Friday, May 02, 2003

John Bogle warns eloquently and readably against optimism and the numbers-as-unambiguous-reality nonsense-on-stilts that blights our world. Onya John. Thanks to the wonderiferous D-Squared for the heads-up.

Gianna bewails the sort of stuff that embarrasses (my kinda) lefties everywhere. One Meredith Burgmann apparently thinks 'Maiden speeches' a sexist term. I've decided I'm squarely on Gianna's side, and just as passionately so. Questions that would need to be answered in the affirmative for Burgmann's suspicions to hold water include: Do these terms belittle women in any way? If so, would calling it something else improve matters?

I can't think of any way in which the answer to the former could be 'yes', but, in case I'm missing something, I'd respond to the latter by arguing that a change would 'work' (ie would be popularly adopted and would not inherit the old connotations) only if the material relations that make up society were already attritting (urgh - the sounds you have to make just to stay current, eh?) the prejudice in question. The devil is in the connotation, and connotations have a way of escaping the language police - the signified shifting from imposed signifier unto uglifying neologism unless and until the material relations that reproduce the signifying relationship dissipate.

Some general related thorts: It's a good idea, for instance, to call people and peoples by the names they want to be called (it's good manners and it avoids confusion), but that doesn't mean a new tag will dodge old prejudices.

Furthermore, the meaning of words are contingent on the meanings of a whole lot of other words, and the world would have to be ready to allow a complex realignment of all concerned before shifts in meaning might take hold. And then there's the little matter of the meaning being determined by the context within which the word appears. What words mean depends a lot on what the sentences around them mean.

So aspiring lingo cops take note: meaning happens when a word, the text around it, a reader and a social context all get together. And (pace certain salient texts) in the beginning there was no word. Words don't exist until people make 'em up, which they don't do until experience suggests a meaning that needs representing. Words don't make the social world; the social world makes words. Social life produces and casts aside meanings that produce, transform and cast aside words.

So Burgmann has it precisely the wrong way 'round, for mine.

And the word our language affords us to describe doomed endeavours like hers is 'boondoggling'.

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

There's something to be said for a leftie quoting known conservatives to make points, so here I go again. This is William Lind with what strikes me as a compelling status report on the neocon adventure. It may be that some were relying on an ongoing pretext for either the establishment of an effectively permanent military presence in Iraq or the regional expansion of operations (I never know just how cynical is cynical enough) - but even if the ongoing belligerence, want and bloodshed were expected (as indeed many who opposed the invasion from the off had expected it), the potential
cost (to national budgets, Bush's presidency, America's 'soft power', military morale, the neocon ascendancy, the region, and Iraqi lives and livelihoods) may not have been.

" ... now the real war starts ... There are three basic forms it may take, none of which lend themselves to a Second Generation response. The first is simple chaos. The initial chaos that followed the American victory seems to be subsiding, but that is no guarantee that there will not be new waves of chaos to come. The essential characteristic of chaos is that it is spontaneous ... A second form the real war may take is a War of National Liberation, a guerilla war to free Iraq from foreign occupation. The essential characteristic of this kind of war is that it is for the nation ... The third and, in my view, most likely form the real war may take is Fourth Generation warfare. Washington thinks it has destroyed the Iraqi regime, but it may find it has also destroyed the Iraqi state and cannot create it again ... Iraq will become for us what the West Bank is for Israel, an ulcer that drains us physically, mentally and morally. Further, if an intifada against America arises in Iraq, it may well spread elsewhere in the Arab and Moslem world, aimed at any local government that
supports the United States ... "
Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Just enlarging on that last post, here are some civilising thoughts, concerning recent developments in liberalism (and rationalism), snipped from an article by one Madeleine Bunting:

" ... No one culture has evolved the perfect formulation of human values. Any good liberal must agree with that. The limitations are apparent of the liberal model of an individual pursuit of happiness. Can that guide us through an environmental crisis and grotesque economic inequality? What liberal hasn't pondered how to reinvigorate social solidarity, or revitalise concepts of the common good? These are familiar symptoms of the crisis in western thought. Because we are at war, we do not have to abandon our capacity for humility and self-criticism, nor the search in other cultures for the inspiration for new thinking.

This last is what the liberal fundamentalist rejects, satisfied he or she has nothing to learn from deep engagement with other cultures. Lurking in that is a rigid belief in universal values established in the 18th century in the American and French revolutions. It is a dangerous trap to conflate liberalism as a political doctrine with liberalism as all-encompassing rationalist principle. The former is the best method of politically organising pluralistic societies that humanity has evolved. The latter is a homogenising cultural imperialism.

Liberal fundamentalism has too often discredited the precious human rights tradition. All societies fall well short of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), but it was western, liberal countries that divorced political and civil rights from economic and social rights and elevated the former as a cold war weapon.

The politically motivated promotion of some rights over others has deeply irritated many Muslims who accuse the west of hypocrisy, and are alienated by a language of rights and individualism which doesn't reflect their ethical tradition's emphasis on responsibility and the collective good.

The UNDHR attempted to accommodate both perspectives by synthesising individual rights and communal values, which the world has been interpreting ever since. But the US turned its back on this, preferring to stay with its narrower formulation; it abused the rest of the world for not following its lead ... "
Sunday, April 27, 2003

Ken Parish has tired of his genteel-homebody-diarist phase and has resumed the putting in of the boot. No clinical strike this, but a good old-fashioned saturation-stomp all over half of East Ozplogistan. I see also that my fetchingly taut buns are among those duly targetted.

Quoth The Keeper Of The Flame: "There seems to be a theme in Tim Dunlop's writing, and even more so in Gary Sauer-Thompson and Rob Schaap, which conclusively regards the missionary zeal of the so-called "neo-cons" to engender liberal democratic values in autocratic states as per se illegitimate. Rob even appears to see liberal democracy as merely one possible choice, no more nor less valid than any other (including, presumably, a fundamentalist islamic state), and any overt attempt to promote it as imperialist. This strikes me as taking existentialist or post-modern relativism to patently absurd extremes. Core liberal values, especially protection of minorities, are derivable by logical process reasonably independent of any particular cultural milieu. Kant's Categorical Imperative and John Rawls' Veil of Ignorance both make reasonably convincing (though not unassailable) arguments in that direction."

I must appear before you, m'lud, on behalf of my buns alone.


The decisive difference between Ken and me here is not that I am against liberal democracy, but that I look at my history books and conclude that the neocons never really thought this could be done (not as cheaply and quickly as required and not at MOAB-point, anyway), and therefore that they never really meant that stuff. I simply don't think there's enough doubt there for them to be given the benefit of. Ken does. Simple. I still don't know why he does (he never said), but I know why I don't. Here’s a list of the countries that the U.S. has bombed since the end of World War II, compiled by historian William Blum:

China 1945-46
Korea 1950-53
China 1950-53
Guatemala 1954
Indonesia 1958
Cuba 1959-60
Guatemala 1960
Congo 1964
Peru 1965
Laos 1964-73
Vietnam 1961-73
Cambodia 1969-70
Guatemala 1967-69
Grenada 1983
Libya 1986
El Salvador 1980s
Nicaragua 1980s
Panama 1989
Iraq 1991-99
Sudan 1998
Afghanistan 1998
Yugoslavia 1999

In how many of these instances did a democratic government, respectful of human rights, occur as a direct result?

Choose one of the following:
(a) 0
(b) zero
(c) none
(d) not a one
(e) a whole number between -1 and +1

(This quiz compliments of Vietnam Veterans Against the War)


This, as I've hinted in my own blog's comments box, is a misleading dichotomy (one typical of high modernism, the pomos tell me). There is nothing unique about the liberal's concern for the status of minorities (nor anything unique about how closely the truth might approximate the ideal). The ideal may be taken as something of a universal (there are ever minorities on some criterion or other, and political/moral/legal/theological systems have always and everywhere had to deal with that), but its manifestation can take a host of particular forms.

There ya go, Ken - universals and particulars all in one. Shades of Hegelian dialectics, perhaps (speaking of rationalism and elaborate philosophical systems). Okay with the proudly conservative but ever-suspicious-of-political-rationalism Michael Oakshott, too, I might add (as I noted in the comments to which you seem to be taking exception).

The Saudi Arabian embassy Web site in Washington... state[s] that God proclaimed in the Koran that human rights [are] universal and that all individuals should be able to enjoy them whether in Islamic States or in others. That Saudi Arabia is actually the only Muslem country where the public practice of any other religion is formally disallowed is admittedly a problem, but it wasn't Saudi Arabia the coalition bombed. People have been sentenced to death in recent years in Pakistan for 'inappropriate' religious practices, but that would never have happened had the US not got rid of the most democratic and liberal leader Pakistan ever had (Ali Butto). Neither would there have been religious persecution in Iraq had the US not replaced Qasim with the right wing of the pan-Arabist Ba'ath Party. I don't think the CIA's removal of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 ultimately did the cause of Iranian minorities much good either. Nor did its overthrow of Afghanistan's Najibullah by way of the expensively trained and armed Taliban (and an outfit instigated with Washington's approval in 1988, called al Qa'ida) help much over there. Under Najibullah, Afghans had not been denied their religion, women not denied formal gender parity (nor, if they chose, the right to eschew the burkha), and the sick not denied public health and education. The same in Iraq before 1990, btw - still the only Arab country where this has ever been the case.
That said, freedom of belief and worship -- strictu sensu, guaranteed by law in most Muslim countries -- is not in serious jeopardy. Some (thankfully only some) senior Christians in the US have said things about Islam since S11 that worry me more than anything I've heard Mullahs say about Christianity, for instance.

Sure, al Qaida might wave the Koran at us when they spit their poison, but poison has been spat from behind waving Bibles, too. I'm not a religious man myself, but I blame neither the Koran nor the Bible for some of the nastier things done in their name. I'm quite a liberal chap in these respects.

Anyway, when I see theological, ethnic, nationalist etc belligerence, I typically assume them to be epiphenomenal - the function of a shift in underlying political economic relations (eg. a newly benefiting population alongside a newly suffering one -> the dissipation of old cohering identities -> the rise of demagogues who proffer a new or reworked identity and associated vengeance -> the spilling of blood). On that account, Milosovic's new Serb or bin Laden's holy warrior might be seen as the fragmenting manifestation of the new and particular variations across space and culture caused by the new and particular push for global integration under which we all live. Chaos and complexity. Notice that any centralised project to tame the human world is doomed.

Speaking of such projects, I might also point out that my opposition to the massacre we've just (almost) witnessed (I do not mean to imply the dying has stopped btw) was on three grounds: that the invasion would constitute a war of aggression (morally dodgy, destructive of our mode of international relations, and a particularly lousy precedent), that it would kill thousands of innocent people, and that, even if intentions were as pure as the aggressors claimed, the chance of net good coming of it, for the Iraqis in particular and the world in general, was a lot smaller than the chance of net bad (the odds certainly weren't worth the stake represented by the inevitably concomitant mass slaughter, anyway). If the US plan to build permanent bases, that little glimmer of hope dies I reckon. Already a National Front for the Liberation of Iraq is forming, for instance. Anyway, I am not inclined to resile from any of the above just at the minute.


Now, I'll admit I've been moaning on a bit about the dangers of abstract rationalism, and I'll admit messrs Kant and Rawls are typically a pair of abstract rationalists. The abstraction in question is from power relations in the real world (pace Kant: the many, like those thousands of dead Iraqis, typically appear in the minds of the few as mere means - the ends of the many in this case being the means of the few, if you like; pace Rawls: the game that is the veil of ignorance is based on a calculus necessarily conducted by perfectly reasonable souls necessarily sans the social context within which all real calculations are really made. That those ignorant of where in society they'll exist would be wise to ensure the worst-off are well off is of little interest to those of us obliged actually to exist before we get to calculate) and the rationalism bit insists that, given an a-priori or two, the application of reason is enough to divulge the way of the world. I persist in the suspicion that it's a good idea to look out the window occasionally - to keep my a prioris honest and my conclusions relevant if nothing else.

I'm certainly not above a bit of critical normativity, and hence a little self-conscious rationalism of my own, but the danger, as always (in my view), lies in either the possibility of a blind, exclusive and ambitious faith in a universalist and transcendant philosophical system and/or in the possibility it's all just the PR of imperialists willing to kill foreigners to get their way. Both are about trying to globalise the local - 'glocalisation' if you like. Sorta like what the Pax Brittanica wallahs had in mind 150 years ago ... a project whose success in the long term (on its own moot criteria) remains obvious only in those erstwhile colonies where the majority of the indigenes were slaughtered and marginalised (North America, Australia and New Zealand have typically done best under the global Anglo-Saxon order precisely because Anglo Saxons achieved enduring demographic, political and cultural control on the ground - and that only comes after much racist slaughter and displacement [whatever bloody Windschuttle says] so we can but hope Pax Brittanica ain't the model the neocons have in mind.)

Guess I'm an 18th-century skeptic with 19th century hopes dashed by the
empirical datum that was the 20th century, Ken.

political economic and cultural observations in the register of dismal dilettantism

06/30/2002 - 07/07/2002 / 07/14/2002 - 07/21/2002 / 07/21/2002 - 07/28/2002 / 08/04/2002 - 08/11/2002 / 08/11/2002 - 08/18/2002 / 08/18/2002 - 08/25/2002 / 08/25/2002 - 09/01/2002 / 09/01/2002 - 09/08/2002 / 09/08/2002 - 09/15/2002 / 09/15/2002 - 09/22/2002 / 09/22/2002 - 09/29/2002 / 10/13/2002 - 10/20/2002 / 10/20/2002 - 10/27/2002 / 10/27/2002 - 11/03/2002 / 11/03/2002 - 11/10/2002 / 11/24/2002 - 12/01/2002 / 12/01/2002 - 12/08/2002 / 12/08/2002 - 12/15/2002 / 12/15/2002 - 12/22/2002 / 12/22/2002 - 12/29/2002 / 12/29/2002 - 01/05/2003 / 01/05/2003 - 01/12/2003 / 01/26/2003 - 02/02/2003 / 02/02/2003 - 02/09/2003 / 02/09/2003 - 02/16/2003 / 02/16/2003 - 02/23/2003 / 02/23/2003 - 03/02/2003 / 03/02/2003 - 03/09/2003 / 03/09/2003 - 03/16/2003 / 03/16/2003 - 03/23/2003 / 03/23/2003 - 03/30/2003 / 03/30/2003 - 04/06/2003 / 04/06/2003 - 04/13/2003 / 04/13/2003 - 04/20/2003 / 04/20/2003 - 04/27/2003 / 04/27/2003 - 05/04/2003 / 05/04/2003 - 05/11/2003 / 05/18/2003 - 05/25/2003 / 05/25/2003 - 06/01/2003 / 06/01/2003 - 06/08/2003 / 06/08/2003 - 06/15/2003 / 06/15/2003 - 06/22/2003 / 06/22/2003 - 06/29/2003 / 06/29/2003 - 07/06/2003 / 07/06/2003 - 07/13/2003 / 07/13/2003 - 07/20/2003 / 07/20/2003 - 07/27/2003 / 07/27/2003 - 08/03/2003 / 08/03/2003 - 08/10/2003 / 08/10/2003 - 08/17/2003 / 08/17/2003 - 08/24/2003 / 08/31/2003 - 09/07/2003 / 09/07/2003 - 09/14/2003 / 09/14/2003 - 09/21/2003 / 09/21/2003 - 09/28/2003 / 10/05/2003 - 10/12/2003 / 10/12/2003 - 10/19/2003 / 10/26/2003 - 11/02/2003 / 11/09/2003 - 11/16/2003 / 11/16/2003 - 11/23/2003 / 11/30/2003 - 12/07/2003 / 12/21/2003 - 12/28/2003 / 12/28/2003 - 01/04/2004 / 01/04/2004 - 01/11/2004 / 01/11/2004 - 01/18/2004 / 01/18/2004 - 01/25/2004 / 01/25/2004 - 02/01/2004 / 02/01/2004 - 02/08/2004 / 02/08/2004 - 02/15/2004 / 02/15/2004 - 02/22/2004 / 02/29/2004 - 03/07/2004 / 03/14/2004 - 03/21/2004 / 03/28/2004 - 04/04/2004 / 06/27/2004 - 07/04/2004 / 07/11/2004 - 07/18/2004 / 07/25/2004 - 08/01/2004 / 08/08/2004 - 08/15/2004 / 08/22/2004 - 08/29/2004 / 08/29/2004 - 09/05/2004 / 09/12/2004 - 09/19/2004 / 09/19/2004 - 09/26/2004 / 09/26/2004 - 10/03/2004 / 10/03/2004 - 10/10/2004 / 10/10/2004 - 10/17/2004 / 10/24/2004 - 10/31/2004 / 10/31/2004 - 11/07/2004 / 11/07/2004 - 11/14/2004 / 11/14/2004 - 11/21/2004 / 11/21/2004 - 11/28/2004 / 01/30/2005 - 02/06/2005 / 03/27/2005 - 04/03/2005 /

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