Saturday, June 07, 2003

HER FATHER'S VOICE: Here we go again.
There have been a number of debates and controversies surrounding Leo Strauss over the years; but none of them have received so much attention as the recent spate of articles suggesting -- based on the flimsiest of analyses -- that Strauss was the mastermind behind the ideology, and policies, of the American neo-cons currently having such a strong impact on US foreign policy.
There have been a number of criticisms of this 'Straussian cabal' theory -- including one or two or six on this site. The latest, however, is of special interest, since it's by Jenny Strauss Clay -- Leo's (adopted) daughter, and a professor of classics at UVA. (Thanks to reader RS for the link).
Prof. Strauss Clay well convey's Strauss's modest temperament, intellectual passion, devoted love for and cultivation of his students, and peculiar, but powerful, charm. She also points out that, while Strauss respected and sought to foster respect for, and greater understanding of, political life, he himself in many ways an un-political (though not apolitical) man -- a far cry from the image one might draw from recent media coverage of a powerful, ambitious, Machiavellian schemer, his tentacles expanding, even in death, through the highest reaches of the US government.
Prof. Strauss Clay also defends, as her father's greatest legacy, the method of studying the 'great books' that he practiced, urged, and taught. Having agreed with her thus far, I here have to dissent a little. I've already stated my respect for Strauss's own accomplishments as an interpreter, so I don't think I need to stress here that my reservations about his methodology are respectful ones. But they are strong, and thus far insurmountable (which means, I suppose, that I won't be landing a job in the DOD anytime soon ...) [Note to conspiratorially minded readers: that was a JOKE.] As Prof. Strauss Clay says, Strauss always said that the student of political philosophy should seek to "understand the author as he understood himself." Now, I have two problems with this goal, as put into practice by Strauss and his students. The first is that it's impossible -- or, at any rate, rather more complicated than Strauss's rhetorical declaration suggests; the second is that Strauss and his students go about it the wrong way (I'm here overstating things rather a lot; hopefully the explanation below will make the qualifications on these assertions clear).
What does it mean to understand an author as he (or she -- not that Strauss studied any women writers, but some of his students have) understood himself? It is not at all clear simply from that statement. From Strauss's actual approach, it would seem to mean understanding the author's intentions and motivations -- what he wanted to convey, how he came to decide to convey it in a particular way, how he hoped to have what he wrote read. This is all good and, as an intellectual historian, I'm all in favour of it. And I think that the attention of Straussian scholars to design, motivation, and intent are all both proper, and valuable -- especially in the contemporary academy (this is, indeed, one of the things that has so often attracted me to the work, and company, of Straussians).
But we should be clear about something: it is both impossible, and undesirable, to share the author's understanding of himself -- for we know too little to do so, and know too much to not do more. We can't understand the author as he understood himself, because we're not the author -- it is impossible to get entirely inside the author's head, and leave our own concerns behind. But we can, and I think should, come to understand HOW the author understood himself -- that is, try to reconstruct the author's thinking, and the influences behind that thinking -- his intellectual development, his attitude towards his own times, how his ideas emerged out of his life, and also what he missed, and why -- what blinders he laboured under, what he omitted to see or to mention, how he saw and realized some of the intellectual possibilities before him, and failed to see or realize others. The difference between sharing, and understanding, an author's consciousness of his own thought is, I think, a subtle but crucial one, but not one that Strauss, to my knowledge, explicitly makes or addresses.
To approach an understanding of how an author thought -- the understanding of another person, different from ourselves, always partly opaque to us, and yet visible to us in a way that she was invisible to herself, and whom we can therefore understand with the benefit of distance as well as of empathy, while never fully capturing her innermost depths, which will always be at least partly invisible and lost to our sight -- seems to me to call for a historical, as well as textual, approach. Strauss was a great critic of 'historicism' -- the idea (among other things) that one must understand individuals and phenomena through reference to their historical context. Strauss's opposition to historicism is in many ways salutary, especially as a counter-balance to rival schools of thought in the history of ideas -- such as Quentin Skinner and the 'Cambridge School's historicism, which claims that we can understand authorial intent, but never motivation -- what an author was trying to say, but not why, and which tends all too often to reduce individual thinkers to nothing more than figures within a network of historically-situated 'discourse'. (As one might be able to tell, I have problems with Skinner's approach, but that's a subject for a different post, so I won't get too far into it here).
I think that Strauss and his pupils are right, against Skinner, in holding that we can, and should, seek to understand motivation as well as intent, and that in doing so we shouldn't limit ourselves to reconstructing patterns or systems or topics of discourse prevailing in a particular society at a particular time, but should also explore the inner world of the author, through a close study of his writings.
But I think that this should be accompanied by a close study of the author's times, of the intellectual, social, cultural, political, and economic background that influenced, or formed, the author's thinking, imposing certain horizons and provoking certain insights -- and also at the author's own life, both public and private, his or her personal commitments and feelings -- that is, the psychological/biographical dimension. We should, in interpreting an author, start with the text -- but not limit ourselves to, or remain bound in, the text.
Too often, it seems to me, Strauss and his pupils have produced highly ingenuous, provocative, fascinating, compelling interpretations -- which, when held up to such historical evidence, whether personal-biographical or social-cultural-intellectual, seem highly dubious, and sometimes frankly ridiculous. (Want an idea of what I mean? Just mention Strauss's reading of Locke to a historically-oriented Locke scholar familiar with the discoveries about Locke's development, political engagement, religious belief, and historical circumstances that have been made over the past half-century. If nothing else, watching Locke scholars turn red and start foaming at the mouth is always fun.)
So, that, in short, is why I'm not a Straussian myself, and am a bit dubious about much of the work done by Straussians on the history of ideas (well, it also has something to do with the uncomfortable sense I get that Strauss and many of his students impose their own set of concerns and orienting ideas onto the thinkers they study, and that Strauss's critical and highly abstract and Idealist perception of Modernity is both historically somewhat fanciful and simplified, and distorts his historical vision, and that of his students. Then there's the elitism and conservatism that do seem to characterize some admirers of Strauss, though I don't think those are really intellectual objections per se, nor am I sure how inherent they are to Strauss's project). At the same time, much of Strauss and his students' work is very good; sometimes he and they are able to offer striking and compelling new insights into the riches of what has come to seem a familiar and fusty text, and even when probably wrong, it's suggestive and provocative (this is true of his studies of ancient political philosophy, but also of the moderns from Rousseau to Nietzsche). And Strauss and the Straussians' studies of Medieval and Early Modern political philosophy -- Miamonides, Al Farabi, Spinoza, Hobbes, possibly Machiavelli, though not, in my opinion, Locke -- are in most cases really good, and indispensible to understanding those authors' political thought, even if one doesn't finally agree.
Which is why, ultimately, I agree with Jenny Strauss Clay that her father was a great teacher: for a teacher is not someone you necessarily agree with, but someone who makes you, and helps you to, think -- and to think anew, think again, and think more deeply.

REVERSE MIGRATION: You know, when Jews flee to GERMANY to escape anti-semitism, you know something has gone very, very wrong somewhere. (Courtesy OxBlog)

FREE AUNG SAN SUU KYI!: David Adesnik calls on bloggers to say something about the arrest of dissident leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi by the repressive military dictatorship of Myanmar -- of which, according to 80% of its people, and most international observers, Ms. Suu Kyi ought to be the leader.
Dave -- and the rest of the OxBloggers -- are right that this is an outrage that we should all do something to expose, condemn, and seek to undo (and which the US government ought to make much louder noises about). He's also right to indicate the pettiness of much of the blogosphere's concerns -- prefering to crow over the ouster of a controversial NY Times editor than to attack real injustice and suffering. At the same time, I'm not sure how much good any of us will actually do here -- I doubt that the 'government' of Myanmar is concerned with the opinions of a bunch of Western liberal blog-wonks.
But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't say anything. I rather suspect that, in terms of affecting actual policy, all of what I write here, and much of what my more prominent and incisive colleagues write, doesn't carry all that much weight. But, if we are going to continue speaking our minds, we ought certainly to speak up when it matters, and when we have a moral responsibility to do so -- regardless of what our chances for achieving anything are.
And who knows -- one day we might even be pleasantly surprised.

Friday, June 06, 2003

COMBINING THOUGHT AND -- AHEM! -- PRAXXXIS: Josh Chafetz has posted his (and his stuffed chimp Waldorf's -- yes, Josh is both that cute, and that weird) picks for the best (worst) political theory pickup lines. My favourite, of course, is the second Berlin pickup line -- why didn't I think of that? -- though Brett Marston earns some sort of prize for his Strauss/Walzer double-punch. Kevin Drum and David provide possibly the most vulgar (by which I mean laugh-out-loud funny -- and also vulgar) entries. Meanwhile, Jacob Levy very sensibly points to some of the genuinely great sources of pickup lines in the history of political thought (though he doesn't mention either The Symposium, or the Arendt-Heidegger correspondence -- but I guess he was talking about GOOD pickup lines. Though, as great a fondness as I have for the beautiful romance that was John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill's relationship [and pooh to you for saying otherwise, Gertrude Himmelfarb and F.A. Hayek!], I'm not sure if I would call their ardent, high-minded missives a model or mine for pick-up lines).
Jacob still more sensibly urges Josh to get some sleep. His words are an inspiration to us all -- or at least for all of us who are dorky insomniac procrastinators named Josh.

MORE ON DERRIDA AND HABERMAS: Brett has a post on his own thoughts on Derrida and Habermas's statement of principles for a European foreign policy, which includes a response to my own comments. I'm going to have to mull over his comments, as well as Habermas's (as Brett says) far 'meatier' article in the Hindu, before I comment further. For the moment, I can say that after a second, and third, careful reading of Brett's original translation of the Habermas-Derrida statement, I don't find it at all objectionable -- I do find it somewhat vague, thin, and not wholly convincing, but I also think that their call for a critical examination of Europe's heritage in order to develop a self-conscious European sense of identity and values is certainly admirable. And I've no problem with the idea of a less militarily aggressive, less market-obsessed, less unilateralist counter-balance to US power -- au contraire. But I do remain sceptical about the existence and possibility of a single 'European' morality, culture, and policy -- and about the ability of Habermas and Derrida to effect the formation of such a thing, at least at this point, and through what they've said so far. But, I need to think about it more; and further thought, on my part and theirs, may make things look very different to me.

READER RESPONSE GETS RESULTS!: Recently, I received a response to some of my posts from a reader, RV, in Nice, France (oh yeah -- international readership, baby!)I appreciated receiving the feedback -- as I always do -- and tried to respond to RV's points, as is my policy -- until, having been called a 'prattling, self-righteous gringo', or words to that effect, a few too many times, I decide I was wasting my time and RV's by responding.
However, I do feel that, out of respect for the issues RV raised in his e-mails (if not his way of raising them), I should address them on this blog.
RV's main bone of contention with me was about my condemnation of Fidel Castro and his defenders. RV made some good points -- that Castro has done some good things, both internally and internationally (for instance, opposing apartheid; of course, RV didn't mention Castro's aggressive role in almost bringing about a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but, ah well, some memories are short ...), and that the US has supported many awful regimes and terrorist organizations in other Latin American nations, such as Guatemala. RV pointed out that, while condemning Castro, I hadn't condemned these other, U.S-backed regimes. Well, there are an awful lot of evil regimes around to condemn -- and I tend not to write about the ones that don't enjoy considerable support among many Western intellectuals who should know better -- but RV's right, I should certainly condemn right-wing and US-backed dictators and terrorists as well as Left-wing and anti-US ones. So I now do so: all terrorists and dictators and others who kill or imprison or terrorize innocent people are bad. There.
But RV also praised Castro, claimed that the Cuban people are much happier than Americans, accuses the US of jealousy, as well as seeking to impose our own values (by which I guess he means democracy, human rights, civil liberties, etc.) on the poor people of Cuba (he also, oddly, accused me of being a Lieberman supporter and a champion of market capitalism. Now, my one comment about Lieberman was less than admiring -- 'somehwat better than Bush, but not much'. As for market capitalism, I do think some amount of it would probably be good for the flagging Cuban economy, but I don't really care that much what economic policy the Cuban people adopt, so long as they're allowed some choice in the matter and are allowed to change their minds. Also, as it happens, I consider myself a social democrat, albeit a wimpy one, and have even voted for the Socialist Party USA on one occasion -- so I'm not exactly a Milton Friedmanite!)
But, enough about me. What about Cuba? Have I really gotten the situation there so wrong? As RV quite rightly points out, I've never been to Cuba, so probably shouldn't make any assertions about what life is like there -- and, therefore, perhaps shouldn't pass judgment on the Cuban regime (though I'm not sure about that. I was never in apartheid South Africa, nor the pre-Civil Rights movement US South, but I still feel comfortable, if not terribly original or insightful, in regarding them as bad socieites.)
Here, another response, from my friend EJ, becomes relevant:
I was in Cuba two years ago, mostly visiting schools and hospitals .... You can look outside the windows of the schools and see 4-8 year old children reaping sugarcane in 105 degree heat to "pay" for their "free" education. In the hospitals, the conditions are abominable. Each one has a separate "foreigners wing" that's plush compared to the hospitals the Cubans have access too--and the "foreigners wings" would hardly pass for a homeless shelter in the US. Every restaurant has a "No Cubans allowed" policy. We'd eat dinner inside, and little kids would press their hands and faces to the windows until they were shooed away by the waiters. We were with Cuban students, and couldn't go to the beach because they weren't allowed on it ... In the parks, you couldn't take out a baseball for fear you'd get trampled by a mob of children. Every street corner is manned by a policeman to prevent Cuban citizens from talking to tourists and letting them know the hell they're living in
By the end of the trip, I could understand why people throw themselves into the ocean to escape that oppression. The most unsettling thing is that the students and teachers we were with, as well as the places we visited, were all pre-selected by the government. I can't imagine what's under the surface we saw.

My correspondent also recommended that RV read Armando Valladares' book Against All Hope (which I myself haven't. I can, however, recommend a different book by the same name, by Hermann Langbein, about resistance in the Nazi deathcamps.)
So, who to believe? Having not been to Cuba, I don't know. What I do think I know is that Fidel has made criticism of his reign a crime and jails dissidents, that critics of the regime are subjected to surveilance and kept from communicating with foreigners, that in Cuba there are no safeguards on state power, and that many Cubans seem to prefer risking death to flee the country than remaining in Castro's workers' paradise -- and that many of those whohave made it out have published horrific and blistering accounts of their experiences (And one doesn't have to be a right-winger to see this -- as this admirable petition by members of the 'democratic Left' [including my fellow blogger and friend Jeremy Reff!] makes clear) (Links via ALDaily.)
But, hey -- maybe all these jailed dissidents and desperate refugees are a bunch of capitalist stooges.
Yeah. And maybe all the people detained in Ashcroft's post 9/11 crackdown were Al Quaeda operatives. But I don't think so.
I also know -- and here, for once, my limited fund of scholarly knowledge actually comes in -- that defenses and eulogies remarkably similar to those offered by RV and other apologists for Fidel were very common amng Western apologists for the USSR from the 1930s on (e.g. the Webbs' now classic work of self-delusion, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization, as well as pretty much all coverage of the USSR in The New Republic, and most of it in the NY Times, throughout the 1930s, as well as E.H Carr's [unsigned] editorials in the London Times in the early 1940s and reviews in the TLS in the '50s); and I understand that there was similar admiration for Mao's China -- including the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward -- among some Western Leftists in the 1960s, though in those cases I haven't read any of them myself. This makes me suspicious of the latest round of paeans for today's longest-serving Communist despot.
RV also attacks me for having the audacity to condemn such august figures as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And, indeed, I shouldn't condemn Marquez, or his fellow signatories, tout court -- many of them (such as Ariel Dorfman), are quite aware of the evils of Castro's regime, and have criticized them in the past -- they just are also opposed to the US's aggressive stance towards Cuba. And, of course, Marquez is a great artist.
But I don't think that a Nobel Prize ought to offer a moral blank cheque, or that one should exempt people from criticism because they have exhibited genius and profundity in one field of endeavour. And I think that one can, and should, oppose US policy in such a way as to avoid seeming to offer a defense of injustice and oppression, which can be used by the oppressors to justify their crimes.
Ultimately, I think that RV's attacks on me, and the defense of Cuba that I originally criticized, aren't really about Cuba at all -- they're about America, about fearing, distrusting, and even hating America. I think that the fear and distrust are to some extent justified, though I think that, in these cases, they over-step the line into alarmism and even, perhaps, hysteria -- though perhaps I'm wrong; and I can understand, even as I disagree with, the hatred. But, surely, one can not like the current rulers of the US, or US policy in Latin America -- and can still also recognize the evils of Castro's regime? Why must opposing teh US mean embracing it's enemies, and turning a blind eye on their crimes (an especially objectionable thing to do given that many of the same people, rightly, point out that opposing teh US's enemies shouldn't lead us to let ourselves ignore the US's crimes).
Ultimately, what bothers me most is that so many self-professed friends of the Cuban people, and self-righteous opponents of US condescension and manipulation, should be so willing to ignore the plight of the Cuban people, and use them as symbols and pawns, in their campaign against the US.
If one doesn't like the US, fine; there's much to dislike about it,and offering criticism of its errors and crimes is good and necessary. But please -- please -- have the decency not to drag the Cuban people into it as a rhetorical ploy, justifying their misery and mistreatment as a way of getting back at the hated Yankees.
There. I now think I've addressed the points raised by RV's messages to me; I'm grateful to him for making me reconsider these issues, and further articulate my thoughts and feelings on them.
NOTE ON POLICY TO READER RESPONSES: I generally welcome feedback from readers, and I'll do my best to respond to your comments -- and to do so in a substantial, respectful way (assuming, of course, that there's anything substantial or deserving of respect to respond to; my policy is to ignore, or briefly write back explaining why I'm going to ignore, invective and ad hominem attacks that don't make any substantive arguments). I may from time to time, as now, respond to reader comments (without naming the readers to whom I'm responding) on the blog itself, without securing the reader's permission; but I will only quote from readers' messages with permission, and will protect their anonymity in doing so, unless they specity otherwise -- and I'll remove quotes from, though not necessarily references to, readers' messages if asked.

FOREIGN A.I.D.: I always feel a certain frisson when I see people I know and like quoted in the NY Times. When I happen to actually know some of those people fairly well, and there's an article devoted entirely to them -- well, it's never happened before, but now it's pretty mind-blowing.
But that's not the most mind-blowing thing for me about this article on Americans for Informed Democracy (AID), an organization composed of American (mainly grad) students here at Oxford. What impresses, and bemuses, me the most is that the AID portrayed in this article, and the AID I know, are rather different.
From what the Times tells you, you might think AID is an organization devoted to improving relations between the US and the rest of the world. And you'd be right. But from this you might conclude that the folks at AID are concerned to champion the US. Now, the article notes that AID leaders such as Seth Green and David Tannenbaum (Declaration: I consider both Seth and David good friends of mine, and like them both immensely -- which is one reason why I single them out) are concerned with showing that not all Americans are a bunch of gun-waving, oil-grubbing, darker-skinned-people-exploiting cowboys. Which may be something that many people the world over don't realize (sigh), so it's good that someone is working to demonstrate it.
But the article does tend to underplay just how far AID goes in criticizing American policy. While one member claims that the majority of AID's members supported the war on Iraq, AID's leadership vocally opposed it (and engaged in a public, as well as, I understand, a number of semi-public and private, debates with the leaders, and some members, of the Oxford Democracy Forum over the issue). And it also seems -- though again, this is secondhand -- that many members of AID have been reluctant to join OxDem (to which I belong) because they associate(d) OxDem with the pro-war position (even though OxDem wasn't officially pro-war -- anymore than AID was officially anti-war). So, this claim strikes me as a tad disingenuous, even if true.
Furthermore, improving America's image abroad is only one of AID's aims -- and, from what I can tell, not it's primary one. Seth, the heart and soul of AID, has written that AID's goal is
to educate Americans at home about world opinions, with the hopes of inspiring a more multilateral American foreign policy. We also promote international goodwill toward the U.S. by highlighting Americans’ interest in foreign perspectives. Through these efforts, we hope to inspire a more globally engaged America as well as a world ready to embrace American involvement in world affairs.
Now, note that Seth (who I take to be the primary author of this statement, though it's in AID's name) first puts forward the goal of trying to urge a more multilateral foreign policy on Americans -- and only after adds that AID seeks to promote goodwill towards the US. Now, I'm a strong believer that organizations can pursue more than one goal -- and indeed ought to. But all that I've seen of AID's activities, as well as the way in which their purpose is here stated, seems to prioritize the former goal, however dedicated they are to the second. Which is perfectly fine -- I don't want to sound like I'm criticizing them for it. I'm not.
I just think you'd never realize this from the Times article.
The rest of AID's statement, which I strongly recommend that you read, follows the opening paragraph in emphasizing the widespread ignorance and lack of understanding of the rest of the world on the part of Americans. From this statement, AID does come across as a group dedicated to educating Americans, and promoting a particular sort of foreign policy on the part of America -- and a particular sort of attitude -- internationalist, broad-minded, self-critical -- on the part of Americans. It doesn't say very much about anti-Americanism, to which it devotes one paragraph. Yet the Times article's headline, and much of the article itself, suggest that AID is largely concerned with combatting anti-Americanism.
This doesn't do justice to AID -- nor is it to either their, or the Times', credit, in different ways.
Ok. So that's my problem with the Times article. Now what, you might ask, and would be justified in asking, do I think of AID itself?
First of all, obviously, I'm all in favour of international understanding, and seeking to educate Americans about the rest of the world and the rest of the world about America (would I adopt the British spelling of favour if I wasn't?). I also think it's an excellent, and important, thing for Americans to criticize US policy -- and to do so in a way that shows the rest of the world that not all Americans are alike (though, if the rest of the world doesn't realize that already, I think it's the fault of more than just the media or the Bushies). I agree with many of the criticisms of the US articulated by members of A.I.D., and respect their arguments even when I'm not convinced by them.
And yet, though AID is based here in Oxford, and I know many of its members, I'm not a member of it. Why not?
Well, I'm not entirely sure, really. I've asked myself, and I've thought about joining them.
But something's stopped me: the feeling that, here in Oxford, there are already quite enough organizations, and quite enough individuals, often in positions of some prominence, devoting themselves to criticizing American society and policy -- sometimes well and sometimes poorly, sometimes justly and sometimes unjustly. I'm not sure how much I think we need another voice joining this chorus --even if it does speak with a Yank accent. And I'm not sure if, when so many others are already saying these things, I want to add my own voice to the chorus.
Thus far, AID's criticisms of the US have sounded more loudly to me than it's other statements. That may just be due to where I'm sitting, and, with the war with Iraq a moot point, it may be that AID will go on to pursue projects that I can wholeheartedly join in. We'll see. But for the time being, I'm reserving my judgment -- and keeping a bit of critical distance.
UPDATE: Today I got the following e-mail announcement, forwarded from AID:
'What are Americans thinking?'
This Friday, Americans for Informed Democracy (AID) is hosting an
international student discussion on the content and influence of U.S.
media coverage. Please come, express your opinion, and see samples of
American news including:
-- An interview with the inventor of the 'freedom fry'
-- A Fox News talk show with neoconservative Richard Perle
-- Reporting from Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network

I'm not sure what the discussion will be like; but from the summary of the news items they'll be showing, I feel that the event's purpose isn't to improve America's image.

Thursday, June 05, 2003

MORE TOP-NOTCH BLOGGING FROM THE OXBLOG BOYS: Josh Chafetz -- freeing himself, it would seem, from the chains of studying for his exams, and the sinister, svengali-like influence of his stuffed chimp Waldorf -- has posted a blistering indictment of Charles Taylor (that's Charles Taylor the muderous terrorist thug who rules Liberia, not Charles Taylor the warm-and-fuzzy-and-brilliant Canadian philosopher).
Now, one's tempted to say -- so what? Isn't pointing out that people who lead crack-fed armies of pre-pubescents on cannibalistic rampages are BAD NEWS obvious, like point out that Hitler and Stalin were sorta nasty pieces of work? Well, yes, of course. But when was the last time you read someone pointing out these obvious facts so forcefully and effectively? So, bravo, Josh. Drinks this afternoon are on me.

MEDIA SAVVY: David Adesnik has a terrific post on mass media and it's power to distort the news, and how it affects people -- I highly recommend it.
The post also reveals the devastating effectiveness of the Adesnik-Chafetz-Sachs team. I, alas, cannot aspire to the stature of this fast-thinking, fast-moving trio of media-savvy and erudite whiz-kid warriors; but, happily, I at least have the pleasure of drinking with them fairly regularly -- as I'll be doing in about an hour.
Now, if we could only get Jeremy Reff over to Oxford for a few days, or as long as it takes to exhaust the pubs of Oxford ...

BETTER NEWS FROM THE MIDDLE EAST: Things actually seem to be moving ahead on the 'road map' for peace between Israel and Palestine (even if the Israeli PM still can't bring himself to use the latter word -- more on that in a moment). Bush seems to have actually gotten something done -- aside from just create striking photo ops (though, as the NY Times' coverage reports, he and his people certainly devoted an awful lot of very skillful attention and effort to doing so).
Several thoughts. First, it is notable that the Palestinian PM, Mahmoud Abbas, promised an awful lot more, in stronger language, than Israeli PM Ariel Sharon did. This is all the more striking given that Abbas has a much weaker hold over his own people than Sharon does, and that he faces greater challenges -- for the shaky, historically corrupt, impoverished Palestinian Authority, for control of which Mr. Abbas must vie with Yasser Arafat, to disarm and inhibit, or punish, the terrorists in its midst -- who have the support of much of the Palestinian population, as well as neighbouring nations such as Syria and Iran -- is quite a difficult undertaking. And a risky one, as well (anyone remember the fate of Anwar Saddat?) Sharon, on the other hand, has retreated somewhat from his earlier remarks; he didn't repeat his admission that Israel's rule over the West Bank is an 'occupation', and while he promised to dismantle some of the illegal settlements, he didn't specify how many, or which ones, or how far he'd be willing to go how fast. Given that Mr. Sharon rules a well-established, orderly, democratic state with an impeccable military, and that his traditionally most significant political opponents are both a) utterly routed and b) MORE in favour of these proposals than he is, he shouldn't have that much difficulty dismantling the settlements. The settlers will resist, and that, too, could be a problem (anyone remember the fate of Yitzahk Rabin?); but the IDF can handle them, and from what I can tell the Israeli people seem to be ready to make concessions that are at once promising, sensible, relatively painless, and just.
Another, cynical thought: Sharon, in his controversial talk to his own Likud party, declaring that the Occupation is wrong, refered to it being bad for Israel, for the Palestinians -- and for Israel's economy. I've been pondering this. Could it be that Sharon's hand is being forced, not by any sense of justice, not even or only by a sense of greater trust in Mr. Abbas or security with the fall of Saddam Hussein (though these certainly must be factors in his willingness to move ahead -- and they're due to the firmness and assertiveness of Mr. Bush) -- but by economic reality? First of all, there's the international financial pressure on Israel -- and if Israel's dependable ally, the US, were to use economic carrot-and-stick pressure on Israel's government, our influence on them could be considerable. But there's also the fact that the intifada, and the masochistic if not suicidal commitment to a Greater Israel, has led to an economically damaging pattern of immigration, in which many of the best-educated and most economically productive of Israelis have left the country for the West, while many ultra-Orthodox Jews from the West, with their large families and limited ability or willingness to contribute to Israel's information-technology driven economy (and defense), have poured in. So, ending the intifada and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, retaining or bringing back the Israeli-elite diaspora, reigning in and discouraging the growth of the ultra-Orthodox community, getting increased financial aid from the US and other nations (and perhaps even being able, one day, to scale back somewhat on defense and security spending) -- all this could be very much in Israel's economic interest.
Final note: the Guardian's coverage of all this (I haven't the heart to read the Independent's) is, as one would expect, duly skeptical and pessimistic -- and a bit ridiculously hostile to, and insulting of, Bush. I mean, cut the guy some slack -- he's brought Sharon together with the Palestinian PM, and gotten both to agree to the same ultimate goals, as well as commit to first steps. If this is due to 'naivete', well, let's have some more of it!
UPDATE: Over at OxBlog, Patrick has a very good post on the situation in the Middle East -- he's especially good on the political opposition to, and possible fallout from, this latest step towards peace and justice (including -- who would have guessed? [well, me, of course, hence my harping on it] -- threatening invocations of the fates of Sadat and Rabin, largely by the Israeli far-right.) Patrick also undoubtedly wins the worst pun/title of the day award -- bravo!

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

HABERMAS-DERRIDA UPDATE: Brett Marston now has a translation of Habermas and Derrida's joint statement calling for a European foreign policy (and he promises a response to my own post on the subject, to which I eagerly look forward -- as should we all).
As I feared, Habermas-Derrida's statement isn't exactly a model of limpid and lucid prose -- but one has to make allowances for the very different, and by no means necessarily intellectually inferior, idiom of the German language (especially as employed by philosophers). As an Anglophone, and one largely unimpressed by the claims of obscurity (even when advanced by my estimable friend Len), I still labour under the prejudice, ingested from Menken and Orwell, that clear writing and clear thinking go hand in hand; but this may be a sign of shallowness.
Still, what I get from Brett's (admittedly early and provisional) translation is that Habermas and Derrida (who confuse centrifugal and centripetal) often prefer drama to clarity in their crafting of phrases. They make some interesting, though I think highly contentious (and perhaps tendentious) points -- but it's hard to get at these points and figure out what their implications are, and whether or not they are valid, due to the inflated style of writing. I can't do so quite at the moment, but I'm going to try to devote some time to analyzing what Derrida and Habermas are actually saying here, and try to put into words what I find problematic about it (and I also want to read what Brett has to say in response to what I've said already). So, watch this space.

GETTING PERSONAL: Patrick Belton hiliariously compares the personal adds in the NY and London Reviews of Books ... and finds that Americans tend to be more earnest, 'sensitive', and self-flattering, while Brits tend to be cranky, funny, self-mocking, and bizarre. News flash. Patrick concludes that this makes the Brits better, and Britain a better place to look for love than the US (ah, were it were so for us all ...) What he fails to consider, though, is that the self-advert-ers in the NYRev read the NYRev, while those in the LRB read the LRB. Which makes the choice a bit more complicated. (Declaration: I've fed hungrilly and gratefully off the NYReview for the past 8-9 years, and am a devoted subscriber. As for the LRB, well, it's in the Balliol Middle Common Room, and I read it from time to time, mainly when I say to myself 'Hmm, let's read and see if Edward Said still thinks Israel is a criminal nation ... oh, ok, he does! Right!' This of course isn't quite fair -- the LRB has some very fine stuff from time to time -- but I'd say, generally, the NYRev. is far superior. But then I -- like Patrick, bless him -- am just a nerdy Yank.)

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

EUROPEANS, UNITE! YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT ... Yet again, via the invaluable Brett Marston, a summary of the letter-writing/editorializing campaign by Jurgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty et. al. on behalf of a 'European' foreign policy. Brett helpfully summarizes Derrida and Habermas's points, for those of us who don't read German (he doesn't, however, answer the burning question we're all dying to know -- do Derrida and Habermas write as badly together as they do individually? Or is it twice as bad? Or, somehow, half as bad? And, if they can call on the services of people like Rorty and Umberto Eco to state their case - why don't they?) (Ok, ok, I know not everyone shares my opinions of Habermas and Derrida's styles. I can only quote the quip of one Oxford political theorist, who remarked that Habermas was remarkable for developing something called 'a theory of Communicative Action' 'the main characteristic of which, so far as I can tell, is that it is incapable of being communicated'). According to Brett, Jacques and Jurgen declare that:

Europeans must try to provide "balance" against the "hegemonic unilateralism of the U.S." How precisely this is to be done is not clear, but pressure through international bodies including the U.N. seems to be the main means.

Europeans should aim high: the guiding idea should be the creation of a Kantian "cosmopolitan (world) order on the basis of law." Europeans should take heart at the fact that they have already solved two important modern political problems: supranational political order (through the E.U.) and social justice (through the European welfare state).

WWII taught the Europeans that national sovereignty must sometimes be restricted in order to restrain military power as well ...

The experience of working through decolonization has taught Europeans to adopt a stance of "reflective distance" to their own uses of power. This point of view -- which also allows them space to consider the perspective of the colonized -- should be seen as a critical resource in building a more humane global society.

My own reaction is a bit less sympathetic than Brett's. I think it's certainly a good idea to provide a counter-balance to US power -- as that true and great citizen of Europe, Benjamin Constant, declared, there are some weapons that are too large for even the best hands to hold. But, balancing the US should not be Europe's only, or primary, goal, and it should be pursued wisely with respect both to means, and occasion. Thus far, 'Old Europe' seems to try to thwart the US in ways that are more effective in registering symbolic protest than in actually affecting world events (at least, affecting them for the better), and that often wind up doing more harm than good (witness France and Germany's behaviour over the war on Iraq; even if US policy was wrong-headed and dangerous, I have a hard time believing that Germany and France's stance was either as principled as they claimed, or could or did serve as a force for good -- in fact, I think it made matters worse).
Generally, I think Europe would do well to try to work on behalf of human rights and international law -- rather than just trying to hamper the US no matter what, and regardless of what the actual consequences are.
As for the goal of a Kantian/cosmopolitan world order: it is by now a well-worn trope (of which Derrida, of all people, should be aware) that talk of cosmopolitanism often is just a way of trying to give universal stature, and thus force, to a particular, often parochial, set of values. I think I'd probably like a 'cosmopolitan' -- which in context seems to turn out to mean 'European' -- world order better than the current one. But let's make no mistake about it: what we're talking about here is an attempt to hold up 'Europe's own values and preferences, its own culture and politics, as the model for the world. But there are other values, and other valid approaches; and some of us are a bit less sanguine about Europe's achievments than the self-congratulatory authors (anyone who's spent much time looking at how France, Germany, and the UK treat or talk about immigrants -- or the current threats to Jews in France -- may wonder just how truly cosmopolitan and humane the heart of 'Europe' is. And, as we look at France and Germany's economies, even a sentimental social democrat like myself may have some pause at saying that the European welfare state represents either a final solution to the problem of social justice, or a viable and desirable model for everyone else. As for the European Union as a model of international law -- just take a look at Larry Siedentop's book Democracy in Europe)
I agree that national sovereignty should sometimes be restricted; for instance, I wasn't terribly concerned about the national sovereignty of Iraq under Saddam Hussein; I believe those who were most concerned about it were, to a large extent -- the 'European' community.
Finally, I agree about the virtues of 'reflective distance' towards one's own use of power, and I really wish we in the US had more of it. I also wish that some Europeans were showing more 'reflective distance' towards their own beliefs and agenda. But, then, no-one can be a perfect ironist or world citizen all the time -- not even Richard Rorty, Jurgen Habermas, or Jacques Derrida.
[Declaration: I admire Habermas and Eco tremendously; I also admire Rorty, whose work I know quite the best of the lot, though I have major problems with some of what he says -- but am always impressed and stimulated by the way he says it. As for Derrida, I really cannot say ...]

DEPARTMENT OF INJUSTICE: Brett Marston links to, and comments on, an article in the Washington Post on the Justice Department's detaining of Muslim-American 'suspects' on the wake of 9/11.
Brett's calling the Justice Department's actions a national shame is precisely right. But this goes beyond past injustice: it is a worrying sign pointing to further injustices to come. In light of this internal report, it is impossible to be optimistic about the judgment, restraint, and decency of those entrusted and empowered with enforcing the laws, and protecting the people, of our land.
Particularly shameful, and chilling, is a DOJ spokesperson's response: "We make no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist attacks." Well, it's not at all clear that depriving people of due process rights is legal -- I seem to recall, in fact, a constitutional amendment addressing that. And I would think that, even if it is far from self-evident, there is an arguable case to be made that the treatment of 'potential terrorists' by the DOJ violated their due process rights. I also think that it is, of course, worrisome that the DOJ seems ready to sacrifice all other values to security. In some cases, security should take precedence over all else; and it should always be a primary, if not THE primary, concern. But we should not let fears about security blind us to, or lead us to tolerate, cruel abuses of innocent people's civil rights and liberties. As William Pitt the Younger once declared, expediency has always served as the excuse for the worst crimes of mankind. Well, the DOJ is essentially making an expediency argument; and in this case, it just doesn't cut it.
Finally, need I remind the DOJ and it's mouthpiece that those they detained are members of teh vaunted 'American public'; and that they have a responsibility not only to protect the American public from terrorist attacks by our nation's enemies, but to safeguard them against terrorisation -- including imprisonment in harsh conditions without recourse to legal defense -- by their own government? It appears I do. And this makes me very sorry.
But I shouldn't be the only one who's sorry. The DOJ may not be willing to make apologies to those they've treated so shamefully, but it damn well should, and it's refusal to do so heaps still more shame on it. But someone in our government -- preferably someone at the top -- owes these people an apology -- and owes an apology to the rest of the American people for the offenses committed in our collective name.
Well, we're waiting ...

Sunday, June 01, 2003

Hey gang (well, specifically, Josh),
I thought I should officially let everyone know that I am moving. I was worried about crimping Josh's style, and I had promised a friend that I would create a blog with her during the last election (we both worked for Democratic Candidates for Senate - they both lost). So, if you want to check in on me, look to http://www.livejournal.com/~thedoubled
Josh, I will be dropping by when you least expect it, so don't breathe a sigh of relief yet.
love The Sheriff
P.S. Pathologies of Conservatism OR The Pathology of Conservatism? I guess that would be a whole book.

PATHOLOGIES OF CONSERVATISM: Two posts, one by, one via, the estimable Brett Marston.
First, Brett points out what seems to me obvious, but which seems to escape many seemingly intelligent conservatives (or perhaps they're just so sophisticated they're able to see past the illusory problem that seems so real to Brett and me): that there's a fundamental tension among modern American conservatism's core values (Brett mentions limited government, free markets, and traditional morality).
Now, of course, these needn't NECESSARILY come into conflict. But I think that, in reality, they do tend to: the market tends to be an amoral, indeed morally disruptive, force, while fostering or sustaining traditional morality as conceived of by many American conservatives often involves violating, or at least bending, limitations on government. Obviously, not all those on the American Right are concerned about all of these things equally, and some recognize the tensions, and are willing to sacrifice one or more of these principles -- libertarians are often quite willing to restrain the government from imposing morality (and indeed insist on the importance of doing so more consistently than just about anyone else), while Buchananites are willing to jettison the free-trade dimension of market principles. Still, I think that many conservatives, even intelligent ones, have a tendency to unrealistically suppose that all that they value can be made compatible (of course, liberals and progressives do too; but I'm not concerned with criticizing them -- at least, not today).
Second, Jack Balkin, writing about the bombing at Yale Law School, points out a far more disturbing and objectionable tendency on the part of a very different sort of Right -- the most extreme and hysterical corner of the Right that really does view the culture wars as, well, a war. As he notes, there are many reasons why some nutcase might have set off a bomb in the Yale Law School, and there's no evidence of which we're aware that it was ideologically motivated. And, even if it was, there's no reason to think that it came from the Right -- after all, the far Left is no stranger to terrorism either, and while the Yale Law faculty is heavily liberal, there are some prominent conservatives there as well. But the report Balkin quotes does remind us that there are some pretty intolerant, hysterical folks out there -- and how potentially dangerous the rhetoric of evil, subversion, and disloyalty, and the demonization of one's ideological opponents, can be.

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