Saturday, April 30, 2005

Iraq and Afghanistan

The news from Iraq is not good (via Juan Cole):
50 Killed, 114 Wounded in Coordinated Series of 17 Bombings
3 Americans Killed, 7 wounded

The guerrilla movement pulled off a spectacular set of bombings in Iraq on Friday, as though responding decisively to President Bush's news conference Thursday night in which he said, "I believe we're making really good progress in Iraq." In Azamiyah, a relatively well-off Sunni Arab neighborhood in Baghdad known for its Sunni fundamentalism, guerillas detonated 4 bombs in quick succession, mainly targeting police and military. This set of attacks alone left 20 dead.
Less reported is the bad news from Afghanistan (again via Juan Cole):
US Soldier, 4 Policemen Killed in Afghanistan by Neo-Taliban

Resurgent Taliban forces attacked Afghan police and a US patrol on Wednesday, leaving one American soldier and 4 policemen dead.

CNN says the US has 18,000 troops in harm's way in Afghanistan as well as substantial NATO forces. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are at large. Parliamentary elections are due. The US was struck from there. It is a story.

Global Warming

According to the latest NASA report, there's no denying it now:
Scientists have concluded more energy is being absorbed from the sun than is emitted back to space, throwing the Earth's energy "out of balance" and warming the globe.
Also, there's this in the report:
The Earth's energy imbalance is an expected consequence of increasing atmospheric pollution, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), ozone (O3), and black carbon particles (soot). These pollutants block the Earth's radiant heat from escaping into space, increasing absorption of sunlight and trapping heat within the atmosphere.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Exams and Outsourcing

As controversial as the issue of outsourcing can be, all I can say about this case is: how can I take advantage of this service?
Thousands of exam papers from England will be sent to India later this year as part of the marking process.

Texas Privatization

This post from Think Progress is rather humorous:

In his Social Security roundtable yesterday, President Bush stated, “If you’ve got a good idea, bring it forward. I don’t care if it’s a Republican idea, or a Democrat idea, independent idea, Texas idea, any kind of idea, bring it forward.” Well, it seems that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) took the president up on the “Texas idea” suggestion. The senator’s office has released a report looking at the 1981 Texas plan. In 1981, three Texas counties “decided to opt out of Social Security and instead to provide their public employees with a system of privatized accounts.” The analysis done by Boxer’s office and the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service “compares two sets of families in three different income brackets [and] shows what happens to their retirement in 2005 under Social Security and under the Texas plan.” The conclusion:

By examining the actual system in place in Texas, this study shows that Americans are worse off with privatized accounts - not in theory, but in reality.

The Theater of the Absurd

What the [boop] were they thinking? We are staging interrogations now.
The U.S. military staged the interrogations of terrorism suspects for members of Congress and other officials visiting the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to make it appear the government was obtaining valuable intelligence, a former Army translator who worked there claims in a new book scheduled for release Monday.

Former Army Sgt. Erik Saar said the military chose detainees for the mock interrogations who previously had been cooperative and instructed them to repeat what they had told interrogators in earlier sessions, according to an interview with the CBS television program "60 Minutes," which is slated to air Sunday night.

Have we lost every shred of credibility and begun to parody ourselves?

Good News

At a time when Congress is passing a deficit-exploding budget that will 1. cut health benefits for the poor by $10 billion, 2. give $106 billion in tax breaks to the wealthy, and 3. open up the Alaskan wildlife refuge to largely pointless but destructive oil drilling, this at least is unequivocally good news:
The ivory-billed woodpecker, a symbol of the fading American wilderness that was thought to have been pushed into extinction, has been spotted by scientists for the first time in 60 years, taking wing in the wild swamplands of Arkansas.

The reappearance of the bird, one of the world's largest woodpeckers, was hailed Thursday as a validation of efforts to preserve and restore forested areas throughout the country.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Housing Bubble

Speaking of debts (as I was below), we are thinking about buying a house and getting pretty serious about one. I don't want to think about the words "housing bubble" right now, but this kind of thing worries me even if it does refer to the L.A. area.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Debts and Those Who Pay

While signing the new bankruptcy bill into law which will benefit the credit card companies and will render helpless many families who have undergone tragic losses, President Bush commented, "If someone does not pay his or her debts, the rest of society ends up paying them." So true.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Earth Week

In honor of Earth Day on Friday, the Global Institute at Thiel College is celebrating Earth Week by having guest speakers each night this week. On Monday it was Cynthia Moe-Lobeda speaking about global economics and Christian faith. Last night the Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson delivered a speech entitled "Our Crying World." (More on him in a moment.) Tonight Lisa Bellanger, the former Director of the Indigenous Women's Network and an Associate of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center, will hold forth on "The Earth's Cry for Human Rights." Finally, tomorrow night Dr. Roger S. Gottlieb, a Jewish socialist environmentalist and professor of philosophy at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, will deliver a speech entitled "The Promises of Religious Environmentalism." Following his speech will be a performance by the African musician SAMITE. (I have heard him before, and he is excellent.) So it is a busy week and a good one for the life of the mind in Greenville, PA.

So last night Matthew Johnson delivered a powerful speech about the sickness prevailing in our society today. One point he made was about the impediments to progressive change in our current context. He identified three main forms: people are 1. too comfortable, 2. afraid, or 3. distracted. On the third form, he discussed the "media intensive" environment in which we live and have consciousness, and described how this condition leads us to focus on the wrong issues. Paradoxically, his point about the distractedness of today's youth seemed to meet the focused attention of our college audience and resonated. He is a gifted communicator. If you are ever in Atlanta, be sure to go to Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in College Park to hear him preach, and get there early because it is standing room only. For any University of Chicago readers out there, you may know him from his days at the Divinity School (he finished in 1991), or from his return visit to preach and lecture (in the late '90s).

Sunday, April 17, 2005

A Grain of Seed

I just returned from the latest the series of Jack Caputo's conferences on religion and postmodernism (though this is the first one at his new institutional home in Syracuse), this one entitled "Saint Paul Among the Philosophers." The speakers included Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, Richard Kearney, Daniel Boyarin, Paula Fredriksen, Dale Martin, and E. P. Sanders. I'll pass along some commentary on the event later, but at this point I only have time to relate a quick joke told by the irrepressible and inimitable Žižek (imagine a twitching, wildly gesticulating narrator with a Slovenian accent):
A man believes he is a grain of seed [ed. note: I think the translation was a bit distorted here, but one gets the general idea], and so he seeks psychoanalysis for his condition. After weeks of working through his paranoia in the psychiatric ward of a hospital, he finally comes to recognize that he is in fact a man rather than a grain of seed. So he decides to leave the hospital now that he is properly adjusted to his true human condition, but upon leaving he sees a chicken and is so terrified that he immediately runs back into the hospital. When the doctors inquire into the nature of his terror, he explains that he saw a chicken and was afraid. Mystified, the doctors confirm that he now understands that he is a man and not a grain of seed. Yes, he replies, he understands that, but the question is, does the chicken know that?

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Government and Religion

Recently on the discussion board of one of my classes, I read this comment by a student: "the U.S. was founded on the basis of believing in God." Here is my initial response to this claim.

A short history lesson is in order. The Constitution does not make a single reference to God, and this was intentional. The framers began the Constitution by writing, "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." This way of beginning was in sharp contrast with the traditional way of writing constitutions in Europe where the first line would invoke God's name and the whole endeavor of forming a government would have been said to reflect God's will. Instead, the framers intentionally excluded such theological language from the process and attributed the power to decide such matters to "we the people." There have been numerous attempts over the years to add theological language to this "godless document," but those have always failed because of the democratic principle that we the people--not God--ordain and establish our government. (Of course, this principle did not stop changes from being made to our Pledge of Allegiance or our dollar bills, but those entities did not have the same solemn protection from a meddlesome public that the Constitution earns in our estimation.)

The point is that government and religion need to be separate. Why? Because the framers of the constitution feared tyranny. If those who have the power of the sword can also invoke God's will as justification for the use of the sword, then there will be no way to prevent tyranny. We would in effect have a king chosen by divine right. All of this had happened again and again in Europe, and the framers were afraid it could happen here too if they did not prevent it. So they made sure that the government which has the power of the sword was not permitted to invoke religious authority as justification for its decisions.

All of this is not to say that religion was intended to be eliminated from society or even politics. It was fully expected by the framers that religion would play an important role in the lives of citizens and would help to make the country good (a point that could be disputed, of course). In fact, they assumed that religion would prevent the society from becoming a war of all against all--a backbiting, brutish competition without moral regulation. Indeed, they assumed that religion, by encouraging people to sacrifice their personal interests in service of the common good, would provide some controls and balance where today's "free market ideology" would have none (but that's a story for another day). So, to the framers, religion was important for society, but not for government.

From studying the Hebrew prophets, we see that religion functions in the way the framers envisioned only when religious leaders are willing and able to stand up to the power of the state and criticize it. The prophets were the critics of government. (Think about Isaiah censuring King Ahaz for seeking aid from the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III and then dutifully introducing Assyrian religious objects into the Temple as recompense; or Isaiah's later admonitions against such unholy alliances during Hezekiah's reign.) Religion becomes dangerous when it becomes too closely aligned with the power of the sword because its motives to serve the world can get mixed with selfish power-hungry motives. We see this happening over and over in world history. Thus, the framers would have recommended 1. separation of government and religion, and 2. prophetic religion that speaks truth to power. They did not want an empire religion such as Constantinian Christianity in which religion became the justification for anything the power-seeking officials of the empire wanted. That would just be tyranny. Not only is this situation an obvious threat to democracy, it also threatens the independence of the church. In Constantine's empire, the church became just another arm of the state, a mere instrument of the emperor like the department of defense or the treasury. Thus, the separation of the church from the state and the maintenance of the prophetic form of the church serve both democracy and the church.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Battlepanda

The Battlepanda speaks (via Brad DeLong):

Maybe, just maybe, despite all the junk we have in our collective consciousness, a synapse will fire. TAKE?!

The cookie analogy continues:

Alan Greenspan in '83: Let me put this cookie away for you so you can have it for dessert later instead of ruining your dinner.

Al Gore in 2000: I wouldn't keep the cookie jar right out in plain sight if I were you.

George Bush in 2005: Oh uh! Somebody ate your cookies! Or perhaps your cookies never existed in the first place.

American people: Why preznit hand in cookie jar?

GB: To make sure this terrible terrible thing never happens again, next time we're going to keep the cookies in a jar with your name on it!

American people: (...)

More here. (For you Schnauzer lovers out there, see this post.)

Friday, April 08, 2005


Reader R.N. emailed to draw my attention to the latest project in simulacra "actualization" at the MIT media lab (warning: lengthy download).

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Truth as Agonistic

Zygmunt Bauman makes an interesting observation in an article in the Journal of Human Rights (vol. 1, no. 3, September 2002, p. 300): "Truth is an eminently agonistic concept; it is born of the confrontation between beliefs resistant to reconciliation and between their carriers unwilling to compromise. Short of such a confrontation, the idea of 'truth' would hardly have occurred in the first place.... Disputing truth is a response to the 'cognitive dissonance.' ... The stake in disputing the truth, and the primary purpose of self-assertion, is the proof that the partner/adversary is in the wrong and therefore the objections are invalid and may be disregarded."

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Science and Politics

As a follow-up to this post, today's question is: Why are most scientists not Republicans? Brad DeLong reports their five typical answers to this question:
  1. From libertarians, because the Republicans are really hostile to individual freedom: they want to control people's lives and boss people around.
  2. From biologists, because Republican politicians say they don't believe in evolution.
  3. From chemists and physicists, because Republican politicians pretend to believe that CO2 molecules created by human action have a different radiation-absorption spectrum than other CO2 molecules.
  4. From all corners, because Republican politicians are the tools of lobbyists and do not respect the evidence about anything.
  5. From all corners, because Republican politicians don't understand how important investment in education is for the future of America--they have no idea where our current wealth and health really comes from.

The Religious Dimension of Marx

Brad DeLong writes about Marx's labor theory of value in a recent post and offers a useful example to show that his term "exploitation" is so indeterminate that it cannot be used to discriminate between the pernicious origins of wealth and the legitimate ones. Without drawing any distinctions, every case of the extraction of surplus wealth is simply labeled exploitation. Thus, DeLong writes:
Thus the labor theory of value category of "exploitation" does not map onto what either ordinary language or our moral intuitions call "exploitation." There are social and economic changes that are good that are, in Marx's schema, increases in the rate of exploitation. There are social and economic changes that are bad that are, in Marx's schema, increases in the rate of exploitation. It's simply not a useful tool for either moral philosophy or political action.
True as this may be (and there is some argument about it here by Matthew Yglesias), I do not think this is the primary issue in understanding Marx or appreciating his significance. In other words, it is not his contribution to moral philosophy or political action that matters the most. Rather, Marx's work is valuable as an analysis of the "spirit" of the age and for its messianic vision. Thus, it is primarily for his religious imagination that his legacy should be studied and valued.

His analysis of exploitation, despite its appearance, is not so much about economic relations and the conditions of injustice in the marketplace. Those concerns are merely the clothing of deeper worries about the self-alienated condition of modern life. When he claims that the bourgeoisie "has left no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest," this sense of "exploitation" runs much deeper than any argument about the efficiency of economic relations. It is about the spiritual health of human beings. Thus, Marx can claim that the proletariat, i.e., the everyman, "represents the complete loss of man and can only regain itself, therefore, by the complete resurrection of man." This resurrection takes place in and through the overcoming of self-alienation, which occurs finally when the "utterly alien power" and "inhuman force" of greed no longer holds sway over the whole of human existence. Of course, this will not happen easily because the problem runs deep. The implicit morality of the political economy, as he explains it, underscores the depth of the problem:
The less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theater, the dance hall, the public-house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save--the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour--your capital. The less you are, the more you have; the less you express your own life, the greater is your externalized life--the greater is your store of alienated being.
The less you are, the more you have--the more money, i.e., alienated being, you have. The irony of this possession is that it is dispossessing. The lifeblood of one's existence is poured out and drained of its vitality. Thus, he writes: "Dispossession is the most desperate spiritualism, total unreality of man, total reality of non-man." This spirit in despair yearns to regain itself, to return to itself out of the self-alienated state created by the greed which the political economy fosters. How exactly the overcoming of greed is to occur is unclear. On that point, Marx seems to reach for a resource that is not available to him--some sort of grace that he cannot envision. Yet he seems sure that it will be present and pervasive in the ethical community that arises in the aftermath of the current age--the age governed by the dispossessing power of greed. Whether or not Marx merits much attention as a moral philosopher or economist, his work clearly draws on the prophetic tradition by offering both a critique of the current age and a vision of the ideal community for which we should strive. This aspect of his thought deserves recognition and respect.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Academic Bias Towards Facts

Paul Krugman takes on the issue of liberal bias in academia. I have written about this here, and I still think that post takes into account everything that it really needs to include. Self-selectivity, as Krugman acknowledges, is a key factor. As I argued (in agreement with Juan Cole), the point is that
universities tend to attract and maintain liberal candidates for their positions because the alternatives in the market economy, in conservative (and wealthy) think tanks, or in the officer corps of the military are not available to them for the most part. That is to say, liberal intellectuals with the skills to succeed in corporate business, right-wing non-governmental organizations, or the upper echelons of the military are in effect pushed out of those professions by the prevailing attitude and mores adopted by them. Conversely, conservative intellectuals are pulled by the lucrative offers of those very same institutions.
Krugman adds a piece to the puzzle.
In its April Fools' Day issue, Scientific American published a spoof editorial in which it apologized for endorsing the theory of evolution just because it's "the unifying concept for all of biology and one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time," saying that "as editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence." And it conceded that it had succumbed "to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or best-selling novelists do."

The editorial was titled "O.K., We Give Up." But it could just as well have been called "Why So Few Scientists Are Republicans These Days." Thirty years ago, attacks on science came mostly from the left; these days, they come overwhelmingly from the right, and have the backing of leading Republicans.

Scientific American may think that evolution is supported by mountains of evidence, but President Bush declares that "the jury is still out." Senator James Inhofe dismisses the vast body of research supporting the scientific consensus on climate change as a "gigantic hoax."
This has to do with what readers of this blog will be familiar with as the War on Facts. I am reminded of a segment from the Daily Show on this theme:
Corddry: How does one report the facts in an unbiased way when the facts themselves are biased?

Stewart: I'm sorry, Rob, did you say the facts are biased?

Corddry: That's right, Jon. From the names of our fallen soldiers to the gradual withdrawal of our allies to the growing insurgency, it's become all too clear that facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda.
It is no surprise that academics--that is, those who respect science and value objective research as a method of deriving truth--should be alienated from the political party that has openly declared a war on facts.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Pope John Paul II

Juan Cole has assembled a valuable collection of statements by Pope John Paul II who often spoke out against the prevailing interests of the wealthy and powerful and, despite his conservative stances on a few issues, proved to be progressive in many ways that are worth celebrating. For example, he condemned laissez-faire economic ideology and favored the rights and dignity of the worker. Free trade, he claimed, is not an intrinsic good, but must be restrained from the excesses of workers' exploitation and degradation. Thus, he supported movements of worker solidarity, e.g., unions. Furthermore, he challenged Europeans, especially the European church, to come to terms with its permissive role in the Holocaust, but he also championed the rights and welfare of Palestinians in the Middle East conflict. He condemned the death penalty, and he opposed the Iraq War. In general, his message not to be afraid was a message of hope following the devastations of the 20th century, and his tendency in all further conflicts was to seek ways to avoid the repetition of those disasters. If his legacy is one that leaves the Second Vatican Council unfulfilled in certain respects, it is more so one which commemorates some laudable and progressive achievements.

April Where We Live

I trust this is just some kind of bad April Fools' prank.

13 months 021

13 months 020

I mean this was bad enough.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Wagner Art in Context

Chris Bertram over at Crooked Timber points out that there is an interesting article about Wagner in the Financial Times today. It deals with the complicated question of the relation of his life and his artwork, prompted by a controversial performance in Hamburg recently. Here is the gist of that event:
Until the final scene, the Hamburg State Opera’s November 2002 production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg had proceeded without comment. Everyone was primed to applaud the hymn to “holy German art” that brings Richard Wagner’s four-hour pageant to a climax. Then came the bombshell. Midway through Hans Sachs’s monologue about honouring German masters over “foreign vanities”, the music came to an abrupt halt. Suddenly one of the mastersingers started speaking: “Have you actually thought about what you are singing?” he asked. No one had experienced anything like it in an opera house. There followed a lively stage discussion - some of it shouted down by outraged members of the audience - about Wagner’s anti-Semitism in the context of 19th and 20th century German nationalism.
To interrupt the music for this sudden assault on the legacy of Wagner in the midst of a German audience must have created quite a stir. For German music lovers who permit themselves the indulgence of Wagner's operas, it is only possible or excusable by drawing such a sharp distinction between the artwork and the composer that the latter and his ideological legacy can be effaced in the performance of his timeless music. That distinction was shattered in Hamburg.

The following paragraph captures the seemingly transgressive allure of Wagner's work:
People who love Wagner - and there are hundreds of Wagner societies around the world - do so in a completely different way to those who love Mozart. It’s almost a sickness: there is something in his make-up that compels idolatry. Like his texts, his music is full of dark desires and impulses, often of a sexual nature, touching parts of our subconscious we may not be fully aware of and may not even like. Played out on stage, his dramas provide a form of release, a way of simultaneously expressing and sublimating those desires.
Of course, all sublimations are expressions of desire, but the point here is that these Wagnerian expressions, if uninterrupted, already trace a fine line between transgression and the social respectability of high art. In any case, it is an interesting article, but it would have been improved by adopting a more self-critical tone because the lessons of the Nazi era still need to be learned--and not just by Wagner lovers.

Romantic Industrialism

Over at Grapefruit, my brother has linked to footage of an industrial shredder displaying its nearly sublime power of destruction. Talk about mysterium tremendum et fascinans. I recommend the Steel Drums.

UPDATE: This one would be especially useful to clean up around our house at this point.

Activist Judiciary

The state of exception continues to exist.
The U.S. military said on Friday it has held since last year an American citizen without charges in Iraq as a suspected top aide to militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The man was not born in the United States, but became a naturalized U.S. citizen and lived in "a couple of different cities" during about 20 years in America, one official said.
As Juan Cole notes,
If true, this imprisonment without legal counsel directly contravenes a US Supreme Court ruling that the Bush administration cannot hold some US citizens outside the law and the judiciary.
That darn activist judiciary, always meddling and nitpicking.

Kierkegaard on Origination

Kierkegaard teases Hegel when he writes: "Suppose someone wanting to learn to dance said: 'For hundreds of years now one generation after another has been learning dance steps, it's high time I took advantage of this and began straight off with a set of quadrilles'" (Fear and Trembling, p. 75). Here Kierkegaard is criticizing Hegel's progressivist historicism, and thus he writes:
However much one generation learns from another, it can never learn from its predecessor the genuinely human factor. In this respect every generation begins afresh, has no task other than that of any previous generation.... This authentically human factor is passion. (FT, p. 145)
If we think of a past "generation" as the prior history of actual occasions in process metaphysics, does Kierkegaard's point raise any questions about what (or how much) must be "built-in" to each actual occasion in order for such a general notion to be adequate to all possible human experiences? Conversely, does the burden on the subject in Kierkegaard's conception rely too much on the indepedent origination of such passion (i.e., love and faith), so that it would seem more plausible to relate any account of this "human factor" to its precedents in human history?

Experiencing the Particular

Whitehead argues that experience is not a relation to universals, as was commonly supposed in rationalist epistemology dating back at least to Descartes. It was Descartes who supposed that his observation of a men walking in the street was actually an inference to the existence of particular men from the perception of their hats and coats, and that furthermore the inference of the existence of hats and coats derived from the subject's relation to the universals of hat-shapes and coat-shapes. Thus, experience begins with relations to universals and infers particulars from them.

Whitehead claims that this view is mistaken. Instead, experience is constituted by internal relations to particulars--those men and those particular hats and coats. Agreeing with Locke, he argues that the mind then abstracts universals from the particulars--creating notions such as hat-shapes and coat-shapes. He justifies this claim by arguing that the Cartesian epistemology treats the human mind as if it were another substance, showing that this assumption creates a substance dualism that cannot be justified because no necessary relation between the extended and unextended substances can be demonstrated. In addition, Whitehead seems to think he can hoist Kant on this same petard, but that is where I am not so sure.

It is not clear that Kant has a substance metaphysics in mind when dealing with the human subject--far from it, in fact, considering Kant's lengthy discussion of the transcendental unity of apperception. Moreover, Kant's transcendental deduction attempts to show that such an ordering of the process of experience could not be possible without some prior categories with which to abstract universals from the particulars. To say that an actual entity must be internally related to another particular actual entity would only make sense as the description of an experience of that particular if the operative categories were in place to mediate such a relation. Whitehead's acknowledgement of this problem occurs in his claim that fact and form (i.e., the particulars of the past and the eternal universals) are mutually implicative and equally constitutive of every actual occasion. A lot is riding on that claim, and I'm wondering if it may be too much.