Archive for the 'Uncategorized Current Events' Category

hail to whoever happens to be currently occupying the position of chief

Two centuries ago Catherine the Great made a tour of Russia to see what the life of the peasants was like, but she didn’t know or didn’t care enough about the basic rudiments of peasant life to realize that the happy-looking people and prosperous towns she was being shown were actually a bunch of actors in made-up fairy-tale-villages. Yesterday when I was walking along Brattle Street I saw kind of the opposite of that. There was a pack of people lining the street around the co-op bookstore, out of which the British Prime Minister was apparently coming. He might not be greeted with flowers and huzzahs in Baghdad, but at least in Harvard Square he can still attract the indifferent attentions of 50 bored people wandering around with nothing better to do.

Unfortunately it soon became apparent that no one actually seemed to be sure what he looked like. The secret service wouldn’t have even needed a body double to protect him. They could have had a degenerate brother-in-law or some fat bodyguard sitting in that limo for all that anyone would have noticed the difference. But everyone was still mighty eager to catch a glimpse of such a memorable statesman, whoever he might be. It was like the delegates to the Chinese People’s Congress: they just need to be directed who to applaud and vote for.

I don’t know if you can call it an image problem if no one actually has an image of you in their mind’s eye, but maybe Gordon Brown should spend more time hanging out with Bono. British Prime Ministers don’t enough of that. Speaking of which, it turned out that the Wu-Tang Clan was playing at Harvard’s version of the ubiquitous American College Spring Drunk-Fest at the same time. So, Gordon Brown and the Wu-Tang Clan were both on campus simultaneously. I don’t really know what that means, but that’s probably the next Live 8 concert right there.

the inventor-of-dynamite peace prize

As much as people may admire the winners of Nobel prizes, the discouraging fact remains that becoming prominent enough in physics or medicine or literature to win one probably lies beyond the intellectual capacity of most. Fortunately for them, a consoling hope still exists in the form of a Nobel prize for mediocre minds: the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s gotten to the point where any Democratic President of the U.S. (or even presidential candidate) who doesn’t win one should probably consider themselves a total failure. All it used to take seemed to be spending a weekend at the presidential retreat with the leaders of a couple of warring Middle Eastern states and standing between them like a minister between bride and groom at a wedding while they recite vows that they are just as unlikely to keep. But now even that much isn’t necessary. Granted Al Gore doesn’t get to take advantage of the presidential retreat to host dictators taking time off from planning their next invasion of their neighbors to take credit for negotiating a settlement to their last one. Still, not only is it entirely unclear how spreading propaganda about global warming contributes to world peace, this is a man so unwilling to bury the hatchet that he did his best to break up the peaceful electoral succession of U.S. leaders by sending a pack of lawyers to Florida to bandy theories about the electoral preferences of a few senile gas emitters from Florida for two months. Now that the Nobel committee has made its criteria for winning the Peace Prize so opaque and unclear through seemingly trying to become a mirror for every trendy global fad of the moment, I’m praying that this doesn’t lead at some point to them wheeling out an actual mirror at the prize-giving ceremony and declaring that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate is “YOU.”

Jeunes radicaux? Au contraire

I have been solicited for my impressions of students at the Sorbonne, since I was one of them for a year and they are currently in the news. As for the specific issues they are protesting about, this article gives a decent voice to my general reaction. The thing is though, students at the Sorbonne are always demonstrating about something. Pretty much on a weekly basis people would be handing out really amazingly overly detailed flyers about every single proposed governmental change in the university system. Several times I couldn’t get on or off of metro trains because of student protests on the metro platforms themselves. One time when I was waiting for a friend at Place Montparnasse I got between a bunch of protesters and the cops, and I was somewhat concerned that the police were going to think I was a demonstrator as well and detain me.

So basically this is part of everyday life, which seems very strange because this whole element doesn’t even exist for the most part on campuses in the States. It’s not that there aren’t activists or that everyone is apathetic, but I think the difference is that in France absolutely everything is under the purvew of the national government, so there aren’t really any intermediate levels or methods of recourse short of getting on TV or signing a petition (not that I’m saying that those are). And of course conscientious recruitment and organization of students by political parties has always been more prevalent in France.

To be honest, I am sympathetic to basic anxiety about lack of job security, since I don’t have much of a taste for the entrepreneurial way of life myself. But I’m not convinced that that is the most important underlying motivation in all of this. It seems that especially in France any form of economic liberalization has become so identified with “Anglo-Saxon” hegemony that making any concessions in that direction has come to be seen as almost tantamount to admitting the inferiority of the French system to the American or the British. Of course you might argue that those cocerns are both ridiculously inflated and beside the point. But there is something to the endless claims for the merits of French-style group cohesiveness and communal spirit, as anyone would surely agree after comparing the efficiency of the Paris Métro with, say, the London Tube. And I would venture to extend that superiority to most areas of communal endeavor, like public transportation and healthcare. But it’s more a Darwinian question: will French society have enough money to keep subsidizing the educational system and maintaining labor restrictions with no reforms? That is the question that few people seem to be asking among the all the talk about “justice” and “égalité.” I mean, Russians might like the précarité of capitalism even less than life in the late Soviet era, but it’s not like they have much of a choice. They didn’t have the means to keep financing the old system whether they liked it or not.

Are conspiracy theorists creationists or are creationists conspiracy theorists?

I vote for the latter, but only because it sounds more entertaining when you put it that way. The only reason I mention it is because of this article in New York which pretty exhaustively catalogues the more popular 9/11 conspiracy theories. I have no idea whether there is any truth to any of them, and much like the whole brouhaha about the The Da Vinci Code, I’m not sure what difference it would make. I mean, would covering up Jesus’ marriage really change a rational person’s estimation of the Catholic Church’s commitment to truth and honesty? Would complicity in 9/11 change your estimation of the American government’s valuation of human life and liberty? I think one would have a better chance defending them from these charges on grounds of incompetence than benevolence, but that’s just me. I’m inclined to agree with the investment banker who says: “I can see them wishing it would happen, secretly happy it did. But on purpose? Look at the way they’ve managed Iraq. They’re boobs. They couldn’t have pulled off 9/11 without getting caught. Not possible.?

Anyway, I find the whole thing more interesting from a sociological point of view. The mindset among the conspiracy theorists is exactly like the Intelligent Design arguments we hear tossed around. In both cases, the assumption seems to be that there are only two possible theories, so any nagging inconsistencies or incompleteness in one theory is implicitly support for the other. The towers falling straight down so quickly or life getting started in the first place might be problematic for the conventional explanations, but they are not really positive evidence that God exists or that the U.S. government blew up its own buildings. Those seem more like the problems which will complicate any ultimate explanation unless one brings in some shadowy, elusive and omnipotent or near-omnipotent entities/organizations. And that’s the other characteristic they share. The idea of God or a government with essentially unlimited powers dissolves all the problems. Of course they can do this or that, because they can do anything! And our government really is God in the theology of 9/11 conspiracy theorists. I know a lot of people that think Bush is way too obsessed with God, but I don’t know anyone who actually thinks he is God (well, the conspiracy theorists don’t seem to think he’s really in charge either, but you get the rhetorical point).

Naturally I find this all very amusing (but sad), because a good number of the same people that laugh at (or, more likely, verbally abuse) religious people for refusing to accept any of the ambiguity or loose ends in evolutionary theory without interposing a Creator are using the slightest uncertainties or unresolved issues surrounding 9/11 as positive proof that the whole thing was a put-up job by the U.S. government. Maybe they are just looking to fill that need for grandiose, intricate theologies that they created when they threw out their religious upbringing. Either way, I suspect the Stonecutters did it.

p.s. Speaking of Intelligent Design and amusing ironies, these people talking about the anthropic principle makes it sound like just that, in a suitably detached academic sort of way. It must be especially galling to the atheists and “secularists” who are trying to pretend that there is a united scientific front against any sort of covert creationism that even front-line theoretical physicists are playing around with these ideas (in John Polkinghorne or Frank Tipler’s cases, not even concealing the religious implications).

p.p.s. Finally this article finally asks in print a question that I must have asked myself a thousand times when I was living in Paris: “This is the nation [France] that invented style — or the nation with the good sense to bother claiming to have invented style. The English language hasn’t even got a word for chic. So the greatest marvel of all is why the nation as a whole exhibits so little of either” (qualification: she goes on to compare English style positively with the French, which let’s just say is not exactly an opinion I share–both sides of the North Atlantic seaboard are kind of black holes are pretty moribund in terms of women’s dress in my experience).

Sacre bleu! because archaic French swear words are just more fun

Sorry, I just can’t resist things like this tidbit from a summary of an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung:

Gustav Seibt attended a speech in Berlin by Jean-Noël Jeanneney, president of the Bibliotheque nationale in Paris, who hopes to reinforce all of Europe like a Gaulish village against Google Book Search, to break the back of Anglo-Saxon dominance in the world wide web. “Monsieur Jeanneney gave a harrowing example of what it could lead to if an Anglo-Saxon world-view came to dominate: the French Revolution could widely be seen as a period ‘of guillotine and terror,’ whereas ‘we on the continent’ see it as a time of humanity and progress. Parbleu! Terror in the grand revolution? That is new!”

So just to clarify…

“The Danish government needs to make a more formal apology, in acknowledgment that freedom of expression does not mean people are free to insult prophets.” —Egyptian MP Hamdi Hassan of the Muslim Brotherhood

Ça ne fait rien

Nice to see that Americans are just as good at condescendingly giving French people empty, platitudinous advice about how to improve their society as the French are to Americans.

?оменклатура ещё живёт

The newspapers are still full of disappointment and scathing criticism, as the politically correct choice of a nominee with loyally orthodox views but dubious qualifications to join one of the most distinguished bodies in the world has caused commentators from across the political spectrum to condemn the selection as an “insult,” “sectarian” and “anaemic, dumb and hollow.” That’s right, Harold Pinter has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I am so a police officer!

Today, Joshua Holmes points (indirectly) to a story about underage drinking prevention gone awry. The basic story: an undercover campus cop tasked with cracking down on underage drinking before a University of Central Florida football game gets in an argument with some students who don’t believe he’s a cop. Heated words are exchanged, and the cop pulls out a gun and fires several shots into the air (or possibly into someone’s leg, depending on how much you trust eyewitnesses). An Orlando cop hears gunshots, sees a pissed-off guy waving around a pistol and, not surprisingly, shoots the campus cop dead (and, in the process, hits a student who may or may not have been involved in the argument).

Oh, and just for kicks, the UCF president is blaming the whole thing on “alcohol abuse”. Admittedly, if the campus police (in coordination with the ATF, note) hadn’t been hassling 20-year-olds about drinking, this wouldn’t have happened, but certain proximate causes seem rather more imperative.

My question is simply this: leaving aside the merits of the patently stupid law that says 20-year-olds can’t drink alcohol, why in the fuck is UCF sending armed, undercover police officers to crack down on underage drinking? The key here is the word “undercover”; armed cops in uniform may present their own problems, but being recognized as such usually isn’t one of them. There are certain contexts where undercover officers make some sense: drug- and prostitution-law enforcement (two other stupid laws, but we’ll let that pass), conspiracy/racketeering prevention, etc. → Personally I have serious qualms about the moral viewpoint that makes using undercover cops seem like a viable option, but, again, we’ll let that pass. However, enforcing the drinking age is not such a context; if you’re trying to make someone drunk stop drinking, you’d better either be a friend or a recognizable authority figure. The best way to prevent underage people from drinking is having lots of uniformed cops around. But that tends to be preventative rather than retaliatory, which entails better adherence but less revenue and publicity…and I see I’ve just answered my own question.

To be honest, the entire situation baffles me. My alma mater and its campus police enforced the drinking age only when the underage drunk had done something so incredibly stupid as to make the potential liabilities rather higher than could safely be ignored. The dean of students when I was there freely and openly admitted his belief that the drinking age should be 18, which was reflective of the institutional opinion generally. Everybody (okay, not the teetotalers) drank without a second thought in front of the campus police, who were at all large campus parties. Given that at least 2/3 of people at any given party were under 21, I think it’s safe to say the campus police didn’t cramp anybody’s style too much. → In a not unrelated note, I should also point out that although Sewanee was (and is) a hard-drinking school, consumption tended to proceed along safer lines than at many other colleges.

Keeping in mind that my experience may be somewhat unusual, I think it’s very interesting that underage drinking is inevitably classified as “alcohol abuse” (as, for example, quoted above). I don’t deny that alcohol can be abused and that what qualifies as abuse (in a clinical sense) may be age-dependent, but it’s pretty stupid to claim (or, rather, imply) that a 20-year-old drinking a beer is “abusing” alcohol. 12 beers in an hour, sure, but you generally don’t see undercover cops trying to bust middle-aged guys who throw down a half-case in an hour, so that argument’s out. Of course, the same inevitably goes for any use of any illegal drugs, as if smoking a bowl once a month qualified you for rehab. Ah, well. Yet another example of distorting the meaning of words to make objectively insane policy seem reasonable.

Okay, rant aside, I leave you with the following rhetorical question (poached from Balko): It appears that the Orlando cop who killed the UCF cop acted according to procedure and probably won’t be punished. If he had been a private individual with all the required licenses, would he be able to avoid jail?

Katrina redux

Unused New Orleans school busesI have no interest in joining the ranks of the Katrinapundits other than to express my disappointment with those who seem to have more interest in playing the political blame game than in doing good. That having been said, over the last few days I’ve amassed an extensive collection of more or less interesting links that I’ve been sharing here and there and which I may want to access sometime in the future, so it seems reasonable to consolidate them here: