Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Quick Thoughts

I'm kind of rushed for time right now, as I'm currently in the process of packing everything I own and readying myself for my much dreaded trans-Atlantic move. That's right, my fellow Americans, I am returning home. When? Tomorrow. Why? Still working on that. For how long? Hopefully, not for long. A couple of random thoughts:

  • Sweden is a fabulous land. I only spent three days there last week, but I feel all the more healthy, spiritually and physically, for having done so. Wonderful cheese ... unbelievable butter ... and fabulous bread ... cars that stop when you walk out into the middle of traffic. What more could one ask for, really? Except for, of course, good beer -- which, by the way, Sweden strangely seems to be lacking.

  • K.'s clothes seem to have somehow mated since we moved from Glasgow. Packing them all into a few suitcases has proven considerably more difficult this time around. On the other hand, all that I might wear, save for my very pimp robe, fits in one suitcase.

  • Never buy a friend a box of Belgian chocolates a couple of weeks before a move. That is, unless you have insane willpower and refuse to devour it by your lonesome before you even leave.

  • Always check out the cost of shipping things through the post before paying the excess baggage charge.
  • That'll do for now.

    Thursday, October 21, 2004

    That's More Like It!

    Few things lately have given me something to actually miss about the States, and thus to look forward to when I return. The Boston Red Sox, however, did last night. I'm not a huge BoSox fan, and I'm not even a huge baseball fan. But as a fan of good sport, this year's ALCS and last year's World Series really make me kick myself for not being in an American time zone. How's the NFL looking this year? Do I have anything to look forward to?

    Tuesday, October 19, 2004

    Name Change

    Per the recommendation of anonymous reader, who I think was looking for information on a House of Representative candidate with my same name, I have decided, because I take anonymous recommendations very seriously, and because he actually makes a pretty good point that I've often considered but never did much about, I have decided to revert to a semi-anonymous form in this blog. Slowly, all references to my name will be purged, and slowly but surely, ideally, Googling my name will no longer direct you, or future colleagues, or prospective employers here. This is, of course, a semi-anonymous move, due to the fact that many of you already know who I am. So be it.

    Do you think this is rash? Do you think I should've told 'Anonymous' to scurry away from me and my merry brand of vulgarity and crassness? Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.

    Sunday, October 17, 2004

    Home Sweet Fucking Home

    This is just absolutely disgraceful.

    Eighty-five heads of state and government have signed a statement endorsing a UN plan adopted 10 years ago to ensure every woman's right to education, health care and to make choices about childbearing.

    President George W. Bush's administration refused to sign because the statement mentions "sexual rights."


    The statement was signed by leaders of 85 countries, including the entire European Union, China, Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan and more than a dozen African countries as well as 22 former world leaders, notably U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

    Pakistan .... Indonesia .... China!!!

    In a letter to organizers of the statement, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state Kelly Ryan reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to "the goals and objectives" of the Cairo conference and "to the empowerment of women and the need to promote women's fullest enjoyment of universal human rights."

    "The United States is unable, however, to endorse the 'world leaders' statement on supporting the ICPD," Ryan said.

    "The statement includes the concept of 'sexual rights,' a term that has no agreed definition in the international community, goes beyond what was agreed to at Cairo.

    Sexual rights were specifically mentioned a year later, however, in the platform of action adopted by over 180 countries including the United States at the 1995 UN women's conference in Beijing.

    That platform, which the United States also took a leading role in drafting, states: "The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence."

    Wow, this shit really really hits to the core with me.

    A message for my friends and family in America, especially the Jesus Christ lovers one and all (Sings the chorus: 'Just like that, Jesus, the way we like it!!'), it is your moral duty, a la Kierkegaard's knight of faith, to suspend ethics and law and make sure the houses in which I will be bunking for a few weeks upon my return have on hand substantial alcohol and sundry illicit substances. You get through your American lives fraught with liberal ills by way of a faith in a God who doesn't especially like women or gays; while I require only a little blurring of the conscious mind that otherwise keeps me too sensitive to the fact that I am a man without a place he wishes to call home anymore. The difference, it is negligible.

    Thursday, October 14, 2004

    Sticking up For a Friend

    Given their hatchet job of an obituary over the weekend, to which I'm not even going to bother linking, I was a bit surprised to find a pretty nice eulogy to J. Derrida by Mark C. Taylor in today's New York Times Op/Ed page. I've long been a fan, if sometimes critical (natch!) of Taylor's work, ever since the day I first picked up Erring in 1997, and haven't really gotten it out of my head since; and still regard him as the most important, if also the most difficult to pin down, theologian of his generation. Taylor brought deconstruction to the halls of religious studies, for better or worse, and has since moved on to bigger and brighter things ... but I've always thought that to be kind of the point of deconstruction itself: moving on. I.e., your loyal to it only inasmuch as you leave it far behind, as you betray it. Taylor, and indeed even Derrida, embodies this in their work and in their philosophy, and, so it seems, their friendship over the years. It's nice to see Taylor sticking up for his mate, in frighteningly lucid, simple prose.

    During the last decade of his life, Mr. Derrida became preoccupied with religion and it is in this area that his contribution might well be most significant for our time. He understood that religion is impossible without uncertainty. Whether conceived of as Yahweh, as the father of Jesus Christ, or as Allah, God can never be fully known or adequately represented by imperfect human beings.

    And yet, we live in an age when major conflicts are shaped by people who claim to know, for certain, that God is on their side. Mr. Derrida reminded us that religion does not always give clear meaning, purpose and certainty by providing secure foundations. To the contrary, the great religious traditions are profoundly disturbing because they all call certainty and security into question. Belief not tempered by doubt poses a mortal danger.

    As the process of globalization draws us ever closer in networks of communication and exchange, there is an understandable longing for simplicity, clarity and certainty. This desire is responsible, in large measure, for the rise of cultural conservatism and religious fundamentalism - in this country and around the world. True believers of every stripe - Muslim, Jewish and Christian - cling to beliefs that, Mr. Derrida warns, threaten to tear apart our world.

    Fortunately, he also taught us that the alternative to blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of belief - one that embraces uncertainty and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand. In a complex world, wisdom is knowing what we don't know so that we can keep the future open.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2004

    Of Happiness and Copyrights

    Thinking that the good life of sitting on my ass in Belgium, eating dark chocolate, drinking blonde beer, and spending quality time with my new wife just wasn't good enough, I hopped on a plane yesterday bound for Glasgow. The trip, thus far, has proven more interesting than I'd anticipated.

    For starters, upon the recommendation of K., I read Will Ferguson's novel, Happiness. While I'm not completely sold on Ferguson's writing style -- when he's funny, I'm laughing out loud, but the jokes and the irony often fall very flat very quickly (esp. his Boomer v. Gen-X schtick) -- he has really made his own the 'beware what you wish for' archetype. The premise is quite simple: what would happen if, by luck or malevolence, there was a self-help book that actually worked. Ferguson's answer is just as simple: utter apocalypse. He makes a very good case that cynicism, disappointment, and anxiety are not simply inherent parts of life, but actually constitute the essence of life's beauty and truth. (My biggest criticism is that he he goes out of his way, repeatedly and explicitly, to make sure the reader GETS this point.)

    A hilarious, and perhaps even poignant, bit is when the protagonist's wife learns and adopts the dynamic sex tips recommended by the book, making every night a multiple orgasmic experience for both him and her ... perfect sexual union and bliss, each and every night, by sheer rote. What he discovers, however, is that he misses the anxiety about his skinny body, the sweaty ambivalence of illicit affairs, the terror of regret, the clumsy movements of hands and tongues -- that THESE are the essence of sex, not bliss. Indeed, he learns that the pursuit of happiness, and the necessary disappointment that entails, is the stuff of true life -- not its actual achievement. I may quibble with the details of his point, and certain the didactic way in which he makes it, but I think he is mostly right.

    I read most of Happiness on the plane to Prestwick, and then on the train to Glasgow. After that, I made a mad dash for Glasgow's other train station, knocking pensioners and ruddy faced children out of the way with my bag filled with 1 kg of chocolate, and caught a connection to Edinburgh. On Monday, I'd happened to notice that Cory Doctorow was lecturing over there at the University on the subject of electronic / internet copyright. Now, while I only know a little about modern technology, enough to be dangerous (to myself) but not enough to be especially helpful or insightful, and I know next to nothing at all about copyright law, electronic or otherwise, Doctorow's instantly classic talk on DRM [Digital Rights (or Restrictions) Management] at Microsoft's Research Group earlier this year had me at hello. (n.b.: More on DRM here.)

    Already a fan, and eager to learn more, I was more than happy to lug my baggage and empty belly across Scotland. Doctorow didn't say anything radically new, per se, as even I found myself nodding, along with the people around me, in acknowledged agreement at a point that I'd already read somewhere else, though I might've misunderstood why they were nodding, and succumbed to peer pressure once again; and yet neither was it a complete rehash of the stuff I'd already read. Especially interesting for me was his discussion of the mindblowing developments in radio wave (that's not one word, is it?) manipulation and surfing, which has the potential, legality notwithstanding, to change the way we listen to music (i.e., conceivably, one could download to your computer all the available FM music stations at any one time and place), surf the web (i.e., Wi-Fi stuff, which I only vaguely understand), or even cook our food (i.e., something to do with microwave ovens, though I must confess I didn't quite understand this particular reference, and thus have no clue what the implications are of this technology for my tv dinners). I also had no idea about the extent to which media outlets were seeking the right to claim a copyright hold on the broadcast of something that would otherwise be in the public domain. (N.b.: This is how I understood what he said. If somebody knows better, please correct me.) If this is truly the case, as the EFF [Electronic Frontier Foundation] is teaching me with each visit to their site, this stuff really matters. Of course, an eighty-minute lecture isn't the panacea to the appalling level of my ignorance about such topics, so I still don't profess to know much about electronic copyright law; but, as with technology, I know enough to be dangerously incompetent with what I do know. Thanks, Cory.

    And now I'm back in Glasgow, rested, fed, and excited to see friends that, in a couple of weeks, I very likely won't see for about a year, if not more. Ah melancholy ... the stuff of life. I hope that truth's not already copyrighted, too.

    Sunday, October 10, 2004

    Lies, Lies, Lies

    Conservative hearts untold went aflutter this weekend with the release of a memo written by ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin. In it he writes:

    The New York Times (Nagourney/Stevenson) and Howard Fineman on the web both make the same point today: the current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done.

    Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his efforts to win.

    We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn't mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides "equally" accountable when the facts don't warrant that.

    Surely this is an example of the liberal media taking up arms, right? Kerry's lies don't matter! See ... the media has it in for Bush! The fuckers!! The way they supported Clinton through thick and thin, and never had a bad word to say about him ... or Gore!! It's so obvious, you liberals!!!!

    Slow down, Chef. Take a deep breath. Once your blood pressure has stabilized, read this relatively decent fact-check article in the LA Times -- note that while the headline makes it appear that both candidates are equally at fault in bending or breaking the truth to his advantage, the facts themselves would appear to put the burden more squarely on one candidate's shoulders. This is not liberal bias at work. If nothing, it is straining to find an 'objective' balance in the face of overwhelming reality: that Bush's lies are substantively different than Kerry's. Matt Yglesias sums it up well:

    Let me note further that the point here is not that Bush lies more than Kerry by some aggregate quantity measure (that may well be true, though it's hard to see how you'd run the numbers) the point is that Bush's lying is qualitatively different from Kerry's. The main points the media's fact-checkers have nailed Kerry on are, (a) the claim that Iraq has cost $200 billion, (b) the claim that General Eric Shinseki was "retired early," and (c) the claim that America has lost 1.6 million jobs during the Bush administration. The reality of (a) is that Iraq has cost $120 billion and is projected to cost $80 billion more based on current policy; of (b) that Shinseki was punished in a way that's a bit hard to appreciate unless you understand the standard operating procedure for senior military officers, and (c) that America has lost 1.6 million private sector jobs while gaining 1.1 million or so government jobs. In all of these cases, the point Kerry was trying to make (a) that Iraq has been expensive, (b) that Shinseki was punished for being right, and (c) that the labor market has been crappy, are all perfectly accurate.

    Typical Bushian distortions aren't like this at all. They aren't oversimplifications, designed to create a good sound bite but where the basic point stands even if you lay out the facts. To take just one example, Bush says Kerry favors a "government takeover" of the health insurance market. He does not, in fact, favor such a takeover. And the only argument Bush musters against the Kerry plan is that it's a big government takeover. The fact that this isn't what Kerry's actually proposing thus utterly defeats Bush's point. There's a significance to this departure from reality that imprecision about what happened to General Shinseki lacks.

    I know what I said in an earlier post, "The point is not simply to try to find the truth laying behind a policy ..." But equally important is the concluding clause of that same sentence, "... but to find the spirit in which said policy is enacted or proposed." The same can also be said of lies. I.e., we should be just as sensitive to the difference in spirit / intention behind Kerry's distortions of the truth, which tell a more or less accurate story shaded by rhetorical flourishes, and those of Bush that make up the story as they go along. Of course, if you are in the "win at any cost" camp, due to a belief that Kerry is a pinko-traitor bent on supplying the fetuses that Cheney only eats, then obviously the distinction is a moot point. But for the rest of us ......

    Saturday, October 09, 2004

    The 'F'-Word

    David Neiwert, easily one of the bloggers I too seldom read, is currently in the midst of a wonderful series called 'The Rise of Pseudo Fascism' that really ought to be read. (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four -- two more parts forthcoming)

    Is it too shrill, you might wonder. Is he calling Republicans fascists, you might pause. The answer: no ... not really ... well, maybe a little ... um, hard to say. Now, I don't deny that Neiwert, especially in using the 'f'-word and relating it to the modern 'conservative movement', is really opening himself up to misunderstanding, scores of comment trolls, and equal parts disdain and adoration for things he's not really saying at all. But, then again, he's smart enough, and good enough writer, to be able to deal with this.

    Personally, I'm more convinced by the broader argument he's making here than some of the specifics he cites -- i.e., that, as Douglas Rushkoff points out well, American political / cultural discourse is increasingly troubling.

    R.I.P., Jacques

    Jacques Derrida (July 15, 1930 - October 9, 2004)

    Jacques Derrida, one of France's most famous philosophers, has died at the age of 74, it has been announced.

    Derrida died in a Paris hospital on Friday night, news agency AFP reported. He suffered from pancreatic cancer.

    The Algerian-born philosopher is best known for his "deconstruction theory" - unpicking the way text is put together in order to reveal its hidden meanings. [ed. BAH! You can always count on the British press to write about that which they don't understand.]

    Fellow academics have charged that Derrida's writings "deny distinction between reality and fiction". [ed. Many 'fellow academics' who made such a charge, I might point out, never actually read much of Derrida, save for the scare quotes in various monographs about his work.]

    Derrida is one of the most influential philosophers of the late 20th Century.

    In his long career, he taught at the Sorbonne and at several American universities.

    [. . .]

    Jacques Derrida also campaigned for the rights of immigrants in France, against apartheid in South Africa, and in support of dissidents in communist Czechoslovakia.

    He was so influential that lat year a film was made about his life - a biographical documentary.

    At one point, wandering through Derrida's library, one of the filmmakers asks him: "Have you read all the books in here?"

    "No," he replies impishly, "only four of them. But I read those very, very carefully".

    This is quite sad. According to those I know who knew him pretty well, Derrida was wonderfully kind and generous. Disagree with him all you will -- and believe me, I do -- but few have ever faulted the grace with which he lived and worked. He will be remembered and honored ... and not just in the cottage industry of academic and artistic tributes that will inevitably follow in the next year or so.

    Rest in peace, Jacques. We hardly knew ya ... and even those that did, rarely understood ya ... but for those of us who 'got it', we'll never be the same. For a fabulous series of links to his writings online, as well as a couple of pieces about him (J. Caputo's is quite nice, even if I disagree with it), see wood s lot.

    UPDATE: I've added several links since I first posted this.

    Peer Pressure

    Everybody else I know with a blog is talking about the debates, so I guess I ought to throw in my two cents, too. Just watched the tape of it, and, while I obviously agreed more with Kerry's take on things, I think it'll come down to a draw. Once Bush took a chill pill, after Kerry smacked him down about the size of the coalition in Iraq, he was, for him, clear and to the point. Damn near lucid. From a brief look at the editorials, though, his deeply unhinged first thirty minutes may take center stage. To counter this, Bush will almost surely start throwing like mad the 'John Kerry = Liberal' tag from now until November. His campaign is no stranger to decontextualization, so doing so will be very easy. Debate no. 3, for that very reason, might be a problem for Kerry. For his part, Kerry was much the same as he was in the first debate. I don't think he did much to shoot himself in the foot, and may've even been a bit more appealing to Independents and women. I will be surprised if this debate gains Bush more votes than it possibly might for Kerry.

    The real winners of the debate, ideally, are all those undecided voters out there. If you can't find the pertinent differences in the candidates through this debate, then I'm not sure what will do the trick. If it is less about identifying their respective differences, and more about the fact that neither candidate represents your view of the world in full, then I invite you to a mental exercise.

    First, identify that issue which is most important to you in the election (foreign policy, gay marriage, abortion, taxes, etc.), pull it aside for a moment and look at the remaining issues.

    Second, walk through the remaining issues one at a time, Googling where necessary, and determine which candidate best represents your view / attitude to each particular issue, based upon the incumbent's record (very important, that) and the contender's, and his party's, perspective. If you find choosing one or the other difficult, place yourself on a spectrum between the two candidates. The important thing, of course, is not to simply parrot the opposite party's perspective of its opponent. Rather, when it comes to Bush's record, try to focus on what appears to you as the real implications and results of his administration thus far, and compare with Kerry's criticisms; as for Kerry's perspective of the world and American policy, i.e., what he thinks ought to be done, look at his proposals and decide how or if they jive with what you believe is best. The point is not simply to try to find the truth laying behind a policy, a ticklish search that often tends to say more about your sources than it does about the truth itself, but to find the spirit in which said policy is enacted or proposed. It's not that reality or facts don't matter -- this isn't some exercise in relativism, mind -- but just that we ought first to be self-conciously aware of the individual and collective perspectives from which this sort of truth, be it about ourselves or the world around us, is embodied -- emerges, lives, and breathes.

    Third, and finally, as a kind of type-breaker question look at that issue that you pulled aside, that which is most important to you, and ask (aloud if necessary): 'When looking at the other issues, it would appear that __________ best represents me and my perspective? However, with regard to my most important issue, do I think this candidate will fuck things up any worse than they already are? Yes or No.' And leave it at that. Don't worry if Bush or Kerry, depending on whom the other issues show more to represent you and your perspective, will make this important issue go away, or solve it, or keep it safe. Just focus on whether or not you suspect their presence and policies in the White House will fuck things up even more they probably already are, supporting your answer with a short explanation. If you can only sincerely and coherently answer 'yes' to this final question, in such a way that makes sense to you on either an emotional, spiritual, or intellectual level, then, yes, you have a problem, and I can only suggest you remain undecided and keep repeating until November 2. Otherwise, hell, shit or get off the pot.

    UPDATE: I edited this post a bit since first publishing it, to make the general point a bit more clear.

    Friday, October 08, 2004

    'Where ya been?'

    I've gotten a few emails lately wondering where I've been. Friends who normally see me online, and people who expect at least one post a week, have begun to think I've fallen prey to some Belgian evil. No, nothing like that. It's just that, well, the internet has become a bit boring to me this week. I think I hit a certain wall when it came to election coverage, and then for every minute I spent downloading funny videos instead, I was wracked with ten minutes of guilt for not doing something a bit more productive. So, instead, I've been reading Paradise Lost, which I had somehow managed thus far in my life to never even open, alongside my advisor's latest book The Sacred Desert. Both have kept me on my toes as much as they've kept me off the internet for hours untold. Neither, though, have given me much to blog about. For fear of boring an already slightly alienated blog audience, I thought I'd leave you wanting something, if not necessarily more.

    My blogging to-do list:

    (1) I've promised Pat a follow-up post to this one, and had actually hoped to get that done this week. Next week, Pat, I promise. I need to have something to say at a conference on the same topic in a couple of weeks anyway, so I'll use you all as my guinea pigs.

    (2) Additionally, if time and desire allows, I'll talk about the ideas of 'freedom' & 'democracy' (in Iraq, and elsewhere), and how the world's reception of the late capitalist logic of these terms / concepts is the real backdrop of the so-called 'clash of civilizations' they purportedly represent (i.e., that between, for instance, the liberal, Christian West and the fundamentalist, Muslim East). The idea is not nearly as wanky as it sounds.

    Anyway, we'll see. If you're interested in either, stay tuned. Otherwise, I'll be sure to provide sufficient political, literary and just downright silly buffer posts. In the meantime, I'm gonna go back to downloading slightly dirty videos and wishful thinking about tonight's debate.

    Laughing 'Till It Hurts

    Oh man ... this is hilarious.