurking upon it, particularly for those who remember Herder’s observation that a man holding a gun near a tower packed with explosives on a dark and stormy night has strange thoughts. Most of us are not disappointed that we ultimately do not realize these wild fantasies and desires, but rather are in the end relieved that something held us back. Nothing is easier to enjoy than the fate to which a man has resigned himself. I do not mean to devalue the concept of freedom entirely, but ultimately it is simply an abstaction with no corollary in the real world, as anyone who has chosen not to die will surely have come to understand (while technically true, I do not accept for a second the rationale behind the sophism that one cannot really choose that which is not possible). While the article may end on a resigned note, speaking of the inevitable limitations on human freedom, that seems to me no more than an emotional intermezzo until the next sensational idelogy plucks up his dreams of immortality again. While no one could agree more as to the vacuity and superfluousness of the meaningless choices with which we are confronted every day, especially that between the twin puppets of electoral politics, insisting that we reject them wholesale and embrace on a societal level the “real,” “dangerous” choices which lie beneath them, the sort of massive overturnings embodied by Lenin, seems to me to be an attempt to apply a parablist’s psychology to politics, a hideous monster in my opinion. We should realize in the end the abstractness of freedom; it is what Hegel called a regulative rather than a nominative end, i.e. a standard to hold one’s own conduct to, but not a real possible mode of human existence.

Dammit, I Should Have Thought of That

Posted by shonk at 01:17 AM in Economics | permalink | comment

In keeping with a recent theme around here (and to sustain the incestuous Trackback cycle), I want to point out another disturbing IP-related development (link courtesy Catallarchy):

Do you know about United States Patent No. 6,671,714? You should. The patent, recently granted to one Frank Weyer of Beverly Hills, California, grants the patent holder full rights to: A method for assigning URL’s and e-mail addresses to members of a group comprising the steps of: assigning each member of said group a URL of the form “name.subdomain.domain”; and assigning each member of said group an e-mail address of the form “name@subdomain.domain; “Sound familiar? Well, it should, because the patent describes what is essentially one of the most basic, most crucial underlying structures of the World Wide Web, namely the domain naming system.

On January 17, 2004, Meyer brought suit against Internet heavyweights Network Solutions, Inc. and Register.com, claiming the two services are infringing upon Meyer’s newly-granted patent. In the suit Meyer claims damages of an unnamed amount and requests an immediate injunction against the two companies. Meyer states that he hopes to “work with” NSI and Register.com to license his patent. NSI and Register.com don’t seem to be cooperating thus far, however.

Let’s just say this whole patent paradigm needs to be rethought.

Speech Codes

Posted by shonk at 12:44 AM in Uncategorized Current Events | permalink | comment

Ah, speech codes. Gotta love ‘em. The one at Illinois State, for example, is so restrictive with regards to drugs and alcohol that a “Just Say No to Drugs” poster would be verboten:

The school’s response was that the University Housing Services policy prohibits (among other things) any “references to alcohol, tobacco and/or illicit drugs,” and the picture of a marijuana leaf and the title “Hempfest” violates this policy. (The e-mail that I quote above quotes another policy, which — according to the school — the flyer also violated.) Obviously, such a policy would literally prohibit a “Just Say No to Drugs” event, since that’s a reference to illicit drugs; likewise, as the group’s legal argument (available at the site cited above) points out, for a support group for alcoholics. And if the policy isn’t applied to such events, that would only show that in reality the policy is viewpoint-based — messages that drugs are bad would be OK, but messages that drugs really aren’t so bad wouldn’t be.

Of course, it hardly even needs be said, but I’ll quote Volokh’s conclusion anyway: “This is quite likely unconstitutional, and pretty clearly a violation of students’ academic freedom.”

January 30, 2004

Quant à moi...

Posted by Curt at 05:50 PM in Words of Wisdom | permalink | 1 comment

Nos vertus ne sont, le plus souvent, que des vices déguisés.
—La Rochefoucauld

(Our virtues are usually nothing but concealed vices.)

La philosophie triomphe aisément des maux passés et des maux à venir, mais les maux présents triomphent d’elle.
—aussi de la Rochefoucauld

(Philosophy easily triumphs over the evils of the past and the evils yet to come, but the evils of the present triumph over it.)

Journalistic Objectivity

Posted by shonk at 12:30 AM in Politics , Words of Wisdom | permalink | 3 comments

I know that when I post quotes from whatever book I’m currently reading, the results aren’t exactly topical in many cases. This one, however, addresses pretty exactly the point Curt made in his last post when he talks about “the great failing of the journalistic philosophy of superficial objectivity” :

It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, “Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe,” or “Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet.” They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complex picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority.

G.K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross

This is precisely the reason why journalism simply cannot be objective. Even were the newspapers written by computers totally deprogrammed of dogmatic bias, the simple fact of the matter is that what is “newsworthy” is not very reflective of life. Bill Hicks, as usual, is much funnier than I:

I don’t understand anything so there you go…you know what my problem is? I watch too much news, man, that’s my problem, that’s why I’m so depressed all the time, I figured it out. I watch too much CNN, man. I don’t know if you’ve ever sat around and watched CNN more than, I don’t know, 20 hours in one day…I don’t recommend that.

Watch CNN Headline News for 1 hour, it’s the most depressing thing you’ll ever fucking do: WAR, FAMINE, DEATH, AIDS, HOMELESS, RECESSION, DEPRESSION. WAR, FAMINE, DEATH, AIDS, HOMELESS…

Then, you look out your window……..“Where’s all this shit happening? Ted Turner’s making this shit up! Jane Fonda won’t sleep with him, he runs to a typewriter. ‘By 1992, we will all die of AIDS; read that on the air. I don’t get laid, no one gets laid!’ I’m writin’ Jane Fonda: ‘Will you fuck this guy so we can get some good news, please?’ “

I want to see a well-laid Ted Turner newscast: “Hey, it’s all going to work out. Here’s sports.”

The point is, what we call “the news” is both real and not real. It’s real in that, most of the time, whatever is on the news really did happen, or at least something relatively similar happened. It’s not real in that what makes the news is by definition unusual, out-of-the-ordinary, likely not reflective of what is happening or will happen in my life. The evening news is the most highly-rated reality show in history, all the more ingenious because of its subtlety. Shows like “Survivor” are just poor approximations, polynomial interpolations of the subtle genius of the evening news. Of course, the genius and naïve are often virtually indistinguishable, and the same holds true in this case. The evening news is genius because it convinces the viewing public that it is important and relevant, but naïve in that those who produce the news often don’t even recognize that what they make is, in a way, no more real than “Survivor”.

The final point I’d like to make on this issue is the following: what I’ve discussed above is, I think, a big reason why everybody thinks the media is biased against their political views. And I do mean everybody. I don’t think very many people recognize this fact. I’m not particularly enamored of the liberal/conservative dichotomy (especially because I quite simply don’t fit into either category), but virtually every “liberal” I know believes fervently that the media is pushing a conservative agenda and virtually every “conservative” I know is convinced of exactly the opposite. One of the reasons, I think, is precisely because the news simply does not cohere to reality very well. I’m convinced that if we could invent a perfectly objective news-gathering and -publishing computer, the majority of politically aware people would still be convinced there was a media bias against their position.

So what’s the solution? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure there is one, but it might be a good start to acknowledge that “journalistic objectivity” is not merely an unattainable goal, but actually a very harmful and oxymoronic conceit.

UPDATE: John Venlet comments with In the News

January 28, 2004

And now for something actually pretty similar

Posted by Curt at 08:11 PM in Economics | permalink | 4 comments

It’s interesting, because I stumbled across a somewhat related article in the same issue of Wired, this one about outsourcing to India. Of course, everyone knows the essence of the issue, even the protectionists seem to have largely abandoned any pretensions to rational argument, and indeed the intellectual vulgarity of their argument is rather breathtaking even if, like me, one never really accepted the notion that any real transformative evolution in anything other than a rhetorical sense has occured in American attitudes since the end of our official political isolationism (more or less) 60 years ago. The obvious inevitability of this economic internationalization almost disappoints me, for the protectionist delusions hardly even seem to need the shattering. The other striking feature of the article is the truly invigorating effect of unabashed bias and even, gasp, argumentation on the part of the writer of an ostensibly investigative article. Of course, it surely helps that I agree with the agenda that the writer is advancing, but even the remaining fervent supporters of “objective” reporting cannot fail to notice how much more exciting and stimulating is an interview in which the interviewer begins arguing with the interviewee and confronting her with the intellectual fatuousness of her position, rather than simply docilely accepting the warring soundbites of ideological opponents and then juxtaposing them without comment. It seems to me that comprehension of most issues of this sort is fundamentally dialectical, and one needs to get a feel for the arguments and counter-arguments in order to actually understand the issue. This is the great failing of the journalistic philosophy of superficial objectivity. That is why I so enjoy posting on this site—instant feedback. However, in this case, I hardly feel that this particular argument even requires that effort: economic protectionism is entirely intellectually indefensible from any perspective. I detect a strong note of pity in the author’s description of the anti-outsourcing activists.

Intellectual Property and Cargo Shipping

Posted by shonk at 11:34 AM in Economics | permalink | 1 comment

I don’t mean to flog what for most of you is probably already a dead horse, but I just wanted to point out this Wired article comparing the prevailing attitude among the big IP industries to that which basically destroyed the the US cargo shipping fleet in the 1970s. Be sure to read the whole article, but here are the concluding two paragraphs:

There’s still time to avoid the shipping industry’s fate: American IP owners can stop demanding maximum and extreme protections. The US Patent and Trademark Office can stop taking a head-in-the-sand approach - last summer it strong-armed the World Intellectual Property Organization into canceling a discussion on open source projects - and instead use the WIPO to forge a global policy that works for all nations.

By taking a flexible approach to IP, companies could capitalize on the next wave of innovation rather than shirk from it. But wait too long and this ship will have sailed.

Freedom of Something, Alright

Posted by shonk at 10:46 AM in Politics | permalink | 1 comment

Continuing the theme of abuses of language, today we present Al Franken. Apparently, the occasionally funny but usually annoying comedian tackled a protester at a Dean rally :

The trouble started when several supporters of fringe presidential candidate Lyndon Larouche began shouting accusations at Dean.

Franken emerged from the crowd and charged one male protester, grabbing him with a bear hug from behind and slamming him onto the floor.

“I was a wrestler so I used a wrestling move,” Franken said.

Franken’s explanation?

Franken said he’s not backing Dean but merely wanted to protect the right of people to speak freely. “I would have done it if he was a Dean supporter at a Kerry rally,” he said.

“I’m neutral in this race but I’m for freedom of speech, which means people should be able to assemble and speak without being shouted down.”

That sounds real good, but if you were really “for” freedom of speech, wouldn’t that mean you’d be “for” letting people gather and express their disapproval of presidential candidates without getting tackled by crazed humorists? Freedom of speech doesn’t mean aspiring power-whores ought be free of the annoyance of hearing the opinions of the hoi polloi.

(thanks to Catallarchy for the link)

January 26, 2004

Super "Blog"?!?

Posted by shonk at 02:42 PM in Blogging | permalink | 3 comments

As you may have been able to tell if you’re a longtime reader, abuses of language tend to raise my ire. So it should come as no surprise that the abuse of an abuse of language is guaranteed to make me angry.

What am I talking about? Specifically, the name of Bill Simmons’ Super Bowl project. Now, Simmons is one of my favorite sports columnists, even though he’s lost his fastball a bit since taking a job as a writer for the Jimmy Kimmel show. In any case, he’s in Houston for Super Bowl week to, basically, give the fans a sense of what being in town during the Super Bowl is like. The idea is that, instead of polished columns, he writes quick-and-dirty impressions and reactions, with the goal being to make the tone more like that of a series of e-mails from your witty friend than a sports column. All well and good and, given how much I enjoyed his columns from the Super Bowl in New Orleans two years ago, I’m looking forward to it.

The problem is that his editors at ESPN have decided to call the thing “The Sports Guy’s Super Blog”. AAARRGGHH! First of all, “Super Blog” just sounds stupid. “Blog” and “Bowl” aren’t nearly similar enough words for it to work as a pun and the phrase just generally lacks any rhythm or style at all. Second, the word “blog” sort of annoys me, anyway, even though I use it occasionally to describe this site. “Blog”, of course, is a shortened form of “weblog” (Peter Merholz was apparently the first to do this), which in turn is the bastard child of “web journal”, “personal log” and probably some even more sinister influences. In any case, “blog” is an ugly word (Merholz says, “I like that it’s roughly onomatopoeic of vomiting. These sites (mine included!) tend to be a kind of information upchucking”), made uglier by its trendy popularity. I tend to agree with the following from Why I Hate Personal Weblogs

The word “Blog” is fucking stupid. … I just hear it and I think about someone standing in a Starbucks ordering a “Half-caf Venti Latte with soy milk and no foam.” To me, the word ‘blog’ represents the type of mentality that goes into a weblog; a need to be trendy about something completely unnecessary and over-hyped.

Which brings me to my third and most important objection to the “Super Blog” : ESPN is simply trying to cash in on the popularity of weblogs by creating something that shares certain similarities to an actual weblog without really being very similar at all. The fact that Simmons is going (presumably) to be relating personal experiences and updating several times a day provides the similarity, but the fact that a whole slew of editors, graphics people and IT guys will be reviewing, editing, formatting, adding images to and ultimately posting each piece that Simmons writes means that this endeavor is simply not a weblog in any meaninful sense (and, of course, the fact that it will only last a week, won’t feature comments or Trackback, etc. sort of goes without saying). This isn’t personal publishing, or even small-group-of-friends publishing, this is more akin to when NBC sends a camera crew to walk around town and capture “local flavor”. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but let’s not call it something it’s not, alright?

January 25, 2004

Écrasez l'infâme!

Posted by Curt at 04:29 PM in Art | permalink | 4 comments

I suspect that most adolescents of my age (19) have found themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, in a state of tension with intellectual property regulation, especially probably in the realms of filesharing and academic paper documentation. Likewise, I have found myself annoyed and hindered over the years by these restrictions, but without ever questioning the larger principle of intellectual property. Recently, however, I have come to a position of more and more general criticism of the very concept of intellectual property and its manifestations. At least the injunctions in schools and universities against plaigarism and associated trespasses have justification in the necessity of evaluating the particular knowledge and abilities of students themselves, which hence makes it necessary that the work under evaluation is clearly theirs. However, justification on the grounds of the sanctity of intellectual property seems to me a dubious proposition, in the publishing and recording industries just as much as in academia. The Internet, of course, will bring about a sea-change in this culture in any event, whether we find an intellectual justification for it or not. But I don’t think that a justification is terribly difficult to formulate, for the very notion of intellectual property is counter-intuitive and even somewhat perverse at best.

Nor is such a notion of very long standing. It is probably attributable to the hypertrophic venting of the Romantic poets and their overly-cultivated and overheated mythology of the solitary creator. But it seems to me that the process of creation is almost never effectively sui generis; someone, I think it might have been T.S. Eliot, once said that true originality in writing consists of the combining of a likely and an unlikely source. Perhaps, then, methods of creation like hip-hop sampling are only differences from more traditional modes of artistic creation of degree and obviousness rather than of kind. And in any case, regardless of how creators come about their inspiration, the mere fact of their authorship does not mean eo ipso that their creation remains their own property after its formulation and publication (that is, being made public). Thomas Jefferson, one of the formulators of American law, said that ”If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone.” Clearly Jefferson recognized something in the non-materiality of ideas that made them less amenable to exclusive possession than objects, not only in their greater exchangeability but also in the simple fact that they are not exclusive, i.e. to take an idea from someone is not to deprive that person of the idea or of the use of it.

Of course this is not an entirely ingenuous statement, because many creators rely on the exclusive control of their ideas for their living and their financial well-being, so to take an idea from someone in this situation may not be to divest them of the idea itself, but it does rob them of some of the benefits they derive from it. Even Jefferson ultimately supported a very limited form of intellectual property rights in the knowledge that some people do create with an eye towards the material benefit that will result from it, and so must have this sort of incentive in order to create. However, it should also be noted that Jefferson did not himself accept the legitimacy of this desire, and conceived of intellectual property rights as simply a means to coax out inventions and creations, at which point the needs and desires of their creators become irrelevant.

Part of the problem, and the explanation for this tension of concepts in the modern age, may be that creators today are more dependent for their living on their creations than creators in earlier eras. If (a conditional hypothesis) the majority of poets, scientists, engineers, artists, etc. in past ages served as retainers in aristocratic employ, their salary would not have depended on the sale of the products of their invention. Hence intellectual property would not have been a pregmatic issue but primarily one of principle. And it seems to me that in such a situation, in which the material well-being of the creator is not affected, that the only real defence of intellectual property is an appeal to the well-being of the creator’s ego, which, while understandably of importance to the creator, does not seem to me to be a particularly worthy matter for the concern of anyone else.

It should be clear that I do not regard ideas as objects, and hence that I do not regard possession of one’s ideas as a fundamental right. It can only be justified on utilitarian grounds in my opinion, and even this rings hollow in many cases today. It seems to me that the illegitimate pretensions to ownership of their ideas on the part of creators should only be humored when they encourage innovation. This is why Jefferson tolerated intellectual property law, regarding it as the price of innovation, and the grounds on which opposition to price caps and patent infringement of the pharmaceutical industry are generally justified. But clearly today intellectual property rights very often impede rather than encourage innovation. For it is certain that while taking an idea from someone does not deny them access to the idea, copyright and patent law definitely do.

In short, while innovation clearly depends to a large extent on economic incentive, intellectual property law, in addition to being illegitimate, is today very often manifestly ineffective in this regard, and some new form of creative compensation is necessary. Perhaps the New York Times, in this recent article, is attempting to stir up such a change. However, the NYT goes at it with its usual cause-destroying machinery: profiles of activist, irritatingly named non-profit organizations, interviews with socialist, terminally abstracted professors, and the chilling and deflating revelation that I share an opinion with “a protest movement…made up of lawyers, scholars and activists,” who are made to appear to be the principal supporters of this view, which is almost enough to make me disavow my afore-mentioned opinions. I also resent how these anti-capitalist activists (the name they apply to the movement they claim to represent, “Copy Left,” should give some insight into their political and social philosophy, as well as their taste for precarious puns) tend to portray intellectual property law as yet another evil intrusion of capitalism and money-making into the rarified regions where English majors and Robert Owenists prefer to dwell in peace. But I don’t oppose these laws because money is being made from intellectual productions, but rather because money is being lost, and not only money but works of great value and beauty for the world, on the basis of a stupid and craven deference to spurious moral claims. However, in the midst of drawing a to say the least questionable parallel between the anti-copyrightists and the early environmental movement, one of aforementioned theorizing pedants offers perhaps the most suitable coda to the issue:

”The environmentalists helped us to see the world differently, to see that there was such a thing as ‘the environment’ rather than just my pond, your forest, his canal. We need to do the same thing in the information environment. We have to ‘invent’ the public domain before we can save it.”

January 24, 2004

Popular Latin melodramas--In the Cubicula

Posted by Curt at 12:00 PM in Language | permalink | 4 comments

The unrepentently French out there who still insist that legions of the Roman army spoke their Latin with a flat “r” befitting their status as the predecessors of les grands Français (though also, presumably, the oppressors of Astérix and les Gaulois) ought to take a look at ancient Provençal, which indicates to an astonishing degree the extent of Spanish and especially Italian predominance of vocabulary and inflection in early dialectical French:

Pos de chantar m’es pres talenz
farai un vers don sui dolenz:
mais non serai obedienz
en Peitau ni en Lemozi…
—Guilhem de Peitieus

This sort of evidence largely justifies my brother’s very Castilian pronunciation of the Latin address at his graduation ceremony last spring, although presumably the imperatores did not incorporate any Carlos V-era lisping. In any case, it’s very amusing to me so see the enormous flights of invention to which the translators in the world’s last Latin-speaking nation, the Vatican, are forced in able to express emergent concepts. Universalis destructionis armamenta somehow sounds far more intimidating than weapons of mass destruction, and my favorite circumlocution is definitely sonorarum visualiumque taeniarum cistellula (a little box of ribbons of sounds and sights) for videocassette, though globuli solaniani, “circular forms of a plant of the deadly nightshade family”, for potato chips definitely surpasses it in points for ludicrousness (evidently the Romans will not be credited with discovering America before the Vikings). As for me, I’m glad not to have the task of declining a word I just made up, though if I begin studying Russian soon, as I plan to, I will no doubt find out soon enough, to my sorrow, that I did not leave the unpleasant business of declensions behind when I stopped taking Latin.

p.s. Clay’s selection of Spanish poetry on the site is such a nice addition that I would like to add a further international element, but not wanting to subject anyone unncessarily to my wretched Norwegian grammar, I have not decided whether I would like to do occaisonal postings in another language or add another little feature-section or something completely different. In any case, hopefully there will be something along these lines fairly soon.

January 23, 2004

The Friday catharsis

Posted by Curt at 09:43 PM in Bitching and Moaning | permalink | comment

At the risk of doubling my crime of Yeats-quoting, here is one of his notes to “Responsibilities” which I think pretty well sums up my main point of detestation of both religion and politics because what it criticizes are, I think, not characteristic not only of their Irish (or American) manifestations, but of the concepts themselves:

“I am constantly reminded of…of the futilitiy of all discipline that is not of the whole being. Religious Ireland…thinks of divine things as a round of duties separated from life and not as an element that may be discovered in all circumstance and emotion, while political Ireland sees the good citizen but as a man who holds to certain opinions and not as a man of good will.”

Spending the Weekend Offline...

Posted by shonk at 02:12 PM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

…because tomorrow is my birthday and I’m going out of town. Have a good weekend, everybody.

Music Rant

Posted by shonk at 12:04 AM in Music | permalink | 5 comments

A response to those who think the intellectual property status quo must be maintained to ensure the continued existence of recorded music (sleep-deprived version):

Studio music won’t die. It will just change. Look at the popularity of the iTunes Music Store. People are buying stuff there in droves (and at a lower sound quality than is available on CDs) because the iTMS is much more flexible and cost-effective. Most albums have one or two good songs and the rest is crap. So why plunk down $15 dollars for the album when you can buy the two good songs for $2 at iTMS?

On that note, filesharing never would have left the fringes if CDs weren’t so outrageously expensive. The RIAA, which succesfully sued Best Buy (I think) in the early 90s for selling CDs for $7 a pop, used its muscle to keep CD prices artificially high, which made them lots of money for a few years until it had the unintended consequence of making filesharing much more attractive. Shades of CAFE and airbag laws actually raising mortality, if you ask me.

The simple fact of the matter is, artists and labels who adapt to the new realities of the marketplace will thrive and continue to make and sell music, whereas dinosaurs who cling to the notion that the passage of some new law or the vigorous enforcement of some existing law will make things go back to how they used to be will go bankrupt.

Hey, when the automobile was introduced, it meant hard times for those wagon-wheel manufacturers who refused to accept the fact that cars were the wave of the future. But that’s not to say there wasn’t a hell of a lot of money to be made in the transportation sector.

January 21, 2004

Leave Us Alone

Posted by shonk at 10:24 AM in Politics | permalink | 6 comments

Jonathan Wilde over that Catallarchy obviously wasn’t playing the State of the Union drinking game, but I, for one, am glad he didn’t. His message to politicians is simply outstanding (but be sure to read the whole post):

I don’t want your ‘strengthening of the economy’. You have screwed it up enough already.
I don’t want your ‘sanctity of marriage’. It’s not your business.
Quit trying to define everything as right or left. The world is not binary.
You don’t end poverty. You create it.
I don’t want your retirement plans. I know my unique circumstances best.
Consensus support does not signify ‘bipartisanship’. It is simply honor among thieves.
I don’t want your entangling alliances. They endanger rather than protect me.
I don’t want your education guidelines. My education is personal and lifelong.
Tonight was not a great ‘political event’. It was the very reason for eternal vigilance.
Government does not ‘create jobs’. It only takes them away from honest individuals.
I don’t want your ‘leadership’. Sovereign individuals are their own leaders.


Posted by shonk at 10:18 AM in Blogging , Feminism | permalink | 2 comments

Petya has some interesting thoughts related to my post on Race, Gender and Blogging :

Dana’s initial question, actually, led me to think about feminism and how we, feminists, have become so focused on our personal agenda’s that sometimes allow ourselves to build even more rigid structures than the ones we strive so hard to abolish. When we talk about women’s issues and ask questions like Why most bloggers are male?, don’t we participate in the reinforcement of the binary model of societal structure that we so vehemently criticize? In this sense, isn’t fundamentally questioning of gender and gender roles the more appropriate way to address problematic issues? And, when saying Women are often purported to be the primary social network maintainers, the communicative sex, isn’t dana herself participating in strengthening pre-existing assumptions about women and the way women are?!

Judith Butler says (I’m paraphrasing) that in their efforts to legitimize their own political views, feminists very quickly came up with universal claims and statements that supposedly apply to all women and all men, regardless of historical and cultural contexts. I agree. And in the context of the current discussion, I find it absolutely amazing how easy it is to opt for the most obvious answer. Like we need more generalizations.

I think any commentary on my part would be superfluous.

January 19, 2004

More on Waypath

Posted by shonk at 05:52 PM in Blogging | permalink | 7 comments

I didn’t like how the boxes I was getting using the Waypath plugin cluttered up this page, so instead I’m just making a link at the bottom of each post called “Related”. If you click the “Related” link below any post, a new screen with will pop up that takes advantage of the Waypath search (thanks to Ton Zijlstra for the idea). I’m still thinking about adding Waypath results in a sidebar in the individual entries pages, as Dorky Goodness does, perhaps in conjunction with a short list of related posts from this blog generated by the Related Entries plugin. As always, if you have any suggestions, leave a comment.

State of the Union Drinking Game

Posted by shonk at 12:33 AM in Politics | permalink | 3 comments

If you play the State of the Union drinking game on Tuesday, I think you can be assured of a nasty hangover on Wednesday morning. On the other hand, it might well be the only way to make the speech tolerable.

Race, Gender and Blogging

Posted by shonk at 12:06 AM in Blogging , Feminism | permalink | comment

Over at Misbehaving (an excellent site, by the way), danah boyd asks “why are bloggers mostly straight white men?” She writes:

Women are often purported to be the primary social network maintainers, the communicative sex. Yet, the more time i spend in blogging land, the more i realize how few women blog. (Major props to the women listed on the right!) In response to a conversation about blogging as an equalizer, i wrote a note today that blogging is a privilege. Assuming that my perception is accurate, i’m pretty convinced that bloggers (note: not LJers or other journalers) are primarily straight white men. Given that this is a sociable technology, this seems rather suggestive that blogging is not an equalizer.

I have my doubts about how accurate this perception really is, but since it is just a perception, it’s not something that can really be argued. However, I would like to take issue with a couple of things.

First off, I, like many of the commenters there, question the validity of the distinction between “journalers” and “bloggers”. I tend to think of the space between a “journal” and a “weblog” as more of a continuously varying continuum than a vacuum. For example, since most of what my brother and I post here is related to news, politics or meta-analysis of online communities, this site would probably not be classified as a “journal”. However, posts like Fun with Transliterations, When You Dance or Me, Style Savant, just to take some recent examples (or, for that matter, most of the Ramblings category), are certainly more along the lines of what you might find on a Live Journal. On the other hand, Petya’s site, since it primarily deals with what’s going on in her life, would be more likely to be considered a “journal”, yet Petya herself calls it a weblog and a quick perusal of, say, the September archives and her posts on feminism will convince you that a site can be both “personal” and “serious”. In fact, I find it a little surprising that boyd would distinguish between journals and blogs in this way, since making such a distinction seems to be judging journals as less worthwhile or important than blogs.

Second, moving on to the claim that “blogging is not an equalizer”, I tend to disagree. However, it is a qualified disagreement for the following reason: blogging, in and of itself, is not so powerful an equalizer as to completely overcome all obstacles. As boyd points out in blogging is a privilege :

Privilege is a funny thing. Often it opens up opportunities that we don’t even realize. Take time, for example. Who has the time to sit online and read, write and discuss all day? A working mother? A migrant worker? Time is money. Very few people have both time and money and most people spend most of their time trying to make ends meet or trying to calm their nerves from the stress induced by the former. Having time to “waste” is privilege.

However, this is not the fault of blogging in and of itself. I suspect that a disproportionate percentage of white men are online, which fact is a result of various and complicated social phenomena, but any disproportionate representation in the blogging community is probably a direct effect of this reality (I exclude the “straight” part of the equation because I think it’s ludicrous to think that there is any reliable way of determining the sexuality of a blogger. Most people simply don’t broadcast this information). In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that, if we merely consider the simple function

f(x) = (number of bloggers from gender x)/(total number of people online from gender x)

we might well find that f(female) > f(male). Why do I say this? Because, in my personal experience, women I know who spend a fair amount of time online are more likely to blog/journal than are men who spend an equivalent amount of time online. So, in this sense, we see that, even in the area of gender, blogging may indeed be an equalizer.

Whatever the case, the claim that blogging isn’t an equalizer is, to me, ridiculous. Absent blogging, Glenn Reynolds would be just another law professor, dooce would be just another pregnant ex-Mormon and danah boyd and I would be just two more grad students with more ideas than outlets. I challenge you to find anybody who reads a fair number of weblogs and/or journals who doesn’t think they have a broader understanding and perspective than they could get merely from newspapers and television. So no, blogging, in and of itself, can’t produce perfect equality (whatever that is), but that doesn’t mean it’s not an equalizer.

January 18, 2004

Porn Referrals

Posted by shonk at 12:33 AM in Blogging | permalink | 5 comments

Every once in a while, somebody does something tasteless so ingeniously that I can only be impressed by the effort. For example, today I was browsing through my referral logs and kept seeing referrals made by a certain Paris-Hilton-video-related pseudo-blog which I had, oddly enough, noticed once or twice on the blogdex rankings last month. Curious, I spent some time scouring the supposed referrer for the link. I didn’t find one and so, being a bit out of the loop, I gave up and quickly forgot about it.

Until, that is, I quite randomly came across a post on the blogdex blog (which just sounds funny) talking about an exploitable loophole in the blogdex rankings first pointed out by Peter Caputa about a month ago. Caputa’s treatment is extensive, so I’ll just hit the highlights. Basically, this little bit of referrer spam spoofs servers into logging referrals from the perpetrator’s site. The goal is to target those sites (like this one) who link recent referrers on the main page. These links, in turn, get sucked up by various spiders like that employed by blogdex, which has the ultimate effect of boosting the spammer’s site in the blogdex rankings. At least until Cameron Marlow notices.

Clay Shirky weighs in :

Open systems grow faster than closed ones, and better allow for innovation. This creates value for their users. This value creates incentive for capturing that value, but the incentive is orthagonal to the value — spammers don’t care that their behavior damages the system that created the value to begin with.

Second, we’ve learned the lesson of standards and automation, so we have better hooks into our interfaces, for automatic manipulation, but this means better automation for people gaming the system as well. … The arms race is the same, but the speed with which value is created and the ease with which the manipulation can be automated now favor the spammers.

I think Shirky somewhat misses an opportunity to connect the first sentence above to the rest of what I quote. Spammers are “users”, too, and, though their interests may be at odds with mine or Shirky’s, the open system is creating value for them as well by way of affording them the opportunity to make a living by e-mail. Which is to say that the claim that “the incentive [for capturing value] is orthagonal [sic] to the value” is a bit non-sensical.

Anyway, back to blogdex: Dr. Weevil points out another blogdex-bombing strategy which, though much less efficient, is still surprisingly effective:

1. Start a weblog and keep it up for a few months.

2. Wait until 16-20 people have permalinked it. That’s the slow part.

3. Rent a new domain name.

4. When you transfer your blog to the new address, e-mail all the bloggers with permalinks to the old URL and ask them to update them with the new URL. It is unlikely that any will refuse, and most are so obsessively attached to their keyboards that updates will start appearing within the hour. Be sure to e-mail them all on the same day for maximum effect.

The cumulative effect of all the newly-created links to your weblog, supposing enough obsessive people care about you in the first place, should be a temporary jump up the blogdex rankings.

So what is blogdex going to do about all of this? Not much, according to Marlow (again, from the blogdex blog linked above):

Even though the type of exploit Peter points out has existed for years, and been taken advantage of a number of times, it hasn’t really drawn much attention. I thought about trying to build in some sort of system to detect sites with referral links on their front pages, but truth be told, it hasn’t really warranted that much work yet.

Deficiencies aside, though, I will say that blogdex is really an excellent resource. I’ve got their RSS feed set on “Update every 30 minutes” whenever I’ve got Net News Wire running (which is pretty much all the time). Also, be sure to check out Waypath, into which you can enter any blog post or web page you like and it will return a list of similar posts and pages from around the web. They’ve got a Movable Type plugin that I’m going to play around with a bit — if I like it, you may soon see it being used here.

UPDATE: As you can see just below, I’ve activated the Waypath plugin. I’m not sure quite what I think of it; if you have an opinion, please leave a comment and let me know.

January 17, 2004

Al Gore or the Unabomber?

Posted by shonk at 09:21 PM in Politics | permalink | 1 comment

While taking a break from researching the perfect 404 (incidentally, custom 404 pages can get quite creative), I stumbled across this quiz. I can’t decide whether the fact I only got half the questions right is a good or a bad sign.

Democracy Without Elections

Posted by shonk at 02:10 AM in War | permalink | 1 comment

Oh, the irony :

So let’s see if I get this straight: the U.S., which went to war to export “democracy” to Iraq (and the entire Middle East), in defiance of the UN, is telling the Iraqis that they aren’t ready for self-government – and is now seeking the UN Secretary General’s imprimatur for what amounts to a policy of brazen imperialism. Instead of elections, a series of elite “caucus” meetings will be held, in which the neocons, er, um, I mean, the Americans, handpick the voters – and predetermine the results.

Yes, that’s right, the UN! You remember those guys, a supposedly “anti-American” assembly of ingrates and professional bureaucrats, so loudly disdained by the “unilateralists” in Washington who, at the time of the invasion, gloried in the Security Council’s alleged irrelevance. Secretary General Annan is cited as saying that he’s sure a census is impossible under the present circumstances, but the idea that the UN has any legitimacy in Iraq seems rather odd. After all, isn’t this the same organization that enforced a draconian regime of sanctions on Iraq for over a decade? And now this same UN is saying it’s too early to have a free election.

It’s too early, because, well, you know, “[l]eaving the political future up to an election could deal a serious blow to US efforts to make Iraq a test case for western-style secular democracy.”

When you dance...

Posted by shonk at 12:42 AM in Words of Wisdom | permalink | comment

Overheard in a DIA bar while waiting on a delayed flight, Dec. 28, 2003:

When you dance, you look like a kid trying to step on the head of his own shadow.

January 16, 2004

A Department of Anarchy

Posted by shonk at 05:15 PM in Politics | permalink | 5 comments

From TM Lutas’ proposal for a Department of Anarchy :

There is now no real institutional constituency in government for less government. There should be.

Nice sentiment, especially given the reality of regulation with which it is impossible to comply (link courtesy Samizdata), but it ain’t gonna happen.

(Alert readers will note that this ground has already been eloquently covered by JTK in “The Fundamental Fallacy of Government”)


Posted by shonk at 04:12 PM in Geek Talk | permalink | comment

For those who feel left out of the address bar icon scene, there’s now a handy online favicon.ico generator. Just thought you might want to know.


Posted by shonk at 04:08 PM in Politics | permalink | comment

ibergus is confused (or at least claims to be; I have my doubts):

Congress crowed about cleaning up our in-boxes with the passage of an antispam law last year, but brace yourself: Some of this year’s unsolicited e-mail may feature the latest news from your congressional representatives.

Members of Congress are increasingly using e-mail to communicate with their constituents. They are aided by several companies that have developed ways to provide politicians with extensive e-mail addresses of those they hope to reach.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates have already plunged into e-mail marketing, relying on online promotions and e-mail solicitations in their campaigns.

Read the full article for more, but the main point is obvious and unsurprising: legislators care about the sanctity of your inbox only when it helps them get votes. The corollary, of course, is that when violating the sanctity of your inbox might yield more votes, well, you better hope your Bayesian filter is functioning properly.

The fact of the matter, though, is that high-profile Democrats aren’t the only spammers uninhibited by the CAN-SPAM legislation: “Less than 1 percent of spam e-mail sent to U.S. inboxes this month complies with a national antispam law that went into effect January 1, according to two spam filtering vendors.” In fact, spam is still on the rise. The usual suspects like CAUCE are bleating about a need for enforcement, that the law will only have an effect once people start getting arrested. Maybe so, but even at that, as CAUCE president John Mozena notes, the law will, at best, change only the content of spam, not the amount of it:

“The pornographers, the herbal Viagra merchants, the relatives of dead Nigerian dictators — it may get rid of them,” he said. “But the legitimate marketers now have a federally mandated stamp of approval. They can send each of us as much e-mail as they want until they’re asked to stop.”

Now, as I’m sure you all know, I’m practically the acme of discretion and good manners, but even I can’t help but point out that I predicted all this :

That, of course, is a debatable point, but what’s not debatable is that this new law [CAN-SPAM], once it’s signed into law by GW in December, will not end or even seriously curtail spam. I mean, the DMCA’s been around for a while and, last I checked, Kazaa wasn’t going anywhere (or, if it is, it’s because of competition from iTunes and Napster, not due to the DMCA). Instead, the solution to spam can only come from people changing the way they read e-mail in a way that makes spamming more costly than it is remunerative.

(incidentally, on the Kazaa point in the above quote, apparently the RIAA’s heavy-handed lawsuits were discouraging filesharing for a while, but the effect was, as one would expect, short-lived)

January 14, 2004


Posted by shonk at 11:30 PM in Bulgaria | permalink | 4 comments

I’ve finally gotten off my lazy ass and posted an album of photographs I took while in Bulgaria last week. Enjoy!

January 09, 2004

Fun With Transliterations

Posted by shonk at 08:07 PM in Bulgaria | permalink | comment

I’m much too tired after something like 20 hours of traveling to make even a semi-intelligent post, but here are a few of my favorite transliterations of English words into Cyrillic that I saw in the last week and a half:

Макдоналдс (= McDonalds)
Ред Бул (=Red Bull)
Фантастико (= Fantastico)
Мини Маркет (= Mini Market)
Компютър (= Computer)
Център (= Center)
Скрю Драйвър (= Screwdriver)

And my all-time favorite:
Хемендегс (= Ham-and-eggs)

The false idol of equality

Posted by Curt at 05:15 PM in Language | permalink | 2 comments

Of all our common social ideals, I despise most the idea of equality. Where it is genuinely meant, it has nothing but a pernicious effect, and when not it remains nothing but an illusion. The insidiousness of the notion of equality appears at its starkest in ethics, because in fact the notion of equality undermines the very foundations of ethics. Ethics at its very core is the differentiation of people and acts according to a central dichotomy between good and evil, virtue and vice. To assert the moral equality of people does wrong to the good to the same extent as it countenances the wicked. Such is generally the nature of equality as a goal: it is an almost universally destructive and nihilistic impulse, by which the bad make gains towards, and finally achieve, a consummate mediocrity not on their own merits but at the expense of the good.

But equality is rarely meant so honestly, nor does it appear so clearly, as in ethics. In a social context, for example, when people talk about “equality under the law” or “equal rights,” or something else to that effect, they generally do not actually mean equality, but rather a certain minimum standard of rights and privileges. Just because a banker and a bum both enjoy certain common privileges as human beings does not mean that they are in any way equal. Even in the most circumscribed legal context, the concept of equality rings false. Both a banker and a bum may equally have a right to legal counsel in the U.S., but the banker can hire a high-priced celebrity attorney, whereas the bum will have to accept whoever the state appoints for him. Obviously, to establish a true equivalence between them in this matter would require much further-reaching provisions, perhaps the re-distribution of income between banker and bum, or forbidding the banker to take anybody better than a state-appointed lawyer.

Clearly, then, the concept of equality is only tangentially related to the prosperity or well-being, let alone the freedom, of those who fall under its scope. It concerns itself only with the sameness or equivalence between people, and only a jealous soul could hope for that.

January 08, 2004

In memoriam Africa

Posted by Curt at 03:55 PM in Politics | permalink | 2 comments

In my more athletic years as an outfielder on a baseball team, my coaches used to talk about hundred-dollar catches and five-cent throws. In my mockery of Dalrymple below, it’s the five-cent throw that I am criticizing. Grasping a hold of a problem intellectually is a wondrous thing, not easy to do, but it does not preclude the thinker from fixing upon the most facile, ineffectual sort of solution imaginable to that problem. And since I am on that subject, I see an even clearer example in this article by a former professor of African studies named Gavin Kitching describing his reasons for abandoning the field, which has apparently aroused quite a furor, if such a concept seems credible in a field of this size, in the African studies community.

While the main conclusion of the article seems to be that Africa’s problems, in the mind of the author, are intractable insofar as he does not understand their origins, let alone how to solve them, the main point of controversy seems to be the suspicion he has arrived at, despite his neo-Marxist academic upbringing, that Africa’s problems are not simply universal economic problems, but are specific to Africa, and hence are basically cultural. Evidently his early belief that even after the end of colonialism Africa remained economically and politically depressed by ruling elites who were essentially acting as agents of former colonial powers was eventually shattered by the realization that “if the ruling elites of Africa are seen as managers or agents for western capitalism or imperialism, one can only say that the latter should get itself some new agents. For the ones it has seem remarkably inefficient…so many of the official spokespeople for that capitalism (the IMF, the World Bank, corporate executives with African investments) far from endorsing the activities of their supposed ‘agents’ were endemically critical of the failure of African elites to provide domestic environments in which any form of capital investment could be secure and profitable.” So therefore, in some measure Africans must in some measure be considered the authors of at least the continuation of their problems. Of course a number of scholars, understandably if not excusably reluctant to abandon the universalist economic frame of reference which has informed the field for essentially the entire course of its existence, resist this interpretation, and one can find the usual platitudes about “blaming the victim.”

Yet there is something missing from Kitching’s analysis, as well. He believes, in the end, that while the corruption and irresponsibility of African elites may not be totally infiltrated by Western manipulation, nonetheless Africa’s plight is more or less solely the fault of Africa’s elite. And so the question of Africa’s condition becomes the question of the behavior of its rulers, or as he says: “Why have African governing elites been particularly prone to behaving in ways which are both economically destructive of the welfare of the people for whom they are supposedly responsible and which have led - at the extreme - to forms of state fision, (civil war etc.) collapse or breakdown?”

But this explanation does not seem quite adequate to me. While a tiny elite in most African countries may be responsible for most of the specific policies that have caused so much hardship throughout Africa (think of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Charles Taylor in Liberia, to name but two), that does not mean that they are not authentic representatives of their cultures. Similarly, the all-encompassing oligarchies in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union were not totally anomolous in their countries’ political histories. Stalin, for example, saw himself as a natural heir of Ivan the Terrible and allegedly professed disappointment upon only seizing Berlin and East Germany in 1945, saying: “Alexander II made it to Paris.” And of course Hitler named his empire the third in a line of three periods of German imperial expansion, coming after the First Reich (the Holy Roman Empire) and the Second Reich (the 1870-1918 empire forged by Otto von Bismarck). So I think there is something endemic to German and Russian culture in those two totalitarian governments, and the sheer mind-numbing similarity of the autocrats in Africa over the last 40 years proves a parallel. This may seem a minor point, but in fact may have enormous consequences. Again, look at the case of Russia in the last ten years, and the misery which has attended a lack of comprehension of the depth of the cultural roots of a tyrannical regime. The abstract exchange of one set of ideals and political structures for another has hardly eradicated violence and authoritarianism as a way of life.

In the end, I cannot approve of this whole subject as a matter of academic debate. African studies seems to have fallen the way of most disciplines that take real social change, rather than simply intellectual comprehension, as their goal: from asking the question of how to improve the situation, it devolved to the question of why the scholars were not able to improve the situation, to the point where the main question seems to have become “who is to blame?”, which in my opinion is a debate as perverse as the debate in the ’80s among German and Russian historians over which country’s concentration camps were guity of more atrocities. Kitching points out the insidious nature of Western intellectuals engaging in these mental flagellations, claiming: “paternalistic guilt” is “a kind of mechanism of neocolonial control, a mechanism in which the colonial personality is very willingly complicit because, just so long as it continues, it cannot (at least in its own eyes) ever do wrong — ever be the actual, culpable agent of harm or damage in the world.” But he himself is active in this kind of pernicious delusion. For example, his immediate goal for the salvation of Africa is to sponser “a major, high profile Round Table on (say) ‘The Crisis of Africa’”. I think any more of these panel discussions, nay even the phrase “round table” might make me lose my breakfast. This endless mental masturbation! Exploiting world crises to take some paid academic junket to a desirable vacation-spot where delegates sit around and talk and talk and talk! Could there be anything worse for the situation than further talk?! These conferences have become the bane of political life, the reflexive substitutes for any possible action. And worse, as Kitching himself pointed out, on this subject they allow for an insidious and guilt-ridden patrimonialism, in which Western academics pretend to take charge of massive social problems while the affected peoples ignore them or make use of the opportunity to hold out the donation-hat. As usual, of course, it falls on an actual African to speak a word of sense in all of this academic nonsense. Mamadou Diouf, a professor at Michigan-Ann Arbor, says: “Kitching is saying, ‘I gave up because we were not able to fix it, or to provide a sound intellectual framework.’ But I don’t know why Kitching thinks people are waiting for him to fix it. Why does he think that as a specialist on Africa he has to be part of the fixing process?…Who is reading African studies scholarship in Africa? Nobody. Including the African intellectuals, because they don’t have the resources.” African studies scholars in the West “are writing for themselves. They are cut off from Africa.”

One final point. This may be a dogmatic debate, but not entirely an ideological one, at least insofar as it cuts along some strange lines. One might expect, for example, that the cultural conservatives would be pursuing a similar line of argument as Kitching, insofar as it gives them the always-welcome opportunity to denigrate other cultures as politically and economically inferior to the U.S. and to throw themselves martyr-like upon the bayonets of political correctness. But oddly, in the case of Zimbabwe, for example, most of the op-ed conservatives in the newspapers that I have read seem to be using Zimbabwe to flail that exhausted hobby-horse of theirs, statist Marxism. They are using it to trumpet yet again the failure of land collectivization, the state control of industry and agriculture, etc., just like the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Now they may actually in this case be cowering away from the bayonets of political correctness on an issue of minor importance to them by avoiding the implication that they are condemning Zimbabwe on anything other than universalist economic grounds. But Africa should have taught us two things by now. One is that universalist economic explanations simply do not suffice, as Mugabe and all the other African kleptocrats that have capitalized on racial or ethnic nationalism to ruin their countries prove continually. The other is that, as the tribal violence all over Africa proves, particularly in Rwanda and the Congo, tyranny and genocide do not exist only in the presence of all-enveloping national governments.

Philosophy in defense of an impulse buy

Posted by Curt at 02:05 PM in What the Fuck? | permalink | comment

I may have to retract some of my approving citation of Theodore Dalrymple, as it turns out that his personal solution to the spiritual vacuity that he encounters every day in Britain is to move to France. I must say, it is oddly reassuring, while of course utterly contemptible, to see that the world has not changed so much that sectarian solutions to existential problems have fallen in popularity. Might as well wear blue socks rather than red socks in order to cure oneself of cancer. Even Dalrymple seems aware of the flimsiness and narrowness of this sort of social criticism in his stirring testament to the hope which springs eternal in the human heart at the prospect of beginning a new life in a new land:

“The French are some years behind us in the race to cultural oblivion. No doubt they will catch up with us in the end, but I hope not to see it in my rural fastness. For the moment they still order things better there.”

January 06, 2004

Vico's theories freed from Joyce?

Posted by Curt at 03:47 PM in What the Fuck? | permalink | 9 comments

So now Howard Dean thinks he’s Job. But Job had everything he could hope for, and was almost arbitrarily deprived of the fruit of his ambitions. That’s is more or less the opposite of Dean’s trajectory. I also don’t think that he is Jeremiah, although that might be the most obvious Biblical figure to compare him to. Jeremiah lived in a time of slavery and poverty for his country, and railed against the lack of pride and militancy of his people. Again, that is pretty much the opposite of both the situation and the rhetoric of Howard Dean. I think that he is probably one of the minor, non-electable prophets somewhere between Hosea and Habakkuk, but I’m not sure which one. Any suggestions?

January 02, 2004

Chapter 2. In which various polemical causes are advanced

Posted by Curt at 03:55 AM in Ramblings | permalink | 1 comment

In an earlier entry I criticized a pro-globalization scholar for concentrating solely on material well-being as the criterion for the success or failure of globalization, while failing to address equally important, though admittedly less verifiable, questions about spiritual and social happiness. These issues certainly trouble me, and this passage, from Theodore Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom certainly gave me a pause:

“the squalor of England [is] not economic but spiritual, moral, and cultural…nothing I saw [in Africa]…neither the poverty nor the overt oppression-ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live that I see daily in England…I and the doctors from India and the Philippines have come to the same terrible conclusion: that the worst poverty is in England—and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul.”

Now in a certain way this passage does not bear directly upon the issue of globalization, because the welfare state is a different sort of beast than international capitalism, perhaps even opposite in kind. But Dalrymple is speaking of the same sort of frightening duality that I hinted at myself, though I certainly did not go so far or so boldly: the idea of material wealth co-existing with, perhaps even causing, utter spiritual poverty. In any case, I think the central issue is the spiritual vacuity created by an existence in which nothing is at stake.

In a condition in which material wealth, even at its most meager level such as welfare, virtually rules out the possibility of starvation or other sorts of physical misfortune, for those who do not have other compelling goals in life there would seem almost inevitably to ensue a sense of aimlessness, or as Dalrymple says “a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life emptied of meaning.” Because, as he says, “In the welfare state, mere survival is not the achievement that it is, say, in the cities of Africa, and therefore it cannot confer the self-respect that is the precondition of self-improvement.” And yet if such a system ruins individual lives by infantilizing them even as it virtually guarantees their indefinite perpetuation, one must ask what purpose such a scourge of a system is designed to accomplish. The answer has already been stated: the unconditional guarantee of the preservation and prolongement of human life. But is this a worthwhile value? It is not my purpose to infer a criticism of the welfare state, because of course its existence is simply a symptom of what is at root a philosophical view. And that philosophical view appears in some form even as far back as the U.S. Constitution, long before formulation of the idea, let alone the reality, of the welfare state. For in the U.S. Constitution man is famously guaranteed his “rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Of course the framers of the Constitution were following principally Locke in his insistence on the sanctity of life, liberty and property. Now surely Locke and the framers were thinking principally of guarding against the unjust violation of these by another: i.e. murder, theft, enslavement, etc. But still, one can find the root here of all the absurd ephemera that are defended in the U.N. Charter as “fundamental rights of humanity,” as well as what will doubtless be an even longer and more tiresome list in the still-uncompleted EU Constitution. The U.N Charter goes almost so far as to guarantee every individual a four-door sedan and a duplex in the suburbs as a fundamental right of human beings (except of course that those are not stylish).

This might all be no more than a bit of airy boilerplate, except that if Dalrymple is right there has been immense loss brought about by this insistence on the exclusion of death and discomfort. That which I think has led modern society to this morass is a confusion of object with means, i.e. requiring that people not only be able to enjoy their rights but that they must, in fact, enjoy them. To put it more simply and broadly, generally speaking when people talk about rights today they do not mean what they should not be hindered from obtaining for themselves, as they used to, but rather what should be given to them. Hence, the dogmatists and pedants of our age have become convinced that the “right” to life, property, etc. means not only that individuals ought not be hindered by others from enjoying these things, but also that each individual ought be given them if they do not possess them and forced to keep them if they do. It can be no accident that such a ludicrous thing as a law against suicide exists in our country. Of course, the Enlightenment thinkers sanctified the pursuit of happiness, not its attainment, and in any case possessing a right does not necessitate its exercise. And as for these “natural and fundamental rights” of humankind—attempting to prevent individuals from imposing their wills unjustly on others, as the founders did, fine, but what could be more unnatural than holding death and discomfort, as we do, themselves to be unjust?! As for me, I eagerly await the time when all debilitating, illusions about “rights” disappear except for the right to the exercise of one’s will.