Friday, November 21, 2003

BLOG-FIGHT!!!: The main story so far:
Salam Pax, the brilliant blogger of Baghdad, contributes an open letter to George W. Bush in a collection of such things in the Guardian, here (Salam's letter is terrific, and seems to me wholly justified. The collection also includes a contribution from Peter Jay, the former British Ambassador to the US and a very cool man, which is both diplomatic and inspiring; and a positively peurile but mercifully short snide screed from Harold Pinter, a fine writer whose most recent political pronouncements not only flirt with hysteria, but also threaten to do real damage to a well-earned literary reputation.)
Then James Lileks, a blogger whose work I've often had praised to me but which I formerly regretted to say I remain unfamiliar with, responded. (Scroll down; or don't bother) To say that his response was lacking in civility would be an understatement. It was, indeed, a display of over-sensitivity, self-righteousness, national and personal self-absorption and callous disregard for, and also perhaps ignorance of, the sufferings of others. In short, the sort of thing that, if he saw it, would confirm Mr. Pinter in all of his dire and bile-full impressions regarding the American hegemon.
Now, I could go on about what's wrong with Lileks' piece til, well, well past the deadline for the first chapter of my DPhil; but thankfully Dan Drezner has saved me, and no doubt many others, from both the expenditure of time and the ultimately self-defeating and degrading descent into rant and choler by penning a response explaining why Lileks is, I quote, 'Flat-out Wrong'. Dan -- who isn't exactly a 'Pace' flag-waving, America-hating, Bush-bashing peacenik, does a pretty good job, and manages to stay well above Lileks' level (though I do wish he had managed to avoid imitating Lileks' outrageous second sentence -- 'Fuck you.' Cathartic, I know, and richly deserved; but I do think that resorting to that level of personal invective generally lowers the tone of discussion in the blogosphere, undermining attempts at reasoned discourse. Fortunately, the rest of Dan's open letter to Lileks manages to pull no punches while also being sharp, well-informed, well-argued, and free of gratuitous rudeness [there is some perfectly necessary rudeness which manages to keep short of the line of separating the acceptable from the to-be-avoided]).
So, great going, Dan! And keep up the good work, Salam!
And James, um .... never mind.
ADDENDUM: There are also some interesting comments up at Crooked Timber. Commenters Kevin Brennan and archpundit make particularly good points.

A WORTHY CAUSE: The Kay Mason Foundation, about which I've heard through Norm Geras; check out Norm's post for more info, and to see if you'd perhaps like to make a donation.
I've decided to creat a new category of links on the sidebar, of websites of charitable organizations that seem particularly worthy to me. I'm by no means a charitable-organization maven, so I more than welcome suggestions from readers of organizations to add to the (thus far pretty scanty) list.

THE PROTESTS: I was meaning to write about the protests here against GW Bush, but was thrown off by the Instanbul bombings (and prevented from doing so by, um, work). And now I don't really have to, as the main point I would've made has been made far better by Chris at Crooked Timber.
On a personal note: there was a demo in Oxford on Wednesday, which I didn't attend. I did eventually decide that I wanted to go down to take a look at it, just to witness this historic moment in the consciousness of my generation, but when I got there it had just ended; I did see some people trduging away from High Street still carrying placards, as well as a midget who had apparently been taking part. Not the actual protest though. And, not surprisingly, I didn't go down to London yesterday.
Why didn't I go to either of the protests I had an opportunity to go to? Well, first of all, because I really dislike mass movements; to paraphrase the blessed Stephen Maturin, man as part of a movement or a crowd isn't only indifferent to me, but also somewhat off-putting.
This isn't to say that I'm viscerally averse (though not opposed -- there is an important difference between not liking being a part of collective political protests, and disapproving of them) to ALL mass protests; there are times when I feel strongly enough about the moral cause they seek to advance that I think I'd be willing to join in (those times, though, are largely in the past now). But even so, I don't think I'd feel entirely comfortable. Marching in the streets just isn't my thing.
There's also the fact that the protests were directed not only against President Bush -- who I certainly am not averse to expressing disapproval of or dislike for -- but against the war; and though I'm increasingly coming to believe that from most (though not all) perspectives the war is likely to prove to have been a mistake, I do think it's too early to tell; and I also don't see what good is served by protesting something that's already happened. I feel that such protests, to the extent that they have any practical success, are likely only to shake the resolution of the members of the coaltion to keep troops in Iraq -- which is something that at least some of the protestors I've encountered seem to want ('Troops out of Iraq' has appeared on one or two signs I've seen). And I think that's grossly irresponsible and wrong-headed.
And then there's the fact that I'm an American, here in Britain. That makes the act of protesting against my own president, while we're both on foreign soil -- well, it gives it a certain meaning which it wouldn't have otherwise or for others. This is certainly not to advocate a policy of not criticizing one's own nation or leaders when around people from other nations -- a view I've argued against before.
But protesting isn't a way of making reasoned or substantive arguments, in most cases. In this case, it pretty much involves expressing dislike, indeed hatred, and disapproval, indeed moral condemnation, which are in some cases targeted not just at Bush's policies, or even his person, but against the US as a whole. It is true and important to note that the protests are not as a whole anti-American; but there are anti-American individuals and movements involved in the protests, and to join the protests is to associate with them, which is something I'm loathe to do.
And, frankly, I'd feel a bit of a coward protesting against Bush here. I'd feel like I was showing off my anti-Bush creds to the British, and joining in the condemnation of Bush when and where it's easy and even fashionable. And I don't like that thought. If I am going to march in protest against Bush -- which for the reasons already given is unlikely -- I'm going to do so on his and my own soil, where the message I would want to send will be somewhat clearer and where, frankly, it'll take more guts to do than here. (And I'd also only do so, in America, through protests in which certain organizations, such as ANSWER, play no part).
This is not to criticize other Yanks in the UK for participating in the protests; I know several who have, including one of my closest, best, most morally admirable and clear-headed friends (with his Howard Dean placard in hand. Sigh.) This is merely how I feel, and how I regard the symbolism and moral content of my own hypothetical actions.

INSTANBUL: Another bloody attack on civilians in Instanbul, this one targeting the British (and seemingly haven taken the life of Britain's consul-general, Roger Short). Like the recent attacks on two synagogues in the same city, these outrages seem to be the work of al Quaeda, or a similar organization. (Patrick at Oxblog has a round-up of initial reports).
Also, coming in tandem with President Bush's state visit to the UK, it would seem that the attacks were intended to send a political message: that any friends of the US, such as Turkey and the UK, are enemies of the terrorists, and aren't safe. (For some good thoughts on the targeting of Turkey, see Brett Marston's post here).
It's not clear whether these attacks and the synagogue bombings were planned by the same people, or not. If so, then the synagogue bombings, while still a clear expression of anti-semitism as I've argued before, have to be seen as being more than that -- as an attack against the Jews (and the Turks who have shown toleration and friendship towards the Jews) not merely qua Jews, but as part of a larger whole that the terrorists hate and want to destroy.
I don't have much to say about this; it took me a while to be able to gather my wits, such as they are, adequately to write this. Obviously, these latest attacks evoke somewhat different feelings from the ones on the two synagogues in Istanbul, which were aimed specifically at people of my own ethnicity -- and thus, symbolically, at me. On the other hand, well, one's used to anti-semitic violence, and many of us have a more or less ready emotional response to it. And, since September 11 2001, I and I suspect many others have been developing a similar emotional preparedness for attacks on Americans.
That the British and Turks should also be targeted isn't especially surprising; but there is less of a sense of recognition of the emotional response it evokes in me. This is fairly strong. Of course, any terrorist attack is an outrage and horror and a cause of grief and anger as such. But I do admit that the particular targets in this case, as in the anti-Jewish attacks last week, touches me in a particular way. I'm an anglophile, and the Brits are my current hosts, and I probably identify with Britain more than any country other than my own (or perhaps Israel; but Israel is, of course, a difficult case for me now, given my opposition to most of the actions of its government). As for Turkey, I'm critical of many of its actions and policies. But I also have two former students living there, and I'm worried about them.
That, I suppose, is part of the nature of the global war on terrorism: not only the knowledge that one's own country, indeed one's own community (indeed, one's self) may be hit by terrorists; but also the sense of almost personal loss, and personal involvement, when other people are murdered half a world away.
As for reactions in the press: a number of bloggers have already responded to Polly Toynbee's article in the Guardian (Norm has a roundup of such responses, including this from Chris Bertram). There hasn't been as much noting of Martin Woollacott's column, perhaps because its far better reasoned and sounder; for that very reason, readers should check it out.
UPDATE: Brett Marston has a good round-up of reactions to the bombings in Istanbul in the international press, as well as commentary and links to more blog-commentary.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

HAH! This is hilarious. Read it now.
(link via Brett Marston)

MUSICAL INTERLUDE: I've recently made a few musical discoveries which I thought I'd share. One is the band Fountains of Wayne, who have a new album out, but whose last album -- Utopia Parkway -- is what I'm more familiar with at this point. It's awsome; blissfully euphonious power-pop, with the emphasis on pop (one of the band's two co-writers, Adam Schlesinger, wrote the title song to the retro-early-60s pop-rock movie That Thing You Do, and some of that sensibility is apparent FoW's work -- which is, however, far smarter and more inventive). Second are Outkast, who have a new double album out, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, each album done independently by one of the two members (Big Boi and Andre 3000, respectively; I've heard a bit of each, and definitely prefer Andre 3000's contributions, which share the joyful tunefulness of FoW's work but are distinctively steeped in funk and the best of Motown, with a psychedelic twist); this discovery makes me want to check out their acclaimed masterpiece from a few years back, Stankonia, which I fear I allowed to pass me by. Finally, I've been listening obsessively today to the first song -- yes, just the first song -- off of Joe Strummer's final, posthumously released album with the Mescalleros: damn. A little like Dylan with dollops of reggae and dashes of rockabilly and country-western, but not neglecting pop tunefulness; and that hoarse gravelly shouting growling sneering exulting voice. What a great musician he was, and what a loss his death is.
Ok. That's all, really. Mainly just procrastinating about writing serious stuff at this point.

MORE MOORE-BASHING: I think the ever-entertaining and usually persuasive David Aaronovich has gotten it dead-right on Michael Moore I do thin Aaronovich does overdo it somewhat -- Moore's pretty obnoxious, but as bad as Ann Coulter or Rush? I think not. Still, it's always nice to see the big 'little guy' and the cloud of snide self-regard surrounding him punctured.

CLARK: A THIRD (OR FOURTH, OR FIFTH) THOUGHT: I've just read (via Matt Yglesias) this interview with Wes Clark (in Maxim, of all places). He comes across pretty well -- better than he's come across in the reports I've been reading. I wonder if it's a matter of the difference between first- and second-hand impressions. (He also comes across as really, how to say this -- manly. In a good, reassuring, non-obnoxious way. Which I think is an important thing is a Democratic nominee, actually.)
I still have quite a few problems with Clark's positions on Iraq -- though what he says in the interview doesn't seem so bad -- and worries about his character. But at least in the interview he comes across, to me, as competent, clear-headed -- and electable. And, contemplating the Bush White House, that last does seem important.

FUN WITH SPAM: I get a good number of Nigerian-scam-style e-mail, which I tend to automatically delete. But today I gave in to a long-suppressed temptation to reply to one. It was fun, though I don't think I'll make a habit of it -- it is rather time consuming, and also a bit overly snarky I feel.
Anyway, here is the unedifying correspondence (I particularly like the "THANKS FOR WINING" at the end of my correspondent's e-mail. How did he know I've been drinking wine?!
I also like the mention of today's date as 11 October!

Dear Mr (?) Smith,
Hmm. Odd. I seem to recall a similar message from a chap with your job description named Dr. John Pedro, and claim agent named K.C. Price, or some such -- and not too long ago. Quite a personnel turnover at your organization, what?
With all due gratitude, I think I'll pass -- I prefer only to do business with those I know personally, and also with those I have good reason to believe will be retaining their job titles under their current names for a reasonably long period of time -- I do hope you don't find all this too rude, but one must be careful. Anyway, I'm a person of modest means and lifestyle, and can't imagine what I'd do with all that money -- do please give it to someone else who'll appreciate it more, or, if you would, perhaps to charity?
Yours etc.

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MULLER vs. VOLOKH ON INNER FREEDOM AND HOMOSEXUALITY: There's an interesting political-philosophical exchange developing between my old seder-buddy Eric Muller and Eugene Volokh (thus far, so far as I can tell, mainly on Eric's side) regarding the relationship between internal and external liberty. This is prompted by Eugene's suggestion that research into whether it's possible to change people's sexual orientation might be a good thing, in that it would allow individuals to choose their own sexuality, thus significantly expanding their freedom of choice. (A quick reaction of my own to this. First, has anyone noticed just how much Eugene blogs about homosexuality? It's just now occured to me. Anyway, I myself think Eugene has a point here -- I think it'd be a fine thing if informed, self-aware, autonomous adults could change their sexuality, if they really wanted to. My concern, though, is that if it were possible to do this, and if it was discovered how to do so, these techniques would be imposed on homosexuals by their families or communities, whether through direct command [parents making their children receive 'treatment'], or through pressure whereby life would be made so miserable for homosexuals [whether through intimidation and hostility, or through legal discrimination -- for instance, say, um, not allowing homosexuals to have their long-term relationships recognized by the law] that they would try to change their sexuality in order to fit in. And that, it seems to me, is a big problem, and I'm not sure if I like the idea of giving individuals the freedom to change their own sexuality if it means giving communities the ability to change individuals' sexualities. But to the extent that I do think it's generally a good thing to give individuals more choice and self-control, and I don't think that individuals should be forced to remain what they're born if they can change it, I'm not in principle opposed to what Eugene says, and am indeed sympathetic to it.)
Now, Eric's first post makes the argument that Eugene's position is founded on the falacious view that internal constraints are equivalent or analogous to external constraints -- that internal constraints, the dictates of one's own character, one's own biological needs, etc., are the same as the external constraints imposed on us by others, and that we can be free from both in the same way -- that is, in holding them off. But I don't know if that's exactly the view Eugene's argument is based on. It seems to me that Eugene's (libertarian, I take it) argument against external authority/constraint is a negative-liberty argument: the sort of political freedom Eugene likes is a matter of non-interference, of holding the state at bay and keeping it from interfering with people. Whereas I read Eugene's post on sexuality-change and internal freedom as involving more of a positive-liberty idea: that internal freedom isn't a matter of holding off something that might control you or limit your choice, but of gaining control of it, so that you can choose -- freedom to rather than freedom from; freedom as self-mastery rather than freedom as non-interference (at least, it is read such that Eugene's post makes sense to me; I agree with Eric that, if he's trying to make a negative-liberty argument, he's falling into a fundamental category-mistake, among other things. But my reading of his post does suggest it embodies a coherently positive-liberty position).
In his second post, Eric elaborates on the point made in the first one, and which I've tried to defend Eugene against above; the point itself, though, in this more extended version, is certainly a compelling one. And he gets at an important question in both psychology, and political/moral philosophy, about just what the nature of the self is -- and therefore what freedom really means.
This of course is one of the central themes in Isaiah Berlin's essay 'Two Concepts of Freedom', the positive liberty/negative liberty terminology of which I used above. What Berlin says there, put over-simply, is that how any conception of liberty works out is tied up with the question of what the nature of the self is -- of what, exactly, is to have or exercise freedom. While this isn't insignificant for the concept of negative freedom, it is far more significant for the idea of positive freedom, both because, as Eric's comments suggest, of the two positive freedom is the concept that can be coherently implied to discussions of self-freedom, and because, while the idea of freedom as non-interference allows one to remain entirely agnostic about the self, the idea of freedom as self-control or self-mastery necessarily leads to the question of what this self that's doing the controlling is.
The key move in Berlin's analysis of the development of positive liberty occurs with the introduction of the idea of the 'true' or 'real' or 'higher' self, as against the 'empirical' self. This is, for Berlin, a sinister step: it allows people to justify all manner of coercion in the name of freeing, emancipating, or actualizing the 'higher' self, which is identified with what the individual would be or want if s/he were fully rational and self-aware, or with the individual's best interests, or that which is 'best' in the individual, or that which the individual actually already is, without realizing it. Berlin, against this, insists that freedom must mean the freedom of people as they are to decide between the alternatives before them, to 'go to the good or the bad in their own way' (within the limits of a Millian harm-principle which isn't really discussed but is, I think, implicit).
Yet Berlin does also elsewhere seem to me to suggest that freedom -- which, like Eugene (and indeed, I suspect, Eric), he sees as a matter of choice-making, involves making choices that are self-defining, even self-transforming -- that freedom is a matter of making choices about 'what to be and do', in Berlin's paraphrase of Fichte (who is a major villain in the narrative of 'Two Concepts'). While he decisively rejects the idea of a 'higher' or 'true' self that can be discerned by others, or a single 'correct' path -- ideas which Eugene also disavows -- Berlin leaves the extent to which freedom may involve self-transformation an open question. I tend to think, in light of his writings on determinism and free will and his admiration, despite differences and some misgivings, for Mill's idea of liberal individual self-cultivation, that Berlin would be sympathetic to Eugene's argument that individuals should, if they are able to, be allowed to make choices about who they are. But I think Berlin would also believe that there are limits on the extent to which this is possible.
And, of course, I think he would recognize the force of one of Eric's central points: that the 'I' that's doing the choosing is an 'I' that has some freedom of such choice, some self-transformative or self-defining (and self-redefining) capacity, but is also an 'I' that already exists and has certain qualities and characteristics, a certain nature; and that the choices I make will be governed by that. My qualities are not something apart from me, but are me. This doesn't mean that I can't alter them; but it does make the decision to alter them very different in kind from other decisions. And the more they are part of me, the more difficult it is to alter them, or to view them as something alterable.
I'm afraid I'm going to leave this train of thought before it reaches the station; there are other points I want to go on to, and I don't have the time or wits at the moment to work this all out. And I do want to turn to the idea of self-actualization, which seems to me rather central to Eric's post.
I'm both sympathetic to, and a bit worried by, this idea. It seems to me that, underlying what Eric says, is a particular conception of the self -- a self that has its own essence or nature, which determines what the self will want and do, an essence which should and must be actualized or fulfilled in a particular way (I may be getting Eric's views rather badly wrong here, and hope he'll correct me if I am).
Now, this is a question I go back and forth on a good deal myself. I do think that individuals do have, or come to have (I make no pronouncements in the nature/nurture debate here), a definite self with certain characteristics, qualities, tendencies, inclinations, needs, desires, etc. On the other hand, I do think that, while, as said above, the self is always what's doing the choosing, and chooses, as Eric says, not from a detached, rational, neutral position, but with all sorts of 'baggage' (this is, of course, part of the classic objections to the conception of individual selfhood at the heart of rational choice theory, and to Rawls' picture of the selves in the 'original position' in A Theory of Justice). Yet to go from this perfectly valid point to the idea -- which, again, I'm not sure that Eric buys -- that there is such a thing as self-actualization which is determined by the 'given' nature of the self, and which in order to be achieved involves the self following a particular course generated or necessitated by its given, as opposed to chosen, nature -- well, it's a bit worrisome to me. First of all, I think that there are multiple possible roads to self-actualization for most of us, and that we should be able to, and generally do choose (if we're fortunate enough to do so), amongst these possible routes. I'm not sure to what extent these routes are determined by where we're starting from and what we are already -- whether they are 'created' or 'discovered'; I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between these models or conceptions. But I do think that there is some choice involved in the matter, and people should be allowed that choice.
And I think it'll differ from person to person, and that people should be allowed as much choice over who they want to be as they want and are capable of. Which I suppose does mean allowing people the opportunity, if it is indeed possible to do so, of altering their own sexuality.
However, Eric makes another important point: that this discussion of self-definition doesn't take place in a vacuum, but under the shadow of a certain history and in a certain cultural and social situation in which there is considerable prejudice against homosexuals and considerable pressure on them to change. So, I come back to more or less where I began. It does seem to me that allowing people the 'positive liberty' of choosing their own sexuality would be a fine thing. But I regard it as less essential than giving them the 'negative liberty' to make their decisions about their sexuality, and to lead their lives, including their love-lives, free from coercion or intimidation from others. And indeed I think this 'negative liberty' must be a precondition.
So, in a world in which people really would be able to choose their sexuality based on what they themselves have come to believe or desire or need, in a world in which people are able to think of their sexuality purely in terms of what it means to them, I think being able to choose one's sexuality would be a perfectly good and welcome thing. But we don't inhabit such a world; we inhabit a world in which many people hate homosexuality, believe it to be an abomination, and put considerable pressure on others not to be homosexual; and we live in a world where children are brought up to hate themselves for being homosexual. And in such a world the line between self-control and social coercion when it comes to making choices about sexuality will usually be murky. This doesn't invalidate Eugene's argument; but it's a point he should recognize, and take into account.
(Eric also makes an argument about the intrinsic nature of sexuality, or eros more generally, and why, given this intrinsic nature, it's a bad idea to talk about choosing one's sexuality as a rational deliberative choice one can make. This is a very good point, and eloquently made, and I encourage you to read Eric's thoughts on it for yourself; but I've run out of steam and so won't comment further on it here.
Also, can I just say that Eric gets a TREMENDOUS volume of coolness points for having a quote from Blur's 'Country House' up as his blog-motto?)

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

THE CONSTITUTIONAL FLASHPOINT OF TOMORROW -- HERE TODAY: Wow. This is going to be interesting ...
(Incidentally, have I ever mentioned that Mass. is my favourite US state? I mean, it was before this, and not just because of the political culture -- nice people, good climate, lovely scenery, lots of universities, lots of friends up there. And now, gay marriage, too.)
UPDATE: Jacob has a good round-up of responses to the decision over at Waldheim; see also the many posts by Eugene Volokh here, here, here, and here (one gets the impression that Eugene is a bit, um, preoccupied with this decision -- it seems to have supplanted anti-semitism as the major topic of discussion at the Conspiracy. )
Eugene makes the interesting, somewhat counter-intuitive case, across several posts, that the Mass. Sup Ct. decision is actually bad for the cause of gay marriage, while the Defense of Marriage Act is actually good. This is so perverse that it has a certain appeal, to me at least; and it's true that this decision could lead to a nasty backlash, as a number of people have suggested.
Still, I wonder. We've seen a good deal about how people were talking of the massive failure of the Allied occupation of Germany in 1945/6; I'm waiting for someone to dredge up all the predictions of disastrous backlash against Brown v. Board of Ed and the other civil rights cases.
Oh, I know; it was an entirely different situation. For one thing, in that case the cause of civil rights was ultimately pushed through by a legistlature and executive far more liberal than the ones in place today, which are likely to oppose gay marriage tooth and nail. And while there was strong opposition to civil rights in the South, there was a mix of support, indifference, and weaker opposition in most of the rest of the country, whereas my impression is opposition to gay marriage is pretty strong throughout most of the country. And of course there was indeed a backlash against the civil rights movement, and a very ugly one (as the families of Goodman, Chaney Schwermer, Evers, King, and all the other casualties of the battle for human rights can attest).
Still, while I think that the go slow and don't alienate or provoke people in a self-defeating manner position is often correct, I also think that it's sometimes overdone and sometimes unacceptable. The question is, is this a case where slower is better, or is this a case where, in order to eventually win equal rights for homosexuals, it's necessary to push as hard as possible and make use of whatever tools the law provides?
I don't know; but I am awfully happy for the folks in Mass. who brought this case to court, and may now, finally, be able to get married. Which is what all of this is all about, ultimately; the ability of individuals to share their lives, in dignity and equality before the law, with those they love. So, a somewhat belated but heart-felt congratulations to Gloria Bailey and Linda Davies, Hillary and Judie Goodridge, David Wilson and Robert Compton; mazel tov!
FURTHER UPDATE: There're the beginnings of what promises to be an interesting exchange between Jonathan Rauch and Jeffrey Rosen at TNR, here. Rauch's initiating post is pretty good; it'll be interesting to see how Rosen responds.

Over the past few weeks, I've linked to a couple of pieces that have been quite harshly critical of Tony Judt's article in the NY Review of Books arguing for a single-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict -- pieces that have in some cases said some highly critical things about Prof. Judt's political intelligence. I agree with the views of Judt's single-state argument expressed in these pieces (by Michael Walzer and Leon Wieseltier, among others), and am somewhat disappointed to find Prof. Judt writing what I regard as such a misguided piece of political analysis and advocacy. This is because before he published the offending piece I had rather admired Professor Judt for his sagacity and rigourously clear-eyed political judgment -- virtues which it seems to me he still possesses, at least when it comes to other matters than Israel.
So, in fairness to Judt -- and as a particularly astringent postscript to this blog's top Marxists poll -- I commend to your attention this marvellously cutting review of Eric Hobsbawm's memoirs by Judt, also from the NY Review. Judt, while starting off by writing respectfully of Hobsbawm's accomplishments (as is only just, and indeed necessary), winds up subjecting Hobsbawm to quite a ferocioiusly unsparing and damaging criticism for his unapologetic loyalty to Communism and his continuing allegiance to the noble but poisonous dreams of his youth, and resulting self-blindedness. Judt pulls a few punches - I've read other reviews that have come to even harsher personal judgments of Hobsbawm -- but not many. To my mind, his censure is richly deserved (which is not to deny Hobsbawm's achievments as a historian, or his personal gifts and more admirable qualities); but whether you agree or not, you really should check out the review.

MORE (BELATEDLY) ON ISAIAH BERLIN AND IRAQ: I'm rather sorry, and somewhat embarassed, to have missed this at the time, given both my obsessive interest in all things Berlin-related and my liking for Tom Runnacles' blogging; but I in fact came across this post, and this letter to the Spectator, by Tom on attempts to co-opt Berlin for the pro-war party just today. Tom is, I think, quite right about Berlin's likely scepticism towards dreams of a democratic empire or hopes for a succesful transformation of whole regions of the world through military might, as well as the feeblness of Daniel Kruger's attempts to recruit Berlin for such a cause. On the other hand, I suspect Berlin, for reasons hopefull suggested below, would have been a bit more hesistant in condemnation of the war than Tom has been (and I think he'd also recognize the idiocy of pulling out now...) Anyway, good stuff, and its nice to see other folks getting worked up about defending IB's memory.

PRAISING THE FRENCH(!): Chris Brooke is right. Anyone who has seen Casablanca, and doesn't subsequently feel a swell of emotion on hearing the Marseillaise, has a heart of stone, and ears of, erm -- wood? Rubber? Whatever the appropriate material is.
On the other hand, anyone who's seen Abel Gance's magnificent silent epic Napoleon -- or is familiar with French history since the first Republic -- and doesn't feel a certain unease mixed in with the sense of inspiration -- well, such a person probably ought not to be entrusted with too much political power.
While we're on the subject, God Save the Queen is one of the better reasons for keeping the monarchy around here. Maybe not sufficient, but you've gotta love a people who sing a song which rhymes 'arise' and 'enemies' on solemn occassions while keeping a straight face.
Does this post have a point? No.

MORE TOP 10s: Listmania in the blogosphere continues (gosh, we really are dorks, aren't we? I mean that unperjoratively, of course ...), as Brian at Crooked Timber, angered by a bland and predictable Rolling Stones top 10 albums list, offers a very good list of his own -- which provokes, of course, much dissent and response and generation of lists (including reactions from this blogger) in the comments section.
As I note there, I really can't provide a list of top 10 albums, but I do have a list of top 10 bands/artists, which I give in no particular order:
1. The Beatles (I know, I know; I can't help it.)
2. The Smiths (Yes, yes, I'm a big walking cliche sometimes)
3. Gang of Four (why did no-one nominate them for the greatest Marxists poll?)
4. REM
5.Magnetic Fields
6. Radiohead
8. Blur (at least until 13)
9.Freedy Johnston
Dylan, Neil Young, Pulp, the Pixies, U2 (up through Achtung Baby, at any rate) round out the top 15, with Elvis Costello, New Order, Belle & Sebastian, and many more just barely making it. The current bands I like most are probably Interpol and Sleater-Kinney, though I'm also somewhat bemusedly partial to a lot of the newish emo bands out there (Taking Back Sunday, Thursday, Brand New, Glassjaw, et al), and I've recently become fascinated with stellastarr and Fountains of Wayne.

PHEW! INDEED: What can one say, really, about this?:
translate into Greek
In a certain house, which has only one bath, live two young men, Xanthias and Orestes by name. Xanthias likes the bath, but Orestes is already washing in it. Xanthias says savagely to Orestes, ‘Get out of that bath, young man.’ Orestes, however, who is an insolent fellow and does not like Xanthias, does nothing but wash himself. Xanthias therefore seizes an axe with which he cuts off Orestes’ head. Thus Orestes dies and Xanthias washes himself in the bath. Phew! What young men!

C. W. E. Peckett and A. R. Munday. Thrasymachus:
A New Greek Course, chapter 6, exercise 7, p. 123

For more of the same, see here.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

MARXISTS POLL: REACTIONS. Not surprisingly, the results of the greatest Marxists poll reported below, along with my comments, have met with mixed reactions. On the one hand, Tyler Cowen pays me a very kind and probably excessive compliment, and echoes, somewhat more forcefully I think, my concern over the inclusion of Lenin and Mao (I should note that at least one of the people who nominated both Lenin and Mao is, so far as I know, a pretty resolute anti-Communist, and I assume meant her inclusion of their names as an indication of their undoubted world-historical importance as both leaders and writers, rather than as an expression of moral approval). Tyler also suggests that Rosa Luxembourg would, had she not been murdered by thugs, have lived on to praise murderous regimes -- something that her early and incisive condemnation of Leninism suggests to me is dubious. Similarly, a reader whose wisdom, humanity and sound judgment I trust and prize highly wrote me: 'did the people who voted for Rosa Luxemburg know that she
was a terrorist who didn't contribute much in the way of theory or practice?' (This statement was later partly retracted) I'll accept the terrorist stricture, though I'd note that by terroristic standards Luxembourg and the Spartacists weren't terribly bad (or effective). I do think the view of Luxembourg reflected in the poll and expressed by many contemporary (democratic) Marxists is somewhat romanticised and inflated (as I noted below, I'm still stuck on her polemics with Bernstein and Abramowski, both of whom I think were right and she wrong). But her book on the Russian Revolution is a genuinely powerful and incisive statement, and she deserves a good bit of credit for recognizing the nascent evils of Bolshevism DESPITE her own commitment to Communist revolution. As for the charge that Luxembourg's martyrdom has contributed to her high standing: almost certainly. And this is no doubt a bad thing as far as attempts to estimate her actual merits are concerned. But, on the other hand, I don't think that using a silly little poll like this to express one's sympathy for victims against victimizers is such a terrible thing.
On the other hand, Chris Bertram, while refraining from commenting directly (whether out of heroic self-restraint or despairing weariness I don't know) apparently found my comments on Lenin and Trotsky sufficiently toxic (a word he doesn't use and would probably disclaim -- I fear I am giving way to the temptation to twit Chris a bit here, which is horribly ungrateful I know) to require the 'antidote' of -- Alasdair Macintyre, of all people. I'll have to check out the pieces Chris recommends, and report back on my response to them; however, I doubt that I'll be convinced that Lenin and Trotsky are especially admirable characters, or that the influence of the former has been anything but malign.
Finally, so far, Jacob Remes is a bit bemused by the results of the poll (for which he acknowledges some responsibility). Jacob's of course right that this whole thing has absolutely no merit as a scientific survey, and makes no pretence to be such. Indeed, while I'm delighted to have gotten a number of submissions and a little attention, I myself am somewhat bemused at how much controversy and what strong reactions have been generated as a result of this poll. It does, at least, make me feel that my own work on Marxism, Communism, and their critics and opponents retains a certain amount of continued relevance and interest and emotional power -- which is I suppose cause for caution as well as reassurance.

ONE GOOD POLL PLUG DESERVES ANOTHER: Norm Geras is still taking contributions to his 'Alternative Big Read' contest -- see details here, and Norm's very good impersonation of a Jewish mother here.
NOTE: the previous statement should not be taken as a comment on the actual nature of most mothers of Jewish ancestry or identity. I know that the stereotype of the 'Jewish mother' is an often inaccurate and to some hurtful one. And I have nothing against mothers who happen to be Jewish. I have one, in fact, whom I love very much, and who doesn't sound at all like Norm Geras. And some of my best friends hope to be Jewish mothers one day, and will I'm sure be very good ones indeed.
Please, ESPN, don't cancel my column. Please.
Oh, wait. I don't have a column for ESPN. And wouldn't be able to write one if I had. Nevermind.

OH. There's really not much to write about this.
Naturally, anger and grief compete for expression. But I can't think of a way to express either, and I don't have anything of worth to say about this horror. I can only record what's passing through my head, which is of no use and probably little interest to anybody; but silence seems even more impossible somehow, even if perhaps more appropriate.
In addition to the anger and grief, I feel -- fatigue, numbness even. I'm tired of reading news like this; tired of murder piling on murder, innocent death on innocent death, outrage on outrage. Tired of sitting here safe and reasonably content while people -- and, though I think that there is morally no place for such sentiments, emotionally I can't ignore the fact that in this case it's not just people, but my people -- are killed far away, and I can do, and do, nothing. Tired of having to feel grief and outrage again and again.
And, because I am after all Jewish, and the victims of these cowardly and vile attacks were Jewish, tired, more than half a century after the world should finally have recognized anti-Semitism as the toxin that it is, that there are individuals and groups, with international support and access to weaponry, who continue to wish me and all those like me dead, and do their best to bring this about.
And at this thought, along with the anger and sorrow, another feeling begins to well up in me -- a feeling of defiance, a feeling of solidarity with and affection for Jews everywhere, an exultation at the fact that, however often our enemies and tormentors rise up against us and slaughter us, we endure; we're still here, and we'll remain here, however much they rage, however much they kill. We'll still be here, and in that at least they will never win.
All of this is of course no comfort in the face of the death of individuals, Jewish and Muslim alike -- and while this attack was clearly targeted against Jews, it is vital to note and remember that others were killed as well. But, while it is wrong and indeed, I think, somewhat contemptible to lose sight of the deaths of those killed and the sufferings of those close to them, simply giving in to despair should also be avoided. Nothing can redeem or repair the evil done today in Instanbul. But such evil should serve as a spur to continuing the battle against evil -- the battle of lovers of freedom and peace against terrorists and fanatics everywhere, and the struggle of the Jewish people to survive in the face of never-ending emnity.
'Am Yisrael Chai' -- the people of Israel live. But in Istanbul at least 20 people no longer live, and no sentiment and no defiance can fill the holes opened up by their annihilation. But for us who still live, such sentiment and such defiance are not a luxury, but a responsibility.

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