Sunday, March 29, 2009

Atheism--I'm serious about the A

I keep reading various conservative meditations on What Atheism Really Is or The Function of Atheism or the Meaning of Atheism or what have you--atheism as a function of some other cultural phenomenon, as a path to religion or self-consciously away from it, as a retreat, an excuse, a denial, a certain laziness, and on and on and on.

It gets my back up.

Not because all of the characterizations or critiques I read are inherently negative (though many of the examples and imitations I listed are); not all of them are, and most conservative thinkers that I read are already fair-minded and cautious enough that it's unlikely to catch them in wrathful denunciation of atheism. Even when it is negative, I don't find it surprising that religious people may find atheism intellectually, morally, or spiritually bankrupt; and within their philosophies I don't blame them.

No, my problem is with the seeming necessity that atheism mean or represent something more than what it is. Some self-proclaimed atheists, I think, are guilty of this also, though I speak with less confidence here because I have not followed the work of active--one might almost say missionary--atheists.

I have not followed their work for exactly the same reason I get annoyed with these speculations: I don't care. I thought that was what it meant to be an atheist: not only is there no god, but there doesn't need to be, and it doesn't matter. Therefore, exactly why I believe there to be no god, or the fact that others think there is, makes no difference to me. If I felt the need to argue about it much, I think that would represent a certain uncertainty on my part and I would probably start calling myself an agnostic in fairly short order.

Does the indifference I describe lack principle and motive force to such an extent that it does not deserve even the distinction of an "ism"? Is my perception of the world different enough from, say, Hitchens' that he is an atheist and I am a noncombatant?

It's possible to make that case, intellectually. But I reject it, largely because I am sick and tired of the implication that is impossible really, truly, without denial, vehemence, or even consciousness, to bypass the God Question altogether. I have never once contemplated whether there is a god; just as some believers know in their hearts that there is one, I am quite certain and satisfied that there isn't. I recognize that this represents a leap of faith, but I can't say that my "faith" informs my life: I think that would require thinking about it when not directly prompted by someone else. Even being faced with others' religiosity prompts in me only the curiosity of the anthropologist.

When I say I am an atheist, I mean that I do not think there is a god, higher power, grand deity, cosmic energy, life force, whatever. Moreover, I mean that I consider the whole question nonessential. That is all I mean. I wish other people could stop making it into something more meaningful for the sake of their own spiritual or philosophical comfort; it's very frustrating. I neither want nor need meaning imbued in the term that best describes my religious/spiritual orientation. It's analogous to, say, my trying to tell Andrew Sullivan what it really means to be Catholic, or what it says about him that he calls himself one. No one likes a know-it-all.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


So James Poulos was the conservative with the mutton chops and the velvet jackets I wrote about with delight the other day. I stumbled across a post of his at The American Scene and ended up hopskipping through his archive there as the whimsy has taken me. I've been impressed numerous times, but this post took the cake for me: Ophelia, I'm Only Dancing: Lies, Damned Lies, and Metafiction.

This is the risk run in playing the dangerous game of constructing realities that are fictions and fictions that are realities. Kafka’s Sancho makes good on that risk because he has so tightly circumscribed his paradox: with Quixote and himself, he is constructing one single relationship. Adding layerings of metafiction, as Hamlet does, adds illusory escape hatches and fire exits. Kafka’s Sancho develops his metafiction so as to bring on a reckoning for which he hasn’t the courage. Hamlet develops his own so as to indefinitely postpone a reckoning which works its vengeance out on him anyway. Our contemporary play seeks to have it neither way — by lowering the stakes and multiplying the layers, we can, we hope, hop endlessly among shifting perspectives, never trapped in the responsibility that follows on performance in reality. But this move raises the stakes of the dangerous game. Becoming less conscious of the risk involved increases it. Suddenly becoming conscious of it, under the pressure of both believing and unbelieving, may trigger a shattering disillusionment — and a disgust for all fictions.

In many ways it's overly baroque and theoretical, but it's so unapologetic and, well, good, that I don't care. It's revelrous.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Just a minute

Add to all my doubts re: Afghanistan the following from the WaPo:

President Obama's new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy will require significantly higher levels of U.S. funding for both countries, with U.S. military expenses in Afghanistan alone, currently about $2 billion a month, increasing by about 60 percent this year.

My mind has been thoroughly boggled. $2 billion a month?!

Let's see. 2 billion times .6 is 1.2 billion. So we're going to be looking at an estimated $3.2 billion a month, and probably we'll go over budget because everything always does.

The world is a strange place. In Washington D.C., particular political coalitions shift, someone gives an order, and huge amounts of economic, industrial, and military substance shift. The sheer scale is incredible, like a great science fiction movie. And yet, probably, nothing much will happen in the aggregate.

It's like a fundamental law of basic math


Bubbles will save us

So I finally got a look at this here Republican "budget" (which you can download here--it's not a big file *snicker*), and it really is as funny as people have been saying. Some part of me assumed they were exaggerating, but no. The bubble diagrams are really there. Some of them have seemingly random pictures inside. I think my favorite is the picture of a shop window saying "Yes we are OPEN" linked to the picture of stacks of cash money. Both in nice little blue circles. So cogent is the Republican economic vision that it doesn't even need words.

I forget who said that this was like what would happen if The Onion came out with a budget, but they were absolutely right. I can't believe it. No wonder Eric Cantor is leaking to the press that he thought this was a lousy idea from the start. I'm half-surprised it's still prominently displayed on the party website; most everybody must be running, not walking, away from this thing.

I mean:

I also found this bit to be pretty rich. From the "curbs spending" bubble section:

Who are the recipients of such largesse? International organizations and foreign aid recipients, including millions for reconstruction in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Labor union bosses participating in a new “green jobs” program. The National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Americorps, Title X Family Planning, and a host of spending programs that will do nothing to help our economy recover. And even community organizers, such as ACORN, performing “neighborhood stabilization.” Hundreds of programs deemed ineffective by prior Administrations are funded, despite promises from the President to go “line by line” to examine each program’s effectiveness.

Labor union bosses participating in a new green jobs program! Community organizers funded by the government! Outrageous! (How do you like the little shoutout to ACORN paranoiacs?) More seriously, I will grant that reasonable people can in fact disagree over the legitimacy or necessity of the NEA (though I am certainly a fan), and that every President does promise to eliminate wasteful spending and not much ever happens (because this is more complicated and difficult than people appreciate, and because "wasteful spending" of this kind does not actually come to that much money in the context of Social Security, the Pentagon, etc). However, most of the other programs cited here with such righteous rancor, while potentially debatable on other grounds, are pretty unimpeachable when it comes to stimulating our economy. Title X Family Planning would have been one of the best possible additions to the stimulus; it helps women avoid unwanted and expensive pregnancies, and believe me the money for the subsidized birth control would have been spent right quick. PBS, community organizations, etc. are keeping a lot of people employed with those federal dollars. I could go on, but for god's sake I'm arguing with the bubble people.

The next paragraph was what actually made me laugh.

In addition to securing our nation’s major entitlements, by enacting common-sense reforms and weeding out waste, fraud, and abuse, Republicans propose to undo the recent reckless and wasteful Democrat spending binge included in the so-called “stimulus” and omnibus bills. In addition, Republicans would cut overall nondefense spending by reforming or eliminating a host of wasteful programs deemed ineffective by various government entities. And Republicans would fully fund our ongoing commitments overseas while devoting the entirety of any savings from reduced fighting to deficit reduction, rebuilding our military, and funding our commitment to
our veterans.

See what we did there? We are going to stop spending money on everything but the military, which is of course not at ALL a fiscal giant on par with entitlement programs, certainly not ever wasteful (what are you IMPLYING?!), and in no way overlaps with the foreign aid and assistance programs denounced as wasteful and unnecessary in the previous paragraph. Did you notice how fully funding the "ongoing commitments" (which I am assuming, with the air of a desperate person clinging to a raft at sea, would include said foreign aid and development, since those are commitments and I hope we actually don't want to piss off more or less the entire world) will lead to reduced fighting, which will lead to savings, which we will use the military? Which beast should we be starving here?

This whole document gives me the sense of a mad--yet prim--old lady aunt who has very strong opinions about very, very crazy things, but is also quite the pearl-clutcher should you mention reality. Oh, and I guess she has some graphics skills, what with the bubbles and all. Hilzoy and Steve Benen have more.

Further into Afghanistan

So generally speaking I don't exactly have an opinion on the doubling down in Afghanistan, other than a certainty that it will all end in tears in the short term and only maybe with some kind of unflashy satisfaction in the long term (if we make it to the long term). This certainty is so far in the background it doesn't even seem like an opinion on a policy so much as a fact of life--in my opinion, the exact nature of what we do in Afghanistan in the short term doesn't matter. We're not going to see the results that would make us happy (and for many of us, that happiness would be ambivalent at best) anytime soon, no matter what; long-term, I'm not really sure exactly what we want outside of vague notions of "stability" and misleading (because impossible) rhetoric about poppies, and I don't know enough to think effectively about what we ought to be doing.

All that said, I think Andrew Sullivan is spot-on here:

As long as we can prevent terrorist bases forming that could target the US mainland, I do not see a reason for this kind of human and institutional enmeshment. My fear is that it multiplies our enemies, drags us further into the Pakistan nightmare, and will never Westernize a place like Afghanistan without decades-long imperial engagement. Secondly, I do not believe that Iraq is as stable as some optimists do, and fear that we will not be able to get out as cleanly as the president currently envisages. To be trapped more deeply in both places in a year's time seems Bush-like folly to me.

And here, where he notes that David Brooks has been drinking the Kool-Aid again:
Remember that David was only just warning of Obama taking on too many projects at once. But another expanded war in another distant country against another close-to-undefeatable foe? Bring it on! Everything is too much except empire. That's the American DNA.

Brooks' piece is called "The Winnable War," and it is--I was going to be arch and say, "it is, well, uh, interesting," but actually it is worse than that. By my count, it includes:

1. Basic presentation of Afghanistan as inherently broken and problematic
2.Basic presentation of the U.S. effort there as misdirected, dysfunctional, and largely composed of chickens with their heads cut off who also draw flow charts.
3. The big "BUT WAIT! I'VE BEEN CONVERTED!" followed by:

A. Afghanis are just like us! They want what we want! They "detest the insurgents and root for American success"; they have treated us as "friends, allies, and liberators from the very beginning." Look, I'm not here to make a case for the alien and hostile nature of Afghani culture or anything, I am just very, very wary of generalizing this statement to the whole of Afghanistan. It may well be true of the Afghani individuals a prominent American columnist meets when touring the country in whatever the equivalent of the Green Zone is; I just think if it were true of the whole country, well, things would look very different right now. I mean, the one quote from a Real Live Afghani person is from the defense minister, who has a lot of interests other than veracity in talking this way. I think it must be quite obvious that while any broad statement about what Afghanis are like and what they want is fraught, as it would be of any group, arguing that generally speaking Afghanis are rooting for American success seems heroic to the point of idiocy. Any talk of how we just need to educate them as to our aims and their interests at this juncture to get them on our side--which is the only plausible explanation for how people who want what we want and are rooting for us continue to be at war with us--will cause me to scream. In addition, I find it very, very hard to believe that Afghanis want their country occupied, or that "They think we owe them all this." If I were to generalize about what Afghanis want--and, clearly, I am about to--it seems likely that if most Afghanis feel they are owed anything, it is to be left alone.

B. Happily, we are already far along in the trial-and-error process of trying every possible error before trying maybe something that might work. Goooo Yankee know-how! This is working out so great! And we even figured out what our priorities are (which we are totally correct about this time, guys, don't even worry about it) after only like eight years! Rad!

C. Romanticizing the culture.
This country had decent institutions before the Communist takeover. It hasn’t fallen into chaos, the way Iraq did, because it has a culture of communal discussion and a respect for village elders. The Afghans have embraced the democratic process with enthusiasm.

Remember, at the start of this piece the country was inherently problematic; the interposing litany of American commitment, lessons learned, and high hopes allow the author to now employ the trope of how great Afghani culture is at its heart as a reason for why we, the Americans, will be successful in eradicating particular conditions of Afghanistan (low rates of education, high rates of terrorism and insurgency, the Taliban) which we are, of course, authorized and correct in separating from culture and deeming Bad. (I am also not here to defend the Taliban as nice guys, or to say that the U.S. doesn't have a clear interest in getting rid of them; I just think it's awfully convenient that all the Good bits about Afghanistan are inherently part of the culture and all the Bad bits are temporary ills we are there to dispel.)

And then, of course, D: the Yankee Doodle moment.

I finish this trip still skeptical but also infected by the optimism of the truly impressive people who are working here. And one other thing:

After the trauma in Iraq, it would have been easy for the U.S. to withdraw into exhaustion and realism. Instead, President Obama is doubling down on the very principles that some dismiss as neocon fantasy: the idea that this nation has the capacity to use military and civilian power to promote democracy, nurture civil society and rebuild failed states.

Foreign policy experts can promote one doctrine or another, but this energetic and ambitious response — amid economic crisis and war weariness — says something profound about America’s DNA.

"Withdraw into...realism"? I know he is referring to the foreign policy philosophy and not simply good sense, but did he even reread that before publishing it?

"Infected" is right.

ETA: Larison seems to have come to much the same conclusion.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Settlements strike again

Israeli soldiers denied Palestinians access to their own land [via Land and People]:

More than a dozen young Palestinians were forced to strip naked by Israeli troops, who insisted the measure was a security precaution after the group requested permission to access closed-off village land Friday afternoon.

The men, from Deir Istiya southwest of Nablus, were on their way to tend lands west of the village that are sandwiched between two Israeli settlements, Ariel and Immanu’el. The men all had permits to access the land, but were accosted by a group of at least 15 armed Israeli settlers and prevented from passing into their land.

Israeli troops intervened in the settler-farmer standoff by forcing the Palestinians to remove their clothes, then turning them away from the land.

I think sometimes that the true banality of evil is how boneheadedly stupid it is on occasion. I mean, there was no reason to believe that these particular Palestinians had ever done, or were planning to do, anything dangerous to Israelis or to the nearby settlements. They had permits, granted them by Israel, to access this land, which they legally and rightfully owned. But they were humiliated and denied that access based solely on their nationality/ethnicity (oh, race, so socially constructed). There's the evil.

But stupidity is how these soldiers, and others like them, don't seem to see why behaving this way only hurts their own cause. There's nothing grand and sweeping about this. Disgusting and low-minded as this behavior is, it doesn't even induce shock and awe in the reader--it's about on the level of rather bad bullying (in terms of the actual abuse at the moment, not its discriminatory and political meaning). It gains nothing for its perpetrators but ill-will.

That is the banality of evil--the sniggering of the bully or the blank stare of the functionary, never understanding the meaning of what he or she does. Evil that is understood, or justified, or explained away but unerringly committed, is certainly evil; but it is not banal. It is shiveringly creepy. Think of Dick Cheney versus Alberto Gonzales; for which do you feel contempt bordering on pity, and which makes your skin crawl?

Disclaimer: I almost can't believe I feel the need to write this, but better safe than sorry: I am not saying that Israel is evil, banal or otherwise, or that Palestinians are blameless. The latter half of my rumination is more an abstract consideration of what I mean about stupidity and evil than it is a sweeping indictment of Israel. I maintain that the actions of these soldiers on this day are indefensible, but I am not painting Israel with their brush.

Break down the walls

If there's one thing the death throes of the Republican Party is teaching me, it's that clearly there are a lot of conservatives out there that I would actually love to be friends with [emphasis added]:

"Hi gentlemen," [Poulos] began. "Um … in the interest of fun I’m going to taunt the panel first, and then try to justify running the gauntlet by phrasing it as a serious question." Poulos was wearing a charcoal suit and a brightly colored tie, which stood out in the ballroom’s sea of navy blue and khaki but was subdued by his standards, which tend to run toward things like monochromatic three-piece suits and velvet jackets. (He also has sideburns that are shaped like New Hampshire and almost as big; the combination of muttonchops and fine tailoring suggests a character in a Victorian political cartoon, or one of the white guys in Superfly.) [...]

"In the interest of being more than provocative," he said, getting to his serious question, "are we ever going to be able to address the question of cultural necessitarianism without being confident that we’re getting our cultural criticism right?"

Stripped of its woolly academese, what Poulos was asking was, can conservatism properly push back against a popular culture that it doesn’t really understand? How does a movement that yearns for the values of the past confront a culture that prizes novelty? This was a problem that had bedeviled modern American conservatism since Buckley first inveighed against the Beatles in his syndicated column. It was something that Poulos, who had dabbled in screenwriting and indie rock (his band was called the End of History) in Los Angeles before moving to Washington, had kicked around in his own writing.

This individual sounds, as Posh would say, MAJOR.

The piece, by the way, is about the demise of Culture11, one of the more interesting experiments in conservative journalism to have popped up recently. I was initially sad to see it go--well, I still am, somewhat--but Homans makes a good point about the potential value in its demise. Let's end the echo chambers and set everybody writing in the same publications together, with the standard being the quality of their journalism and their thinking rather than the purity of their beliefs.

I am my parents' child

I am having a really hard time with this TAP piece by Robert H. Frank. Not because there's anything wrong with what he's saying--it all seems fine (so far--haven't finished yet). Nope, my problem is he's taken all the economics terminology out of it and all the terms are beating at my skull to get out and in between the words where they belong.

This is in many ways the only vocabulary I know for such discussions, and it's one of the most natural of the vocabularies I have--I use it metaphorically all the time. So I read:

Taxes do more than pay for public services. Taxing any activity both generates revenue and discourages the activity. Our current system taxes mostly useful activities, such as savings and job creation. Perversely, it also encourages us to build larger houses and drive oversize vehicles. Instead, we could switch to a system that taxes only activities that generate harmful side effects. That step alone would generate more than enough revenue to pay for President Barack Obama's ambitious proposals without requiring difficult sacrifices from anyone. [...]

One important form of private waste is caused by garden-variety market failures like congestion and pollution. This type of waste yields easily to simple disincentives like carbon taxes, gasoline taxes, and congestion fees.

Some corner of my brain is jumping up and down and screaming about internalizing externalities. I won't even get into the parts that had it yelling about zero-sum games, game theory, et. al.

Of course, later in the piece the reason I'm having a hard time with it is not so much its (actually laudable) lack of jargon but rather the fact that its proposal--a very steeply progressive consumption tax--seems like quite the pipe dream. I'm not sure I'd be in favor of it, but it doesn't matter because it will never, ever happen.


It's funny--I like the Obamas, I think the President is a ferociously smart, politically talented, and competent man, and I think Michelle is a class act, but I'm not a huge Obama fan the way a lot of other people are. Not that I have a problem with him, I was just never really in love (okay, maybe once or twice for like a day). As I explained to an incredulous friend, I wasn't at Grant Park and that's okay because I love politics more than I love Barack Obama. (That may make me a soulless human being, but it's the truth.)

All that said, I have discovered that I have reserves of feral rage for people who want to trash-talk Michelle Obama. Seriously? You want to talk about her accent and then talk about who's classy and who's trash? You really want to go there? Seriously?

Can someone explain to me how this could be a good idea?

Border plants to be killed to reveal smugglers:

The U.S. Border Patrol plans to poison the plant life along a 1.1-mile stretch of the Rio Grande riverbank as soon as Wednesday to get rid of the hiding places used by smugglers, robbers and illegal immigrants.

If successful, the $2.1 million pilot project could later be duplicated along as many as 130 miles of river in the patrol’s Laredo Sector, as well as other parts of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Although Border Patrol and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials say the chemical is safe for animals, detractors say the experiment is reminiscent of the Vietnam War-era Agent Orange chemical program and raises questions about long-term effects.

“We don’t believe that is even moral,” said Jay Johnson-Castro Sr., executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, located at Laredo Community College, adjacent to the planned test area.

“It is unprecedented that they’d do it in a populated area,” he said of spraying the edge of the Rio Grande as it weaves between the cities of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

Seriously. How are you going to guarantee that no spray will get in the water? Do you know what the effects on soil or future plant growth will be? Can you guarantee that the poison won't be spread via wind, water, or erosion to places where people's livelihoods depend on growing plants?

All this over fucking weed? (pun intended)

I guess it could be worse:

A U.S. government outline of the project indicates the Border Patrol is going to test three methods to rid the 1.1-mile bank of river of carrizo cane, which has thick stalks that form tight, isolated trails that can be dark and all but invisible from higher up on the bank.

One method calls for the cane to be cut by hand and the stumps painted with the herbicide, Imazapyr.

Another involves using mechanical equipment to dig the cane out by the roots. It is unclear if herbicides would be necessary in this scenario.

The third and most controversial removal method calls for helicopters spraying Imazapyr directly on the cane — repeatedly — until all plant life in the area is poisoned.

The Border Patrol said that after using the herbicide, it plans to make the river’s edges green again by planting native plants.

Johnson-Castro said he has no issue with removing the cane, a non-native plant brought by the Spaniards centuries ago. The challenge, he said, is how it is done.

“We are saying it is one hell of a big deal,” he said.

No freaking kidding.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Saving the auto industry

Philip Longman has a fascinating piece in this month's Washington Monthly making the case for a government takeover of the auto industry based on past successes with railroads. Read the whole thing, but here's the money quote:

What do Conrail’s and Woodrow Wilson’s forays into socialism tell us? For one, they contradict the doctrinaire idea that government will always and everywhere mess up if it gets hands-on control of a private industry—even if in both instances other government policies largely contributed to the crisis that government control ultimately solved. The dramatic improvements to rail technology and logistics achieved by the USRA during the Great War also belie the notion that market forces alone will always be a sufficient spur to innovation and maximum efficiency. When government takes responsibility for an ailing industry, it also gets a combination of a hands-on learning experience and a strong incentive to do the job right: with public money at stake in the industry’s success, politicians pay more attention to the ways in which their own past decisions are making its problems worse.

These are vitally important truths to keep in mind as Washington considers how best to help an ailing Detroit avoid catastrophe. The auto industry’s problems, like the railroads’, are not solely the fault of arrogant, out-of-touch executives flying to and from begging sessions on Capitol Hill in private jets; government policies have shaped the environment in which automakers must produce and sell vehicles, often for the worse. [...]

Simply throwing vast sums of money at Detroit, then, is unlikely to save the American auto industry, no matter how many strings are attached to that money. Better for the federal government to take direct, if temporary, control of U.S. automakers, as it did with the railroads. Only at that point will Washington have both the leverage to force needed management reforms as well as the incentive to change its own policies—increasing gas taxes, preempting state dealership laws, and easing Detroit’s high health care costs by, among other things, passing universal health care.

As with Conrail, however, care would have to be taken not to surrender too many public goods to the altar of profitability. It would be wonderful if the government could one day sell its shares in General Motors at the same high price Conrail eventually fetched—but not if the profits came by turning GM into a monopoly or by making Americans still more dependent on cars. When it comes to rescuing deeply troubled industrial companies that the country cannot afford to do without, Conrail’s successful managers have left us with a good checklist to follow: leave your ideology at the door, pay more attention to the engineers and managers on the ground than to the financiers in the corner offices, and remember that social returns, not profits, are the ultimate measure of success.

I am particularly struck by how some of the policy improvements he cited--"increasing gas taxes...and...passing universal health care"--are also great goals for the country. As I said, read the whole thing: the story of the two railroad nationalizations is a fascinating one that I, at least, had never heard.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Get yer anger right here

First up, we have Matt Taibbi. I always take Taibbi's pieces with a grain of salt, not because I think he's nuts or even wrong, but because I usually think what he's saying is an extreme version of reality. In a slightly alternate universe, every piece he writes is a searing exposé; I'm just never quite sure that that universe is this one. That said, usually his point of view is basically correct, if colored up a bit, and usually it's the thing that's not being said. So take it away, Matt:

People are pissed off about this financial crisis, and about this bailout, but they're not pissed off enough. The reality is that the worldwide economic meltdown and the bailout that followed were together a kind of revolution, a coup d'état. They cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations.

Next is Glenn Greenwald, arguing that we need more public anger:

It makes perfect sense that those who are satisfied with the prevailing order -- because it rewards them in numerous ways -- are desperate to pacify public fury. Thus we find unanimous decrees that public calm (i.e., quiet) be restored. It's a universal dynamic that elites want to keep the masses in a state of silent, disengaged submission, all the better if the masses stay convinced that the elites have their best interests at heart and their welfare is therefore advanced by allowing elites -- the Experts -- to work in peace on our pressing problems, undisrupted and "undistracted" by the need to placate primitive public sentiments.

While that framework is arguably reasonable where the establishment class is competent, honest, and restrained, what we have had -- and have -- is exactly the opposite: a political class and financial elite that is rotted to the core and running amok. We've had far too little public rage given the magnitude of this rot, not an excess of rage. What has been missing more than anything else is this: fear on the part of the political and financial class of the public which they have been systematically defrauding and destroying.

Greenwald likes Taibbi's piece, too:

Matt Taibbi's new Rolling Stone article perfectly summarizes what the AIG scandal reveals about our political and economic system, and should be read in full. In sum: financial elites own the Government and both political parties. Their money drowns Washington and their lobbyists control it. They used that ownership of Government to abolish decades-old legal and regulatory protections which previously constrained what they could do. In the lawless environment which they literally purchased from our political leaders, they were able to pillage and pilfer and steal without limit. And even now that everything has come crashing down, they continue to dictate what the Government's response is, to ensure that they -- the prime authors of the disaster -- are the prime beneficiaries, at the public's expense, of the "solutions," solutions which preserve their ill-gotten gains and heighten even further their power and influence.

John Cole at Balloon Juice:

If this were a medical emergency, it appears it would look something like this:

The Illness - reckless and irresponsible betting led to huge losses
The Diagnosis - Insufficient gambling.
The Cure - a Trillion dollar stack of chips provided by the house.
The Prognosis - We are so screwed.

If these guys are right, this will be the undoing of the Obama administration. Better enjoy this four years, libs.

Meanwhile, Krugman is furious--Despair Over Financial Policy:

The Obama administration is now completely wedded to the idea that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the financial system — that what we’re facing is the equivalent of a run on an essentially sound bank. As Tim Duy put it, there are no bad assets, only misunderstood assets. And if we get investors to understand that toxic waste is really, truly worth much more than anyone is willing to pay for it, all our problems will be solved. [...]

In effect, Treasury will be creating — deliberately! — the functional equivalent of Texas S&Ls in the 1980s: financial operations with very little capital but lots of government-guaranteed liabilities. For the private investors, this is an open invitation to play heads I win, tails the taxpayers lose. So sure, these investors will be ready to pay high prices for toxic waste. After all, the stuff might be worth something; and if it isn’t, that’s someone else’s problem.

Or to put it another way, Treasury has decided that what we have is nothing but a confidence problem, which it proposes to cure by creating massive moral hazard.

This plan will produce big gains for banks that didn’t actually need any help; it will, however, do little to reassure the public about banks that are seriously undercapitalized. And I fear that when the plan fails, as it almost surely will, the administration will have shot its bolt: it won’t be able to come back to Congress for a plan that might actually work.

What an awful mess.

I have nothing to add to these pieces: they're all good and they're all worth reading in full (particularly the Taibbi--do click through on that one). Even setting aside the financial hooliganism under discussion in these links (I know, that's a big concession), I would wholeheartedly contend that there is not enough public outrage in this country. Where are the angry mobs screaming for justice over war crimes perpetrated in their name? Where is the angry populism that everybody seems to warn against (see Greenwald) but never seems to manifest? I know we're all supposed to stay calm and avoid bank runs or whatever, but generally I think it's rather telling that the population of, supposedly, the world's model democracy doesn't seem to give a damn what its leaders are up to.

Well played, us. Well played.

Friday, March 20, 2009


You may recall from my post on economics and Watchmen a comment that said:

The comedians do good journalism and the journalists do really, really, really bad comedy.

Yeah. This would be Cramer's end of the really bad comedy, given how he acted on The Daily Show, right?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A couple of things

I'm in the midst of finals, so this is one of those posts where I took a break to consume some information and I'm just throwing out whatever comes to mind. Cogency is for losers anyway.

1. The UAE, having already banned Flickr, seems to be considering banning YouTube as well. Most reactions have been negative (duh), but I found this response interesting [Via Global Voices]:

There comes the inevitable question, is youtube totally ‘safe’? Of course not, and I wholeheartedly support censorship on some of its content. Especially the kind of hate inciting content. You might choose to believe otherwise, but WE DO NOT have democracy and total freedom of expression in the Arab World. We have a vicious Sunni-Shia sectarian strife. We have an intimidating rate of illiteracy. We have an intimidating rate of credulity. The stable and relatively prosperous Arab societies are stable because there are measures that ENSURE everything stays stable. Even when stability sometimes borders on stagnation….. in short, I am not worried about moral disintegration of societies, I am worried about strives and rifts. So for the time being, some of the content, in my opinion, may have to be censored.

He or she (can't tell) goes on to say that YouTube of course also serves valuable functions of communication, education, and debate, and should not be completely banned. I found that part of the response interesting because political scientists know full well that "WE DO NOT have democracy and total freedom of expression in the Arab world" and "The stable and relatively prosperous Arab societies are stable because there are measures that ENSURE everything stays stable", they consider it a bad thing (and furthermore consider these stabilizing measures authoritarian roadblocks to democracy--and democracy is generally assumed to be a goal and a good one), and they would probably be shaking their heads in despair at an Arab citizen being so happy with said stability. Just goes to show that it's all fun and games when it's someone else's revolution (or, conversely, when one is not suffering economically or otherwise from the absence of revolution).

2. Wow. After Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) called for the GOP to model an insurgent strategy on the Taliban, I thought we could move past all this. I figured it was the kind of thing that makes sense in your head and then you ill-advisedly say it out loud and then everybody moves on and pretends it never happened because oof. But no:

Now, at a time when the national GOP is trying to find its voice and cultivate new candidates, California GOP activists have begun engaging in a new pastime: issuing "fatwas" to punish state Republican legislators deemed too moderate on tax issues.


The raucous California tea party featured such dramatics as the spearing of a likeness of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's head, and the sledge-hammering of a pile of Schwarzenegger dolls, videos and movie memorabilia - even an action hero lunch box.

The radio hosts' "fatwas" target a handful of moderate GOP legislators who sided with Democrats to end the state budget impasse. Their calls to recall those lawmakers have reverberated throughout the Republican grassroots.

"It's becoming the fatwa party ... the Jon and Ken party," said Hoover Institution media fellow and GOP consultant Bill Whalen.

Eesh. Parroting what you ostensibly hate and are defending "civilization" against has got to be awkward. (Even more awkward than when Al-Qaeda started bitching about a pro-Obama media bias, because this time the Republicans did it, themselves, on purpose.) H/t Balloon Juice.

Monday, March 16, 2009

What he said

Larison on American isolationism:

Allied interests do not interest the defenders of the splendid isolation approach. Pursuing their own interests, especially if it means cultivating good relations with large, powerful neighbors as Germany and Turkey have been doing with Russia, is seen as a move “away” from America and at some level basically corrupt and misguided. It is not enough that these allies toe the line on many of our policies toward their neighbors and throughout the world; they are expected to sabotage good relations with major trading partners to demonstrate their zeal for the cause, and if they fail to do so they are accused of acting out of venal interests (unlike, you know, the high-minded reasons for U.S. policy decisions).

Speaking of the comedian

This is past comedy into total annihilation. Colbert took Dinesh D'Souza and ate him for breakfast. I don't even know what to say. I spent most of the interview rolling my eyes and then in the last thirty seconds or so, HELLO.

Via Coates.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Good one

As you may know, Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer (of CNBC) have been engaged in a bit of a spat lately. A summary:

Well, last night the other night [ed.: this post took a few days] Cramer went on Stewart's show, the poor fool. All I can really say is oof. Tim F. at Balloon Juice said, "My immediate reaction is that the whole experience is painful to watch. It would be great if someone could explain to me why Jim Cramer did not stay home."

He received numerous responses, as is the norm at BJ, but I somehow was struck by these two:

Just Some Fuckhead

We are in freefall as a society when a fucking comedy channel is the only place we can get hard news.



Why is it that two comedians on basic cable are pulling so much of the weight for our so-called journalists?

The comedians do good journalism and the journalists do really, really, really bad comedy.

What really did it, honestly, was one commenter's link to "his take on the exchange, in comic book pictures." The first picture is from Watchmen, and the post is called "Don't Fuck with the Comedian."

Also relevant here is the honestly incredible comment thread over on Roger Ebert's blog post on Watchmen. (If you want to get some really nice basic education in quantum physics, scroll until you see some long comments and hunker down.) There I read, among other things, the following:

Ross Durham: ...between your review and this blog entry there is little mention of my favorite aspects of the novel. What about the Comedian? What about the joke? It's a very postmodern look at the human condition in addition to being a look at humanity, or life's, place in the universe.

alex: do have to realize that the Comedian is living his life as being one great big parody of Humanity and his actions just really go to show what he thinks of humanity.

Ike: the Comedian, the nihilistic everyman, who wonders why god will not save him from his own immorality, and finds the entire situation to be one giant joke.

Emphasis added to this one:
Ray R.: While Manhattan is interesting, the real depth in the story is The Comedian. "The Big Joke" is what this is really all about. While nuclear war and the atomic clock are significant symbols, the most prominent and repeated motif is The Comedian's smilely face marred with blood. It's present at the beginning of the story and at the end of the story. Even as Dr. Manhattan stands on Mars giving his huge and empty speach about the uniqueness of each individual (come on dudes - anyone who knows the first thing about science knows what a load of junk this speech is), the camera backs up and reveals that his beautiful construct is actually a small portion of that big smiley face. Manhattan is interesting, but The Comedian is the real key to understanding Alan Moore's masterpiece.

All of this initially had the effect of making me go looking for my copy of Watchmen to reread it so I could get a handle on the various inklings stirring around my head. Unfortunately, I can't find it (though the search has led me to a desire to reread A Canticle For Liebowitz also, as it shares a certain nihilist cackle).

So instead of that, head back over to the Balloon Juice comments for a minute (bear with me):


The irony of Stewart and other Hollywood celebrity commentators like Maher is that they are really the only people in the country who have both regular, guaranteed access to the media and the willingness to point out the bullshit. They’re famous and wealthy enough not to be overawed or intimidated by politicians and executives and too prominent to be suddenly "disappeared" from the TV screen by the media for being too honest.

Actually, it’s their humor that gives them the power—not their celebrity or wealth (in the league they are playing in, that’s miniscule). That’s their difference from someone like Cramer—who has to depend on shilling for da boss guys because he can’t bring in the eyeballs any other way.

And now back to Ebertville:
Daniel: The tragedy of this movie is that it could translate only in severely truncated form what I think is the most interesting part of it and what you rightfully put in the title of this blog entry: the bit about being a puppet that can see the strings.

...We are, as a species, only starting to see the strings. Our growing knowledge of the universe creates entirely new intellectual challenges to deal with. H.P. Lovecraft wrote: "The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

ABVC: If there is someone else controlling your deeds and your thoughts, he could choose in an arbitrary way what you were going to do. You would only see the strings if he wanted [you] to. But then, you wouldn't need a crazy experiment gone wrong to see them. Maybe if he wanted you to need it.

If there is no puppeteer, or the pupeteer [sic] is not someone with a will, but the universe, then the possibility arbitrariness (is quantum randomness arbitrary?) would be eliminated and we would be puppets of the laws of cause and effect. You have a will, but it is not free, it is the effect of lots of causes.

All of this pasticherie on my part is intended to be pointing at the way we think we understand The Economy and a little bit at journalism. I'm now going to back up, sort of, and go through my own thoughts, tying back to all this source material when appropriate. Again, bear with me.

Current discussions of economics and the economy contain a bizarre contradiction: On the one hand, the Free Market Rulz OK because the economy is too complex, diverse, and fast-moving to be comprehended sufficiently by any planner or regulator. It is, to a certain degree, unknowable and all-powerful, if benevolent. This idea is roughly analogous to ABVC's description of a puppeteer with no will--"the laws of cause and effect. You have a will, but it is not free, it is the effect of lots of causes." (Free-marketeers might object to the statement that the will is "not free," but I think that the distinction that might be made here is not actually very significant, at least for what I'm trying to do. The "effect of lots of causes" bit I think is unimpeachable.)

On the other hand, we flatter ourselves that with enough math, studies, models, and theorizations we can understand how these things work. Even with the whole question of government interference set aside, there is more than one industry entirely devoted to studying and understanding the workings of The Economy, whether that means finance, Depression economics, international development, day trading, or financial journalism. This effort is roughly analogous to the notion of "seeing the strings", or trying to.

We understand the economy as both a reflection and the driver of our entire world. "Stocks rallied today in response to _______"; "In response to the recession, people are rediscovering the value of ______ by _______"; "We may see a cultural shift through learning to deal with austerity"; and "culture of commodification" are only a very few of the thousands of phrases we use to describe what the economy does to us or how it reacts to things that we do. The story is, In the endlessly circular dance of incentives, choices, and effects, easy credit and a housing bubble caused "reckless" spending and lending, which sent the economy to recklessly dizzying heights, leading to a crash which, apparently, will now reshape our entire culture and bring us a new Greatest Generation (unless it simply ends the world as we know it). This is a bizarre combination of The Economy's being by and of us while simultaneously being completely alien to us. We do things to it, we figure it out and profit off it, we game it, we live in it, but occasionally it completely swamps us. It's a force of nature--it is to us as the sea is to fishermen, or the Euphrates was to Mesopotamian farmers (floods are a central mythic trope in ancient Mesopotamian religion).

It follows from this that we seek to understand how this incredibly powerful force works and what our place in it is--to "see the strings". Just as we try to understand and harness physics, we try to understand and harness economic forces (maybe this explains all those Wall Street physicists).

But the great irony is that all of our efforts to see the strings--our glass edifices on Mars--are ultimately recursive and meaningless. They fit together, they explain each other, and most of the time they fit reality well enough that they seem to explain and describe it. But every so often things happen that they did not predict and don't explain, or at least don't explain conclusively. Even the Great Depression is not understood, in that lots of people understand it in completely incompatible and mutually exclusive ways, and we've had a good 80 years to try to figure it out. (The "was it Keynesian stimulus/WWII, or just the natural end of the downturn?" debate reminds me of the quantum debate about nonlocality--there are strong arguments for both, and no proof of either, and no clear way to figure it out.) Ultimately, we don't see the strings at all; we argue endlessly about the workings of our little glass automaton and fail to understand that it's sitting in the middle of a massive smiley face.

Lately, I've been having a very difficult time caring at all about the news when it comes to the recession, banking system reform, bailouts, any of it. I'm sure part of it is just fatigue with the whole thing. But I keep finding myself retreating into what I've dubbed my anthropologist's cynicism, which is the belief that none of this actually matters at all and most of it isn't real. NOTE: this is not to say that the hardship involved isn't happening. Of course it is, and it matters. But sometimes it's hard to believe that what's happening isn't just some sort of spontaneous, natural sea change or cycle, like a tidal wave--that something very like it would have happened nowish almost no matter what we did, and that AIG and CDOs matter about as much as algae. This entire disaster is built on a near-incredible series of abstractions (going all the way back to currency--I won't go so far back as the notion of property), to the point where one can almost think of it as a mass hallucination. Furthermore, even when I come out of my academic funk enough to take the crisis at face value, the degree to which nobody has any idea what is going on or what is to be done about it, and the degree to which any one opinion can be convincingly argued against, certainly suggests that while the phenomena at hand are real, our understanding of them is merely a comforting fiction.

This idea is not at all surprising to the anthropological cynic. As I learned over and over in The Anthropology of Policymaking, policy frequently has myriad effects in addition to--or in place of--its intended result. The process by which problems are identified, solutions conceived, and policies implemented generally involves multiple heroic assumptions, sometimes retrospectively insane logic, willful ignorance and oversimplification. What policy or methods represent the best solutions is determined less by an empirical advance of knowledge than by personal politics and ideological fads--much as in economics (supply-side! No, demand-side!) and quantum physics (nonlocality is real! No, it's not! It secretly doesn't violate relativity, I swear! Except when it does!) But we persist in believing, very firmly, that policymaking and many other arguably more quantitative fields are rational processes of improvement, whose wildly unpredictable results are owed more to the complexity and difficulty of the problems or questions these disciplines engage than they are to the complete disconnect between what we think we are doing and what is actually going on.

This, of course, is the joke. We think we see the strings, but they are far too long for us to comprehend them as such. They may not actually be strings at all, but rather Slinkies--hell if I know. This is why (in colossally superior and self-satisfied terms) I'm so bored with the financial crisis stories: a joke isn't funny when you already know the punchline. The punchline is that we don't actually understand the economic forces around us, nor do we understand our interactions with them. It's all fooled by randomness with a healthy dose of storytelling and myth. A form of paganism, if you like--believing that human actions affect natural phenomena. (Thank god we burned a Yule log this year, or the sun might not have come up in January either.)

Much the same can be said about political journalism and even journalism as a whole. There were many astute comments about this in the BJ thread as well as in the original post; there was also a Marc Ambinder piece that I cannot for the life of me find that I thought said something very true about the election coverage. Ambinder said that he truly thought, and had for most of the election, that the whole thing would swing on voters really hating Republicans right now plus a couple of big, sort of constant issues (I think the war and maybe the economy). That was it. None of the daily stories mattered. But he, and the press in general, can't just write that one story and be done with it. Nor can they write the same damn story word for word over and over (much as it may seem like it sometimes). So they cover all the little stuff that doesn't matter as if it did, because it's a story. And people who follow politics, who follow campaigns--and people who are in campaigns--all come to believe that it matters too, because again, what are they going to do? Sit around, whistle, and wait for November?

I'm sure this same basic myth applies to many more human endeavors, especially as everything that humans do becomes more and more data-driven on a more and more granular level. We have to do something with all that data, and so we come to believe that it's important. We build whole occupations around collecting, analyzing, and storytelling that information (in a sense, that's part of what finance is, and it's certainly what financial infotainment like Cramer's show does). Only very rarely does something big enough and inescapable enough come along and show us that it's all one big joke.

In the margins, though, we have court jesters to point out how silly it all is. Humor rests, often, on uncomfortable truths--on saying things that are just true enough to laugh about but not so true as to kill the party that is our collective hallucination that we can see and even pull some of the strings. The reason journalists keep finding themselves in service to the big guys, as Glenn Greenwald points out in searing terms, is that the daily practice (as opposed to the occasional monumental achievement) of journalism involves maintaining those fictions, structures, assumptions, and logics. This isn't, particularly, an insult to journalism--it just means that journalists, like everyone else, live in a kind of social fiction. If they stepped outside it, not only would power structures make their lives difficult, but no one would actually understand what they were saying. They would look like crackpots. Humor is, most often, only language we have for such things.

In that sense, then, it's not so surprising that the key to Watchmen, or, on occasion, the real truth-teller in the room, is the comedian.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A girl thing

One of my friends, E, is an art history major, and for a final in one of her art classes she's been printing out huge versions of computer keys--ctrl, alt, esc, all the ones that mean something in English--on stickers and putting them up around school, then taking photos. It's pretty cool.

Anyway, we were in rehearsal (she's in Voices with me) and someone reported to her that her sticker was still up in BartMart (convenience store near the library). She asked which one it was, and our friend replied that he hadn't known there was more than one--what was the other one?

E: "I put 'ctrl' next to the cookies."
Me: "Ahahaha, nice one."
Everyone else in the room: "I don't get it."

Most of those people were boys.

"Maybe it's a girl thing," I said. Another girl, L--who has previously demonstrated her seemingly complete escape from diet culture--remarked that it had gone over her head too.

E and I exchanged glances. "Well, I'm sad now," I joked. E burst out laughing and we both cracked up for a minute while everybody else looked on in slight discomfort.

It ended as a joke, but I wasn't entirely kidding. It's one thing that I immediately understood E's intent with the notion of control; it's another that it was such an alien thought to every single guy in that room. (L hadn't thought of the interpretation but seemed less mystified by it once it was explained than the boys did.) Sometimes it's hard to really understand gender divides until they slap you in the face; until suddenly there's a barrier between you and your friends that you never knew was there, built out of the unspoken and the assumed.

It should go without saying that of course this divide is entirely socially constructed. When you realize that the boys in the room do not and probably have never thought about cookies the way you have for as long as you can remember, it becomes more obvious that the way you think about cookies is not necessarily the way cookies have to be.

For crying out loud, they're just cookies. Or they should be.


I was approved for a Foreign Language Acquisition Grant!

This means that the University has agreed to grant me $3,000 to put toward living in Damascus and studying Arabic this summer.

Now, this award is still subject to the Risk Assessment Committee. Since Syria bears a State Department travel warning, the University automatically has to evaluate all student travel there and may withhold funds if they deem my plans too dangerous for them to support (i.e. they wouldn't be able to cover their asses if something happened to me). So the grant could still be taken away.

Still, I'm very happy about this. If nothing else, it's been a while since I've filled out a good old-fashioned application for an established program and it feels good to know I can still make myself look good on paper.

But far beyond that, uh, Damascus for the summer. HI.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Yup, the word for "music" in Arabic is a cognate. Thanks, Greeks.

Anyway, here's what I'm listening to these days:

Get a playlist! Standalone player Get Ringtones!


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A small aside

In Josh Marshall's (much longer) post on what to do about bondholders of too-big-to-fail institutions, I couldn't help but notice this (emphasis added): I spoke to economists who are extremely knowledgeable and I think not at all inclined to be carrying the water of the bondholders, what became clear to me is that it's not just a question of our having no good theory of how to unwind a crisis like this, 'we' also don't have a good handle on the facts of the situation, which makes everything much more perilous. Sort of like defusing the time bomb without having put the bomber on the rack long enough to have him tell you how it works.

It just sort of freaks me out how the use of torture in 24 and by our government has permeated our cultural consciousness to where this kind of simile is naturally in reach when discussing a pretty unrelated subject. I know this is so not what the post is about--and on that I don't have much in the way of an opinion--but it struck me.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

"The Geography of a Recession"

Great interactive map from the NYTimes.

Well, I'll be

One of the first trans-positive advertisements and it's from a bank. Of course. *blink* (The whole point of the ad doesn't actually make much sense to me, but whatever.)

Thursday, March 5, 2009


I've seen pictures of women who have been disfigured with acid before. Even without pictures, this form of abusing women who transgress--by leaving their husbands, or refusing to marry a particular man, or daring to get a higher education--has always shaken me especially deeply. It's not the kind of thing you can call a crime of passion, and it has always seemed just so especially, vehemently, inherently vindictive (it's ridiculous to say "There are so many nicer ways to oppress the women in your life!" but that's sometimes how I feel) that I physically recoil when the topic comes up.

But I have seen pictures before, and physically recoiled--not in horror at a freakshow but in rejection, confusion, and pain at the men (it's always men) who could do such things. To anyone.

Today, Sullivan's Face of the Day is a woman who was blinded by a "spurned suitor" with acid.

Her assailant was sentenced to the same fate by the Iranian court that heard her case.

I don't have anything intelligent to say about this. On the one hand, more needlessly disabled and disfigured people in the world is not good. On the other, I was surprised when I read the verdict primarily not because of the sentence but because I was amazed the court cared at all. I had more or less assumed that justice would go unserved, as it usually does in cases of violence against women no matter where you are, let alone in Iran. I find myself taking a certain grim satisfaction that he has been sentenced to anything even as I recognize that this particular verdict might not be the most enlightened way to go about things.

But sometimes it's hard to be enlightened. Having gotten past the several minutes I spent physically recovering from my reaction to what was done to Ameneh Bahrami here, I'm not so much upset or angry as I am grim. I want to say something like "This has to stop" but I have no idea what to do to make that happen, and I'm not a fan of spouting Activisty Talk with nothing to back it up and no particular goal. I just wanted to put a reminder out there that this goes on, I guess. It happens fairly frequently in India, Pakistan, and the Middle East.

And that the methods of abuse are different in some other places does not make those places safer; it does not make the places where acid is used more depraved or less safe than the places where gang rape or setting women on fire are more common tools. It's all the same, bloody thing.

Some days I just don't know what to say.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A delicious cocktail

Of two of my great loves: comics and politics. Yglesias: What Obama Could Learn From Watchmen.

Oh, heck, have this too from Kate Beaton:

Click to embiggen

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Good grief, it never ends

It's probably a sign of having chosen the right institution of higher learning when seemingly every third intellectual giant one runs across is either a graduate, a student, or a former faculty member of said institution.

Turns out Larison is a grad student of Byzantine history here at UChicago.

What I am not going to do is turn into a massive creeper. Just so that's clear. To everyone, including me.

Seriously, though, this is a way bigger deal to me than, oh, Mearsheimer (meh) or Friedman or even Obama (although it's hard to compare because with Obama there was never really a moment of discovery; I always knew he was from here). It's about equivalent to when I found out about Wedeen (I read her work before I knew she taught here). I'm crazy, I know.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Anti-Stimulus protests

Okay, so the photo that everybody is spreading around from the Massive Grassroots Movement Groundswell Regular Folks Angry Refusal to Take It Anymore Because Rush Limbaugh Says So--aka the New American Tea Party (I mean, seriously?)--that went on about the stimulus last week or whenever is this one:

But this one has to be my favorite:

It was captioned, "He recycled this sign from an 'anti-global warming hysteria' protest." Given Weigel's fairly serious captions to the other photos (usually just writing out what the text on a sign was), I'm reasonably confident he is not making that up.

"What are we protesting?" "I dunno, probably liberals!" "Cool, I have a sign for that! It'll be ironic because it's one of their own."

Either that, or that guy was on the greatest acid trip of his life.


Two women become judges in Islamic courts in the West Bank.

Nothing to add to Faith's post--just go read it.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

An interesting snippet

For those of us interested in political rights and institutions, anyway. David Schraub discusses Jews' security in the U.S. over at Alas, A Blog.

There is a difference between a legal right and a legislative privilege, and it isn’t just that the former is more difficult to dislodge. I’ve already written about why I think rights are important beyond the technical protections they do and do not provide. There is considerable expressive power in being seen as a rights-holder. A person who is protected from unequal treatment merely because they currently hold the favor of the sovereign and her sword exists on a qualitatively different plane from the person whose protection stems from the fact that society — as per the strong moral norms expressed through the language of rights — considers such discrimination to be a grave normative wrong.


The fact that rights often are a formalist facade does not, to my mind, mean they always are, or that they are meaningless. I think that possessing rights is a powerful social signal of full inclusion into the community. A protection by right is one that is normalized, a protection by special legislation is exceptional. I would much prefer to be in a position where I am protected because it is seen as wrong to hurt me, than to be protected simply because those who wish to hurt me are (currently) in no position to do so. The cynics would tell you that the former case does not exist. I refuse to believe that is true.