Friday, September 28, 2007

Strangelove Watch

Dr. Strangelove

A new feature wherein we draw attention to conservatives* salivating over the prospect of preemptive missile strikes against Iran. Let's begin with not one, but two recent contributions:
All the damaging consequences of all the blunders the President has committed to date in Iraq are reversible in 48 to 72 hours - the time it will take to destroy Iran's fragile nuclear supply chain from the air. And since the job gets done using mostly stand-off weapons and stealth bombers, not one American soldier, sailor or airman need suffer as much as a bruised foot. - Dan Friedman on American Thinker (Via Andrew Sullivan)
If we were to bomb the Iranians as I hope and pray we will, we’ll unleash a wave of anti-Americanism all over the world that will make the anti-Americanism we’ve experienced so far look like a lovefest. - Norman Podhoretz
Thank God these guys aren't running the country, right? Oh, right, Podhoretz is an advisor to Bush and senior foreign policy advisor to Rudy Giuliani.

*happy to throw in any moderates or liberals who fit the profile, too

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hometown Heroes


These two ladies are my new heroes:
On September 24, 2007, Kate Burns and Sheila Schroeder of Englewood, Colo., were arrested and removed in police custody from the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building. The couple had entered the Denver Clerk and Recorder Office to demand a marriage license. After requesting an application and being denied on the basis of state and federal law, Burns and Schroeder refused to leave, insisting that marriage laws which deny full equality to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are an example of religion-based oppression and undermine America's tradition of religious pluralism protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Now, that there's a great example of civil disobedience. Standing up - or sitting down, in this case - for human rights.

Aside: what does it say about our culture that "transgender" shows up as a spelling mistake in spellcheck?

Update: We certainly do have a long way to go in the acceptance of transgender people. The Democrats just removed language from another civil rights bill, which would protect transgender individuals from job discrimination because they feared the bill would lose Republican support. Among those responsible for the move? Openly gay Senators Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin. I understand the pragmatism behind their decision. Still, It'd be great to see some consistency. I couldn't sleep at night if I'd made that decision.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Negative Eureka

Writing in the Times on September 11th, Martin Amis made some excellent points about radical Islam, points which I think apply to many groups inclined towards extremism.

First, he points out the distaste such extremists have for reason:
Thanatism derives its real energy, its fever and its magic, from something far more radical. And here we approach a pathology that may in the end be unassimilable to the nonbelieving mind. I mean the rejection of reason – the rejection of the sequitur, of cause and effect, of two plus two. Strikingly, in their written works and their table talk, Hitler and Stalin (and Lenin) seldom let the abstract noun reason go by without assigning a scornful adjective to it: worthless reason, craven reason, cowardly reason. When those sanguinary yokels, the Taleban, chant their slogan, “Throw reason to the dogs”, they are making the same kind of Faustian gamble: crush reason, kill reason, and anything and everything seems possible – the restored Caliphate, for instance, presiding over a planetary empire cleansed of all infidels. To transcend reason is of course to transcend the confines of moral law; it is to enter the illimitable world of insanity and death.

This dual negation is for a while intensely propulsive. It gives the death cult its needed momentum – its escape velocity. On the other hand, for our part, the high value we assign to human life is not a matter of illusion or sentimentality or “hypocrisy”; it is not the “Papist-Quaker babble” derided by Trotsky. Reason, moreover, is one of our synonyms for realism, and indeed for reality; without it, as Islamism will soon find, the ground turns to mire beneath your feet. Death cults are in the end obedient to their own illogic: what they do is die.
I find the comparison among Hitler, Stalin and Lenin especially relevant. Some Western radicals would like to pin the atrocities of those three men on disbelief and even science. But as Amis points out, it's their disdain for reason, which all parties have in common. So, too, in fundamentalist Christian sermons, I couldn't tell you how many times I have heard pastors and teachers refer to reason with something verging on contempt. It's as if at some level they realize that reason dismantles much of foundation their sinking edifices are built upon. Which ties in directly to Amis's finally point. He believes something that I've come to believe since 9/11 (apologies for employing that construction, Mr. Amis): as religion shrinks further in an increasingly secular world, doubt and fear will propel the most radically religious to engage in increasing acts of violence. Amis explains the equation and why radical Islam has been provoked to doubt their God:
Much of our analysis, perhaps, has been wholly inapposite, because we keep trying to construe Islamism in terms of the ratiocinative. How does it look when we construe it in terms of the emotions? Familiar emotional states (hurt, hatred, fury, shame, dishonour, and, above all, humiliation), but at unfamiliar intensities – intensities that secular democracy, and the rules of law and civil society, will always tend to neutralise. There is religious passion too, of course, but even the bruited, the roared fanaticism seems unrobust. It may even be that what we are witnessing is not spiritual certainty so much as spiritual insecurity and spiritual doubt.

Islamism has been with us for the lion’s share of a century. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, and within a decade there was an offshoot in what would soon become Pakistan. But the emotionally shaping event, one is forced to deduce, was the establishment of the Jewish Homeland. In the war fought to bring that about, Israel, occupying 0.6 per cent of Arab lands and with a proportional population, defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Trans-Jordan, together with the supplementary forces of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

In the other 99.4 per cent of Arab lands, this event is known as al-nakba: the catastrophe. And that epithet hardly overstates the case. The “godless” Soviet Union, after a comparable reverse, might have fallen into troubled self-scrutiny; but what does it mean for peoples who sincerely believe that an omnipotent deity is minutely attentive to their desires and deserts? Having endured several centuries of Christian prosperity, global power and reach, and eventual empire, the Islamic nations were vanquished by a province the size of New Jersey. In the Koran, the Jews are portrayed as cunning and dangerous, yet they are never portrayed as strong: “Children of Israel . . . Dread My might.” We in the West have ceased to understand the meaning of the word “humiliation”, and we use it, in descriptions of our daily struggles, with the lilt of comic hyperbole. Now we must further imagine how it feels to be humiliated, not only by history, but also by God.

This was surely a negative eureka for the Muslim idea. Following the defeat of 1948, and following the defeat (in six days) of 1967, Islam, or its militant vanguard, was finding that it had arrived at a crossroads – or a T-junction. The way to the left was marked Less Religion, and meant a journey to the future. The way to the right was marked More Religion (Islam is the Solution), and meant a journey to the past. Which direction would lead to the return of God’s favour? On their left, a stretch of oily macadam, perhaps resembling one of the unlovelier sections of the London orbital, scattered with windblown trash, and, of course, choked and throttled with traffic. On their right, something like a garden path at the Alhambra, cleaner, simpler and – thanks to the holy warriors and their "smiting of necks" – much, much emptier. In Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern, John Gray reminds us that Islamism, in both its techniques and its pathologies, is on the crest of the contemporary. But the emotions all point the other way; they speak of retrogression and revanchism; they speak of a vehement and desperate nostalgia.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Shock Treatment

Every now and then, somebody writes a book, which really pinpoints some principle effectively. The writer (or writers) haven't invetned the principle per se; they've just codified it. Gladwell's Tipping Point is certainly an example, but it seems a terribly obvious discovery. Besides, he just populairzed the idea, which had been described in the '60s. Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent is a better example. Whether you like Chomsky or not, you'd have to admit that the idea of manufactured consent is readily verifiable. If you hadn't noticed it yourself, as soon as it's explained to you, you can seize upon it and recognize it unfolding around you. Unfortunately, recognition of this particular principle may be accompanied by a chill or two (or probably should be), as you recognize the deleterious impact of this principle reverberating through our society on any given day. Just go check out the home page of CNN right now if you like.

Well, darned if Naomi Klein hasn't hit on a doozy. It's every bit as chill-worthy as the principle of manufactured consent and just as readily identifiable. For a quick introduction, check out this Alfonso CuarĂ³n-directed video promoting Klein's new book The Shock Doctrine. The New York Times describes her thesis thusly: "That unconstrained free-market policies go hand in hand with undemocratic political policies."
In her book she argues that the shock therapy prescribed by Western economists during the last 30 years could not have been imposed without political shock therapy, namely brutal repression and a suspension of democratic rights. Western countries, along with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, essentially exploited disasters — hyperinflation, the tsunami, the war in Iraq — to force through radical changes like privatization, deregulation and severe cuts in social spending. These policies, imposed by foreign and American disciples of the laissez-faire economist Milton Friedman, she maintains, caused grinding poverty and hardship for millions while often permitting multinationals to buy up a country’s most valuable assets for going-out-of-business prices.

Even the shock of 9/11, she said in an interview, was “harnessed by leaders to end the discussion of global justice.”
In short then, political leaders either incite shocking events or take advantage of them to defeat ideas and to install the policies they wish to. Blindingly obvious in a way, isn't it? Lest anyone it, though, Klein quotes thought leaders, who have been quite explicit in prescribing this modus operandi.
Economist John Williamson in 1993: “One will have to ask whether it could conceivably make sense to think of deliberately provoking a crisis so as to remove the political logjam to reform.”
But the most damning quote comes in the video and it's from that darling of the conservatives, Milton Friedman. She describes his advice of advancing economic policy while people were still reeling from a disaster, a method he himself called "economic shock treatment." Says Friedman, "Only a crisis actual or perceived produces real change."

The video explicitly details some of the changes, which have been implemented immediately following various recent crises. Consider also, of course, more broadly, this principle, aside from economics: the U.S. doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, which has been incorporated post-9/11, as well as the creation of the Office of Homeland Security, the Patriot Act. As Klein says,
A terrorist attack puts us all into a state of shock. And in the aftermath, like the prisoner in the interrogation chamber, we too become childlike, more inclined to follow leaders who claim to protect us.
It's what many of us have thought since 9/11. How the Bush administration has taken advantage of our national shock treatment. Klein's pretty effectively codified it here. Depressing, huh?

She does end the video with some hope:
Shock wares off. It is by definition a temporary state. And the best way to stay oriented, to resist shock, is to know what is happening to you and why.
Amen, sister.

Excerpts from her book on the Guardian's site

Monday, September 17, 2007



I love documentaries which focus on obsessions or which focus on one thing to the point of obsession (think Grizzly Man or Fast, Cheap and Out of Control), so I knew I was bound to love Helvetica. This enormously absorbing and amusing documentary traces the history and impact of the Helvetica font, interviewing both fans and caustic critics. It's surprisingly funny and features a great soundtrack, to boot.

I read an article a year or so ago about the psychological reasons behind why men wear khaki pants, and it occurred to me during the film that Helvetica is the khaki pants of fonts. It's a work horse, yes, but it's also eminently safe, it blends in doesn't take any chances. Which explains both why it's become so ubiquitous, but also why some designers despise it. There's a sense in which it's elegant in its simplicity, but it's also a default, when you don't want to ruffle any feathers - or, perhaps, when you aren't creative enough to use more elaborate fonts with confidence. A slew of designers make these points in the film, though, and in far more articulate a fashion than me. They also point out that designers can take using Helvetica as a challenge, taking the limitations it imposes and seeing how they can create something creative within them.

Great points on both sides of the argument. And a documentary well worth your attention if you're a writer, a designer, or a font aficionado.

Our Long National Nightmare Is Over

Well, not quite. But hopefully next November. However, the New York Times has confirmed that it will do away with Times Select, so all of their content, even their archives, will be free. Hooray!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Life in the EVil

Regulars at the Mars Bar in the East Village

This informative New York Times article about the East Village mentions that Claes Oldenburg once had a studio in my apartment building. I know that Quentin Crisp, about whom Sting wrote the song "Englishman in New York," also lived in my building. We occasionally still get mail for him, though he died in 1999. We also occasionally get misplaced mail for Phillip Glass, who lives across the street, and who I often see when I'm trudging bleary-eyed to the subway weekday mornings. If we ever become acquainted, I want to ask him if he's ever heard "Glass Breaks" by DJ BC, which is a mashup of Glass's music with the various hip-hop artist's lyrics. Actually, if you click on the first of those two links, it would appear they've met.

Photo of East Village regulars outside the infamous Mars Bar a couple of blocks away. More New York photos on my Flickr site.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Dehumanizing the Enemy

"One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases."
- from The Eight Stages of Genocide described by Gregory H. Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch

"We must kill the Tutsi cockroaches" - Hutu Power Radio
As someone interested in Iranian culture, I'm pretty revolted by this Michael Ramirez cartoon, which depicts the entire country of Iran as a sewer with cockroaches teeming out of it. You know who depicted humans as roaches, Ramirez? The Nazis. The Hutus.

Never mind that there's a thriving secular society in Iran. Never mind that there are millions of good, decent people living in Iran, trying to provide for their families, striving to create a free-er Iran, all while living under a repressive regime. Never mind that some of the most humanistic and life-affirming films I've seen in recent years have come from Iranian directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Bahman Ghobadi. No, to Ramirez, they all just roaches.

If we're ever to survive as a species, we have to stop this primitive urge to classify all of a nation's inhabitants according to the actions and beliefs of their religious leaders and politicians.

As a newspaper operating within the United States, The Columbus Dispatch has the freedom to print whatever it sees fit. And I would avidly defend that right. But when they choose to print vulgar propaganda like this, it does reveal the simplistic nature of the paper’s worldview, as well as the stench of Ramirez’s.

*A version of this post was sent to the Columbus Dispatch and to Ramirez himself