Sunday, October 03, 2010

The New Romans

Thomas Friedman has an editorial in today's New York Times about the decline of the two-party system and the possible rise of a new third party in the next round of presidential elections. A third party that would say
“These two parties are lying to you. They can’t tell you the truth because they are each trapped in decades of special interests. I am not going to tell you what you want to hear. I am going to tell you what you need to hear if we want to be the world’s leaders, not the new Romans.”
This refers back to a passage he quotes from Lewis Mumford:
“Everyone aimed at security: no one accepted responsibility. What was plainly lacking, long before the barbarian invasions had done their work, long before economic dislocations became serious, was an inner go. Rome’s life was now an imitation of life: a mere holding on. Security was the watchword — as if life knew any other stability than through constant change, or any form of security except through a constant willingness to take risks.”
 There are a number of big problems with Friedman's analysis of our situation. For one thing it comes from Thomas Friedman who is perhaps second only to Bill Kristol in being consistently wrong about things (think Enron & Global Crossing, web stocks, the Iraq War . . .).

Second, this analysis comes out of more time spent by Friedman hanging out in Silicon Valley. One fundamental mistake Friedman makes is consistently misreading the nation's problems with Washington as being the same as those of Silicon Valley executives. Actually, the two sets of problems are quite different. Whatever they might say, the business people just want government to work: they want it to keep the people quiescent, to see to the education of kids and the protection of property rights, and to keep the business environment relatively stable.

They don't want anything revolutionary or anything that will open the doors to sweeping changes. What business wants is a return to the bipartisan consensus building that we've been running on for more than 60 years.

Now, IF a third party were to emerge out of the entrepreneurial/ established high-tech business interests that have been picking up Friedman's bar tab lately, they would only accuse the two established parties of lying as part of an elaborate sham to establish a new party that would then proceed to go straight back to business as usual.

Trouble is, that's precisely what Obama tried to do: sell himself as a change agent and then just run things more or less as they've always been run. What went wrong? Well, the economy, stupid, for one thing. People are discontent and scared and looking for reasons why. Another is the brinkmanship the Republican party has now embraced--the willingness--eagerness--to make the entire country fail if that failure is blamed on the other side. A third is the now far more active fecklessness and stupidity of the American electorate--who elect a man on a platform of change, quail at any large changes that might be proposed and then blame that man for not effecting change. This is a pathological and deeply irresponsible electorate. The ungovernable-ness that grips California--the inability to support either stasis or change, let alone negotiate a dilemma--now grips the country as a whole.

We ARE the new Romans, only we  aren't the Romans of AD 200 or so,  losing our "inner go" to fend off those barbarians and keep rolling back the frontier. We are more like the Romans of a few hundred years earlier who lost their their "inner go" to make tough decisions for themselves, or even to put on the semblance of doing so. We are the Romans on the road to civil war.

This is not a problem that will be solved by a presidential candidate from a new party. The crisis we averted a year or so ago was, indeed, caused by an elite of reckless high-stakes gamblers. But in the end, that elite showed they could pull their fat from the fire in the last instance. This sort of problem might perhaps be better addressed by a new party.

But our crisis now is different. Our problem is that the populace has gotten extremely comfortable with a life of economic and political parasitism and they really have no comprehension whatsoever of the system they've been living off of. They only comprehend that they always want to collect winnings at the tables, to enjoy an always growing economy and to celebrate military victories won by someone else's children . . . and they want to feel morally righteous doing so.

This is not a crisis that calls for truth, this is a crisis that calls for better lies. And I don't think Thomas Friedman or Silicon Valley has got them.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Slow going . . .

with Pascal Boyer.

Just a brief note of explanation.

I've found Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained to be pretty heavy going. It's good in that it tends to deal pretty systematically with a range of different approached to each of the central questions about religion it treats, but I always get the feeling--the same feeling I got reading Pinker's Blank Slate--that many of the arguments get presented in such a way as they are nothing but epiphenomena of Boyer's own argument.

As in Pinker, there is a veneer of reasonableness and even-handedness that is really disingenuous. So I don't get very far reading before I'm diverted into a) dealing with the actual arguments; b) filling out some of the detail Boyer seems to me to neglect and c) noting the rhetorical strategies he uses to cover up his elisions.

Lastly, I get the feeling that over the course of the book he might return to some topics to treat them in greater detail, so I'm reluctant to attack something I find on page 50 that he addresses on page 150. So, this will probably have to wait to I get all the way through . . .

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dear America: Grow the F**k Up!

an open letter

Dear America:

Before coming to the real object of this letter, I'd like to reassure you that I am not a "hater." I don't chortle when I read articles about how fat you are, and I don't smile in self-satisfaction when I read that you don't know which continent Somalia is in, or that you think Arafat is an even worse version of trans-fat.

I've always been happy to live in your land of freedom, convinced that a working-class scholarship boy probably could hope for no better chances at life than I've had here. And I've always found foreign affectations and foibles to be even more annoying than yours. So rest assured, I have your best interests at heart, and I always try to think the best of you.

These past few months have been a challenge, though. A couple of years ago you surprised a lot of people by electing a black President, but not me: I knew the open-mindedness you were capable of. But apparently I had forgotten about the fecklessness, cowardice and paranoia that lurked beneath that veneer of open-handed reasonableness. I had forgotten that in spite of your 234 years, you still possess the intellectual and emotional maturity of your average nine-year-old.

Now, granted, things have been tough, and tough times can bring out a cranky streak in the best of us. But watching Velma Hart, a representative, apparently, of your deepest held feelings and thoughts, wail and complain to the President the other day really drove home to me that, you, America, are unfit to rule yourself.

"I've been told that I voted for a man who said he's going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I'm one of those people, and I'm waiting, sir. I'm waiting. I don't feel it yet. . . . I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now."

In short, you are still waiting for a parent, or a superhero or God to do the things that only you can do and, while he or she is at it, to do a bunch of things that no one can do. While you just go on doing whatever it is you do.

Well, guess what America? It doesn't work that way. Change isn't made by electing someone whose slogan is change. No elected representative is going to Washington waving a magic wand to make everything better while you watch re-runs on television or post inane observations on Facebook (or write blogs, for that matter). Change comes through work and cost to yourself.

No elected representative has a time machine to undo the dumbass things you and your poorly supervised representatives have done in the past. So, no you haven't just up and left Iraq and Afghanistan, becuase having already invaded and overthrown the governments there you have a moral responsibility to see the transition through. And no, you don't get your money back because you belated think adventurous wars aren't such a good idea. And no, you don't get the money back from the huge deficits run up from the last administration you elected because now you've decided that maybe deficits are a thing to worry about. And yes, you did still have a huge, expensive, nearly cataclysmic economic crisis just two years ago. And, yes, you'll be paying the price for the idiocy of the last ten years or so for some time to come.

The "change" that needs to happen is a change is a change in YOU, America. YOU have to stop thinking that Obama or Palin or tinkerbell is going to save you and make every little thing alright. It ain't going to happen. And you have to stop thinking that the political managers you install are going to work in your interests when you a) have no real conception of what those are; b) you don't do much at all to supervise the activities of these managers; and c) you know so little about what these managers do.

"I am waiting" is frankly a pathetic attitude to take when you are supposedly in charge of yourself. You are waiting for what? The waving the magic wand option being out, as discussed above, what economic tradeoffs look wise to you right now? Oh, you didn't know low taxes came at a cost? Or that you might have to choose between two unpleasant options like deficits or stagnation? Don't like the War in Afghanistan? Well are you willing to take responsibility for what happens when you leave? No, of course you aren't. Don't like torture and the extra-legal detention in Guantanamo? Well, are you willing to live with the consequences of closing the place? Willing to support a prison on the mainland? And trials on the mainland? No, I thought not.

America, you have too long been an absentee landlord in Washington, blissfully ignorant of what's going on there, and swooping in occasionally to kick out a few obvious bad tenants and a few others more-or-less at random. Of course things don't go well with you. In fact, you've gotten way better service than you've deserved over the years. Luckily, the good old boys and girls DO actually seem to feel a bit of paternalistic affection for you in spite of your fecklessness.

But, as I said, tough times do bring out the crankiness in us. America, it is time to grow the fuck up or shut the fuck up. Let Velma know what you decide.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Stone's Fall 2

A disappointing novel, and not at all the "return to form" touted by the publisher. Stone's Fall is a sloppy, half-hearted and poorly planned novel with, really, little point. As adventure it is far too long and far too slow; as an intellectual mystery in the tradition of Name of the Rose, it has little to say of an intellectually stimulating nature.

The first three hundred pages of Stone's Fall consists of slowly developing setup with an unappealing character who has no role (aside from afterthought) in the last 500 pages of the novel. Those last 500 pages have somewhat more in the way of winning characters and plot interest, but there really doesn't seem to be much point to it all. The seeming promise that we'll gain some insight into the "art" behind capital is never delivered on and we're left with a tale of superhuman manipulators, which is frankly far less interesting than a tale of plain old human manipulators.

Reading Stone's Fall, two Neils were strongly called to mind, neither of whom spells it that way. A very long novel that promises to show us something about the workings of international capital can't help but call Neal Stephenson to mind, who explored what he feels are the roots of the modern world system in his Baroque Cycle a few years back.

The comparison in some ways is flattering to Pears--Pears is a far better literary craftsman than Stephenson--he can create believable characters and write good dialog and move a story along without being too obvious with his stagecraft, all of which Stephenson has great problems with in his Baroque Cycle. But one thing that Stephenson has that Pears' novel sorely lacks is a sense of brio and intellectual insight.

The other Neil this novel brought to mind is Niall Ferguson, who has been much concerned in his historical writing with this period and with the same developments which set the stage for this novel--the formation of international capital , imperialist power struggle, and WWI, which is only on the horizon of Stone's Fall, but importantly so.

But with all these great elements at play, about which Ferguson is just full of interesting interpretations, Pears manages nothing much, except perhaps to say that capitalism is about buying cheap and selling dear, and that, ultimately, someone has to bear the burden of being on the wrong side of those deals. And even this delivered weakly.

Too bad really.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Back to Boyer

For a long time, people used to think that the brain was a rather simple organ. Apart from the bits that control the body machinery, there seemed to be a vast empty space in the young child's mind destined to be filled with whatever education, culture and personal experience provided. This view of the mind was never too plausible, since after all the liver and the gut are much more complex than that. But we did not know much about the way minds develop, so there were no facts to get in the way of this fantasy of a "blank slate" where experience could leave its imprint. The mind was like those vast expanses of unexplored Africa that old maps used to fill with palm trees and crocodiles. Now we know more about minds. We do not know everything, but one fact is clear: the more we discover about how minds work, the less we believe in this notion of a blank slate. Every further discovery in cognitive science makes it less plausible as an explanation. (3)
Back to Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained . . . then above passage from quite early on in the book.

This a pretty bad start on things. For one thing, Boyer is immediately sallying forth into an area that really doesn't have much to do with his topic. The history of attitudes toward human nature is just not fundamental to the topic of what religion is. He might just start by saying something like "The explanations put forward in this book assume that the human brain is an evolved entity, with certain inherent tendencies which . . ."

Instead we get the Blank Slate straw man. Why straw man? Because the man who proposed the idea, back in 1690, didn't think human beings had no inherent nature. he thought they had no inherent ideas. Durkheim, another supposed "blank slate" proponent specifically rejects the idea. And of course, before 1690, Western thought was dominated by precisely the opposite sorts of notions--that certain ideas were innate, that man had a fallen nature from birth, etc., etc.

So for a long time, since the beginning of the time we began thinking about what the nature of our minds or souls or brains was, the question has been dominated by the notion that in has a fairly specific nature, not by the fantasy of a "blank slate." In fact, this line of inquiry has been pretty heavily distorted by interested assertions as to what that specific nature is.

What Boyer really means to say here is that, for a few decades, the idea has been prevalent in anthropological circles that the contents of our brains are determined by our cultures, not by any inherent characteristics and that he and his book are part of the reaction against that prevalent notion.

There is nothing world-historically innovative in the idea that our brains have an inherent nature. This is the dominant line of thinking on this matter generally. It always has been.

The fantasy of a blank slate is today far less common that the fantasy of its absolute dominance in recent thought.

So why begin the book with the idea of some "Blank Slate" demon at large in the intellectual streets? Because what we are about to read will only impress when set against a backdrop of the most abject ignorance? ("Well, this is all pretty commonplace, but at least it is better than what those veritable flat-earthers think over there . . .)

Or maybe it's just a declaration of allegiance with the contemporary forces of expansionist science? Or maybe its just a failure of perspective from someone who has spent too much time in academic infighting. Or too much time in France.

I think the answer is probably one of the latter options, but nevertheless, it's a bad start to a book that as least pretends at a broad and objective attempt to explain religion.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Military and the President

New York Times ran a fairly long analysis piece by Peter Baker on the relationship between Obama and the military:

While Mr. Obama took three sometimes maddening months to decide to send more forces to Afghanistan, other decisions as commander in chief have come with dizzying speed, far less study and little public attention.

He is the first president in four decades with a shooting war already raging the day he took office — two, in fact, plus subsidiaries — and his education as a commander in chief with no experience in uniform has been a steep learning curve. He has learned how to salute. He has surfed the Internet at night to look into the toll on troops. He has faced young soldiers maimed after carrying out his orders. And he is trying to manage a tense relationship with the military.

Now, my first thought here is "Judy Miller" or "reporter depending far too much on interested sources." For one thing, the entire article reflects an attitude, one clearly wholly absorbed by our author, that military decisions are technical decisions, not political ones. This is clearly false, and was shown to be so in Vietnam--we don't win wars when we don't have the political will to fight them. The military knew this well--that's why the military leadership was always so reluctant to have us commit to foreign wars: they wanted to make sure there was truly a will to ride the thing out to its end.

But it's amazing how quickly things change after 8 years of fighting. The people in charge in the military now seem take continual war as a given, the only question is how to conduct it. Well guess what? That's not the only question, and it's the President's job to see to it that the other questions get addressed. Even if the wait might be "agonizing" for you. We won't be fighting in Afghanistan forever, and we're going to leave whether we "win" or not. Military leaders ought to wrap their minds around that reality.

My second thought on reading this piece was the seemingly eternal nature of it. Didn't the military also have its problems with Bush? And Clinton? And Carter? And Nixon?

It would seem to me that the problematic side of this relationship is the military side--they can't quite seem to come to grips with the idea that they serve a democracy, that military considerations are secondary to the interests of the nation as a whole as interpreted by its political leaders. The problem here ISN'T that Barack Obama didn't have a firm grasp on military protocol when he was elected (who did? who cares?). The problem is our military has gotten a bit big for its britches. They seem to have forgotten that they exist to carry out politically determined policy. And that the nation doesn't exist to support them.

Perhaps it's time to draw back and restructure the military a bit (read: officer purge) and start taking a look at just how self-interested and self-serving the Pentagon has become.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Detour into Pears

Sorry, I've been distracted from Pascal Boyer by a couple of other books, including Iain Pears' new one Stone's Fall.

I'm only 200 pages in (it's 800 or so, I think), but I can't remember a book that has so much reminded me of John Fowles' Magus, what with the sexual tension, the unlikeable narrator and the (seemingly) deep and complicated plot which blows our hapless hero through the novel.

Somehow, Pears doesn't seem to be able to pull it off quite as well, though. Fowles, perhaps, has an advantage in his era: there was a pretty certain meta-narrative (liberation!) to the 60s, one that he could write with and against as it pleased him. Pears doesn't really have anything like a stable matrix to write against.

And that sort of historical meta-narrative does seem to be a big concern for Pears (see Dream of Scipio, which by my reading is a fairly serious consideration of what it means to live in a decaying culture).

Also, I'm reading a advance review copy, so there are a number of mistakes and omissions that are bothersome to me. One thing that is amusing is the letter to reviewers from one of the publishers--this novel represents a "return to form" for Pears--the form of the Instance of the Fingerpost. And it is indeed a literal return to that semi-postmodern, genre-influenced door-stopper form, but the heavy implication is that we should have been very disappointed in Pears work between Fingerpost and Stone. I don't think we should be so quick to dismiss Scipio or The Portrait, both worthy reads, imo, if quite different from Fingerpost.

One fault of the novel can't be blamed on the lack of final editing: important plot elements that drop from the sky--perhaps all will be made clear though farther along . . .

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained

Just started reading this last night. I've never thoroughly read it before, just spent some time with it at the library and I thought I'd note here some of my responses as I read along.

A few notes before I set out:

1. This book tries to lay out many serious lines of argument regarding religion, assess them, and use them as seems fit. So, as I read along in the text I will no doubt be making caveats that Boyer himself makes later on in the book. So reading my notes on the book will require a certain amount of charity--both for me--because I just haven't gotten to that part of the book yet--and for Boyer--because I just haven't gotten to that part of the book yet.

So when I complain about a passage in Religion Explained, that doesn't mean that Boyer doesn't see the same point or that there is necessarily a huge gap between my understanding of religion and his. I'm more or less taking this book as a good launching place for intelligent discussion of where religion may have come from.

2. This is a pretty old book--copyright 2001--so there's no doubt more good data out there than this book reflects.

3. Boyer uses the concept of memes and I hope to line out some of the weaknesses of memes even as a heuristic device here. But I am decidedly biased against memes.

Anyhow, I hope to get a few passages from the book posted here shortly with a bit of critical analysis.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Naomi Klein

I don't know Naomi Klein's writings very well. I know her name (her brand?) and I saw her in the Copenhagen video I wrote about earlier, but I haven't really spent too much time with her.
Reading the excerpt of her 10th Anniversary edition of
No Logo, I was tempted to write that the age of branding has a suitable commentator: a shallow one.
I suppose if you write the anti-branding book, you have to take branding seriously, but Klein really takes the branding gurus at their word a bit too much. the fact is that branding, like many of the other hot management trends of the last 50 years or so, is a pretty nebulous phenomenon.
If by branding we mean products whose cache far exceeds their material function (Nike, Starbucks) . . . well that's been with us for a long time. A very long time. In fact, it is one of the things that has been complained about since the birth of consumer culture and was observed by writers of pastoral condemnations of frivolous, rich, urban sophisticates thousands of years ago. The Marxist writer Baudrillard made this phenomenon a particular focus of his work in the 1960s and 1970s.

The rise of the branding gurus in the past 10 years gave us a new vocabulary for talking about this phenomenon. But those gurus didn't invent branding or even change it all that much.

George W. Bush was not an unprecedented triumph of branding over reality (Benjamin Harrison, anyone?). And while the Obama administration may be in more than one way unprecedented, I think the phenomenon is a bit more complex than it's ad campaigns.

In a way, Klein seems to recognize this, and brings in another phenomenon, outsourcing, that she hopes may be a bit more definitive of our time. In a way, maybe. Outsourcing is one the more dramatic ways the powerful display to us a quality that they now have in spades--moreso than ever before--flexibility.

Klein tries to figure outsourcing as a outgrowth of branding: As branding presents a huge front for what is usually a modest product, outsourcing "hollows out" formerly grand institutions--government, "big" business--even as their facades present the same big, reassuring facade to the public. But outsourcing isn't primarily about visionary business strategy, or a "light" military (though Rumsfeld, may have been dumb enough ton have drunk the new age koolaid). Outsourcing is about always having options. If your union workforce is expensive and recalcitrant, having a factory in China is a great stick to hold in negotiations with them: you can credibly threaten to move more or all operations there. If your army is led by officers with a different notion of America's role in the world, being able to do select tasks (kidnap & torture?) with Blackwater functionaries--usually ex-soldiers themselves--can be convenient both from a deniability standpoint and as a lever against reluctant military leaders.

But this isn't new. The forces of British colonialism were often employees of private companies like the East India Company. And the whole world of party-affiliated (rather than state-affiliated institutions making decisions and enacting them was a common characteristic of communist and fascist regimes.

While the rise of government outsourcing and quasi-governmental groups to do the outsourcing IS distressing, I doubt it has anything to do with more recent events in the world of branding.

One of Klein's big problems, a problem one often sees among theorists on the left, is that she takes the "conspiracists" at their word--she actually believes the branding gurus when they say they've discovered the new philosophers stone, when in truth this is just another line of market-speak, another management & business philosophy "revolution" which only serves to make out overpopulated management & administrative sector feel likes it has some kind of purpose.

The dirty secret is not that business has found some new way of usurping our decision-making powers from the grocery store to the ballot box. The dirty secret is that we willingly--happily-- surrender that power, and that we are surrendering it to a bunch of empty suits, people every bit as feckless, hapless and fraudulent as the "citizens" who abdicate the power to them.