Sunday 18 July 2004

Wiki epiphany

Until yesterday morning the word “wiki” made me feel nauseous.

I’ve been thinking lately that our “freedom” to have and express opinions is based on an illusion: that we are, more often than not, prisoners of the ideas and emotions we derive such pleasure from articulating. So I’ve started to see strongly held convictions more as calcified thoughts and feelings, multiple layers, one formed upon another, created from our upbringing and experiences, that constrain our ability to experience the world in all its richness and complexity.

In this particular case—The Case of the Wiki—my antipathy towards most kinds of collective activity meant that I was totally unsympathetic to a writing environment in which “there is no prior review before modifications are accepted, [with] most wikis [being] open to the general public—or at least anyone who has access to the wiki server”.

I’m not sure when or why I became distrustful of groups. Like Stavros, the act of “imagining myself as a contrarian (if people-loving) curmudgeon all these years has molded my life”.

All my life, I’ve fashioned myself as the Outsider, the exile, the individual, rugged or otherwise. I feel little to no obligation to any sense of community, other than that which is mandated by my own sense of what is right.

Thus I rarely see “communities” as benevolent. Instead, I’ve always regarded the main purpose of communities as offering a readymade structure for those who, in Brecht’s words, “want to play the apparatchik and exercise control over other people”.

Perhaps a brief, unhappy period as a member of the Sydney Filmmakers’ Cooperative laid down the first calcified layer of my belief that community is also the enemy of art. All I remember is endless meetings about what film(s) to make and no film ever being made. Filmmaking is a cooperative activity, to be sure, but I adhere to director Richard Brooks’ definition of a team as “a group of talented, dedicated professionals, all doing exactly what I tell them”.

My hostility to wikis, therefore, sprang from a mistrust of communities and what I’ll call “collective creativity”. A mistrust that is oddly inconsistent, given that I’m such a fan of open source software:

  • I still recall the satisfaction I experienced in moving my weblog from a Windows IIS server to a Linux/Apache/PHP/MySQL environment;
  • Firefox is my default browser (I only use IE when forced to by idiot web designers);
  • I’ve used Thunderbird for my Japanese email for six months and am starting to think about abandoning Eudora, which I’ve used on the Macintosh and the PC for as long as I can remember; and
  • If I decide that Movable Type 3.0 isn’t for me, I’ll almost certainly switch to WordPress.

It also seemed to me that a collective writing environment such as a wiki must be based on an optimistic view of human nature, a view that ignores “the moral limitations of people in general, and their egocentricity in particular” whereas I tend to see human beings in the terms Thomas Sowell defines: as “tragically limited creatures whose selfish and dangerous impulses can be contained only by social contrivances which themselves produce unhappy side effects”. Wiki enthusiasts assume that everyone will “do the right thing” whereas I assume that at least a few will do their best to screw it up. (Little did I know that wikis have a variety of contrivances to contain selfish and dangerous impulses.)

An even less excusable reason for my aversion towards wikis is that I confused the term “wiki” (derived from the Hawaiian “wiki wiki” or “quick” shuttle buses at Honolulu Airport) with “wicca” (the Neopagan religion), thus conflating wiki users with a stereotypical—and fallacious—perception of wiccans as eccentric believers in witchcraft and magick who prance around naked in the forest at full moon.

Dave Rogers has described how difficult it can be to transcend one’s beliefs:

There are some beliefs that are cherished. These are things we believe that make us feel good about ourselves, the future, or a particular object. When we listen to discussion and reasoning that calls upon our cherished beliefs in a way that is consistent with them, then we share a good feeling with and toward the person making the argument. Feeling “good” seldom invokes the cognitive process that critically, if imperfectly, examines the arguments and assertions being made. This is a very high barrier to overcome to get people to think critically about something for which they hold cherished beliefs. It’s mostly impossible, short of getting kind of ugly. And it almost always gets ugly if those beliefs are genuinely flawed.

Or genuinely irrational.

Extending Dave’s argument, my belief that “wikis are bad” offers a mechanism for making myself feel good (about being an outsider, an Exile, an individual). I think though, that under certain circumstances, it is possible to overcome the very high barrier to getting one to think critically about a cherished belief. You need some help though, and that’s what happened to me yesterday.

Yesterday morning, I was talking to Marius Coomans on the phone about a Web-related project when he suddenly asked me: “What do you think about wikis?”

My Pavlovian response? “Just the idea of semi-literate fools modifying my scintillating insights and/or my carefully crafted prose makes me feel sick.”

Marius knows me well enough not to be deterred.

“Have you ever used the Wikipedia?”

“Actually, I use it quite a lot. In fact one of my default Firefox pages at the moment is a Wikipedia entry about The Mind-body problem.”

(One of my thousands of unfinished weblog entries deals with Subjective idealism.)

“Well, the Wikipedia is a wiki,” said Marius.

“But the Wikipedia is different”, I replied. “They wouldn’t allow just anyone to go in and modify an entry. It’s moderated.”

As I was making this uninformed assertion, I switched to my Wikipedia tab in Firefox and clicked on the edit link next to the “Philosophical Perspectives” heading. (I hadn’t yet noticed the “edit this page” tab at the top of the page).

Wikipedia entry for Philosophical Perspectives with edit and edit this page links highlighted

I fully expected a dialog box to appear, asking me to supply a username and password. Instead the entry appeared in an inline text area, ready for editing. I nearly fell off my chair.

Wikipedia entry for Philosophical Perspectives in edit mode, with text selected and cursor visible

“Holy shit!” I exclaimed. Marius chuckled.

“What’s to stop people adding incorrect information?”

“The fact that someone will come along and correct it.”

“Have you edited entries”, I asked him.

“Of course”, he replied. “I’ve added a bunch of books to the Glenn Gould entry. You should check the Wikipedia entry for something you know a lot about and see if there’s anything you want to add or fix. Someone as anal-retentive as you will feel right at home.”

I realized then that I’d only ever used the Wikipedia to research subjects I knew little or nothing about—the possibility of changing anything had never occured to me. So, as soon as Marius and I had finished chatting, I found the Wikipedia entry on Ozu. (I’ve been watching lots of Ozu DVDs lately.) The following sentence caught my eye:

During WW II he served in China.

“Bullshit!” I said to myself. Ozu had returned from China before World War II started. During World War II he served in Singapore (if you define watching confiscated American movies as “serving”). You could say “During the Pacific War he served in China” but the problem there is that people frequently confuse the Pacific War (1937-1945) with the Pacific Theater of World War II. As the Wikipedia entry explains:

The Pacific War, which took place mostly in the Pacific Ocean, its islands, and in Asia, both preceded World War II and also included some of its major campaigns and events.

Marius had explained that, although you can edit Wikipedia pages without becoming a registered user, your changes will be identified by an IP address rather than by name. To hell with that, I told him, authorship is crucial!

I registered as a user and replaced the “offending” sentence with a paragraph about Ozu’s army service in China and Singapore. In retrospect, I rather wish I hadn’t entered in the Edit Summary field:

Modified the incorrect statement “During WW II he served in China” with details of Ozu’s actual military service.

Now everyone will know that I’m an arrogant pedant. “Clarified details of Ozu’s military service” would have been sufficiently accurate, and far more polite.

I’m not sure why it was so easy for Marius to transform my disdain for wikis to enthusiasm. We’ve known each other for fifteen years, I worked fulltime for him for three years and have done many other freelance projects for him as well. Perhaps he caught me at exactly the right moment. Maybe he cunningly laid a trap that I walked straight into.

Because this morning I had another wiki epiphany. For a while I’ve wanted to wake up earlier and get an hour or two’s writing done before breakfast. This morning, at 6:15am I was already at the computer. On a Sunday! An email arrived from Marius about 6:45 and we traded messages back and forth for an hour or so. Suddenly it hit me that email is an incredibly inefficient way of exchanging information about a project: a wiki would work so much better.

Alternatively, as Farhad Manjoo points out in this fascinating Salon article about managing email, Gmail offers something similarly useful:

Gmail features one of the first truly novel innovations in an e-mail interface to come along in a long while, “conversation view.” The system presents a conversation thread — a group of back-and-forth e-mail messages between you and your boss, say, or a 65-message set from a particularly boisterous mailing list — into a single visual pane, allowing you to read every e-mail in its proper context. Actions can be performed on entire conversations instead of on single messages — so you can delete or archive those 65 mailing list messages with a single click.

(Which reminds me, if anyone would like a Gmail account, I have some spare invitations. Just send an email to, substituting the appropriate names—mine, not yours!)

But there’s something about the wiki way of tracking a conversation that I find more appealing: it feels more natural to store the conversation in one location (rather than having identical copies in each participants Gmail account); and, now that I’m converted, the ability to edit the entries (and roll back to previous versions) seems essential.

So there you have it. Although I remain unenthusiastic about the counter-cultural associations of the name, I’ve gone from wiki antagonist to wiki evangelist in the space of 24 hours. Next thing I’ll be adding a Creative Commons license to my weblog. (Just kidding! The day I turn into a CC evangelist will be the day I ask Language Hat if he has an old beret I can chew on.)

Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBacks (4)

Saturday 24 July 2004

My kingdom for a web editing tool

In a post titled Authoring Pain, Tim Bray points to the dearth of good writing tools for the Web:

The state of Web authoring tools is kind of like the state of what we used to call “Word Processing” twenty years ago when I was getting into this business. If everyone’s going to write for the Web (and it looks a lot of people are going to) we need the Web equivalents of Word Perfect and Wordstar and Xywrite and Microsoft Word, and we need them right now. The Atom protocol will give them a standardized way to push the content online, and the fact that it’s all open formats will make it real hard for a monopolist to scoop out the market. So, who’s building them?

My previous wiki entry, as it happens, was partly prompted by an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with Marius Coomans about Web editors. He had noted the rudimentary nature of the inline editor that is integrated with TypePad (I have a vague recollection that Movable Type has a similar editor that only works with IE). Marius suggested I try BlogJet. Which I did, for five minutes. That’s all it took to install and launch the application, connect to my Movable Type blog, create a draft post with some formatted text, examine the HTML, exit, and uninstall. This is the underlying HTML for a test paragraph that included font face, color, and size formatting and another containing a Japanese text string:

<p>Test post with <font face="Courier New">font</font>, <font color="#ff0000">color</font>, and <font size="1">size</font> formatting.</p>

I wasn’t surprised that BlogJet isn’t Unicode compliant; it did connect to my MT weblog with undeniable ease and simplicity; and, to be fair, I’m not the target audience for the product. But the f#&*ing <font> element!? Are these people stupid, or wilfully ignorant, or have they been asleep for nearly five years? (The <font> element was deprecated in HTML 4.01 on 24 December 1999.)

None of the above, as it happens. As we’ll see later, the BlogJet developers rely on others to fix their mistakes.

Curious, I did a Google search on “browser based editor” and tried Editlet, which boasts “100% pure XHTML output with HTML source editing”:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?><!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"><html><head><link type="text/css" rel="stylesheet" href="" /></head><body><font size="3">Test post with <span style="font-family: arial;">font</span>, <span style="color: rgb(255, 0, 0);">color</span>, and <font size="1">size </font>formatting.</font></body></html>

If this is XHTML Strict, I’m Murasaki Shikibu (or the XHTML spec has been recenty relaxed to allow the <font> element). I suggested to Marius that most of the currently available web editors probably produce garbage like this.

Unabashed, he then pointed me to Blogger’s inline editor. I remembered I’d set up a Blogger account when I first started to think about weblogging in December 2001 and, much to my surprise, the username and password still worked.

Blogger had received the draft post I sent from BlogJet so I set the character encoding to UTF-8, replaced the “?????????” paragraph with the Japanese string, and saved the post. Blogger’s underlying HTML looks like this:

<p>Test post with <span style="font-family:Courier New;">font</span>, <span style="color: rgb(255, 0, 0);">color</span>, and <span style="font-size:78%;">size</span> formatting.</p> <p>

Amazing! Blogger’s editor has replaced BlogJet’s crappy <font> element with <span> elements and inline CSS declarations. Not elegant—in that inline CSS is almost as difficult to maintain as the <font> element—but at least the page should validate.

What I want though—and perhaps I’m in a minority, though Tim Bray’s post would suggest not—is a web-based editor that, in addition to being Unicode-compliant, will recognize my external stylesheet and give me access, via a menu, to the custom (class) styles I use to format the text in many of my entries. Ektron’s eWebEditPro does this and it produces valid, Unicode-compliant XHTML. But it’s only available in a ten user license for US$359 and it doesn’t understand any of the weblog APIs.

Google engineer Massless, in a post titled A note on the usefulness of WYSIWYG editing in the browser, effortlessly skates around the need for proper Web authoring tools:

For content creators who require more advanced styling controls and content information including positioning, page counts, floating elements, templates, varied encodings, and block-level margins and padding there are many tools available that they prefer using to a browser. We know for sure because we’ve asked and asked and asked and, to date, advanced content creators find the convenience and ubiquity of browser-use less useful than using a feature-rich client. Additionally, many advanced content creators (hint: if you’re reading this, I’m very likely talking about you :) know enough HTML and CSS that hand-coding style attributes and class selectors enables you to create content faster than when using WYSIWYG components for the same tasks…

So, it became evident during testing trials at Google of WYSIWYG editing that a large set of people have learned a minor set of HTML for basic expression needs, and have grown so accustomed to using them that a WYSIWYG mode which didn’t easily allow these people to compose using that markup presented large and sometimes unacceptable interruptions to their content creation task. Furthermore, having a place for them to enter a “source mode” only frustrated them further as they wondered where the styling went. You see, some of us know some HTML but not all, and with broader expression available to them, these new-to-them tags presented challenges that were, at times, more annoying to them than if WYSIWYG didn’t exist.

These two paragraphs can be paraphrased as:

We decided to take the Microsoft approach by dumbing the application down to the level of the lowest-common-denominator user.

Unfortunately, they didn’t fully understand the Microsoft approach, which is to dumb the application down by hiding the advanced features—not by eliminating them altogether. Admittedly, this is a formidable user interface challenge but, given that the Blogger makeover is so impressive, it shouldn’t be beyond their formidable abilities. (After all, Ektron have already figured it out with eWebEditPro.)

I’m an advanced content creator who, like Tim Bray, wants the convenience and ubiquity of browser-use together with the advantages of a feature-rich client.

I have feature rich clients coming out of my ears: Microsoft Word, Dreamweaver, TopStyle Pro, CSE HTML Validator. My current workflow is:

  • Write the entry in Microsoft Word (the outliner is passable, the spell check is useful, I love Document View, and it’s easy to add hypertext links).
  • Copy and paste the text into Dreamweaver, where I do the more complex formatting.
  • Validate Dreamweaver’s XHTML with CSE HTML Validator.
  • Paste the validated XHTML into Movable Type’s blog entry text area.

This is, frankly, bullshit. And, I’m beginning to think, part of the reason that lately I haven’t been posting more frequently—writing an entry of even moderate length is unnecessarily painful.

Why can’t Tim and I have a decent WYSIWYG browser-based editor? Or, speaking for myself, even a standalone application with the features I’ve listed? (And, before anyone says “ecto”, I don’t have a Macintosh, I don’t have the ready cash to buy one, and I have no intention of ever installing the .Net Framework, which the Windows version of ecto requires.)

Am I alone in this? Are the rest of you quickly and easily creating validated, Unicode-compliant XHTML weblog entries without the slightest fuss or bother? If so, please leave a comment and put my out of my misery…

P.S. Don’t mention Textile, either. I tried it and I didn’t like it.

Permalink | Comments (30) | TrackBacks (4)

Saturday 31 July 2004

Patriotism and the martial state

Late yesterday afternoon my sister, having made me a soy milk cappuccino, was watching the news on TV in the next room while I was setting up her new Dell PC. Actually, to tell the truth, I was reading Dennis Keene’s translation of Maruya Sai’ichi’s Grass for My Pillow (笹まくら) while waiting for 12.9MB of Windows Update files to download.

Suddenly she called out, “Quick, come and see this!”

John Kerry salutes“This” was John Kerry saluting the crowd while saying “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty.”

“Americans are weird, aren’t they?” she said. “They really believe in all that patriotic stuff.”

“They sure do,” I replied. “Even the Democrats, whom you might expect to be a bit more skeptical. They make good computers though.”

This latter observation wasn’t strictly correct since the Dell PC had been assembled in Malaysia from components designed in the United States, Japan, & Taiwan and manufactured who knows where. But, since setting up the PC had gone without a hitch (and had only taken four hours, much of which I spent reading Maruya’s novel), I was happy to give Americans all the credit. I’d even caught myself, in a brief moment of weakness, thinking favorably about Microsoft.

We’d both responded to Kerry’s performance as I suspect most Australians would, with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity. An Australian politician—even a distinguished war veteran—who saluted while telling an audience that he was “reporting for duty” would be forced to retreat under a barrage of fruit and empty bottles, thrown at him by those who weren’t rolling around on the floor laughing.

Australian flagFor, whereas the American character contains a strong thread of idealism, Australians have traditionally been cynical and pragmatic. We don’t revere the office of the Prime Minister as Americans do that of their President. We have no Bill of Rights. We didn’t fight to become independent of Great Britain. We never had a Civil War. The vast majority of Australians couldn’t recite a single sentence from our Constitution. Nor do we share the deep attachment that I’ve seen Americans—and Canadians—display towards their flag and national anthem. It doesn’t help, of course, that the British flag—the Union Jack—occupies a quarter of the area of the Australian flag and that the national anthem is God Save the Queen. (Oops!)

That’s because Australia, as it is now, started out as a British penal settlement and, until recently, has been a largely European outpost on the edge of Asia. We’ve never believed, as Herman Melville did, and—I suspect—many Americans still believe, that “we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.” We value the liberties we possess but, at the same time, we’ve always relied on others—first Britain, now the United States—to guarantee those liberties against external threat. In the Asian schoolyard, particularly, we’ve always had an older brother.

In return for that protection we’ve acted not as a martial nation but, in Peter Hartcher’s words, as “a client state, following its senior alliance partners into wars. Australian warfare is a derivative of the war-fighting policy of other countries, first Britain and then the US.” We’ve taken part—occasionally in our own interests, mainly in the interests of Britain or the United States—in the Sudan War, the Boer War, the Boxer Uprising, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, the Indonesian Confrontation, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the Iraq War.

Only once in recent history has Australia acted independently of its “senior alliance partners,” and then it was not to wage war but to organize and lead a multinational peacekeeping force in 1999 to protect the East Timorese from the violence of the Indonesian-backed militia that was opposed to East Timor’s independence.

The United States, on the other hand, is a martial nation.

On January 28, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, testified at a House Armed Services Committee hearing that 322,000 US soldiers are deployed or forward stationed in over 120 countries. As Hartcher notes, the United States:

…accounts for 5 per cent of the world’s population, 20 per cent of the world economy, and fully 50 per cent of global defence spending. It is structured for war.

In the 228 years since it declared independence, the US has made 200 military interventions abroad, says the Congressional Research Service, an average of one every 14 months.

It has much less experience in introducing democracy than it does in waging war, incidentally. It has made 16 attempts, of which four have succeeded, says the Washington-based journal Foreign Policy.

The journal defines success as the survival of a functioning democratic system 10 years after the first US intervention. The success stories? Japan, Germany, Panama and Grenada.

Of the 43 presidents in the history of the US, about a quarter, 11 of them, have been former generals or military leaders. This is not a judgment but an observation: with this structure, this history, and this tradition of leadership, the US is a martial nation. And whoever is elected president on November 2, this is not going to change.

In this light, it’s difficult to take seriously John Kerry’s promise to “bring back this nation’s time-honored tradition: the United States of America never goes to war because we want to; we only go to war because we have to.”

In other words, the US has gone to war—not because it wanted to, but because it had to—once every 14 months for the last 228 years.

Even if the Congressional Research Service got it wrong and Americans have made not 200 but only 100 military interventions abroad, or 50 interventions, since the Declaration of Independence, that’s still one every 2 years & 4 months (or 4 years & 8 months). Which means John Kerry is suggesting that, ever since declaring independence, a reluctant United States has been under merciless, unrelenting pressure to go to war.

There’s another possible explanation. That the US has to go to war, not in the sense that Kerry uses—of being forced by external circumstances—but rather because, as one of Maruya’s characters in Grass for My Pillow, suggests: “The state has no other objective other than that of making war.”

Maruya’s intricately structured novel tells the story of Hamada Shokichi, who by 1965 has worked for 20 years as an administrative clerk at a conservative university. In October 1940, rather than obeying his call-up orders, Hamada disappeared, evading military service by posing as an itinerant peddler for the duration of the war.

As translator Keene notes, “the most striking feature of the novel is the disorganized chronology of the five wartime years.” Thus, towards the end of the book, Hamada recalls a conversation in early 1940 with his best friend, Sakai, after both had attended the funeral of another friend who, once drafted and unable to endure the bullying and beatings that were standard treatment for new army recruits, had hung himself.

Hamada has already decided that “The China Incident” (the name given by the Japanese government to the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945) was “merely the prosecution of open war under a false name, and that the Japanese army was a totally corrupt and terrifying institution.”

For this reason he’d decided he could not ally himself with that institution, preferring to sacrifice his liberty as a citizen for the sake of his freedom as a human being, and thus arrived at the conclusion that actual resistance of the draft was the only course of action open to him.

Hamada has always thought about war and the military in personal terms, rather than in any broader theoretical sense and so, rather taken by the suggestion that the essential purpose of the state is to wage war, he is eager to engage Sakai’s argument:

“Surely it’s not that simple. What about a permanently neutral state like Switzerland, or Japan during the Tokugawa period?”

“Those are exceptions, the very few exceptions, which is why people notice them. The true” (he heavily stressed the word) “aim of the state, the principle on which it is based, is the making of war.”

“But it has other aims, doesn’t it? The prosperity of the people, cultural advancement?”

“Those are merely aims it pretends to have, or they’re just temporary ones. Its real aim…”

“I’m not sure,” said Hamada, implying by his tone of voice that he rejected the idea.

“Look, they say the Spartans expressed their love of country in terms of war, and the Athenians did it in cultural terms. But that’s all wrong. The aim of both city states was conquest, and it was just some sort of fluke the Athenians produced that culture when what their state was really all about was war. The state’s got nothing to do with culture. Or at least that’s what it looks like to me. The only states in existence are ones that wage war.”

Sakai goes on to list the wars that Japan has engaged in since the Meiji Restoration of 1866-69: the Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Great War, the Manchurian Incident…

Hamada didn’t reply this time. He remained silent, thinking about those festoons of the flags of all nations you saw at school sports days and in large restaurants in department stores, that string of vulgar colors of all kinds, reds, greens, blues, yellows, swaying in the air. Was the real intention of such displays, both for the child watching with apparently innocent wonder the lurid bursts of brilliance in the sky and for the middle-aged woman eating her solid, boring lunch beneath it, an announcement that there were all these countries in the world and we would have the pleasure in the near future of fighting the whole lot of them, much like those strings of photographs of film actresses in magazines that serve only to stimulate masculine lust?

Not completely convinced, Hamada asks Sakai why the state should aim only at making war? His friend offers the standard left-wing explanation, that war is the “most wasteful of all human activities,” that capitalism requires waste “in order to achieve profits,” and that “the state is in the hands of the capitalists.” (My friend Natsuko explained the Iraq war in almost identical terms.)

“What about Soviet Russia?”

Sakai couldn’t answer that one, and shut his mouth tight in what looked like petulance.

Hamada leaves the room to get Sakai an ashtray and, as he goes back upstairs, he decides that Sakai’s theory is “just too dreadful to be believed” and instead conceives his own explanation: that the state doesn’t have any aim at all, an idea that Sakai believes is even more terrifying. Hamada persists:

“I’m not all that sure how to go on, but, say, something like this. Since basically it doesn’t have any aim, it’s difficult for people to support it, because there’s nothing there you can give yourself to. So it develops all sorts of tensions within itself; things like party strife, class warfare happen easily. So you need some kind of outside tension, some external pressure, to hold it all together. It’s the only way …”

“So you’re saying the state doesn’t create a national unity in order to handle a war situation or the possibility of one, but wars are started to create the national unity itself; or at least the threat of war is used to do the same thing?”

“Does that make sense? I’m not all that sure myself.”

“It makes sense. At least that must be one aspect of it. It’s impossible to be completely confident of what you’re saying when talking about questions as massive as these.”

“Still, whatever way you put it, finally it comes down to what you first said. It’s the state itself that’s bad. It’s not capitalism, it’s not politics, it’s just the state, that spectral power that is going to turn us into soldiers.”

Except that Hamada refuses to be turned into a soldier whereas Sakai acquiesces. Both survive the war. Sakai becomes a successful businessman while Hamada—a minor bureaucrat—sees himself as a comparative failure. Until he realizes that he must:

never forget that he’d broken the most powerful of all the commandments our society imposes, stronger than the commandment not to steal, stronger even than the commandment not to kill. He was a man who had gone against the stream. He had offended, and he had to be plucked out. He had gone against the state, against society, against the establishment, all there was to go against; and a man who has once rebelled in that way has to go on doing so until the very end. There is no other path for him. There is no way back. All he can do, forever and ever, is continue on his perilous voyage, continue his restless journey, and lie down each night with only bamboo grass for a pillow.

To conceive of resisting the state is just as perilous now as it was for Hamada Shokichi in October 1940. The threat of international terrorism is as real—for everyone—as was the threat of German fascism and Japanese militarism in the thirties. And yet it’s difficult to conceive of a dog and pony show like the Democratic National Convention as being anything but part of the problem. Particularly when Jesus is co-opted to sell the message of patriotic self-sacrifice:

To the contrary, says AKMA:

Let’s keep matters clear: Jesus was not about patriotism. If anything, his life and words describe an anti-patriotic critique of national idolatry, and a consistent pacifism.

I’ve never been sympathetic to pacifism—in this entry I argued (against AKMA) that evil can, in some circumstances, only be countered by murderous and coercive violence.

But now, after reading Grass for My Pillow, I find myself inching towards AKMA’s position while wondering about the mechanisms the state uses to control its citizens. Dave Rogers argues—correctly, I believe—that the state monopolizes our attention to such a degree that we have hardly any attention left “to be devoted to the things that might actually make a difference in the world—ourselves.”

We worry about our nation’s debt, while we swim in a sea of personal debt. We fret about our national security, while we drive our cars with one hand holding our cell phones to our ears. We lament the loss of civility in civil discourse, as we tune in to listen to Limbaugh and O’Reilly and Franken. We fact-check the other guy’s ass, while we never critically examine our own cherished beliefs. And who can blame us for these and the many, many other ironic things that might be observed about our existence? We don’t live in a free economy, we live in a command economy. Our attention is commanded by the authorities, and we willingly give it to them, leaving very little for ourselves. As long as they’ve got you worried about taxing your money, you’ll never notice who’s taxing your attention.

Gandhi said, “You must become the change you wish to see in the world.” Those words were, and remain, an enormous threat to the established social structures that seek to prevent real change. But those social structures learned to use the power of technology against the weaknesses of the human psyche. As long as your attention is commanded by external authorities, things will never change. Perhaps that’s part of “the wisdom of the crowd.”

Or, alternately, perhaps the state has learned over time a whole array of strategies that prevent the crowd from developing any wisdom. Such as conferring on some bloggers the privilege of “covering” the Democratic National Convention, allowing them (in the words of the WonderChicken) “inside the chalk borders of the pentagram,” and showering them with “excellent swag.”

“Fairweather bloggers,” writes Halley Suitt, “like a bunch of feminists getting bribed with new appliances and caving in as they are transformed into Stepford Wives. What gives?” The state giveth, and the state taketh away.

I’m hardly immune—for the four days that much of Blogaria was preoccupied with the DNC I’ve spent all my spare time reading Maruya and thinking about Ozu’s films, just as much a vassal of the command economy as anyone else.

So I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know this: it isn’t patriotism.

Permalink | Comments (35) | TrackBacks (8)

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour