Saturday, February 08, 2003

We are the pro-democracy army: A new group from our very own, dear old Yale has recently reared its head in the blogosphere - Yale College Students For Democracy. One of YCSD's founders has also published a sort of manifesto as an op-ed in the YDN, which I think is very good. And now the Josh and Dave at OxBlog have started a similar, linked organization here,the Oxford Democracy Forum, of which I supposed I've become a member, having signed on to its declaration of principles and asked Josh to sign me up (I am however, true to my activism-leery temper, a conditional member -- on condition that Josh Chafetz doesn't ask me to carry any placards or chant slogans in Hyde Park. I'll also resign at the first sign of Ramsey Clark having anything to do with the organization, although something tells me that's unlikely).

Now, this really is a very interesting article. When I first saw it, I thought 'So what? Surely everyone realizes that the Jukes studies were flawed and prompted all this bad forced sterilization stuff?' Still, the article wound up telling me a good deal of stuff I hadn't known about the Jukes studies before -- and provided a valuable reminder of the need to approach social scientific (and indeed other sorts of) studies carefully and with a degree of skepticism (especially when they claim to show the influence of genetics, given the bad track record of the eugenics movement, to say nothing of the history of racism).
Also, notice the list of the real names of the 'Jukes' family. Note especially the last in the list. It's Bush.
DISCLAIMER: I do not mean to suggest that the current President of the United States is a genetically deformed imbecile, or that he is in actually in any way related to the 'Jukes family', who seem not to have been genetically deformed imbeciles anyway.

Yet another interesting article from the NY Times. This one is far more worthwhile for its account of the struggles and inequities faced by a qualified woman in British academia of the '50s and '60s, than for the gimmicky, facetious, and utterly inane historical parallel that serves as the aticle's 'hook.' Indeed, I wish they had passed that over altogether -- and also the snobbishness of the last sentence (my god!) There's something rather disturbing about a reputable, and indeed quite gifted, scholar making judgments about the contemporary world based on events of 2 millenia ago, rather than the realities that are visible before her eyes in the present. A salutary reminder, though, of the deformation professionelle to which we academics are prone.

Bad news (is there any other sort?) from Hamas.
More interesting, if less alarming, than Hamas's threatening declarations (which may or may not pose a threat to the US itself, but is certainly disturbing for the prospects of Americans in the region -- and Israel, of course, but then what else is new?) is the latter part of the article, about the possible rise of suicide attacks from within the Israeli Arab community. This is very bad news indeed; but I do find myself somewhat heartened by the response of Israeli security spokesmen (and the sappers who removed the bomb from the mosque before detonating it. Nice work, guys.), who seems to have tried to downplay the threat from Arab Israelis. Also heartening is the response from the Mayor of Taybeh. Now, again, I'm far from being an expert, or knowing all that much about, South African apartheid; but the treatment of the Israeli Arabs in this case -- attempting to avoid appearing to accuse them or crack down on them, even after members of their community have been implicated in terroristic activity -- seems to me rather different from that of black South Africans under apartheid -- though the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories doesn't. Which goes to further confirm me in my belief that the problem with Israel isn't that it's an apartheid state, but that it is an occupying one; and that the goal we should be pursuing in resolving this awful situation is withdrawal from the occupied territories and the creation of a viable Palestinian state, rather than the creation of a single, mixed state, which neither Palestinians nor Israelis seem to want, or to be able to maintain.

My weekend reading of the NY Times continues to be manifested on this blog (somebody else write something, if you don't want to hear my reactions to the whole paper ...)
This article, like many I've read about the reactions of people on the borders of Saddam Husayn's Iraq, is impressive, and troubling. It paints an all-too-vivid picture of what Husayn is capable of, and suggests how disastrous war will be for his neighbors. Yet, after showing themselves to be aware of the catastrophic risks facing them, many of those spoken to wind up saying they favour war on Iraq. I'm impressed by how much courage it must take to face such threats; and depressed by the thought of what these people have suffered, what they are likely to suffer, and what their lives must be like that they regard facing this further suffering as better than the alternative.

A good expression of the reluctant hawk position from Bill Keller. While I think Keller doesn't give Bush quiet as much credit as, I find myself reluctantly admitting, I think he deserves -- he's lately been showing far more respect for the international community and the processes of international law than a lot of us feared -- his column is a good reminder that, just as those in the anti-war movement need to try to further their cause without endorsing the simplistic anti-Americanism and philo-totalitarianism of ANSWER, we liberal hawks need to be careful to support a policy that will work towards the promotion of democracy, rather than American hegemony, and need to disassociate ourselves from, and avoid appearing to support, Bush's cockamame pre-emptive war doctrine.

Where is everybody? I feel so alone ...

Thursday, February 06, 2003

Ok, this is getting disturbing: the Blair government has once again proposed a policy with which I agree. And on education, no less. So, let's see, this means that I've now found myself respecting the Blair government for its stances on two of the issues that I think most important -- education and foreign policy.
This is really scary. I mean, I still dislike Blair's Clintonishly empathic manner of presenting himself, and his managerial and centralising approach to government. But I'm starting to actually respect the guy as a genuine political leader, some of whose policies really do present a genuinely viable and sensible middle way between poorly thought out extremes.
Could I be becoming a 'Third Way'-er? Dear god, no!!! (Especially since this will probably just confirm all my left-wing friends' worst suspicions of me ...)

Powell's enforcer: So, when one speaks to the UN Security Council about so serious an issue as terrorism and WMDs and the possibility of going to war, one's in a key position -- and thus vulnerable. And one therefore would be remiss if one failed to provide oneself with, um, protection.
Now, Colin Powell is a tough guy. But even the toughest of us sometimes need a bit of extra help -- a bit of extra muscle. I suspect that Powell didn't show up to that briefing with just his slides and recordings.
No, I think Don Colin was accompanied by a loyal paesan. Was it just me, or did the guy sitting behind Powell on the left (click on the first picture of Powell addressing teh UNSC)) look an awful lot like Luca Brasi from the Godfather? Check it out.
UPDATE: I have since figured out that the Luca-Brasi-look-alike is in fact CIA Director George Tenet, whom I'd not seen a photograph before. Now, how scary is that -- the director of the CIA looks like Luca Brasi. Can you imagine what intelligence briefings at the White House must be like?:
'Don Bush, I am honored that you have invited me to the intelligence briefing, on the day of your intelligence briefing. And may your first airstrike be a masculine air strike.'
Ok, so maybe that's not so funny. But, come on, he looks like Luca Brais? Why has no-one noticed this?

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Further thoughts on today's UN session: Bulgaria and Spain reacted as I thought that they would. I found France's response, as summarized by cnn.com, interesting: a move away from its former intransigence, and far from unreasonable -- but it still struck me as a somewhat desperate grasping at straws. Will the Iraqi regime accept the escalation of inspections that France is advocating? Will such an escalation really be able to overcome Saddam Husayn's attempts at evasion? And if the inspectors do find more evidence -- that is, if they can confirm the evidence that the US has already presented -- will Saddam Husayn then say, 'Whoops, you got me, ok, I give up?' Unlikely. But at least France is now acknowledging that to effectively disarm Iraq the use of force may be necessary, and if necessary would be acceptable -- which seems a reasonable stance to take. The question then is how we are to decide when it's become necessary to use force, assuming that it does so.

On the question of military action against Iraq, many hesitant, multilateralist liberals such as myself have a tendency to ask, 'Why can't we wait?' Well, here's why.

Quick reaction to Powell's briefing of the UN and some of the follow-up, not all of which I've seen: no smoking gun, but a number of primed triggers. Powell's case that Iraq 1) Has failed to comply with Resolution 1441, 2)Has sought to produce WMDs, and has succeeded in producing them in the past, and cannot now account for these WMDs; 3) Shows signs of continuing to seek to produce WMDs; and 4) Has at the least turned a blind eye on al Quaeda activity in Iraq, thus passively aiding and abetting al Quaeda, all seemed to me conclusive. Suggestions that Iraq would be ready and able and willing to use its WMDs against its neighbors, and that it was actively conspiring with al Quaeda, were less conclusive, but still seemed plausible. All of this, of course, was based on intelligence reports that can't be verified, so if one believes the US was making it all up, then the speech would have no force. But this belief doesn't seem very plausible to me.

I thought Jack Straw's response was brilliant, packing the rhetorical punch that Powell lacked (or refrained from using; it was clever for the US to only suggest, and let Britain explicitly and forcefully stress, that if the UN fails to enforce 1441 it will be undercutting itself). The Russian and Chinese responses were, well, evidence of the bureaucratic culture that Communism has bequeathed to the one, and continues to thrive on in the other. Both seemed to more or less be saying (the BBC went to commentary in the midst of the Russian response, so I didn't hear all of it) that the US should 1) Hand over its intelligence for their perusal, and 2) Allow the inspectors to finish their jobs. Now, the former seems a reasonable request; it's natural that, having heard the evidence presented orally, they would want to have time to examine it more closely. The latter, however, seemed to deliberately ignore the mass of evidence, which suggested, as Powell presented it, that inspections will be useless unless Saddam Husayn ceases to obstruct them. I suspect that Russia and China are just trying to avoid doing or saying anything decisive at this point -- thus confirming Jack Straw's most negative implied criticisms.

It seems, from what I've heard so far, that no immediate action will result. This is I think as it should be; Husayn should be given one last chance to change his tune. However, if he doesn't do so immediately (by which I mean, within days), then the UN must meet again and find him in material breach of 1441, and thus go to war. I believe Jack Straw mentioned 14 Feb as the date for doing this; this seems to me a bit on the generous side, but if it stands a chance of winning greater international support, I think it's acceptable. However, after hearing China and Russia's responses, I'm not very optimistic about the ability of the international community to respond to the challenge before it as a single body. I'll be interested to hear, though, how France, Angola, Cameroon, Guinea, Mexico, Pakistan, and Chile respond (I think I can predict how Syria will respond; ditto, in the opposite direction, Spain and, less confidently, Bulgaria).

Ok, democracy is a stupid subject. Name me 10 bands with a day of the week in their name.

The Sundays


Happy Mondays

Sunny Day Real Estate

('Sunny Day Real Estate doesn't have a day of the week in its name'
'It has Sunny Day in its name'
'Sunny day isn't the name of a day of the week.'
'Yes it is. It's what you call the sunny day of the week.'
'There's more than one sunny day of the week'
'Not in England in winter there isn't'
'No, 'Sunny Day' isn't a proper day name. I can't accept that.'
'You're no fun')

Ok, so we need 7 more bands. Anyone? Anyone?

ADDENDUM: Since posting, I realized that I neglected to mention The Saturday People. I can't believe I left out the Saturday People! Oh well. So, now we need 6 more. Can we do it? (And WITHOUT resorting to the use of internet/computerized databases. That's cheating.)

Just a couple of notes in reply to Jacob's most recent contribution to our ongoing argument (now downgraded, I'm happy to say, to conversation): I did in fact refer not only to good intentions, but also to courage displayed in acting, which I presume is what's involved in making acting against odds and risking one's own life/safety/etc. morally admirable. And I meant to suggest that courage is in itself a morally admirable quality, though not enough to make any courageous action morally admirable (perhaps I should, to use a more precise ethical language, say that courage is in itself a virtue, but I haven't yet worked out my exact views on virtue ethics, and anyway whenver one talks about virtue it tends to invoke Bill Bennet, which I'd rather not). I of course would prefer not to have to be too courageous; on the other hand, I do hope that if I ever do find myself in a situation where courage is required, I would show courage rather than not.

I also don't recall saying that Jacob worked for Nader. I did apologize for bringing up Nader, since I know it is a sensitive point with Jacob -- as he's made apparent.

Now that I've tried to clear up what I said, let's clear up what Jacob said in the first place, and what I took him to say, and why I reacted as I unfortunately did. I quote, in order to have it before me: "But equally important to democracy (and I do mean, equally) is for us to support real democracy in democratic countries." (Incidentally, if Jacob had said 'also' rather than 'equally', I probably wouldn't have said anything. What a difference a word makes!). Jacob then added that "Can we really expect democracy to flourish abroad if we continue to allow the subversion of democracy at home?" Now, as I see it, the issue rests first on the context of this remark, secondly on the use of two words, 'equal' and 'real,' thirdly on the connection between democracy at home and abroad, and fourthly on the use of the term 'subversion of democracy.'

The context was Jacob responding to my post on democracy in Iran by mentioning the NDP in Canada, and talking about the importance of it merging with 'exciting social movements that have energized the left.' I took this to suggest: 1) That working for greater democracy in Iraq and working for 'real' democracy in Canada, or elsewhere, were of equal importance; 2) That 'real' democracy consists of the flourishing of (I initially thought left-wing, but with Jacob's correction now take it to mean any) grass-roots social movement; 3) That to not strive for 'real' democracy is to allow the 'subversion of democracy,' which describes the current state of affairs in Canada/America/etc.; 4) That it required the achievment of 'real' democracy at home to promote any sort of democracy abroad (this incidentally could be taken to imply that we should in fact prioritize achieving 'real' democracy at home, since until we do we won't succeed in promoting it abroad; but that would be drawing an inference and attributing to Jacob something he didn't say, so I won't address that); and 5) That the NDP moving to merge with left-wing social movements was of equal importance to Iran liberalizing and moving towards democracy.

Now, I could well be wrong in attributing to Jacob any of the 4 points that I interpreted him as making. But I will just say that I'm far from convinced that 4) is empirically true (and I certainly don't accept the parenthetical implication about prioritzing promoting 'real' democracy at home over promoting it abroad; but that's irrelevant). With regards to 1) As I've said, I disagree, since I believe that working for a minimum of human rights, civil liberties, and democratic institutions is more vital, more urgent, than achieving a more maximal vision or version of democracy. With regards to 2) I also disagree, though only in part. I agree that grass-roots social movements are important to the health of democracies, and are often good things in themselves and in what they accomplish; but I am uncomfortable with equating one particular vision of how democracy should ideally work, or what works best for democracy, with 'real' democracy, since it suggests that any other vision of democracy isn't 'real,' and thus tends to lead to a denigration of other visions or versions of democracy. With regards to 3) I once again am wary of saying that the lack of what Jacob regards as the optimal democratic situation (or perhaps what I regard as the optimal democratic situation, and Jacob regards as the only 'real' democratic situation, which is one of the points of difference) is equivalent to the subversion of democracy. Certainly, it makes democracy less pure, and allows for greater elements of oligarchy and meritocracy and bureaucracy to assert themselves, and this is often a very bad thing. But to talk of democracy being 'subverted' in such a situation makes it sound to me like we're sliding towards a coup or something -- this is no doubt an over-reaction on my part. On the other hand, I think that equating a lack of connection between political parties and grass-roots social movements with the 'subversion of democracy', which is what I took Jacob to be doing, is also an over-reaction. Finally, with regards to 5)I again disagree, since I see one as a minimalist goal, and the other as, if not a maximalist goal, a less pressing one. The liberating of political prisoners who wield considerable authority and will use that authority to promote liberalization and democratization, and the strengthening of ties between political parties and broad-based social movements, to the revitalization and advancement of both, are alike good things; but I don't regard them as being on the same plane -- I think one is more essential than the other.

Now, the last remaining point of contention is, to once again quote Jacob: "If one believes that problem A is more important that problem B, how can one then devote oneself to solving problem B and not consider oneself to be wasting one's time? And if one comes across someone who devoted his life to solving problem B, how can one's respect not be deminished, seeing as he failed to address the more important problem A." Jacob poses this as a 'logical concern', and puts it in terms reminiscent of logic (problems A, B, and on to Z). But I don't see that it is a logical concern at all. It is only a problem if one operates from a certain set of assumptions. I won't try to state all of those assumptions, since I don't know what all of them are, but I would hazard to guess that some of the necessary postulates to make such a claim are 'one should always address the most important problem, regardless of all other considerations' 'all problems should be addressed in order of importance, and no problem should be addressed until the most important problem has been resolved' 'anything that conduces to the addressing of a problem of non-prime importance is, eo ipso, a waste of time', and 'one should respect people based only on whether they have devoted themselves to solving the most important problem'. But I don't see why one should accept these propositions as universally or wholly right, a priori; I think that they are assumptions based on a monistic, zero-sum, all-or-nothing view of the world, which I think is a view that doesn't do justice to the complexity of either morality or human psychology.

I'm fucking around with the link colors. CSS is hard.

Here the text is in black, not blue. CSS is hard.

Here's something interesting: LabourStart has put together a list of news articles on international organized labor and the oncoming Iraq war. Definite shades of opinion, you'll find. (Within LabourStart's list is a link to a list maintained by the Labor Standard, which lists anti-war actions by US unions.)

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

For nearly a week now, this blog has been my only electronic outlet to the world, since my email has been down since Thursday. Happily, it seems like it will be up again tomorrow, or even late tonight. Thank god.

For the record, the only ill-fated presidential campaign I ever worked for was Bill Bradley's. I voted for Nader (and stand by that vote, since it was cast in Connecticut), but did not work for him.

Also on Josh's response: In my original post, I suggest that effectiveness is more important that risk to oneself, I should have, but did not, mention intent. Josh discusses the relative value of intent and effectiveness, and I think makes a lot of sense, but does not describe how risk enters into the equation. Surely one can have good intent, low risk, and low effectiveness (arguably, that describes most people), or good intent, high risk, and low effectiveness (my hypothetical about flying off to Baghdad), good intent, low risk, and high effectiveness (Bill Gates, say), good intent, high risk, and high effectiveness (Medgar Evers, say). And, of course, all the other various combinatorics. I was not trying to suggest that weighing effectiveness over intent is more rational (although I think it probably is), but rather that weighing effectiveness over risk is. Of course, I think we get into dangerous ground when we try to create a formula by which to judge people and their actions in this way. (Yes, I know that I'm the only one here's who is even suggesting such a project.) I think we're discussing two related by distinct things--our admiration for other people (which is often emotional, and therefore leans more toward the risk end of things, since we value the heroism and sacrifice of those who will risk much for a good cause) and our plans for ourselves (which can safely lean to what I suggest is more rational, and emphasize effectiveness).

It is indeed unfortunate that the Improper Bostonian does not put it's personal column online. Because then I could link to it, rather than having to retype this:

Scared Kenmore Girl
It was a windy Sunday evening close to 9pm. I was on the B Line going to meet a friend. You got on the T with a big white bag filled with papers, sat right next to me and kept looking over until I got off at the Kenmore stop. You then started to follow me saying "I like pretty girls. I like pretty girls." Then I quickly walked up the stairs and you continued to follow me. You introduced yourself as "Michael Michael I like motorcycle." I got scared and ran into the McDonalds for safety and you began to bang on the windows. Finally you left. Please, if you ever see me again or any other girls do not go following them. You really scared me.

Ah. Improper Impersonals indeed.

Jacob's question of how I can both be a pluralist, and set priorities, is an acute one, and strikes at one of the great ambiguities and tensions at the heart of pluralism. I can't pretend to resolve this tension, indeed this inconsistency, in either pluralism or my own thought; I can only explain the reasoning through which I combine both pluralism and a belief that some goals are more important than others.

Pluralism deals, probably too abstractly (but then it is a philosophy) with the ideas of values. These are many; on the political level, particularly important values include liberty, equality, justice, stability and order, public safety, well-being and health and affluence, etc. Now, Berlin's version of pluralism is inflected by three other views, which are independent of and need not be implied by or combined with pluralism (John Gray [the British political theorist, not the men are from mars, women are from neptune guy], for instance, rejects one outright, and seems to me to misunderstand the other), and which, without being strictly inconsistent (I think, though a friend of mine here has disputed this, and he's probably right) with it. The first of these is humanism, the second is what I'll call minimalism, the third I'll follow Jonathan Allen in calling negative morality. The first, which I've explored at over-great length, basically gives priority to human beings, and, more specifically, to a certain conception of human life emphasizing both safety and wellfare, and freedom and dignity. The second, which is in a way closely connected with the first, holds that the protection of a minimum degree of basic human values, and especially those that are most necessary to human beings' ability to pursue other values if they so choose. The third, which is founded on the first and closely intertwined with the second (indeed, I just realized that the third and second are distinct while I was writing this), is based on the belief that preventing extremes of suffering has a general, though not universal, moral priority (just how much of a priority it has is a major point of difference between Berlin, who assigns it priority but not absolute priority, and Judith Shklar, who is in many ways close to Berlin but does seem to assign it absolute priority, which is why Shklar isn't quite a pluralist. I myself am somewhere between Berlin and Shklar on this.)

So, what does all this very abstruse stuff mean? Well, to me it means that, as Berlin I believe wrote (I may be paraphrasing here), 'priorities, never final or absolute, must be set;' and our setting of priorities should reflect the belief, once again quoting Berlin, that 'the first public obligation is to avoid extremes of suffering.' Put in more pluralist terms, it isn't that some values are better than others (though this too may be true, but that gets us into a whole other, much larger, problem), but that having the necessary minimum of certain key values, and seeking to establish polities that will respect that moral minimum in those places in the world where it isn't respected at all, is more important than maximizing those same values where the moral minimum already, however imperfectly and tenuously, exists.

Berlin also notes that he's not against setting priorities on a practical level, but rather against the belief that we can set priorities once and for all theoretically based on some formula. Making absolute value judgments is different from making judgments about practical importance. But this is a place where Berlin is rather vague, and, as I have seminar in half an hour, I'll have to be as well. I'll also have to wait til later to see if I can deal with Jacob's other important points about what he originally said, and about how one can regard A as more important than B, and not regard oneself as wasting one's time by doing B instead of A. Though I fear that I really can't say much more about the latter; as I said before, it seems to me to reflect a zero-sum, all-or-nothing view of things which I just don't share, and which is I think -- though I may be wrong -- more a matter of temperament than of logic.

Jacob raises two very good points, which are actually central problems that I have to deal with in Isaiah Berlin's thought. I'll start with the later, somewhat easier one (for me) first, the problem of judging people based on the risks they undertake, or obstacles they face, or their intentions, as opposed to the effect they have. As Jacob states the problem, I don't find it that troubling; but there is another way of stating it that I do find more troubling. Jacob seems to regard judging people in consequentialist terms as being more 'rational' than judging them based on intentions. This is a premise that I just don't think self-evident. I think that judging people on the consequences of their actions is fine in many cases, and it's important to some sorts of judgment; but it isn't the only, or even most, valid criterion for judgment. This is especially true since we often don't have control over, or cannot predict, the consequences of out actions. We do have greater control, however, over our own intentions and moral reasoning, and over our actions themselves. So, to the extent that moral judgment involves, or in my view should involve, evaluating people based on what they could actually do, purely consequential judgment of people doesn't seem to me fair (consequential judgment of actions seems to me much sounder; and I think the two are different -- am I getting too Jesuitical here?)

I do think that intentions matter in moral evaluation of people, as opposed to their actions, and also being faced with obstacles. Effectiveness is a practical concern which is often at least partly, sometimes wholly, beyond our control; courage, on the other hand, is a personal quality. And so, while I might rate the achievment of someone who was more effective more highly, I'm more inclined, as Jacob says, to admire the moral character of someone who fought courageously against the odds, even if he or she was defeated. I also of course am inclined to judge people in part on the validity of their intentions or aims or accomplishments: the person of courage and conviction to accomplished what I regard as genuine goods, and perhaps paid the price to do so, will strike me as more admirable than someone of less good intentions or personal character who nevertheless achieved good things, even if the latter was more effective (so for instance I admire Havel and Michnik more than, say, either Yeltsin or Walesa, and Mandela, with some reservations, more than de Klerk). On the other hand, the person who acted with good intentions or with courage, but was deluded and wound up acting in ways that had negative consequences, or acted courageously on behalf of causes I deplore, I will judge more harshly, though with sympathy for their intentions (some Communist sympathizers, those who worked for Nader in 2000 [ahem! Sorry. Couldn't resist]), and sometimes very harshly indeed (the courageous, committed Nazi storm trooper, the suicide bomber, etc.) This is why I find it troubling when Berlin at times writes as if acting courageously, in good faith, against the odds, is itself admirable, regardless of the values one acts on behalf of. But he doesn't advance this as a considered philosophical point.

(By the way, to respond to Jacob's main point about this: I think I admire Havel and King, and Michnik and Gandhi, and other "soldiers in the battle for human freedom" [Heine's words] both because of their personal courage, and because of the worthiness and indeed desperate importance of what they sought to do, and because I believe they set about doing it in a good way. And all of this is related: they had to show such courage precisely because the problems they faced were so drastic, and the forces against which they fought so powerful. That is what made their actions both particularly courageous, and particularly valuable. And they were all the more courageous, and all the more effective, and have all the more integrity and moral standing, because they sought to accomplish their goals in principles and humane ways, and didn't resort to violence or cynical manipulation. So, once again, judging based on intentions versus actions, or personal qualities versus efficacy, in such cases turns out to be a false opposition).

Ok, this post is long enough. To the other point in the next one.

Ok. Having now reread several times Josh's most recent post, I understand somewhat better, but I think that he's taking a commonplace moral hierarchy and explaining it in a strange way. I think most people would put King and Havel high on their moral ladders. But what made King and Havel so amazing was their selflessness--their willingness to put aside a comfortable life (unlike Gates, certainly, and unlike most academics and aspiring academics). King could have been a mild-mannered preacher like most preachers and gone about his business. Havel could have written plays and not gotten mixed up in politics, or he could decamped for Paris and hung out with Milan Kundera. Both of them decided not only to give up their comfortable lives, but to put themselves in serious, corporeal danger. I suspect that's the real reason that Josh places them on a higher moral plane than he does Gates. I surely do the same thing. Rationally, though, I have a problem judging people based on risk to themselves, rather than actual success in helping. I would like to judge people (to the extend I wish to judge people at all) based on how much they accomplish. If I make a frivolous gesture that is guaranteed to get me killed (say, fly to Baghdad and shout "Down with Saddam!") but is also guaranteed to be of no help whatsoever, I don't see how I should get any points. If I sit quietly in Seattle and give away massive wads of cash that saves the lives of untold millions of dollars--even if I do so at no risk or real sacrifice to myself--I should certainly get a lot of points. If I do both--as King and Havel did--I don't know if I should get any more than if they had been able to do their good works in safety.

Thanks to Josh's rather conciliatory post, I am now simply confused, rather than irritated. I hope Josh can explain.

As a pluralist, I read you to explain, you believe that there "is no single hierarchy of values or measuring stick for assigning them ranks of importance." This makes sense to me. This suggests that it is not wrong, but simply meaningless, to say that it is equally important to support the strengthening of democracy at home as it is the creation of democracy abroad. (Actually, this isn't what I said at all, it turns out, but in the meantime, even I'd forgotten that until I went back and looked just now, but that's a matter I'll mention later.) Again, this is something I understand and can accept. If one cannot create a universal hierarchy of values, one cannot criticize others for choosing to work on a different project (or problem, or value) than you would choose yourself. But what confuses me then is that Josh continues to seem to create a hierarchy of values, or at least a hierarchy of priorities, when he continues to say that supporting democracy at home is less important than creating democracy abroad. I am genuinely curious how Josh reconciles these two views. I am sure it is still my fault to be unable to see.

Another, logical concern is this. If one believes that problem A is more important that problem B, how can one then devote oneself to solving problem B and not consider oneself to be wasting one's time? And if one comes across someone who devoted his life to solving problem B, how can one's respect not be deminished, seeing as he failed to address the more important problem A. (The issue about a "waste of a life," and such, I admit, was deliberately hyperbolic.) This is, of course, a problem I wrestle with all the time--wondering how I can justify working on problems that, in the end, solve some problem below Z, when I could contribute to solving a problem A.

Finally, we come to what I actually said: "But equally important to democracy (and I do mean, equally) is for us to support real democracy in democratic countries." At some point, I (and, I believe, Josh, given what we've both been writing) forgot that. I got caught up in defending what I shouldn't have, and what I hadn't actually said. So let me say for the record that I believe that the lack of basic human rights in large swaths of the world (Josh provides a useful, if incomplete, list) is a greater moral problem than the slowly atrophying democracies in countries like the US, Canada, and Britain. I believe I did, but should not, suggest otherwise. However, I stand by my statement that democracy must be defended everywhere, and that democracy is endangered as much when it slowly disappears as when it fails to spread.

Jacob seems to accuse me of accusing him (oh boy ...) of having a simple moral view, forgetting that he was the one who declared his view of the world to be simple, so far as I know (confusingly in quotations, which suggests that I said it first, but I have no memory of doing so. If I did, I apologize -- or I would if he had done anything to belie such a statement).

Jacob also accuses me of accusing him (gosh!) of being "blinkered at best"; in fact, I said that those who seek to impose simplicity on the world are blinkered at best. Jacob, despite his inability to treat fairly or read accurately what I say, is not blinkered, though like all of us he does have his blindspots and failings. However, he doesn't seem to me to be so much imposing simpilicity on the world, as imposing it on me. Which is rather less serious, though for me no more fun.

I did however accuse Jacob of being grossly unfair, for misreading what I wrote, even after I stated it repeatedly and, I thought, clearly, and attributing to me absurd and farcical views which I don't hold. However, I now suspect that this unfairness was the result, not of malice, but of incomprehension of my point and, it may be, of my way of thinking. So I must endeavor to make myself more clear, and less obnoxious.

Jacob represents me as saying that the promotion of human rights in Iran is the most important thing. This isn't what I said, and I hoped that my allusion to pluralism would make it clear that it isn't what I meant either. But, since that didn't do the trick, let me spell it out (I don't remember if I ever explained pluralism to you, Jacob). Pluralism holds that there are a variety of genuine (abstract) human values, none of which is paramount; and that there is no single hierarchy of values or measuring stick for assigning them ranks of importance. So, there is no most important thing. However, there is a difference between what is valuable and what isn't; and there is also priority assigned, generally and pragmatically, to preserving or promoting a basic minimum of particularly essential values (i.e. those that are necessary for the achievement of other values -- such as freedom and equality of opportunity, which allow for individuals to pursue a myriad of other values, and without some minimum of which they cannot). In this case, it seems to me that in Iran, and many other places, they lack even a basic minimum of a good many of the most essential political values or goods, and that therefore promoting that minimum of values for the people of Iran, or Iraq, or Palestine, or Zimbabwe, or North Korea -- has a moral urgency and desperation somewhat greater than promoting, say, grass roots activism at home (which I hasten to add is VERY IMPORTANT AND I'M IN FAVOUR OF IT AND HAVE NOTHING TO SAY AGAINST IT.)

As for devoting one's life to the most important thing, no, I don't think that either. This is I think a bizarre view, and nothing I wrote suggested it. There are many goals, many goods, and different people should devote themselves to those which they have the greatest ability to achieve, or interest in achieving; and we should respect them for that. I do think that some goals are more vital than others, and so tend to think that those who devote themselves to them are doing greater good -- Martin Luther King Jr or Vaclav Havel are, to me, more morally impressive and admirable than, say, Bill Gates, who's done more to change the world (and, lately, has been doing more to improve it) than, say, the classical scholar Arnaldo Momigliano, who was a far more learned and wise scholar than I'll ever be (I thus wind up pretty low on the moral scale). I would, similarly, say that those who pursue personal gain at the expense of others were violating some important values without really upholding or advancing any others, and so would be morally less respectable than those who pursued either modest goods (hence my allowing myself to feel more virtuous than certain CEOs), and those who pursue real goods. However, even if there is a single most important thing, which I deny, and even if everyone should devote one's life to achieving that one thing, which I also don't believe(as opposed to doing whatever they can, in addition to what they devote the better part of their lives to, to promote more important goals, or at the least not frustrate their achievment, which I do believe), it doesn't follow that anything and everything else is worthless. We're talking here about matters of good and better -- or bad and worse -- rather than matters of simply all good or worthless, or all bad or perfect; of less or more, rather than all or nothing (it's very dangerous to think in terms of all or nothing: we can almost never have all, so if the only admitted alternative is nothing, we wind up with nothing.)

Jacob therefore seems to be framing my arguments, or my view of the world, or the world itself -- I'm not sure which -- in zero-sum terms, tying me down to saying either a or b, and not recognizing either that there are other positions to take or that I might be taking one of those positions. That failure to devote one's life to a less important cause makes it a waste really does seem to me a bizarre notion, which it would never occur to me to hold (if I did hold it, I'd hardly be sitting on my butt here doing, well, nothing really). To view the world in such absolute terms does seem to me simplistic and obtuse and, well, stupid. I now see, though, that rather than being grotesque, Jacob was merely ascribing to me a grotesque standpoint which I don't in fact hold. Much better.

As for making basic moral distinctions: I stand by my claim that people throughout the world are in a far more dire state than we in the US (or Canada, or the UK, etc.) are. This is no reason to be sanguine about our own state of affairs, or fail to devote ourselves to improving it. But it is something that is important to recognize. And if one believes that human beings are entitled to a certain minimum of rights, and that having certain basic democratic and liberal institutions and practices is necessary to safeguarding these rights, and that all human beings are equally entitled to these rights, then it does seem to me that bringing liberal democracy to those who live under tyranny is more pressing than, say, making political parties in established democracies more responsive to the people, or getting people more actively involved in politics, because the need there is greater, and the stakes, at the moment, higher. And if one wants to focus on promoting democracy on the domestic front, that is admirable, and important, and I respect that (respect it a good deal more than what I'm doing). But if one were to claim (as, I hasten to add, I'm sure the esteemed and humble Mr. Remes would never do) that in doing so one occupied a level of equal moral importance and impressiveness as, say, Martin Luther King Jr, or Vaclav Havel, or those working for democracy and human rights today in Iran or Iraq or China etc., I would have to say that such a claim would be self-aggrandizing and unfounded.

I am certainly sorry if I attributed to Jacob views that he doesn't hold, or if his attribution of views to me which I do not hold resulted from obscurity on my part; and I am sorry if I have caused as much offense to him as some of his caricatures of my position have caused to me. I do regard this as a serious matter; this argument seems to me an example of the differences between a minimalist liberalism, and a poorly differentiated activism, which I think is of key importance to the fate of left-of-center politics. And I stand by my own views, both on the importance of different priorities, and the need for making moral distinctions and seeking first and formost to establish a minimally moral order wherever possible, in a complicated and generally harsh and tragic world. But to make this debate as ad hominem as it has become was certainly unfitting and wrong, and I am sorry for the part that my own intemperate language played in it.

In Homage to Catalonia, if I recall correctly, Orwell discusses how impossible it is to have an anarchist army, because armies rely on hierarchy and the following of orders. This seems indisputable--since the purpose of soldiers is to willingly fight and die, they cannot be given the authority to say "Eh, no, I think I'll not fight and die today, thanks." Yet by the Nuremberg Doctrine, soldiers have not only the right, but the duty to refuse to follow illegal orders. How do we reconcile these two things? Israel faces this problem today. Lest I be accused, once again, of being grotesque (that seeming to be Josh's favorite, although apparently not ad hominem, attack on my comments), I hesitate to point out the irony of Israel's disputing of a Nuremberg-established rule. Regardless one's views on Israel, it does raise an interesting question. How can we desire both an functioning military and a military in which soldiers have the obligation to refuse illegal orders?

Let's see. My view of the world is "simple," and I am "blinkered at best." I am unable to make "certain basic moral distinctions." What I say is not only stupid but "grossly unfair." I am refusing to make a "serious argument about these matters," while Josh, apparently, by once announcing that he was going to mount his moral high horse is to be exused. And it is, bizzarely, I who am ignoring every point Josh is trying to make. Yet it is I who am peurile, reductionist, and obtusely ad hominem.

If Josh truly believes that human rights in Iran (to use a deliberately simplifying shorthand for what Josh seems to argues is of unequaled importance) is the most important thing, than, logically, all other things are less important. One should, presumably, devote ones life to fixing the most important problem--otherwise, what's the point of defining something as most important. Certainly, one ought not devote one's life solely to something which is of lesser importance. So how can Josh logically adhere to both statements, both that international human rights is of unequaled importance and that it is not a waste to devote oneself to something else. Perhaps one can work on multiple things, devoting amounts of time and effort on issues proportionate to their importance. But a life devoted solely to a less important cause must be waste. How can it be otherwise?

Holy sh-t! Phil Spector, what have you done?

In a truly weird twist of, I don't know what, it was rumored that eh character of 'Z-Man' in the Roger Ebert-co-authored, x-rated, truly, truly, truly awful 1970s sexploitation picture Beyond the Valley of the Dolls The movie begins in the midst of a murderous rampage (which is later returned to, after a long flashback which is most of the movie) by Z-Man; I've tried to blot the whole thing out of my memory, but I think it begins with Z-Man about to shoot a woman as she lies unclothed in a drugged stupour (it's that kind of movie. Don't ask me why they had it on TV. Don't ask me why I wound up watching more of it after the first minute. I wish I hadn't). Anyway, now that's just really creepy.

Roger Ebert as prophet of doom?

Ah, yes. Those NYC dialing codes are long. They're really long. Stupid article indeed. At least Jacob and I agree on something (we also agree, apparently, in greatly admiring Maury Maverick Jr, though Jacob seems not to believe this. I suppose that, standing condemned as a complacent liberal, I won't be believed when I express my admiration for Maverick, or say how important and valuable I think his crusades, as well as his squibs, were. I, in turn, am surprised that Jacob feels such admiration for a traditional liberal who even supported the Vietnam war at first; but I suppose I should be grateful for his concessions to broad-mindedness.)

As to the question of Reagan's influence on democratization in Eastern Europe: first of all, Reagan did assist in bringing down the Soviet Union by increasing the arms race, thus pressuring it to also increase military spending, so that an already tottering economy collapsed more quickly. Secondly, he did use the bully pulpit of the presidency to lend support, and give reassurance, to those struggling for democracy in Eastern Europe. I think Reagan was a crook who did his darndest to ruin America; but when people like Michnik and Havel speak of how much hope he gave them at difficult times, I'm inclined to respect that.

Jacob accuses me of complacency. He also accuses me of believing that those who devote their lives to promoting democracy in already democratic societies have wasted their lives. Let's examine the second statment first.

That's just stupid, Jacob. Stupid, and grossly unfair to what I said, and to me. You're equating my prioritizing of promoting basic human rights abroad over democratic activism at home with regarding the latter as entirely worthless. Now, I should hope that you'd be able to see that it isn't a matter of all or nothing, and that saying that one is more important than the other isn't equivalent to saying that the other is worthless. Nowhere did I say that; indeed, I quite explicitly said the opposite. (I might also point out that, as a pluralist, on a very deep philosophical level I believe that the idea of there only being one worthy goal in life is not only false, but incoherent. I do believe that some goals are more pressing or important than others, and that at any given period of time one value, or one project or aim or action, may have priority over others; but that's a very different thing.) If you want to have a serious argument about these matters, that's fine; we no doubt both have valid points to make, and much to learn. If however you're going to resort to such peurile, reductionist, and obtuse ad hominem attacks, I see no reason to bother. Why try to express my own views when they'll be wilfully twisted and thrown back at me? Why try to understand what you're trying to say -- and I actually am, however high-and-mighty sounding I may get at times, and however much I may err due to my own assumptions and prejudices -- when you seem to ignore entirely the point I'm trying to make?

Now, for the charge of complacency. This seems, like the more grotesque one, to rest on the assumption that just because I contested Jacob's claim that promoting democracy in democratic countries was EQUALLY important to promoting it in despotic countries, I regard the former as not at all important. In fact, I regard it as very important. I am far from complacent, far from happy, far from optimistic, about the state of democracy, or of life generally, in currently democratic countries. I'd like to see things change, and change quite drastically in some cases. Some of the changes and improvements I favour are similar to those that Jacob favours; others aren't. What is, I think, very different is that I am a pessimist, who believes that the maintenance and, hopefully, promotion of minimum human rights and democratic self governance and personal freedom and afluence and opportunity is tremendously difficult, and its achievment miraculous, and who therefore is more likely to be satisfied with half measures and muddling through, and not regard everything as terrible or hopeless or dire if reality falls short of all that I wish for. My view of the world is also different from Jacob's is that it isn't simple; and, while this has its downside -- those with simple views of the world tend to get more done -- I can't wish it otherwise. Because the world, Jacob, is not a simple place, and those who try to impose simplicity on it wind up blinkered at best; at worst they succeed in imposing simplicity on it -- and the world, and human beings, don't take to simplicity without violence. You should realize this by now; you're certainly bright enough, and sensitive enough, and decent enough to. But the lure of simplicity is great; and that's why I believe it must be resisted.

I think this not because I have any problem with Jacob's 'simple' ideal. I, too, "want a world in which individuals are able to control their lives, and in so doing be as happy as they choose to be, in whatever way they choose" (before you start bashing liberals, Jacob, you may want to reflect on the fact that what you write is the epitome of liberalism's goals). But once we start holding that simple wish up against reality, things get muddy, and it becomes a matter of more and less. How free can people be, how happy can they be? How do we balance the freedom and happiness and ability to choose of some against that of others? How are we best to achieve these goals? How are we to respond when people choose to exercize their freedom to frustrate, rather than promote, these goals? How are we to address conflicts of right against right, and wrong against wrong? And, if we do need to set priorities, do we prioritize seeking to give people who already have a great deal of room for choice, and who, so far as it is possible for humans, are generally fairly happy and have a high degree of control over their lives, still more control, in the hope that it will make them freer and happier (we won't for the moment examine whether this will in fact invariably be the case)? Or do we seek to give those who have NO control over the government that controls their lives, who have the most circumscribed range of choices, who are hemmed in by fear and violence, as much control over their lives, as much freedom to choose, and as much dignity and security as private individuals, as is necessary for a decent human life, and not the life of a harried slave? It's the failure to recognize how much more drastic the condition of people living under tyrannies is, and therefore how much more urgent it is to promote democracy in such places, than to work out the very serious problems and failures in our own societies, that I find so bewildering.

I should also note that I didn't say that I found Jacob's 'pet enthusiasms' incomprehensible. Some I not only find comprehensible, but share, though my own version of them is rather different from his. Others I find all too comprehensible, as expressions of certain forms of political Romanticism which I've encountered before, and sought to understand as best I can, despite not sharing them. What I find incomprehensible is his inability to make what I regard as certain basic moral distinctions about matters of degree -- either between the importance of establishing minimalist democracy where it doesn't exist versus promoting maximalist democracy where the minimum already exists, and now between arguing that the former is more important than the latter, and arguing that the latter is worthless.

Monday, February 03, 2003

My god. I mean its arousing..its violently arousing.

Maury Maverick, Jr., is dead. However, since he seems to have worked toward strengthening democracy in the United States, and his obituary doesn't mention democratizing the rest of the world, Josh presumably thinks he's unimportant and wasted his life.

Also in the Times: This may be the stupidest article I've ever read.

Actually, I don't "view democracy as a matter of popular movements." I'm paraphrasing myself here, but what I said was that the core of democracy is people having control over their own lives. True, I think that we are most likely to get to personal control over ones life through a politics based on popular movements, and I think that such control is best manifested in such movements, but that doesn't lead at all to what Josh says I believe. Josh lists a variety of right-wing movements, some of which, as he admits, are a strech to call grassroots. However, and I make this point grudgingly, many of them are true popular movements, and, yes, many of them are manifestations of democracy. I'm not about so say democratic movements always lead to good--democracy is not always equivalent to liberalism--but that doesn't mean that popular rightist movements aren't democratic. I'm inclined to believe (although could not cogently argue) that most right movements that appear popular are in fact instrumentally controled by non-popular groups, either directly or indirectly. (The post-Reconstruction "popular movement" against blacks, for instance was instrumentally controlled by white, Democratic elites conciously trying to avoid an alliance between blacks and whites of the same class.)

In his questioning of my argument that there is more likely to be democratization if the left is in charge (to use his phrase), Josh gives the examples of Reagan and Bush as democratizers. Putting aside the profound harm to democracy that Reagan did in our hemisphere, not to mention Afghanistan and Pakistan, the question remains whether Reagan did indeed "encourage the fermentation and ultimat[e] triumph of democratic opposition in Eastern Europe." I profoundly doubt it--I place far more emphasis on the Poles than I do the Americans, and to the extent the Poles were encouraged by outside leadership, it came far more from Rome than from Washington. (That is the highest praise, by the way, and I will ever give the current Pope.) And as for Bush "bring[ing] the first flickering of democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq." Well--I'll wait and see, I suppose, but I'm less sanguine that Josh.

The more fundamental point, however, as Josh rightly says, is the relative importance of strengthening and furthering democracy in liberal states and the establishment of liberal states. The degree of complacency that liberals like Josh show is as incomprehensible to me as my "pet enthusaisms" are to Josh. My "view of the world is simple": I want a world in which individuals are able to control their lives, and in so doing be as happy as they choose to be, in whatever way they choose. I want that for those in "countries that are rule through terror and violence," and I want that in liberal democracies. And I fear that if it is not worked towards in liberal democracies because other things are more important, than the bar for all democracies will be lowered, and the democracies that are eventually founded in places where they don't now exist will be controled by other, less visible and correspondingly harder to fight enemies to choice.

More on Communism: an interesting, and to my mind rather mixed, post about the Communism debate. There is both much sense, and some non-sense, in it.

First, one bit of sense which I want to make it clear I endorse, lest I be accused of McCarthyism by Mr. Remes: I think the author's right about the nastyness, as well as wrongness, of guilt-by-association. Which is why I oppose the decision of various democratic leftists to work in conjunction with, and often under teh direction of, members of ANSWER, and would like to see the anti-war movement disassociate from ANSWER and ANSWER-style arguments, but am also opposed to the discounting of the anti-war position because ANSWER happens to have taken it up, or condemning the anti-war movement because ANSWER happens to have largely taken the initiative in organizing its rallies (criticizing the anti-war movement for having let ANSWER do that, on the other hand, is fine by me.)

Ok, the non-sense:
First, note the constant conflating, or at least tandemning, of Communists and socialists. BIG DIFFERENCE, whatever some on the Right may say. Enough of a difference to get an awful lot of socialists (and anarchists) killed by the Communists in Spain. And Russia. And let's not forget the Communist's refusal to join with the Social Dems in opposing Nazism in Germany. Yeah, that worked out well. Of course, we're talking about America, where things were rather less serious, because neither group had much power. This didn't prevent intense sectarian fighting (it also didn't save Trotsky). And these fights mattered: the difference between advocating peaceful attempts to redistribute wealth, achieve social and economic equality and more genuine democracy, while respecting individual civil rights; and supporting (indeed, being controlled by) a blood-soaked totalitarian regime and advocating the violent overthrow of the government was morally, if not in the end practically, significant.

Which is why, though of course good people who cared about justice often wound up 'hanging out' with Communists, many of them didn't join the party -- and most of the ones who did left it, and became bitterly opposed to it. (Often too bitterly: take Irving Kristol. Please!)

Then there's this: "Communism was at its core an ideology of human rights at a time when social inequalities were vast and many still believed in the divine ordination of social and gender heirarchy."

Excuse, I need to cough. Bull-SHIT. Communism was not an ideology of human rights. It was, and is, an ideology calling for violent revolution, followed by dictatorship, in order to overthrow the current social, political and economic order, based in turn on a theory of historical development holding that such an overthrow is both inevitable, and just. Believing that the current order is flawed, or indeed fundamentally unjust, and favouring those particular methods of overthrowing it -- and buying into that particular reading of world history -- are rather different. And, lest one is inclined to dismiss this as a bunch of theoretical irrelevance (which is something I hear a lot. Wonder why?), I might point out that it's also a tactical matter which has had tremendous practical importance.

Next: "After WWII, the abuses of the Soviet system were becoming clearer, but if you came back from the war to legal segregation, women forced out of jobs, and Cold War hysteria about sex and literature, where were you going to go? "

Well, first, the abuses were clear before the war. Moscow show trials, anyone? Betrayal of Spain? (Orwell was telling people about it. Koestler was telling people about it. People chose not to listen) Nazi-Soviet pact? I don't think that the 'hysteria' about sex and literature was necessarily part of the Cold War, though both did feed off of, and give expression to, much of the same hysteria. As for where one could go, I dunno. The Socialist Party? The Non-Communist Left? Dissent and Partisan Review did much more on an intellectual/cultural level to combat conformism and philistinism than the CPUSA. Hell, the CIA was funding the Boston Symphony, Abstract Expressionism, and fora of intelligent discourse such as Encounter and Der Monat. And what did the CPUSA have? As Irving Howe (a lifelong Socialist anti-Stalinist; we'll forgive him the early Trotskyite phase, during which he was pretty insufferable) pointed out, the Non Communist Left was reading Joyce while the Communists were reading 'palukas like Howard Fast.'

So, I agree with the message of the post -- that political purity is ultimately a self-defeating ideal. But let's remember there are different sorts of 'political purity'. There's the political purity that demands complete agreement of all of one's associates -- this is clearly not only self-defeating, but also dogmatic and somewhat proto-totalitarian as well (Sort of like the Communists, when they weren't trying to form Popular Fronts to hoodwink democratic leftists). But there's also what I'd prefer to call political integrity, rather than political purity, which holds that, while one must make compromises in politics, and shouldn't be too squeamish about it, there are some compromises that are too great -- those compromises that involve allying yourself with those you who you not only believe to be mistaken, but know to be malignant. Which is why I like to think I'd have kept well clear of the Cominterm, and why I'm keeping well clear of ANSWER (well, I'm also keeping well clear of ANSWER since I'm not convinced that we shouldn't go to war with Iraq, but even if I was -- I should say, even when I was -- I would, and did, keep well clear.

Finally, finally finished Underworld. Frustrating so often, and for a while I thought it was because the central character was too carefully guarded for me to get a grasp on him, unlike the other sometimes confusing or diffused things I've read recently, V comes clearest to mind, the central characters were sharp, believable, in their own moments, where here Nick never took form until his central mysterious act was prefigured and committed, and by then it was too late. By then the waste/nuclear shadow took over and made me wonder about the short period between the fear of the Cold War and the fear of the world-after-the-Cold-War-that-as-of-yet-has-no-name where we thought tragedy, grand scale, civilization may fall tragedy, was in the past. That the book is supposed to be cathartic, but that since it was written we've lost the moment of calm that assumed it was the end of history.

My head throbs slightly after napping on the couch. I wonder why seven people and a few billion dollars of machinery deserves such nonstop front page coverage. Would it have done so two years ago? The initial thought, realized after flipping past the six pages in the Times and wanting to read about North Korea or perhaps budget boondoggles on the Op-Ed page, was that we are more highly attuned to tragedy than before. We anticipate it, maybe even hope for it, for something riveting that justifies our worry. The initial thought, logging on over the weekend and seeing the first headlines was, of course, "was it Terrorism?" A silly thing to be put away, birds fall out of the sky of their own accords very nicely and almost regularly, no help needed, thank you much. And I want to believe that it is a thought that is a natural reflex now but wasn't before, and well before that, perhaps a worry that secret Soviet forces were at play. Or just tragedy of its own, and should need no resonant frequencies in the gestalt to be heard.

On Oxblog, Dave Adesnik has an interesting, if rambling, set of reflections on prejudice. It certainly is thorough, even if I'm not sure where exactly it's supposed to be going at times. But sometimes rambling can be good; why should all our thoughts be strictly teleological?

One thin I'm very glad Dave mentioned is the study that suggests persistent, if unconscious and not ill-intentioned, discrimination about black applicants for jobs (that decent people might, without realizing it, be influenced by subconscious prejudiced assumptions is hardly a news flash, is it?) However, interestingly enough, he didn't mention the implications this might have for affirmative action -- which has been sort of a hot topic lately, and which some of his OxBlog cohorts have not exactly been quiet about. Interesting.

Sunday, February 02, 2003

By the way, I wonder what you think, Jacob, of Vaclav Havel's support for the US's war on Iraq?

And, as this is Havel's last day as President of the Czech Republic, it seems a good time to irrelevantly but sincerely express my admiration for one of the great world figures, and great human beings, of our time -- and certainly the greatest human being to also be a head of state. I dislike prophecy, but I both hope and believe that when in the future the world looks back on the 20th century (assuming of course that there are people left to look back on it), Havel will stand out as a representative of decency and humanity, combined (all too unusually!) with success, all too rare in a dark time, and all the brighter for it.

There, that's my sentimental wallow for the day.

And, once again, Jacob misses the point (though he makes a very good one, with which I entirely agree, about Marxism and structuralism. Note, though, that I never edorsed either -- merely endorsed one line of Marx, which is very different from endorsing a Marxist approach to history).
Yes, having stronger grass-roots politics is a good thing for the health of genuine democracies -- though it is not I think necessary to it (we can of course quibble over what democracy means. The pure definition, of course, is a system in which the people are actually the government; but this doesn't exist, on a national level, anywhere in the modern world, so far as I know. So, I take democracy to mean a system in which the people have a say in what the government does, and, if they don't like what the government does, can work to change it by throwing out the government. Jacob, on the other hand, seems to view democracy as a matter of popular movements [and note that, while he denies equating democracy with the existence of left-wing parties, all the movements he cites are left-wing, and sometimes quite far-left. Where's America First, the Populists, the Know-Nothings, the Klan, the John Birch Society -- 'grass-roots' movements all, or aren't they? Well, some of them are pretty dubious, I admit. ] Still, I don't see that this is necessarily the case. Indeed, much of classical democratic theory associates democracy with the overcoming, rather than the thriving, of partisan, factional groups, in favor of the triumph of teh common good. Not a view that I subscribe to, but worth mentioning before we claim the title democracy for our own vision of how democratic politics ought best to work.)

However, this is to me a subsidary point. So is the one Jacob makes about democratization in other countries being more likely if the Left is in charge. Alas, would that it were so. Yet this is not wholly the case. Certainly, democratization against right-wing governments is more likely if America, and other influential nations, aren't controlled by those in sympathy with such governments (as the history of Latin America over the past half-century demonstrates all too powerfully). On the other hand, it was Reagan who through his policies and rhetoric did more to encourage the fermentation and ultimately triumph of democratic opposition in Eastern Europe than any other US president; and it may well be George Bush who brings the first flickering of democracy (if not much more than that) to Afghanistan and Iraq.

But, as I say, that's also besides the paramount point. The point is whether the thriving of a particular sort of 'movement' democracy is of equal importance to establishing the basic principles and practices of liberal democracy -- rule of law, protection of individual rights against the state, and some form of accountability of the government to the governed -- in countries that are ruled through terror and violence. Which, as I said, is where I don't merely have a somewhat cooler attitude towards Jacob's pet enthusiasms, but rather just don't understand his view of the world at all.

I realized I never responded to Josh's brush with British anti-Americanism. Reminds me of Barcelona: "You can't say Americans are not more violent than other people." "No." "All those people killed in shootings in America?" "Oh, shootings, yes. But that doesn't mean Americans are more violent than other people. We're just better shots."

Weird. On the IMDb Barcelona page, they recommend Mister Roberts. Mister Roberts is indeed an excellent movie, but I fail to see the connection with Barcelona, other than that they both involve characters who are in the US Navy. Huh?

Well, in my mind, that's just the problem with Marxist (and other structuralist) theories of history. Yes, people make decisions in circumstances not of their own choosing. But by emphasizeing those circumstances and the structures in which people make decisions over the people and the decisions, you destroy the agency of those people making decisions. Yes, there has to be a balance between structure and agency, but the problem with Marxists is that they greatly overemphasize structure. I emphasize agency not only because it suits me politically, but because I believe it to better reflect reality.

Once again, Josh completely misunderstands. The point about democracy in already-democratic countries is not that we need viable left alternatives. (Certainly, the issue with the NDP is not a matter of catering to its traditional core constituency, which it does now very well--the new generation of social movement activists are definitely not the traditional constituency of the NDP.) The point is that to achieve true democracy, electoral politics needs to merge with movement politics. I happen to think that the fostering of democracy in places like Iran is less likely if liberal democracies are run by the right, and thus I do think that if we want Iranian democracy to flourish we need the left to control things here. But that wasn't what I was saying. The point is that our democracies will become more democratic if our parties continually remain part of democratic movements. People's movements--truly grassroots (although I dislike that term), sponaneous movements, like the social unionism of the 1930s CIO, like the Seattle Movement, like the true soviets in Civil War Russia before they were crushed by the Bosheviks, perhaps (although I don't know how far I want to push this argument) the radical movements of Civil War England--are the closest things we've got to true democracy. To the extent that we can merge our high politics with these movements, we become more democratic.

The reason I say that it's equally important is that if we don't constantly strive to make our democracies better, we end up with top-down, corporatized "democracies" like what we've got here. It's not only are we less likely to export democracy to repressive states if we don't have a vibrant democracy ourselves. But complacency about our own situation sets in when we worry more about democracy reformers in Iran than here. We drift further and further away from democracy, until we have democratic instituions, some democratic rights, but people with less and less control over their lives, which is the core of democracy.

Connecticut vs. New Jersey. I laughed out loud as Matthew Purdy described the feeble attempts of corrupt Connecticut politicians to beat New Jersey at its own game.

I'm afraid that, once again, I'm going to have to disagree with Jacob -- and, once again, I may lapse into a certain morally brow-beating tone (I'll try not to; sorry if I do.) I don't think that supporting 'real democracy' in democratic countries is 'equally important' to establishing democracy in countries currently under the thumb of repressive totalitarian or, in the case of Iran, theocratic rule.

Several problems with what Jacob says. A more minor one is the apparent assumption that 'real democracy' at home means 'political parties continuing to adhere to my own political ideology.' For a moment I thought Jacob was going to talk about the surveilance state John Ashcroft would like to establish, or the detention of Muslim Americans without charges being made (though these are really more subversions of liberal constitutionalism than democracy), or the fact that Britain is currently a de facto one-party state (though Britain may soon have a genuine opposition once again -- Tony Blair's government vs. the Labour party). But no; the problem is the NDP may be moving to the right (which, you'll notice, does seem to work for leftist parties as far as getting elected goes.) Now, this may be a bad thing in itself; but is it a subversion of democracy? At this point I have to conclude that I'm either not getting the point, or that Jacob is using the term democracy in a way that I don't understand. To me, subverting democracy means not allowing people to vote, or overturning their votes in favor of having issues decided by non-elected officials (think the Supreme Court deciding the Presidential election in 2000, or Blair's attempt to make the House of Lords an all-appointed body -- one of the things which may return Britain to being a country with a genuine opposition), or, to a lesser degree, giving some people so much political power that it subverts the one-person, one-vote principle (as happens, in effect, with campaign finance). It doesn't mean political parties adjusting their message and policies to appeal to more voters. Indeed, such adjustments are a consequence of democracy.

Ok, so much for line of objection number one. Now, number two. No, Jacob, it's not equally important. And I do mean not equally. Having a left-wing alternative is, I agree, a good thing. Having a fully fair, functioning democracy that works along rightly democratic lines, without inconsistencies and corruption, is a good thing (except for when such inconsistencies are necessary or valuable -- but that gets us into a whole other facet of political theory). But it is far more important, far more morally imperative, to promote even a minimal level of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in countries where people don't have the luxury of complaining that there isn't a suffuciently left-leaning party on offer ...

Oh, I give up. It's just too hard to try to express what to me seems so obvious, so vital, and which you seem not to see at all -- that there are countries where human beings live in fear all the time, where human life and liberty and dignity count for nothing -- no, where they are deliberately and brutally suppressed. Where, to paraphrase Orwell, boots stomp on the human face constantly, and will go on stomping on it. And this is not on the same level as New Labour being too managerial, or the NDP not giving enough weight to its core leftwing constituency -- though these are serious problems too, which we should also care about, and over which we have greater control, which we shouldn't hesitate to exercise. But to put promoting one's own vision and preferences for electoral politics at home, and promoting the recognition of the most basic human rights abroad, on the same level, to give each the same priority, and same moral standing? I just don't understand Jacob. I'm sorry, I just don't.

The NYT also has a piece on Paul Weller! Though I'd quibble with their characterization of The Jam's sound: my impression isn't so much power-pop, and they leave out the key and at times preponderant (indeed, at times overwhelming) influence of '60s British pop bands, especially the Mod-leaning ones, such as the Small Faces, the Who, and the Kinks (also the Beatles, of course, but less so).

An interesting piece, which says nothing new but goes over old debates reasonably, on attempts to understand Hitler by 'humanizing' him.

To me, this whole argument is a non-starter: OF COURSE we should try to understand Hitler, and in doing so, consider all the information about him that we have (and also discount all the non-information about him that we imagine we have, but don't). Hitler was a human being, and denying this fact, or ignoring it, or trying to cover up his character in a shroud of darkness in order to turn it into some sort of holy and powerful and frightening mystery, is rank obscurantism. The reality is quite powerful and frightening enough. And the goal of history ought not to be to perpetuate myths (including myths that serve particular interests or speak to particular sensibilities), but to allow us to think and understand in the light, and not blindly in the dark.

That said, I'm a bit disturbed by the avenues down which so many attempts to explain Hitler travel. The film 'Max', which I've not yet seen but want to, sounds like it avoids this. But, 'The Pink Fuhrer'? This is more interesting as a reflection of the sexualization of everything in our culture, than as an insight into Hitler. Of course, Hitler's sexual development should be inquired into and taken into account in seeking to understand him (although, as Rosenbaum suggests in the book cited, to fully 'understand' Hitler is, ultimately, impossible. Which does not mean we should stop short of trying to.) But that seems to me a far less important and fruitful topic of research than his ideological and, yes, aesthetic development, about which interesting work has recently been done (and which the film Max, apparently, does deal with).

Well said about the importance of the study of history, Jacob -- though I would add that another one of things history does is remind or teach us that often our actions don't accomplish what we think they will, that consequences are unpredictable, and that, while we do have the power to make history, we must make it in -- and within the limitations set by -- conditions not of our choosing (wow, I'm quoting Marx against your more Herzenian position -- this is WEIRD!) It also reminds us just how complicated the world is, and always has been. So that, along with a reminder of our responsibility for contributing to making history, it fosters a certain saving skepticism about our own intentions, our own goals, and how those intentions and goals will fare in the world.

Speaking of Doc Searls, he links to a rather amusing speech that John Ashcroft gave in 1997. It's prophetic title: "Keep Big Brother's Hands Off the Internet."

What to do about copyright? Perhaps the first thing to do is wrest it away from the corporate types who insist on calling in "intellectual property." Over at the American Open Technology Consortium, Doc Searls argues that we need to stop thinking of copyright as a matter of property rights. As Larry Lessig summarizes, "The battle [over copyright extensions that was recently lost in the Supreme Court] sounded like a battle for and against property. On such a simple scale, it was clear how the majority of the Court would vote. Not because they are conservative, but because they are Americans. We have a (generally sensible) pro-property bias in this culture that makes it extremely hard for people to think critically about the most complicated form of property out there — what most call 'intellectual property.' To question property of any form makes you a communist." I of course quibble with Lessig's characterization of our property fetish as "generally sensible," but the point about intellectual "property" is the same regardless of what you think about property. (I also quibble with Lessig's characterization of Edward Rothstein as a "traditionally leftist social commentator," but that's another issue entirely.) Ideas, art, and such, are utterly unlike any other kind of property we have. I don't rent Mickey Mouse (or Beethovan's Ninth, or Josh's ideas on Isaiah Berlin)--I can't see him and then forget about him when my turn to use him is up. Every other kind of property is alienable--I can be divested from it, sell it, leave it--ideas, not being objects, don't work this way. Indeed, the very notion of intellectual property is pretty new. (An interesting piece on this is Martha Woodmansee's chapter on on "Genius and the Copyright" in her The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics.)

Of course, as Polanyi demonstrates, it wasn't always obvious that time (labor), money, or land could be comoditized, either. This is tangential, but it gets to the excuse I'm working up for why the study of history is politically important. It's a trite slogan, but another world is possible, and by studying history, we denaturalize things (like the comoditization of land, money, time, and ideas) and see how save for specific and not necessarily determined events, a very different world would have occured. In doing that, we can imagine a future world which is shaped by those decisions we make today.

Josh is right. Those of us who care about democracy do need to root for democracy advocates in nondemocratic countries. But equally important to democracy (and I do mean, equally) is for us to support real democracy in democratic countries. Can we really expect democracy to flourish abroad if we continue to allow the subversion of democracy at home? That's why I'm watching what happens with the NDP carefully. A left party has two choices: either move right (like New Labour) or try to merge with the exciting social movements that have energized the left. In Canada, the NDP has just elected as federal leader a man who says he's dedicated to the latter course. Unlike the Greens in the US, the NDP has the institutional support of the Canadian labor movement, which is something that was rather lacking in the Greens' national campaigns. I'll be watching to see if if the NDP is successful in getting more seats in parliament as they try to bring in a new generation of the left.

This is one weird country I'm in.

Jim Sleeper has an article in Dissent.
It makes some interesting, thought-provoking points. It is also written with more drama than cogency, and is just plain weird in places -- I'm not sure if Sleeper has worked out, or was fully aware of, all the suggestions, implications and resonances in the piece. I'm also not sure if he gets all, or indeed much, of what he's talking about right. As for the style, tastes will differ, but I would have been happier had Jim sacrificed a bit in feeling, poetry, and humor for greater clarity and lucidity. Because, frankly, the humor doesn't really work, and the poetry isn't really that poetic.

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