July 26, 2004

Stalin, how we missed ya

Posted by Curt at 07:41 PM in Literature | permalink | comment

If you thought that my attack on the reputation of Pablo Neruda yesterday was mean-spirited, I refer you to this piece on how another poet’s paens to Stalinism have become worked into the rhetoric of one Sen. John Kerry.

A disinterrment from the Poet's Corner

Posted by Curt at 12:59 AM in Literature | permalink | 6 comments

As I have said before, The Weekly Standard seems to expend all the unused spine that it saves through writing slavish propoganda for the Bush Administration in publishing bold and might I even say significant cultural criticisms, with a specialty in the demolition of beatified intellectual frauds. Well, maybe it’s not very daring from the point of view of The Weekly Standard’s political agenda to perform a literary beheading of Pablo Neruda, but thank God that someone has finally done so, which seems almost taboo these days in international literary circles. Perhaps it is not surprising that Stephen Schwartz is waving the axe, since he has made something of a reputation for himself recently by speaking some very brave and unpleasant words of truth about fundamentalist Islam and particularly Wahabbism and its many-tentacled reach into politics, beside which the opinion and relative approval of the international literary community must seem a very small yipping chihuaha.

But Schwartz’s very point is that when it came time for the intellectuals of the West to speak some brave and unpleasant truths about communism and particularly the many-tentacled reach of Stalinism 60 years ago, Neruda was not simply hiding under the bed with his ears covered, he was actually actively advancing violent Stalinist agendas to the point of being essentially complicit in the conspiracy surrounding the murder of Trotsky. Neruda’s political culpability seems to shoot a long ways past that of Jean-Paul Sartre or Knut Hamsun; he is fully in the company of Ezra Pound and Yukio Mishima, politically speaking, among the great writers, but his reputation has not paid a thousandth the price.

Of course, to an extent I certainly do not feel that the political views of an artist should wholly condition our response to their art, although generally speaking I find most compelling the writers who, like Yeats or Faulkner, managed to stay essentially aloof in difficult times of political polarization, which, while it may seem somewhat lacking in courage on human terms seems after all the issues have died away to recommend itself most highly by the standards of intellectual integrity. However, Stalinism demonstrated as effectively as any political movement ever has that bad politics can make for bad art, at least when the politics specifically condition intellectual slavery and artistic dogmatism. Schwartz has a couple of examples that should prove as embarassing to Neruda’s reputation artistically as politically:

“To be men! That is the Stalinist law! . . . / We must learn from Stalin / his sincere intensity / his concrete clarity. . . . / Stalin is the noon, / the maturity of man and the peoples. / Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride. . . . / Stalinist workers, clerks, women take care of this day! / The light has not vanished. / The fire has not disappeared, / There is only the growth of / Light, bread, fire and hope / In Stalin’s invincible time! . . . / In recent years the dove, / Peace, the wandering persecuted rose, / Found herself on his shoulders / And Stalin, the giant, / Carried her at the heights of his forehead. . . . / A wave beats against the stones of the shore. / But Malenkov will continue his work.”

I think Schwartz’s postscript comment to the poem almost goes without saying: “This poem remains in print in Neruda’s Spanish-language collected writings. It does not often appear in anthologies of his work in English.”

Now, Schwartz claims that Neruda’s reputation in Latin America is, ironically, much lower than it is in the United States and Europe. That is certainly possible; this phenomenon of being appreciated more abroad than at home is certainly common enough, from Thomas Mann to Jacques Derrida. But, if true, it would be a touch more ironic in Neruda’s case because, whether it be a factor of his Stalinist ideology or simply an inflated sense of self-importance, Neruda himself seemed to specifically claim fame on the basis of speaking for the common man, for the earth and the soil and those that lived off of it. It would not be terribly surprising to me if those who love him best are those who rely on someone like Neruda for reports of what the soil even is.

I myself am not ready to consign everything from Residencia en la Tierra or Canto General to the memory-hole, but I must admit that, even setting aside the politics, for a long time I have found a goodly proportion of Neruda’s images and metaphors abusive and sophistic in the same way that a sermon by Derrida is. There is a closedness, a smugness and a self-regard in Neruda’s poetry which is very much consistent with intransigent and unquestioningly held political beliefs, even monstrous ones. That attitude, of course, was very much in the air in the ‘30’s, but what separates Neruda from his contemporaries among the Lost Generation, the surrealists, the existentialists, etc. is that, while sanctimonious infantile dogmatism may have pervaded the political and even the artistic views of many of les grandes of this epoch, often they were at least able to detach it from their authentic literary productions. Not so Neruda.

July 25, 2004

Vegetarian riposte

Posted by Curt at 05:01 PM in Science | permalink | 5 comments

I planned to comment on my brother’s post but I thought I should do so a bit more publicly since I am, at least for the moment, a vegetarian (I say currently because I am studying in France next year, where I don’t have much hope of sticking by a vegetarian diet). It’s not much of a concession for me to acknowledge that any arguments for a moral “imperative” to vegetarianism are fraught with wholes because, like my brother, I have become radically skeptical of the entire notion of moral imperatives, not to say laws. I could explain my reasons for this at greater length, but suffice it to say that even if there were moral laws written in the sky to follow, obeying these laws would not seem to accrue much credit to us as moral beings, any more than one would be held to be morally virtuous for refraining from murder if one did so simply because it was against the law.

I also find no affinity for the utilitarian arguments, or indeed for utilitarian arguments in general. I imagine that simply by living a modern life in any capacity one is the beneficiary of so much misery and unhappiness that any petty cavilling about how best to serve the “greater good” amounts to an almost insultingly self-satisfied gesture, as if one could ever reconcile one’s lifestyle with the “greater good.” So let us all acknowledge that if we are basing our life choices off of utilitarian principles we are all hopelessly compromised. I don’t think our path to heaven will be paved by vegetarianism, whether evaluated on absolutist moral or utilitarian grounds.

That said, I will say that often in talking to non-vegetarians one encounters a defensive aggressiveness which seems a touch strange. This is evident, for example, in the person my brother cites who writes: “The only option left for you dipshits [vegetarians] is to buy some land, plant and pick your own crops. Impractical? Yeah, well, so is your stupid diet.” I must say I can’t quite understand this anger, which, as I said, is not infrequent among non-vegetarians with whom I have discussed the issue. After all, regardless of the merits of ethical-vegetarians’ arguments, by their moral standards they at least have a reason to feel anger towards non-vegetarians, since they view them as complicit at some level in murder, or at least wrongful death. But, as I said, I have observed a great deal more anger from non-vegetarians directed at the “stupidity” of vegetarianism than of vegetarians directed at the “evil” of meat-eating. And I wonder why, because for a non-vegetarian, vegetarianism is surely just a silly little superstition, just as harmless ultimately as going in for yoga or acupunture?

I suspect that this anger is built up as a defensive ring around a certain awareness of ethical vulnerability, because while I am sure that most non-vegetarians do not believe that human ethical norms are applicable to non-human animals, I suspect that at the same time most non-vegetarians do not have a skepticism towards the notion morality in general as extreme as mine. In other words, I assume that, even though they do not feel that meat-eating is a moral issue, I assume they do not reject the notion of morality as a whole. But if we do accept moral arguments as valid in general, then there are likely to be some real problems of consistency in justifying animal-killing. After all, the human right to kill animals is frequently justified on the basis of our superior intelligence, but since when is superior intelligence accepted as a valid moral distinction (pace Raskolnikov)? In other words, one could not (presumably) kill a mentally deficient person or an infant and justify it by claiming that one has a right to because one is more intelligent than them. So how can this justification have any currency when applied to animals? There is a similar inconsistency when people try to justify why in war it is morally permissible to kill people from another group or nation for the sake of the lives or lifestyles of the members of one’s own group.

My brother deals with this issue at some length and intricacy in his discussion of “marginal cases,” seemingly in hopes of deriving some sort of satisfactory general formula which defines our moral relationships to less intelligent humans, animals, etc. But I think the issue is much more simple than that. It seems to me that, generally speaking, we abide by a belief in the sanctity of life within the human community regardless of intelligence or other merits (with some obvious and flagrant exceptions). However, animals are outside the group, so none of the same standards apply. This may be a justifiable distinction biologically; I do not think that it is so by the standards of universalist ethics. But let us let that pass.

So why am I a vegetarian? I have no mathematically precise ethical justification for it, but I view that as an asset rather than a fault. Personally, I feel a certain tenderness towards many animals, and therefore I prefer not to have them killed for my food. Do I need any more justification than that? Especially because I feel that that is what in Hebrew is called chesed, the spirit of warm feelings toward another which is the impulse behind any “moral” actions, and without which morality is an empty shell of dogma. I reject the idea that I require or should attempt to provide any justification beyond my own sentiments. “Give me the world if you will, but grant me an asylum for my affections,” as the Czech artist Tulkas said. I do not hold non-vegetarians to be guilty of any greivous wrong, but I would at least request that subscribers to universalist moral codes consider the inconsistencies in a serious light and then either follow their commandments to their logical ends or abandon the pretensions, the “great illusions” of universalist ethics. As someone, I think it might have been Mark Twain, said: “Vegetarianism is a harmless enough thing, unless it give a man cause to feel abominably self-satisfied.” This is how I feel, too; if one cares for animals and their lives, then by all means, this is reason enough to treat them in a commensurate fashion; but do not assume that one’s feelings are universal.

Eat More Beef!

Posted by shonk at 12:21 AM in Science | permalink | 4 comments

Having been brought up as a vegetarian,1 I think I can safely say that I’ve been exposed to the gamut of reactions that people have to vegetarianism, from the radical vegan perspective to the radical carnivore perspective. As an ex-vegetarian, I can also say that I’ve never heard a moral argument for vegetarianism that rang particularly true.

Maybe I should back up a little bit and give a little bit more of my own history. My parents have been vegetarians for my entire life and, in fact, since sometime in the mid-1970s (with the caveat noted in the footnote). They aren’t what I’m going to call “ethical vegetarians”; rather, their dietary choices were guided in large part, I suspect, by reading too much Paul Ehrlich, specifically his argument that people who cared about the environment and humanity should become vegetarians. This argument is based on the simple reality that producing edible meat consumes more resources than producing edible plant-based foods (there’s a statistic to the effect that it takes 7 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef). Since Ehrlich thought we were facing an ecological and humanitarian catastrophe in the form of a “population bomb,” he thought the only way to avoid mass starvation in the years to come was a switch to a vegetarian diet. Now, one could counter this argument with the fact that most grains and other crops consumed by livestock are extremely-low grade and not at all suitable for human consumption and that much of the land on which these low-grade crops are grown is incapable of producing human-edible food, but there’s still at least a kernel of validity in Ehrlich’s argument (of course, every single one of Ehrlich’s predictions regarding mass starvation, resource depletion and the like have failed to come to pass [just ask Julian Simon], but it’s undeniable that meat-production is more resource-intensive and that this may become important someday).

Having been raised by vegetarians, my opportunities for eating meat were generally pretty limited: school cafeterias and restaurants being the only real outlets. Despite some experimentation with McDonald’s happy meals and barely-digestible cafeteria chicken-fried steak, I pretty quickly settled into the family tradition of not eating meat. Of course I realized that this was unusual in the broader social context, but it felt normal. Not eating meat made for some awkward moments in high school and college, but by and large it wasn’t a big deal.

In fact, the only particularly annoying aspect of this lifestyle was the constant need to answer the question: “You don’t eat meat? Man, that’s so weird. Why?” A perfectly reasonable and perhaps even interesting question for the questioner to ask, but answering the same question again and again, especially when meeting new people, can get frustrating. This goes doubly when one’s answer is as boring as mine was: “Because it’s how I was raised”.

Of course, the conversation rarely ended there, since there had to be a reason for my being raised as such, so I got used to giving the explanation for why my parents are vegetarians: resource conservation, 7 pounds of grain for 1 pound of beef, etc. What was always most interesting to me was that most people I talked to had never heard this particular rationale behind not eating meat. In this day and age, most people, if they don’t know vegetarians personally, at least are familiar with the idea and know the standard justifications for it (this wasn’t always the case: in 19th century England vegetarianism was quite radical and was known for a while as “Pythagoreanism” before the vegetarians started marketing themselves a little better), but in my experience the Ehrlichian justification is still relatively rare.

The most common argument for vegetarianism is, of course, the one based on the notion that animals have a right not to be killed for human consumption. The animal rights approach of the ethical vegetarians is one that I’ve never identified with and I’ve always been quick to distance myself from that particular ideology (usually to the relief of those who asked me why I was a vegetarian). To me, it simply doesn’t make sense to argue that animals have rights equivalent to those of people, that there is a moral imperative not to kill them (I’m arguing here outside the context of religious beliefs; obviously, to the Hindu, there is a reasonable moral reason for not killing animals). Certainly it is aesthetically distasteful for animals to suffer unnecessarily, but such considerations don’t rise to the level of having moral force.

The most reasonable argument that I’ve heard for vegetarianism is the argument from marginal cases. As summarized in David Graham’s response to Tibor Machan’s “Why Animal Rights Don’t Exist”, terms are defined as follows:

So-called “marginal cases” are humans who lack the ability to reason or be held accountable for their actions but who are still considered part of the moral community and have a right not to be killed or made to suffer except in self-defense.

Examples are given of infants, the terminally senile, people with brain damage, the congenitally retarded, etc. In each instance the “marginal case” is, in terms of cognitive ability and moral development, essentially on the level of animals. Since such people are considered to have the right not to be killed, the argument goes, the same ought to be held for animals as well. Now, I think the inclusion of infants and the terminally senile on this list of “marginal cases” is disingenuous, but it’s certainly true that some humans are born with no more cognitive ability or moral sense than the average cow and that most people would think killing such a person for food is wrong, so the argument bears consideration.

Graham is also correct to point out that opponents of vegetarianism and animal rights typically ignore or gloss over this argument, and Machan’s attempt to deal with it is unsatisfying for precisely the reasons he mentions. However, as I persistent skeptic of absolute moral systems, I find Graham’s argument unconvincing as well. In my view, it seems doubtful that rights derive from an absolute morality; more and more I become convinced that rights derive from social agreements and interactions. People have the right not to be killed not because there’s a rule that says so written into the fabric of the universe, but because they agree not to kill others (which explains why I have no objection, in theory, to the death penalty, though I am against all implementations of the death penalty into practice). From this perspective, it’s clear that animals don’t have any particular rights, as they feel no particular qualms about killing whatever suits them (as with all general statements, there are exceptions: the family dog, for example, typically doesn’t attack the family and, not surprisingly, most families don’t eat their dogs).

That’s all well and good, but I seem to be tossing out the baby with the bathwater (literally). After all, the “marginal cases” that Graham mentions are no more capable than the average cow of agreeing not to harm others in any meaningful sense, so why can’t we eat babies or harvest the brain-damaged for their organs? In short, the basic answer is because the guardians of “marginal cases” protect their interests (and also, significantly, assume their responsibilities). If you insist on reducing everything to a property relationship, you could view “marginal cases” as the property of their guardians, making the killing of a “marginal case” wrong in the same way that stealing a car or burning down someone’s house is wrong. In a sense this is quite accurate, but I think it’s a bit misleading (as well as being too cold-hearted to be readily acceptable). A better way to view the situation might be as a sort of proxy relationship. The guardian assumes the responsibilities of the marginal case (that is to say, the guardian accepts responsibility for ensuring that the “marginal case” doesn’t injure or kill others) and, as a result, we accord the same rights to the “marginal case” as we do to a normal person.

Within this context, it’s easy to see the parallel to other animals. Wildlife preserves and pets are both examples of instances in which people assume a guardianship of certain animals, assuming the responsibility for ensuring that the animals in question don’t attack others or damage their property and, in return, everybody else agrees not to kill the protected animals. Even those who don’t think animals have any rights at all cannot coherently condone poaching on a private animal preserve or climbing over the neighbor’s fence to kill his pet dog. The point I’m trying to make is this: with all rights come responsibilities and if you’re going to argue for animal rights on the basis of “marginal cases”, then you need to assume the responsibilities that come with those rights in the same way that guardians of those same “marginal cases” assume their responsibilities.

Even if you don’t find all of the foregoing convincing, I want to proceed to one additional point: that ethical vegetarianism and veganism are usually (though not necessarily) very contradictory. Whenever I get into a discussion with a particularly fierce animal rights activist, I like to bring up (or link to, in the case of an online discussion) Maddox’s guiltless grill argument:

Well here’s something that not many vegetarians know (or care to acknowledge): every year millions of animals are killed by wheat and soy bean combines during harvesting season ( source ). Oh yeah, go on and on for hours about how all of us meat eaters are going to hell for having a steak, but conveniently ignore the fact that each year millions of mice, rabbits, snakes, skunks, possums, squirrels, gophers and rats are ruthlessly murdered as a direct result of YOUR dieting habits.

And the response to the usual rejoinder is obvious:

The defense “at least we’re not killing intentionally” is bullshit anyway. How is it not intentional if you KNOW that millions of animals die every year in combines during harvest? You expect me to believe that you somehow unintentionally pay money to buy products that support farmers that use combines to harvest their fields? Even if it was somehow unintentional, so what? That suddenly makes you innocent? I guess we should let drunk drivers off the hook too since they don’t kill intentionally either, right? There’s no way out of this one. The only option left for you dipshits is to buy some land, plant and pick your own crops. Impractical? Yeah, well, so is your stupid diet.

The point being that the majority of vegans (the ones that are honest with themselves, anyway) know their diet will cause the suffering and death of animals and that their decision not to embrace a lifestyle that would actually prevent that same suffering and death (i.e. planting their own crops and harvesting them in such a way as to prevent “collateral damage”) is based on practical, rather than moral, reasons. At this point, the justification for ethical vegetarianism devolves to consequentialism (“At least we’re causing less death and suffering than you nasty meat-eaters”), which I find deliciously ironic.

Maddox, of course, has his own response to this argument:

So what exactly constitutes as “prevention” of animal suffering? The moral vegetarians (not the ones who do it for religious or health reasons) love to chant “we’re trying to limit the suffering.” What the hell does that mean? If you eat wheat or soy, you’re not limiting anything. Unless you plant, grow and pick your own crops, you’re not doing everything you can to “limit” the suffering. You know deep down that you could help limit a whole lot more suffering, but you’ve chosen not to. You’ve chosen not to because your lifestyle is too convenient, and you’d have to give up too much, but nevermind that—you have a conscience to feel good about, and you can’t let a little thing like millions of violent deaths of field animals get in the way of your moral trip.

Which I think is a perfectly reasonable response, but in perusing the footnotes of his original argument, I came across a link to an article entitled “Least Harm Principle suggests that Humans should eat beef not vegan,” which takes the notion propounded by certain vegans that “we must choose the food products that, overall, cause the least harm to the least number of animals” and tries to determine what a person who subscribes to it should eat. The calculations aren’t particularly precise, but they suggest that a diet high in foraging ruminants like cows, calves, sheep and lambs would, if universally adopted, save hundreds of millions of animal lives when compared to universal adoption of a vegan diet.

This is predicated on the assumption that those ruminants would be foraging (i.e. no cattle feedlots, veal crates, etc.) and, as I said, the statistics used are overly simplified (e.g. there’s no justification given for the assumption that doubling ruminant consumption would replace poultry consumption), but the basic methodology seems relatively sound. What’s fascinatingly counter-intuitive is, of course, the conclusion: consistent application of the principles used by most vegans to justify their diet suggests that we should eat more beef and fewer grains.

Of course, as detailed above, I don’t buy the moral justification for veganism to begin with, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy the irony.

1 Strictly speaking, actually, I wasn’t a vegetarian, as we occasionally ate some fish. I mention this because “real” vegetarians and vegans would declaim me as a “former vegetarian,” but to the majority of humanity, someone who doesn’t eat animal flesh other than fish about once a month is pretty damned vegetarian.

July 22, 2004

Yellow is a beautiful color

Posted by shonk at 12:16 AM in Sports | permalink | 6 comments

As I usually am around this time of year, I’ve been obsessed the last couple of weeks with the Tour de France. The coverage on the Outdoor Life Network is really outstanding, comprising live coverage in the morning, at least one replay of the live coverage in the afternoon and usually at least a couple of hours in the evening. A far cry from the measly half hour afternoon recap offered by ESPN2 back in the late nineties. Or, before that, the back-page story in the sports section in the early- to mid-nineties.

So what’s so great about cycling? Well, for one thing it’s very intriguing as the only team sport I know about in which the winners are individuals. We say that Lance Armstrong won last year’s Tour de France, not his U.S. Postal team, but without that team there’s very little chance Armstrong could have donned his record-tying fifth straight yellow jersey on the Champes-Elysees. No rider has a chance of winning without pretty significant support from his team, and I think it unlikely that Armstrong could have overcome his problems with dehydration and bad crashes were it not for a very strong effort from his team. The individual/team dichotomy also rears its head when two riders from the same team are in competition with each other. For example, in 1996, Jan Ullrich probably could have won the Tour had it not been for the fact that his team captain was the eventual champion, Bjarne Riis. Ullrich ended up with his first of five second-place finishes, though he did win the race the next year. A similar situation has shaped up this year, as Ullrich sits in fourth place, one spot behind T-Mobile teammate Andreas Klöden.

This dynamic is really just aspect of tactics of the Tour (and, by extension, other stage races). Teams with strong riders like Armstrong and Ullrich must protect those riders by serving as windbreaks and pacing the peloton to chase down breakaways, while teams without contenders for the overall title (and opportunistic riders) hope to gain glory (and sponsor airtime) by breaking away from the main field and trying to hold off the charge for stage wins. In the mountains, teammates serve as pacemakers, climbing as long and as hard as they can before breaking off, with no hope of winning either the stage or the Tour, simply to try to catapult their leaders over the climbs and further up in the standings. To me, there’s something inherently compelling in watching the likes of George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, José Luis Rubiera and Juan Azevedo from U.S. Postal, or Jens Voigt and Carlos Sastre from Ivan Basso’s CSC squad, or Giuseppe Guerini from T-Mobile, punish their bodies to try to put their team leaders in position for the race to the line and a shot at the yellow jersey despite the fact that they’ll never make the headlines (or, often, even the fifth paragraph) as a result of their efforts (and, furthermore, despite the fact that a rider like Azevedo might be able to finish on the podium himself were it not for his responsibilities to Armstrong). Armstrong and Ullrich may make the headlines and have the fat bank accounts, but they owe much of their success to their teammates and to the team managers who plot the strategy, timing escapes and directing chases. Admittedly, the reality of big stars depending in large measure on the support of their relatively anonymous teammates and coaches is not unique in the world of team sports, but in most team sports it’s the team that wins a championship, not an individual.

Getting back to this year’s tour, the biggest story, as it has been for the last six, has to be that of Lance Armstrong, currently chasing an unprecedented sixth consecutive title. Which, I’ll grant you, is a compelling story, but the fact is that Lance has already won five in a row, so everybody knows he’s good, despite the fact that he’s past cycling’s prime age range (typically 26 to 30 or 31). He came into this race as the favorite, and much as people may have had doubts about his fitness, given his subpar performance in the Dauphiné Liberé and small victory margin last year, I don’t think anybody could seriously deny that he had to be considered the pre-race favorite. Which is in stark contrast with 1999 when, although apparently a more complete cyclist than he had been early in his career, Armstrong was best known for having battled back from testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. He was mentioned as a possible contender, but I suspect that most people at the time thought just finishing the race would be miracle enough after having faced such long odds on surviving. He beat an admittedly weak field that year (lacking the likes of Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich), but the entire 1999 tour was a revelation.

Anyway, today is a good day to write about the Tour, as Armstrong crushed the field in the most anticipated stage in years, a time trial up the famous hairpin turns of L’Alpe d’Huez, finishing over a minute before Ullrich, who finished second on the stage, and more than two minutes before Ivan Basso, the only man who had been able to stay with Armstrong throughout the mountains. With nearly a four minute advantage on Basso, second in the overall standings, it’s likely that only a crash can now prevent Armstrong from winning the historical number six.

I remember watching and reading about Armstrong during the mid-nineties, when he was known as a day-race specialist (and, admittedly, a good one, having won the World Championship in 1993) and something of a hothead. He was actually too muscular to be a complete rider, standing out among the riders for his large and well-developed chest and arms. Nobody doubted his talent, but he was a far cry from what he is today, the most complete, most dedicated and perhaps smartest rider in the world.

The biggest non-Armstrong story of this year’s Tour, though, has to be that of Thomas Voeckler, the French champion who held the overall leader’s yellow jersey for ten stages before finally relinquishing it yesterday at Villard-de-Lans (dubbed almost immediately Villard-de-Lance by the journalists after Armstrong’s stage win and reappropriation of the yellow jersey). Despite being a relative unknown and not having strong climbing form, Voeckler managed to retain his lead through the Pyrenees, finishing a surprising 13th in stage 13, ahead of climbing specialists like Roberto Heras and Iban Mayo. Voeckler gave the French fans someone to cheer for other than the annoying and scandal-ridden Richard Virenque, and that’s always a good thing. Let’s hope Voeckler, who has displayed tremendous class and resilience, can hold off his competition for the white jersey, given each year to the best young rider, where he still holds a 3½ minute edge over the field.

July 20, 2004

External Links

Posted by shonk at 01:00 AM in Blogging | permalink | 2 comments

Spurred by the example of Scribbling.net, I’m introducing a new feature here at selling waves: a small linklog. Since recently I seem not to be able to write much of anything in the way of interesting posts, it seems only reasonable that I should at least point our two remaining readers to people who do have interesting things to say.

The biggest problem with this sort of thing is, of course, the formatting. Ideally I’d like to integrate links into the front page as seemlessly as Jason Kottke does, but, unfortunately, I don’t have the technical expertise to do so. There’s always the possibility of presenting the links in a sidebar, like Scribbling or No Treason, but, just having done a significant reformat to get rid of all my sidebars, that seems counterproductive. Hence, I’ve compromised and placed the external links on the front page directly below the topmost post. That makes them prominent without being too prominent and without disrupting the layout or the flow too badly. So, at least for the moment, look for the links-of-the-moment to reside just below the top post on the main page.

Also, it would be nice to implement this sort of thing using a Python script like Scribbling does, but since I know nothing about Python, that doesn’t seem too likely. So I’ve just created a new weblog and used a PHP include (much as is done on the books page). It ain’t pretty, but it works (hopefully). To see a complete list of all external links posted under the new system, check the archives page.

Please, let me know what you think and pass on any suggestions you may have.

July 18, 2004

Pictures from the land of socialized medicine

Posted by shonk at 02:08 PM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

summer in europe

Based on the counter, I see that some of you have already noticed, but for those that haven’t, Curt’s pictures from Europe are now available. Check ’em out and be sure read the descriptions at the bottom of each photo page. Of course, there’s also a permanent link on the photographs page

July 15, 2004

St. Petersburg

Posted by Curt at 05:54 PM in | permalink | 2 comments

“Hey Curt-Lots of questions. How long were you in St. P? What sights did you see? Where you there for the White Nights? What clubs did you go to? Elaborate on your impressions of the city/Russia. Did you learn any Russian?
My apologies—I just got back from Russia (Siberia, capping off with a month in Moscow) and didn’t get to visit Peter, which absolutely killed me. Hearing about your experience will alleviate some of that…Thanks for indulging me.”

My observations concerning St. Petersburg may prove less enlightening for someone who has already been to Russia than to someone completely uninititated, becaaue much of what I found most surprising, even startling, concerned the people and the social life, which I would assume is more typical of Russia as a whole than the architecture and monuments of the city. Nevertheless, I am tempted to call St. Petersburg my favorite European city along with Venic, and not only because St. Petersburg, like Stockholm, often finds itself saddled with the title “Venice of the North.” Like Venice also, I only visited St. Petersburg for a few short days, so I do not pretend to have penetrated very deeply into the life of the city, although I was staying with the family of one of my best friends and made friends with several Russian girls and subsequently visited their apartments and wandered the city with them. Hence, I feel like my little experience was perhaps at least representative of typical teenage life there.

Now I said that I enjoyed St. Petersburg probably the most of any European city I have visited, along with Venice. This inevitably seems to invite a comparison, and not only because of their shared legacy of canals and ancient palatial buildings lining every horizon. But after several days’ consideration, I am frankly unsure of whether the parallel is deep and meaningful or not. But maybe the one factor which attracts me to both cities, perhaps even what defines the experience for me, is what I would call their cultural and intellectual integrity. Of course, like Venice, St. Petersburg is arguably a city in decline, its world-importance fading with each passing decade. But this somewhat facile impression may be somewhat misleading on two counts. For one thing, just as in Venice, the relics of the aristocratic age here are so magnificent and so overwhelming that they inevitably cast the present into a paltryand disappointing light. Secondly, unlike Venice, St. Petersburg still is a real city, and although it has suffered two massive diminuations in status over the course of the last century, first after it lost its place as capital and then the general loss of rank of Russia as a whole during the last decade, its importance within Russia may actually be growing, since its population grows even as the country’s declines. So many, I believe, are fleeing the provinces and either going abroad or moving to the cities that the city is perhaps temporarily revived by the influx.

And indeed, if you walk along Nevsky Prospekt it is, paradoxically, startling to find things so familiar, at least to a Westerner. To say that St. Petersburg appears almost European is no longer only to claim that the palaces resemble the Europe of the 18th century; at least on Nevsky Prospekt everything almost resembles contemporary Western Europe. The stores could just as easily be in Paris, the girls are all dressed like Italians, and the prices follow the same pattern. Of course, this effect fades almost instantaneously when one follows an alleyway off of Nevsky; the new Russia fades into “real Russia” in less than a block, and anyone who has been to Russia undoubtedly knows what that means: buildings crumbling, sidewalks suddenly tattered, being surrounded by people of uncertain intent. It almost reminds me of the paintings depicting Catherine the Great’s tour of Russia in the course of which the real peasants were hidden behind their houses while actors in stylized peasant costumes greeted the tsarina. But still, compared to what we have been led to believe about Russia, this is all very surprising nonetheless, and in fact even for Russians that have been away for a few years.

So maybe meditations on the “decline and fall” spring a little over-easily, even thoughtlessly, to the mind upon visiting St. Petersburg. The truth is, I would say that the Russian people are holding onto the real essence, as opposed to merely the outward manifestations, of the greatness of the past more successfully than residents of any other European city I have been to, certainly more so than Parisians or Romans or Florentines. And that is what I mean by intellectual and cultural integrity. Russians engage unapologetically in the discriminatory practice of charging foreigners at least 10 times as much as Russians (no exaggeration) to visit most of the major monuments. However, if there is a consolation for this, it is being able to see clearly how much longer the Russian ticket line is than the foreign ticket line. The point is that Russians still visit their monuments and sights in huge numbers, which seems to indicate a general interest in and engagement with their past to a degree far exceeding anything I have seen in Western Europe (as well as the bureaucratic nightmare that a visit to Russia imposes on foreigners and perhaps dissuades a great many from coming, but that is another story). To see a fair number of people casually reading poetry on the subway or hear an old man unself-consciously recite poems that he has written, intertwined by stanzas by Pushkin, is, as simple of a gesture as it is, an experience that I have very, very rarely had elsewhere.
So one could look at St. Petersburg as the enshrinement of Western models in a Russian context. I visited the Hermitage, the largest art museum in the world, and devoted entirely to Western art (and archealogical artifacts), and St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which looks more like an Italian Basilica than any cathedral I have seen outside Italy, probably because it was constructed almost entirely by Italians. Yet the ideals seem to have penetrated very deeply here, probably more so, at the present moment, than in the countries that gave birth to them. Perhaps another comparison is in order. St. Petersburg and Washington, D.C. were constructed within the same century, in a similarly artificial manner: both were dredged up out of swampland and intented to be capitals evoking a vague European/classical mythos for their hitherto uncultured populations. Yet St. Petersburg has matured and aged into one of the grandest cities in Europe, genuinely loved and revered. Only recall that Russian film that appeared a couple of years ago called “Russian Ark,” in which the “ark” is the Hermitage, a haven of culture and art intended to survive the dark days and re-seed the world in the coming times. Washington, D.C., on the other hand, is loved and revered by exactly nobody that I know of. It seems to me that it simply has not sunk into our collective imagination. It certainly appears archaic in one way, but on the other hand it almost seems not to have aged at all, as if it is floating like a water-lily in some indeterminate space and time that has no real relation to America. Perhaps that is why no one lives there or spends any time there after business hours are over with. This is not to cast aspersions on it, but I think that perhaps American culture is perhaps actually too democratic, too utilitarian and suspicious of aristocratic “high” culture for a project (and projected ideal) of the type of Washington or St. Petersburg to succeed in America as it does in Russia. Perhaps noblesse oblige is the price that Russians pay, and have paid, for that.

However, I have not visited any other cities in Russia, so my interpretation of St. Petersburg’s cultural niche may be completely mistaken. And perhaps I did not even capture the real mood of the place, firstly because, with my extremely rudimentary knowledge of Russian (which is, however, getting slowly better) I may not have understood aright what people were communicating to me, but also because I visited at the end of June, right after the White Nights, when the sky never gets dark and people, even old people and small children don’t go to bed until three in the morning. Hence, the mood of the city is somewhat giddy and high-spirited in a way which is possibly not typical of the rest of year, although I think some of the natural exuberance of summer is actually dissipated to an extent by the lack of a daily catharsis of sunset and sunrise—there is a little element of restlessness and unsettledness, the “dawn which sets on another dawn,” which is actually I think very well-evoked in “The Bronze Horseman.” In short, ask me again after I have visited in the winter.

p.s. I will have pictures up momentarily of all my travels, including the sights I visited in St. Petersburg—most prominently the Winter Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Peter and Paul fortress and Peterhof. No pictures of clubs, because I in fact didn’t have time to visit any, and more disappointingly, at least for me, I also did not have time to see the bridges over the river Neva go up at night.

Move (almost) complete

Posted by shonk at 12:16 AM in Blogging | permalink | comment

Okay, we’re up and running on the new server. If you didn’t notice any difference, that’s good. If you did, please let me know if there are any continuing problems.

Substantive updates coming soon…

July 12, 2004

Further krankiness editorialized

Posted by Curt at 03:43 PM in Language | permalink | 4 comments

The fact that various repressive activists and government-types try to sell censorship of porn as a safety issue is probably of interest to few in and of itself. Perhaps the criminalization of pornogrophy should interest more people in its own right, since if all viewers of porn were accounted criminals I am sure at least 70% of all men would be fined or sent off to jail. But given that very few are ever going to actually admit to this proclivity and that few are willing to accept Larry Flynt as a champion of free speech in any case, I shall have to attract interest on the grounds that this modus operandi on the part of the censors is at the very least symptomatic of a wider pattern.

There are really two modes of morality in my opinion (far be it from me to assert that either one is legitimate). On the one hand, there is the inherently intolerant virtue-based idea of morality. I say inherently intolerant because this type of morality frames everything as a dichotomy between virtue and vice, between good and evil. Tolerance being the acceptance of various different ways of doing, being, living, there can be no tolerance in the simple duality of virtue and vice, when to not act virtuously is to act immorally. This is not to say that such a view of morality precludes the notion of free choice; anyone who has read Kant will recall all the arguments for the co-existence of moral imperative with free choice. But it should be at least apparent that freedom is not much of a value for its own sake in Kant or any other exponent of this type of morality; it may be a reality of human life, but the exemplar of virtue will confine himself within the strictures of virtue just as rigidly as if he were compelled to do so. The other type of morality, which I might call social boundary-based morality, is perhaps not a true form of morality, since it is not predicated on the idea of virtue, but rather on the idea that everyone should have total freedom and independence to do as they wish within the boundaries of their own individual existences. This type of morality is basically tolerant because it places no strictures on the manner in which individuals act, so long as they do not impose or impinge upon the independence of others. In fact, this morality really only applies to social interaction and judges only the effect actions have on others rather than on the value of an individual’s existence in and of itself.

I do not think it would be a great exaggeration to claim that in our culture, at this moment in our history, social boundaries-based morality is ascendent over virtue-based morality. So long as living as one sees fit is valued more highly than following a prescribed code of conduct, virtue-based morality can have little hold over people’s hearts and minds. It should now be apparent, however, why the labelling of censorship as a safety issue may be an important signifier of things to come. Censorship of pornography, it seems obvious, is essentially a consequence of virtue-based morality, since exciting sexual arousal is pretty clearly not an issue of imposition on others in and of itself (patience, feminists—I’ll get to the exploitation and abuse of women in a moment). Censorship of porn is, I believe, commonly predicated on a train of thought something like the following (regardless of the bases, religious or otherwise): 1. Sex, or at least excessive devotion to it, is evil; 2. Pornography excites the impulse to sex; 3. Therefore, pornography is evil. Since I do not believe that most people, at least in this culture, would necessarily accept even the notion of a virtue-based morality, let alone the specific virtues encoded in this line of thought, censorship of pornography would seem to be anomalous.

This is where the selling of censorship as a safety issue comes in. Few people may be convinced by any argument based on the premise that sex is evil, but by using words such as “safety” and “protection,” the the censors can make pornography appear to be almost a physical threat to the well-being of indviduals, especially children. Of course they hammer at the issue of children and pornography, because the well-being of children has a polarizing effect on almost any issue, but one could imagine this language being applied to any case. “Mr. X’s wife knew that he would not be safe as long as he was not protected from pornography on the Internet.” Since causing direct harm to another individual is an impingement upon their independence and hence a transgression of social boundaries-based morality, it seems clear to me that this insidious use of language is an attempt to make an old virtue-based moral prohibition palatable to adherents of a more relaxed social boundaries-based morality. Using these two simple words, “safety” and “protection,” almost any arbitrary old virtue-based rule can be re-sold as a threat to personal well-being and autonomy. This is the real significance of this ridiculous little abuse of language.

p.s. Although it would seem that proponents of intransigent virtue-based moral systems, religious fundamentalists for example, represent the greatest threat to the intellectual valuing of freedom, this is really a case of two extremes warring against the middle. On the opposite extreme, the notion of freedom is similarly corroded by those who take ethical utilitarianism into the realm of thoughtcrime. For instance, in the case of pornography religious groups are of course among the principal advocates of censorship, but feminists also represent a not-insignificant contingent of the advocates. They often proceed from the premise that the male sex drive represents the greatest source of violence to women to the conclusion that anything, including pornography, which excites this drive therefore represents an implicit threat of violence to women (whether this is explicitly stated or couched in vague, even metaphorical terms, as in the endless debates about the “objectification” of women). But the various side-issues surrounding this issue, such as the exploitation of women in the porn industry, etc., should not distract from the central point, which is this: to believe that sexual arousal itself, which after all is merely the potential for action, not the action itself, is itself injurious and therefore evil is to sanction the idea of thoughtcrime. I find this a common trait among secular extremists: while they may profess to adhere to social boundaries-based morality, they frequently impose strictures upon thought just as severe as those propogated by proponents of virtue-based morality because of their frequent refusal to draw clear boundaries between thought and action.

p.p.s. Given that the worst offender in this abuse of language that I have encountered is AOL, I am also aware that this issue is not always a legal one, nor one necessarily advanced by idealistic zealots; sometimes it is just a strategy by an ageing company to sell its shitty product which would not otherwise have any selling points. Nevertheless, I think all of these issues are still relevant, particularly the many ways that censorship is “sold” to the public, and even if the stakes right now are only the humiliation that will be yours if you are such a moron as to use AOL, it can become a coercive governmental issue at any time, and in addition this Trojan horse strategy of sneaking old intransigent values into an open society through deceptive language clearly goes far beyond pornography.


Posted by shonk at 01:33 PM in Blogging | permalink | 1 comment

I’m in the process of setting up new hosting for this site, so don’t think we’ve disappeared if you run into any weird errors in the next day or two. We’ll be back online as soon as possible. Thanks.

July 11, 2004

Voyage to the end of public transportation

Posted by Curt at 03:33 PM in Ramblings | permalink | 1 comment

As I may or may not have remembered to mention before I left, I have spent most of the last month in Europe, starting in Sweden (after a very brief but interesting stop-over in London), then to Norway, then to Barcelona, then to St. Petersburg, Russia by way of Helsinki. I could probably write a book about my impressions right now, but rather than burdening you with such a load, I thought that I might solicit questions from any of you that are curious about any aspect of the places that I visited or about my journey itself or really anything else. I thought about trying out this method because I was visiting the fringes of Europe, maybe what might be callled the extremes of Europe, northern Europe, southern Europe and eastern Europe, where, while certain traits commonly associated with Europe seem heightened or exaggerated, the environment is very different than that of the core of Europe, i.e. Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the Low Countries. Coupled with the fact that the places I visited are a bit less visited (at least by Americans) and a bit more out of the way than those countries, I thought some of you might be curious or interested in my opinions about them. Certain of the broad stereotypes regarding them are definitely false, such as the idea that families and the institution of marriage have dissolved in Scandinavia (I saw probably more parents walking infants in strollers, usually both parents together, than I have anyplace else that I have been, including America—an impression confirmed by a fellow-traveler from Costa Rica) or that Russia is a lawless, mafia-ruled gangland (I felt safer there than I generally do in any large American urban centers), while others are for the most part true—prices are indeed astronomical in Scandinavia and Russians will drink just about anything by the shot, including Grand Marnier. Anyway, if you would like to ask me a question about my trip, please leave one for me in the comment-box or e-mail me. Of course, if a few days go by with no response, I can always elaborate with long, rambling anecdotes, but I would at least like to try this little experiment with dialectical communication in the hope that I may be able to provide something a little more focused on what people are interested in.

p.s. There will also be pictues a subito.

July 09, 2004

Now playing...

Posted by shonk at 12:15 AM in Ramblings | permalink | 7 comments

Talking to George today, we came up with some band names that someone needs to use:

  • Seized By Apathy
  • Who Are These Guys? (so that when they show up at your favorite bar and refuse to play covers, the band name will be on everybody’s lips)
  • Creative Destruction
  • Boosted To Mediocre
  • The Occipital Lobe
  • The Gel Curve
  • Interspecies Powwow
  • Discomfort in the Afternoon
  • Tman Gets A Clue
  • The Dismal Scientists
  • Ayn Rand’s Malignant Lung
  • The Vegan Cannibals
  • The Use of Fools
  • The Unwitting Accomplices
  • Internal Dialogue
  • Gratuitous Post
  • The Categorical Imperative (stage costume: black turtlenecks, horn-rimmed glasses, berets)
  • Erectile Malfunction
  • The Underground Monorail
  • Skyborne Oil Deposit
  • Felonius Insult
  • G-String Theory
  • Shit Hemorrhage (chorus to their first single: “I went to take a shit but the shit took me…SHIT HEMORRHAGE!”)
  • Nocturnal Mission

Feel free to add your own.

July 04, 2004

Modern times call for modern action figures

Posted by shonk at 02:21 AM in War | permalink | 3 comments

A couple days ago, Eric McErlain noted that several peace groups are demanding that the Minnesota Twins desist from giving out G.I. Joes as part of a promotion. He added an idea for a new action figure:

Activist Chad: a student at an obscure New England private college who uses his Spring Break to disrupt IMF and World Bank meetings. Comes complete with gas mask, spray paint (for protest signs), smoke bombs, and multiple ticket stubs from last night’s showing of Farenheit 9-11. Saul Alinsky’s, Rules For Radicals not included.

Suitably inspired, I decided to make some suggestions of my own:

  • Patriotic Jim: Though he’s never been in the military, this trailer-park denizen idolizes soldiers and refers to them as “our boys”. Comes complete with semi-auto rifle, stained wifebeater and membership in the Republican Party. Passing grade from gun-safety course not included.

  • White Guilt Joan: a wealthy, white, middle-aged woman living in the Upper West Side who refers to G.W. Bush as an oil baron and a fascist in the company of her similarly wealthy (and lily-white) friends. Comes complete with Mercedes SUV, expensive education and three copies of Al Franken’s latest book. Gainful employment and actual principles not included.

  • Cheerleader Neil: a former Trotskyite turned neo-conservative hawk who claims to have been involved in the planning of the Project for a New American Century. Comes complete with off-the-rack three-piece suit, a subscription to The National Review and an Oedipus complex. Military experience not included.

This next was originally intended to be a caricature, but I realized almost immediately that the man deserved an action figure in his own name:

  • Noam Chomsky: a tenured professor at a major university who capitalized on his well-deserved fame as a linguist to publish poorly-researched, over-written treatises on politics. Comes complete with both panegyrics to the Khmer Rouge and wordy dissimulations, references to Foucault and a hefty appearance fee. Coherent political philosophy not included.

And, in the interest of fairness, here’s what mine would be:

  • shonk: an inveterate cynic who devotes his time to sarcastic criticism rather than doing any actual work. Comes complete with over-used, expensive laptop, excessive free time and contempt for pretty much everybody. Original ideas not included.