Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Just to throw everyone for a loop: Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson, 1986
On a 'bad hair' day . . .
(Image from Wikipedia)

We haven't listened to Laurie Anderson via this blog in a long time . . . like, um, forever. Technically, that means that we could never have reached this moment -- as in the Kalam Cosmological Argument -- but who's counting? So, let's listen to "O Superman" on You Tube, using a different browser (so, open one), as we follow along reading the lyrics below for about ten minutes of weird, uneasy dissociation of sensibility:
O Superman. O Judge. O Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad.
O Superman. O Judge. O Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad.
Hi. I'm not home right now. But if you want to leave a
message, just start talking at the sound of the tone.
Hello? This is your Mother. Are you there? Are you
coming home?
Hello? Is anybody home? Well, you don't know me,
but I know you.
And I've got a message to give to you.
Here come the planes.
So you better get ready. Ready to go. You can come
as you are, but pay as you go. Pay as you go.

And I said: OK. Who is this really? And the voice said:
This is the hand, the hand that takes. This is the
hand, the hand that takes.
This is the hand, the hand that takes.
Here come the planes.
They're American planes. Made in America.
Smoking or non-smoking?
And the voice said: Neither snow nor rain nor gloom
of night shall stay these couriers from the swift
completion of their appointed rounds.

'Cause when love is gone, there's always justice.
And when justive is gone, there's always force.
And when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi Mom!

So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. So hold me,
Mom, in your long arms.
In your automatic arms. Your electronic arms.
In your arms.
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms.
Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms.
In your electronic arms.
I last listened to this song by Anderson back in the early eighties . . . in Berkeley, of course. My thoughts turned again to Ms. Anderson the other day when I read about her in a New York Times article by Will Hermes, "Electronic Expressions in the Service of the Soul" (June 22, 2010). Ah, that brings back memories of a misspent youth . . . but listening to "O Superman" now, post-9/11, makes for a rather eerie experience:
Here come the planes.
They're American planes. Made in America.
Smoking or non-smoking?
And the voice said: Neither snow nor rain nor gloom
of night shall stay these couriers from the swift
completion of their appointed rounds.
Smoking or non-smoking? The 9/11 passengers didn't ultimately have that choice, did they. The lyrics were written post-Vietnam, a very different time. I wonder what Ms. Anderson thinks about the post-9/11 landscape, which means that I wonder what her new album, Homeland, is about, given the title. Mr. Hermes links it thematically to "O Superman" -- and cites some of her musings from his interview with her:
"Homeland" similarly twists together ideas of the personal and political, beginning with the title, a word that has acquired ominous overtones in the shadow of Sept. 11.

"It’s a very cold, bureaucratic word," Ms. Anderson said. "No one I know would say 'my homeland.'" She notes its recent pairing with the word "security," which she contends "is not about security, really, but more about control. The phrase doesn't make anyone feel particularly safe, does it?"
She's got a point. Americans don't generally speak of America as their 'homeland', and the expression "Homeland Security" serves only to remind us of American insecurity. Still . . . where does she go with that point? Vaguely in an ambiguous direction? Mr. Hermes writes of a song and its lyrics on the Homeland album:
"Dark Time in the Revolution" tries to square modern-day America with the nation Tom Paine was defining when he wrote "Common Sense." "You thought there were things that had disappeared forever/Things from the Middle Ages/Beheadings and hangings and people in cages," Ms. Anderson intones over Joey Baron’s inexorable tom-tom rolls. "And suddenly they're alright welcome to the American night."
Odd way to put things. The 'Medieval' "Beheadings and hangings" certainly aren't "alright" . . . though I suppose that she's speaking in irony. But in what sense is this the "American night"? I get that "people in cages" likely alludes to Guantanamo, but beheadings are with us courtesy of a far darker force in the world.

I guess I'll just have to listen to the new album and judge for myself.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Logical Problem of Evil?

"Satan personifies evil
Judeo-Christian doctrines."
(Image and Statement from Wikipedia)

I'm not much of a philosopher, nor am I much of a theologian, so don't expect any great insights from me on this point, but allow me to comment on a discussion that Bill Keezer, Kevin Kim, and others have been having concerning the proposed contradiction between God's properties of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence, on the one hand, and the fact of evil in the world, on the other hand.

The discussion was noted by my friend Malcolm Pollack on his blog, Waka Waka Waka, in a blog post titled "Evil: Still A Problem, Apparently," where he cites Bill Keezer:
In summary, the theodicic question arises from the belief that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent. Once one shows that these are inherently contradictory, one must select one to be less than "omni." This paper argues that the resolution of the theodicic question is to limit God's omnipotence.
I commented on this position, though at Malcolm's blog rather than Bill's:
I've not looked at the link, but there's broad agreement among philosophers who argue this point that no one has proven that the three 'omnis' are contradictory since we might be ignorant of a good reason that God could have for allowing evil.
Kevin then posted a comment requesting specifics:
I'd be curious to know more about the broad agreement you describe.
I supplied a brief response:
Kevin, the point is a narrowly logical one. Some have claimed to find a logical contradiction between God's omnipotence, omniscience, and 'omni-benevolence', on the one hand, and the fact of evil, on the other hand.

But why is this a contradiction? The contradiction needs to be clearly demonstrated, but such a contradiction cannot be demonstratively shown, for God's omniscience and our epistemological situation of limited knowledge leave open the possibility that God has a good reason for allowing evil that we simply do not know and perhaps cannot even understand.

To prove a contradiction, one would need to demonstrate that God can have no good reason, not merely to demonstrate that one can think of no good reason.
That's about all that I'm qualified to say on this issue. For more adequate explanations, here's a good place to begin, for it states my point far more rigorously: William L. Rowe, God and the Problem of Evil.

Satan, of course, is no 'necessary being' in this argument, but I like the depiction above from the Codex Gigas, which makes for a lively personification of evil to lighten the seriousness of a discussion such as this one.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

David Mitchell -- A Writer I Ought to Read?

David Mitchell
Photo by Koos Breukel
(Image from New York Times)

In "David Mitchell, the Experimentalist" (June 21, 2010), Wyatt Mason tells readers of The New York Times that they ought to be reading the novels written by David Mitchell:
Since the appearance of his debut novel, "Ghostwritten," in 1999 -- a fifth, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," is being published this week -- Mitchell's writing has been compared with that of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Sterne, Joyce, Nabokov, Pynchon, Salinger, Chandler, DeLillo, Murakami, William Gibson and Ursula K. LeGuin -- a baker's dozen that begins to suggest both the heights of hyperbole scaled by Mitchell's admirers and the Hydra-headed nature of his novelistic output.
Well, Mason doesn't explicitly tell us to read Mitchell, but I think that he -- despite using the word "hyperbole" -- implies that we ought to do so since he notes Mitchell's placement in the company of all these other, arguably great writers -- but should I trust a reviewer who packs three dashes into a single sentence?

We have no time to reflect on that hesitation, however, for Mason dashes on to cite Kazuo Ishiguro, best known for his novel The Remains of the Day, made into the well-known film of the same title, and Ishiguro says:
"Of many new writers one gets excited about, . . . one says: 'Well, this writing is important because this book gives a voice to an ethnic minority experience. This writing is important because it tackles the issue of modernity well or captures a historical period.' We often get into the reflex of 'this is important because,' relegating literary worth to some secondary function. But when reading David for the first time, I was exhilarated -- the exhilaration of being swept along into another, different world. It's sheer joy."
The NYT provides a link to an excerpt from Mitchell's latest novel, 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' (June 25, 2010), so let's take a look at what happen to be the closing words to the excerpt, at a point in which the young Dutch clerk Mr. Jacob de Zoet has just been punched in the nose:
The pain in Jacob's nose suggests a breakage, but the stickiness on his hands and knees is not blood. Ink, the clerk realizes, hauling himself upright.

Ink, from his cracked inkpot, indigo rivulets and dribbling deltas . . .

Ink, drunk by thirsty wood, dripping between cracks . . .

Ink, thinks Jacob, you most fecund of liquids . . .
I can't quite visualize the "dribbling deltas" -- how do these form and where do they dribble? -- but that's perhaps the limit of my visual imagination. The context is well-done, the interrogation of a man caught smuggling Japanese art in the late 18th century -- 1799, to be precise.

Perhaps I'll look further into this writer's works. The article by Mason tells a fascinating tale of how Mitchell came to be a writer, an unexpected development for someone who didn't begin speaking until he was nearly six years old:
[H]e didn't speak until he was 5. His parents, visual artists who worked in various commercial industries (porcelain, pottery, graphic design) were worried something was wrong. They took him to a speech therapist. "I remember going to the office and playing with toys -- children always remember toys. This was around '73-'74, the very early days of child behavioral psychology. Words like 'autism' weren't in common use. How they decided I was in the clear I don't know, but I started speaking right before I started school."
My own mother tells me that I didn't begin speaking until I was nearly two years old -- perhaps due to the law of averages, since my older brother had begun speaking at six months -- so there's even hope for my writing to improve.

Anyway, I'm intrigued. Read the whole review and the entire excerpt. See what you think.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

"You are advise to seize your communication . . ."

Riches Mine for the Taking
(Image from Wikipedia)

I seem to be getting very popular these days. First, E-katerina wants to give me all her 'caress'. Now, someone wants to give me five million dollars! I say "someone" because the email offering this tidy sum doesn't state from whom the largess is coming. The writer claims to be a certain Mr. Anthony D. Loehnis, of InterPol Headquarters, in the United Kingdom, and he says that he wants me to contact a Mr. Robert G. Kean, Director of Falcon Bank Of London.

Ordinarily, I'd send this sort of email directly to the spam file, but five million is a lot of money . . . even if it is probably imaginary. The writer sounds friendly enough though:
Dear Friend
And trustworthy:
This message is from the United Kingdom InterPol Office.
But the message quickly grows baffling:
This is to Officially inform you that it has come to our notice and we have thoroughly Investigated by the help of our Intelligence Monitoring Network System that you are having an illegal Transaction with some Imposters from Nigeria.
Aside from the unorthodox capitalization -- which might be British English, for all I know -- the information itself is odd. I'm apparently having a transaction that I knew nothing of, and it's illegal, too! Am I in trouble? Maybe not, since this sounds like a friendly warning:
You are advise to seize your communication with those people in Nigeria, they are not with your funds, they are only collecting money from you for their own benefit, but we are very glad to bring to your notice that your funds has been moved to the Falcon Bank of London.
That's a relief. I'd hate to be cheated out of my five million dollars through some obscure illegal transaction that I knew nothing about. But if those Nigerians are imposters, why am I being advised to "seize . . . communication" with them? They're out of the picture now, it seems, so why can't I just ignore them -- as I was already occupied in doing until this email informed me of their existence. But Mr. Anthony D. Loehnis seems intent on ensuring that I not trust these mysterious imposters:
The Chairman of InterPol and some other Top Officials in US and UK held a meeting concerning the Internet Scam and from our finding, we notice that 75% of the Internet scam are from Nigeria, so we have tag Nigeria to be a Fraudelent Country, and no payment will ever be accepted again from Nigeria.
A fraudulent country? Nigeria's no longer a real country? I've sometimes wondered about that, given its tribal and religious divisions. It still seems to exist, though, since the "Chairman of Interpol" and those other "Top Officials" have chosen to never again allow any payment from the place. I assume that InterPol got my five million payment out of Nigeria before this restriction was imposed, which would seem to be a fair assumption:
The US Government and Uk Officials has concluded that all payment should be made through Falcon Bank of London but every beneficiary has to contact the bank with their Fund Identification Code : FIC-446013..........Get intouch with the Falcon Bank on the below stated contact for your funds.

Bank name: Falcon Bank Of London
Bank Director: Mr. Robert G. Kean
Office Line: (+44) 7024068986
Direct Line: (+44) 7011136663
Hmmm . . . Mr. Robert G. Kean, Director of the Falcon Bank of London, has an email address under the name "Markl Ukas"? Strange name, but the fellow apparently lives in Romania, where they perhaps have unusual names. Wasn't Vlad Drakul from there? Odd though, isn't it, to think that Mr. Robert G.Dean might actually be someone with a name like "Markl Ukas" and living not in London but in Romania. This could, however, explain the unorthodox capitalization since he might not be a native speaker of English. And also explain the ungrammatical sentence constructions. But why look a gift horse in the mouth? Especially when the five million in US dollars are mine for the taking:
Your $5,000,000.00USD has been deposited with the Falcon Bank of London, once you contact the bank above with your Fund Identification Code, they will quickly proceed and release your funds to you, and also make sure you seize your communication with anyone from Nigeria, because no payment is allowed from Nigeria again, and if anyone contact you that your funds is with any bank from Nigeria, kindly delete the email, because it is another means of collecting money from you.
That must be one very powerful email if it can actually collect money from me. I'll be sure and delete it promptly so it'll lack time to collect more than a few cents. Okay, anything else?
You are advise to stay away from any other office different from the Falcon Bank, it is only the Falcon Bank that can pay you the funds, since they are the mandated bank.
I'm advised to stay away from any office other than Falcon Bank, but that pronoun shift from "it" to "they" worries me a bit. Will I be dealing with several branches of this Falcon Bank of London? But 'they' sound quite happy for me:
Congratulation !!!
So . . . maybe everything's okay. After all, InterPol is guaranteeing this:
Yours Faithfully
Mr. Anthony D. Loehnis
From: InterPol Headquarters, United Kingdom
Sounds legit . . . unless . . . unless the sender is secretly one of those "imposters" and this message itself one of those emails I'm warned against as being simply "another means of collecting money" from me -- and which therefore needs to be deleted right away!

So . . . delete . . . or not? What a baffling dilemma!


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Stanley McChrystal: The Thrown-Away General

Stanley McChrystal
(Image from Rolling Stone)

By now, everyone has surely heard of the Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings, "The Runaway General," that served to deep-six General Stanley McChrystal's leadership role in Afghanistan and probably his military career.

Although I've had a link to the article for several days, I've not had time to read it until now, after the repercussions have all been felt, the ramifications have all been mapped, and the consequences have already worked themselves out, but to be frank, I think that the criticisms of McChrystal over this have exaggerated his statements, and many of the remarks most criticized were made by others, not directly by McChrystal himself.

Nevertheless, he's the leader, and he stepped over a line in even allowing a Rolling Stone reporter such unfettered access, demonstrating a degree of poor judgment in doing so. The question for me is thus why a clearly brilliant man well-versed in military intelligence -- especially one who's working in counterinsurgency and following a doctrine that emphatically teaches that soldiers should not unnecessarily make enemies out of civilians -- would so radically underestimate the impact of such an article in Rolling Stone, of all magazines to choose!

I'm just guessing, but I think that one thing to consider is the practice of embedding reporters within the military in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these individuals have bonded with the military and written deeply engaging, sometimes rough and biting, but generally favorable depictions of the men whose fighting they've covered. And Hastings does have some good words for McChrystal:
He speaks his mind with a candor rare for a high-ranking official. He asks for opinions, and seems genuinely interested in the response.
But Hastings never bonded so closely as many embedded reporters have, perhaps because he didn't come under enemy fire and experience the feeling of having his very life protected by the men about whom he was writing.

But I'm only speculating on that point, and be that as it may, I suspect another factor at play here. McChrystal is described by Hastings as a rebel who likes to push against limits, a characterization that McChrystal would have to acknowledge since he likes to quote Bruce Lee's words on going beyond limits:
"There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them."
Words are cheap; actions, however, can cost you. Let's reflect on the possible significance of McChrystal's rebellious character by looking at some of his actions:
The son of a general, McChrystal was also a ringleader of the campus dissidents -- a dual role that taught him how to thrive in a rigid, top-down environment while thumbing his nose at authority every chance he got. He accumulated more than 100 hours of demerits for drinking, partying and insubordination -- a record that his classmates boasted made him a "century man." One classmate, who asked not to be named, recalls finding McChrystal passed out in the shower after downing a case of beer he had hidden under the sink. The troublemaking almost got him kicked out, and he spent hours subjected to forced marches in the Area, a paved courtyard where unruly cadets were disciplined.
Despite his troublemaking, he made himself a career . . . by continuing to press against boundaries:
[A]s he moved up through the ranks, McChrystal relied on the skills he had learned as a troublemaking kid at West Point: knowing precisely how far he could go in a rigid military hierarchy without getting tossed out. Being a highly intelligent badass, he discovered, could take you far -- especially in the political chaos that followed September 11th.
Read the entire article for more details, particularly on his putative role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire, an experience that might have taught him that he had a charmed career since many a lesser man would have gone down in the controversy.

Whatever the truth about that incident, General McChrystal was brilliant enough, successful enough, and even irreplaceable enough to keep moving forward in his career despite having -- and using -- a sharp tongue, but his success appears to have blinded him to political risks outside the military, where he apparently didn't realize "precisely how far he could go . . . without getting tossed out," the irony being that not his actions, but rather his words ended up costing him, for when you speak or allow your subordinates to speak frankly and critically about powerful men like Special Envoy for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, National Security Advisor James Jones, Vice-President Joseph Biden, and President Barack Obama, you won't have a career for very long.

As McChrystal found out . . . having gotten thrown away.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Uncle Buel

Uncle Buel

All of my paternal aunts and uncles are growing old. Just a couple of days ago, I learned that my Uncle Buel isn't long for this world. That's him in the photo above at his farm on Bainbridge Island, Washington, taken this year on what happens to be my birthday, and since he was born on August 4, 1932, I reckon that he's close to 78 and still looks pretty big -- about six-five or six-six, if I recall.

I knew him when I was a kid back in the 1960s and called him "Uncle Buel" -- and I and my aunts and other uncles seem to all spell his name that way, but a genealogy table that I checked lists him as Harold Buell Hodges.

Anyway, I learned of his condition from my Aunt Kathryn, so I wrote back to her:
I remember Uncle Buel very clearly -- a big, quiet, gentle man with a shy smile. But I never heard any stories about him, just that he was a lumberjack in the northwest, which sounded pretty interesting to me when I was a kid. I'd like to remember him on my blog, but I need to know some Ozark story if there is one, or even a story from elsewhere.
My aunt replied:
Thanks for your e-mail. I can't think of any stories about Buel at the moment. However, I will let you know in the future. You described him exactly as he has always been. He was always a good brother.
Uncle Cran came through with some stories, a couple of which I've actually posted about on this blog before but had forgotten were about Uncle Buel:
Brother Buel (known as Harold Buel to his family & friends in the state of Washington). He was big, strong and quiet, but also pretty adventurous in his younger days. He is after James in the family lineup. I remember when they were teenagers, and had a pair of boxing gloves, and liked to to that, until he outgrew James.

In those days we had several horses and mules, and on weekends there was always a bunch of boys their age visiting, swimming, horse racing, etc. The guys liked to wrestle, and Buel was the strongest of the group. James was quite a joker and teaser, and was kind of rough on us younger kids, and Buel was kind of a protecter when James did this.

He & his cousin Ordean Barker did a lot of running around together. In fact, in the typical family tradition, they made a little "mountain dew," themselves, but only for their own use, I think.

One time brother Bill (called Elmo by parents & siblings), was holding a revival, at Flora Baptist I believe, and Buel & Ordean volunteered to drive our team of horses and take him to the church. There was a jug of moonshine in the tool box. On the bouncy dirt road, the jug broke, and there was a definite odor of something. Elmo questioned them, and they passed it off. When they got to the church, Elmo went in, and they moved the horse and wagon to a shade tree, and cleaned out the box. Next day Elmo searched the wagon, but didn't find anything.

Another time they thought it would be funny to spike a jar of grape juice that Mother had canned, and gave it to us kids. We all got kind of silly, laughing, and kind of staggering around. They got a big laugh, but Mother threw a fit.

He was injured once while plowing the "north forty." He was plowing with the team of mules, I believe, but can't say for sure. They spooked, were running around the field, the reins got wrapped around his legs, and dragged him around the fields and through the barbed wire fence several times. He told us later he tried to pick up a rock and knock himself in the head, as he thought they were going to tear him apart. They finally got the plow hung up and stopped. He was bleeding, his clothes were torn up, but somehow he got loose, and dragged himself across our and the neighbor's field, across the creek, up a steep hill, through several fences, and barely able to make it to the house. I remember Mother crying, and cleaning him up, The hide was worn off his back and shoulders, and he was in pretty bad shape. Luckily there were no broken bones, but I think he always had scars where he healed up.

He stayed with Woodrow & Pauline in the old Hodges place in Elizabeth when they got married, and he & Woody worked saw milling. One summer they joined a hay baling team that worked all the way across the southwest, and on to California. He was in love with a local girl, but was so poor he told her he couldn't make them a living. She never forgot him, and I see her every year at the Elizabeth reunion, and she always tells me the story. She said she would have married him anyway. She was a very pretty girl.

After that he joined the army, married Elodie, raised a family in Washington state, and became a logger in the big woods of Washington and maybe Oregon. They bought a small farm on or near Bainbridge Island, Washington, and spent the rest of his life there. I seldom got to see him during these years.
I recall now the moonshine stories because Uncle Cran previously related them on this blog, but I didn't know the other stories. I hauled a lot of hay growing up in the Ozarks, but I never followed the hay trail all the way to California, and in fact never imagined that this was possible. That story reminds me of the tales told by my maternal grandfather, Henry Perryman -- born 1895 and long deceased -- about his youthful adventures following the wheat harvest throughout the west, hopping trains to get from place to place. I'll have to tell some of his stories sometime.

For now, though, I'm waiting for word on Uncle Buel.

Update from Aunt Kathryn:

My aunt adds some minor details to Uncle Cran's veracious anecdotes about Uncle Buel:
Just to add a little to Cran's story [or correct him!] Yeah that was a team of mean, stubborn mules that drug Buel around the back forty and he finally slid under a barb wire fence that was around a pond and got loose from them. He was taken to the hospital at Gassville, Arkansas, where they tried to scrub the gravel and dirt out of his shoulder. To this day his right shoulder is darker and hairy, only on the right. It really was a painful experience for him.

As you know he was a logger here in the great north west of Washington for many years. Several years ago some do gooder National Government agency decided that the spotted owl was endangered and they thought they only nested in old growth timber. So they hired a bunch of young fellers to walk in the woods and try to spot them and also count the owls. One day, Buel saw a guy walking up a logging road, stopped and offered him a ride.The guy got into his truck and Buel asked what he was doing -- he said he was checking on the spotted owls, so Buel stopped the truck and told him to get out. He told the guy, "You may be trying to shut my job down, but I sure don't have to haul your butt around." And by the way, Buel says he saw many a spotted owl nest in second growth timber. To this day the government can close the woods during nesting season and do . . .

I was visiting Buel one time and the paperman pulled into his driveway and got to talking to him and he started talking about what a shame that he thought it was that so many trees were being cut in Washington, so Buel said, "I think that I will save a tree," as he handed his paper back to the man and said, "Now cancel my subscription!!"

Buel's small farm was in Quilcene not Bainbridge Island. He has been living in Brinnon for the past few years. I may find more things that Cran was mistaken about, if so I'll be more than happy to point them out. HA HA
Sounds like Uncle Buel wasn't always so quiet after all. One of my friends who works in the San Francisco Bay Area and has written a lot of environmental impact studies once told me that the spotted owls do seem to be a lot less endangered than is commonly thought . . . but I lean more toward environmentalism than my Uncle Buel does, and thus lament the lost trees.

I'm pretty sure that he won't cancel our kinship over that difference since Ozark clan blood is thicker than most people might expect . . .

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Stanley Fish: Good Teaching and Student Evaluations

Stanley Fish, Teacher
and Lecturer
November 19, 2008

I don't claim to be the best of teachers, but I always strive to do my best to teach students how to think, and I suppose that Stanley Fish does as well . . . if not better.

Nevertheless, Professor Fish doubts that students themselves are consistently the best judge of good teaching since much of what is learned doesn't immediately come to fruition, an observation upon which he elaborates in a recent article that a friend called to my attention, "Deep in the Heart of Texas" (June 21, 2010), written for Fish's "Opinionator" column in The New York Times:
A number of responses to my column about the education I received at Classical High (a public school in Providence, RI) rehearsed a story of late-flowering gratitude after an earlier period of frustration and resentment. "I had a high school (or a college) experience like yours," the poster typically said, "and I hated it and complained all the time about the homework, the demands and the discipline; but now I am so pleased that I stayed the course and acquired skills that have served me well throughout my entire life."

Now suppose those who wrote in to me had been asked when they were young if they were satisfied with the instruction they were receiving? Were they getting their money's worth? Would they recommend the renewal of their teachers' contracts? I suspect the answers would have been "no," "no" and "no," and if their answers had been taken seriously and the curriculum they felt oppressed by had been altered accordingly, they would not have had the rich intellectual lives they now happily report, or acquired some of the skills that have stood them in good stead all these years.
Why does Fish think that students would be so blind to the fact that they are getting a good education from teachers whom they may even resent:
Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don't welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.

But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a class or an entire semester is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result; sometimes your expectations have been systematically disappointed. And sometimes that disappointment, while extremely annoying at the moment, is the sign that you've just been the beneficiary of a great course, although you may not realize it for decades.

Needless to say, that kind of teaching is unlikely to receive high marks on a questionnaire that rewards the linear delivery of information and penalizes a pedagogy that probes, discomforts and fails to provide closure.
In short, says Fish, concerning student evaluations of teachers:
"Deferred judgment" or "judgment in the fullness of time" seems to be appropriate to the evaluation of teaching.

And that is why student evaluations (against which I have inveighed since I first saw them in the '60s) are all wrong as a way of assessing teaching performance: they measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning.
I have some mixed feelings on this point, for student evaluations can serve a useful purpose if reliably interpreted and properly balanced against other things, but I believe that I'm otherwise largely in agreement with what Fish lays out. As I remarked to the friend who sent me the column:
I'll have to think about Fish's arguments, though I've long held to some variant of them . . . without entirely dismissing student evaluations.

At Korea University, some students hated me for giving failing grades on plagiarized papers. One student, however, later . . . [was quoted in] an article [published in KU's student magazine, Granite Tower (March 27, 2007),] about the experience [of being caught plagiarizing] and receiving an "F":
At first, I really did hate him. I thought he was weird and odd. But now that I think about it, that professor was doing what was only right. College is a place that requires official documentation of a person's ideas and research. It is also a place that teaches academic attainments that can sometimes be abstract. It's a shame that the techniques to express the abstract knowledge are not offered at such a place.
Later in the interview, the student added:
Honestly, I don't think that other professors take the time to look over reports that we hand in compared to the professor who gave me the F.
I suspect that at the time, this student at KU gave me a poor evaluation, but within a semester or two, the student's views had already shifted . . . albeit too late to do me any good (as Fish would note).
I would hope that other students have had similar experiences of re-evaluating my teaching as time goes by, but that sort of thing will never show up on student evaluations handed in at the end of a semester when student are reacting to what they believe they've learned -- as Fish has made clear in his "Opinionator" column.

I would add that in the article for Korea University's student magazine, Granite Tower, the student who later praised my teaching was in error about one thing:
We were never given a specific definition or exact regulation of plagiarizing by the professor nor by the school.
This is incorrect. I always define plagiarism for my students, and very clearly, so I can only infer that the student must not have paid close enough attention to my warnings about plagiarism until she received a failing grade on the first draft of her essay.

But I'm sure that she understood by the time that she was working on the second draft.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Heavy Disappointment

(Image from Wikipedia)

I sometimes feel disappointment at not obtaining a university position in religious studies, but that's probably at least partly my fault for taking my own sweet irrecoverable time about finishing my doctorate . . . though even more due to my stubbornly following an unconventional path toward foreseeable failure.

Boundlessly worse, perhaps, is the disappointment suffered by one who has greater promise . . . yet blocked opportunities through no personal fault. David Harris, of St. Anthony's College, Oxford University, writes of his father's disappointments in "Secrets of a Disappointed Life" (International Herald Tribune, June 21, 2010). Sent off from Berlin at age eleven to an aunt for safekeeping in Vienna when Hitler came to power in 1933, Eric Harris found early refuge in science but had to give up that interest after the Anschluss in 1938. He never spoke of his scientific dreams to his son, David, who only found the remarkable documentary evidence of his father's scientific talent in a box left behind by his father after dying in 1998:
It contained a diploma, written in German. My father had been awarded an honorary doctorate, in 1975, by the Institute of Chemistry in Vienna. The degree was presented for his work at the institute from 1936 to 1938 on "synthesis of the heavy hydrogen atom." As he was born in 1920, he was cited for cutting-edge research pursued between the ages of 16 and 18!
No one knows, of course, what might have happened in Mr. Harris's life, had Hitler not come to power. He probably wouldn't have found opportunity to synthesize any deuterium outside of Vienna. He might not even have gotten involved in science at all. Or he might have started off in science but lost interest and pursued an utterly different path anyway. Or he might have encountered an unexpected barrier even absent the rise of National Socialism. Not one of us has satisfactory control over our lives.

I used to imagine that I could achieve anything if I put my mind to it, but that was before I put my mind to it and discovered that what I had imagined was, in a real sense, merely imaginary.

But I never had Mr. Eric Harris's genius, so his disappointment must have been harder to bear, though we'll perhaps never know since his son tells us that "about himself, . . . he said characteristically little."

Unlike me with my blog . . .

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Good Old American Political Corruption . . .

Jury of His Peers
An Already Hung Jury?
(Image from Wikipedia)

I sometimes think that America has the most colorful corrupt politicians, and after reading Albert R. Hunt's column for the International Herald Tribune, "In politics, it's theater of the absurd" (June 21, 2010), I believe that my opinion is possibly well-grounded:
In Louisiana, even after the departure of Huey (Kingfish) Long and his brother "Uncle Earl," there was Governor Edwin Edwards, who once declared he would lose his job only if he was "found in bed with a dead girl or live boy." After he was acquitted in one criminal trial, it was revealed that some members of the jury had stolen towels from the hotel where it had been sequestered. Mr. Edwards concluded that he had been judged by a "jury of my peers." He now resides at a federal correctional institution.
And well he should reside there, even if he wasn't "found in bed with a dead girl or live boy," for he was judged guilty -- perhaps not by his peers -- of 'dubious' financial transactions.

Edwards was known to be something of a Lothario, in addition to his financial peccadillos, but he was also notable as an early supporter of civil rights for African-Americans, and when he ran against former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke in 1991, I recall him quipping, "The only thing we have in common is that we both have been wizards beneath the sheets." Let the reader understand.

If you want to read more about Edwards, there's of course some 'information' at Wikipedia, but if you've heard enough of him and prefer to read a quick and amusing account of other canny and corrupt American politicians, you can find Mr. Hunt's column online at The New York Times, albeit under a different, though perhaps even more fitting, headline: "Kooky Politics Make for Entertaining Races" (June 20, 2010).

Mr. Hunt puts some of the current crop of kooky politicians into a context wherein they can be correctly judged . . . by a jury of their peers, apparently.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Carolyn Arends on Winter's Bone

(Image from Christianity Today)

One of my long-time readers, "Erdal," first alerted me to this movie, Winter's Bone, about a story set in the Ozarks:
I think you may likely be interested in this.
The "this" was a good film review -- albeit with a not entirely satisfactory title, "Where Life Is Cold, and Kin Are Cruel" -- by A. O. Scott for The New York Times, which begins like this:
Even before the real trouble starts -- with suspicious lawmen on one side and a clan of violent drug dealers on the other -- Ree Dolly faces more than the usual litany of adolescent worries. Her father, locally renowned for his skill at cooking methamphetamine, has vanished, and her emotionally hollowed-out mother has long since abandoned basic parental duties, leaving Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) to run the household and care for her two younger siblings. The family lives in southwestern Missouri, a stretch of the Ozarks that is both desolate and picturesque, words that might also suit "Winter's Bone," Debra Granik's tender and flinty adaptation of a novel of the same title by Daniel Woodrell.
I don't recall having heard of Mr. Woodrell, though I may have, but I might be interested in reading him now since he writes Ozark stories and apparently does so rather well. Anyway, I filed that review away in my faulty memory and promptly forgot about it . . . until I read another review, idependently and quite through happenstance, by Carolyn Arends for Christianity Today, titled the same as the movie, Winter's Bone:
It is a hard film to classify. It's been described as a psychodrama, a Western, a suspense/thriller, and a whodunit. The story is rather faithfully adapted from Daniel Woodrell's novel of the same name; Woodrell calls his fiction -- which is always centered in the Appalachian region of his own upbringing -- "country noir," and that is an apt description of the film as well. But this is "noir" all shot through with light, bleakness that is somehow achingly beautiful. However you define its genre, Winter's Bone is a great, taut story animated by characters who refuse to fade after the final frame. It's sad and it's difficult, but it's very, very good.
Ms. Arends gave the movie very high marks but failed in one respect -- she confused the Ozarks with the Appalachians. This occasionally happens, for the cultures are quite similar, even interwoven, and with clan memories stretching back to knowledge of earlier kinfolk in the 19th century who migrated from the Appalachian region to the Ozarks -- as I know from my own family.

Despite the understandable conflation, Ms. Arends had need of a lesson in geography, or so I felt, so I posted a comment:
The Ozarks are not in the Appalachian region -- not even close. The Ozark Mountains cover northern Arkansas and southern Missouri, along with the eastern edge of Oklahoma. Rather far from the Appalachians.
And just to be sure, I Googled the name "Carolyn Arends" . . . and discovered that she is a musician in addition to being a movie critic -- but more on that in a moment. Ms. Arends has a website that allowed me to contact her and offer a geographical corrective:
I enjoyed your review of "Winter's Bone" in "Christianity Today," but there's one problem, which I posted about in a comment there:
"The Ozarks are not in the Appalachian region -- not even close. The Ozark Mountains cover northern Arkansas and southern Missouri, along with the eastern edge of Oklahoma. Rather far from the Appalachians."
The hill country culture is similar, for many Ozarkers come from the same Scots-Irish roots, which explains the similar music as well, but the Ozarks are a special region with a somewhat different economy and a very different sort of mountains.

I'm glad to have discovered your music, by the way, so your geographical error was a useful one for me.
Ms. Arends soon replied:
Wow -- what am embarrassing geographical mistake! Thanks for the heads up -- I'll get my editor to change it up Monday am.

And glad you discovered my music despite my gaffe!
For those readers interested in music, just click here and explore to see if you like her stuff, which -- as might be expected by the review's venue -- is in the Christian music genre, and a song begins playing as soon as you access the website, so be prepared for some sound.

In case you happen to be reading this in a library or a worksite or somesuch . . .

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Message to the American Public from the Ministry of Silly Talkings To

Newcastle University
Proudly Non-Glass Housing
Perfect for Throwing Brickbats
(Image from Wikipedia)

David Golding, Mike Goodfellow, Sharon Joyce, Sara Maioli, Elizabeth Oughton, Allen Parker, Marian Raley, Vincent Theobald-Vega, Gunther Uher, Bryan Vernon, and Jim White, members of the academic staff at Newcastle University (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), want every American to know something -- and they have felt strongly enough about their message to publish it in the International Herald Tribune (June 18, 2010) so that the entire world can read what they have to say:
The response of the American public and its political leaders to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico perfectly illustrates why people in glass houses should not throw stones.

BP and its corporate associates certainly deserve severe censure for their failure to provide adequate safeguards for their hazardous operations, and their behavior brings to mind the recent reckless folly of the banks. However, the resulting damage is hardly a drop in the ocean compared to the impact of America's contribution to global atmospheric pollution resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels.

At least BP has offered fulsome apologies, is compensating those affected, and is making strenuous efforts to prevent further damage. Has the United States accepted responsibility for the impacts of its energy profligacy on climate change? Has it committed itself to providing full restitution for the now well-documented misery which global warming is already inflicting on countless millions of the world's poor? Is it making urgent and determined efforts to de-carbonize its economy and life-style?

In each case, we think not. It really is in no position to throw stones.
Well said, esteemed British colleagues -- and I do feel in my bones the bonds of that collegial connection peculiar to those of us in the academic profession -- but allow me to translate your message for an American readership so that your meaning is plain to see:
Stupid, ignorant, loud, obnoxious, two-faced Americans! Shut up already about the BP oil spill! You do the same thing, only worse, so stop complaining and start apologizing! And clean up your mess, too, just like the BP is doing.
There. I hope that I've been of some assistance in your effort to correct American manners and morals.

Even though it is a bit like taking news to coal castle.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Paul Berman: On Eschatological Antisemitism

Paul Berman
(Image from Michael J. Totten)

Some three years ago, I had an email exchange with Mr. Paul Berman after blogging on his critique of Tariq Ramadan. More recently, I re-established contact after blogging on the Islamist antisemitism of an obscure jihadi rapper, Assadullah al-Shishini, who weds fascist antisemitism to Islamist eschatological antisemitism in this rap 'poem':
When the Jew's blood reds my knife
Then my life is free of strife
Hiding behind rocks and trees
I'll find them with greatest ease
Throw them in the ovens hot
Soap and lampshades sold and bought
Mercy's something I have not.
Not much of a 'poem', is it. Rhyme scheme: aa bb ccc. Seven simple syllables per line, and doesn't readily scan -- though rhythm can be imposed in rap. The third line's dangling modifier seems to have the rapper himself hiding, given that the fourth line opens with "I," but the following verb insists that this speaker will easily "find" them -- the hidden Jews -- which means that they, rather than the rapper, are the ones hiding. This 'gifted' rapper lacks complete control over his lyrics, even in such a simple 'poem'. Let's hope that his gun misfires as badly as his rap.

Anyway, I noted in my original blogpost on Assadullah al-Shishini that these rap lyrics allude not only to the Holocaust but also to a hadith about Jews hiding behind stones and trees at the end of time, just prior to Judgment Day (Sahih Muslim, Book 41, Number 6985). Reflecting that Mr. Berman has spent much of the last decade investigating the extent to which Islamists draw upon European antisemitism generally, and fascist antisemitism in particular -- and that he also notes the link to eschatological utopian thought behind Islamism -- I decided to send him a link to my blog post on Assadullah al-Shishini's 'poem' and its eschatological antisemitism. Mr. Berman replied:
Your commentary is absolutely correct. If you get around to reading my new book, you will see that it offers a great amount of new information on the links between Nazism and Islamism, which I have drawn from the work of a variety of scholars whose work you see cited. I am reading now a book called "A Mosque in Munich" by Ian Johnson, brand new, which contains still more information on this extremely important topic.
Mr. Berman's new book is The Flight of the Intellectuals, which I still have yet to read, and I now need also to read Mr. Johnson's book, A Mosque in Munich, which looks very interesting. The Amazon site even has an interview with Mr. Johnson posted, an interview in which he notes the CIA's naive, post-WWII engagement with Islamists in an American attempt to subvert the Soviet Union by turning Muslims against Soviet atheism, long before Charlie Wilson's war, which likewise drew the CIA into an engagement with Islamists. For his part, Johnson generally warns against attempting to use religion for political aims, prompting a question from the interviewer:
Q: What's wrong with engaging with religion? You think it should be kept separate from politics?

A: No. Religion is a big part of every society, and politicians should engage with it -- for example, by talking to religious leaders and listening to believers' concerns. But it should be done with respect. It shouldn't be used as a tool for short-term gains, like "Let's get the Muslims to declare jihad on our enemies," or "Let's create Muslim champions who will speak for us around the world." Religion isn't a puppet that you can control like that. It isn't a cudgel. These things are a bad idea and always backfire. But we're still doing it.
Yes, that is a bad idea, especially the part about encouraging Islamists to declare jihad. That simply creates more Islamists, who won't like us anyway and whose own world-historical aim of total, global jihad will inevitably blow back in our face, as happened on 9/11.

I hope that we've gotten beyond that naiveté . . .

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Peoples of Europe: Rise Up?

Peoples of Europe?
(Image from Reuters)

In a recent issue of the Daily Mail, Jason Groves informs us of some stark words by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, reporting them in an article titled "Nightmare vision for Europe as EU chief warns 'democracy could disappear' in Greece, Spain and Portugal" (June 15, 2010):
Democracy could 'collapse' in Greece, Spain and Portugal unless urgent action is taken to tackle the debt crisis, the head of the European Commission has warned.

In an extraordinary briefing to trade union chiefs last week, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso set out an 'apocalyptic' vision in which crisis-hit countries in southern Europe could fall victim to military coups or popular uprisings as interest rates soar and public services collapse because their governments run out of money.

The stark warning came as it emerged that EU chiefs have begun work on an emergency bailout package for Spain which is likely to run into hundreds of billions of pounds.
That sounds pretty serious. Too serious, in fact. Could European Commission President Barroso be exaggerating? Maybe. Consider this observation from a Reuters article by Noah Barkin et al., "Special Report: After euro zone crisis, what next?" (June 14, 2010):
[W]hile they may not always agree on the future of the euro zone, there is one issue on which France and Germany have common purpose: limiting the power of the European Commission.

The Lisbon Treaty was supposed to herald a more streamlined Brussels and a newly muscular Commission. So far, it hasn't worked out that way. Berlin and Paris have both pinned partial blame for Greece's meltdown on the failure of the Commission to police the EU's budget rules, and see no reason to reward Brussels with additional powers. Both [France and Germany] . . . would give more power to member states or independent bodies such as the European Central Bank, rather than the EU executive. One senior Brussels official said that if the Germans get their way, the Commission will end up as "Mrs Merkel's doormat".

Commission President Barroso seems determined to resist the Franco-German push, and has argued that there is no need for a radical overhaul of rules or the creation of new institutions. Respect for European budget rules cannot be enhanced "by reducing the credibility of community institutions and the community method", Barroso told a Brussels press conference on June 2.
I can't claim to see deeply into the power plays going on in the EU, but I suspect that European Commission President Barroso's words need to be read in light of the power struggle between the European Commission, which is supposed to run the day-to-day operations of the EU, and the European heads of state (especially Sarkozy and Merkel), who sit on the European Council, which is supposed to define the general political direction and priorities of the EU -- a vague division of powers that has conflict written into it.

Put differently, this is a power struggle between Brussels, on the one hand, and Paris and Berlin (among other national capitals), on the other hand. Barroso is trying to assert his significance and that of the European Commission to avoid being weakened by the European Council's heads of state.

But I wouldn't say that Barroso is entirely wrong. If European integration were to fail, we could see the 'peoples of Europe rise up' in a resurgence of the ethnic nationalism that plagued Europe throughout the latter nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth century.

I don't think, however, that integration will necessarily fail if the European Council prevails over the European Commission, nor will integration necessarily succeed if the European Commission prevails over the European Council.

Especially when hardly anyone can recall how to distinguish council from commission . . .

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Assadullah al-Shishini: Eschatological Antisemitism

President Obama
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano
Charles Ommanney / Getty Images
(Image from Newsweek)

Mark Hosenball and Evan Thomas have a recent article in Newsweek, "Blowback," about the dilemma faced by President Obama (hence the photo above) in continuing the previous administration's war on terrorism, namely, either pull back and watch the terrorists win or press on and expect blowback.

The article examines some homegrown would-be terrorists in the United States, including a certain Assadullah al-Shishini who raps his verbal violence online:
When the Jew's blood reds my knife
Then my life is free of strife
Hiding behind rocks and trees
I'll find them with greatest ease
Throw them in the ovens hot
Soap and lampshades sold and bought
Mercy's something I have not.
Al-Shishini's crude allusions to the Holocaust are shockingly clear -- so clear that Hosenball and Thomas need not even underline them -- but an obscure allusion to a hadith might go unnoticed, and perhaps was unnoticed by the authors, so I'll quote it here:
Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree Gharqad would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews. (Sahih Muslim, Book 41 ["The Book Pertaining to the Turmoil and Portents of the Last Hour" ("Kitab Al-Fitan wa Ashrat As-Sa'ah")], Number 6985)
Allah's Messenger, of course, is the Muslim prophet Muhammad, and he was purportedly speaking of the eschaton, the last days before the Day of Judgment. This hadith is often cited by jihadists -- and is even cited by Hamas in Part I, Article 7 of its Charter.

What we see in Al-Shishini's merciless lyrics is evidence of what Paul Berman has already noted, fascist antisemitism in contemporary Islamist thought, but we also see that this fascist antisemitism is wedded to anti-Jewish sources in classical Islamic texts, from which the fascist antisemitism derives its actual legitimacy for Islamists.

I thought that this more obscure source ought to be pointed out since Hosenball and Thomas don't do so.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pankaj Mishra on "Islamism"?

Illustration by Mark Ulriksen
(Image from The New Yorker)

Pankaj Mishra, in an article for The New Yorker somewhat misdirectingly titled "Islamism" (June 7, 2010), reviews recent books by Hirsi Ali and Paul Berman -- respectively, Nomad: From Islam to America and The Flight of the Intellectuals -- and tells us that issues concerning Islam and such Muslim spokespersons as Tariq Ramadan are more complex than Ali and Berman imply.

That's true, of course, because issues are always more complex, and I could write a similar essay for The New Yorker demonstrating that the issues concerning Ali and Berman are more complex than Pankaj Mishra implies.

It's a fun game to play, as Mishra demonstrates:
In the nineteen-twenties, Mahatma Gandhi, a devout Hindu and pacifist, vigorously campaigned for the restoration of the caliphate. And in 1941 an old colleague of his, Subhas Chandra Bose, travelled to Berlin and enlisted Indian P.O.W.s who later fought in the Waffen S.S.
But this complexity simply reveals the naiveté of Gandhi and Bose, if they thought that a caliphate or the Nazis would treat Indians with respect. Such complexity merely diminishes both men, as both Islam and Tariq Ramadan might be diminished by placing them in their respective complexities.

Mishra sums up his critique of Berman's 'activism' against Ramadan -- and perhaps also of Hirsi Ali's against Islam -- by turning to Leszek Kolakowski:
[T]he late Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once pointed out that, however much intellectuals yearn to be both "prophets and heralds of reason," those roles cannot be reconciled. "The common human qualities of vanity and greed for power" are particularly dangerous among intellectuals, he observed, and their longing to identify with political causes often results in "an almost unbelievable loss of critical reasoning."
Wise words, and we would be wise to heed them, but do Kowlakowski's words apply specifically to Ali and Berman in their critiques of Islam and Ramadan?

Read the entire essay, and reflect on it, but don't stop there -- go on to read Hirsi and Berman . . . and even Ramadan.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

William Pfaff 'Recalls' Huntington's Civilizational Theory of Conflict

Samuel P. Huntington
"When Cultures Conflict"
World Economic Forum 2004
Davos, Switzerland
(Image from Wikipedia)

I happened to read in a paper -- never mind which -- a recent column by William Pfaff in which he 'remembers' Samuel Huntington's thesis on the "Clash of Civilizations," which he refers to as:
. . . the colossal error of the late Samuel Huntington in asserting that the "next world war" would be a war of civilizations -- actually, his grandiose extrapolation of the war between Israel and the Arabs. The Israelis were invested with the honor of embodying western civilization while Arabs, who make up only a fifth of the world's Moslems, were conflated with all the world's Moslems, most of them actually Asians and Africans.
I've read Huntington on this theory, and I don't recall him specifying that the "next world war" would be civilizational. I think that rather than specifically predicting such an overwhelming global conflict, he instead warned of civilizational conflicts on the horizen after the Cold War's end and offered some means of avoiding such conflict through civilizational dialogue and understanding, a point often neglected in polemical allusions to his theory. And he certainly didn't invest the Israelis with bearing the standard of the West, for he saw Judaism as the basis for a civilization separate from the West, namely, Jewish civilization. Nor did he imagine that all Muslims were Arab.

I'm surprised the Pfaff would mischaracterize Huntington's ideas in such a distorted manner, but I must say that I often have a similar impression in reading Pfaff's columns, that his mind is a sort of Procrustian bed into which issues must be forced to fit by trimming or stretching -- though not quite so radically Procrustian as Chomsky's mind, of course, which can stretch one death from a US bombing in Sudan to an atrocity worse than the nearly 3000 deaths from Al-Qaeda's attack on America.

No, Pfaff is no Chomsky, for he's sometimes right on the money, as with his warning about accepting Georgia into Nato, i.e., that such an agreement "has war built into it," but he's more often too ex-centric in his views for me to accept his analyses unsalted.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: On Christianity

Nomad: From Islam to America
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
(Image from Random House)

Above is a copy of Random House's Canadian release of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's most recent book, Nomad: From Islam to America. Notice the praise in the blurb from Richard Dawkins:
"This woman is a major hero of our times."
Initially, I was struck by an apparent irony in the choice of Dawkins for this snippet since Ali goes on to say some positive things about Christianity, a religion that Dawkins has heavily criticized, but I then recalled that Dawkins himself retains a sort of cultural identity with Christianity. Not only has he called himself a "cultural Christian," but he has suggested -- though perhaps a bit facetiously -- the formation of an organization entitled "Atheists for Jesus":
Of course Jesus was a theist, but that is the least interesting thing about him. He was a theist because, in his time, everybody was. Atheism was not an option, even for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh's vengeful nastiness. At least in the teachings that are attributed to him, he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so. To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him.
I wonder whom Dawkins meant by "they" . . . the Romans? Because Jesus was 'nice'? Well, I won't delve into Dawkins's midrash on the gospel accounts today, but merely note that he would like to instrumentalize Christian beliefs, bringing Christian ethics "to genuinely good use" in people by "infecting them with niceness," for this is more or less Hirsi Ali's position on Christianity. In Nomad -- and I'm using the Free Press edition released just this year (2010) in the United States -- she notes three institution that could help ease the transition of millions of Muslims living in Europe today into Western culture:
I believe there are three institutions in Western society that could ease the transition into Western citizenship of these millions of nomads from the tribal cultures they are leaving. They are institutions that can compete with the agents of jihad for the hearts and minds of Muslims. (page xviii)
These three are public education, the feminist movement, and Christian churches (pages xviii-xx). The third might be surprising to some people, but here's her reasoning:
The third and final institution I call on to rise to this challenge is the community of Christian churches. I myself have become an atheist, but I have encountered many Muslims who say they need a spiritual anchor in their lives. I have had the pleasure of meeting Christians whose concept of God is a far cry from Allah. Theirs is a reformed and partly secularized Christianity that could be a very useful ally in the battle against Islamic fanaticism. This modern Christian God is synonymous with love. His agents do not preach hatred, intolerance, and discord; this God is merciful, does not seek state power, and sees no competition with science. His followers view the Bible as a book full of parables, not direct commands to be obeyed. Right now, there are two extremes in Christianity, both of which are a liability to Western civilization. The first consists of those who damn the existence of other groups, They take the Bible literally and reject scientific explanations for the existence of man and nature in the name of "intelligent design." Such fundamentalist Christian groups invest a lot of time and energy in converting people. But much of what they preach is at odds with the core principles of the Enlightenment. At the other extreme are those who would appease Islam -- like the spiritual head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who holds that the implementation of Shari'a in the UK is inevitable. Those who adhere to a moderate, peaceful, reformed Christianity are not as active as the first group nor as vocal as the second. They should be. The Christianity of love and tolerance remains one of the West's most powerful antidotes to the Islam of hate and intolerance. Ex-Muslims find Jesus Christ to be a more attractive and humane figure than Muhammad, the founder of Islam. (page xx)
This is a fascinating if perhaps contradictory passage. The first group of Christians is criticized for its fundamentalism . . . and perhaps implicitly for investing so much "time and energy in converting people"? She dismisses the third group as dhimmis, though she doesn't use the term here, preferring to refer to these Christians by the more widely understood expression, "those who would appease Islam." She prefers the second group, presumably liberal Christians, and seems to want them to offer the "spiritual anchor" that many Muslims say that they need. In other words, she'd like this second group to convert Muslims to Christianity.

I suppose that there's nothing wrong in Ms. Hirsi Ali wishing for this, but I should perhaps note that to the extent that conversions are taking place from Islam to Christianity, they seem to be doing so through the efforts of the first group, those Christians whom she terms "fundamentalist."

I don't have a copy of Nomad and haven't read the book, but I've looked through it at Amazon Books and seen that Ms. Hirsi Ali has some other interesting remarks on Christianity, including the Pope's views on religion and reason, and for those who are interested, go to Amazon's Nomad page and search the text for her views on "Christianity" and "Catholicism," among other things.

Her nomadic life is certainly taking her to places where she offers some rather intriguing observations . . .

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

I may be a little old . . .


. . . "but I'm doin' all right." And I've got proof! Just take a gander at this Russian beauty, 'E-katerina'. Quite a looker, eh? She contacted me yesterday:
Hello, stranger!
Isn't that something?! She knows my nickname! And she got right to the point:
How are you? I saw your profile on site and I got interested.
Of course she got interested! One look at a fellow like me juggling my three balls would catch the attention of a sharp-eyed looker like 'E-katerina' any day! But there's more:
If you are interested in me too write to me on my e-mail: ekaterina-trofimenko10(at)
Rambler. Nice touch. 'E-katerina' is obviously punning on my middle name and the name of the automobile company that first manufactured the "Rambler."

But then comes a slightly puzzling remark:
And I will surely answer to you.
I don't get it. Why would she answer to "You" if her name is 'E-katerina'? Shouldn't she answer to "E-katerina" instead? Maybe it's a Russian thing?

I send you one of my photos.
Thanks, but you already did.
My name is Ekaterina, I am 29, I live in Russia, in the city of Omsk.
You forgot the coordinating conjunction, but let's not cavil about such a trivial peccadillo when far greater peccadillos await us. No, let's obsess on Omsk. The very word sounds like something that 'E-katerina' and I might ardently whisper into one another's ears:

"Omsk yes! Omsk!"

"Omsk my god!"

"Omsk! Omsk! Omsk!"
Yeah, I know. Love always seems ridiculous to those not caught up in its glorious affliction.

Now, you might think 'E-katerina' just another gold-digger, but you'd be wrong:
I have a job.
See. I told you. And she's smart, too:
I am intellectual, sociable and gay.
Wha-a-a-a-a-at? She's not being straight with me? Not sure how to take that. But I reckon my masculine charm simply bursts through all barriers.
I want to find a generous and caring man, to whom I will give all my caress and will take care of him. I hope you are the one that I was looking for for so long.
Baby, I'm your man! I'll be happy to take your entire caress. I'm assuming that this unique caress is of the rambling sort . . .
Write to me and tell me more about you!
Not only will I reply, but I'll do so "on site"! You can read my words right now!
Take care. Ekaterina.
I am taking care, 'E-katerina', great care indeed. Meanwhile, you take care yourself. Try to avoid that orange smog. It's already devoured your right arm, in case you hadn't noticed. Normally, the person who's just lost an arm would realize that painful fact, but you're so concentrated on me that you seem not to have noticed. Are other body parts also missing?

Oh, and I just remembered one little thing . . . I'm married. Happily. To a real woman. Sorry to disappoint you, 'E-katerina', but you'll get over me.

Doubtless, you've already heard from others anyway, perhaps even from would-be lovers who've just read this blog post . . .


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Edward Hugh: Twilight of the Euro Zone?

Edward Hugh

My internet buddy Malcolm Pollack, over at Waka Waka Waka, first called my attention to the phenomenon of Edward Hugh in a blogpost a couple of days ago, but I probably would have run into Mr. Hugh anyway in the International Herald Tribune . . . since I in fact did, after all.

Pursuant upon reading about him there, I checked the New York Times and found the same article by Landon Thomas, Jr., "The Blog Prophet of Euro Zone Doom" (June 8, 2010), wherein he is described as "a gregarious British blogger and self-taught economist who repeatedly predicted that the euro zone could not survive."

Why not?
His bleak message, in newspaper columns, local television and radio appearances, and in meetings with officials, is almost always the same: since Spain and other struggling countries of the euro zone like Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Italy cannot devalue their common currency unilaterally, they have little choice but to endure what would essentially be a 20 percent internal devaluation instead. That means their public and private sector wages need to fall by roughly that amount if those countries are ever to restore competitiveness, lift exports and bring in the cash needed to pay down their debts.

"Why haven't these countries converged" with the rest of Europe? he asks. "It's demographics. As populations age, there are fewer people in their 20s to 40s to buy new houses, so they save more. The younger a country is, the more dependent it is on credit to get growth."

Germany, where the average age is 45 and rising even as the population is beginning to shrink, is a nation of savers, and public policy has encouraged keeping wages under control and building up export industries.

By contrast, the younger Greeks, Irish and Spaniards went on borrowing binges, driven in particular by rising demands for new homes and consumer goods that, in several cases, turned into housing bubbles before going bust. Wages were pushed up, encouraging spending but soon making it all but impossible for their industries to compete with the thrifty Germans, Dutch and other Northern Europeans.

Most economists, beholden as they are to their "promiscuous but essentially useless" economic models, Mr. Hugh rails, missed what he considers an easily predictable outcome. And that, he adds, "is why we are in such a big mess now."
In other words, the big economic imbalance between northern and southern Europe is due to the difference between an older, thrifty generation and a younger, spendthrift generation. Hence the 'twilight' of the euro zone.


But why is Mr. Hugh described as a "self-taught economist"? The article states that he "studied at the London School of Economics." Granted, he "was drawn more to philosophy, science, sociology and literature" than economics at that time and has probably learned a lot of economics on his own since then. But such is true of nearly any scholar in any field.

More significantly, however, "[h]is eclectic intellectual pursuits kept him not only from getting his doctorate but also prevented him from landing a full-time professor's job."

Hmmm . . . sounds vaguely familiar. Though I did manage in my academic studies to 'pile higher and deeper' for that coveted degree.

Be that as it may, Mr. Hugh himself sounds like an intriguing fellow of eclectic interests:
His blog posts reflect his varied interests, often citing Bob Dylan, Charles Bukowski, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche and even the sociable behavior of his beloved bonobos, the primate species that is the closest relative to humans in the animal kingdom.
Bonobos? That's an especially intriguing interest. I wonder if the particular reciprocity characteristic of affairs among bonobos has any bearing toward explaining Mr. Hugh's "own support network of middle-aged housewives . . . , some of whom have provided him a place to live as he moves from abode to abode."

But I'll quell my curiosity on that point, and merely note that the article closes with an observation by Mr. Hugh:
"In the Middle Ages, curiosity in excess was regarded as a sin . . . . But with the Internet, I feel that I can do what I like. This makes me feel that I can really do something."
Yes, I also share that illusion, which explains my daily blogging . . . but as for those readers who would prefer the better informed illusions of Mr. Edward Hugh, feel free to click over and visit his own blog.


Friday, June 11, 2010

Kim Jong-il's Great Currency Confiscation: Update

Railway Checkpoint
Photo by Du Bin

Some readers may recall a few of my posts on this issue back when the North Korean currency confiscation was more current, but its effects are still being felt today.

Sharon LaFraniere, writing for The New York Times, tells us more details about that 'reform' in her lengthy, fascinating article, "Views of North Korea Show How a Policy Spread Misery" (June 9, 2010). Among other anecdotal reports, she details the life of a construction worker who lived in poverty but had managed, by selling small bags of detergent on the black market, to scrape together a small nest egg over the years, more than 1,500 dollars . . . until that fateful day:
It hardly seemed that life could get worse. And then, one Saturday afternoon last November, his sister burst into his apartment in Chongjin with shocking news: the North Korean government had decided to drastically devalue the nation's currency. The family’s life savings, about $1,560, had been reduced to about $30.
Quick-witted, the man instantly realized what had to be done:
For the construction worker, his sister's news of the coming devaluation unleashed a furious scramble to salvage the family nest egg. He emptied the living-room cabinet drawer that held their savings and split it with his wife and daughter, telling them, "Buy whatever you can, as fast as you can." The three bicycled furiously to Chongjin's market.
Unfortunately for his family, he wasn't the only quick-witted North Korean:
"It was like a battlefield," he said.

Thousands of people frantically tried to outbid one another to convert soon-to-be worthless money into something tangible. Some prices rose 10,000 percent, he said, before traders shut down, realizing that their profits soon would be worthless, too.

The three said they returned home with 66 pounds of rice, a pig's head and 220 pounds of bean curd. The construction worker's daughter had managed to purchase a small cutting board and a used pair of khaki pants. Together, he said, they spent the equivalent of $860 for items that would have cost less than $20 the day before.
But money wasn't the only thing lost in the disastrous devaluation:
"Now, if you go to the market, people will say anything," the construction worker said. "They will say the government is a thief -- even in broad daylight."
Even the small remaining modicum of trust in the North Korean government was lost in the monetary debacle, and not just for the construction worker's family. I suppose that this could be considered a silver lining, not that it offers any coin to bank on. We'll have to see how things pan out.

I ought to mention that the NYT credits Ms. Su-Hyun Lee for contributing research from Seoul, South Korea for this story by Sharon LaFraniere. I don't know Ms. Lee personally, of course, but she often contributes to NYT reports on Korea, and I hope that she continues such investigations as this one.