Friday 08 February 2002
Sunday 17 February 2002
Standing up to bullies
In a thoughtful essay on bullying, Meryl Yourish writes:
And so I’m going to say something that will probably piss off a lot of you out there, but here it is: Bystanders who say nothing when they see bullying going on must also bear a share of the guilt. And there are many of you out there who said nothing when other kids were bullied. I understand the reasons: You didn’t want the bully to shift attention to you, and maybe start picking on you. I do get that. But then you have to understand that you also bear some of the blame of bullying. It isn’t all on the bad kids’ shoulders. It’s also on the shoulders of the silent.
She’s right. And bullying can take many different forms. One night last year I was taking the train home after a Japanese class. A young man carrying a bible walked into the carriage and accosted a young Asian woman sitting directly across the aisle from me. He asked her a series of questions about where she was going, where she worked, whether she believed in God and went to church. I looked carefully at her reaction and it seemed abundantly clear that she was not interested and wanted to be left alone. My instinctive response was to intervene but I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t projecting my anti-zealot attitudes onto her.
Finally she looked across at me with an expression that clearly said: “I’m very uncomfortable about this but I don’t know what to do.” That was enough. I interrupted him, told him that his questions were unwelcome, and suggested he stop immediately. He stared at me, thought for a moment, then got up and left the carriage. She caught my eye and smiled a thank you.
Then, to my amazement, people all around us started saying: “Good on you!” “Well done!” “He deserved to be told off like that!” A few even clapped. I thought to myself, “Gee, if you felt so strongly about it, why did you just sit there?”
Wednesday 03 April 2002
Self-justification as a way of life
Michael Barrish’s story about his (and his girlfriend Rachel’s) failed attempt to steal a roadside duck sign in Delaware generated several email messages telling him that stealing is wrong. Analyzing his and Rachel’s identical responses to one forceful, articulate email from a guy named Jay Perkins, Barrish came to the conclusion that “there are three things you can do in such a situation:”
- Attack the accuser
- Minimize the wrong
- Defend your character
At the risk of coming across like “a goddamn paragon of righteousness,” one could suggest alternatives, such as admitting the wrong, apologizing, or rectifying any harm done. But Michael Barrish is using the incident to make a more useful (though dispiriting) observation:
Of course I’m not just speaking about duck signs here, nor only about myself. The same self-serving logic used to justify petty theft is used to justify the destruction of the planet. People do what they want, then find reasons to justify it.
Sunday 07 April 2002
Last gasp of the Anglophiles
Every June in New South Wales, tens of thousands of sixth graders sit for the Selective Schools Examination in the hope of gaining enrolment in one of 23 government-funded selective schools. The successful students will spend their high school years being taught by excellent teachers in smaller classes with better facilities—at almost negligible cost to their parents. A comparable education in a private school (such as Sydney Grammar School) can cost as much as $15,575 (US$8,255) per pupil per year.
Yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald disclosed that an influential group of Sydney Boys High School graduates is arguing for a change in government policy so that the sons and grandsons of former students may attend the school without sitting for the test or meeting the requirement that they live within the school’s catchment area.
At first glance this appears to be a classic case of self interest, as former students seek an advantage for their sons and grandsons. In fact, such “sibling rights” had been allowed since the school’s establishment in the 19th century but were abolished thirty years ago. Still, it seems almost inconceivable that anyone in democratic Australia could argue for a return to a system in which privileges are granted according to heredity rather than merit. There must be a compelling reason for such an argument to be mounted.
The answer is found in an article in the current issue of the old boys’ magazine, which points out that:
The demographic of the school are [sic] fast evolving and year 7 is currently 90 per cent Asian…
Not surprisingly, this statement provoked an immediate charge of racism that, as it turns out, misses the point entirely.
With more than half its residents born overseas, Sydney is not just the most culturally diverse city in Australia, it is also a strongly Asian city. According to City Council statistics:
- the two largest migrant groups are Chinese (14.6%) and Indonesian (10.7%)
- one in five residents speaks a dialect of Chinese
- four of the top five languages spoken in Sydney are Asian, with one-third of the population proficient in an Asian language
While this Asian influence is the main reason I enjoy living in Sydney, many older Australians—particularly those outside the large cities—do not share my delight. Some of them have never forgiven the Japanese for their treatment of Australian prisoners-of-war; others pine for the halcyon days when Australia was nothing more but an Antipodean outpost of British traditions and values.
But Sydney has absorbed the influx of Asian immigrants with minimal discord. So, even though many of the Sydney High old boys belong to that Anglophile generation, their desire for the reinstatement of “sibling rights” is motivated hardly at all by racism, partly by self-interest, and actually by something else entirely.
Just as everyone on Earth is connected to everyone else by no more than six degrees of separation, every single phenomenon in Australia—social, political, cultural—is never more than three degrees of separation from the most important influence in Australian life: sport. The City Council may suggest that “more than one-third of City of Sydney residents (35.1%) do not claim to belong to an organised religion” but that statistic fails to recognize that every Australian resident (native-born or immigrant) is compulsorily enrolled in the Church of Sport.
The full sentence in old boys’s magazine article reads:
The demographic of the school are [sic] fast evolving and year 7 is currently 90 per cent Asian, which has the flow-on effect on the school’s traditional sports of rowing, cricket and rugby.
Sydney Boys High is the only government school whose students compete in the GPS (Great Private Schools) sporting competition with seven (exclusive and expensive) private boys schools. It is hardly coincidental that rowing, cricket, and rugby are the favored sports of the British aristocracy and ruling class.
So the problem is not that 90 per cent of the current 7th grade students are Asian. It’s that 90 percent of the current 7th grade students are, for the most part, slightly-built boys with physiques ill-suited for excelling in rowing, cricket, and rugby. Their skins could be purple and they could speak Mesopotamian for all the Sydney High old boys care—if only Asian students were all six feet tall and weighed at least 85kg (190lb). Which they aren’t and they don’t.
The old boys’ campaign hasn’t a snowflake’s chance in hell of succeeding. The Sydney Boys High principal, Dr Kim Jagger, has already been quoted as saying that “those seeking government intervention on sibling rights and geographic boundaries for selective schools were ‘crying in the wilderness’.” The Labor government in New South Wales is no more likely to grant the old boys’ wish than it is to ban trade unions.
Instead of trying to prop up the last vestiges of the British influence in Australia by stacking Sydney Boys High with their dunderheaded sons and grandsons, the old boys should devote their energies to persuading the GPS to replace cricket with baseball and rugby with soccer. Then we’d all be better off.
Friday 17 May 2002
Burningbird is understandably appalled by a class at UC Berkeley which, in taking “as its starting point the right of Palestinians to fight for their own self-determination,” offers the disclaimer that “conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections.”
Suggesting that the class would be “thought provoking as well as useful… only if the class looks at the impact of writing and rhetoric from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” Burningbird argues:
Unfortunately, as the class is titled and according to the political affiliation of the teacher, it promises to be pro-Palestinian biased, and that’s inappropriate considering the venue.
I mentioned yesterday that I’m reading Edward Seidensticker’s Genji Days, a collection of diary excerpts from the years when translating The Tale of Genji was the author’s principal concern. An entry for Friday, November 19, 1971 reminded me of the origin of classes that exclude the ideologically unacceptable in order to ensure that the chosen few may bask in the warm inner glow of their unchallenged convictions:
I understand that after I left the meeting yesterday there was a small thunderbolt: the department, said a lady graduate student, and particularly the Japanese side of it, is “sexually unbalanced.” Bob Brower later in the day attended a meeting in the deans’ office during which the chairman of the curriculum committee reported on a troublesome new course. It is to be concerned with the function of women in the revolutionary movement, and no men are to be admitted. The furies are loosed upon us.
To paraphrase a verse from Galatians 6: for as you sow, that shall you also reap.
Sunday 02 June 2002
Buddhism 100, Catholicism 29
- Mahayana Buddhism (100%)
- Unitarian Universalism (96%)
- Liberal Quakers (91%)
- Bahá’í Faith (91%)
- Theravada Buddhism (88%)
- Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (88%)
- Hinduism (87%)
- Taoism (80%)
- Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (79%)
- Jainism (76%)
- Neo-Pagan (71%)
- New Thought (71%)
- Sikhism (68%)
- Orthodox Quaker (68%)
- New Age (61%)
- Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (61%)
- Scientology (59%)
- Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (56%)
- Reform Judaism (52%)
- Secular Humanism (52%)
- Orthodox Judaism (50%)
- Nontheist (44%)
- Islam (42%)
- Jehovah’s Witness (40%)
- Seventh Day Adventist (40%)
- Eastern Orthodox (29%)
- Roman Catholic (29%)
Loren was upset with his Neo-Pagan (100%) and New Age (99%) scores because he considers himself “almost anything BUT New Age.” I am, on the other hand, delighted. Not just with my 100% score for Mahayana Buddhism but because Roman Catholicism, the religion into which I was baptized, came in at the bottom of the list. I can only attribute my 79% score for Christian Science to a love of the work of Joseph Cornell.
Saturday 20 July 2002
The talent myth
I couldn’t help being reminded of the steady deterioration in corporate and political leadership over the last twenty years while reading The Talent Myth, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker article:
This “talent mind-set” is the new orthodoxy of American management. It is the intellectual justification for why such a high premium is placed on degrees from first-tier business schools, and why the compensation packages for top executives have become so lavish. In the modern corporation, the system is considered only as strong as its stars, and, in the past few years, this message has been preached by consultants and management gurus all over the world. None, however, have spread the word quite so ardently as McKinsey, and, of all its clients, one firm took the talent mind-set closest to heart. It was a company where McKinsey conducted twenty separate projects, where McKinsey’s billings topped ten million dollars a year, where a McKinsey director regularly attended board meetings, and where the C.E.O. himself was a former McKinsey partner. The company, of course, was Enron.
The picture Gladwell paints of Enron is of a company that scrupulously followed McKinsey’s recommendations, grading employees into A, B, and C groups: “The A’s must be challenged and disproportionately rewarded. The B’s need to be encouraged and affirmed. The C’s need to shape up or be shipped out.” The A’s were then allowed to do pretty much whatever they liked. At Enron, Gladwell writes, ” the needs of the customers and the shareholders were secondary to the needs of its stars.”
The broader failing of McKinsey and its acolytes at Enron is their assumption that an organization’s intelligence is simply a function of the intelligence of its employees. They believe in stars, because they don’t believe in systems. In a way, that’s understandable, because our lives are so obviously enriched by individual brilliance. Groups don’t write great novels, and a committee didn’t come up with the theory of relativity. But companies work by different rules. They don’t just create; they execute and compete and coördinate the efforts of many different people, and the organizations that are most successful at that task are the ones where the system is the star.
One organization, above all others, believes that the system is the star: the military. And to illustrate his theory of why Enron’s exclusive focus on talent resulted in catastrophe, Gladwell focuses on the inability of the US Navy in World War II to successfully counter the German U-boat threat, a problem that was eventually solved by introducing a different kind of organization to harness the efforts of the same talented individuals who had previously failed.
Then, as examples of companies whose values (and ongoing success) are diametrically opposed to Enron’s, Gladwell points to Southwest Airlines, Wal-Mart, and Procter & Gamble, each owing its success to highly effective operational systems, two having CEOs with military backgrounds.
Although Gladwell’s focus is on systems, his article makes it quite clear that Enron was a company without any real leadership. He also suggests, obliquely, that in a society of individuals with a culture that glorifies talent and worships stars, there are real insights to be gleaned from organizations like the army and navy, which place the highest value on systems, teamwork, and effective leadership.
Monday 29 July 2002
Ego and arrogance in blogging
Anyone who’s been scolded by Mike Sanders for offering an analysis of the Middle East tragedy based on “believing false information or not thinking things through” might be tempted to take his recent posts on ego and arrogance in blogging with a grain of salt or three.
“A meaningful life,” Mike explained, “can be summed up as doing positive things and not doing negative things.”
On the positive side, we need to be outer directed. We need to give to others with our financial, physical, mental and emotional resources. This includes giving charity, volunteering for community service, helping people with their problems, encouraging people in their endeavors and making people feel good about themselves and others.
On the avoidance of negative, we need to be inner directed. We need to control our anger, watch our words, focus our desires, introspect on our motivations, and most of all reduce our egocentricity.
Mike also suggested three ways in which bloggers might implement this advice:
- Introspection must ultimately be done in private.
- A blogroll, link or complement on a blog are at the lower end of the giving spectrum.
- Share your experiences, but be aware of self-centeredness.
To which Katherine Derbyshire replied:
Most of the blogs I read violate at least one of these principles, and several violate all of them. If every blog followed Mike’s advice, the Internet would be like a steady diet of white bread: utterly lacking in taste, texture, or nutrition.
And followed up with:
My take is that I’m not convinced that ego and arrogance are necessarily bad things. The neurosurgeon whose ego drives him to be the best, most well-informed, and richest doctor on the planet is the guy I want holding the knife if I have to get my skull cut open. Arrogance is part of where people get the chutzpah to do things that are supposed to be impossible, and so arrogance has led to many of the breakthroughs that support modern medicine (not to mention the Internet).
And, where Mike described a vision of a low-egocentricity, reduced-arrogance Internet as an extremely beautiful place of compassion, sharing and love, S.L. Viehl saw a tranquillized psych ward, with bloggers doing the Thorazine shuffle. “People who preach to others about how they must behave,” she added, “remind me of Super Nun.”
I’m not going to be like Super Nun, or hand out tranquilizers, or otherwise tell you what to think or how you should behave. I may make observations and suggestions from time to time, but that’s all they are. You do what you want, and have fun. As for me, I’m an arrogant egotistic bitch and proud of it.
One wonders what it was in Mike’s posts that engendered such ferocious responses. After all, he’s simply made some “observations and suggestions” for implementing changes in one’s own life that would almost certainly benefit society at large.
Part of the problem is that you can choose to interpret Mike’s tone as kind of sanctimonious or preachy. S.L. Viehl did. I think it’s also the case that humility and social responsibility—which are really the values Mike espouses—have fallen out of fashion. At least it’s seemed that way to me for a long time now. I liked Mike’s posts very much, probably for the same reasons that attracted me to Peter Saunders’ interview with conservative doctor and writer, Theodore Dalrymple, whose recent book, Life at the Bottom, is based on his work as a doctor in British slums and prisons.
PS: Let’s try to pin down in a bit more detail what this culture is and what’s bad about it. You’re saying that it’s something that’s developed since the 1960s—it’s come out of the intellectual ferment of that decade, and it’s trickled down, and now we’re living with the consequences of it. So what is this culture?
TD: First of all I think it’s a radical egotism. And self-importance. What one wants oneself becomes all important. At the same time as that egotism, you also have a conception of rights. I suppose you can say it’s the libertarian right admixed with an element from the left of a rights-driven agenda.
This focus on ME produces advertising slogans like “You can have it all” and “For the most important person in the world: You.” And statements like “You do what you want, and have fun.”
Needles to say, a world view based on an exaggerated sense of one’s own rights requires a correspondingly diminished sense of one’s responsibilities. No wonder Mike was castigated for suggesting means by which rights and responsibilities might be brought back into balance.
The more we are focused on ourselves, the more we take and exploit and the less we give and share with others. A healthy society and healthy relationships are founded on giving, caring and sharing which are antithetical to self-focused taking.
It’s difficult to argue with that—as either an individual or a social ideal. The problem arises, however, when you add blogging to the mix. Perhaps that’s where Mike got himself into trouble. Storytelling isn’t founded on “giving, caring, and sharing” but on artfully constructed conflict. With blogging, which is essentially a new way of telling stories, the conflict can either be created within a post or, alternatively, can arise from the interplay between a post and other blogger’s responses to it. Like this.
What Mike and his adversaries could be missing is that—just as Theodore Dalrymple suggests “it’s perfectly possible for people to be economically left-wing and culturally conservative”—it might also be possible to be arrogant and egotistical in one’s blog and humble, generous, and compassionate in one’s offline life. Unless you believe in the unitary self. Which I don’t.
Saturday 10 August 2002
Ethics of an auteur
Perhaps the neglect of Riefenstahl — as an artist, as opposed to as a case study in demonology — reflects the difficulty of owning up to the enduring attraction of Nazi aesthetics. Since the 1960s, the main currents of humanistic inquiry have discounted the new-critical notions of immutability and transcendence of art, insisting on the linkage of the personal and the political. Ironically, Riefenstahl, the artist whose career pre-eminently confirms the commingling of art and life, has been auteur non grata precisely because her work has lived beyond its historical moment and ideological context. Whether in the mise-en-scène of Star Wars (1977) or the staging of a heavy-metal rock show, our fascination with her fascism — our surrender to the absolute beauty of her images — is unsettling to contemplate.
Riefenstahl, meanwhile, remains committed to what she smugly calls in her memoirs “my comeback.” Not too long ago, at a fin de siècle soiree given by Time magazine, she could be spotted happily chatting with Henry Kissinger. Taking in the scene, a writer for The New Yorker could only comment, “There is no God.”
Thursday 22 August 2002
The shame of designer tribalism
For adherents of what Sandall calls the culture cult, primitive culture is not inferior to modern civilization – it is different and quite likely better. Some commentators of this persuasion call for a radical simplification of modern life based on their notion of the condition of the primitive. Nothwithstanding their own doctrine of incommensurability, they take “a sour view of modernity”, forgetting, Sandall argues, that modern civilization not infrequently “allows changes of government without bloodshed”, as well as “civil rights, economic benefits, religious toleration, and political and artistic freedom”; whereas most traditional cultures “feature domestic repression, economic backwardness, endemic disease, religious fanaticism and severe artistic constraints”.
As if to underline Sandall’s argument, the BBC reported that:
The largely-male crowd in the [Nigerian] courtroom reacted to the judgement of judge Aliyu Abdullahi with shouts of “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).
“We uphold your conviction of death by stoning as prescribed by the Sharia. This judgement will be carried out as soon as your baby is weaned,” the judge said, as Amina cradled her eight-month-old daughter Wasila, reports the French news agency, AFP.
It’s ironic that many of those in the west who (correctly) condemned the court’s verdict happen to be the Designer Tribalists that Sandall accuses of engaging in the “sacralization of cultural difference” which, Tallis notes:
serves as a hypocritical denial, by people who are comfortably remote from its consequences, of the fact that there are cultures that have deeply undesirable aspects. The veneration of closed, tribal, warrior cultures involves a failure to acknowledge the absence in such societies of, among other things, individual rights and freedom of thought, rights that these same romantic primitivists demand for themselves.
Sandall’s ideas touched a chord in me, living as I do in Australia. I was hardly surprised by the final paragraph of the review:
Some of the passion in Sandall’s writing comes from a local issue: his horror at the betrayal of the Australian Aboriginal people by practitioners of romantic primitivism, the intellectuals who rewrote Aboriginal history, enforced bilingual instruction, encouraged a cultural apartheid of “self-determination” and prioritized the preservation of traditional culture over the skills of modern life. This has resulted in vocational disability among Aboriginal people, due in part to a catastrophic decline in literacy, and (to use Ernest Gellner’s words) in “frozen, visible, and offensive inequality”. The result is a diminution of life chances, and condemnation to a marginalized existence of a kind that boutique multiculturalists would not accept for themselves and their own children.
These same romantic primitivists and boutique multiculturalists run the Aboriginal Welfare Industry in Australia, dreaming up billion dollar schemes that have hardly improved Aboriginal health and literacy. While Aboriginal people are ravaged by chronic alcoholism and drug addiction, a herd of white lawyers, intellectuals, and bureaucrats roots deeper into the trough, only occasionally removing their snouts to utter the nonsense that Sandall excoriates.
Noel Pearson, the only Aboriginal leader to condem this cosy arrangement, has been largely ostracized by an Industry that is deeply offended by his speeches and essays. (When someone mentioned Pearson at a meeting I attended, the designer tribalist audience was so outraged that a heckler’s shout of “sell-out” provoked cheers and clapping.)
Why do the chattering classes despise Noel Pearson? Because his trenchant criticism of the system of passive welfare incriminates them. Because in his vision for Aboriginal Australia there would be no jobs for them. Because he shatters their comfortable illusions by talking like this:
The truth is that, at least in the communities that I know in Cape York Peninsula, the real need is for the restoration of social order and the enforcement of law. That is what is needed. You ask the grandmothers and the wives. What happens in communities when the only thing that happens when crimes are committed is the offenders are defended as victims? Is it any wonder that there will soon develop a sense that people should not take responsibility for their actions and social order must take second place to an apparent right to dissolution. Why is all of our progressive thinking ignoring these basic social requirements when it comes to black people? Is it any wonder the statistics have never improved? Would the number of people in prison decrease if we restored social order in our communities in Cape York Peninsula? What societies prosper in the absence of social order?
A rule of thumb in relation to most of the programs and policies that pose as progressive thinking in indigenous affairs, is that if we did the opposite we would have a chance of making progress. This is because the subservience of our intellectual culture to the cause of class prejudice and stratification is so profound and universal. What we believe is forward progress is in fact standing still or actually moving backwards…
I contend that people who want to be progressive today, are in objective fact, regressive in their thinking. This is especially and painfully obvious if you know the situation in the Aboriginal communities of this country. Petrol sniffing is in some places now so endemic that crying infants are silenced with petrol-drenched rags on their faces.
I’ve quoted three paragraphs from Noel Pearson’s Ben Chifley Memorial Lecture two years ago, titled Light on the Hill. I could quote a dozen more. The Australians who most need to read it won’t. It mystifies and infuriates me that they can wring their hands over the injustice done to Amina Lawal in Nigeria whilst acting as willing accomplices in the injustice inflicted on Aboriginal people in Australia.
Friday 30 August 2002
A story we try to prove true
Michael Barrish, Story:
I’ve long believed that we each have a story, often unknown to us, that we try all our lives to prove true. As I see it, this is the key to understanding a lot of otherwise inexplicable behavior… It can usually be summarized in five words or less.
I am alone.
Mark Pilgrim, Proven True:
Every day, I try to clarify in my own mind some specific thing I am grateful for. This generally takes the form of “today is better than yesterday in some way”… But every now and then I—intentionally or accidentally—step back and feel gratitude on an absolute scale.
I am blessed.
At a certain point I came to understand that nothing lasts, everything vanishes away, and my best approach is to lovingly embrace this transient world. I find pleasure in everyday pursuits whilst knowing they will soon disappear. I appreciate the poignancy of things.
Life is a beautiful dream.
Saturday 14 September 2002
The efficacy of silence
On September 11, Jeff Ward wrote:
I never bought into the idea that surrendering your voice was a way to commemorate an inauspicious anniversary. I think that’s a cop-out. I’ve never understood the “moment of silence” thing at all. It seems to me that the way to celebrate people is to shout, dance, and be involved— not withdraw into a corner. The best way to keep going is not stopping.
I think some of us were simply opting out of all the “hype,” Jeff.
As I look around I see what Yossarian saw in Catch-22, “When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent moral impulse and every human tragedy.”
I wonder why the television stations didn’t take out the ads today. I wonder why some politicians were tying this to the invasion of Iraq.
….the majority of the noise on the airwaves is as you say, geared towards hyping and justifying war. I understand the gesture of silence in protest of that, but silence never promotes much of anything except silence. I don’t see many good things coming out of silence.
I was with Loren in the “some of us [are] simply opting out of the hype” group. I’d taken my cue from AKMA, when he wrote about respectful silence being worth something, assuming it is enacted with energy, integrity, and commitment.
Though, in retrospect, I wonder if Jeff wasn’t right. He wrote briefly about attending a lecture by “renowned Blake scholar Joe Viscomi” as a way of refusing “to support the rebirth of American imperialism under the guise of celebrating such a heinous crime.”
Yet I chose silence. Partly because I did not want (in Mark Pilgrim’s words) to “add to the cacophony.” Partly because what was on my mind would have been, as the Japanese say, basho-gara wakimaezu, not in keeping with the occasion. God knows there’s a desperate need to counteract the mawkish drivel that was written on September 11, but September 11 was not the day to do it.
On Wednesday night, after I’d written my brief post, I watched Tokyo Story (for the fifteenth or twentieth time). Half a minute of Ozu’s unsentimental study of the disintegration of the postwar Japanese family offers a deeper understanding of humanity and the difficulties of living than all the hours of commemorative “9/11” programming laid end to end.
Thursday 19 September 2002
A common chord
I’d always wondered why I’ve never met a Canadian I didn’t like—until I read this Globe and Mail article by Jeffrey Simpson, titled Australia: Canada’s secret alter ego. The last paragraph makes clear our commonality:
Take two forbidding pieces of geography, lightly populate them, give them colonial histories and turn them into federations, factor in an underprivileged native population, attract immigrants from around the globe, insist that they play the role of middle powers in the world — and you have two countries where the details may be different but the essence is the same.
All that’s lacking in this summary—though Simpson does mention it earlier in his article—is our complex, ambivalent attitude towards the United States.
(Link via wood s lot)
Update. Now comes news that Mark Woods is joining Stavros in hiatus. What’s going on? Blogging needs all the Canadians it can get! Wait a minute. The WonderChicken’s page title says: “Hiatus? What hiatus?” Welcome back, Stav. Come back soon, Mark.
Tuesday 24 September 2002
Facing the truth about us
- Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg (“In the late nineteen-sixties, a Harvard social psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in an effort to find an answer to what is known as the small-world problem, though it could also be called the Lois Weisberg problem. It is this: How are human beings connected? Do we belong to separate worlds, operating simultaneously but autonomously, so that the links between any two people, anywhere in the world, are few and distant? Or are we all bound up together in a grand, interlocking web?”)
- Listening to Khakis (“It’s almost as if the Dockers ads weren’t primarily concerned with clothes at all—and in fact that’s exactly what Levi’s intended. What the company had discovered, in its research, was that baby-boomer men felt that the chief thing missing from their lives was male friendship. Caught between the demands of the families that many of them had started in the eighties and career considerations that had grown more onerous, they felt they had lost touch with other men.”)
- The Science of the Sleeper (“In the book business, as in the movie business, there are two kinds of hits: sleepers and blockbusters… Sleepers come to your attention by a slow, serendipitous path: a friend who runs into a friend who sets up the interview that just happens to be heard by a guy married to a bookseller. Sleepers tend to emerge from the world of independent bookstores, because independent bookstores are the kinds of places where readers go to ask the question that launches all sleeper hits: Can you recommend a book to me?”)
Since Gladwell owns the copyright on each of the articles he writes for the New Yorker, a month or so after an article appears in the magazine he publishes it on his Web site. I’m not sure how he sees giving away his content. Perhaps he regards it as a brand-building exercise, although I doubt it. He already has an enviable reputation. It’s more likely that he thinks: I’ve already been paid handsomely—through the fun of research, the pleasure/pain of writing, the check from the magazine, the admiration of my peers, and the knowledge that I’ve been read by tens of thousands of discriminating readers—I can afford to give this away.
His latest article, The Naked Face, explains the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, who established that facial expressions were “the universal products of evolution”:
Paul Ekman got his start in the face-reading business because of a man named Silvan Tomkins, and Silvan Tomkins may have been the best face reader there ever was. Tomkins was from Philadelphia, the son of a dentist from Russia… During the Depression, in the midst of his doctoral studies at Harvard, he worked as a handicapper for a horse-racing syndicate, and was so successful that he lived lavishly on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. At the track, where he sat in the stands for hours, staring at the horses through binoculars, he was known as the Professor. “He had a system for predicting how a horse would do based on what horse was on either side of him, based on their emotional relationship,” Ekman said. If a male horse, for instance, had lost to a mare in his first or second year, he would be ruined if he went to the gate with a mare next to him in the lineup. (Or something like that—no one really knew for certain.) Tomkins felt that emotion was the code to life, and that with enough attention to particulars the code could be cracked. He thought this about the horses, and, more important, he thought this about the human face.
What a wonderful Runyonesque character. The article is filled with them. As you read, you may want to refer to this page that illustrates the action units that make up Ekman’s FACS - Facial Action Coding System.
I suppose this post is a hymn of admiration for Malcolm Gladwell. I admire his curiosity, his tenacity, his gifts as a writer, and his generosity. For reasons I can’t quite articulate, his work points to a direction that bloggers might fruitfully follow.
On reflection, I also realized that I enjoyed reading The Naked Face because it comes down so strongly on the side of nature in the nature vs. nurture debate. Although I accept that we are social beings, I also believe that in recent years our “animal” behavior has been deliberately downplayed by the social engineeers who are convinced that human beings are—if subjected to the appropriate influences—perfectible. The deep irrationality of much of our behavior provides ample evidence, to me at least, that we are shaped by forces beyond our conscious control. More importantly, a world in which we all behaved rationally would be a world without stories.
Thursday 26 September 2002
“He can’t think without his hat.”
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
What’s the current thinking about men wearing hats indoors?
Growing up, I was taught that a gentleman takes off his hat whenever he enters a building. Therefore I wasn’t surprised when, in an early episode of The Sopranos, Tony takes offence at a fellow diner’s wearing a baseball cap in an upmarket restaurant. The restaurant owner is embarrassed but powerless so Tony walks over to the table and “persuades” the (initially reluctant) young man to remove his cap. I took this as evidence that David Chase, the show’s writer/producer, believes the rule about not wearing hats inside still holds firm.
But in The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), Sir Nayland Smith, the eminent Scotland Yard detective, leaves his hat on throughout a lengthy conversation in a suspect’s office. Though, given that he takes off his hat in every other interior scene, this single instance might signify contempt for the criminal class.
This morning I saw some news footage of Saddam Hussein meeting with his generals. They were all wearing their berets in the conference room whereas Saddam was bareheaded. He does have a hat though, which he wears whenever he holds his rifle in one hand and fires a few shots into the air whilst celebrating his weapons of mass destruction. In this case, he’s outside—on a balcony or a podium. Saddam clearly understands hat etiquette though his generals seem not to. Perhaps he’s just too well-mannered to order them to take their hats off during meetings.
I know how Saddam feels. In a Flash class I taught a month ago, two of the students wore their baseball caps the entire time. Even if I hadn’t felt like the restaurant owner in The Sopranos, I could hardly ask them to take off their caps because at the end of the course I had to hand each student their free baseball cap!
The most useful response was a complete guide to hat etiquette by Gary Warth, staff writer for The Village Hat Shop. Although Mr Warth doesn’t actually answer the question—no doubt he’s reluctant to offend prospective customers who see nothing shameful in wearing a hat indoors—his reveals his true sympathies by quoting Miss Manners and Emily Post:
- “Hat-wearers must be careful when putting something on the hatband… Anything put on the band of a man’s hat must be on the left side, and anything on a woman’s hatband must be on the right.”
- “Women should keep their hats on in homes holding christenings, weddings and funerals, because in those occasions the house is treated as if it were a house of worship.”
- “A gentleman must take off his hat when a woman enters an elevator in an apartment building or a hotel, as those are considered dwellings. He puts it on again in the hall, because a public corridor is like a street. In public buildings, however, the elevator is also considered public, and the hat can stay on.”
- “Men tip or lift their hat only to strangers, not to friends, although a man would lift the hat if he encountered his wife. A hat also is tipped to a woman when passing in a narrow space or when the man speaks to her. If a man runs into a female acquaintance, he must take his hat off when talking to her, but can put it back on if they start walking.”
Tony Soprano understood: a society with no respect for hat etiquette is only a step away from lawlessness.
Friday 06 December 2002
Smokers are selfish scum
Summer has hardly commenced and Sydney is again ringed by bushfires described as the worst in the last 20 years. A combination of high temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds has led to dozens of serious fires on the outskirts of the metropolitan area. Parents have been advised to keep their children at home, the rail system is in chaos, and major roads are closed (including the main highways to the north and west).
Yesterday I spent the day working in North Sydney, across the harbor. I arrived at the railway station around 6pm, expecting to catch a train back to Newtown where I live, only to find that services were suspended. Bushfires under powerlines had caused problems with the electricity grid, leading to signal failures. The trains had ground to a halt. I was lucky. I took a pleasant two kilometer walk across the Harbor Bridge from North Sydney to the CBD and caught a bus home. Hundreds of thousands of rail commuters were trapped on trains for a couple of hours or more. Other Sydneysiders lost everything they owned.
It is believed that most of the fires were the result of human behavior: either deliberate or from acts of negligence. Tonight the State Premier appealed to smokers not to discard lit cigarette butts from moving vehicles, warning that they faced criminal charges and 14-year jail sentences.
Smokers really are selfish scum. They pollute the air and despoil the landscape with discarded cigarette packages and butts, putting their need for a nicotine fix above the comfort and health of most of the population. The only thing that can be said in their favor is that the tax on tobacco products more than covers the cost of their inevitable need for medical care.
You’d think that even the most inconsiderate arsehole would think twice before tossing a smoldering match or cigarette butt into tinder-dry bushland in the middle of a heatwave. They don’t. If only their homes and cherished possessions were destroyed by fire, as well as their hearts and lungs. (On second thought, maybe they don’t have hearts—just polluted, festering lungs.)
Update. Dave Winer takes me to task in the comments on this post for failing to make the distinction “between smokers who start fires and the vast majority of smokers who don’t.” Fair point: sweeping generalizations like the one I made are neither reasonable nor helpful—though Dave’s plea for tolerance would merit more consideration if smokers didn’t appear to be so monumentally indifferent to the discomfort their habit causes those who must inhale secondhand smoke.
(For the record, although I’m happy to live in a state where smoking is forbidden in restaurants and I’m equally relieved it’s been banned by most airlines, I don’t support banning smoking in pubs or clubs—that seems unnecessarily harsh. As long as smoking remains legal, smokers should be able to enjoy their habit in at least some public places. Nor am I opposed to cigarette advertising; if a product is legal, its manufacturer should be free to advertise it. I accept the inconsistency of my position, preferring to see it as pragmatic. Banning cigarettes entirely would be no more practical than Prohibition was in Twenties America.)
As for smokers who throw lit butts from their cars, reading a review of Keith Bradsher’s book, High and Mighty led me to think that perhaps it’s smokers who drive SUVs who are the culprits. Bradsher says that research by automakers reveals SUV buyers to be:
insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors and communities.
This Salon interview with Keith Bradsher offers persuasive evidence that SUVs pollute and kill. Like cigarettes.
More. Smokers aren’t to blame at all, argues Sydney Morning Herald columnist Miranda Devine, it’s the fault of Premier Bob Carr and the Greens:
We all need a scapegoat right now as NSW burns. But I suggest we make it the guy with the deep voice and the hard hat who has been touring burnt-out suburbs.
Carr has presided over seven years of green-inspired neglect of proper fire management of bushland in NSW, creating an environment exquisitely vulnerable to arson attack, or the careless flick of a cigarette, or a spark from a car exhaust.
She hasn’t twigged to the SUV angle, though.
Sunday 02 February 2003
What an extraordinary juxtaposition of viewpoints in the comments on Oh No, Burningbird’s first post on the loss of the space shuttle Columbia:
“the space program is an inherently risky money drain… astronauts are heroic and selfless… without the space programme we might be richer as a people, but poorer as a race… it’s a risky job, and safer statistically than lots of other jobs that pay crap and don’t have great benefits… [space exploration is] an act of adoration to God and His creation… the astronauts did risk what most of us will never risk—they faced the risk of dying alone and in space… the U.S. has a very poor track record when it comes to “exploration” of anything”
To that last (anonymous) comment, Burningbird replied:
Not one simple expression of sadness at the loss of good people doing good things. I’ve had it.
At first glance, it seems a “simple expression of sadness” is exactly what’s required. Not arguments about whether they were “heroes” or whether money spent on exploring space would be better spent elsewhere. Not eagerly latching on to a tragic accident and using it as an excuse to lambast America.
On the news tonight I saw a brief interview with the mother of one of the astronauts. She said that her son had told her that only the takeoff and landing were truly dangerous, that once you were in space there was very little risk. So we knew, she added, that he wasn’t safe until he’d actually landed. She appeared remarkably stoic, as though she’d accepted a long time ago the possibility that her son might not return.
There was video footage, shot perhaps by an “amateur” through a tangle of tree branches, of the Columbia plummeting towards earth trailing smoke, that made me think of Auden’s poem, Museé de Beaux Arts:
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The video footage was accompanied by a voiceover describing how the families and friends had gathered to welcome the astronauts home, only to witness the disaster that engulfed their loved ones.
So I empathized with Burningbird’s exasperation: her “Enough!”, her “I’ve had it!”. While at the same time wondering whether the supposed weakness of weblog comments—that we give a voice to the “inappropriate”—might be one of their greatest strengths. Instead of the usual carefully controlled, mediated, and sanitized version of events presented by “media professionals,” we get an unrestrained, messy, and often “unseemly” series of responses. And it’s these unprogrammed observations—the kind we’d only hear or voice in unguarded moments—that force us to consider what such an event might truly mean. In this sense, it’s not that those who comment get it “right” or “wrong” but rather that their comments place me in a situation where I need to think and feel for myself, rather than swallow predigested media pap.
For me, it was that mother’s astonishing fortitude, the fact that as much as she may have wanted to protect her son from danger, she (and, I assume, his father) had instilled in him the curiosity and courage to risk his life in pursuit of an ideal.
Auden’s poem and some of the comments on Burningbird’s post dramatize the ease with which the remarkable is met by indifference. But indifference is a choice, as is engagement. Burningbird’s demand for the “simple expression of sadness at the loss of good people doing good things” is one that we ignore at the risk of losing, not our lives, but our souls.
Sunday 13 April 2003
Neither sharp, nor precise
Thanks to Doc I found out about an exchange between Frank Paynter and Tom Shugart regarding Tom’s posting in response to Jonathon’s fundamentalism post. (Tom had a couple of additional postings on this, but the Blogger permalinks seem to be screwed up. Frank, also, has continued this. Jonathon is wisely staying out of this fest, choosing instead to write about less flammable issues.)
Actually, I wasn’t “wisely staying out of this fest,” I was blissfully unaware of it, having spent the week in Adelaide where a 28.8 modem connection constrained my Internet activities to checking email and posting a couple of entries to my own weblog. As for those “less flammable issues,” I can only assume that Burningbird is having a sly dig at my post about hunting and eating whales (if she’s not, I can’t begin to imagine what she’d classify as a truly flammable issue).
By Friday night I was feeling the same bone-tiredness that Pascale Soleil describes in her post, Fatigue:
I’m learning something new. In the past, I’ve been sleep-deprived, I’ve been stressed-out, I’ve been mentally and emotionally exhausted… but never before have I been literally BONE-TIRED. I am learning the meaning of true, bodily, physical fatigue.
I’d eaten out all week, so last night I planned to cook instead. When I looked at the refrigerator door, I realized I didn’t even have the energy to open it, let alone prepare a meal, so I trudged up to my second favorite restaurant (which is really now my favorite restaurant since the original favorite closed a month or two ago). After I’d ordered, I wanted nothing more than to lay my head down on the table and drift off to sleep. When my food arrived, I was too weary to do anything but pick at it. A couple of glasses of wine revived my spirits and I headed home to bed.
This morning, Sunday, I caught up on the fracas Burningbird mentioned, most particularly Frank Paynter’s statement:
I find myself in disagreement with my friend Tom Shugart. Tom and Jonathon Delacour have put themselves in what seems to me to be an awkward position — rooting for the Bush team. Tom seems to have been seduced by an image of representative democracy that went out the door when the Reichstag burned and the loyal opposition’s offices were seeded with anthrax spores.
I’m puzzled by the accusation that I’ve put myself in the awkward position of “rooting for the Bush team” since the post of mine to which Frank Paynter links, Against fundamentalisms, contains the following statements:
I have, however, consistently argued against unilateral military action and the pre-emptive strike, the policies which underpin the current war.
I believe that this war was never about Islamic terrorism but rather constitutes the first stage of implementing the strategy for US military and political dominance outlined in the first draft of Paul Wolfowitz’s 1992 Defense Planning Guidance.
Therefore I see the next essential steps as:
- �Winning� the war (though I believe that under the current US leadership any �victory� contains the seeds of eventual defeat).
- Getting rid of Bush & Co.
So, according to Frank Paynter, I’m rooting for the Bush team even though I’m against unilateral military action and the pre-emptive strike, I believe the war is stage one of the neo-Reaganite plan to maintain US hegemony, I don’t think the current US adminstration is capable of winning the peace, and I think it’s essential to get rid of Bush and Co.
Frank Paynter’s post might be a grubby play for attention, or he might have taken up residence in backwards Bizarro World, where Up is Down and Down is Up (and, dare I say it, Left is Right). Or perhaps he’s fallen under the spell of (former) Iraqi Minister for Information, Mohammed Said Sahaf, and is merely emulating Mo’s ability to recast reality by denying or dismissing any contradictory, irrefutable, and inconvenient facts.
The latter seems the most likely explanation, given two statements he made in the comments on Burningbird’s post:
“But I didn’t call Tom or Doc or Jonathon pro-Bush.”
“Really I didn’t call anyone pro-Bush!”
Earth to Paynter: in this context, to “root for” something and to be “pro”-something are functionally identical.
1. To give audible encouragement or applause to a contestant or team; cheer.
2. To lend support to someone or something.
1. An argument or consideration in favor of something: weighing the pros and cons.
2. One who supports a proposal or takes the affirmative side in a debate.
In simple terms, “rooting for the Bush team” = “pro-Bush.” Whereas I am, and have always been, anti-Bush.
I’ve already devoted more time and energy to this than it deserves. There are other issues I’d rather be writing about but, just as it’s important to defend oneself against false accusations of racism, it’s equally important to refute wilfully-dishonest misrepresentations of one’s clearly stated views.
In a more recent post, Frank Paynter wrote that “this whole thread began for me in a critical assessment of Tom’s assertions regarding the futility or inappropriateness of street demonstrations,” suggesting that the thread had perhaps begun “in the blog of that notorious whale noshing carnivore, Jonathon Delacour.” That’s correct, it started with the post “�always already writing about war” in which I challenged the the anti-war/peace movement to:
come up with something more sophisticated and useful than red-daubed faces, drumming, banal chants, puerile street theater, trite placards, histrionics, self-indulgent moralizing, and wishful thinking.
Tom Shugart amplified my argument in the thoughtful, well-written post to which Frank Paynter took exception:
it’s time to forget the peace marches. These actions now represent a colossal waste of energy. The energy needs to be directed instead toward the question of what kind of world order we want to build out of the chaos that has been inflicted upon the people of Iraq.
A million peace marchers pouring onto the streets every single day isn’t going to make a lick of difference in addressing this complex problem�other than creating more and more polarization. And guess who’s going to be on the losing side of that one.
I don’t have any interest in arguing with Frank Paynter—the gulf between our respective positions is simultaneously closer than he admits and too wide to bridge. In any case, his weblog posts on this issue strike me as the written (I can’t bring myself to say “literary”) equivalent of red-daubed faces, drumming, banal chants, puerile street theater, trite placards, histrionics, self-indulgent moralizing, wishful thinking and—a couple of characteristics I omitted from my original list—paranoia and conspiracy theory.
By describing September 11 as “our modern Reichstag in NYC in 2001,” Frank Paynter is obviously referring to the Bush administration’s use of the terrorist attacks as an pretext for curtailing civil liberties, just as Hitler and the Nazis did in 1933. But the metaphor is highly problematic because of the strong possibility that the Nazis actually lit the Reichstag fire. Since no sane person, no matter how much they detested Bush et al, would suggest that the hijackers were acting under instructions from the current administration, this implication contaminates and discredits the Reichstag metaphor. As Tom Shugart argued—in a comment on this post— “your conspiracy theory weakens your argument.”
In a post titled Certidudes, Doc Searls frames the disagreement in these terms:
But my point isn’t about any of that. It’s about partisanship and paranoia. To me all the certidudes are equally off base because they’re convinced the Other Guys are part of some big-ass Conspiracy, or are what Craig Burton calls EWBU: Evil, Wrong, Bad and Ugly. That’s how Michael Moore sees the Bush and the Administration. And that’s how Andrew Sullivan sees Howell Raines and the Academic Left. Their rants make for great reading; but they’re not fully engaged with Reality, which includes, let’s admit, the possibility that the other side isn’t always full of shit.
See, here’s the real problem. (Brace yourselves. I’m leveraging Lakoff again.) Basically, all our politics proceed from two radically opposed notions that are nonetheless equally true. The one on the Right holds that the world is a dangerous place, that bad people are on the loose, and that we need to keep ourselves safe from those people. The one on the Left holds that the world is a good place, and that we should do everything we can to nurture whatever keeps it that way. As bases for default thinking both serve to explain and dismiss much of what goes on in the world. Neither is correct in every case, and both are biassed. (A reader makes a good point: Basing ones thinking at one end or the other often leads to hatred and contempt � which we find in the language of blogging from both political extremes.)
Doc is absolutely correct to suggest that “all our politics proceed from two radically opposed notions that are nonetheless equally true” (though I would have preferred the word “valid” rather than “true”) and that “neither is correct in every case, and both are biassed.” But then, in a curious elaboration of his argument, he apportions all the blame to the Right, letting the Left off the hook.
Only one of those, however, makes interesting news. Only one of those is good for stirring up the kind of righteous anger that carries us to war, and to “delivering justice,” whatever we decide that is, and to justifying the deaths of the few for the good of the many (or of the wrong for the right, or whatever). Only one of those lends itself to handy all-simplifying sports and war metaphors. Only one of those justifies killing folks who have the misfortune of living in the wrong house, eating in the wrong restaurant or wearing the wrong clothes.
Until we discover the limits of the might-makes-Right’s moralities, its obsessions with power and security, its willingness to trash the very liberties it seeks to protect, and its ability to carry out its military ambitions, theirs are the arguments that are not only going to carry the day, but be tested in the real world.
Yet would not the victims of the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields bear witness that the Left has an equal aptitude for “stirring up the kind of righteous anger that carries us to war,” for “delivering justice, whatever we decide that is,” for “justifying the deaths of the few for the good of the many,” for trashing “the very liberties it seeks to protect,” and for “killing folks who have the misfortune of living in the wrong house, eating in the wrong restaurant or wearing the wrong clothes”?
(I’m reminded of a line in Joanna Burke’s An Intimate History of Killing: “more hatred was expressed by trade unionists during an average strike than by men in the midst of battle.”)
“You must understand, sir,” says deputy-governor Danforth in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, “that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time—we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.”
Paynter and Danforth. Certidudes indeed.
But here’s an incontrovertible fact: nothing is pure or simple, for we remain mired in the dusky afternoon, where evil inextricably mixes with good and befuddles the world; and I doubt it will ever be any different.
Frank Paynter’s argument, which attempts to reduce complex issues to a false polarity, is hardly any different from Attorney-General Ashcroft’s. I realize that it’s difficult for ideologues to deal with complexity, to “admit to the possibility that the other side isn’t always full of shit,” just as it’s difficult for them to accept that someone can:
be simultaneously against Bush and against street marches.
oppose unilateral military action and the doctine of the pre-emptive strike while accepting the possibility of a just war.
support the Palestinians’ right to an independent state but be implacably opposed to Islamic fundamentalism.
But the real world is like that: complicated and nuanced. Burningbird summed up the problem of peace marches and suggested an course of action not dissimilar to Tom Shugart’s:
And I won’t attend the ones this weekend because, to me, they lack focus and discipline. Are we protesting to support Iraq? Or against Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Ashcroft? Are we for UN? Or against the Patriot Act? And before you say the lines are clear on all these issues, they aren’t. The ‘peace movement’ needs to make a decision about what the fight is, develop an effective voice, and then stick with it.
To which I would add that the anti-war/peace movement would do well to find common ground with those on the Right who opposed—for whatever reasons—the invasion of Iraq.
Or, alternatively, they can stick with the hollow posturing of street marches.
© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour