Stale Blog

January 2004-July 2004

July 28, 2004

Two Essays on Massively-Multiplayer Games

1) The first essay I post here, as a PDF, is a paper I presented at a conference in Bristol in the summer of 2001 (See Ben Talbot's report on that conference for more). I should have circulated it widely then, but I didn't. First because I had hoped it would be part of an anthology I was trying to assemble that eventually collapsed because the other contributors had other obligations or couldn't commit after all, and then second, because I sent it in to a fairly well-known cultural studies journal. I sat on it for a while after getting peer comments. Some of those comments were useful and valid enough, and others--as several colleagues and friends predicted--amounted to a kind of disciplinary gatekeeping from new media and CMC researchers who didn't think I had paid my dues in that field. (One of the reviewers went through a long song-and-dance about how cultural studies always should address questions of production, circulation and audience, and that my piece was too focused on only one aspect of the audience's consumption of the game text. Grandmother, here's how you suck eggs.) So I finally decided to just get the thing out of my closet, for whatever it's worth, Though I updated it a bit in early 2002, it's now badly out of date in a number of ways, most crucially because it only takes passing note of the work of Edward Castronova, who has pretty much changed everything known on this topic. (As has Julian Dibble). It's also fairly out of date in its summary of the state of affairs in Everquest, Asheron's Call and Ultima Online, and in the wider world of MMOGs. (There's been some good material at Waterthread lately on the current state of things, not to mention the usual fine content at Terra Nova.) But here it is: Rubicite Breastplate, Priced to Move Cheap: How Virtual Economies Become Real Simulations.

2) The second essay is a shorter think-piece about a different way to design massively-multiplayer online games, about how to move more decisively towards making virtual worlds. It's called The Narrative-Nudge Model for Massively-Multiplayer Games.

There's a third essay that's a sort of missing link between the two, which is an almost-completed, fairly lengthy review essay on the (infinitely many) problems of Star Wars: Galaxies, and how studying SWG made me change my mind completely about the conclusions in the paper I presented at Bristol. That will be appearing (I hope) in an online journal in the not-too distant future.

July 27, 2004

As I Would Not Be A Slave, So I Would Not Be A Master

I have rarely paid much attention to the party conventions, but this year is different in every respect. I’ve been finding the gosh-wow stupidity of the television journalists about the presence of bloggers unintentionally hilarious—listening to Jeff Greenfield on CNN explain the exotic idea of a “link” as if he were trying to explain superstring theory, followed by some reporter minion of his practically wetting himself over the intricacies of some strange new-fangled thing called “the Web” , was especially rich.

The more interesting thing to me was something that came out in Gore’s mercifully brief speech and reverberated occasionally throughout the night, what I saw of it. Even before 9/11, one of the things that really bothered me about Bush and his administration was their sick arrogance, their lack of respect for the thinness of their electoral margin and what that should have told them about their mandate or lack thereof. It bothered me before I even knew that it did, or why it did. It bothered me early and angers me now because that arrogance has dragged American society to a very seriously dangerous juncture in its history.

I’m not talking about my usual opinion on Iraq and the response to 9/11. If you read this blog, you’ve heard that all before. That’s reason enough to vote against Bush.

However, there’s something deeper and wilder here, a fire that will more than burn the hands of kids playing with matches—and there’s been a lot of playing with matches since November 2000.

The New York Times has lately been assuring us that ordinary Americans are not bitterly divided on partisan grounds, and in one sense, I believe it. Yes, I know that there are a great many issues on which there exists some degree of consensus, and probably many issues beyond that where there might be disagreement between Americans, but of a mild and unexciting sort. In another sense, I think the Times’ polls are full of crap. Among the Americans who actually vote, who are attuned to political issues, there’s a high-strung sense of tension and anxiety that I’ve never experienced in my lifetime. Maybe 1968 would compare: I was more concerned with my tricycle at that point, so I can’t say in a meaningfully experiential way.

I used to say, around October 2000 or so, “Ok, so what if Bush wins? It won’t be that bad. He’ll do some things I don’t like, but he’ll be fairly constrained both by the size of his victory [which we could all see would be small if it came to pass] and by a prudential need to appease the political center.” I was seeing Bush as his father’s son, and his presidency as the mirror image of Bush the Senior’s presidency.

This was staggeringly wrong. The second Bush presidency has been unprecedented in its ideological extremism and arrogance. I think that reflects very badly on Bush and his associates. If we want to talk about Bush’s lies, let’s start with his promise to govern with all Americans in mind, as a uniter and not a divider. That’s his biggest lie of all, one that can’t be qualified as an accidental error based on faulty intelligence or a modest distortion. There’s no way to argue that Bush has governed with the intent to unite, to overcome partisan division. Al Gore called Bush on this lie last night, and rightfully so.

This is about more than Bush. One of the reasons I chide people on the left for not seeking dialogue and consensus, one of the reasons I am constantly looking for the presence of reason and the possibility of connection across the political spectrum, is that if we get ourselves into a situation where 51% of the voting population or a narrow majority of electoral votes is imposing a total and coordinated social and political agenda on the almost-as-large minority who has a radically different and equally coordinated social and political vision, we’re staring at the threshold of a very scary future, regardless of whom the 51% is or what they stand for.

In this respect, we have to see past George Bush and his poor leadership for a moment, and see the people who strongly stand behind him. It is they who really matter, their choice which will shape the next four years. It to them that I make my most desperate, plaintive appeals, my eleventh-hour plea not to pull the trigger. To choose Bush is to choose to impose the starkest, most extreme formulation of the agenda that Bush has come to exemplify on a population of Americans to whom that agenda is repellant. To choose Bush is to choose Tocqueville’s tyranny of the majority (or even, judging from the popular vote in 2000, tyranny of the almost-majority). To choose Bush now—not in 2000, when he plausibly could have been many things--is to aspire to tyranny, to ruling your neighbors and countrymen. That some on the left have had or even achieved similar aspirations from time to time doesn’t change things: it’s wrong whenever it is the driving vision of political engagement, for whomever holds it.

I know that there are socially and culturally conservative Americans, many of them Christians, who already feel that they live in a Babylonian captivity, that they are already at the mercy of a secular culture. But the vigor of evangelical Christian culture in the past decade—the profusion of Christian books, movies, television shows, and so on—demonstrates to me that a secular, consumerist America is one where even nonsecular or dissenting Americans are free to make their own way, form their own communities, choose their own culture. A culturally conservative crusade led from the White House is not the same thing, not a mere flipping of the coin, a karmic reversal. An evangelical Christian can refuse to consume pornography, but if pornography is outlawed, then anyone who wishes to view it is a criminal. Feeling the need to avert one’s eyes and being subject to criminal penalty are very different things. It’s the difference between freedom and unfreedom, between the Bill of Rights and a series of wrongs.

If Kerry is elected, and imposes a kind of extremist political vision root and branch upon the Americans who oppose him that is comparable to what Bush has done (I don’t see how he could, given that Congress is likely to be Republican in any event), then we’ll know that there is no possible consensus for us all, that a kind of final struggle has been joined in which every American will end as either tyrant or slave. I choose to believe and hope and trust that we’re not there yet. I choose to believe that we can have leaders who will not push us to that brink, and that we can have voters who also forbear to do so. If Bush is chosen, it may signal that there's no way out. I yet believe we can find the place where ordinary American decencies live, where most of us can go along to get along, where “don’t tread on me” and the City on the Hill belong in the same neighborhood, are part of the same love of country, are equally part of the American Dream.


July 26, 2004

Brief update on the garden situation. The tomato thieves are deer. I caught them at it this morning, one walking around with a big tomato right between its teeth, and to my surprise, they're getting in not by jumping over, but by squeezing through a very thin gap in the fence at one point. So I've tied that gap off with wire and we'll see if that makes a difference.

July 26, 2004

The Limits to Generalism

I spent three days at the 3rd International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multi-Agent Systems in New York last week.

I was a little disappointed, in some ways. I had hoped the meeting would be a bit more interdisciplinary, despite its strong connections to the American Computing Society. It was pretty much computer scientists all the way down. But that’s where multi-agent and autonomous agent systems live intellectually. One should not be surprised that the sun is in the sky during the daytime.

The consequence for me was that I understood very little of what I saw and heard. Every once in a while, the light broke through the clouds, generally in papers that were very explicitly devoted to using multi-agent systems for social simulation, those more concerned with the conceptual design and application of their simulations and less concerned with the formalisms, protocols or algorithms underlying them. I was able to grasp one presentation on the simulation of social insects and pheremones (due to the intensely well-travelled nature of the example) and even to see that the presentation offered relatively little that was new on that topic. I really liked one presentation that proposed a formalism for generating irrational agents, or at least for nesting normal Bayesian game-theoretic rationalities one step away from the functioning of a multi-agent system. It seemed very innovative and intelligible, particularly given that I was struck by how utterly reliant the whole field has become on rational optimizing designs for agents. I was also struck at the extent to which the demand for application to commercial needs drove the vast majority of presentations.

At most other points, however, not only did I not understand anything, I barely understood what I’d have to understand in order to understand a presentation.

I repeatedly extoll the virtues of generalism, but it cannot do everything. The sinking feeling I repeatedly had during the conference was knowing that to even get to the point where I grasped the substantive difference between different algorithms or formalisms proposed by many of the researchers at this conference, where I could meaningfully evaluate which were innovative and important, and which were less attractive, would take me years of basic study: study in mathematics, study in computer science, study in economics, areas where I’ve never been particularly gifted or competent at any point in my life. To get from understanding to actually doing or teaching would be years more from there, if ever.

The reverse movement often seems easier, from the sciences to the social sciences or humanities, and in truth, it is. There’s an important asymmetry that I think is a big part of the social purpose of the humanities, that intellectual work in that domain returns, or should return, broadly comprehensible and communicative insights rather than highly technical ones, and thus, that the barriers to entry are lower.

The ease of that move is deceptive, however. It’s the kind of thing that leads someone like Jared Diamond or other sociobiologically inclined thinkers, especially evolutionary psychologists, to what I call “ethnographic tourism”. Operating out of a framework that requires the assumption of universalisms in order to make cogent hypotheses about human history and behavior, scholars coming along that path often quickly scoop up the studies and accounts which support the foundational assertion of a universal and ignore those which do not or casually dismiss them as biased or “culturalist”, regardless of the methodology those studies employ. That’s what leads to their peculiar preference for the work of Napoleon Chagnon on the Yanomano, for example. Bogus or wild-eyed controversies about immunizations and manipulation aside, there’s at least reason from an utterly mainstream, meticulous, scrupulous and disinterested perspective to view some of his methodologies as debatable and to take seriously the work of other scholars who have made very different findings. There’s a selectivity principle at work in ethnographic tourism that wouldn’t be tolerated if it wasn't scientists cherry-picking material from anthropological scholarship they like and ignoring contradictory work.

That is not atypical of what can happen when scientists pressing towards generalism think they understand disciplines outside the natural sciences. Similarly, it’s become easy to mock and ignore scholarship in the humanities for being too theoretical, fashionable, incoherent, and so on, which it very often is. Alan Sokal’s hoax hit a real target, but if you want to think and write about problems like the nature of existence and knowledge, or about why and what a cultural work means to its audiences, sometimes you really are going to have to go into deep waters that require a complex conceptual framework. Some scientists tend to forget that on a series of crucial issues, skeptics in the humanities were closer to the truth for decades than scientists, most notably in the early debate between philosophers of mind, neuroscientists and computer scientists working on artificial intelligence about how easy it would be to create AI.

That debate is an important reminder, however, of what a kind of disciplined drift towards generalism can bring. The intensely fertile contemporary practice of cognitive science draws from all those areas and more besides. It almost seems to me that a good generalist ought to combine an overall curiosity and fluency in the generality of knowledge with a structured search of the possibility space of the intellectual neighborhoods which are just far away enough from their specializations to return novel possibilities and angles of attack but just close enough that those neighborhoods are potentially accessible with a reasonable amount of scholarly labor. To think about generalism in this way is to realize that different generalists are not going to end up in the same place. Their mutual engagements or conversations will have to happen in places of accidental overlap, because the concentric circles of one's own generalist competency are going to differ because they originate out of different initial specializations.

Proximity to your own discipline and specialization can also be deceptive. I’m planning another version of my Primary Text Workshop course for academic year 05-06. I’d like it to involve the students in doing the preparatory work that would be required for making a virtual reality environment based on a historical community—the speech trees, the knowledge of clothing and other material culture, the architectural and geographical knowledge, the understanding of everyday life rhythms, and so on. I’d prefer it be about a city whose history I know very well—Johannesburg or Cape Town spring to mind—but access to primary materials will obviously be limited. On the other hand, late colonial Philadelphia seems an apt choice, but I find myself simply overwhelmed by the literature I’d have to read in between now and then in order to achieve a basic comfort level. It’s not enough to have read Alan Taylor, Timothy Breen, Gordon Wood and so on about the colonial and revolutionary era—I’d need to go far deeper historiographically than that, and at that point, you begin to wonder whether it isn’t just smarter to hand the class off to a colleague who already specializes in that era.

I’ve been thinking about how to calculate the wider bounds of generalism beyond the discipline. In my case, for example, some of the ideas associated with complex systems, emergence, autonomous agents and multi-agent systems and so on are close enough conceptually that I can make use of them and contribute insights to colleagues working in those areas, but they’re just far enough away that I should not ever expect to do original work directly in computing applications myself. Sociobiology might be close enough that I could reasonably expect to offer some critical insights into its methods, but not close enough that I could expect to do my own original research into population genetics. Theoretical physics would be far enough away in every respect that I might not ever reasonably expect to understand it, let alone do it, given that much of it cannot even be translated from its mathematical conception into broadly communicative prose. At that point, you have to have enough faith in the entire system of knowledge production to just say, “I trust you to do what you do, and to do it how you do it”—and if it becomes imperative to do more, as it does in the case of tenure review, you just have to outsource the job of deciding whether another scholar’s work is original or skilled to someone else, to have the humility to know where the final outer bound of a generalist intellect lies.


July 19, 2004

What Gus Here is Sayin’

Well, criticizing Michael Moore definitely seems to get a rise out of some people, judging from this Crooked Timber thread in which John Holbo springboards from some negative comments I made about Fahrenheit 911.

There are criticisms I feel free to disregard—the cry that attacking Moore is breaking ranks or failing to play for the home team. The political rap across the knuckles, the call for left solidarity, is one of the surest signs of intellectual weakness that I know of, and a major reason I have no interest any longer in whether I’m considered to be on “the left” or not. Equally is the reflexive, gut assumption that anyone who fails to genuflect to Moore must be a defender of the war on Iraq. Hardly, as anyone who reads this weblog knows very well.

A number of commentators protest what they see in my original comments or in John’s argument as an equivalence between Moore and the Bush Administration, or between Moore and the most grotesque liars and rabid animals of the polemical right like Ann Coulter or Michael Savage. I agree there’s an asymmetry. In the first instance, because the people who lead the country and the people who comment on that leadership are simply very different in the consequences of their views. There’s no question that the intellectual dishonesty and closed-mindedness of the Bush Administration’s key war planners is vastly worse, and of vastly more concern, than anything Michael Moore has to offer. And I don’t see anything in Fahrenheit, for all that I dislike it, that compares to someone like Ann Coulter wishing that Timothy McVeigh had blown up the New York Times building. There are differences of proportion in either comparison, and Moore is hardly job one or even job one hundred on a very long and filthy list.

But what some CT commentators seem to me to be saying is this: Politics is a dirty, hard business, and we have to play dirty to win. They're saying, don’t come in here with your effete intellectualism, your Marquis-of-Queensbury rules, your naïve pomposity. Moore works, he’s down with the people, he’s telling it like the American people need to hear it.

This is precisely what I took up in my Cliopatria essay: is Moore effective, and effective at what? So I don’t disagree with the CT commentators who say that you have to play politics to win, and that if Moore is effective, that’s a countervailing virtue that outweighs any pedantry one might unload at him. What I think is the CT commentators are actually revealing, however, is why the American left is on a persistent losing streak in the tough game of political struggle (not to mention a nasty little streak of intellectualized anti-intellectualism that is another classic kind of left-wing panic button).

They assume that fairness and intellectual discipline are somehow antithetical to the crafting of effective political argument and rhetoric and they assume rather than demonstrate that Fahrenheit is positively influencing the constituencies whose mobilization against the Iraq War and the Bush Administration is useful or needed at this point.

Fairness and open-mindedness is a pretty crucial part of my own political and intellectual voice. That’s first because I assume that it is a positive good, an ethical position, and to adopt an ethical mode of acting in the world is itself a political strategy. It is a commitment to the dispensation that one hopes to build. I assume, very deeply and I hope not unreasonably, that there would be enormous social good that would come to pass if the American public sphere was everywhere authentically marked by fairness, open-mindedness, and mutually agreed-upon standards for rational argument and use of meaningful evidence.

This the critics would be right to say is an insufficient reason to criticize anyone failing to reach that standard. By itself, it is a luxurious high-mindedness. However, fairness also works as politics in the operational sense. An operatic, performative commitment to decency, an over-the-top acknowledging of the legitimacy of potentially legitimate arguments, an attempt to reduce cheap shots, a showy constraint for saying only that which can be said based on strong evidence: these all function as powerful tools in political struggle within the American public sphere.

Who brought Joe McCarthy down in the end? Not somebody playing “dirty”, down in the same gutter with McCarthy, but someone who waited for their moment and caught McCarthy in a decency trap, who revealed the man’s fundamental unfairness and viciousness in part by being scrupulously decent themselves. How did Archibald Cox defeat Richard Nixon? By walking the straight and narrow. Being decent and fair and meticulous isn’t intellectual wankery: it’s hardball.

It’s especially important in the context of the metapolitics of weblogs as a subdomain of the public sphere. Crooked Timber’s contributors regularly take other webloggers to task for the inconsistency of present arguments with past positions, or for their contradictory use of evidentiary standards. That kind of critique only has political influence, e.g., the capacity to alter the way that others think and act, inasmuch as it is a performative, demonstrated constraint on those who offer it. This is what I understand John Holbo to be talking about most centrally in his own comments. If you hold someone else accountable to standards that you do not maintain when you're talking in the public sphere about someone on your "home team", you've shot your wad, you've blown your credibility, you've lost political capital.

That’s the league that Michael Moore is in: the public sphere, weblog and otherwise. Within that league, there are or ought to be rules. Playing by the rules earns you political capital—and if you have political capital, and spend it wisely, you’re effective in influencing other players in the public sphere, even sometimes those who may pretend not to care about those rules. If you have none, you never get the chance.

All this might be, as some CT commentators suggest, purely academic or at least confined to a sparsely inhabited region of the public sphere where the air is thin if Fahrenheit were a boffo smash with those American audiences who have yet to commit to the struggle against the Bush Administration. Some CT commentators assume this rather than demonstrate it, presumably on the basis of the movie’s impressive ticket sales to date. But by that same standard, one would have to assume that The Passion of The Christ converted huge numbers of previously secular Americans to Christianity. Ticket sales, even in the land of Mammon, can tell a thousand different sociological stories, and it takes more than that to know what a particular film, book or weblog is doing out there in the world. There’s nothing harder than studying an audience's mindset. But at the least, we already know enough about where Fahrenheit is doing well to suspect that it is largely preaching to the converted.

My own intution—just as thin evidentiarily as that provided by the usual working-class-heroes cheerleader squad—is that Moore’s particular confabulation of conspiracy theory, left-wing writ, smarminess, and powerfully affecting and moving scenes of suppressed truths is only sporadically persuasive for those American constitencies which are potentially moveable in their views on the war or on George Bush, and may at times be actively counterproductive. Much of what irritates me about Fahrenheit is that is often self-indulgent, unnecessary, superfluous, appealing mostly to the very intellectuals who then turn around and tell me that appealing to intellectuals is effete and ineffective. Though it might be aesthetically less satisfying and entertaining, something much more conventionally melodramatic or Ken-Burns-respectable might be more powerful by far, crucially because of a peformance of “fairness". The curious thing that moves through at least some defenses of Fahrenheit is an assumption that Ma and Pa Kettle aren't gonna come out and see a documentary unless it has plenty of bread-and-circus pleasures, lots of yuks, unless it goes down smooth and easy. To me, that defense isn't just vaguely condescending, I would also suggest it's wrong. I think you could sell $100 million in tickets for a de-Mooreified Fahrenheit that had all of the heat, all the anger, all the revelation, but without all of the bullshit.

Some reply further at this point in the argument that the effectiveness of Fahrenheit is not measured in whether it changes any hearts and minds, but in mobilizing and energizing the left for the struggle ahead. First of all, come on: how much angrier and more mobilized can people on the American left possibly get without having an aneuryism? YEAH! YEAH! I’M SO ANGRY! GRRRR! GONNA TAKE BACK MY COUNTRY!! GRRR!!

More to the point, I can’t think of anything less effective politically. Guess what happens to a boxer who gets wildly pissed off and starts taking huge swings at his opponent? He ends up tired and leaves himself wide open for jab after jab. Maybe he gets Buster-Douglas lucky once in a great while, but most of the time he ends up on the canvas.


July 15, 2004

The Swarthmore Tomatofield War

Along with travelling, I’ve been gardening. My faculty rental comes with access to a very nice, large garden plot that is some ways away from the house, on the verge of a large wooded area that descends to Crum Creek.

My first year of having a vegetable garden was the best, in 2002.

I had a fabulous yield of tomatoes, peppers,

zucchini (way too much zucchini),

pumpkins, tomatillos, sunflowers and herbs. The only thing that got absolutely annhilated was my corn, which some animal stripped bare just as the ears appeared.

My second year I gave up on corn and added string beans. These grew fabulously well and were hugely tasty. But this time

my sunflowers

were absolutely destroyed before they could even germinate—something systematically dug up all the seeds for two plantings (this happened again this year).

The 2003 tomatoes were also subject to heavy assault by unknown vermin. The zucchini died of some kind of rot that covered the leaves with a grey mold and then turned the stalks to mush. The herbs did really well, though, except for rosemary, which just doesn’t seem to grow out here.

This year, I’m doing ok. I planted 18 tomato plants because the whole point of this garden, really, is to get me the tomatoes I can’t buy anywhere, and get me lots of them. But something has assaulted them again—they’re disappearing just as the first streak of red appears. So I’ve taken to picking them when they’re yellow and letting them ripen inside. The string beans sucked this time, but I think that’s mostly the seeds I planted—not as good as the heirlooms I planted the first year. The zucchini is rotting again. The pumpkins died quickly for some reason. The herbs are terrific as always. The tomatillos are growing, though like last year, have been slow to flower. Carrots, to my surprise, are flourishing—I tried the previous two summers and couldn’t get any to germinate. Peppers are doing well (poblanos, jalapenos, serranos, thai bird peppers). Herbs are self-sustainingly great now. Eggplants are limping along—I’ve never had much success with those, either.

It’s the tomatoes that are on my mind all the time now. They are what I want and crave. I managed to get one off and it ripened and I just put a bit of salt on it and devoured it. Nothing like it in the stores, not even the fancy-schmancy ones.

Here’s what I do to protect the garden: a 5-foot wire fence that I set into a one-foot deep trench to prevent digging under. Bobcat and coyote urine in the corners of the garden and soaked into cotton tags hanging from the tomato cages. An egg white-capascin-vinegar repellant mix sprayed on the tomatoes themselves. And they’re still disappearing. This year, they’re disappearing outright—I’m not finding the half-eaten corpses I’ve found in the previous two years. And they’re disappearing well before they ripen.

So I’m working on hypotheses about what’s doing it.

1) Chipmunks and squirrels. I’ve seen both of them raiding the tomatoes in the past; chipmunks were clearly the guilty parties last year. But they usually leave half-chewed tomato corpses and they usually only want semi-ripe ones.

2) Woodchuck. I don’t think the local ones can get inside my garden as it stands, and I’ve never caught them going for tomatoes anyway. I suspect them instead for other assaults in past years, including the Great Corn Massacre of summer 2002.

3) Rabbit. So why aren’t they eating the carrots, which are almost ready to be picked? Maybe they don’t know what they are. How are they reaching tomatoes that are two feet off the ground? But the young ones can unquestionably get in through the fence—I’ve spotted babies and juveniles in the garden before.

4) Deer. I thought I’d really made it so they couldn’t jump over, but there’s plenty of tales of deer jumping 5 feet, so maybe. No tracks, though. Do they eat tomatoes? Not sure, but I’ve seen other things that make me think they’ve been in the garden (plants that look trampled).

5) Raccoons. We got ‘em, they’re clever, and they could easily carry away tomatoes if they can get in. But damned if I know how they might climb the fence—I wouldn’t think it would support their weight, and there’s nothing dug under it anywhere. They might be pushing in past my improvised “gate” but I doubt it—it always is “tight” whenever I come out to the garden myself, with no signs of disturbance.

6) People. I’m afraid this is my current working hypothesis. The garden is a long ways from the house and people can come and go in it without being observed from any house at all. No footprints, though, even with the recent rain. I have had thefts from the garden before, though—several ripe pumpkins disappeared in September 2002 just as they were ready to pick, for example.

I don’t think there is much left I can do to keep varmints of all kinds out, though. Maybe lock the gate to test the “people” hypothesis, though that seems extreme. I tried stringing chicken wire around the top of the fence to discourage deer, but it ended up looking like a vegetable gulag rather than a garden. I used to put chicken wire around the tomato area, but the chipmunks just laughed at that. I kind of wish I had an old hound, a rocking chair and a shotgun—I’d sit out there for a few nights and see what’s what. Except that it’s illegal and I don’t think the college would be too wild about me blasting away at various critters on their property, not to mention my neighbors. I suppose I could put traps in the garden and see what gets caught, but that’s like catching a few raindrops and thinking you’re going to get a sunny day.

I keep thinking about that bit in Robert Lawson’s Rabbit Hill where the kindly (and evidently very rich) Folks put out a crapload of vegetables and such every single night in order to keep all the animals out of their own garden. “There is enough for all”, they said. I’m guessing that this is not the case—that I could plant 50 tomato plants and still watch them get stripped by the Mystery Vermin. So it’s war—if only I could figure out what I’m fighting and how to fight it.


July 15, 2004

How I Spent My Summer Vacation (So Far)

Spent a good while visiting family in Southern California in June and July, which was a lot of fun.

I had a chance to visit the gallery my brother runs in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. It’s called Oulous Repair Shop, and I really like what he’s done so far. The web page for the gallery doesn’t actually list the address, which is 945 Chung King Road.

Speaking of which, he’s trying to put together material for a show sometime this fall on fringe technological designs. He’s been writing a few scientists to see if they receive and keep letters or inquiries from fringe inventors or technologists, both to try and get names of people to contact and to see if he can gather together any sketches or visual material that were included in such inquiries. If you’ve got any ideas or sources of possible material, contact him at .

I also spent a bit of time at my mother’s store, Mixt, which is in the Rivera Village shopping district in Redondo Beach, 1722 South Catalina. It’s a great place—she’s got a nice mix of little doo-dads and very interesting high-end craftwork.

Los Angeles as a whole still puzzles me. I like it (and California as a whole) a lot better than I did when I was a surly teenager. In fact, some of Southern California’s best features are tailor-made for the middle-aged: good food, good booze, great weather, easy living. It’s a tough place to live if you don’t have money—the housing market there now staggers me, after two decades on the East Coast.

One of the interesting things about LA to me now is that it seems to me that the ceaseless reworking of its built landscape has slowed somewhat. I remember a period from about 1980 to 1995 or so when I would visit and find that the retail and residential landscape had shifted once again within a very short time frame. We’d go to places where there had never been houses and lo! Giant developments sprawling as far as the eye could see, people moving in who were facing daily commutes of two hours in each direction. You’d go back to a mall or neighborhood with stores you liked and they were all gone. There are areas which are still very much in flux, but a lot of things seem to me since 1995 or so to have been much more static across the core of the LA Basin. Maybe I’m wrong—it’s hard to know when you only visit twice a year or so. My brothers often have pointed out that there's much more visible, physical history to California's built landscape than most people, including locals, think.

It also seems to me that high-end food retail nationwide has caught up somewhat with California—it’s much easier now around us to find very good produce and meats, and quintessentially California businesses like Trader Joe’s are now national (though I think Trader Joe’s is going to be very hard-pressed to maintain anything close to its traditional quality/price ratio at its present rate of expansion).

But even with overdevelopment, pollution, crowding, traffic and the like, I’m pretty hard-pressed to think of anywhere on the East Coast that has the attractive mix of weather and landscape that a number of California cities do, including Los Angeles. I just can't work up enthusiasm for East Coast beaches or East Coast mountains in comparison. My Dad, who was born in California, always used to say whenever the Rose Bowl was on, showing people playing football on a sunny day to the rest of a miserably cold nation, “Well, here comes another 50,000 assholes”.


July 14, 2004

21st Century College: An Outline

I've been messing around with some ideas about a fantasy college, about what kind of institution of higher education I might build given $500 million and total autocratic power. This is what I've come up with. The sketch I lay out deals with three interwoven issues: first, the overspecialization of the academy, second the insularity of academic life, and third, the increasing over-management of academic communities and the heedless expansion of the "full-service" approach to higher education.

The result will doubtless not be particularly palatable to most or many--hell, I'm not even sure that I would want to teach there in a few ways. But on the other hand, I think it is sometimes useful to imagine systematic alternatives in order to understand how--or whether--what we already have might need to be changed.

July 14, 2004

On Third Partyism

A modest rebooting of this blog now that I’m back, on the recently discussed subject of whether it is a kind of infantilism to support political reforms in the U.S. to allow third parties to compete fairly at the polls.

The simple answer: it depends, but yes, often third-partyism is an infantilism, one I have myself been guilty of in the past. The basic problem with the most devout third partyists is that they either have woefully unrealistic models of the likely prospects of their own preferred third party or they lack any sense of a comprehensive alternative idea of political competition, and argue for third party competition as a purely ad hoc response to some particular dissatisfaction with the Republicans and the Democrats.

Greens or Libertarians, for example, probably would poll only marginally better in most cases than they do now after a breakup of the two-party duopoly. They might have regional strongholds that they’re denied now, and be able to send a few representatives to Congress or to state legislatures, but in Presidential races or even state-wide ones, I don’t see them being competitive for the forseeable future.
This is even more pressingly true for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Third-partyism here, especially in its Naderite form, really is a kind of head-in-sand wish-fulfillment scenario, a belief that progressive or left politics, once freed of its captivity to the Democrats, could be a powerful electoral force in general.

I would agree that a Democratic candidate who ran with some conviction and a strong sprinkling of populism might well be a roaring success with independents for the same reason that John McCain is, but that is a question of character: what is liked about such a politician is their honesty, their authenticity, not their ideology.

Stripped of a compensatory attraction due to the character of a candidate, a strongly left politics in most areas of the country would be a major electoral failure, and a simple third-party with a progressive character that was permitted to compete fairly within the present system would go nowhere, both on its own terms and in terms of its influence on the Democratic Party, which would probably move even further to the right in order to compete for the larger pool of independent voters rather than the small pool of hard-core progressive votes. As a voting base, progressives simply don’t compare in either fervor, geographic rootedness or numbers with the religious right, and can’t hope to accomplish what the religious right has in terms of seizing control over the Republican Party.

In conventional terms, the only third party that might benefit from a relaxation of the standard barriers to competition would be something like the Reform Party, a kind of independent-bloc soft libertarian party that could give a home to backers of McCain, Schwazenegger and other Republicans who don’t fit with the Bible Belt social conservatives who have seized control of the Republican Party whilealso drawing off some suburban Democrats and possibly working-class “Reagan Democrats” as well. If that’s what’s on offer, no, that’s not an infantilism, it’s a reasonable if unlikely third-party ambition—a parallel to the 19th Century formation of the Republican Party, a response to new social constituencies who found themselves effectively without any political party corresponding to their interests and outlook. The same may be true now for a variety of Americans, or it may not be true, but the most unrepresented American constituencies in this sense are not urban voters or rural ones, but instead the “swing” constituencies who are perpetually wooed by both parties but the bedrock voting base of neither. This is the only conventional “third-party” movement that I can see making any real political headway at this moment in American history.

Such a third party could also only succeed by first pursuing electoral success at the state level and in Congressional races and by placing reform of winner-take-all politics as its first and primary agenda. The more comprehensive and specific its alternative political platform was, the less headway it would make, as the most appealing parts of its agenda would be cherrypicked by the other two parties and electoral reform left quietly by the wayside. In a sense, this party would have to enter the political system by agreeing to back the agenda of either of the other parties in exchange for systematic reform of the current electoral system to create a level playing field, in a very conscious process of horse trading. That mission accomplished, the new party could then begin to flesh out an independent political platform of some kind. This is quite evidently not the strategy being pursued by Ralph Nader, now or in 2000, nor is it the strategy that any of the third-party Presidential candidates of previous years have pursued.

Third-partyism also makes some degree of sense if it’s articulated as a comprehensive program of political change designed to transit American politics to a more parliamentary mode, with many parties that have narrow ideological or political agenda and serve highly particular constituencies. This is a comprehensive change, rather than the normal argument for one or two “third parties” through minor tweaking of winner-take-all voting or reforming ballot-qualification requirements. This is not what most third-partyists in the United States seem to be arguing for, possibly because most people recognize that this particular reform is far from self-evidently desirable.

I used to think that a greater degree of ideological “sharpness” in our political system would be a good thing, but that seems far less desirable to me now: I don’t want to have to choose between two exaggeratedly single-view philosophies. A parliamentary politics with many, many parties seems an even more unsatisfactory halfway house between republicanism and direct democracy than our present system. I’d rather vote for a representative who strikes me as rational and fair-minded, even one who takes positions different from my own, than have to choose from a diversely sectarian menu and so divide my own political beliefs into fragments.


June 17, 2004

The Great Escape

Unlike Chun the Unavoidable (assuming he's not joking), I haven't given up blogging. I've just been away helping my mother-in-law to move out of her home and also trying to focus exclusively on several articles I owe to various publications. I'm going to be travelling some soon so blogging will have to wait a bit longer, but I have a number of substantial entries and materials being worked up that should be appearing here in mid-July, including long think-pieces on MMOGs, a blueprint for a new kind of college, and some more "Readings and Rereadings".

May 20, 2004

Busy couple of weeks here with grading, Honors exams, and some family matters, so blogging has been and will be lighter than usual for a bit.

May 20, 2004

Preparing a Place in the Museum of Failure

Norman Geras argues strongly that as a supporter of the war in Iraq, he bears no responsibility at all for Abu Ghraib.

I agree that those who supported the war with a rigorously reasoned case do not have to feel personally responsible for Abu Ghraib. I think it is appropriate to hold war supporters directly responsible for Abu Ghraib if (and only if) they fail to regard systemic abuse there and other American military prisons as being a grave concern by the very same criteria that we held Hussein's misrule a concern.

Abu Ghraib does have serious consequences for at least some of the arguments in favor of the war, and I don't think one can dodge those consequences. It's possible but highly unlikely that this is merely seven bad apples doing bad things--even if that were so, this is where the basic point about oversight comes in. A failure to have effective oversight is a guarantee of "bad apples" having impunity to do what they do. The furtive, paranoid unilateralism of the current Administration, its stonewalling of entities like the Red Cross, its apparent disinterest in due diligence practices within its own institutional frameworks, made Abu Ghraib inevitable.

Beyond that, however, the evidence is considerable that this abuse was not merely an accident of mismanagement, but a deliberate policy, deeply integrated into the Administration’s entire approach to the ‘war on terror’. Supporters of the war do need to regard that as a serious issue for their case, because the war cannot be supported as an abstraction. It can only be supported as a concretized, real-world project, and if it is done badly in the real world, it eventually will (and I think already has) do as much damage as the things it set out to fight. If you support the war as part of a battle against illiberalism, then illiberal conduct by your own "side" in the war has to mean something to you, have inescapable implications for your struggle. You can't just shrug off the creation of a gulag in Guantanamo where people have no rights, or evidence of a consistent policy of humiliation and abuse.

To understand this as a conflict that is resolvable strictly through military means or through the imposition of formalist structures is my mind to absolutely and completely misunderstand the nature of the larger conflict against terrorism. To extend the military trope, it’s the equivalent of fighting the wrong battle with the wrong weapons in the wrong place—and in military history, that’s how you lose a war even when you may have superior resources and force at your disposal.

Those who do misunderstand it this way almost all share two things. One, a belief in the universal and inescapable obligations of modern liberalism. It’s no accident that some Marxists, some liberals and many neoconservatives have found the war attractive, because they all derive tremendous intellectual strength from unversalist frameworks. This I find laudable and important and I recognize many supporters of the war who take this approach as intellectual cousins. (Those who do not share this commonality, like those parochalists and chauvinists on the American right who have endorsed brutality at Abu Ghraib, I recognize no connection with.)

But these supporters on both left and right share another attribute which I do not share: a belief that liberalism comes from above, that it can be imposed by power, that it emanates from the structure of the state and is guaranteed by securing a working monopoly on the means of violence. Equally, these thinkers share a belief that illiberalism and oppression emanate from the top, have their source in malformed states and ruling elites who have illegitimately seized control of the state in spite of the natural and rational desire of most people for liberal democratic norms. In essence, many of them--some from the left, some from the right--are statists. This is what the shorthand of "Wilsonian" is all about: a grab-bag aggregate that usefully links ideologically diverse arguments through their common understanding of the nature of political change and the sources of illiberalism in the world.

Fundamentally, this is a clash between different models of change-by-design in the world, of how one does praxis. Even when I was more strongly influenced by Marxism, I was always drawn to the Gramscian vision of politics, to the notion of a “war of position”, because that seemed much closer to me to how meaningful, productive, generative change in the world actually comes about, in the messiness of everyday life, in the small and incremental transformation of consciousness. I do not believe, and have never believed, in revolutionary change, in the proposition that a sudden, sharp disjuncture between the flawed present and the shining future can be produced by a seismic transformation of social structure directed by the state, by political vanguards or other major social institutions that possess strong governmentality.

Real revolutions happen in history, and they are genuinely disjunctive, deeply and abruptly transformative. The ones that are productive largely happen by accident. They happen because smaller social transformations have been building towards a point of criticality, towards a sudden phase change. They do not happen by design or intention. Real revolutions can be guaranteed by changes at the top, by the creation of laws and rights and constitutions, but they don't come from those things.

False revolutions happen in history, and they are much less disjunctive than their supporters pretend. These are the classic political revolutions, the ones that try to force history into a new mold by totalizing design, from above. They can do almost nothing generatively useful at the level of real social change: they can only destroy and terrorize. They cannot create. The only good example we have in modernity is the American revolution, and it is notable that its most fundamentally radical achievement was to specify constraints on its own transformative capacities. Its moderation was the essence of its radicalism, and the source of its long-term fecundity.

Power has a thermodynamic character: good things can happen when more energy is added to an existing system, but only if those bringing power to bear have modest ambitions and tremendous respect for serendipity and unintended consequences, for the organic evolution of events. The more ambitious the design, the more totalistic the ambitions, the more fatal and destructive the consequences are likely to be. A human world fully embued with the humanistic values of the Enlightenment is a world we all should desire, and we should harshly regard the world where it falls short of that. But this is where we have to have faith in the desirability of those values, and play the game steadily towards victory.

It is the “velvet revolutions” of the 1990s that we should cast our covetous eyes at. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of apartheid are the real triumphs of our age. No invasions or interventions have a share in those victories, but the resolute moral and political will of many states, civil institutions and individuals—backed where necessary by military power—can claim a great share of the credit. I don't deny that on occasion, positive revolutionary-style change does come from above, but this is a rare circumstance, and all the historical stars have to be in alignment for it to happen. That was not the case with the war in Iraq.

The Iraq War’s structural failure is that it is closely allied to the false revolutionary project, to statism, to the belief that social practice usually can be highly responsive to and conforming to the will of strong power, if only that power articulates its will clearly. This is the failed conceit at the bottom of the well, and where Iraq differs from Afghanistan. Afghanistan I support because its primary logic was self-defense, and its secondary logic put forward a sensible, consistently reasoned proposition that failed states represent a clear and imminent danger to the security of liberal democratic nations. The national security logic of Iraq, in contrast, was weak before the war and has gotten dramatically weaker since.

Alongside this deep philosophical shortcoming, the failure at Abu Ghraib is indeed a sideshow. It is the deeper failure that the reasoned supporters of the war need to hold themselves accountable for. The Iraq War will take its place eventually as an exhibit in a museum alongside Cabrini-Green, state-run collective farming, Brasilia, the Great Leap Forward, Italian fascism, and other attempts to totalistically remake the substance of social practice from above.


May 13, 2004

Welcome to Paragon City

I’m supposed to write an assessment of Star Wars: Galaxies and I’ve been putting it off because I feel I need to go in and play the game again just to challenge my established prejudices. The conventional wisdom is that a massively-multiplayer online game needs a year to be judged. But I’m dreading it: I follow news about the game and it seems to me that there may just be things about it that can’t be fixed.

SWG left a bad taste in my mouth about MMOGs. All that expertise, all that prior experience, all that money, and a franchise that you’d think was a can’t-miss proposition, and the result was a worse-than-average experience in a genre of games that is already very unsatisfactory.

As a consequence, I have been looking at every other MMOG coming down the pike with equal presumptive hostility. In particular, I was sure that City of Heroes, a MMOG with a superhero theme, would be a disaster. When the committed cynics at Waterthread started saying nice things about the late beta, I began to wonder.

Now I’ve been playing it for a couple of weeks, mostly on the Protector server, with a martial artist character named "Faust", and I have to admit it: I was wrong.

City of Heroes still has the basic problems of all MMOGs, but as far as the genre goes, it is one of the best. It’s actually fun to play, and even more amazingly, fun to play as a “casual” player—I can drop in for 30 minutes and still find something pleasurable to do. Even the feature that I was certain would suck, which was building your character around “archetypes” that made more sense in terms of MMOG conventions than the comic book narratives the game borrows from, works pretty well without seriously violating the sense that one is a superhero in a universe of superheroes. Basically, it’s one of the few MMOGs that has kept a clear head about fun being the number one objective.

Maybe the most astonishing thing about the game is just that the first day of play went without major technical gliches, and that so far, there are very few disastrous bugs or technical problems. The major issue at the moment is that one type of mission doesn’t work correctly, but it’s easy to avoid doing them. There’s a lesson here that’s crucial. The only other game of this kind to launch well was Dark Age of Camelot. It shares with City of Heroes a basic simplicity and cleanness of design. It’s clear: don’t try to do too much by your launch, and keep your design as minimalist as you can. I’m also hugely impressed by the communication from the developers: they tend to be very forthright, very out in front of problems.

Many small features in City of Heroes are well-implemented. For example, I really like that when I get missions from my “contacts”, after a certain point, I can just “call” them remotely to tell them the mission is completed—I don’t have to run all over creation to tell them. There are a few classic MMOG issues that are in some ways worse in City of Heroes than any other game: what people call “kill stealing” is for some reason uniquely aggravated in the evolving culture of its gameplay. The game also has a treadmill just like any other MMOG, and I still maintain that’s unnecessary, that designers are not thinking properly about how to scale challenges over time, and insist on making “hard” mean “time-consuming”. And finally, as is de rigeur for MMOGs, there are some really dumb and unoriginal names and designs for characters out there. I’ve seen huge numbers of Wolverine and Punisher clones. On the other hand, I haven’t seen a single “Legolas” yet.

There’s also some things I’ll be looking for the designers to do in the months to come that will help the game be more evocative of comic books. For one, I’m getting very tired of fighting cookie-cutter enemies: there should be colorfully indvidual supervillains at every level of experience. That’s the essence of the genre, and it’s sadly missing from the lower-level gameplay and even from the mid-game. In fact, how about every character created getting an “archenemy”, a supervillain who pops up from time to time to attack your character?

There are other elements of superhero narratives that need implementation in some way eventually. Secret identities and all that comes with them are completely absent. The mission storylines are pretty decent—I saved a mechanic and his family from some robots and now civilians remember that I did so—but there need to be more plot types, more content that evokes classic superhero tales. There need to be major public events—say each city zone being attacked by giant robots, with everyone pitching in to repel the menace.

I’m still going to play SWG later this month to be a responsible critic, but when I want to have fun, I’m going to be battling evil in Paragon City as the mysterious and inscrutable Faust.


May 12, 2004

Email woes: if you've sent me email in the past week, it's been sitting in the spool waiting for a very bad technical problem with my email to be ironed out. Problem solved, but be patient--it's going to take me a while to work through 300+ emails.

May 12, 2004

In Nothing We Trust

“Free us from oversight,” said the Bush Administration on September 12, 2001, “because you can trust in our professionalism and our ethical constraint. We’re the good guys. We won’t do anything bad”.

President Bush more or less repeats this mantra today in response to the escalating scandal of American prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo, that it was just a few bad apples, that we’re a democracy and and this shows how great democracy is that it can expose a few isolated misdeeds. Trust us. The world’s collective jaw drops. Does he really believe that? If so, he’s even more isolated and naïve than anyone has suspected. If not, then he and his inner circle are just as calculatingly grotesque as the most spectacular conspiracy theorists have portrayed them as being.

Look at what those photographs show. What anybody with an ounce of common sense knows is that the scenes being staged in them were not dreamed up by a bunch of reservists. It’s got the stench of military intelligence all over it. I’m sure we’ll hear in court-martials to come that no direct orders were given to have any of this happen, or that it was only private contractors. How stupid do they think we are? You can see it easily: an intelligence chief says to the grunts, “Hey, we need some information out of these guys. See if you can figure out a way.” A few minutes later he says, “Hey, I heard from a buddy that Muslim men really freak out about nudity.” No orders were given, sure. John McCain's fury at Rumsfeld during the hearings was clearly about this issue. We all know how it works, and we all know that what happened in the prisons goes right to the top. Not in the abstract, "I take responsibility" sense (though what does that mean? In what respect is Rumsfeld or Bush doing anything when they say that?) but in the quite concrete sense that permission to torture and humiliate Iraqis was sanctioned by the highest reaches of the hierarchy.

A few months back, Mark Bowden published a spectacularly foolish article on interrogation and torture in the Atlantic Monthly in which he mistook a kind of abstract ethical bullshit session thinking about torture for the actual institutional practice of it. I agree that there is a kind of thought experiment on torture and coercion that we have to undertake in an open-minded manner. If you knew with 100% certainty that a suspect in your custody knew where a nuclear weapon was hidden in a major American city, and that if you didn’t find out its location within 24 hours, it would be detonated, I think most of us would say, “Whatever it takes to find out, do it.”

That is a fiction, a thought experiment. Bowden’s defense of torture, in response to many angry letters observing that it is very rare for interrogators to actually know who is guilty or who possesses information that justifies coercion, was basically, “Well, I’m only justifying this in the case of the real professionals, who know what they’re doing, and won’t ever misuse coercion or torture for anything less than a vitally necessary end”.

Welcome to yet another fiction or abstraction, and a remarkably stupid one at that. When is this ever the case? What real people in the world have the necessary professionalism and the necessary factual knowledge of the specific information held by a prisoner? In practical terms, none. As Adam Ashforth has argued in his work on commissions of inquiry in South Africa, states use coercion or torture largely to demonstrate that they can. It’s a performance of power--and that's mainly what US soldiers have been doing in prisons, torturing and humiliating captives just to demonstrate that they can do so. Bowden says, “Trust them”. The whole point is that you can’t and you mustn’t, regardless of how clear-headed or fair-minded the aspirant torturer might be.

The domestic and international terrain on these issues intertwines. Many critics of the Bush Administration charge it with an assault on the U.S. Constitution. Sometimes these charges get hung up on the details of particular cases, or on antipathy towards particular individuals like John Ashcroft. The charge is accurate, but what we have seen in the last month is that it’s not just or primarily about a set of specific attacks on civil liberties. The Bush Administration is attacking the core philosophy of the Constitution, at every moment and in every way that they say, “Trust us”.

Amid the wreckage of American legitimacy, nothing stands out more than Theodore Olson and other lawyers from the US Solicitor General’s office standing before the Supreme Court of the United States arguing that in war, the federal government can do anything that it judges to be a prudential necessity for winning that war, that no constraints apply and that no explicit powers, Constitutional or statutory, need be granted to the federal government to do that which it sees as needful. That the executive branch and the military need no oversight or review by any other branch of the government.

To hear the official legal voice of the United States government making that argument is the most shameful thing I have heard in my life. The pictures from Iraq are nothing next to it. Olson’s argument was the equivalent of watching him drop trousers and take a crap on the Constitution. The central genius of the Constitution is that it constrains the government, that it says that government has no powers save those granted to it by the Constitution. It thoroughly rejects the claim that government must be free to expand its powers expediently.

That is the living, beating heart of the United States: that as a people and a nation, we are suspicious of power. That we recognize that we must never just trust in power, whether it is interrogators or the President. This has nothing to do with whether the people who hold power are good or bad people. Good people, people you like and trust, can misuse power. In fact, thinking probabilistically, it is a certainty that they will. I can trust an individual as an individual, but that is very different from writing individuals in my government a blank check.

Abu Gharib is about more than the Iraq War, and more than Donald Rumsfeld. It is the purest revelation of the consequences of the Administration’s contempt for the core values of American democracy, a contempt that they are spreading insidiously throughout the government of the United States. We have a precious few months to remove that cancer, to uproot that tree root and branch. If we fail in November—and make no mistake, it will be we, it will be the majority of Americans who make the wrong choice, who fail—then I think historians are likely to write that this was the beginning of the end of the American democratic experiment, the moment where the mob handed the reins to Augustus and so guaranteed that one day they would burn, too, under the serenade of Nero’s violin.


May 5, 2004

Primal Scream

“Stop with the hindsight”, says one writer. “Be patient,” says another.

Oh, no, let’s not stop with the hindsight. Not when so many remain so profoundly, dangerously, incomprehensibly unable to acknowledge that the hindsight shows many people of good faith and reasonable mien predicting what has come to pass in Iraq. Let’s not be patient: after all, the people counseling patience now showed a remarkable lack of it before the war.

One of my great pleasures in life, I am ashamed to say, is saying “I told you so” when I give prudential advice and it is ignored. In the greatest “I told you so” of my life, I gain no pleasure at all in saying it. It makes me dizzy with sickness to say it, incandescent with rage to say it. It sticks in my throat like vomit. It makes me want to punch some abstract somebody in the mouth. It makes me want to scrawl profane insults in this space and abandon all hope of reasonable conversation.

That’s because the people who did what they did, said what they said, on Iraq, the people who ignored or belitted counsel to the contrary, didn’t just screw themselves. They screwed me and my family and my people and my nation and the world. They screwed a very big pooch and they mostly don’t even have the courage to admit it. They pissed away assets and destroyed tools of diplomacy and persuasion that will take a generation to reacquire at precisely the moment that we need them most.

Noah Millman, for one example, is a very smart person who says many useful and valid things, but I find it impossible to understand how he can give George Bush the credit for being right on “big principles” like the principled need to defend liberty, while conceding that Bush appears unable to understand the complicated constraints of real life. The principled defense of liberty is nothing if it cannot be enunciated within the terms of social reality. It’s just an empty slogan, and worse, one that makes no distinctions between political actors. Does Millman really think John Kerry—who he sees as inadequate to the task of leadership—is a principled critic of liberty? Just about everyone besides Robert Mugabe, Kim Il-Jong, ANSWER and Doctor Doom believes in the principled defense of liberty. George Bush gets no credit for being right in this respect, and deserves to be soundly rejected for being so, so wrong where it really counts, in the muck and mire of real life. That’s the only principled defense that counts: the one whose principles can be meaningfully reconciled with human truths. A policy that insists on living in a squatter’s tent in Plato’s Cave is a non-policy.

There is a struggle against terror, injustice, illiberalism. It is real. It will be with us all our lives. We must fight it as best we can. The people who backed the war in Iraq, especially the people who backed it uncritically, unskeptically, ideologically, who still refuse to be skeptical, who refuse to exact a political price for it, who refuse to learn the lessons it has taught, sabotaged that struggle. Some of them like to accuse their critics of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Right back at you, then. You bungled, and you don’t even have the grace or authentic commitment to your alleged aims to confess your error.

After 9/11, I wrote about my disenchantment with one very particular and relatively small segment of the American left and its dead-end attachment to a particular and valorized vision of sovereignity and national self-determination, seeing those as the only moral aims of international politics. I criticized the need to see the United States as a uniquely demonic actor in world affairs. I still hold to that criticism, and I still think it addresses a real tendency. I’m sure I’ll say it again in the future. I do regret saying it as much or as prominently as I did. That was about my own journey, my own arc of intellectual travel from my origins, not about a national need to smack down a powerful ideology. The subject of my criticisms was not especially powerful or widespread in general, and is even less so now.

I regret it because I and others like me helped the blindly naive Wilsonian proponents of the Iraq War to caricature their critics as Chomskyites all. The Bush Administration had its fixation on WMD; Andrew Sullivan, James Lileks, Michael Totten and a supporting cast of thousands had a fixation with “the loony left”. That allowed them to conduct echo-chamber debates with straw men, in which the proponents of the war were defenders of liberty and democracy and opponents were in favor of oppression, torture and autocracy.

Small wonder that they won that debate—but constructing it as such allowed them to miss the very substantial arguments by other critics, who said, "The war on Iraq cannot accomplish what you would like it to accomplish in producing a democratic and liberal state in Iraq, no matter how noble your aims are. The war on Iraq will not enhance the war on terror, in fact, it will severely damage it. The war on Iraq cannot be justified on humanitarian grounds without arbitrarily and inaccurately defining Hussein’s Iraq as a worse situation than many comparable others—and an arbitrary humanitarian claim damages the entire edifice of humanitarian concern".

There were plenty of people making arguments like these—perhaps even within the Administration--and they were shouted down or completely ignored before the war and even early in the occupation. From these arguments, most of what has come to pass was predicted. Not because of mismanagement—though there has been that, in spades. Not because of the misdeeds of individuals—though there has been that a-plenty, both within the Beltway and on the ground in Iraq. Not because the Bush Administration lacked a free hand to do what it wanted—it has had that, more than any US government in memory. But because of deep, irreparable flaws in the entire enterprise.

A war on Iraq where the build-up was handled much more intelligently and gradually, with much more attention to building international consensus steadily. An Administration not addicted to strident purity tests and not irremediably hostile to both internal and external dissent. An argument for the war that took pains to build bridges rather than burn them, and that accepted gracefully constraints on its own claims and objectives. An occupation that was methodically planned and clear about the challenges ahead. These are the preconditions for even imagining the ghost of a hope that the war could succeed in its humanitarian purposes. In their evident absence from the first moment, the war could not overcome its handicaps.

Liberalism and democracy do not come from formalisms slapped down on top of social landscape: they come from the small covenants of everyday life, and rise from those towards formalisms which guarantee and extend their benefits rigorously and predictably. Constitutions, laws, procedures: these are important. But they cannot be unpacked from a box alongside a shipment of MREs and dispensed by soldiers. They do not make a liberal society by themselves.

To be midwives to a liberal and democratic society, occupiers have to blend in to that society, to become a part of it, to work from below, to gain a rich anthropological sense of its workings and everyday logics. To do that, occupiers must become vulnerable to insurgents and terrorists; they must hesitate to use violence. The two imperatives pull in opposite directions, as they must do so. Smart management can ameliorate or cope with that tension for a while, and there have been success stories of individual American commanders who effectively straddled for a while. But the whole enterprise has not, could not, and DAMN IT, some of us knew that it couldn’t.

So now the oscillations grow more extreme. To fight insurgents, one must sabotage liberty, become not just occupiers but oppressors. To promote liberty, one must be vulnerable to insurgents, and even risk losing the struggle outright to them. You can have the rule of law—but if you do, you can’t have prisoners kept forever as “enemy combatants” or handed over to military intelligence for reasons of expediency. The law must bind the king as well as the commoner or it is worth nothing, teaches no lessons about how a liberal society works. Yes, the enemies of liberty will use that freedom against you. That’s where the real costs of it come in. That’s where you have to sacrifice lives and burn dollars and be vulnerable to attack. That’s where you take your risks.

That this administration, and most of the proponents of the war, would be risk-averse in this way was predictable, inevitable, and not altogether ridiculous. It is hard to explain to military commanders why their troops cannot defend themselves behind barbed wire and walls. It is hard to explain to soldiers why they have to do jobs they’re largely untrained to do—to administer, to anthropologically investigate and understand another society, to bow to the cultural norms and sensibilities of others, to advocate and practice democracy. To be risk-averse about liberty is to lose the war, as we are losing it. Not just the war in Iraq, but the broader war on terror. You can achieve liberalism only with liberalism.

Hindsight is 20/20, but some of us had 20/20 foresight. You could have it, too—it would just take joining us in the difficult messiness of social and historical reality.


May 3, 2004

No Longer a Bird in a Gilded Cage

I am sorry to see that Erin O’Connor is leaving academia.

Some see a pattern in recent departures from academia announced on blogs, but the pattern, if it exists, is mostly that scholars who have been trapped in the labryinth of part-time teaching or work at the periphery of the academy have decided to let go.

O’Connor is different. It’s very rare to see a tenured academic in the humanities voluntarily leave a post, particularly one at a good institution, and to choose to do so for ethical and philosophical reasons. I’ve only known a handful of similar cases, and they’ve mostly involved people seeking some form of personal fulfillment or emotional transition that they think is unavailable in their academic lives.

O’Connor seems to have a little of that in mind as well, but her explicit reasoning is more that she views the contemporary academic humanities as unreformable and corrupt. I have a lot of respect for her enormous courage in choosing to leave. Not only is it hard to turn your back on the gilded cage of lifetime job security, it is hard to leave behind that part of your own self-image that is founded on being a scholar in a university environment.

I share at least many of, if not all of, O’Connor’s misgivings about the American academy in its present form. Academia, especially in the humanities, often seems to me narrow-minded, parochial, resistant to the forms of critical thought that it allegedly celebrates, and possesses a badly attenuated sense of its communicative and social responsibilities to the publics which sustain it. In many research universities, teaching remains privately, sometimes even openly, scorned. There, scholars are sometimes rewarded for adherence to self-confirming orthodoxies of specialization and mandarin-like assertions of bureaucratized privilege. And what one exceptionally dissatisfied respondent at Crooked Timber said is all too close to the truth: some academics are tremendously pampered and intensely unprincipled, in ways only truly visible to insiders behind the sheltered walls of academic confidentiality.

However, I’m not leaving, or even contemplating leaving, and perhaps that would make me one of the noisome defenders of academia that O’Connor criticizes.

I am not leaving because I’m happy. I enjoy my teaching, am satisfied with my scholarship, and generally am quite pleased with my institution and my local colleagues here. I like many of the people I know in my discipline and my fields of specialization. I learn many new things every week, read widely, live the live of the mind, make good use of the freedom of tenure.

Swarthmore does a pretty damn good job in many ways. I think I do a good job, too. I am proud of it and proud to be a part of it all.

It is easier to be happy when the basics of my situation are so comfortable. I am paid well, I have tremendous autonomy in my teaching and scholarship, I have many compensations and benefits. I have bright and interesting students about whose future I care deeply. I have many colleagues whose company and ideas enlighten me. I have lifetime job security. My institution is in good financial shape, prudentially managed, led wisely.

What’s not to like?

What is not to like, notes O’Connor, the Invisible Adjunct and many others is that my situation is unusual in the totality of academia.

I think some of that is the difference between a liberal arts undergraduate college and a large research university: it is the latter kind of institution that I think is the locus of most of the problems afflicting academia at present. There is also one aspect of this that I do not take to be particular to academia, but instead is true of all institutions, that some jobs are better than other jobs, some institutions are run better than other institutions. It is better to work for a top law firm than to work for a miserable firm of ambulance-chasers. It is better to work for Google than it is to work for Enron.

What is a bit different, however, is that academics mostly cannot pursue market-rational strategies that respond to those differences intelligently and predictably, and the distribution of talent in faculties cannot meaningfully be said to meritocratically map against the good jobs and bad jobs. I do not imagine that I am here because I am so much better than many of the people in jobs where they teach 5/5 loads, have alienated students, get no sabbaticals, have poor benefits and low wages, and indifferent or even hostile administrations. I think I am good at what I do, but so are many of the people who seek jobs in academia, and who ends up where is a much more capricious thing in the end than in many other fields of work. And once you're established enough wherever you land, if you're tenured, you're there as long as you want to remain--or trapped if you want to move elsewhere.

The conditions of labor at the more selective institutions feed on themselves in good ways: with regular sabbaticals, strong students, and institutional resources you can improve both as a scholar and a teacher. With heavy loads and no support, you’re hard-pressed just to stay afloat. If the end state of a tenured faculty member at the University of Chicago and the State University of East Nowheresville are different, that often has a lot to do with conditions of employment along the way.

It is hard to know what the solution to all this disparity is. I am not into sackcloth-and-ashes myself, so I’m not going to punish myself for my good fortune by leaving or donating half my salary to adjuncts. If I were, teaching at a good college would only be the beginning of the good fortunes for which I must apologize, and a relatively trivial one at that in comparison to being a white male American who grew up in suburban California in material comfort with supportive and loving parents. I do not see any magic way to make every academic institution wealthy overnight, nor would I want to eliminate the weaker or more impoverished institutions—the diversity and number of colleges and universities in the United States seems one of our national strengths even in comparison to Western Europe.

Instead, I think that the smaller, simpler solutions which many academic bloggers have described are the real beginning of meaningful reform.

Graduate institutions should dramatically cut their intake of doctoral students. Yes, that would simply move the principle of relatively arbitrary distinctions of merit to an earlier moment in academic careers, but that’s the whole point, to keep people from devoting seven years of their lives to a system that frequently does not pay off that investment of labor.

Graduate pedagogy needs to shift its emphases dramatically to meaningfully prepare candidates for the actual jobs they ought to be doing as professors, to getting doctoral students into the classroom earlier and more effectively, to learning how to communicate with multiple publics, to thinking more widely about disciplines and research. At the same time, doctoral study also needs to reconnect with and nurture the passions many of us brought to our academic careers at the outset—passions often nurtured in bright undergraduates by strong liberal arts institutions like Swarthmore. The excessive professionalization and specialization of academic work is killing its overall effectiveness and productivity. The possible purposes of graduate training need to be opened up, not merely as a compensatory gesture to disappointed academic job seekers, but as a deep and meaningful reform of the day-to-day labor of professors presently teaching graduate classes. The passive-aggressive combination of complacency, conformism and defensiveness that often afflicts academic culture needs to give way to something bolder, more infused with joy and creation, more pluralistic and varied in its orthodoxies and arguments.

Tenure as an institution needs to be rethought. If not actively abandoned, it should at least not be automatically, reflexively defended as inviolate, because it presently serves very few of the purposes which are often attributed to it. The use of adjunct teaching in its present form at many institutions should simply be outright abolished. Non-tenure track faculty should be hired on 1-year or 3-year contracts at a salary comparable to a tenure-track assistant professor with benefits to teach a normal load of courses, never on a per course basis, save in those cases where short-term emergencies arise (such as serious illness or other unplanned short-term unavailability of a tenure-track faculty).

There’s more that I could suggest, but I think many of these reforms would squarely confront the problems that have driven Erin O’Connor to leave academia. How we get to them is really the crux of the matter. I think the role of insiders who love academia but want to see it realize its potential—and possibly stave off the threat of a collapse—is essential. But so too, perhaps, are people who walk away. Here’s to the guts to walk away from a sure thing.


April 21, 2004

Cry Me a River

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article this week about single academics and their problems, the extent to which many of them feel like outsiders in the culture of academia. (Online version now available to nonsubscribers.)

Feeling like a social outsider is one thing, and always worth discussing empathetically, as a human concern for one's fellow humans. Particularly in small, rural colleges, faculty social life is the main source of community, and if that community coheres around marriages, life can be very difficult for a single person, whether or not that single person is seeking a partner themselves. A goodly portion of the Chronicle’s article is taken up with these kinds of issues, and I sympathize and welcome any thoughts about ways that individuals and communities can help address these feelings, to show a soliticious concern for the problems of others, and strengthen human ties with an appreciation of differing situations.

The notion, given much airing in the article, that feeling like a social outsider is something for which one ought to be formally and structurally compensated, that all such feelings represent forms of injustice or inequity, is silly. Some of the single faculty quoted in the Chronicle article cry out for parity in benefits, arguing that if faculty with children receive tuition discounts for their children or health care for families, single childless faculty should receive some equal benefit. If I never have a cavity, I’ll never make full use of my dental benefits: should I receive a comparable benefit to someone who gets a new filling every five months? No, because I have the same benefit if I develop the same condition. Same for the single faculty: the marriage and child benefits are there for them too if at some point in their life cycle they apply to them. As one administrator says in the article, “Fair doesn’t necessarily mean equal”. I paid taxes to educating other people's kids long before I had a kid, and I welcomed doing so--because in paying those taxes, I was underwriting the labor of social reproduction, which as a member of society, I benefit from when it is done well and suffer from when it is done poorly.

In some ways, the article documents just how perniciously the trope of “minority status” and its associative moral landscape has spread to every single discussion of how communities are constituted. To talk of single people as an underrepresented minority in academia, as Alice Bach of Case Western Reserve University does in the article, makes no sense. Underrepresented in the sense that academia sociologically is not a perfect mirror of American society as a whole? Well, yes, of course. But Bach seems, like some of her aggreived single compatriots, to be saying that this lack of mimetic resemblance places a moral burden on the faculty of each particular academic institution to fix the problem, that the mere fact of a difference constitutes a moral failure. By that standard, every academic institution needs to designate a proper proportion of faculty to be paid below the poverty line, to be left-handed, to suffer the proper proportion of death and injury at the proper ages, to be polyamorous, to be Goths, to be Mennonites, to be hired with only a high school diploma and so on. If someone can demonstrate that at the time of training or hiring, single faculty are specifically identified and discriminated against and therefore that their underrepresentation is the consequence of discriminatory behavior, then that person has a legitimate point.

Otherwise, in the absence of that evidence (and I think such evidence will never be forthcoming), the aggrieved singles in the article are talking about the culture of academia, which simply is, in the same way that academia is intensely bourgeois. To argue that academia ought not to be bourgeois or dominated by married folk is something that one can legitimately do—but not from a social justice standpoint, only from an argument about aesthetics and cultural preference, or from the standpoint that bourgeois society per se or marriage per se are corrupted social institutions that we collectively need to destroy or reject. That’s fine, go ahead and make that argument if you like. Laura Kipnis has. Don’t cloak it in complaints about underrepresentation or stigma or minority status. Those ideological or cultural claims are not arguments about discrimination and egalitarianism—they’re a different kind of argument.

It gets especially silly when one of the complaints of single academics described in the article is that they’re not married—that the solitary nature of academic work is too stifling when you’re not with a partner or children, or that household tasks are more time-consuming because there’s no one to divide the labor with. At that point my head is spinning: so single faculty are discriminated against, but one of the remedies for discrimination would be to get a partner and kids? That it is an injustice that they’re not married and with kids? The comparable benefit to health insurance for families or maternity leave would be what, a colleage subsidy of a cleaning service or landscaping business for single faculty to simulate having a partner who can do household chores? How about we give single women a subsidy for a male-run cleaning service that only does 25% of the chores after promising to do 50%, and also subsidize a service that will come in the houses of single faculty and throw toys all over the floor and triple the laundry load on a regular basis.

The person who really drove me nuts in the article was Benita Blessing, a historian at the University of Ohio. Colleagues who have children or spouses, she says, are free to leave boring faculty meetings while she can’t just say that she wants to go home and watch reruns of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”. I really, really do try to see things the way other people see them, but this particular statement stopped me in my tracks. There are a million genuine and feigned ways that she could slip out of meetings if she likes: I feel no guilt for her lack of creativity. Then she complains that her department doesn’t have parties for people getting tenure or promotions, only bridal and baby showers. Could it just be that this is her department? The whole article is so shot through with freakish anecdotal reasoning from alleged academics whom one would think should know better. Somebody throw Benita Blessing a party already, though I’m guessing that she’s going to complain even if they do. Envy combined with a discourse of entitlement rarely respects restraints.


April 19, 2004

How Not to Tell a Story

Hellboy is a really enjoyable film. Matrix: Revolutions is not. I saw both about a week ago. The contrast was a reminder that you can talk plainly about the technical skill of telling a story.

At a basic level, the problem with the storytelling in Matrix: Revolutions is that it rejects both of the forks in the road that the mediocre Reloaded laid down, both possible conclusions.

The first is to play an entertaingly intricate and escalating series of tricky games with the nature of reality, to return to the basic dilemma of The Matrix and ask, “What is real?” The storyteller, in that scenario, has to have a final answer in mind, but to allow his characters to be confused about the answer, to have the action of the plot be a labyrinth, an ascending series of false answers and red herrings, a fan dance tease. You can even end that story with a little wink of doubt after the supposedly final answer is revealed, but you do need to have a real and satisfying climax. This is the more intellectualized story—it demands a high level of clever playfulness to work. It also would require taking the story back into the Matrix itself for most of the film—as Gary Farber notes, the odd thing about Revolutions is that almost none of it takes place in the Matrix.

One possible strategy for this kind of tricky, layered plot: suppose we find out in Revolutions that the whole humans-in-vats being energy sources thing is just as absurd as it sounds, that it’s just a higher-order simulation designed to deceive the remaining humans, that what Morpheus and pals are doing is actually just what the machines want them to do? What if the machines are really trying to liberate humanity from the Matrix, and it turns out to be humans who put themselves in it? What if the Architect is the good guy and the Oracle the bad guy? And so on. In the right hands, this kind of escalation of doubt and confusion can work beautifully—but it takes a storyteller who has thought it all out in advance, who has an exquisite sense of how to use reversal and surprise as a way to structure storytelling. It also takes a storyteller who is both playful and willing to make some rules for his game and stick to them.

The only other way to go is to play completely fair with anyone who has followed the story to that point and reveal everything. Make the movie Matrix: Revelations, not Revolutions. Solve all outstanding questions, lay out the secrets, explain it all. Make those secrets basic, simple, and dealt with quickly through exposition.

That also is not what Revolutions did—instead it dropped some more murky, oblique characters into the mix, went on some time-wasting excursions to see old characters whose pointless, plot-arbitrary nature was confirmed (the appalliingly annoying Merovingian and his squeeze), offered some incoherently faux-profound dialogue about the plot’s events, blew a shitload of things up hoping nobody would notice how hollow the rest of the film was, and then threw into two incomprehensible conclusions (Neo’s defeat of Smith and the final scene with the Oracle, the Architect and Sati). Along the way there were isolated cases of really excrutiating badness—Trinity’s death scene was so protracted and excessive that I found myself screaming at the television, “Die already! Die DIE DIE!” I’m sure there are Matrix fanboys out there who can explain all this, but a dedicated fanboy can claim to see a pattern in a random piling of trash in a garbage dump, too.

I got it right in my comments on Reloaded: the Wachowskis want too badly to come off like philosophers, but they think philosophy is about incomprehensible slogans, meaningfully enigmatic glances and Ray-Bans. In Revolutions, there’s no hiding the naked emperor: they clearly don’t have the faintest idea what their story is actually all about, and so they perform the cinematic equivalent of alternating between mumbling and shouting. I can see how they could have played fair and explained it all. For example, make it clear that the machines created self-aware software upon which they are now dependent, and make the Matrix a literal “Third Way” in the human-machine conflict—make it hardware vs. software vs. meatware, and make the software dictate a peace on both humans and machines. Maybe the fanboys will claim that’s what was going on anyway, but that takes much more generosity than I’m prepared to show.

So. Hellboy. Hellboy gets it right because it tells a story honestly. As one of my students noted, when you see an opening quote about the Seven Elder Gods of Chaos, you know that you’re deep in the heart of Pulpville. The storytellers know that too, and they satisfyingly plunk their butts down right where they belong and stay there consistently throughout the film. The story moves along smoothly (well, there’s a slow bit in the beginning, maybe), the plot is transparent to its viewers and to its own genre conceits, and everything is played more or less fair. If the movie were a little more dour or took itself seriously enough, one might ask questions like, “Why does an agency of paranormal law enforcers seem to know so little about the paranormal?” (then again, just look at the 9/11 Commission to find out how law enforcement agents can not know a lot about what they’re supposed to know about) or “Isn’t it wise when you’re dealing with a quasi-immortal villain to not assume he’s dead?” You don’t ask these questions seriously because the story is robustly built and has an assuredness to it at all times. It knows what it is.

These are great examples for a straightfoward discussion of the technical craft of storytelling. What’s important about that discussion is that it can very rapidly scale up into much more critically complex conversations about genre, audience reception and audience formation, the history of representation, the indeterminate meanings of cinema as a form and much more besides—but it also shows that we need not (and in fact often do not) lose sight of a technically-focused ground floor of cultural criticism in moving towards more difficult questions.


April 16, 2004

The Raines Must Fall

Having finally made my way through Howell Raines’ full postmortem of his tenure at the New York Times (it’s only a bit shorter than Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion) I can’t say that I feel any great sympathy for him. Even when he’s making points I agree with about the Times, he comes off fairly badly, writing a weird jambalaya of self-pity, arrogance and gracelessness.

He means to convince anyone reading that he was done in by a cabal of no-talent hacks protecting their jobs—and I walked away convinced that there were in fact entrenched no-talent hacks at the Times when Raines was brought in (this is hardly news)—but he mostly ends up providing convincing confirmation that the sniping criticism of Raines during his tenure was valid. This is not a guy you’d want being the executive of anything, though he might make a good second-banana “bad cop” for a person with real leadership skills.

Raines takes credit, and deserves credit, for shaking up the Times’ utterly arteriosclerotic coverage of culture. In the mid-1990s, it was stunningly irrelevant and stultifyingly boring, both in the daily and Sunday paper. (Even the snotty high culture coverage was often so late, as Raines observes, that the Post, of all papers, was doing a more timely job on the same beat.) Raines helped the paper to figure out that you don’t send a man to do a boy’s job, and got reviewers like Elvis Mitchell to write about culture they both understood and enjoyed. However, the Sunday Arts & Leisure is still a snooze: the revolution is only partially complete.

In fact, the Sunday edition is in general still pretty boring. Raines seems to think he accomplished a lot in this respect, but I don’t see it. The Book Review is mostly predictable, the Week in Review flounders uselessly most of the time, and this was the same under Raines as it was before and since. The Sunday magazine has a better track record for interestingly controversial articles, though, but I thought that was one of the stronger parts of the Sunday edition before Raines arrived.

One small change that I have loved about the Times that I think came in during Raines’ tenure, though he doesn’t mention it (I think) in the Atlantic piece is the back end of the Saturday Metro section, with its really intriguing pieces on current debates and ideas in academic and intellectual circles.

Raines doesn’t talk that much about columnists, and that’s not surprising: the Times went from bad to worse during his tenure, keeping some of the same boring old pissants and adding some new boring younger pissants. Even the people I agree with are boring me. And it becomes clear as one reads along that many of his strongest internal critics were on the news staff, where the Times was in pretty good shape, especially in international coverage, before Raines started his tenure, and from the perspective of many external critics, actually got worse during his time. When I compare the international coverage under Lelyveld to the Times in the 1980s, it’s like night and day. The ideological hacks mostly disappeared, and lightweights like Christopher Wren were mostly swept out, replaced by much more interesting and energetic writers. The Africa coverage went from being something that persistently annoyed me to being something I learned from and found usefully distinctive from anything else in the mass media.

The domestic coverage has been uneven for a decade, but to be honest, all I ask of the Times in that regard is that it be solid, detailed, and fairly comprehensive, because that’s its purpose in my household, to serve as the paper of record. When I want something more, I go read The Economist, the features on the front of the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post for inside-the-Beltway stories, and the Internet.

That’s the first and major thing Raines doesn’t seem to get. He represents himself as coming in all gung-ho to expand the paper’s subscriber base, widen its appeal, reach new audiences, freshen up the Grey Lady. The core readership doesn’t probably want or need the paper to do that in most of its news coverage. I’m very glad to have the Times be more interesting in the places where it was just mind-bogglingly dull and snobbish, but when it comes to news, I demand that it first be respectable and meticulous. This is something that Raines didn't and still doesn’t seem to think is important: his vision, by his own account, was all about making every single part of the paper equally provocative and edgy. That’s not your market niche, man.

Raines ventriloquizes for both actual readers and potential readers and says, “This is what the public wanted, but my do-nothing, hack-job, fusty staff wouldn’t let me.” This reader says, “No, that’s not what I want when it comes to news and the Times.” The Times is not required to be boring, but neither does it require a front-to-back overhaul. I don’t require the Times to get there first, and I don’t require it to get there sexily. I just require the paper to get it right and get it all. If Raines had spent more time worrying about shoring up standards of craftsmanship and meticulousness in reporting and less time worrying about sexing up the writing, he might not have had the Jayson Blair problem.

Raines reports breathlessly on the internal culture of the Times as if he learned for the first time as executive editor how office politics works, and as if the Times is an unprecedented hive of professional cripples. Shouldn’t an executive editor be a seasoned old hand when it comes to issues like unproductive senior writers, recalcitrant underlings, or peer networks that rally to support each other? On banal questions of group dynamics, Raines acts like a sixty-year old spinster being shocked by a first encounter with the birds and the bees.

Aside from that, it’s really hard to sympathize with Raines as he comes off in this piece simply because he sounds like an unlikeable prick. That's a pretty bad sign when you write an exculpatory account of your own behavior and you still manage to come off like an asshole. It's like watching a television commercial for food where they can't even manage to make what they're selling look appetizing. That generally means that the food in question is authentically nasty. Same thing here. He manages to get in some truly graceless shots at his former colleagues, some of them by name, others only indirectly. It’s one thing for a crusader unmistakeably brought down by reactionary forces to shout defiance at his enemies, and another thing to pass the buck as aggressively as Raines does in the wake of a mistake that he at least had titular responsibility for. It makes me wonder if any leader in American public life will ever have the grace to just assume responsibility for failure on his watch and manfully go down with the ship.

At the very least, Raines could say a lot more about his shortcomings: there are very few unqualified or straightforward confessions in the article, and the half-hearted apologies take up a very small amount of the total space in the essay.


April 12, 2004

Readings and Rereadings #3

Lauren Slater, Opening Skinner's Box

April 8, 2004

Footnotes on Death in Iraq

I know this is a common fact about war, that many combatant deaths come only indirectly from military conflict, but has anyone noticed how many deaths of coalition forces in Iraq are non-combat deaths? I got interested when looking at the roster of the dead on CNN's web site and started a quick and imprecise count. It looked to me like almost a third of the deaths were attributed to either "non-combat gunshot wounds or injuries" or various kinds of vehicle accidents, with a few cases of death from illness or unspecified medical conditions. A few of the vehicle accidents probably had to do with the pressures of near-combat situations, but a lot of them were due to things like embankments crumbling or boats capsizing or just plain old traffic collisions. I thought for a minute that maybe some of the non-combat gunshot or injury deaths (about a third of the total non-combat deaths) were suicides, but the recorded cause of death as given at CNN actually explicitly note a suicide as such. I assume most of these deaths are actually training accidents or due to equipment malfunction.

April 8, 2004

Today's 3-Year Oldisms

Emma: Today is Monday!

Us: No, it’s Tuesday.

Emma: No, today is Monday.

Us: You have your swim lesson on Tuesdays, and you just got back from your swim lesson. Ergo, it is Tuesday.

Emma: There was a fairy who changed my swimming lesson to Monday this week. And she also gives people candy.


Me: Emma, should I shave off my beard? [A frequently asked question.]

Emma: No!

Me: Why not?

Emma: Because you would look more like a boyfriend than a daddy.

April 7, 2004

Emergence and the Metahistory of Efficiency

I’m going to gingerly venture in this space for the first time into waters that I’ve been heavily exploring for two years with other faculty and through very active reading, namely, complex-systems theory, complexity theory, nonlinear dynamics, emergent systems, self-organizing systems and network theory.

I am a very serious novice still in these matters, and very much the bumbler in the deeper scientific territory that these topics draw from. (Twice now I’ve hesitantly tried in public to talk about my non-mathematical understanding of the travelling salesman problem and why an emergent-systems strategy for finding good answers in non-polynomial time is useful, and I suspect that I could begin a career in stand-up comedy in Departments of Mathematics all around the nation with this routine.)

I do have some ideas for useful applications of these ideas to the craft of history—Alex Pang wasn’t the only one burning the midnight oil with an NSF application recently.

More generally, I think there is one major insight I’ve gotten about many of the systems that get cited as either simulated or real-world examples of “emergence”. The working groups I’m in have been thinking a lot about the question of why so many emergent systems seem to be “surprising” in their results, why the structures or complexities they produce seem difficult to anticipate from their initial conditions. Some complex-systems gurus like Stephen Wolfram have very strong ontological claims to make about the intrinsic unpredictability of such systems, but these are questions that I am not competent to evaluate (nor am much interested in). I tend to think that the sense of surprise is more perceptual, one part determined by the visual systems of human beings and one part determined by an intellectual metahistory that runs so deep into the infrastructure of our daily lives that we find it difficult to confront.

The visual issue is easier to recognize, and relatively well considered in A-Life research. It’s why I think some simulations of emergence like the famous “flocking” models are so readily useful for artists and animators, or why we’re weirdly fascinated by something like Conway’s Game of Life when we see it for the first time. Emergent systems ‘surprise’ us because they have a palpable organicism about them—they move in patterns that seem life-like to us, but in contexts where we do not expect life. There’s a deep human algorithim here for recognizing “life” that involves a combination of random movement and structural coherence, which is just what emergence does best, connecting simple initial conditions, randomness and the creation of structure. Purely random movements don’t look lifelike to us; “top-down” constructions of structure appear to us to have human controllers, to be “puppeted”. So we are surprised by emergence because we are surprised by the moment-to-moment actions of living organisms.

When I look at ants, I know in general what they will do next, but I don’t know what exactly any given ant will do in any given moment. This, by the way, is why most online virtual worlds still fail to achieve immersive organicism: play enough, explore enough, and you know not only what the general behavior of creatures in the environment is, but precisely what they will do from moment to moment.

What I think is deeper and harder to chase out is that we do not expect the real-world complex systems and behaviors we actually know about to be possible through emergence, in the absence of an architect, blueprint or controller. Some of this expectation has rightfully been attributed by Stephen Johnson and others to a particular set of presumptions about hierarchy, the so-called “queen ant hypothesis”. But I also think it is because there is an expectation deeply rooted in most modernist traditions that highly productive or useful systems achieve their productivity through some kind of optimality, some tight fit between purpose and result, in short, through efficiency.

My colleague Mark Kuperberg has perceptively observed that Adam Smith has to be seen as an early prophet of emergence—what could be a better example than his “bottom-up” view of the distributed actions of individuals leading to a structural imperative, the “invisible hand”—but as digested through the discipline of economics, Smith’s view was increasingly and to my mind unnecessarily parsed in terms of models requiring those agents to be tightly optimizing.

That’s what’s so interesting about both simulated and real-world examples of emergence: they create their useful results, their general systemic productivity, through excess, not efficiency. They’re not optimal, not at all, at least not in their actual workings. The optimality or efficiency, if such there is, comes in the relatively small amount of labor needed to set such systems in motion. Designing a system where there is a seamless fit between purpose, action and result is profoundly difficult and vastly more time-consuming than setting an overabundance of cheap, expendable agents loose on a problem. They may reach a desired end-state more slowly, less precisely, and more expensively in terms of overall energy expenditure than a tight system that does only that which it needs to do, but that excess doesn’t matter. They’re more robust to changing conditions if less adapted to the specificities of any given condition.

We go looking for efficiencies and thriftiness in productive systems partly because of a deep underlying moral presumption that thrift and conservation are good things in a world that we imagine to be characterized by scarcity—a presumption that Joyce Appleby has noted lies very deeply embedded in Enlightenment thought, even in the work of Adam Smith. And we do so because of a presumption that productivity and design, fecundity and cunning invention, are necessarily linked—a presumption that I am guessing is one part modernist trope and one part deep cognitive structure. We are disinclined to believe it possible that waste and excess can be the progenitors of utility and possibility. Georges Bataille’s answer to Marx may be, as Michael Taussig has suggested, far more important than we guess. Marx (and many non-Marxists) assume that surplus must be explained, that it is non-natural, that it is only possible with hierarchy, with intentionality, with design. It may be instead that excess is the key, vastly easier to achieve, and often the natural or unintended consequence of feedback in both human and natural systems.

The metahistory that I think I see lurking in the foundations here is a tricky one, and a lot of effort will be required to bring it to light. We will have to unlearn assumptions about scarcity. At the scale of living things, making more copies of living things may be thermodynamically incredibly cheap. At the scale of post-Fordist mass production, making more material wealth may be much cheaper than we tend to assume. We will have to root out our presumptions about efficiency and optimality and recognize that many real-world systems whose results we depend upon, from the immune system to the brain to capitalist economics, depend upon inefficient effectiveness (productive non-optimality, wasteful utility).

I also think exploring this metahistory of our unconscious assumptions might help us contain emergence and complex-systems theory to a subset of relevant examples. Some of the people working in this field are too inclined to start sticking the label emergent on anything and everything. You could actually come up with a prediction about the limited class of systems that can potentially be emergent or self-organizing (and I’m sure that some of the sophisticated thinkers in this field have done just that): they would have to be systems where many, many agents or discrete components can be made exceptionally cheaply and where simple rules or procedures for those component elements not only produce a desired end-state but also intrinsically terminate or contain their actions within the terms of that result, and probably some other criteria that might be identified by unthinking our prevailing assumptions about efficiency and design—say constraints on the space, environment or topology within which inefficiently effective systems might be possible.


April 6th, 2004

Don’t Play It Again, Sam

I never dreamed when I started my current book project in 1997 that writing about the British system of indirect rule in colonial Africa as a central issue would turn out to be relevant not just to understanding how African societies like Zimbabwe got to where they are today, but also to understanding how current events in another part of the globe are unfolding minute by minute.

But here we are. The United States is trying to get an approximately colonial system of indirect rule up and running in Iraq after June 30th, one more limited in its conception and at least notionally shorter in its projected lifespan than the early 20th Century British equivalent, but one nevertheless. It certainly makes me feel like I had better finish my project as soon as I can before I feel compelled to once again rethink what I’m writing in light of the latest developments.

I’m very hesitant about casual comparisons and analogies, like most historians, but this general resemblance seems to me to be unmistakable. This resemblance also clarifies for me why I do not view Iraq and Vietnam as strongly analogous. Cheap rhetoric aside, Vietnam was not an imperial war, and US power in South Vietnam was not a form of colonial rule. The configuration of political authority, the nature of the military conflict, the rhetorical framing of the struggle, the developmental timeframe of the war: they were all quite different. The Cold War was its own distinctive moment in the history of the 20th Century. So too is today, but it is closer to the colonial past than any other moment since the 1960s.

The fighting in the past week has been unnerving in its intensity, and seems today as if it will get worse with news of a major ambush of US Marines in Ramadi. The question is, does the analogy to British indirect rule help us understand what is happening now and what may happen in the future? I think yes, and the news is not very good.

Many defenders of the current war say that the critics have too short a time frame for assessing success, and they may have a point. British rule in Africa (and elsewhere) was pockmarked with short-lived uprisings and revolts which seemed briefly significant at the time, but which never really threatened British colonial authority fundamentally until the 1940s and the simultaneous challenge of major labor strikes, mass nationalist protest and the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, at a time when British economic and military strength was at relatively low ebb and the nature of international politics and morality had fundamentally shifted against empires.

So can the US simply endure these small rebellions similarly, by taking the long view? Well, probably not, and here’s some reasons why.

First reason: the British could simply ignore African resistance at times: lack of mass media and a global public sphere meant that many uprisings or acts of unrest were known only to local authorities until considerably later, and left more or less alone to burn out without fear of public reaction.

Second reason: colonial rebels lacked access to communicative methods for mobilizing and coordinating unrest over larger areas, which is not true in Iraq today.

Third reason: overt racism among British authorities and British society meant that they regarded Africans in so dehumanizing a manner that they usually did not have to worry officially or publically in public debate about what Africans thought, felt or desired, a rhetorical option no longer as open to the United States government today, though there’s certainly some hint of this now and again. (Official white supremacist practice contradicted by implicit liberalism under British rule has transited to official, explicit liberalism contradicted by implicit racial or cultural categorization of colonial subjects).

Fourth reason: the British were restrained by some humanitarian considerations in exerting their power, and when those constraints were egregiously overstepped, as in Amitsrar in India, there were consequences—but still, and particularly in the early history of colonial rule, it was possible for British forces to retaliate very openly with enormous force and with relatively little regard for due process or rights against even suspected rebels or dissidents. The US probably can’t do the same thing, both because the world has changed since 1890 and because massive retaliation against suspected sources of rebelliousness carries the risk of further inflamation of resistance among previously neutral civilians.

Fifth reason: Iraqi society is much more plugged into regional and global networks that can reinforce and amplify resistance to US occupation in comparison to most African societies in the early 20th Century.

Sixth reason: British indirect rule, for all its rhetoric of “the civilizing mission”, was ultimately much more modest in its ambitions in most cases than American rule in Iraq is today. The bar for declaring “success” was much lower then.

Seventh reason: British indirect rule existed in an international system dominated by European state that normalized imperial authority in general and racial hierarchy in specific. American indirect rule in Iraq exists in a world that is largely mobilized against imperial ambitions, often insincerely or instrumentally, but mobilized nevertheless.

Eighth reason: The direct relation of American popular opinion and elections to the continuance of an imperial policy is structurally very different than what pertained in Britain from 1880 to the 1930s. What was sustainable then politically is not sustainable now without an even more seismic shift in American culture and society.

Ninth reason, and perhaps the most importantly concrete; British military power in relation to non-Western societies in 1890 was the most technologically asymmetrical that the world has ever seen: there was an unbridgeable distance in terms of firepower, logistical capability, and much else besides. Britain rarely exerted this power directly after the initial era of conquest in Africa and elsewhere, but when it did, there was simply no question of armed resistance succeeding. This is no longer the case today. American military power is still massively asymmetrical to the military power of armed insurgents in Iraq, but in ways that are of no use in exerting indirect rule authority over Iraq—you cannot assert indirect rule through bombing campaigns, artillery assaults, or nuclear deterrents. You can only do it with ground troops—and here automatic weapons and homemade explosives in the hands of insurgents coupled with the ability to vanish into the general population are enough to bring Iraqi combatants up to the point that they can exert meaningful force against American authorities. You can leave aside all the other comparisons but I think this alone is a devastating difference between the world of 2004 and 1890. Now "they" do have the Maxim Gun, more or less.


April 6, 2004

Great Courses

When I was a graduate student, I once queried the local free weekly about writing a column of course reviews drawn from universities and colleges in the region—I thought I’d contact the instructor, get a hold of a syllabus, slip into the back of the room for two or three lectures in a large course or listen in on two or three discussions, and then write a review. I’m glad they declined the offer (ignored, actually) given that I couldn’t possibly have written such a column and remained a viable graduate student. Moreover—and I didn’t know this at the time—very few professors would allow such a thing, and in some institutions, they’d probably be prohibited from giving a stranger permission to sit in on two or three course sessions.

Now there’s a way, sort of, to accomplish something rather like this, and that’s to take advantage of online syllabi and find really great examples of courses out there worthy of praising. A great syllabus isn’t necessarily a great course, but it is likely to be, and a great syllabus is in its own right something useful, interesting and compelling. Syllabus design is one of the subtle but central arts of academic life. A good online syllabus is the antithesis of an online education: it doesn’t pretend to be teaching or instruction, just to be a form of publication, a sort of annotated bibliography. Syllabi are good to think.

I’ll start locally. My Bryn Mawr colleagues Anne Dalke and Paul Grobstein are teaching a course this semester called The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories. This course is a great model for cross-disciplinary--not interdisciplinary--teaching in a liberal arts institution. Sadly, we don’t have much that's comparable at Swarthmore. Our cross-disciplinary co-teaching tends much more to the dour and respectable, to rendering service to sequential curricula or established interdisciplinary programs of study. This course, in contrast, is the kind of course that many different kinds of students from different disciplines could come to and gain a new perspective on their work without necessarily having that sense of having climbed a necessary rung of a preset ladder. I've long thought that most institutions of our type should have a few courses every year that are about a discovered conversation between two colleagues--not to be taught again and again, perhaps to be taught only once, and as exploratory for the faculty as the students. As I look over the idea of the course, I can see a lot of places where I would have a different point of entry into the conversation. I thought immediately of a paper by Peter Bogh Andersen, "Genres as Self-Organizing Systems", that I encountered via William Tozier, or Gary Taylor's book Cultural Selection. This strikes me as a sign of excellence in a course of this kind, that many different people would be able to look at it, immediately "get" the basic concept behind it, and think about some other texts or materials to bring to the table.

April 5, 2004


1) I see Ralph Nader has been popping up in the media expressing bewilderment at the vehemence that his candidacy raises among its critics. Reacting in particular to the similarity in the many letters he received from friends and admirers begging him not to run, he says, "It's a virus", saying there could be no other explanation for the similarity between the appeals. No, Ralph. When everyone disagrees with you in the same terms, it's not a virus. It just means everyone sees the same thing. Generally, the only people who conclude in the face of that kind of mass concord that they themselves must be right and everyone else must be wrong are narcissists, paranoids or the Son of God. Take your pick.

2) Will Baude of Crescat Sententia draws attention to the all-important campaign to get George Lucas, another isolated destructive narcissist of the first order (he'd make a great running mate for Nader) to include the original version of the Star Wars trilogy on this fall's DVD set. I don't much care about most of the original scenes, and in fact, most of the CGI additions were kind of nice, if sometimes rather busy. But I do care--enormously--about Han Solo shooting first in the cantina. I don't know if any other director has ever so revoltingly and pointlessly mutilated his own work (voluntarily!), but please, George, give us the option to undo your foolishness.

3) 3-year olds are a hoot! Every day is some fascinating new angle from the peanut gallery on something I'd never thought of that way, or some recombinant view of something that makes a kind of weird, interesting sense. This week's special, while watching the gazebo scene early in The Sound of Music:

(Rolf shows up to meet Lisle in the gazebo.)

Emma: Who is he?

Us: He's the Nazi Boy.

Emma: What is his name?

Us: Rolf.

Emma: Who named him?

Us: His parents. We think.

Emma: I didn't know that Nazi Boys had parents.

April 5, 2004

Piling On Intelligent Design

Everywhere I click in the last few weeks, folk are talking about Intelligent Design theories and working themselves into a mighty froth over the theories and the tactics of those who advance them.

Rather than joining the pile-on right away—though as you’ll see, I’ll get around to it eventually—I thought it might be worth taking a deep breath beforehand, partially because it doesn’t seem to me absolutely intrinsically impossible that one could find evidence of intelligent design in the universe. I suppose that’s what I now class myself as an agnostic rather than an atheist. I see no reason at all to think that such a designer exists, but I’m an open-minded guy.

So perhaps the first reaction one should have to intelligent design theories is to specify in advance what real, meaningful evidence could reasonably occasion a scientifically-sound hypothesis in favor of an intelligent designer. There are lots of personalized ways ID could be confirmed. Dying and finding oneself in an afterlife where a Supreme Being personally affirmed that he was in fact the designer of the universe would be one such source of evidence. A bit hard to repeat the experiment, though. Revelatory personal contact with God would be confirmation for a single person (though there would always be the possibility that you were suffering from mental illness) but that also can’t be shared or repeated.

What external, repeated evidence could there be? What would ID predict? God or his agents could appear physically in the world and cause events to happen for which there could be no other explanation save divine power, where we widely agreed that we had witnessed such events, or had repeatable confirmation via video or other recording devices that such events had happened. God could put a genetic watermark into the DNA of all living things that spelled out “Organism by God” in English. Equally unmistakeable signs—and we’re not talking a Rorsach-blot picture of a weeping Jesus on a tree stump here—would be enough. We could probably list them predictively with some reasonable precision.

What would not suffice, as many have noted, is a demonstration that our current theories cannot explain some aspect of observable reality. That proves nothing about an intelligent designer. And as many have also noted, even if one conceded most of the ID arguments of this kind, they would tell you nothing about the identity of the intelligent designer—it could just as easily be Yog-Sothoth or a mad scientist from Dimension X as it could be God.

The thing that is puzzling in a way is why most Christians would bother with intelligent design. Modern Christianity, even high rationalist Catholicism, acknowledges the special role of faith. Who is intelligent design intended for? A Christian who needs such an exotic, Rube-Goldberg crutch to achieve faith is very possibly a person whose belief in God is already on the verge of collapsing, unless they’re a strict ‘blind watchmaker’ deist. And yet, if this was the point of ID, I personally would have no real problem with it. Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and various atheists who have made a point out of confronting and pursuing religious people have typically misunderstood three things: first, the social, cultural and psychological generativity and productivity of religious beliefs; second, the conditional rationality of many of them (e.g., they're reasonable readings or interpretations of certain events or phenomena but only in the absence of additional information); third, the degree to which it is completely rational (indeed, scientific) to be skeptical about the authority of science and scientists, especially when that authority is marshalled behind the making of public policy.

If any individual needs ID to bolster his personal faith, that’s fine with me. If believers want to share ID among themselves, then that too is fine, but considered purely as a matter of intellectual and social history, that says something interesting and perhaps even comforting about the ascension of scientific reason as the dominant spirit of our age, that Christian faithful would feel the need to translate their faith into the terms and norms of pseudo-science in order to legitimate it among themselves.

This is not what the struggle over intelligent design is about, however. Its proponents do not use it as a private foundation for their faith, or a shared liturgy. They want it to stand equally with evolution within the architecture of public reason. This is where the opponents of ID draw the line, and rightfully so, because what it reveals is that ID is a highly intentional mindfuck of the first order. It’s not intended for the faithful, and it’s not based on credible evidence. It’s intended for those who do not believe in God. It is a tool of subversion intended to produce conversion. It is a Trojan Horse attempt to speak in the language of the non-Christian Other while actively trying to obfuscate and sabotage that language. It is dishonest. This is why Brian Leiter and many others are perfectly right to react with such intensity to ID, because it is often a quite conscious attempt to pollute and despoil the utility and value of scientific thought and illicitly limit its domains within the social and intellectual life of the nation.

Christians have as much right as anyone to persuasively address their fellow citizens on behalf of their own cultural and social projects. However, participating in public reason in a democratic society obligates us all to honesty, to placing all our cards on the table. I will gladly hear a Christian try to persuade me to their faith, even if they talk in terms of arguments for intelligent design, as long as it is a two-way conversation, transparent to the public sphere. Trying to convert me by monkey-wrenching the general productivity of my everyday working epistemologies is a different matter, however. I react to that about as well I would react to someone slashing the tires on my car.


March 29, 2004

Readings and Rereadings #2

Holly Elizabeth Hanson, Landed Obligation: The Practice of Power in Buganda

March 28, 2004

Category Error

Sasha Issenberg’s typically entertaining, elegant critique of David Brooks (I get to call it typical because I graded his confident, intelligent and meticulous writing quite often when he was a student here) is already getting some justified and mostly positive attention from webloggers.

One of the best features of Issenberg’s article is his coverage of Brooks’ reaction to the piece. Issenberg finds that most of Brooks’ characterizations of red and blue America, or anything else, are based on stereotypes rather than reportage, inference rather than data, cliches rather than research. Brooks protests that this is a pedantic objection, that Issenberg doesn’t get the joke, or is being too literal. (And tosses in to boot a condescending jab about whether this is how Issenberg wants to start his career.)

I think Brooks would have a point were he another kind of writer, or inclined to claim a different kind of authority for his work. If Bobos hadn’t been sold and framed as a work of popular sociology, but instead merely as witty, personal social observation in the style of Will Rogers or Roy Blount Jr—basically as a folklorist of the professional classes—then Brooks would be entirely justified in putting on his best Foghorn Leghorn voice and saying, “It’s a joke, son”.

But as Issenberg observes, that’s not the weight class Brooks tries to fight in. He wants to be the latest in a line of popular sociologists diagnosing the American condition. Issenberg perhaps overstresses the untarnished respectability of that lineage: there’s a few quacks, cranks and lightweights scattered in there. Is Brooks the latest such lightweight? I think Issenberg makes a good case that he is.

This is not to say that there isn’t some truth in what Brooks has to say, but the odd thing is that the truthfulness of his writing has to do less with how we now live than how we think about how we live (and more, how others live). It’s not that you can’t buy a $20 meal in Franklin County, but that the professional classes of Blue America think that you can’t. Red and Blue America works not just because it’s backed by some sociological data (not collected by Brooks) but because once named, we all recognized its stereotypes and their correspondence to mostly private, mostly interior kinds of social discourses in contemporary American life--a point Issenberg makes astutely in his article. When professional middle-class urbanites talk amongst themselves about gun control—which they mostly favor—they often lard up their conversations with references to gun racks on pickup trucks and other visions of the rural Other, and it works in the other direction too.

If Brooks can ask Issenberg if this is how he wants to start a career (seems a pretty good start to me) then I think Issenberg and others are justified in asking Brooks if this is how he wants to sustain one, by feeding us back our stereotypes and acting as if he has accomplished something simply because many of us nod in recognition. If Brooks would like to move beyond that to showing us something we already—and often incorrectly—think we know about ourselves and our fellow Americans, he’ll probably have to get serious about those trips to look for $20 dinners. Or he can hang up the sociologist’s hat and settle into the role of observer and witticist—but even there, we often most treasure and remember the observers who do something more than hold up a mirror to our confirmed prejudices.


March 24, 2004

Middle-Earth Online: A Prediction

I was just joining in a group-whine in one discussion forum about the failure of massively-multiplayer persistent-world computer games, and we were commenting in particular on how freakishly bad the initial experience of gameplay is in most of them.

MMOGs, almost ALL of them, go out of their way, almost by design, to make the initial experience of a player as boring and horrible as possible.

Which doesn't fit the ur-narrative of the "level up" heroic fantasy, if you think about it. In the ur-narrative, the protagonist begins his or her heroic career usually in the middle of a contented or at least static life (Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker) but the hero's journey doesn't start with ten hours of killing household pests. It starts with a bang: with tension and high stakes, with ringwraiths and stormtroopers. If heroic fantasy was written to match a MMOG, nobody would ever get to Chapter Two.

So I thought about that a bit more. Since there is going to be a MMOG game based on Tolkien's Middle Earth, I wondered a bit what the novel Lord of the Rings would look like if it were based on a Middle-Earth themed MMOG. Here's what I came up with:

Continue reading "Middle-Earth Online: A Prediction"

March 23, 2004

You Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Gone

Invisible Adjunct is closing her blog and giving up her search for academic employment.

There are two things I'm sure of. The first thing is that this is pretty solid evidence that academia collectively misses the boat sometimes when it comes to hiring the best and the brightest, or uses profoundly self-wounding criteria to filter between the elect and the discarded. I think anyone who read Invisible Adjunct's site could see unambiguous evidence that this was a person who had a productive, committed and deeply insightful understanding of what academic life is and what it could be, the kind of understanding I take to be intrinsically connected to effective teaching. There was also ample evidence of a fine scholarly mind on display, combining passion for her subjects of expertise with precision of knowledge.

The second thing is the collective value of a good weblog. Invisible Adjunct's site is what made me excited about doing this for myself, and connected me to people who shared a moderate, proportionate, and reasonable critical perspective on academia--something that is hard to find anywhere, in the world of weblogs or anywhere else. I don't think there is anything else that even comes close to serving that function, and it is clear that it was possible not just because of the domain name or the topics, but because of the rich table of information and useful provocation that the host so regularly set and the tone of moderated principle she struck day after day.

March 23, 2004

Waiting for Menchu

Not for the first time, a reported campus hate crime has turned out to be a hoax, this time at Claremont. A part-time instructor reported that her car had been vandalized and hate slogans scrawled on it, sparking campus-wide efforts to confront racism at Claremont. It now appears likely that the instructor did it herself.

Ah-hah!, say many critics of academic life and campus identity politics. This just proves that hate crimes on campus are exaggerated and the culture of victimization has run rampant. Nothing to see here, move along, say those who remain deeply concerned about questions of racism and discrimination within higher education.

This exchange reminds me in many ways of the debate over the fabrications of Rigoberta Menchu. For many of the combatants, that affair became a battle first and only briefly about Menchu herself and Guatemala, and more potently about the ulterior motives of her defenders or her critics. For the critics, it was evidence of the conscious, premeditated and instrumental lies of the academic left; for the defenders, it was evidence of the lurking malevolence of a conspiratorial right and the need to maintain solidarity in the face of this threat.

There were more than a few people who also threaded the needle in between in some manner, most prominently David Stoll, who revealed Menchu’s prevarications. What struck me most powerfully was that Menchu’s real story, had it been written in her autobiography, would still have been interesting and valid and important and reasonable testimony to the struggles of Guatemalans under military rule. The question for me was, “Why did she, with assistance from interlocutors, refashion herself into the most abject and maximally oppressed subject that she could?” The answer to that question, the fault of that untruth, lies not so much in Menchu but in her intended audience.

Here I think the academic left, that portion of it most invested in identity politics (which is not the whole or necessarily even the majority of the academic left), takes it on the chin. Menchu is what some of them most wanted, a speaking subaltern.

You build a syllabus and go looking: is there any text, any material, that will let you say, “This is what illiterate peasant women in this place think. This is what ordinary migrant laborers in 1940s South Africa thought. This is what serfs in medieval Central Europe thought. This is what slaves in classical Greece thought”. You know those people existed and presume they had thoughts, feelings, sentiments. You want those thoughts written in teachable, usable, knowable form.

You want what people in my field call “the African voice”. If you don’t have it in the syllabus, in your talk, in your paper, in your book, somebody’s going to get up in the audience and say, “Where is the authentic African voice?” and mutter dire imprecations when you say, “I don’t have it. I can’t find it. It doesn’t exist”. You may quote or mention or study an African, or many, but if they’re middle-class, or “Westernized”, or literate, or working for the colonial state, somebody’s going to tell you that’s not enough. The light of old anthropological quests for the pure untouched native is going to shine through the tissue paper of more contemporary theory. You may move into more troubled waters if you say, as you ought, “I don’t need it and there isn’t any such thing. There’s just Africans and Europeans and anybody else: everything that anyone has ever written or had written down about them is grist for my mill. A thousand voices, no Voice”.

Some people wanted Rigoberta Menchu. They wanted La Maxima Autentica, the most subalterny subaltern ever. They bought her book, taught her book, willed her into being. She fit. I don’t blame Menchu for giving an audience its desire, and I don’t really blame the audience for that desire either. It’s not the highly conscious, totally instrumental, connivingly ideological scheme that some on the right made it out to be. It’s a needy hypothesis gone deep into the intellectual preconscious, a torment over knowledge unknowable. Somewhere there probably is a peasant woman who lived Menchu’s fictional life, more or less. We don’t have her book, her words, and probably if we did or could, they’d be more morally complex, more empirically ambivalent, more reflecting the lived contours of an actuality (suffering included) than the searingly unambiguous j’accuse that some visions of the world require.

This is all similar to when someone fabricates a hate crime on a campus, or exaggerates the modestly offensive stupidity of a drunken student into the raving malevolence of Bull Connor. There is an overdetermination here, an always-already knowledge, a neediness. Of course some people are going to fabricate such crimes, following the logic of a moral panic, a deep prior narrative, a chronicle of a deed foretold. Everyone “knows” such crimes exist—and of course (this is important) they do. But they are presumed to exist more than they exist, they are needed to exist more than they exist, because our received narratives of racial and sexual injustice tell us that institutional and cultural racism is the iceberg below the sea, an iceberg signaled by the visible tip of extraordinary hate crimes. Crime has an intentionality that is tangible, a concretization: from it we infer the concrete intentionality of what is hidden from view.

So campuses mobilize at every blackface, at every act of minor vandalism, at every hostile word or mysterious epithet. The sign is given!

But no one knows how to deal with subtle, pervasive forms of discrimination, and that’s partly because the discourses we have available to us about fighting discrimination hold that it is equally bad regardless of its form or nature, that the harm suffered by being misrepresented, slighted, overlooked, denigrated, condescended to is one part of a seamless and unitary phenomenon that includes being lynched and put in the back of the bus. And they are connected. They are part of a connected history, but they are not the same. History contains continuity and rupture both.

The gleeful critics of campus politics roll their eyes at this equivalence and take it as evidence of the triviality of the academic left. I agree with conservative critics that it’s a mistake to stress the continuities between the brutalities of Jim Crow and the subtleties of unconscious stereotype and subtle exclusion in present practice, but this is not to say that the latter is non-harmful, or just something to shrug off. One thing I learned by being a white man living in a black country is that it is an incredible psychic drain day after day to know that you are marked as a stranger, as socially different, by mere fact of your physiognomy. It exacts a real toll on you, and every subtle thing that people do to remind you of it, without any malice, digs the psychic claws deeper and deeper.

This innocent wounding, this cumulative stigma, is the core of the problem. Many look for, expect or anticipate hate crimes on campus as the visible signs of a pervasive malevolence, an illegitimate system of holding power, as an indication of a willfulness and agency that is the illegitimate and contestable cause of the sense of alienation and unease that some students, some faculty, some people have within white-majority campuses. Those crimes come less often than predicted, and when they come, they mostly don’t seem to be the acts of Simon Legree’s spiritual descendents, deliberate acts rich in the intentionality of power, but accidents and oversights, misspeech and crudity. Some see in these incidents the secret of racial conspiracy revealed, rather like Eddie Murphy’s brilliant sketch on Saturday Night Live where disguised as a white man, his character finds that white people give each other free money and privilege once racial minorities are out of sight. They overdeterminedly read a synecdoche, a single moment that contains a hidden whole. And when the right number and type of crimes do not come, some make them come, certain that even if the incident is false, the deeper truth is not.

Rigoberta Menchu’s real story is still interesting and powerful: a woman with some education, some status, some resources, some agency, in confrontation with a state and a social order, witness to terror and suffering. Its ambiguities are what could teach us, not its stridency. If we want to confront racial alienation on campuses, we will equally have to embrace its ambiguities, its subtleties, and recognize that it cannot be easily marched against, confronted, protested, forbidden by statute or code, expelled. It is in us, it is us, and the world has changed in the time we have all come into being and found ourselves where we do. It is not dogs and firehoses now, but small words and the pain of a thousand pinpricks. Until that is fully understood, there will be occasions where stressed, needy people tired of waiting for Godot try to summon into being the spirit whose ubiquity they have too busily prophesized.


March 23, 2004

Via Pandagon, evidence that whatever was funny or smart about Dennis Miller has evaporated into dust and blown away. And I regret it, because I do think he was both funny and smart once upon a time. This judgement has nothing to do with ideology. I am perfectly prepared to credit and like some of the transformations in his own politics he's talked about in the media, presuming they're for real and not just somebody trying to make a career move; some of what he talks about resonates with me. But this is as shameful a meltdown as anything Dan Rather or anyone else has ever had on live media. Miller likes to talk as if he's got cojones: well, anybody with real balls would get up the night after pulling this kind of stuff and apologize unreservedly to his rapidly shrinking audience and to his guest.

Been playing the full verson of Unreal Tournament 2004 the last few nights for about an hour or so each night (more than that and I feel like my eyeballs are bleeding). It's really good, at least the Onslaught mini-game, which is clearly influenced by Halo. What's nice is that though I haven't played an FPS for two years or so, I'm actually not a complete noob at it--I'm doing pretty well. It seems to me that multiplayer games like this only have a short "golden age", though, before cheats and hacks become widespread and cheeseball tactics take hold. Onslaught is pretty well designed to prevent some of the cheesiest tactics, like tank rushes, but I can already see a few stunts that could spoil the fun if lots of people start to pull them.

Speaking of Unreal Tournament, the Penny Arcade guys have come up with one of the funniest and most spot-on summaries of the online world in general with this cartoon.

March 22, 2004

Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay

When I hand back analytic essays, I try to leave room to do a collective post-mortem and talk about common problems or challenges that appeared in a number of essays. I think it helps a lot to know that the comment you got is a comment that other people got, and also to know how some people dealt more successfully with the same issue. All anonymous, of course, and following my Paula-like nature, nothing especially brutal in terms of the actual grades dispensed.

I usually base my comments on some scrawled meta-notes I keep as I work through each batch of essays. Sometimes there are unique problems that arise in relation to a particular essay question, which is sometimes a consequence of my having given enough rope for certain students to hang themselves in the phrasing of the question. Often there are problems I’ve seen before and commented upon.

Read the Rest of "Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay"

March 16, 2004

Readings and Rereadings #1

I've been meaning to use this blog to compel myself to tackle the backlog of 50 or so books of various kinds that are sitting on my "to be read" shelves. So here I go. What I plan to do in this part of the blog is put short or long reactions to some or all of a book--not to do formal "book reviews". Some of these may amount to no more thana paragraph. If I can stick to it, I hope to tackle 2-3 books a week this way most weeks.

So here goes with number one: Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival.

March 16, 2004

Anybody else like Tripping the Rift? on the Sci-Fi channel? It's sort of like "Quark" meets "South Park". Obscene, a bit stupid at times, tries too hard, but still funny.

I feel a fragging coming on: the demo for Unreal Tournament 2004 is kind of fun, especially the "Onslaught" game. Been a while since I've done this kind of thing: I may actually get the full edition.

This is a mirror of a really fascinating archive of photos from the region around Chernobyl.

March 15, 2004

Terrorist Tipping Points

Following up more prosaically on my thoughts about the “hard men”, the atrocity of March 11th makes me think again about what moves below the surface in the conflict with terrorism.

Somebody put those bombs on those trains in Spain, and yet that same somebody doesn’t wish to stand forward and be clearly identified, or tie these acts to some concrete goal or demand. So someone someplace has a model of causality in their head, that to do this thing without any clear public explanation will still somehow produce a result they deem desirable. But what? A general climate of fear? An unbalanced response by governments? A sick morale-booster for terrorists embattled elsewhere? A victory for the Spanish opposition? Or nothing more than a nihilistic desire to act somehow, with no real conceptual belief about what action will accomplish? Particularly if it turns out to be ETA that was responsible for March 11th (something that is appearing increasingly unlikely) that last is about the only plausible interpretation.

What March 11th really demonstrated, however, is that any time a small group of people decides to do something like this in the United States or Western Europe, they probably can. Given the degree to which Americans have portrayed al-Qaeda as boundlessly blood-thirsty and completely unprincipled, the question of the day is thus not “What will they do next?” but “Why haven’t they done more?” The answers, I think, are uncomfortable.

First, the strength of US reaction to 9/11, particularly in Afghanistan, when we were still focused on al-Qaeda and international terrorism rather than the Administration’s unhealthy obsession with Saddam Hussein, communicated something very valuable and important, that major terrorist attacks would have major consequences. Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants may have reckoned that 9/11 would result in the lobbing of a few more cruise missiles at deserted camps and innocuous factories in Sudan. Having seen that this was incorrect, having suffered severe damage to their movement's fortunes, they and others may hesitate to act again against civilians within the domestic borders of the United States for fear of even graver consequences. On the other hand, this is where March 11th is a sobering reminder—because it may demonstrate that a terrorist movement which has nothing left to lose has no more fear of consequences. The worst atrocities might come paradoxically when a terrorist organization is closest to being defeated.

Second, for all of my anger at aspects of the Bush Administration’s homeland security initiatives, I still have to concede that many of the precautions taken and the investigative work completed have made it more difficult for existing terrorist cells in the United States to act. It is easy to be cynical about all the orange alerts, not the least because the Administration has been so willing to use security concerns to bolster its own narrow partisan fortunes (not something a genuine War President ought to do) but even Administration critics have to concede the very real possibility that the alerts and accompanying measures have prevented one or more attacks.

But that still leaves us with one additional consideration, which is the possibility that existing terrorist cells capable of acting have chosen not to act. This is what is so difficult to calculate. Everyone is looking at the political results in Spain and asking, “Is that what the terrorists wanted? Will that reward them?” Precisely because we have to treat terrorists as people with their own agency, making their own moral and political choices, we have to consider the possibility that they might refrain from attacking for any number of reasons, even including, impossible as it seems, their own contradictory and hellishly incoherent form of moral scruples.

This is a critical issue. Even in the best case scenario, we have to assume that there are still people at large in the United States and Western Europe who could stage terrorist attacks. Anybody who devotes even a small amount of time to thinking of plausible targets knows that not only is there a huge surplus of such targets, there must always be so in democratic societies. The train attacks in Spain could easily have happened on Amtrak: in the past ten months, I’ve sat on Amtrak trains where people in my car have left a backpack on a seat and gone to the bathroom or club car, or so I’ve assumed. If they were leaving a bomb instead, how could any of us tell? Trains only scratch the surface: a hundred ghastly scenarios spring to mind. Without any effort, I can think of ten things that a handful of suicide bombers could do in the US or Western Europe that would have devastating psychological and possibly even economic consequences at the national and international level.

If there are terrorist cells in the US and Western Europe capable of acting, and they have not acted, we can perhaps console ourselves that Afghanistan taught them to fear the consequences. We can also imagine perhaps that they are intimidated by security precautions, unimaginative in their choice of targets, or incompetent in their logistics. Far more, this all begs the question: what do they want, how do they imagine they will get it, and how does that dictate their actions? For all that it is soothingly simple to imagine them to be mindless killers who would commit any atrocity, we nevertheless face the complicated fact that they likely could have already committed atrocities beyond those already inflicted. What internal calculus tips a small group of men over to the commission of horror? There is no invasion force that can keep that tripwire permanently still: there is nothing to invade. The worst dilemma, however, is that we do not know and perhaps cannot know what the terms of that calculus are, whether it moves to action because of rigidity and repression or in the absence of it, whether it seeks anything concrete in terms of results or reactions. If it only seeks pure destruction and the maximization of pain, then I don't really understand why there have not been more attacks already. There must be more to it than that.


March 10, 2004

Triumph of the Will, or in the name of my father

Because one of the major themes of the book I’m writing now is the nature of human agency in historical processes, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether some individuals are able to act in the world through drawing on unpredictable determination or mysterious inner strength, through a ferocious desire to make things happen. Through will.

Will gives me a thrill. If there’s anything in President Bush’s defense of his post-9/11 strategy that resonates in me, it is the invocation of will, of a steely determination to stay the course.

I know I’m weak and frightened. I’ve always been. When I am traveling or working in southern Africa, I preemptively flinch at even the slightest hint of tension. In my first stay in Zimbabwe in 1990, when a policeman politely but quite earnestly commented that he would have to shoot me if I didn’t stop walking while the president’s motorcade went past and then meaningfully swiveled his gun towards me, I waited frozen and then returned to my apartment instead of proceeding onto the archives. I crawled inside like a rabbit frightened by predators, emerging only with the next day.

I don’t mean to overstate. I have willingly gotten into strange and sometimes threatening situations every time I have spent time in Africa. Not with fearless bravado, rather with a kind of sweet and stupid cheerfulness, a determination not to listen to the warning bells going off in the back of my head. I listen to my anthropologist friends who programmatically seek out opportunities to attend unnerving religious rituals and tense, near-riotous political situations and I wonder wistfully why I’m so scared and they’re so brave.

I know that if it came to it, I’d piss my pants in a minute. Big Brother wouldn’t need a cage full of rats on my face in Room 101 to get me to betray my deepest commitments.

I found that out when I traveled with my father in South Africa. When we were confronted with a rather trivial example of a shakedown by a corrupt official in a game park, I was ready to unload my rands on the man in a country minute, just because he had a knife and a walkie-talkie (and, I imagined, a bunch of tsotsi pals waiting down the trail to ambush us). But Dad just stared him down, and the guy caved.

Yet here I am willing, perpetually willing, to talk about what we ought to do in a world where people want to kill us, want to kill me. What good am I?

There’s more than one flavor of will in the world, though, and all of them can make things happen that would not otherwise happen.

There’s a pure will to violence and survival that’s a highly masculized combination of sadomasochism and swagger. We mostly see it our fictions, in Rocky films or in the umpteen thousandth time that Wolverine staggers through a comic book stoically bearing the pain of a hundred knife thrusts to his abdomen, but it really exists. “The trick is not minding that it hurts”. Mostly in the real world this amounts to nothing: lacking mutant powers or cinematic magic, the man of a thousand wounds usually staggers towards death, perhaps performing some small miracle of salvation or destruction on the way. Sometimes it is more, a person who shrugs off pain and fear to stagger through to some better day.

This kind of will is related to but not identical to the soldier’s will, the will to fight when necessary or ordered, the will to act remorselessly if need be, to defend what is yours and take what you must. My father had some of that. When a crazy man with a gun killed people at another branch of his law firm, Dad wished he’d been there, believing that he could have stayed calm under fire and stopped the man before anyone died. Dad used to tell me how the Marines taught him to kill or disable someone by striking their windpipe hard. I don’t think any of this was bravado, or something he was proud of. They were quiet facts, stated calmly, based on a belief that if it came to it, he could do what was needed without pause or regret. I believed him.

The soldier’s will is not the will of the hard man. The hard man is the man who haunts our nightmares. The hard man is the man who disproves the easy, lazy adage that violence never solves anything or causes anything meaningful to happen. The hard man can drive history like a whipmaster drives a horse, frothing, eyes-rolling, galloping heedlessly ahead. The hard man dreams not of the world he desires: his will is fire, and burns down thoughts of better days. The hard man only knows what he does not want and cannot accept, and his determination to strike out against the object of his fury is mighty. The hard man bombs pubs and buildings and planes; he cuts ears off defeated rivals, hands off innocent children, heads off journalists.

When we think of will, the hard man is the one we both fear and yet sometimes secretly desire. He laughs contemptuously at the doubts that afflict us, sure that he floats above us like an iron balloon, unyielding and untouched. We forget too easily why fascism authentically, legitimately attracted many before 1939: not just the purity of its conception of nation, not just its focus on essence, but also the hardness and clarity of its commitment to transformation, its baptismal yearnings.

The hard man's close cousin is the fierce dreamer, the obdurate idealist, the person who looks at today and can only see the ways in which it is not some ideal tomorrow. I may be too quick to accuse some of utopianism--that will require some reflection--but I do not think I am wrong to fear the utopian's will and regard with suspicion anything redolent of it.

None of these are the will to do the right thing even if all the world says otherwise. To do the right thing, but not quickly, not eagerly, not with braying certainty. The will to do the right thing comes from men and women bound by honor, directed by wisdom, burdened by a mournful understanding of their duty. Atticus Finch does not rush ahead, beating his chest and howling a war cry. Will Kane seeks allies and the support of his community, even when he wearily understands that he is all alone. There is no eagerness in him. The lonesome righteous can make horrible mistakes, auto-imprisoning himself in obligations, like Captain Vere in Billy Budd. He or she can end up staring with melancholy regret at his dirty hands. This is the kind of will I most admire, the kind of courage which stealthily rises to lift the whole world on its shoulders and reluctantly hurl it into a new orbit. Against the hard man, we raise the quiet man as his opposite.

Dad may have had the resolve of a soldier, but he also had this kind of determination as well. He would have stayed the course even if he was the last person left to hold the rudder. There was a rawness to his integrity: it was like sandpaper, flaying the sensitive nerve-endings of some around him. It was uncompromising both when it ought to have been and sometimes perhaps when it would have been better to bend rather than break. Nor was he tested as sorely as some have been: he never had to risk his own career, his livelihood, his future the way that some whistleblowers have. I think he would have, though, if it had ever come to it.

This is the will I long for now, and it’s not what we’re getting. Oh, they’d like to have us think so, but the lonesome righteous doesn’t scorn allies, doesn’t rush to the last stand at the OK Corral. He does his best to avoid the fatal breach in the social order. He doesn’t talk tough and swagger.

I’d trust in Atticus Finch, not Napoleon. I’d trust in Omar Bradley, not George Patton. I won’t trust the hard men or the men who playact at being hard men, those who theatrically declare they will be stopped by nothing. I won’t listen to the men who shake their heads sadly at our inability to travel all the way to atrocity, who tell us we must act by any means necessary. But neither will I trust those who lack the will to justice, the will to fight if they must, the will to defend, those who snidely declare in advance that they will blow with the least wind and worry more about their own personal purity than the larger obligations of our times. I may be weak and frightened, but I’m not having any of that. I’ll trust in the people who both love and defend; I’ll trust in the will of the fierce and quiet. I’ll listen for the distant echoes of my father’s footsteps.


March 3, 2004

Battle of the Moms

Lots of recent online (and, I suspect, offline) discussion about Caitlin Flanagan’s article in the Atlantic Monthly that criticizes working women and praises stay-at-home mothers.

At least some of the bad juju circulating in those discussions (and Flanagan’s piece) concerns settling old scores within feminism. There are many who have never forgiven the feminists of the 1970s for the evident disdain they demonstrated towards middle-class women who remained in the home. With good reason: women who felt liberated from domesticity tended to falsely assume that all women should want the same. Just as a matter of politics, that mistake was costly, alienating many women who might have been sympathetic to a more loosely conceptualized feminism. The women’s movement has never really recovered from that blunder, losing the sympathy both of middle-class women who have chosen domesticity and working-class women for whom the workplace is not liberation but brutal necessity.

Taking a step back, it’s interesting that the conversation continues to pit two sets of women against each other, each vying for the title of “best mother”, each notably defensive about their own choices and lives while projecting the charge of defensiveness onto their opponents.

It’s a struggle that’s hard to imagine between men about fatherhood, for a lot of reasons. For one, there’s a wider plurality of archetypes of the good father out there: men can get kudos for being domestic and attentive or being strong and above the fray, for being breadwinners or slackers. It’s also clear that men don’t fight about fatherhood because they don’t feel defined by it: the battle over manhood is sited somewhere else. Women, on the other hand, can’t escape motherhood even when they’re not mothers: they are held accountable to it by society, and hold each other to it as well.

There are brush fires that burn in the struggle over parenting—say, for example, the question of whether or not to ferberize kids. (We tried it, and it didn’t really work for us, both in terms of the emotional impact it had on us and our daughter, and in terms of results.) Then there’s the wildfire of staying at home versus day care versus nannies. In either case, the small or the large, everyone involved would gain a lot of perspective by reading Ann Hulbert’s Raising America, a history of advice aimed at American parents by various experts. One thing I take away from Hulbert’s book is a confidence that kids are resilient, that the parental choices we treat as momentous have far less import that we might guess. Another thing I take away is a wisdom about how remarkably stable the long-term terms of contestation over parenting (permissive vs. strict, involved vs. distant) has been within the American middle-class, and how much those contests are about middle-class manners and self-presentation rather than a disinterested evaluation of the development of children.

One thing in Flanagan’s piece and the reaction to it where I feel a bit distant from almost everyone in the debate has to do with Flanagan’s charge that middle-class feminists are exploiting and thus betraying other women by using them as domestics and nannies. In a way, it’s a silly point, because it’s awfully hard to contain to domesticity. What’s the difference between a once-a-month cleaning service and all the other kinds of service jobs that the middle-class makes use of? If the charge of exploitation attaches generically to domestic work (not to specific low-wage conditions of employment), then it attaches to all service-industry labor and Flanagan’s critique is suddenly a lot less about child-raising and much more a back-door socialism.

But I feel differently about it also because I’ve spent a substantial amount of time living in southern Africa. During my first fieldwork in Zimbabwe, I was intensely phobic about domestic service, and felt as Flanagan does, that it was exploitation. I’d read Maids and Madams, I knew that domestic workers in southern Africa were exploited. So I was determined to wash all my own clothes and clean my own apartment (there were no laundromats in Harare, even in the good old days of the late 1980s and early 1990s).

The family who lived in the small home behind my apartment building had a different opinion about domestic service, since they provided it for everyone else in the building. From their perspective, I was a selfish prick. I could pay to have my clothes cleaned, but here I was occupying a unit in the building and refusing to employ them. They weren’t at all happy about it, and once I became aware of that, I really didn’t know what to do. I went on washing my underwear in the bathtub but grew more and more puzzled about my reluctance to do what virtually everyone around me regarded as the right thing, including local leftists I knew whose commitment to fighting racial segregation and colonialism had been deep and abiding for the entirety of their lives.

I began to realize that it really wasn’t about exploitation for me—that was just a superficial thing, a cheap ideology, a slogan, and not at all consistent with my casual willingness to take advantage of other people’s affordable labor in other spheres of my life. What it boiled down to was that I was intensely uncomfortable about having strangers inside my domestic space. Not racially phobic, but generically, universally so. I didn’t want any people seeing my dirty clothes, my books, my things, my way of life, if they weren’t very close friends or family. I still feel that way, actually. For a very long time, I blocked my wife from hiring a once-a-month comprehensive cleaning service for this same reason, even though we were finding it increasingly impossible to handle that kind of cleaning with a toddler around. I just didn’t want them seeing the normal material conditions of my life. (I still don’t allow them in my home office). I was eventually convinced--and view that service like any other comfort in my life provided by human labor, made possible because I earn more than the people whose labor I purchase. I do it because I can. If I don't like it, that's for different reasons entirely.

I wonder a little if the stay-at-home moms argument doesn’t come from some of the same attempts to assert privacy, to cocoon some of our lives away from the world, to close the circle of family and shield ourselves from the world. I have some of that same attitude myself—but I’d like to avoid draping myself in laurel leaves and anointing myself Ace Exploitation-Fighter for having what is ultimately less a principle and more a phobia.


February 24, 2004

Purge the PIRGs

The discussion of Ralph Nader online has produced an interesting eddy in its wake, namely an equally passionate attack on Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), which Nader played a role in founding.

I don’t actually map my feelings about PIRGs onto Nader, though their mutual connection doesn’t help me get warm and fuzzy about either of them. In many ways, I object more fundamentally to PIRGs. They’re a scam.

Like Jane Galt, I first reached that conclusion as a canvasser for a PIRG one summer in the early 1980s. I only lasted about three weeks before the toxic combination of viciously exploitative labor practices and a recognition of the organization’s total lack of concern for political commitment completely alienated me. If you pounded the pavement all evening but came in just shy of quota, you didn’t get paid at all for your work. The people running the canvassing operation had zero interest in the issues or the ideas: they were in manner or functioning little different than the boss of a sweatshop factory floor. Keep the money rolling in and send it along to the state organization: that was the sole priority. The spiel we were told to memorize was a frankly deceptive presentation of the organization and its activities. PIRGs have a long habit of parasitically attaching themselves to legislation and claiming credit for it—and only if they deem it something fuzzy and blandly liberal enough that it is likely to raise more money or garner good publicity. There’s no coherent agenda beyond that, and never has been.

My antipathy deepened when a PIRG came rolling into town at Wesleyan University, when I was an undergraduate, seeking an automatic fee attached to the tuition bill. The whole presentation was slimy both in content and style. First, they dangled an internship in front of student officers, and then they shifted abruptly to left-baiting and bullying when anyone (a class of people that most definitely included me at that point) asked why on earth a PIRG should get an automated chunk of money every year when no other student group had the privilege—a chunk of money which would be completely non-transparently spent, moreover. As a magnaminous gesture, they finally offered a system where you could come and get a refund of your PIRG money if you were willing to show up at a basement office during a one-day window once every academic year and ask for it. This is all standard for PIRGs then and now: they push for mandatory fees, and accept as a fall-back an opt-out.

It’s not just that PIRGs are sleazy in their fund-raising and opportunism. Reading Jane Galt’s essay, I wonder a bit at whether they haven’t played a subtle but important role over two decades in disillusioning young liberals and leftists and driving them rightward as a result.

Based on my own experience and the experience of people close to me, I’d say that liberal nonprofits in general are usually not what they seem on the outside, or at least, rarely apply their outward convictions to internal matters. They often have unfair, exploitative or even discriminatory labor practices. They’re often intensely hierarchical, non-democratic and non-transparent in their internal organization. But PIRGs are in a class of their own. At least with something like the ACLU or Amnesty International, whatever their internal cultures are like, they stand for something consistent politically and socially. PIRGs don’t even have that.


February 23, 2004

The Old Man and the Flame

The inner flamer. It’s such a temptation to let it loose. I feel like Black Bolt of the Inhumans: if I but speak, half the city could be destroyed.

In my salad days, I could crack off a mighty flame. Ah! In the Usenet days of alt.society.generation-x, when the resident objectivist could drive me to the dark side of the Force with a single post. Or rec.arts.startrek.current, when all it took to set me off was the resident feminist “Voyager” fan praising Captain Janeway and telling all the critics that they were misogynists for hating the show. Many Shubs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Sloar that day I can tell you.

These days, there’s only one moment where I feel completely and gloriously justified in letting Mr. Hyde off his leash, and that’s in conversations dealing with Ralph Nader and his defenders. Not at Nader himself, really, because it’s obvious what his problem is. It’s the people who still defend him and proudly announce they voted for him in 2000 and they’ll do it again who drive me out of my tree. They’re a miniscule number of people overall, and not really that influential—but I suppose they could be just influential enough, which is very bad. As I said over at Chun the Unavoidable’s, the incoherent mish-mash of justifications for voting Nader, as well as the complete shamelessness of those offering them, just brings out the worst in me.

I sometimes wonder why I can’t flame more often, or when exactly it was that I developed a helpless compulsion to fairness. Maybe there’s something to this notion that the older you get, if you get more and more comfortable and attached to responsibilities, the higher the cost of acting up, the more you become a kept creature of the system. Maybe I’ve just become The Man.

Maybe. I’d like to think it’s something more, that it is about taking the ethical responsibilities of my profession seriously—something that I feel the usual Punch-and-Judy responses of both right and left inside and outside of academia don’t do, no matter how strenuously they claim to. More pressingly, it’s about efficacy, about how you make your convictions meaningful and powerful in the world.

The flamer really has only a few roads to efficacy and influence. There's one in which he or she forces everyone to accept his or her view through command over institutional power (in which case the flame itself is no more than a calling card for other kinds of compulsion). There's another in which achieving results in the world doesn’t matter, in which only the unsullied narcissistic purity of expression is the issue. I agree that the latter view sometimes produces beautiful prose—a brilliantly written flame, curse or diatribe is a pleasure to read. So thank god for the occasional narcissist, but only if they also happen to be brilliantly bilious stylists.

I suppose sometimes the flamer might hope to change the behavior or views of others through shame, and that’s the one time I still think it’s worth it to let the beast out (as I do against Nader voters): when only outrage and defiance has a hope of breaking through a wall of denial and stupidity. That's my only defense in that case: Nader voters appear so unpersuadable by any other means--in fact to be proud of their near-total invulnerability to any persuasion--that there's nothing left besides flinging feces at them. There are others on the American political landscape similarly cursed with mule-headedness, but I don't flame them because either I don't understand or know them well enough to be sure of their unpersuadability (whereas I feel like I understand Nader voters very well) or because, frankly, they're powerful enough numerically or culturally that it's important to keep trying to push the boulder up the hill no matter how Sisyphean the task.

That's one other thing a flame can do: when your cause is lost and hopeless and yet you are still certain that you are right, a flame can be the last thing you do before defeat, a refusal to go gentle into that good night. In that case, a flame is an admission of fatal weakness and should be read as such. Perhaps that's me and Nader voters: I know nothing can stop them so why the hell not scream at them, just to get my own catharsis.

Finally, the flamer can be a blackmailer who demands he or she be given what he or she wants or or he or she will lay waste to any possibility of a reasonable exchange between equals. That’s the Ann Coulter approach to the public sphere: I am become Flamer, Destroyer of Worlds.

Being addicted to mediation and fairness, to exploration of complexity, is actually pretty exhausting. You get a lot of shit from everyone in all directions, and very little thanks for it. Some days I’d rather be an anarchic free spirit, rather go back to dancing in private glee after dropping the bomb on the weakest link, the most suspect argument, the most clueless fool, rather go back to being the hairy eyebrowed bombthrower hurling discord from the back of the room. This other guy who usually comes out to play here and elsewhere in my professional life, well, he’s not the guy I imagined I’d become. He’s dour and perpetually disappointed in the weaknesses of himself and even more of other people. In one virtual community I have participated in, a departing member who took the time to spew venom on his way out said that I was a person who wanted to be superior to other people and liked by them because of it. I remember that because there’s something to it. I suppose it’s actually confirmation of its accuracy that I don’t think it’s all that terrible a thing to be. I also admit that a commitment to reasonable persuasiveness and unvarnished if polite truth-telling can often be a quite satisfyingly contrarian, dissenting, provocative thing in its own right.

Still, flaming seems a more glorious, free thing to be and do. It would be liberating to stop bothering to instruct, cajole, plead, work with, mediate and persuade, to worry about nothing but one’s own blazing righteousness and care little for the consequences or the results. That’s rather like voting for Nader. Which reminds me of why I really stopped doing it, because I saw again and again that when even a few people flame, the whole discursive house burns down.


February 20, 2004

On How to be a Tool

I just saw a call for a March 3rd rally against the Comcast-Disney merger led by PennPIRG, Media Tank, Prometheus Radio Project, the Communication Workers of America, and Jobs with Justice.

Joining this rally is about as good an example of being a tool as I can think of. Media monopolization is a real issue, but rushing to the barricades to defend Disney from Comcast is about the worst possible way I can think of to deal with the overall problem. Disney executives ought to come outside and give anyone at the rally $10.00 coupons to the Disney Store in thanks. The fact that PennPIRG is apparently the key organizer just reinforces my low opinion of the opportunistic and amateurish nature of PIRGs in general.

It’s actually hard to know who to sympathize with in the Comcast-Disney struggle. I’ve had a low opinion of Comcast’s services for a while. Their technical management of their high-speed Internet service after Excite@home went belly-up was horrible. The hysterially overwrought, manipulative drumbeat of attacks against satellite dishes on Comcast channels is a pretty good argument against media monopolization. Their current level of service in their “On Demand” offerings are beyond lame. It’s no wonder they want to acquire Disney to provision content, because the content that they generate themselves is usually one bare step above the kinds of public-access channels that have recently released mental patients who’ve gone off their meds hosting talk shows. If Comcast succeeds, expect a whole lot of problems of integration between the two operations: the learning curve will be by far the steepest on the Comcast side.

On the other hand, if Disney shareholders can’t see that Michael Eisner and his inner circle of sycophants is dragging the company down, they aren’t paying attention and deserve to lose value on their investment as a result. Any parent with young children can see it: the company has foolishly surrendered the long-term stability of the high ground in children’s media by relentlessly cannibalizing its own properties, spewing a tide of made-for-video junk that permanently degrades the value of their most lucrative properties. There are so many misfires coming out of Disney lately that it’s a wonder that there have been any successes like “Pirates of the Caribbean” at all. It used to be that you could see a real difference between the weak storytelling and cheaper animation of non-Disney kidvid, as in the work of Don Bluth. Now Disney has voluntarily sunk to the bottom in pursuit of a few quick bucks. Tack on to that Eisner’s evident inability to attract, recognize and maintain talent, almost certainly because of his own authoritarian management style, and you have a company that is heading for a serious crisis. If I owned a lot of stock in Disney, I’d sure want to give Eisner the boot, and if it took Comcast to do it, I might well cheer them on.

It probably isn’t going to be a story that ends happily ever after for anyone, least of all the consumers—but in a world where there’s a lot to protest (including media monopolization) being a puppet for Michael Eisner strikes me as a low priority.


February 20, 2004

Quicksilver and Foucault

I am finally almost done with Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver (just in time for the sequel!) Stephenson reminded me of why I find early modern Europe so interesting, but also of why the work of Michel Foucault was so appealing to me and to many other historians when we first encountered it.

It is easy to label postmodernism as a single agglomerated villain and attribute to it every bad thing in the past thirty years. It gets blamed (sometimes in one breath by the same person) for dragging intellectuals into total irrelevance and for accomplishing a devastatingly comprehensive subversion of Western civilization. In academic arguments, a generalized postmodernism often functions as an all-purpose boogeyman in declensionist narratives, the singular explanation for why the young turks aren’t as good as the old farts. (Though that may be shifting: the genuinely ardent postmodernists are themselves becoming the old farts, and will presumably shortly be blaming something else for falling standards.)

This general posture allows people to get away with some appalling know-nothingism at times. When reading E.O. Wilson’s Consilience, I was excited at first by his ambitions to achieve the “unification of knowledge”, to re-create the practice of the Enlightenment when science and philosophy, interpretation and empiricism, were joined together. Then I began to realize that Wilson meant “unification” roughly the same way that Hitler meant to unify the Sudetenland with Germany. Nowhere was this more evident in his treatment of Foucault. Wilson basically admits that he just read a bit of his work, haphazardly, and thought “Come on, get over it, things aren’t so bad”.

I say all this as someone who does often talk about an agglomerated postmodernism rather loosely, and who certainly views it quite critically. I reject almost all of the deeper ontological claims of most postmodernists and poststructuralists, and I find the epistemologies that many of them propose crippling, useless or pernicious. And yes, I think that a lot of them are bad writers, though let’s leave that perennial favorite alone for once. But I still recognize the ontological challenge that postmodernism, broadly defined, offers as a very serious, substantial and rigorous one. Nor do I just brush off the epistemological challenges that postmodernists have laid out: they’re real and they’re important. (Though yes, at some point, I think it’s perfectly fair to say, ‘Yeah, I get it, I get it’ and move on to other things. You’re not required to read and read and read.)

The thing I regret most about casual rejectionism of a loosely conceptualized postmodernism (or any body of theory) is that it seems to deny that it is possible to read a single work and extract some insight or inspiration from it that is not really what the author’s full theory or argument is meant to lead you to. It's rather like one of the professors who I encountered in graduate school who would circle words or terms he didn't like and ominously ask, "Do you want to be tarred with that brush?" It's a theory of citation as contagion.

Taken in totality, I think Foucault is doing his damnedest to avoid being pinned down to any particular vision of praxis or anything that might be summarized as a ‘theory’, in a way that can be terribly coy and frustrating. Inasmuch as he can be said to have an overall philosophy, I find it despairingly futilitarian and barren, and I accept very little of the overall vision. Taken instead as a body of inconsistent or contradictory suggestions, insights, and gestures, his work is fairly fertile for historians.

If nothing else, he opened up a whole range of new subjects for historical investigation from entirely new angles: institutions like prisons or medicine and their practices, forms of personhood and subjectivity, and sexuality. It’s interesting that the historical work which Foucault inspired often ended up documenting that he was wrong on the actual details and often even the overall arguments, but even then, you can clearly see how generative that his choices of subjects were.

What Foucault does most for me comes from his attempt to write genealogies instead of histories, his attempt to escape forcing the past as the necessary precursor to the present, to break the iron chain and let the past be itself. That’s what brings me back to Stephenson’s Quicksilver and early modern Europe in general.

The temptation is so powerful to understand early modern Europe as the root of what we are now, and everything within it as the embryonic present, all its organs already there, waiting to grow and be born. But what I find so dizzying and seductive about the period is also its intimate unfamiliarity, its comfortable strangeness. I don’t feel as epistemologically and morally burdened by alterity as I do when I’m dealing with precolonial African societies, where there’s so much groundwork seemingly required to gain the same sense of interior perspective, but on the other hand, I always feel that around every corner in early modern European societies the familiar makes itself strange right before my eyes. The genesis of the present but also the possibilities of other histories; the world we have inherited but also all its dopplegangers and ghosts.

That’s what I feel Foucault’s idea of genealogies helped me to explore and understand, and what I think Stephenson manages to deliver in Quicksilver. The thrill of natural philosophy unbinding the world, so much a part of the more whiggish history of science is there, but also its distance. The Royal Society are ur-geeks and proto-technophiles and yet, they’re also aliens. Jack Shaftoe is the libertarian dream, the free man cutting loose of the constricted world around him—but he’s also the passive, drifting inhabitant of a commercial and social landscape unlike anything we know today, to whom events happen, recapitulating the narrative structure of the picaresque. Reading Quicksilver is like wearing bifocals: you can switch in and out of being able to locate yourself within its episteme. I’m not entirely sure it’s a good modern novel, really, nor is it good history—but it is a good genealogy as well as genealogical simulation of the narrative roots of the novel form.

This isn’t a pleasure limited to representations of the early modern world: Jeff Vandermeer’s edited anthology of pseudo-Victorian/Edwardian medical prose, The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases delivers some of the same satisfactions through simulation (rather like Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum does by simply showing you the medical artifacts and exhibitionary vision of the same era). But simulations or explorations of the Victorian usually feel much more like recursions of the present than trips to a fever-dream alternative universe. Quicksilver, like Foucault, travels farther and tries harder to give us a way of representing the early modern European world that doesn’t just make into a toddler version of our own times.


February 18, 2004

And Now For Something Completely Different

Well, not quite--I see my colleague Prue Schran has joined the conversation about Swarthmore and speech. Actually, I quite agree with a lot of her observations--they're relevant to what I was writing about in "A Pox on Both Houses", as well as some older posts at Easily Distracted about the conservatives-in-academia question. But attitudes and formal speech policy are absolutely not the same thing, and if attitudes rather than policy are the issue, the lever that will move them really is subtle, sympathetic moral and intellectual suasion, or at least that's my feeling. Feeling restricted or ostracized by the pervasive attitudes or unspoken orthodoxies of colleagues is very different than being formally restrained by a quasi-legal code--though of course the existence of the former phenomenon is why it is hard to trust to any procedures outlined in formal policy.

There's also the more arcane issue of how to untangle policies on harassment and speech. I think FIRE is overly sanguine both about how easy it is to disaggregate them, either legally or conceptually. Also, O'Connor offers some extra tricky arguments on top of that about the alleged legal invulnerability of academic institutions to federal employment law (is that really true? Where's the Volokh Conspiracy when you need it?) and the legal freedom of colleges and universities to restrict speech if they want unless they otherwise claim that they're not restricting speech, in which case O'Connor sees them as open to legal claims of fraud. At that point my head spins a bit: if colleges have published speech codes or harassment policies which O'Connor and FIRE say clearly and unrestrainedly restrict freedom of speech, and O'Connor acknowledges that colleges and universities are legally free to do so, then by their reading, wouldn't a charge of fraud be legally untenable? Where's the fraud if you have a published speech code that restricts speech and you're legally free to do it? Unless, of course, the kind of thing I've been suggesting is true, that there is a reading of many college policies as also trying, authentically, to promise academic freedom, and that it is the authenticity of that intent which makes its contradiction by speech codes potentially fraudulent.

Maybe this is an indication that the only solid ground for challenging speech codes is a moral or ethical one--that we shouldn't have codes because they're wrong to have, because liberty is the bedrock value of academic life, and leave the legal issues aside. That's certainly one of FIRE and O'Connor's most salient consistent observations, that whatever their merits or problems on paper, faculty- or administration-authored speech codes are basically a case of amateurs meddling in the construction of bodies of pseudo-law, hoping to direct the power of a quasi-state entity (their institution) to regulate local behavior.

Anyway, on to more diverting things. A couple days ago, my toddler and I found a great new thing at Noggin's website, called ScribbleVision. Basically, you color in a bunch of things and then ScribbleVision animates your colorings in a series of scenes featuring the hand-puppet characters Oobi and Grampu. It's one of those things that will very rapidly have the adults taking the mouse away from the kids. I was especially proud of my scene of Sauron's Lidless Eye dawning over Oobi's house, with a demonic rooster crowing in the background. Let's say that my impression of Oobi and Grampu's animated actions and expressions changed somewhat against that backdrop.


February 17, 2004

The Argument Clinic (Apologies to Monty Python)

There is a real difference between my reading and Erin O’Connor’s reading of Swarthmore’s policies on speech, one which may reflect some very deep differences in the ways we approach working with the interpretation of texts and much else as a whole.

There are also stylistic differences: I’m long-winded, obsessed with nuance and ambiguity, and uninterested in calling people to the barricades even when there is an evidently urgent need to get them there. O’Connor is trying to mobilize people, and to do so with as much immediacy and intensity as she can. On the whole, I think we agree about a lot of the problems facing academia, and in particular, about the dangers to speech rights in academia today. O’Connor’s way of framing these issues is certainly much more powerful in getting people to acknowledge and confront those dangers. But I still worry about collateral damage on the way. Sometimes, I think complexity really is important, not just as an aesthetic preference but as the heart and soul of an issue. Perhaps on speech rights, what is more important is the root principle of the matter, and assertions of complexity are an unhelpful distraction. I would rather build bridges and mediate between opposing sides, playing for small positional gains. O’Connor would rather burn bridges and achieve victory in our time. You make the call, dear reader. There are reasons to prefer either approach, and reasons to think that in either case, we are kids with hammers who think everything in the world looks like a nail.

O’Connor raises some real potential problems with Swarthmore’s policies, most of which we broadly share with all colleges, and indeed, all institutional entities with sexual harassment or anti-discrimination policies.

Here are three probing questions that I think are pretty cogent that I get out of O’Connor’s second post on this subject:

1) How do we resolve contradictions in policies where one part says one thing and another part says another thing? Doesn’t Swarthmore's sexual harassment cancel out or make actively irrelevant any statement anywhere else about protecting speech?
2) Isn't trusting in grievance procedures dangerous given that they tend to violate due process concerns? Is there any reason to think that Swarthmore's procedures are any more protective of due process than most colleges? Hasn’t that already been a slippery slope elsewhere? Isn't Burke concerned about that?
3) What about this little section on discriminatory harassment? Doesn't that cancel out the general harassment policy? Can we talk about how to read those two in relation to one another?

I have a straightforward answer to the first question, which is that as I read it and understand it, our policy on non-harassing speech takes precedence over everything else, that it is the largest and most expansive principle we assert on the issue of speech. Harassment (sexual, general, discriminatory) is only a situational, contextual exception from the general principle, and only becomes meaningful when it can be proven to exist according to a defined set of precise criteria. In this sense, harassment under Swarthmore’s policy functions rather like the defamation or incitement to violence functions in relation to the First Amendment. The First Amendment is the bedrock principle; defamation or incitement are special cases which restrict speech only in relation to a judicial finding, and only within narrowly constrained and defined bounds. They exert no prior restraint: you cannot in advance define particular acts of speech, particular words, particular phrases as defamation or incitement. It’s all about context. If you take Swarthmore’s policies on harassment to completely cancel out or obviate the existence of a comprehensive protection of speech in our policy, as O’Connor does, then you are basically setting yourself up as a free speech absolutist in general, and arguing that any circumstantial restriction on speech annihilates a foundational protection for speech, that the existence of libel laws definitionally and intrinsically cancels out the First Amendment. You can make that case, and some do. I think it’s incorrect. I’m not clear if this is O’Connor’s general position on speech rights.

I might also note that to take this position is to argue that Swarthmore (or any other college) can never actually articulate a policy that sanctions harassment which makes reference to speech acts. I’d actually be curious to see whether O’Connor thinks that it is notionally possible for a university to reserve the right to expel a student who personally harasses another student on a repeated basis but commits no direct violence against them. If one student followed another student around campus saying, “Faggot. Faggot. Faggot” continuously for a week, is there any legitimate grounds for saying, “Listen, that’s a problem” that goes beyond moral persuasion directed at the harasser? If so, is there any way to construct a policy that legitimizes administrative action without making reference to speech? We went out of our way, at any rate, to avoid defining that speech as a class of speech like “hate speech” which would be definable without reference to context. In fact, it doesn’t really matter what one community member says to another if there’s a finding of general harassment here: the content of the speech is irrelevant. If the content is irrelevant, I really think it’s not about a restriction on speech.

Except for the sexual harassment and discriminatory harassment policies, and here I can only reiterate that I believe—I hope—our general protection of speech is firmly understood to be the bedrock principle that has precedence over those policies.

On the second question, of whether the sexual harassment policy is a ticking time bomb or slippery slope, in particular because it is adjudicated through a grievance procedure which has no due process protections as they’re commonly understood, well, that’s a real point. It’s my big problem with most such policies on college campuses, and the major place where they are typically mischieviously misused. O’Connor is right to say that I essentially trust my colleagues and my institution and trust that nothing will go wrong, but it’s also right to suggest that this is a flawed approach. I agree here that we share in common with most academic institutions a serious problem that could well obliterate any of the best intentions of our policies. I would also underscore, as I did in my first post on this subject, that I regard “hostile environment” standards as intrinsically dangerous. (Though I suppose here too I wonder whether O'Connor thinks that there is anything that would consistitute sexual harassment besides quid-pro-quo, and how you could identify it in a policy without reference to speech acts.)

On the other hand, I think O’Connor simply shrugs off the question of legal exposure and liability—and easy as it would be for me to do so, I have enough empathy for those who have a legal responsibility to safeguard the resources and wealth of this institution to recognize that you can’t have a revolution in one country on these issues. Barring a serious statutory reform of harassment law in general, it is insane for any single institution to voluntarily expose itself to serious liability by failing to conform to existing legal standards, whatever the weakness of those standards.

On the third question, I have to confess that I’m busily inquiring about just where the policy statement on discriminatory harassment came from. I remember the debate on the general harassment policy and the question of “hate speech”, and how we came to the policy we have. I remember the same for the sexual harassment policy. But I’m honestly puzzled about this smaller statement, and where it came from, particularly because it seems more pressingly contradictory to the statement on general harassment and speech rights.

I’d sum up by saying, however, that I really think O’Connor simply doesn’t give Swarthmore enough credit for drafting a policy which is actually quite different from the campus norm, and which actually intended to repudiate the idea of a “speech code”, with its prior restraint on defined classes of speech acts. I don't see the policy as a "trojan horse" with sinister conspirators inside, much less see myself as one of the Greeks waiting to pillage. As I see our existing policy, students here could hold all the affirmative action bake sales they like without any fear of sanction or judicial action by the college against them (though not without fear of being criticized for doing so). O’Connor chooses to portray me as a person who conveniently "pretends" otherwise. No, I just think it’s more complicated than she lets on, and that there is as much reason for optimism as there is for criticism, that the devil—at least in this case—is in the details.


February 17, 2004

Thanks for Playing

Well, at least this time, Erin O’Connor has it really wrong.

Swarthmore has no speech code. The community specifically rejected having a speech code when we considered the issue. We specifically insisted that speech which might be regarded by some as offensive is non-adjudicable, and underscored that the college administration can bring no sanction against individuals for what they say regardless of how offensive it might seem to others.

There is only one way that speech can be an adjudicable issue at Swarthmore, and that is if it is part of a repeated, persistent attempt by one individual to personally harass another individual. The standards for this are very precisely enunciated in our policy on general harassment. You cannot generically harass a social group or identity. There is no one-time instance of general harassment—a single statement cannot be taken by one individual to represent an act of general harassment by another individual directed at them: it must be persistent and repeated.

Our sexual harassment policy, from which O’Connor draws almost all of her quotes, was adopted at a different point from our general speech and harassment policy, and I agree has a few emphases which differ from the overall policy, in that it states that it is possible for a one-time action to represent a “hostile environment” against which someone might have a grievance. Three things are worth noting about this policy, however. First, the general speech policy supercedes it, as I understand things, e.g., the specific protections granted free speech are the most important policy dictates we have on this subject, and the sexual harassment policy does not contradict or contravene those protections. Second, the sexual harassment policy contains an important qualifier which O’Connor notably fails to cite: “The perception of conduct or expression as harassing does not necessarily constitute sexual harassment”, and goes on to state that every complaint must be carefully examined on its own merits. No statement or idea or expression is categorically identified, outside of the context of a specific complaint, as prohibited or punishable. A grievant is directed to ask a perceived harasser to stop, and if they do not do so, is given the option to pursue a grievance procedure—but there is no a priori finding that any given expression creates a hostile environment. Third, I would note that aspects of this policy take the form that they do in order to achieve compliance with existing federal law on sexual harassment: if there is an issue here, it is an issue whose locus is far beyond this campus.

This is not to say that I’m entirely comfortable with the content of this specific policy: I found it overly broad in several respects when the faculty voted on it, and I’m especially concerned about the ways a “hostile environment” standard can and has been misused on college campuses—but it is specifically the “hostile environment” standard which federal law has legitimated. To expressly repudiate it in college policy is an invitation to a devastating liability claim against the college at some future date, because it would place the college at odds with a clear body of legal precedent. (When institutions or employers lose such lawsuits, it is often precisely on the grounds that they were made aware of a hostile environment and did nothing to correct it. Were we to state outright that we reject that a hostile environment can actually exist, we’d be wide open to such a finding.)

Still, I have to stress again that the impression O’Connor gives about even this aspect of the sexual harassment policy is downright wrong even beyond her mischaracterization of it as an overall policy governing speech. A Swarthmore student or member of the faculty expressly cannot be punished merely for saying something that has the characteristics described in the sexual harassment policy—which O’Connor implies. There is nothing adjudicable unless there is a grievance from a specific grievant, and that grievance must meet the specific test of being harassment with specifically sexual intent. John Ashcroft couldn’t file a grievance against Arthur Schlesinger under Swarthmore policy unless he thought Schlesinger was making a quid-pro-quo demand for sexual favors from Ashcroft or if Schlesinger was making Swarthmore a hostile working environment in a sexually demeaning way. (Since neither of them work here, the hostile environment standard wouldn’t apply in any event.)

Let me quote from the Swarthmore College policy statement on uncivil or demeaning non-harassing speech, since O’Connor didn’t see fit to share this with her readers (although does reprint this policy in full):

“As a member of Swarthmore College, one's moral responsibilities extend beyond formally sanctionable conduct. All of us, therefore, have a responsibility not to indulge in gratuitous offensive expression just because it may not be subject to official sanctions. Anonymous offensive expression is generally inexcusable, but the risk of harm in making adjudicable all forms of offensive expression would not only outweigh the benefits of official proscription, it would also seriously endanger academic freedom."

"Even when individuals (or groups) admit authorship, however, they act irresponsibly if they are unwilling to engage in a defense of their views, especially with those targeted. Perpetrators of alleged non-adjudicable but uncivil expression should engage the objects of their attacks through discussion and, possibly, mediation. If they do not, however, no disciplinary action will be taken, though College officials or anyone else may publicly decry the content and manner of such expression."

"It needs stressing again that the College will in no way formally discourage any argument, provided it does not include threats of violence, though what is said may be deplorable and very possibly more diatribe that argument. “

That’s not a speech code. It’s the antithesis of a speech code. It’s a specific protection extended to speech, and a specific forbidding of judicial and quasi-judicial forms of sanction against speech by the administration or the community.


February 16, 2004

A Pox on Both Houses, or Conservatives in Academia (again)

It’s Punch and Judy Show time, with academic blogs trading knocks over the question of whether conservatives are discriminated against in academia. Let me once again go over some of the important complexities that seem to me to be absent from most of the discussion.

1. Different disciplines and units, at different scales of institutions, are fairly non-comparable when we’re talking about existing distributions of political or social views. The humanities are not the same as the business school or the law school.

2. No one is ever asked bluntly in the humanities what their political affiliation is at the time of hiring. The discussion of the “politics” of a candidate in history or anthropology has never, in my own experience, involved any speculation about political affiliation. If there is a conversation about “politics”, it is likely to be about much more arcane, disciplinary arguments, about what specialization or methodology a person uses. I’ve occasionally heard someone pronounce this or that methodology or form of scholarship “reactionary”, but that’s a highly mobile epithet and can be applied to almost anything, including ideas and forms of practice that are highly, intensely leftist on the general map of American political life. To ask whether someone was a “Democrat” or even a “leftist” or “liberal” (or “conservative”) in a discussion of hiring would be like confessing that you’re the village idiot—it would seem a hopelessly unsophisticated way of thinking.

3. That’s not to say that someone who was identifiably a conservative or libertarian wouldn’t be in for some rough sailing in some academic disciplines, both at hiring or afterward. I was and remain surprised at how reluctant many people participating in this discussion are to just say, “Yes, in some disciplines, an identifiable conservative may be treated very poorly”. Most importantly, in most of the humanities there’s a default assumption that everyone around the table more or less broadly can be classed as a liberal, and a certain stunned incredulity when someone departs from that assumption. It is very, very hard to have certain conversations or advocate particular views that are held more widely in the public sphere in some departments or disciplines. I find that as I take increasingly contrarian positions on some of these kinds of issues that it is harder and harder to find a context where I can profitably converse with them about colleagues.

4. On the other hand, collegiality is a powerful cultural force in many colleges and universities, and its stultifying or comforting effects (take your pick) often have nothing to do with politics in any sense. A conservative or libertarian who is a mensch about his or her views and research may well be admired, even beloved, by liberal or left colleagues, and fondly regarded as valuable because of their views. On the other hand, someone like Daniel Pipes who is running around picking broad-brush fights with everyone whom he perceives as a bad academic, usually based on a paper-thin reading of their syllabi or even just the titles of their research, is going to be loathed, but as much for his behavior as his political views. A liberal or leftist who plays Stalinist Truth Squad in the same way is going to be equally loathed and avoided. I’ve seen departments where everyone treats a particular person as a “politicized” pariah even though the political views of that person are exactly the same as the general distribution in the department, and it’s entirely about strident, personally confrontational, abrasive, self-aggrandizing behavior. Now it may be that conservatives, having been sneered at, are more inclined, almost out of necessity, to go on the offensive, and create a feedback loop in the process. But the mode of action is more important than the views.

5. Along the same lines, ostensible political views and intellectual temperment may not map well onto each other. Tempermentally, most academics are highly conservative in the (Edmund) Burkean sense: they tend to oppose any change to their own institutions and they tend to argue strongly in favor of the maintenance of core traditions and practices. Many of the critiques of academic life circulating in the blogosphere now have less to do with the party affiliation of academics and more to do with this tempermental leaning, and the behaviors or attitudes which are justifiably seen as troubling would be no different if the party affiliations or political views of academics were changed, barring major changes to the nature of the institution. Magically turn everyone in the humanities into Republicans tomorrow, and they’d still exhibit all the behaviors that everyone is complaining about. Indeed, some of the conservative critics of academia seem to me to be actively campaigning for just this option.

6. Why do conservatives care about the humanities at all? The answer might be that for both the cultural right and left, the humanities or more broadly, mass culture, are an important alibi for explaining their failure to outright win the culture wars of the past twenty years. Rather than asking, “What about our views is just not appealing and may never be appealing to the majority of Americans”, they would prefer to assume that those views would be appealing if not for some partisan interference in the natural course of events. For the cultural right, higher education in general and the academic humanities in particular are the boogeyman of choice, to which I can only suggest that they’re vastly, gigantically overstating the possible influence of those institutions. I think the same thing is thought about mass culture in the other direction. In both cases, there’s a systematic effort here to avoid thinking the unthinkable thought, that maybe, just maybe, the majority of people have thought about your view of things and they just don’t like it, for good and considered reasons.

7. If conservatives aren’t going into academia, they’re not going into it well before they could be discriminated against. That means that conservatives should not casually ignore the possibility that there are market-rational reasons that conservatives don’t go into many fields (especially since it seems to be a compliment to them ).

Now add some new points about the latest wave of discussion on this issue:

8. Quick reads of syllabi and specializations are very lousy ways to decide what someone’s partisan politics or even general political philosophy might be, for a lot of reasons.

9. Being intolerant towards your students is different than being intolerant in hiring decisions. A student reporting intolerant asides or behavior in the classroom by a teacher is not evidence of systemic discrimination in hiring or training practices. This is a different kind of problem, a pedagogical flaw that may include behavior that is not especially or notably political, but that is simply about the failure to run a classroom which generates multiple possible outcomes and nurtures critical thought. Pedagogies which narrowly reproduce ossified orthodoxies are a common problem in academic life, and will remain a problem regardless of the party affiliation of academics.

10. Your party registration is not much of a guide to the way you actually act on your political views in an institutional environment. I have known people who are intensely active in a political party but where you’d never guess what their affiliation is from their scholarship or pedagogy. I’ve known people who could care less about formal politics who talk nothing but ideology in the classroom. In general, everyone in this discussion is failing to leave room for the professionalism of academics, which is often the most powerful determinant of their behavior.

11. The entire class of people with postgraduate degrees skew significantly Democratic in registration: it’s worth asking how much academic departments differ from this general proportion. Granted, when you hit 100%, as with Duke's Department of History, you're obviously different from the general population of people with Ph.Ds, but I wonder how much so. (Extra bonus point: can anybody guess my political affiliation? Hint: Swarthmore's History Department is not 100% registered Democrat.)

12. Kieran Healy rightfully observes that conservatives talking about this issue are making an interesting exception to their general tendency among conservatives to assume that results in the market are probably based on some real distribution of qualifications rather than bias or discrimination. It might be fair to assert in response that academic hiring is a closed or non-market system, and this is precisely what is unfair about it. But if so, it requires that one demonstrate that there is a class of potential, qualified individuals who are being discriminated against at the time of hiring, or that these individuals are being discriminatorily weeded out at the time of initial acceptance for training. If not, then the argument that conservatives are being discriminated against in academic hiring practices is exactly comparable in its logics and evidence to the logic of most affirmative action programs and many other antidiscrimination initiatives, that there is a subtle systemic bias which is producing unequal results that prevents a “normal” sociological distribution of candidates in particular jobs. It behooves conservatives who want to claim this to either concretely explain why this argument only applies to conservatives in academia, or to repudiate the standard conservative argument against affirmative action and other public-policy programs designed to deal with subtle bias effects.

13. On the other hand, most of the people mocking or disagreeing with the claim that conservatives are treated poorly in academia seem to me to be equally at odds with many standard representations of bias effects that are widely accepted by liberals or leftists, namely, that bias is often subtle, discursive, and institutionally pervasive, and that “hostile environments” can exist where no single action or statement, or any concrete form of discrimination can be easily pointed to as a smoking gun. Most of those claiming a bias against conservatives in academia are pointing to exactly these kinds of hostile-environment incidents and moments, and seeing them as causing the same kinds of psychological and inhibitory harms that this type of discrimination is said to cause in other contexts. I accept that people edging away from you in an elevator is a type of bias-effect that is harmful—an often cited instance of the kinds of subtly pervasive discrimination that African-Americans may suffer from in mostly-white institutions. I’ve never experienced myself because I’m white, and had I not read of it in the personal, anecdotal accounts of many African-Americans, I truthfully would never have noticed it. Same here. I don’t understand why it is so hard to accept that self-identified conservative undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty report experiencing many similar forms of pervasive, subtle bias. What I'm seeing from many of those who dismiss these claims is a collective eye-rolling, a sort of "big deal, so your professor sneered at you, get over it". And yet few of those doing that eye-rolling would say the same to a student of color or a woman reporting similar experiences. The grounds on which many critics are doubting that such bias exists would have to, in all honesty, extend to all anecdotal, experiential or narrative claims of bias. The only way to salvage such claims would be if they could be profitably correlated with quantifiable evidence of discrimination—but in this case, we have some evidence to that effect. The only other way to salvage this point is to say, "It's wrong to be biased against people because of their race, gender or sexual orientation, but not because of their politics". A few seem willing to say just that: I can only say I think that's a big, fat mistake on a great many fronts.


February 11, 2004

Short notes

1. Regarding my earlier woes with my home PC, to my amazement, PestPatrol's tech support gave me a fairly simple command line to run through one PestPatrol utility to fix the aftermath of cleansing SahAgent off our home PC, and it worked, restoring all Internet functionality without any further difficulties. That is just about the first time ever that a tech support person has been able to give me straightforward advice that had straightforwardly good results. I've been reading up more about Winsock2 Layered Service Provider spyware like SahAgent and if anything I'm more appalled than I was before. Is there any question in anyone's mind that this sort of thing should be illegal? I don't see any difference between it and a virus in terms of destructive intent.

2. I'm fairly embroiled in an interesting discussion of what makes for a good childhood over at Crooked Timber--very high quality conversation, particularly the comments from Russell Arben Fox. Short summary of my arguments: I don't like "prosocial" children's programming, which I've hammered at before in Saturday Morning Fever. Not even Veggie Tales. And I let my daughter play "Morrowind" and "Neverwinter Nights" with me on my PC, monster-slaying and all. (When the PC is working.) Anyone who fears for her future goodness, take heart: she won't let me steal anything with my thief character and consistently tells me that I shouldn't kill monsters. Unless they're mean ones.

3. Responding to Laura over at Apt. 11D: I do most of the cooking, clean the dishes about 25% of the time, do all the stereotypically manly jobs like assembling toys and furniture or lifting heavy objects, dress and diaper if I'm closest (and did most of the diapering and baby care from months 3-12) and many other sundry acts of parenting. I also read the bedtime story. I am sorry to admit that I aggressively evade doing the laundry as for some reason I pathologically hate doing it. I would say I definitely don't pull 50% of the domestic weight, so yeah, I kind of suck. But I also think I'm more one of those slacker boys Laura is talking about who has cut back at work to spend time with family rather than the Type A achievement-chaser, which maybe I once was to a greater degree. Which is, I'm beginning to sense, a more complicated choice in its professional consequences and ego-impact than it first appears. No wonder men (and Type-A superwomen) get all angsty and weird at middle-age.

4. Quite a trollish thread over at Kuro5hin on blogging. My short response to the troll who kicked it off would be that yes, of course most personal webpages of any kind are banal. That's hardly a new thing, nor a result of Moveable Type. I remember very well that one of the reasons Justin Hall's, whose tenth anniversary makes me feel very old and decrepit, got such a readership at the outset--it wasn't just nekkid pictures and stories about sex and drugs that drew people, but also that almost every other "home page" out there was a bunch of links to other links and nothing more, while Justin was putting up new and interesting material almost every day. Content then and now is king, and can come from anywhere, whether a blog or Atlantic Monthly Online. Blogs that originate content are more interesting to me, and more what I aspire to for myself, than blogs that do nothing more than link to content elsewhere. But even in collective banality, there are interesting things to see and think about. Even at their worst, the Web in general and blogs in specific represent an interesting sociological aggregate, a way to track the massed preoccupations of various constituencies and the movements of various memes.

February 3, 2004

From Hell's Heart I Stab At Thee

Well, somehow my wife took an accidental wrong turn while web-surfing on my home PC, I think because she misspelled a common domain name for a children's media site. I came home to find something squatting malevolently in the computer called “SahAgent”, which seems related to Gator. Busily infesting our PC, it kept popping up advertising windows every few minutes into the desktop while keeping a log of all our web-surfing and downloading or unzipping more and more executables of various kinds that wanted access to the Internet. I rushed to get an application I’d used once before to search for spyware called PestPatrol (I know, you’re all screaming, ‘Use AdAware instead, dummy! Be really careful removing SahAgent, idiot!’ I am today a bit more knowledgeable than I was on Friday.) PestPatrol quickly recognized and then supposedly straightforwardly cleaned the system of tons of SahAgent-associated crap (also lots of things related to a driver called “WildTangent” that I think I may have foolishly allowed on the machine when visiting Shockwave’s site and playing games there.)

Unfortunately that was also the end of our home Internet functionality altogether: browser, email, everything has gone bye-bye. PestPatrol’s tech support has some ideas that I’ll try tonight, but I have the bad feeling I’m going to end up reinstalling Windows from scratch. Bye-bye two days of my life if so. I know, I know, all the techier-than-thou out there are rolling their eyes and saying, “Use Linux, asshole” or “That’s your fault for using Internet Explorer, fool”. Blaming the victim, guys.

I find myself so gobsmacked at the very nature of the experience (like so many others before me). If I happened to dial a wrong number on my telephone, and the mere act of doing so more or less destroyed my telephone, I suspect there would be real legal consequences for whomever was keeping the telephone-destroying answering machine out there. There are some strange differences in both law and practice in the case of computers and the Internet that to me seem inexplicable.

With SahAgent or Gator or what have you, somehow, somewhere, somebody real is making real money by hijacking other people’s computers and sending them advertisements whether they want them or not, downloading software involuntarily onto their machines and the like, and yet that person or persons is basically legally untouchable. Somebody somewhere is paying to squat on domains that are misspellings, just waiting for an accidental visitor so they can seize control of their computers. Whoever these people are, they’ve cost me time and money. They’re going to end up costing Microsoft money as well, because I’ve been weighing whether having a PC in order to play games and get access to a relatively wide range of software is worth the hassle, and this has pretty well decided it—it’s probably not worth it, and our next machine may be something else, while my gaming shifts to consoles. (PC games are dying, anyway.)


January 26, 2004


A colleague of mine once suggested to me that everything about my stance on 9/11, including my Gitlin-esque criticism of the academic left, was fair enough except for one thing. I used the word “evil” to talk about both the attack and the larger ideologies that motivated it.

I know why she has misgivings. President Bush munches through the word like a kid lost in a candy store, with appalling casualness, and he’s hardly alone. Bloggers left and right label things “evil” with abandon. Don’t like something? Critical of a practice or an idea or a person? Must be eeevil.

Still, I won’t give up the word. Evil exists, and refusing to see it as such when it presents itself is a dangerous kind of myopia. If we gave up all the words and ideas that are overused or misused, we’d be mute.

I was thinking a lot about evil over the weekend when I read Peter Landesman’s cover story in the New York Times Magazine on forced prostitution and sexual slavery around the world. It clarified a lot for me about what I think evil is and is not, though at the high price of being one of the three or four most disturbing things I have read in the past year. Some of the details from the article would seem unreal if they appeared in a novel by an unusually lurid and imaginatively depraved author. I can’t make myself repeat here some of the material about the forms of compulsion and brutality used on child prostitutes that the article describes, even though some of the images will be hard for me to ever forget. I almost would say do yourself a favor and don’t read the article: some of the details are that painful, that scarring.

The men and women described in the article as involved in sex trafficking are committing evil. There’s nothing in between them and the pain they cause, no excuses or alibis, no veils. No possibility of misunderstanding the relation between action and consequence. There isn’t even the defense of ideological loyalty or cultural self-defense that torturers and killers in places like South Africa have feebly offered for their intimate crimes. There’s no enemy to fight. Just a child or woman being raped, abused, starved, mutilated for personal gain. I suppose some of the people involved might say that in the midst of enormous poverty, all choices are bad, or that when there is slavery, one either enslaves or is enslaved. Both excuses are transparent bullshit here. The people profitting in this case are looking their victims in the eye and committing their crimes in plain sight, and for nothing more than their own gain.

Contrarily, the article helped convince me even more of something I’ve already concluded, that in the end it’s terribly difficult to label more abstract actions taken by leaders or authorities as evil, no matter how horrible their consequences. People in power are insulated in so many ways, to the point where it is both plausible and often quite true when they say that they did not or cannot see how their actions translate into distant, intimate suffering for other people. This is not to say that you cannot use the word in these situations—the top bosses of the organizations described by Landesman’s article must know very well what is going on, even if they don’t know some of the hellish particulars. Most of the worst authoritarians and tyrants of recent history got blood on their own hands at some point, but even if they don’t, few of them can plead that they didn’t know what was going on.

It’s just that you have to leave room for the actual complexity of how things happen in the world, and for a real and meaningful distance, with ethical meaning, between what power does, what plans are made, what policies dictate, and what happens between individuals, in the intimacy of everyday life. Most human suffering isn’t something that one person does willfully, with foresight and understanding of the consequences, to another. Neither does it come immaculately and sponteaneously from the air or the ground, but the suffering that comes from and resides within society is distributed in its origins and its infliction. The things we do in our lives, whether we’re high officials or ordinary people, have consequences and sometimes very bad ones, for which we ought to be held responsible and hold ourselves responsible, sometimes in very serious ways. But evil is a term I’d reserve in this context for exceptional circumstances where the connection between particular actions and the serious suffering of particular individuals are clear and are known to the actor and known in advance by him or her to be morally indefensible.

Landesman’s article also made me realize that when I think of evil, it is not something outside the human frame of reference. Evil is not a word for the things we do not understand, and if we try to forbid the investigation of evil on the grounds that it is strange, mysterious, alien to us, we shouldn’t be using the word. If Mohammed Atta cannot be understood, if what he did makes no sense whatsoever to a self-proclaimed normal person, it’s not evil. Jeffrey Dahmer was not, at least to me, evil, because I have no emotional window at all into his crimes. I don’t understand any of his desires or his actions. He was unquestionably horribly damaged and terribly dangerous and the world would have been better if he’d died before he ever hurt anyone, but I can’t see him as evil. This is what Inga Clendinnin asks us to think about the Holocaust: if we declare that we can’t understand someone like Heinrich Himmler from the inside out, as another human being who did things that we plausibly could imagine ourselves doing, we don’t know any of the things that we need to know about Himmler or the Holocaust itself.

This is why I think that not only the people who enslave others and sell their sexual services are evil, but the johns as well. It’s one thing in the context of the legal sex industry in the United States for a consumer to make a default assumption of contractual consent by a performer when viewing a porn tape or a stripper. It’s another thing if we’re talking about an adult sodomizing a ten year old prostitute in some hovel in a small American city.

I can make that judgement because I have an interest in profit, and understand very well what I would and would not do for it, and why I would or would not. I can make that judgement because I get erections and feel sexual desire and understand very well what I would do and not do to satisfy that desire.

It is not that I accept Catherine MacKinnon’s view of male desire as always violent and violating, whether it’s arousal when watching a supermodel on television or purchasing the services of a ten-year old slave. It’s precisely because I see an absolute distinction that MacKinnon does not see between desire and evil. I see acceptable male desire, with whatever complex ethical issues it does or does not raise, desire involving the consent of others, with whatever complexities come with the concept of consent. And I see desire that is absolutely evil, that violates and hurts and steals. There is a difference there that the conventional MacKinnonite argument obliterates and banalizes.

I see that distinction because I have greed and I have desire and there is much that I choose not to do in response to those feelings. Not because I am already economically comfortable and not because I am already monogamously satisfied in my romantic and sexual life. This is not an Olympian judgement on mere mortals. Anyone can and might choose to inflict unnecessary and intimately human suffering on others. Anyone can commit evil, and anyone can choose not to. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from: there is no excuse for staring another person in the face and torturing them, mutilating their minds and raping their bodies, stealing their childhoods and their humanity. No accident of character, no fact of culture, no arrangement of circumstance: no excuse.


January 22, 2004

Wishing I Was Simon, Knowing That I'm Paula

American Idol and Survivor are really the monarchs of the reality show universe, and of them, I find Idol the most consistently fascinating. It’s like a full-body physical performed on the American Dream, and what it finds, I think, is that the Dream has split into two very different forms out there.

There’s the meritocratic dream that Simon, Randy and Paula vigilantly guard. In it, you can get ahead if you’re good enough, talented enough, if you've got the right stuff. Then there’s the moral outrage and personal pain of the people turned back by the sentinels. I understand most of the rejects to be saying, “Success is my birthright…everyone should be a success”. There’s a sort of weirdly egalitarian howl of rage coming from the disappointed contestants. How dare Simon turn me away? He has no right. Who chose him? Americans all have the right to be American Idols! Everyone deserves to have their desire, that's the American Dream!

This is the only way I can understand the anger and hurt that most of the losers in initial auditions display, because otherwise there is the troubling alternative possibility is that they honestly, deeply, insanely believe that they really are good singers who could be major successes in commercial music. Ok, yes, a few of the folks we’ve seen appear to be authentically deluded, but I can’t believe that all of them are. There’s something deeper going on here, a clash between two Dreams.

Seen as Idol shows it to us, the meritocratic Dream looks like only healthy one. As Simon Cowell reminds us, what do we think would happen if the losers on Idol actually tried to sell their wares in the entertainment world, if we turned on the radio and heard song after song from the miserable ranks of Houston’s Idol hopefuls? We’d all turn the radio off. It’s one thing to watch the untalented receive their just blowoff from the mercilessly funny Simon Cowell, and another thing to be subjected to the untalented when we expect to hear something good.

But like most people watching, I keep mulling over my comfort level with Simon Cowell. He’s an enjoyable, witty spectacle in his own right, but there’s also a kind of excitement watching someone be so ruthlessly honest because you realize that you rarely see it, and at least in my case, almost never do it in that way or for those reasons. I think Cowell is being perfectly straight and totally authentic when he says that he sees what he’s doing as a kind of public service to an American society besotted by an unwholesomely egalitarian narcissism. But in this season, he’s clearly beginning to wonder when the lesson is going to sink in. The pupil has received many strokes of the best from the master's switch, but he keeps coming back and asking, “Please, sir, may I have some more?”

It all reminds me of some of the practical dilemmas that every teacher faces when grading. Now Cowell and his companions are dealing with an unmistakeable and unbridgeable gulf between wretchedness and excellence, though I sometimes wonder if the early rounds of Idol don’t omit some duller auditions from ambivalently mediocre people in between. In ten years at Swarthmore, I think I have only once graded a paper that was unmistakably awful at the level of sheer badness that Cowell is stomping on, and I pretty well stomped on it myself, though with kinder, gentler rhetoric. Most of the time my lowest grades (D or F) reflect failure to complete assignments or similar problems.

But there is this nagging issue about what one does with an ordinary essay, a bland, decent, no-foul essay, an essay that would be good enough in most professional and real-world contexts. This being Swarthmore, a highly selective institution, a bland essay is a really good essay in the wider universe of analytic writing by undergraduates in America. (As our students are fond of saying, "Anywhere else it would be an A.") Why should I grade that paper harshly? And yet, such an essay, reasonably common, often stacks up unfavorably against a smaller number of papers that are remarkable. It’s a puzzle. A tightly meritocratic vision would argue for making the spread between the ordinary and extraordinary as wide and unmistakeable as possible. A more egalitarian vision would say to minimize the distance when the ordinary is good enough: why deal unnecessary rebuke to a student who has done nothing wrong, who has made a good faith effort, and who one can confidently certify as a capable person.

In practical terms, this comes down to whether a bland, ordinary essay gets a "B" or a "C", at least in my classes. I almost always slant towards giving the good enough work a good grade--a "B", in this case--and having the difference between the best and the good and the solid be relatively small (though I like to tightly reserve an "A" for the distinctively excellent). I don’t mind saying that something’s bland or descriptive or generic in comments, but somehow I do mind coupling that to a strongly negative grade. I do mind hurting people for what seems a subtle or small distinction.

I watch Simon Cowell and I sometimes wonder if maybe that’s a mistake, wonder if it's a bad idea to be a Paula. A very select few of the people that Simon dished up abuse towards didn’t seem unspeakably bad, and even he observed that a few of them might have careers as singers in bars or local theater or Broadway or weddings. Isn’t that another kind of kindness, to tell people that they’re dreaming the wrong dream? Certainly it wouldn’t be kind or right if you knew one of the truly wretched to tell them they’re great singers or marvelous performers no matter how much you loved them or enjoyed their company. Anybody who has to grade the work of students is running errands for meritocracy, in the end, and it ill-serves us to self-delude too much with gentle words about the dignity and self-worth of all people in all things that they set their minds and hearts to accomplish. But maybe Paula's the best of both worlds: the meritocracy guarded, while the pain dulled with soothing words.


January 21, 2004

I Also Froth

Dorothea Salo at Caveat Lector has some great "frothing-at-the-mouth" thoughts on journal publication. There is nothing that stuns me more than the relative immobility or inertia of most academics on this subject. On libraries and digital publication in general, it might be right to blame the tools and be suspicious of the rush to digitize, but on this particular question, it’s absolutely insane to oppose a major transformation of how we produce journals.
Let me go over the relevant facts to doubly emphasize Dorothea’s observations.

1. Academics receive no monetary compensation for writing and publishing journal articles. Their only compensation is in the form of reputation capital, achieved when other academics read, circulate, cite and teach their article.

2. Academics generally receive no compensation for doing the work of peer review for journals (in constrast to peer reviewing books, which gets you a small honorarium in money or a larger one in books from the publisher).

3. The only costs involved in journal publication which require a publisher to handle are the actual printing and the costs of distribution, and possibly the cost to advertise or promote a new journal. There are no payments to authors and no payments to peer reviewers to consider.

4. All significant costs of journal publication can be eliminated by transferring the journal to electornic form. Journals published in electronic form have minimal costs associated with them—the only major cost being the maintenance of servers on which the journal is resident. A electronic journal that was syndicated to many sites would distribute this cost significantly. Possibly maintaining a searchable archive of back issues of the journal would have some extra cost.

5. Academics who give away their intellectual labor for free to publishers of journals are employees of institutions who are then forced to pay considerable sums to reacquire the fruits of their employees’ labor by buying back the journals from publishers. To add extra insult, the labor time necessary to write the journal articles is often supported by an additional outlay in the form of sabbatical and research support.

6. Electronic distribution of journal articles is a far more affordable and equitable way to circulate knowledge globally. The cost of access for an academic institution in the developing world is minimal—a single good Internet connection and some computers could buy access to every academic journal in the world if they were all available online. Subscribing to the same number of print journals costs incalculably more. If print journals are lost, destroyed or stolen, they are gone. If Internet access is lost for a time, the journals would be available again once it was restored.

7. Journal articles are generally short. Reading them on a computer monitor, or printing them out for reading, is at least tolerable.

8. There are now readily usable, easy, technical standards for the distribution of short digital publications that require no or minimal licensing—both html and pdf will do just fine, and articles written in standard word processors can be quickly transferred to either standard.

Stacked up against this, I can see only one argument that meaningfully favors the current universe of print journals, and that’s the relatively tangible permanence and inalterability of print. But if electronic journals maintained by the same volunteer networks of academics, with publishers cut entirely out of the loop, were maintained with steady protocols for backups and regular transfers to new storage media, and if published articles were “locked” from later changes and carefully date-authenticated to prevent Stalinist-type alterations of the intellectual record down the road, this concern is a non-issue.

I can see every reason in the world to oppose any precipitious move towards digitizing everything, and every reason to hold onto print culture overall and books in particular. However, it’s a crime to continue publishing academic journals in print form.

It’s staggeringly stupid in economic terms, and functionally unnecessary. Frankly, every academic institution in the world ought to make it a primary condition that any research done by faculty that is published in journal form must be published electronically, because any other form of publication imposes a double cost on a university or college. It pays coming and going.

If the compensation of publishing in journals or doing peer review is reputation capital, then academics are incredibly ill-served by relying on publishers who restrict the availability and circulation of journal publications. If you publish a journal article, you want it assigned in classes, you want it available for viewing by anyone and everyone at every hour of every day on any computer, you want it to be searchable. You don't want somebody to have to pay directly or indirectly through a library to get your article. The only restraint on circulation you want is that anyone using your work should have to acknowledge it, but there is no difference on this issue between electronic and print publication.

It’s also a socially unjust form of academic publication. My many colleagues who express copious concern about justice for the developing world or questions of global equity in academia ought to line up aggressively behind the digital publication and distribution of journals.

Everything about academic journals is easily migrated into digital form. There is no reason in the world not to do it, and do it right now.


January 20, 2004

Good Job, Iowa

Well, whaddya know. Maybe I won't have to vote for Dean in November, which would suit me fine, and good riddance to Gephardt. I still think there's no question that even some conservatives ought to prefer Dean to Bush, but maybe we can get a Democrat more to my liking and theirs up there as a choice. Edwards is smart, capable, and interesting: what a novel thing if he were to get the nomination. Kerry wouldn't be horrible, but I think he'd represent another iteration of a proven failure in political strategy, and that's to nominate a guy who is no more than a superior technocrat and manager, who can govern well, but without any kind of vision of his own save a justified belief in his own superior managerial skills. Kerry is a caretaker. That would certainly be better than Bush, but it's probably hard to get many voters to see that. Edwards, I think, actually seems to have a deeper, more vision-driven sense of what's interesting and important and why, and probably the deeper ability to connect with the general electorate as a result. Hell, he might even be able to win. What a concept.

January 20, 2004

Burn the Catalog

I was doing a bit of last-minute refurbishment of my Honors seminar syllabus last week, trying to see if there were new books or articles on particular topics or themes that I might have overlooked. I had also reorganized the syllabus somewhat and had one week that was a conceptual oddball of sorts, organized around a somewhat diffuse view of the causes of colonialism in Africa that is starting to be a major part of my current manuscript, and I was hunting for older materials that I might stitch together to explain my perspective.

Using our library’s catalogue, Tripod, I was both impressed at how generally strong our collection is for a small liberal-arts college (shared with Bryn Mawr and Haverford) and frustrated at just how useless a typical electronic catalogue has become. The information technology revolution has become something akin to the tearing down of a dam: the waters are free, pouring across the landscape, but if you want to use them to irrigate some crops or even just to take a drink of water, you have to leap headlong into the floodwaters and be swept away by them.

Our librarians are eager to teach information literacy and research skills, but it’s hard to get the students to respond. Part of that is that to learn those skills from the librarians involves giving up time to listen, and part of it is that most of our students can sort of muddle through at 2am using online materials available through Tripod, especially full-text resources. There are interesting hierarchies of use starting to emerge as a consequence: on some papers, you don’t see students necessarily choosing the best work or data for their project, but preferring instead by default the resources that are available in full-text form.

I don’t really blame them. This is not just about availability, but about the near-impossibility of teaching undergraduates the kinds of search heuristics that will reliably produce useful material on most research subjects. The main reason that I don’t think students learn from our librarians is that they’re not learning from their professors how to search, either, and in some cases, because the professors themselves don’t really know how to navigate the brave new world of catalogs and databases. I used to be a snot-nosed punk and think that was about Luddism and sloth, but I’m realizing that the fault lies less in ourselves and more in our tools. I think I know a lot about the tools and how to use them, but I'm finding it harder and harder to communicate effectively with my students about how to reproduce the search techniques that work for me.

Electronic catalogs, wherever you go in the academic world, have become a horrible crazy-quilt assemblage of incompatible interfaces and vendor-constrained listings. Working through Tripod’s article and specialized subject indices, in a relatively small collection, you still have to navigate at least five completely different interfaces for searching. Historical epochs of data collection and cataloguing lie indigestibly atop one another. The Library of Congress subject headings, which long ago slid into uselessness, now actively misrepresent existing nodes and clusters of knowledge in many academic fields. Or sometimes, the LC headings are so insanely specific that they are inhabited and may always be inhabited forever and ever by one or two monographs, using subject headings that could never be found intuitively by a researcher, but only by someone who already knew about the one or two monographs anyway. At their outer reaches, the categories sometimes become positively Borgesian, as if they’re part of the planned expansion of human knowledge to some infinite point of universality.

To get a catalog to associate materials that I know are associated in scholarly practice, I often have to execute exotic combinations of keywords and authors. Disciplines don’t guide me to those clusters of scholarship, subject headings don’t guide me to them, and even the keywords that most obviously ought to guide me indiscriminately lump those clusters in with works that have almost no relationship to them.

I can only readily track new or interesting publications in fields whose everyday sociology as glimpsed in conferences and workshops and introductions to books and listservs and bibliographies is well known to me. If I want to find out what interesting books have been written by Africanists in the last year the most compact way is to go to the African Studies Association meetings and prowl the book fair with a notepad. Otherwise I have to recall which friends or known associates of mine are working on books and search their names; search many subjects at a high level of specificity (basically most of the major ethnonyms and all of the countries of Africa one by one); search for new titles in ongoing series (if a catalog allows me to search that field); search particular publishers who often put out Africanist works (or get their catalogs); do some highly date-sensitive searches in combination with subjects or keywords; and maybe search a few carefully chosen combinations of especially perfect keywords.

Moving out of those known sociologies into areas I don’t know as well or at all, I have to tack back and forth into the information wind with keywords, publication dates, the few known canonical signposts, and reading titles like tea leaves for hints to content. Occasionally I get lucky and there’s a good description of the book or article, or even a full-text version I can scan quickly, and that helps a lot, though the body of the full-text versions are themselves not often searchable from the catalog level. Or I go to the bibliography of the newest relevant book I can find and look for new things there. Academics with graduate students have an army of foot-soldiers who regularly hunt down what’s new and au courant, which can help a lot.

On the other hand, there’s I’m hardly the first to note that Amazon as a catalog or research tool is easier to use and significantly more productive than conventional academic library catalogs. I can see the table of contents of books most of the time, and a range of associated materials--and now even parts of the book itself are searchable. More significantly by far, I can follow the actual patterns of use and association among readers through the “People who ordered this book also ordered…” links.

There are weaknesses, of course, in using Amazon as a research tool. It’s just for books that are currently in print—no articles, no research materials, no dissertations, not that many obscure monographs. The subject headings are mostly as useless on Amazon as the LC headings are in other catalogs. Keyword searching is just as messy and inconsistent in the results it produces. The patterns of reader association can become dangerously inbred: it’s still up to the searcher to make the intuitive leap from one circular cluster of associated materials to the next. But I still find myself using Amazon when I’m trying to find out what’s new in certain fields: it acquaints me with the hidden structures of readership, it uncloaks the invisible college.

I’m to the point where I think we’d be better off to just utterly erase our existing academic catalogs and forget about backwards-compatibility, lock all the vendors and librarians and scholars together in a room, and make them hammer out electronic research tools that are Amazon-plus, Amazon without the intent to sell books but with the intent of guiding users of all kinds to the books and articles and materials that they ought to find, a catalog that is a partner rather than an obstacle in the making and tracking of knowledge.


January 19, 2004

Flush Away

Goodness knows I'm a strong critic of graduate pedagogy in the humanities and social sciences, and a strong believer that doctoral study is in desperate need of reform. I know only too well how many stories of shabby behavior towards graduate students and folks on the job market are out there, waiting to be heard. Any academic who has a touch of honesty and a willingness to listen has heard real, unmistakeable horror stories of interviews that went badly wrong (I myself haven't forgotten the two guys who interviewed me while stretched out on their respective beds, yawning, with shoes off), or tales of misconduct and needless cruelty by professors towards doctoral students.

In a way, I think the horror stories potentially overlook the real issue, which is how far short graduate school in the humanities and social sciences falls from its institutional and intellectual potential, how narrow it has become in its circumscription of the boundaries of academic professionalism, something commentators at Invisible Adjunct, as well as Mt Hollywood and other sites have been discussing avidly of late. It's true, as many have noted, that to get through graduate school isn't necessarily or even frequently a sign of superior intelligence or ability, but just a kind of dogged ability to suffer abuse and a relentless and usually unjustified optimism about one's employment prospects. I agree that any faculty who pat themselves on the back after hearing new data about the absurdly high attrition rates in graduate programs and say that it's just survival of the fittest, a flushing of the system, need to think again. The data on attrition is an appalling indictment of serious flaws in the entire system of academic training.

All of this being said, Erin O'Connor has put up an email from a reader that suggests that we could go overboard here. I don't know if O'Connor views her correspondent sympathetically--she notes that when satire is like life, it gets hard to satirize, but it's not clear who it is that she sees as the butt of the joke.

The butt is clear to me. Her correspondent is an asshole, and whomever he or she is, I'm kind of glad their academic career ended at the 1998 AHA. This is a person who walked into an interview, told the interviewers that they were unprofessional in scheduling interviews too closely together, snottily rebuffed one of the interviewers who had insufficient appreciation for the candidate's publication record, regarded the substance of the interview as "insipid banter", and then went on to remind the interviewers that they were unprofessional before leaving.

Ok. Let's go over this one a little, shall we? If ever there was a poster child for the ugliness of academic entitlement, and evidence that one of the worst things we do to doctoral students is convince them that they're owed a job because of their brilliance or whatever, it's this person.

If you're being interviewed for a job, you're a supplicant. That's not just how it is, but really, how it ought to be, at least until the One World Government creates a giant job-matching master computer that places us all in jobs based on our Myers-Briggs Test. The people in that room don't owe you jack besides a fair hearing for 45 minutes. You have to convince them that you're not just a good scholar and good teacher, but somebody they'd like as a colleague. Do I want somebody as a colleague who is going to act like a prissy psycho every time there's a slight error in scheduling, who gets their hair constantly ruffled because of their exquisitely tuned sense of what constitutes professionalism? No way. It might be unfair to use collegiality as a major evaluative tool later on, at tenure time, but it definitely isn't unfair when you're trying to decide which of 15 people you don't know yet might be someone you want to have as a colleague. Whomever this person is, he or she basically announced in the first fifteen seconds, "I'm an arrogant jerk, and you made the mistake of deciding I was one of the 15 people you wanted to talk to this year. Let's make each other uncomfortable for the next 45 minutes, shall we, and then you can move on to people that you might actually want to work with".

There is another class of horror story that maybe we don't hear about as much as we try to think about the reform of academia, and that's about bad students and bad job seekers. I think it's right and proper that we don't dwell on those stories, partly because they're an easily distorted or exaggerated security blanket for professors who want to resist reform, and partly because they're not a systematic or structural problem, just an idiosyncratic or individual one. But let's not forget that there are plenty of sins to go around here, and that not every unpleasant experience lies wholly or even largely on the doorstep of working academics. The aggressive pursuit of reform shouldn't be the affirmation of every single axe-grinder out there.


January 14, 2004

Eyes Wide Shut: Africanists and the Moral Problematics of Postcolonial Societies

This is an article I wrote for the African Studies Quarterly, part of a special collection of essays reflecting on an earlier article by Gavin Kitching about why he stopped being an Africanist. The rest of the essays are also very interesting, and definitely worth a read.

January 13, 2004

Nazgul the Baby Doctor

I have read a lot and taught about Barbie several times in the last ten years. But my last material, physical encounter with the doll itself was probably around seventh grade, when the kids on my block used to hold big confabs of all our various dolls and action figures and we all did the venerable “GI Joe in the shower with Barbie” thing.

We got a pretty nifty dollhouse for Emma this Christmas, and we figured that enjoyable as it might be to have Saruman, the Lord Humongous, Dr. Zaius and Tomar Re from my action figure collection hangin’ at the house, Emma might appreciate a couple of dolls of her own. So we swallowed and surrendered to the inevitable and got a Baby Doctor Barbie for her. Well, first, this didn’t work so well because Barbie’s out of scale with the house, about three inches too tall (Saruman et al are almost right—they’re maybe half an inch short).

What really struck me, however, was just what a crappy doll Barbie actually is. She’s got minimal articulation, she’s stiff and horribly inanimate, she doesn’t stand up on her own no matter what you do, and in order for this particular Barbie to grip her neonatal medical instruments, they have to be jammed through a hole in her hand like a stigmata. If you actually wanted to play out a narrative of Barbie treating the two little babies that come with her, you’d almost be just as well off with a rag doll or a popsicle stick figure in terms of the resemblance between what you’re imagining and what you’re holding.

Contrast that with action figures, almost any action figures, not just the especially cool ones I tend to collect. Good articulation, vivid expressions, great accessories that the character can readily grip and use. Now it so happens that those accessories are usually used to maim, kill and destroy, but what of it? It’s a lot easier to imagine my Nazgul figure as a baby doctor (if I take away his sword) than Barbie. At least he can stand and hold things, and strike a wide variety of poses while clutching a baby.

Barbie, in contrast, really is only one thing: a platform for clothes and an object to be looked at. At this point, feminist cultural studies scholars are saying, “Well, duh”, and wondering just how much of Barbie scholarship I’ve actually read. As always, it’s one thing to read it and another thing to experience it. I don’t doubt that Barbie, like all culture, can be “poached” by its consumers, and made to be and do things that aren’t suggested by its material nature. All the more so because of Barbie's cultural ubiquity.

At the same time, there just isn’t any way to dodge what Swarthmore students have been telling me for a decade in my History of Consumption class: boys’ toys are still vastly better-made, more varied, more complex, more interesting, than girls’ toys.


January 13, 2004

Warbloggers Circle Wagons; Dog Bites Man

It didn’t take Nostradamus to predict that in the wake of reports about Paul O’Neill, the war’s defenders would observe, accurately, that any post-Gulf War administration would have had such conversations about Hussein, and inaccurately, that there was nothing of interest in O’Neill’s statements. The critics (of whom I’m one) naturally noted that this confirms suspicions that Bush exploited September 11th to accomplish a pre-existing policy agenda (Hussein’s removal and a general rejection of multilateralism) rather than concentrating on the most effective prosecution of the war on terror.

It’s a tedious debate, partly because positions on both sides have hardened into total inflexibility. For me, given that I completely reject the kinds of anti-war arguments that follow Chomsky or Soros’ lead or anyone similar, this immobility is especially frustrating. I am potentially persuadable about the war, and have been ever since September 11th. I needed and still need to be convinced that this war in particular was urgently necessary, justifying the poor management of the build-up to war. Most of the evidence that it was has now been disavowed by the Administration itself.

The “Hussein was a tyrant, and needed to be overthrown because of his tyranny” argument is just about all that’s left for the pro-war advocates. They’re right in this respect that it is great that his regime is overthrown and he is in custody, but this remains a horribly dishonest argument for the war itself. One might ask how I can say, “A great thing to have done, but it was wrong to do it”. If I told you that I had a vitally important meeting to get to that started in 30 minutes, and it was an hour away by car, and you drove me at 120 miles an hour to get there on time, I’d be grateful to have gotten there once I was there, but I wouldn’t want you to ever do that again--nor would I have wanted it the first time.

The argument is dishonest both in that it’s not how the war was sold to a democratic society, even by most pro-war pundits and bloggers, and dishonest in that none of those who offer it actually mean it to be a continuing rationale for policy in general. Don’t try to tell me that I’m somehow supportive of Hussein’s tyranny for criticizing the war, because I can serve up a steaming load of the same whup-ass back on your plate, as I’ve observed here before. If this is the real reason for war, then you have to support another fifteen such wars right now or be accused yourself of the same support for tyranny elsewhere. Wilsonian idealism at this level is an all-or-nothing thing. Once you agree that we must bow to what is pragmatically possible, that cost-to-benefit matters, the war in Iraq is open to criticism.

The biggest intellectual sin, among many, in Chomsky, is that there is no information or data which would lead him to rethink his arguments, nothing which can falsify his case. If it were revealed tomorrow that Saddam Hussein was three weeks away from planting nuclear weapons in the fifty biggest cities on Earth or had made a deal with space aliens to sell humanity into slavery, Chomsky’s case wouldn’t alter one iota. It would still be the fault of the United States and the war still wouldn’t have been justified.

I think most of the defenders of the war have backed themselves into the same predicament: there is nothing that could ever falsify their case, nothing that would make them re-think, no event or information that would require a careful reconsideration of their arguments. Not Paul O’Neill, nor an occupation that has from the outset gone the way that the critics of the war predicted it would, nor the absence of deployable WMD, nothing.

The reasonable thing to do is be predictive. What information would change your mind, whatever your feelings are? What developments would alter your assessment? Say it now and say it explicitly.

For me, it’s simple. The discovery of actually-existing WMD that was readily deployable; revelation of substantial, sustained connections between Hussein and al-Qaeda or similar groups; evidence that Hussein independently was preparing to order or support terrorist attacks on the United States, Western Europe or other nations; evidence of imminent plans for territorial aggression against Iraq’s neighbors. All or any of that would be sufficient for me to concede a reasonable case for the immediate war as it was conducted, even with its enormous costs and risks. The other thing that would change my thinking is a change in what I understand to be the cost-benefit ratio. If next year, the United States withdrew in an orderly fashion, a meaningfully democratic government was elected in Iraq and neighboring regimes also made serious moves to democratize and liberalize their societies, I’d be glad to confess my error.

For the prowar advocates, is there anything that would change your mind? If Dick Cheney gave a national speech where he said, “Yeah, it’s all about Halliburton”, would you feel differently? Is there any series of events that would change your assessment? If the occupation was still going five years from now and 10,000 Americans had died in the conflict in the interim, would you feel differently? If there’s nothing that fits the bill, then seriously, stop blogging about it. Stop writing about it. There’s no point: this is faith, not reason, and there’s no need to bore the rest of us as you bear witness.


January 13, 2004

Dear Rush Limbaugh: if you have an iota of self-respect, you’ll make an explicit, humiliating apology to Donovan McNabb. I don’t follow football that closely, but I usually watch the playoffs. McNabb may not be the greatest quarterback of all time, but he’s clearly one of the best quarterbacks playing right now. I’m talking about the 4th-and-26th miracle last Sunday, which was just freakish, but most of the rest of his play, especially the scramble and pass into the endzone and his general cool-headed performance in a game when his offensive line actually failed him a number of times.

As a veteran viewer of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, I’m always on the lookout for great new bad movies. My brother Kevin thinks he’s found one, the kind that can become a cult experience on par with “Plan Nine From Outer Space”. It’s called “The Room”. Watching the trailer for the film, I think Kevin might well be right.

January 9, 2004

Uncharacteristically brief notes:

1) John and Belle's daughter Zoe reminds me a lot of my own daughter, and I particularly found John's entry about toddler storytelling interesting. Emma managed to creep me out a bit the other day with a weird Book-of-Revelations tale that began with the lines "He is the passenger dog that leads the way. He holds out the signs." The Passenger Dog kept popping up throughout the story, along with the Walking Road. I also enjoy Emma's use of reasoned argument, which actually tends to be pretty sensible and rigorous and tends to expose both arbitrary "cultural" rules (like questioning why Mommy sleeps with Daddy given our assertion that big boys and girls need to learn how to go to sleep by themselves) and hidden constraints on what is possible. Lately she's been really jonesing for a pet and is becoming increasingly wily in her arguments. Here's the latest round:

Emma: "I miss our old cat". [Cat died when Emma wasn't even quite a year old; I don't think she actually remembers the cat, but she knows we had one and has seen pictures.]
Melissa: "Yes, she was a good cat."
Emma: "We should get another cat now."
Melissa: "Honey, cats give Daddy asthma, and he's been much better since the cat died."
Emma: "I could help Daddy with his asma."
Melissa: "It makes it hard for him to breathe."
Emma: "I could help Daddy breathe."
Melissa: "I don't think so, honey."
Emma: "We could keep the cat away from Daddy."
Melissa: "Where?"
Emma: "In my office." [she gets to use the old computer in my home office, and is rapidly colonizing the whole room]
Melissa: "That's Daddy's office, honey."
Emma: "We could get him a new office."

2) I really appreciate a lot of what Erin O'Connor has to say but like Chun the Unavoidable, I found the anonymous author of a MLA "expose" creepy rather than sympathetic, and her latest martyr to academic oppression, while unquestionably someone who has been treated unjustly, is at least a more complex case than she lets on, given that he is actually advocating constraints on the academic freedom of his colleagues at Cumberland College by promoting much tighter religious requirements in hiring and curricular design. I don't see why the complexities can't be up front from the outset.

3) I love the idea of more money for space exploration but I don't get what's wrong with sticking to robots and probes for the moment. Building lunar bases when there is nothing to keep us on the Moon except national pride or a Mars-or-bust project seems to be more cart-before-horse stuff, just like the shuttle and the ISS. I'm skeptical about the "look at all the cool stuff that got invented because of Apollo" argument in that it gets applied selectively--it's certainly an equally good argument for massive military expenditures, for example.

4) Some editing of my blogroll, which is really just mobile bookmarks, reminders for me of what to read. I'm especially happy to add Russell Arben Fox, whose blog I really enjoy.


January 7, 2004

Leading Horses to Water

Lately I’ve been wrestling with two complicated experiences, things I wanted to write about in this space, but felt inhibited about exploring fully. So my language here will be a bit oblique. What is spurring me to write is first, a disappointing experience with a grant I was hoping to get, and second, ambivalent feelings I have about a government-funded educational project that I have an institutional connection to.

What I'm concerned about is the nature of incentive in academic life. Many of academia’s critics regard this question as the greatest specific damage that the tenure system inflicts on higher education, that the lack of a risk-reward calculus post-tenure gives few scholars the incentive to excel, and punishes few for the failure to do so. This isn’t quite the way I want to come at the problem—for one, I think it involves a highly questionable assumption that such incentives meaningfully and typically exist in business or other institutions, and are the main engine for creativity and innovation—but I recognize the importance of the general issue.

How can any given institution articulate a set of preferences or desires for particular kinds of scholarship, teaching or activity from its faculty, and do you need rewards or incentives to get otherwise independently-minded faculty to respond to those desires? What makes academics change course to pursue a particular kind of reward?

There’s an obvious bookend to this question, and that’s whether there are any meaningful sticks at all to go alongside the carrots, but that’s a matter for another essay, and more directly involves some of the problems with tenure.

Here’s my list of meaningful institutional incentives that I can think of, ranked roughly in the order of their importance to the average tenured faculty member (obtaining tenure being an almost separate class of initial incentive):

1. Secure, reliable, long-term commitment to funding sabbatical leaves for an individual faculty member
2. Significant permanent salary increases
3. Structurally permanent course releases
4. Short-term course releases
5. Short-term programmatic stipends
6. Permanent relief from some or all service and administrative work unconnected to the faculty’s personal interests or objectives
7. Significant autonomous control over a dedicated, personally customized institutional unit or resource (major research project, institute, department, etcetera)
8. Personalized endorsement or warm acknowledgement of a faculty member’s research or pedagogical projects by top administrators
9. A strong degree of privileged access to administrative decision-making for an individual faculty member
10. Generalized administrative endorsement of an overall position or faction to which a faculty member subscribes within the institution
11. Committed, differentialized administrative and collegial non-interference in an individual faculty member’s perception of his or her own pedagogical, scholarly and administrative domains
12. Generalized support for faculty as a whole in grant-seeking efforts

There’s some more general “atmospheric” incentives I could describe, but faculty are often not aware of them as incentive until the atmosphere or culture shifts negatively for some reason. There is also a class of incentive that can be powerfully motivating that mostly lies outside of any single institution, most crucially seeking reputation capital through scholarly production within a specialized field or discipline, publishing textbooks or other works for profit, and seeking credibility and circulation within the wider public sphere. Institutions can decide to help faculty seek those rewards with sabbaticals, salary replacement and so on, but not much more than that.

Not all of these incentives are equally motivating to all faculty. When I recently helped put together a faculty seminar here, I was actually struck at how the offer of a course release was a powerful disincentive for some of the faculty that were attractive potential participants. Nor can they be found at all institutions. Swarthmore, for example, does not give a significant raise at promotion to associate or full professor (the title is largely honorary) and we give relatively minimal merit-based raises. Most smaller undergraduate institutions avoid giving structurally permanent course releases or structured relief from administrative or service responsibilities, unlike large research universities, where such incentives are often part of the package used to woo especially desirable senior scholars. Some of the intangibles are sometimes the strongest rewards for certain people: I know that getting some sense that Swarthmore officially shares my belief that a generalist and interdisciplinary approach to faculty development is more in line with our institutional values than continued narrow specialization would be a more desirable reward and more motivating to me than more money.

In any event, most of these incentives are generally designated rewards for individual productivity and achievement, and often work in concert with disciplinary or public rewards for scholarly achievement or general reputation. They are rarely used to reform pedagogy or academic administration, to encourage academics to study one subject more or another subject less, to achieve any more targeted institutional or social goal.

In this case, the only incentives that matter are internal and external grants and funding that are differentially targeted at particular kinds of research or institutional reforms, or some kind of highly focused top-down advocacy and support from the top reaches of academic administration in a particular institution.

If an external agency or internal administration actually wants to change academia in some particular fashion, even if it merely to encourage the study of some new discipline, or endorse one approach over another, they have to think very carefully about how to proceed. These kinds of incentives, properly designed, really can have a major impact, but it is very easy for them to be diverted, co-opted or ignored if they’re not actively looked after by the people who set them in motion, if they’re not very precisely defined and targeted at the outset, or if they’re paired alongside an incentive that pulls in another, contradictory direction.

In the work I’ve done with several foundations giving academic grants, I’ve been impressed with the extent to which they have been very clear about the specific kinds of things they wanted to reward, which went well beyond simple “excellence”. (Say, for example, wanting to diversify the pool of institutions receiving support for their doctoral students, and to widen the range of disciplines being rewarded). To stay on target takes not just precise standards but also constant monitoring and intervention by the grant giver. If you want to reward some particular kind of behavior or choice among academics, you have to build in some kind of evaluative weighting when making your choices, and aggressively shepherd decisions so that weighting is always taken into account.

In the case of my own disappointing experience, I applied with a collaborator from the sciences for a grant that I understood was supposed to reward collaborations across disciplines—but essentially each one of us were evaluated separately, as if we were two unrelated people who each had to excel above the competition in isolation from each other. If you don’t build in a weighted reward for applying as interdisciplinary collaborators, so that all non-collaborative projects are at a structurally inflexible disadvantage no matter how excellent they might be, you’re actually discouraging collaborative applicant. It makes it two times as hard to be selected: your project has to pass muster twice, and is subject to twice the possible political and institutional vagaries in that judgement. It's hard to reflect on a grant you didn't get without descending into sour grapes--you always have to take seriously the possibility that your proposal was flawed, and you also have to know, if you've been a part of making decisions about grants, that the decision often comes down to very small, fractional differences between generally excellent applicants. But I definitely walked away from this one feeling this case revealed a problem with how some grant-givers actually look after the goals they have set.

On the other hand, you can look after those goals too aggressively or inflexibly. In the case of the federal project I’m involved with, it’s clear what the grant-givers would like to encourage, but they’re so rigid in their approach (because of statutory limitations and a mass of their own home-grown bureaucratic regulations), most of the things they’d like to see come to pass will either not happen because they entail considerable extra “make-work” for participating faculty or because they are non-adaptive to particular institutional cultures. So there’s a disincentive to respond to this intended incentive, making it stillborn. (One suspects this is fairly common with a lot of federal grants.)

I think it is very possible for foundations, political groups, philanthropists and governments to shift academic institutions this way or that, to encourage or discourage particular kinds of research or teaching, and to reasonably hope that there will be visible general social benefits from these initiative. This can be done indirectly, through various incentive structures, rather than through crude statutory restrictions on public universities or other blunt instruments. (Or, in the case of a reformist college administration, I think it’s easier to gently push things in a new direction rather than pursue pogroms and such in the neo-Stalinist approach favored by John Silber.)

Any institution thinking along these lines is best advised to be precise, be clear and stay heavily involved at every stage of the process of change—because academic inertia is a powerful, pervasive force, and tends to quietly and without malice subvert well-meaning hands-off forms of benevolence to its own ends, to reinforce the status quo.


January 6, 2004

Happy New Year to all.

Kind of a tough end to the holiday season for me. Our post-Christmas travels took us to meet family in Las Vegas, which was interesting, but I couldn't help but feel nervous about terrorism (and I'm still feeling an enormous sense of dread). More burdensome has been the horrible week-long viral syndrome that our group picked up at the end and dispersed with family members back to their various homes: my wife and brother both report that it is "the worst they have ever felt in their lives", which is saying a lot, and my 3-year old, lacking the perspective to make the same claim, nevertheless seems to have felt the same way. I am so far unscathed but I feel under the sentence of doom--and I'm doing my civic best to hide away from anyone so as to avoid unleashing it on my neighbors and colleagues.

January 6, 2004

The Real Third Party, or Why Some Conservatives Ought to Vote for Howard Dean

Howard Dean is not my favorite candidate (of the available field, I like John Edwards best) but it’s screamingly apparent to me that a Dean Administration would be hugely preferable over a second Bush Administration. I’m not talking modest improvements here, but the difference between the continuation of the best traditions of American democracy and the continued magnification of serious internal and external threats to those traditions under Bush. More importantly, I think that there are quite a few conservatives who ought to feel the same way if they're at all true to their convictions, and I am baffled about why they do not.

Let me be clear here: I am not a registered Democrat, nor would I vote slavishly for any of the party’s candidates. If by some bizarre twist of fate Kucinich, Braun or Sharpton were nominated, I’d rather cover myself with honey and lie on a hill of fire ants than walk into a booth and pull the lever for any of them. If I was compelled to vote in that circumstance, I’d pull the lever for Bush and then scrub myself with steel wool for a week afterwards. I’d feel only slightly less viscerally repelled if Gephardt was the nominee but I’d probably still stay away from the voting booth if that was the scenario. If it were Joe Lieberman, well, I’d vote for Bush just because better the Bush you already have than the Bush you don’t: Lieberman is like Bush and Ashcroft rolled into one person.

Dean is a different kettle of fish. His actual record in governance is moderate, and for all that Karl Rove’s little team of operatives (and some of Dean’s rivals) would like to tag him as a wild-eyed ultra-liberal, most of his actual positions are reasonably mainstream, and at times more conservative than the bulk of his competitors (on gun control, for example). The most “liberal” thing about him is his unbending opposition to the war in Iraq, which is only the first thing that should make him a preferable choice for some conservatives. The main thing that makes him preferable is that Dean is not George Bush, and that his past record and stated positions, especially with the likelihood of a Republican Congress, makes him inevitably less harmful to certain kinds of conservatism than George Bush has been and will be.

Let’s start with the libertarian branch of conservatism, in either of its chief manifestations, the bedrock defense of civil liberties and individual freedom to act or the core belief “that government which governs least, governs best”. For anyone whose conservatism primarily originates from these convictions, George Bush is unambiguously the most dangerous American President since Franklin Roosevelt.

It should be enough to note that the initially alarming interest that the Ashcroft Justice Department took in neo-censorship prior to 9/11 has turned out to be less of a threat to civil liberties than one might have supposed at the time, but only because the Administration has been too busy pursuing a much more breathtaking assault on the Bill of Rights. Any conservative who comes from a libertarian perspective ought to be openly terrified by the Patriot Act and its various bastard policy offspring, and most of all by the Administration’s stated intent to ignore constitutional protections and rights for American citizens (as well as non-Americans: the obligations of liberalism are universal, or so we’re often told) and to even deny the validity of judicial review of its actions. Let me go over this again: this is an Administration which has asserted that it can deny constitutional rights to American citizens based on its private, classified and secret determination of whether someone is an "enemy combatant", and has asserted that the courts have no right to review such a determination. This is also an Administration which has asserted that critics of its policies are aiding or comforting its enemies, and so for the first time in a long time, it doesn't require a paranoid to be nervous about the short slippery slope between secret unreviewable determinations that someone is an "enemy combatant" and a disdain for all opposition and criticism. For the first time since the Nixon Administration clashed with the Supreme Court on “executive privilege”, I think it’s fair to honestly wonder whether a second Bush Administration would actually bow to a ruling by the Court that it cannot arbitrarily deem Americans seized on American territory to be “enemy combatants”. That’s assuming that Bush doesn’t have an opportunity to “pack the Court” first. What’s the comparable threat from Howard Dean? What, he might say something blandly positive about a schoolmarmishly oppressive hate-speech code on a college campus?

Suppose that’s less important to you as a libertarian-leaning conservative than the feeling that the federal government should be smaller and less intrusively involved in local and state affairs. Again, the Bush Administration is in this respect vastly worse than the Clinton Administration or any other post-World War II presidency save perhaps Lyndon Johnson’s, and not merely on national security grounds. The Administration’s assertions of federal power over a huge range of issues, many of them not at all related to national security, have been sweeping and precedent-setting. It’s back to the days of unfunded or underfunded mandates from Washington roughly and heedlessly overriding local prerogatives and standards. Purely from a checks-and-balances standpoint, a Dean Administration would have to be preferable: even if Dean wished to be as pervasive in his use of federal power (and the evidence from Vermont is that he won’t), he’s going to be checked by both Congress and the courts.

Let’s suppose your conservatism is instead about good fiscal policy and a healthy respect for free market capitalism. I grant you that some of the Democratic candidates are anathema to a conservative of this kind, particularly Richard Gephardt (not to mention the no-hope fringers like Kucinich). Howard Dean, on the other hand, has a quite reasonable record in this area. In contrast, George Bush does not. He has been one of the most protectionist Presidents in recent memory, and in a way that is nakedly, avidly about personal political gain. In some ways, a philosophically committed protectionist might be better from the standpoint of sound fiscal management, because at least in that case, the protectionist in question might not make policy on the basis of seeking votes in Pennsylvania but instead with a strategic economic vision in mind. Bush’s protectionism is of a piece with his drift towards “crony capitalism”, and any conservative whose political ideology is primarily about sound economic policy ought to view that drift with alarm, given the devastating impact of similar economic policies in much of southern and eastern Asia. Leaving that aside, the President’s staggering disinterest in deficit management and his heedless off-loading of fiscal burdens onto state and local governments ought to be equally troubling. Whether Bush is “really” a big-government spendthrift or is just cynically forcing some later Administration to radically downsize government because he lacks the political strength or will to do it himself, he is still appalling.

You might think that a strong-defense, national-security conservative would at least find Bush preferable to Dean, but at least for the rational-pragmatic school of conservatives, Dean is a better candidate. I grant that Dean’s unwavering commitment to pull back from Iraq is going to cause a number of problems: his election would immediately destabilize Iraq still further (if that’s possible). But that mess is not of Dean’s making. Cleaning up will be hard for anyone. What is more important for someone whose primary concern is with maintaining American strength in the world is that Bush’s once and future mismanagement of the most crucial challenge of our times is a mortal danger to American influence, not a strengthening of it. The war in Iraq, or more specifically, the bluntly incompetent handling of it by Bush and his advisors, has done enormous damage to the power of the United States, damage that it will take a generation of leaders to undo. Dean is not the man to begin that work, but he will at least staunch the bleeding and prevent further self-inflicted wounds. Dean is not the ideal candidate for a national-security conservative, not the man who best knows how to be strong where the U.S. needs to be, and in the ways it needs to be, but he is by any standard preferable to Bush. He can begin the process of reconstructing our influence and strengthening the struggle against terrorism simply by not being George Bush.

I suppose it should be obvious that a neo-isolationist, narrowly nationalistic conservative like Patrick Buchanan should be opposed to Bush, but given that the net effect of Bush’s policies are isolationist, perhaps that’s not so.

So what’s left on the right? Who should really want Bush rather than Dean? Only two kinds of conservatives, as far as I can see. First, neoconservatives, who as a colleague of mine has observed, are really the strongest contemporary disciples of the Wilsonian tradition of idealist American foreign policy, the naïve belief that the United States can compel the world by military force to become the world we desire. I am not the first to observe in this light that it is hardly surprising that many of the neoconservatives have intellectual and personal roots in the statist left, and that their actions have been largely consistent with a philosophy that celebrates the possibilities of compulsion exercised by a overwhelmingly strong government, with little interest in the constraints imposed by respect for the rights and freedoms of the governed. One has to wonder where popular anti-intellectualism is when you need it, because the influence of neoconservatives on the Bush administration is vastly out of proportion with their actually existing demographic or political presence in the electorate. They don’t speak for anybody besides a fairly narrow if influential group of inside-the-Beltway elites, but if you’re a committed neoconservative—make that latter-day Wilsonian idealist who believes that military power alone is sufficient to compel the world to be as we wish it to be—then by all means, vote for Bush. He’s your man.

Who else? Well, the one major demographically important segment of American conservatism that ought to be for Bush rather than Dean is the religious or cultural right. For a conservative who could care less about the size of government, or about pragmatic assertions of national strength in the world, or about sound fiscal management, who primarily sees the President as the leader of a moral crusade to purify American society, Bush is clearly the best choice, not only over other Democrats but even within the Republican Party. No Republican leader in the past forty years has had the will and boldness to pursue the chosen agenda of this constituency with such unrestrained gusto. If this is your conservatism, there’s no question about who you ought to vote for.

What I don’t understand is why libertarian-leaning or pragmatic conservatives are willing to go along with the modern Republican Party’s captivity to interests that they ought to view as anathema. The Western Republican Party has become a kind of impotent wart on the ass of the Southern Republican Party. In this respect, the elections of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura really should serve as an indication of the electoral viability and political legitimacy of a genuine “third party” in the United States, a socially and culturally libertarian, fiscally prudent, pragmatic party that is strongly committed to checking the authority and size of government without compromising its necessary functions and positive capabilities, strongly pro-market capitalism but anti-monopoly and anti-cronyism.

This is the political faction that speaks for what Jonathan Rauch and others have called “the radical center”, not a center that is the proverbial dead armadillo in the middle of the road, choosing a little of this and a little of that from the ideological smorgasbord in order to bolster poll numbers (as technocratic, managerial politicians like Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, George Bush the Elder or Al Gore have done). This is a center that has a coherent political philosophy, a consistent set of convictions that sets it apart from both the old statist, unionist, urban core of the Democratic Party and the cultural fundamentalism and neoconservative idealism of the current Republican Party. This faction is ill-served by both parties, but at the moment, the most pressing threat to its interests and needs by far comes from George Bush.

Any conservative who is not a committed member of the religious right or a neocon needs to give serious thought to Howard Dean. He cannot possibly be worse than Bush for the abiding interests and beliefs of those conservatives, for the "radical center" —and he quite possibly could be substantially better. If you're a libertarian, a fiscal conservative, or a pragmatic conservative, and you would like to see candidates that you can vote for with passion, then the time has come for you to consider leaving your party altogether--just as there are Democrats who ought to think about doing the same. But that's for the future. The now is that the majority of Americans, conservative, centrist, liberal, libertarian, what have you, need to stop George Bush before the wounds he is inflicting on America become mortal--even if that means pulling the lever for Howard Dean.