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Sunday, January 28, 2007

 

Announcing the Stanford Suburban Iditarod: March 4, 2007

So last year your intrepid reporter, along with some other brave sorts, managed to survive the wilds of San Francisco and completed the San Francisco Urban Iditarod. Dressed as the incorruptable Northern Canadian Mounties (plus a retarted hockey player in a shortbus) , we completed the gruelling 3-hour race by traversing substantial topography, various unfamiliar odors, and the furtive glances of passers-by. We finished. We celebrated. And we looked forward to Urban Iditarod 2007.


But, sadly, the event has been cancelled due to the overwhelming turn-out and an increased need for police presence. So I propose the following: Let's bring it home...

Stanford Suburban Iditarod (plus post-race BBQ) at The Farm on Sunday, March 4th at 2.00pm (Alaska time).

More details to follow. Interested?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

 

People I want to Fight: The State of Arizona

For Thanksgiving, Cam and I travelled to Rocky Point located in the Republic of Southern Arizona ...

We drove down in the car for 16 hours ... we sat on a beach for taking in the sights and smells ... we met a lot of people from Flagstaff and Phoenix ... we overheard brilliant commentary "But Penasco doesn't mean Rocky"... we saw drunken grandparents passing off drinks to grandchildren ... we saw drunken 15 year-olds rolling in the sand ... we saw about 84 cummulative inches of thong ... we got laughed at for using Mexican currency ... we heard a completely shittered father sing "My Ding-a-ling" to his pre-teen daughter (think about the lyrics!) ... then we got in the car and drove 16 hours home ...

And now I'm pretty sure that I want to fight the state of Arizona.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

 

A subtle barbarism (by Timothy Brennan)

The central fact of American political discourse today is a startling convergence of the positions held by two groups traditionally opposed to each other: the Left and the Right.

The favoured and feted of serious non-fiction — those rare liberal academics and authors with policy clout and routine access to the major media — have lately espoused positions that dovetail with the Bush administration's defence of torture and the suspension of habeas corpus.

At the same time, the so-called radical wings of the academic humanities, as well as dissident subfields such as post-colonial studies taught by professors who call themselves Marxists, and even in many cases communists, argue that empires no longer exist or that everyone, rich and poor alike, can now enjoy the fruits of a freewheeling cosmopolitanism. The world — that is, the United States — is now, without blush, considered genuinely attractive by them because of its supposed cultural productivity, inventiveness and freedom.

Whether as active defence of imperial government or merely passive rejection of all government as such, the work of many of the most "oppositional" intellectuals is now helplessly, and of course unintentionally, conservative. Given so daunting a convergence, it is no exaggeration to say that they have lost their ability to tell the difference between a left and a right position. This fundamental ambiguity is sought by them and, once found, is taken to be a great advance in thought.

These attitudes are the culmination of a long-term intellectual blurring. In its stand on human rights, labour law and the environment, for example, the traditional Left has always been conservative in the literal (and good) sense of seeking to conserve forests, endangered species, unionization, community values.

In its stand on human rights and the environment, by contrast, the Right can be said to be radical and even subversive, in that it seeks to uproot long-established norms and customs in the name of a blind and insouciant progress (what Aldous Huxley called a "brave new world" and Nietzsche a "re-evaluation of values").

By the same token, the new Left's notion of the individual, updated over several decades into a politics of the counter-cultural "self," is, with the exception of a few tattoos or nose rings, indistinguishable from the Right's portrait of the solitary subject at war with society. Both sides, for example, virulently condemn the vision of debate-driven gatherings of mutually responsible citizens, a.k.a. "government," seeing in it the dangerous outpost of a repressive collectivism.

The current moment, I want to suggest, represents a watershed that did not evolve out of thin air. Before the world knew anything of al Qaeda or Sept. 11, for example, Fred Halliday's prophetic The Making of the Second Cold War (1983) warned that the media and government mantra of "terrorism" launched in the 1980s was an omen of a coming campaign. Halliday predicted authorities would use small nations, political dissidents and immigrant undesirables to create a new grande peur to discipline the public and silence the middle-class critic.

For its part, the cultural Left began presenting its conformities to the new political terrain as innovations. With faith in globalization's inevitability, it devised its own shibboleths to prove it had abandoned the outmoded conflicts of the past: "migrancy" (we are all living in-between), "deterritoriality" (liberation lies in an indeterminate, post-national existence), "hybridity" (there are no victims or culprits, for we are all gloriously impure).

Some have rightly argued that this convergence had philosophical roots. Several have pointed to prolific ideologues such as Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, many of whose acolytes ended up in the Bush administration or became indefatigable writers of insta-books for the Heritage and Scaife Foundations.

But it would be wrong to doubt that the convergence was also shaped by the aristocratic bohemianism of radical individualist and fiercely antisocial lineages within "left" cultural studies. The gurus of the cultural Left have overwhelmingly been right-wing thinkers from interwar Europe — such as Martin Heidegger — or those, such as Georges Bataille, who in the 1930s flirted with fascism, or Cold War émigrés writing in the United States during the 1950s, such as Heidegger's student, Hannah Arendt.

These intellectual influences took hold amid the foreclosure of liberal access to opinion-making media, a robust new discourse of revolutionary right-wing populism launched by the New Christian Right and the collapse of the United States' historical adversaries abroad. All this has led, under the significant pressures of professional ambition in an academic and media environment now brought to heel, to the current vectoring of right and left forces.

What I am proposing can be clarified by turning to an example, which although not the only possible one, is far from arbitrarily chosen. I am thinking here of the highly publicized cross-over intellectuals, often with a foot in the university but showcased in a variety of media, who write breezy mass-market books with claims to both scholarship and philosophical depth, and who enjoy invitations as consultants to policy think tanks, corporations and national governments.

In my opinion, writers such as Niall Ferguson, Thomas Friedman, Michael Ignatieff, Alan Dershowitz, Joseph Lelyveld and Robert Kaplan form a movement, citing each other and exhibiting many of the same features. They have skilfully crafted a way of speaking and thinking that has created a public audience, above all among policy makers.

Having mastered a colloquial style characterized by passion and bluntness, these defenders of American military and economic conquest and expansion from ostensibly liberal quarters have set a moral tone that affects every aspect of the globalization debate, and its public reception, by colouring it with a strain of assertive American thinking (even among non-Americans such as Ferguson and Ignatieff, the former now based in the U.S. and the latter only just returned to Canada).

I wish there were space here to go through their books systematically, mapping the highly repetitive motifs, preference for classical sources and modes of phrasing in each. If one were to examine, say, Ignatieff's Blood and Belonging (1994) and The Lesser Evil (2004), Ferguson's Empire (2003) and Colossus (2004), Kaplan's Ends of the Earth (1996) and Warrior Politics (2002), or Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999) and The World is Flat (2005), one would discern a pattern that supports my claim that these authors have created a new political discourse.

Echoing many of the first Bush administration's stated agendas for the "new world order," this group distinguishes its programmatic calls for action under the improbable but ubiquitous sign of ethics. In the U.S., they are among the fiercest proponents of the ringing phrases of a new morality, a new moral vision, a new moral compass for the proper conduct of states — "new" because it allows for the suspension of morality in the name of order and civilization, and so it is a portable morality that I would like to call the "trans-moral." Needing to establish their philosophical credentials, the trans-moralists, first and foremost, turn to antiquity. There is a rush to Rome and to the British Empire, a theatrical and liberating embrace of the past. We see a bold march, à la Nietzsche, into the time-tested strategies of ancient aristocrats who knew how to keep subjects in their place without the nagging obstacles of law or mores. Everything we need to know is already there, as Kaplan puts it, in the "best Chinese, Greek and Roman philosophers."

Whether the lessons of the French revolution, Renaissance humanism, 20th-century social welfare legislation or, indeed, the Enlightenment are supposed to accompany or condition all this wisdom is never raised. One gets the sense, in fact, that the whole point of returning to this past is to be free of the lessons of modernity and to stamp this freedom with the imprimatur of the classics — a point bracingly clear in Kaplan's Warrior Politics with its let-it-all-hang-out paeans to "the wild joy of war" while quoting Homer, Livy and Sun-Tzu.

If Ignatieff, by contrast, has always been wed to an Enlightenment-inspired reformism (A Just Measure of Pain, 1978) and to civic humanism and the welfare state (The Needs of Strangers, 1984), the pressures of the two Iraq wars have apparently forced him into a more modulated and, it must be said, temporizing, position.

The attempt to revive the virtues of the British and Roman empires (Kaplan and Ferguson are pronounced in this respect) or to deny that empires exist any longer (Ignatieff's and Friedman's preference) are positions that appear at odds, but they are complementary. The a priori goal in each is to characterize America's global hegemony, however derived, as troubled but well intentioned and universally beneficial.

Each wrestles with the problems of torture, the killing of civilian populations, pre-emptive war, incarceration without trial and so on, defending such practices to various degrees and at various intensities, but in every case accompanied by a nervous overcompensation. In the first three pages of Ignatieff's The Warrior's Honor (1998), for instance, he uses the word "moral" over a dozen times. Kaplan speaks, in his inimitable way, of the "moral benefits of fear."
In the two very different spheres of argument discussed throughout this essay — on the one side Left Bank academics, on the other, the intellectual muses of Washington policy wonks — we find the same attraction to Carl Schmitt. This Nazi jurist popularized the "state of exception" thesis, which gauged political power in terms of those emergency conditions that allow the sovereign to suspend liberties in the name of public safety and order.

One has to marvel at the way in which such a figure today captures such disparate imaginations. Schmitt found salvation in embracing the raw existential dimension of politics. Politics, he argued, was principally about isolating and killing your enemy. Free yourself, he was saying: Write laws so that you can abolish them at your convenience (a re-evaluation of values indeed).

The whole point of returning to this past is to be free of the lessons of modernity and to stamp this freedom with the imprimatur of the classics

I take Michael Ignatieff to be the most persuasive and ultimately tragic member of the group
Dershowitz, Ignatieff et al. are far more timid and internally riven than Schmitt; they want to be good and find winning alone an unsatisfactory absolute. But they are drawn to Schmitt because, like him, they are dedicated to fashioning a politics built on the deep resonance and utility of a portable enemy.

How striking it is that these equivocations in the service of torture and state-sponsored terror repeat and indeed refine the spurious legal briefs of the Bush administration's Alberto Gonzalez.

As Ferguson beckons the United States to be, like the British empire in the 1920s, "ruthless," to use "air raids and punitive expeditions to inflict harsh collective punishments on villages that supported insurgents," the academic left takes an inverted, but complementary, position. Instead of justifying assertive military action, it extols inaction.

Many theorists in the humanities today argue that all organizational politics — that is, any attempt to make claims on the state on the basis of a shared program — is dangerous and reprehensible. They therefore attempt to refashion Aristotle's axiom that man is a "political animal" by interpreting "politics" to mean inactivity — that is, instead of engaging, arguing, and debating, politics is now about being an aware, sensitive, open person, alive to the world. The goal for them is no longer "commitment" but "availability."

Both groups of putatively progressive thinkers quote the same Machiavelli, Polybius, Thucydides and Hobbes to similar ends and find their way, just as often and in the same tenor, to the proposition that ethics is a new substitute for politics.

In policy circles, however, this takes a special turn, conditioned by what Kaplan calls "pagan virtue," which is to say "ruthless and pragmatic, but not amoral." Hobbes, he points out, is capable of teaching us how to live as warriors and morally at the same time, for it is he who teaches us that "freedom becomes an issue only after order has been established."

I am not arguing that the avant-garde academic humanists are identical to these middlebrow intellectuals of the new Right — there are, by contrast, subtle and important deviations. But I am arguing that they are complementary, and that the two ostensibly different, even opposing, bodies of thought echo one another in the convergence of Left and Right.

The new morality of the lords of humankind is, to put this another way, Nietzschean. Accordingly, truth is no longer subject to an external tribunal; truth is only the rhetorical act that one can get others to believe. In the American imperium, both sides seem to say, it is time to wake up to our true nature and refuse to be hindered by the call of the merely human.

I take Ignatieff to be the most persuasive and ultimately tragic member of the policy-intellectual group. As a prominent Canadian Liberal Party member of Parliament with leadership ambitions, he now (as a returned hero) participates in the political scene of a country whose own sovereignty has been challenged by the rulers of his erstwhile home and place of acquired fame.

For the fair-minded reader, he is certainly easier to like than the others, pausing at times to destabilize his own notions, interrogate his integrity and concede ground to other positions. He is, in this respect, much more classically liberal, and so I would argue that his aggressive defence of U.S. Realpolitik in Serbia, Israel, post—Sept. 11 domestic affairs and in Iraq make him a more potent stalwart of the larger tendency.

Ignatieff's The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in the Age of Terrorism (2004) is, in my opinion, a formidable obstacle to real global justice, in part because it is so deftly written and so strangely at war with itself in a narrative whose self-contradictions are creatively finessed.

While he has subsequently publicly reversed himself on the torture issue after the recent scandals in Iraq and Guantanamo, his book did defend "coercive questioning" and keeping prisoners hooded — techniques whose tendency to brutality was so obvious in the pictures from Abu Ghraib — as viable means to the ends of democracy. Better than any, he illustrates that the ideology of the trans-moralists is not just another set of opinions circulating in the free exchange of knowledge; it is the new politics of a retreat to an older time.

Ignatieff's is less an argument than a public sharing of affections. Much of the writing operates on the level of the nostrum. For example, he declares that only democracies have a conscience, that exceptions to the rule of law save democracies rather than threaten them, that the violation of rights is allowable so long as there are formal bodies of adversarial review, and that terrorists do not operate on behalf of justice but only exploit injustice for a violence that is its own end.

He assumes without argument that the United States is a liberal democracy, that it is characterized by majority rule, and that any evils committed by democracies come from the "blindness of good intentions."

Perhaps the most revealing nostrum, however, is his central statement in the book: The constitution is "not a suicide pact." In other words, the state, although enjoined to protect liberty and law, cannot be expected to abide by constitutional constraints in the face of an opposition that would threaten its existence.

Everything self-contradictory in his position is rolled up in this single condensed declaration. For the constitution is precisely a suicide pact — this is what makes it a constitution. In the U.S., at any rate, it explicitly confers the right on its citizens to overthrow the government, by force of arms if necessary, when the state violates the constitutional charter. If the supreme law is not a foundational pact higher than government, it is tyranny.

The new trans-moralism takes place in the specific imperial setting of U.S. Machtpolitik — the reassertion of right by might, and the consequent release from the formal niceties of contracts, negotiations and written standards of behaviour.

We can perhaps see more clearly at this point that trans-moralism of the sort propounded by Ferguson, Kaplan, Ignatieff and others is founded upon an ideology of the chosen people (originally derived from a sectarian Christian reading of the Old Testament) that, as is well recognized, is older than the U.S. republic itself.

The idea of a chosen people in the American context extends back into New England colonial times and has been stoked to a high flame at a moment of imperial reassertion. The recent theoretical elevation of Schmitt's "state of exception" thesis actually inverts the real idea driving U.S. power politics today: It is not the "state of exception" that should preoccupy us, but the scripturally inspired conviction of America as exceptional state — "Israel" in the received biblical model.

There is still room to respond to these depressing attempts to invoke morals on behalf of an officially sanctioned illegality.

We must refuse, first of all, to temporize about the underlying symmetries of globalization and imperialism and instead speak plainly about the shameful reliance of the free market on coerced labour and the theft of others' resources. We must find ways to answer these polished efforts to make torture and conquest acceptable, countering the fiction that the nation-state system is irrecuperable. There is time to resist this orchestrated effort to free us from shame and outrage at the unleashing of European and American might in pursuit of an always amorphous "stability."

But above all, we cannot let authors get away with talking about democracy as though it were a settled fact in the West. Ours is a lazy myth — a kind of tribalism, really — that finds all violence and injustice in bogeys like Stalinism and Nazism but never in the western democracies themselves.

It is time, in short, to promote not only the 18th-century enlightenment of Rousseau and Kant, but also the 20th-century enlightenment of those social movements that sought a true internationalism, the principles of self-determination and a robust strategy of regulating the market, all found in various ways in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a document far in advance of the trans-moralists and their subtle and distinguished barbarism.
Timothy Brennan is a professor in the departments of English and Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. This piece originally appeared in the Literary Review of Canada.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

 

Stop the Leprecide!


I have always hated magical creatures. It's not really their fault - gnomes will be gnomes, elves will be elves. Growing up I wanted to be magical too; but somewhere along the way I failed. Failure breeds resentment, and I developed a strong dislike and distrust of supernatural beings - especially leprechauns.

And a good thing too! Recent events have reminded me just how filty leprechauns really are. Dirty little perverts that run around all day looking for a place to "hide their pot o' gold". Would you trust him ---> with your sister? I think not ... cheeky bugger.

A second issue I have with the LBGs (little green bastards) is that, because of their "special status" in many countries, they have been given certain priviledges not granted to other, more honest, citizens. Apparently, they have their own special transportation network. Talk about a waste of the tax dollar! Especially when after all this effort, these "Little Green Ways" are completely underutilized. The only people who really use them are those brave, drunk and mostly likely American leprepoachers. (A good leprechaun pelt runs anywhere between $5000 to $8000 in China.)
Apparently, there is some sort of leprechaun poacher's dance that draws them out into the open --->

That said, I am growing worried that other people may be taking their animosity too far. I understand fear and loathing, but there is evidence of a growing community of people who are talking about "Mass Leprecide" as a "The Final Solution". Have we not learned people that murder on a gross scale never solved any problems? Check out the following ...

Evidence
More Evidence
Still more Evidence
Full blown leprecide zeal!
As Astonishing Post

So let me be the first to say: "Stop the Leprecide! Because leprechauns are people too!" You're making him sad...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

 

Formidable Formicidae

Formicidae, otherwise known as ants, have always fascinated me: Their colonial behaviour, their weightlifting ability, and their absolutism of the regent. However, a recent article A Stilted Story takes the cake. Formicidologists(?) have long wondered how ants are able to migrate over relatively large distances, and then return to the colony. Well...wonder no more: Matthias Wittlinger of Ulm University, Germany has figured it out...using the tried, tested and true scientific approach of using stilts.

Be-stilting? Ants apparently have evolved to have a internal mechanism enables them to count steps. But how do you test this hypothesis?

Impressively, Dr. Wittlinger constructed a 10m tunnel, along which the ants strode to a feeding station, and correctly returned to the colony. One day, after the ants arrived at the feeding station, he then: 1) amputated (antputated?) 1/3 of the ants; and 2) constructed stilted ant legs for another 1/3, and 3) left the remaining control group alone. Those of group 1) made it only halfway home, whereas those in 2) overshot by a factor of two. The control group? Yes...made it home exactly.

That is what I call a convincing experiment, and I can only look on in jealousy of a good result :) However, I can only guess how much fun it was for his graduate students to spend weeks constructing an army's worth of ant stilts....






Saturday, July 08, 2006

 

Cambridge - Pomp and Circumstance


Cambridge, for those who have never set foot in the jewel of East Anglia, is almost synonymous with its namesake University. However, one quickly realises that the town contains much more: Among others an important religious center and an ale-drinkers paradise. Most everything, though, does relate back to the University even religion and public houses. Indeed, walking through the streets and alleys, one is struck by the magesty of the buildings, and senses the ghosts of venerable members such as Newton, Bacon, Darwin and Keynes.

However, coming from a more humble, egalitarian, colonial country, it is hard to shake off feelings of wealth, priviledge and classism. Some of my favorites include students not permited to talk to tutors in the formal dining hall, and non-college staff not permitted to walk on the grass in the quadrangle. These divisions surround you. Escaping them is difficult.


Fortunately, everyone is equal in the pubs, and anyone can be royalty...

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