31 March 2008

Bullshit watch: Richard Florida

Go here, scroll down to the bottom, and click on the fourth map, "Personality Maps". You won't regret it.


30 March 2008

Well prepared by Mr. Wilson

On the reading list for my undergrads this week:

Searle, John. "Minds, brains and programs". Behavioral and Brain Sciences (1980) 3, 417-457.

Dennett, Daniel C. "The practical requirements for making a conscious robot". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A (1994) 349, 133-146.


29 March 2008

Your Saturday Analogy

Basra, March-April 2008 may mark the beginning of the Tet of Iraq by demonstrating the Iraqi military's inability to wage an effective, independent campaign against domestic militias, and so represents the continuing, compounding failure of Bush's (and McCain's) Iraq policy.

Or so Democrats everywhere should be arguing.


20 March 2008

Knowing Left from Wright, and Wright from Wrong

"When people like me, they tell me it is in spite of my colour. When they dislike me, they point out that it is not because of my colour."
                                                                          -Franz Fanon

Who can approve of offense? Only a social order comfortable that the offense poses no risk of upsetting the established system: then it's just comedy. But it's probably fair to say that footage of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. that has circulated on YouTube contains very little of humorous value. The United States government did not invent the HIV virus, and there's too much history between Nagasaki and 9/11 to draw any but the vaguest historical parallel. Apart from these two laughable errors, it's anger, bitterness, intemperance, and yes, something close to the truth, that have their day: it's not polite to damn your country, but sometimes your country does damnable things. 

Barack Obama isn't Jeremiah Wright. But will his association with the Rev. Wright cost the junior Senator the Presidency? The cynical (and malicious) are already in agreement that it will: in the Globe and Mail ($), Clifford Orwin describes the Obama campaign as "amateur hour"; neoconservative and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gershon, in a spluttering column for the Washington Post, claims that Obama "is not a man who hates -- but chose to walk with a man who does"; and Pat Buchanan, who might not be the king of reasoned, rational discourse, chose to weigh in a way which deserves to be quoted at length:

“Wright has, for millions of Americans, filled in the blanks about Barack. Wright tells us the kind of company Barack keeps, the kind of men he holds close, the kind of attitudes and beliefs he finds acceptable, if not congenial. That Wright is a revered preacher in black America also tells us that, far from coming together, we Americans are further apart than we were in the 1950s, when Negroes could be described as Christian, conservative and patriotic.”

That Buchanan feels it appropriate to use the term "Negro" in a public forum while waxing nostalgic for those good ol' segregationist fifties is telling in itself.

The furor over the Rev. Wright is what might be called a "
black panic." How else to explain whynews outlets, reporting Monday that Senator Obama would make a major speech on race, contended his candidacy was doomed without a magisterial performance? Never mind that the presumptive Republican nominee so beloved by independents and Democrats for his moderation has a spiritual adviser who seems to believe, and has said so in print, that the United States has an "historical conflict with Islam." Never mind that Republican presidents have long been advised and counseled by religious leaders whose sanctimonious screeds rarely generate the kind of mass media opprobrium faced by the Rev. Wright. Never mind, never mind.

The quote from psychologist and anti-colonial theorist Franz Fanon couldn't be more applicable. By the racial logic of the politically correct, and primarily white, chattering classes,  Obama's public persona as a politician has been acceptable, not 
because of his race (though this was often the platitude) but in spite of it, appealing because he was not Jesse Jackson, not really black. The umbrage surrounding Bill Clinton's comparison of Obama with Jackson in January points this problem up: the political press understood the comment as an insult to Obama because they understood Jesse Jackson to be a sideshow candidate, a " a strong,powerful candidate, a black candidate, running for president” (oh, the gendered language!), but a candidate too dangerous, too "wild" to win. 

Barack Obama was a safe black man: Harvard, nice family, not too many slaves as ancestors. Bill Clinton (described by Toni Morrison, so foolishly to my mind, as "the first black President") knew what he was doing. In the current crisis, this rhetoric is now being rehearsed freely by more incendiary right-wing bloggers: Mark Steyn claims that because of his association with Rev. Wright, Barack Obama can now be lumped in with " the Reverend Al Sharpton or the Reverend Jesse Jackson or the rest of the racial-grievance mongers."

But now, of a sudden, a reverse: Michael Gershon claims that the problem is that "[Rev.] Wright is 
not a symbol of the strengths and weaknesses of African Americans. He is a political extremist, holding views that are shocking...." Suddenly, race is not longer the issue: politics is separated neatly from society. Never mind that the story of Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ doesn't seem to generally be one of hate, intolerance and exclusion.
Rev. Wright is a "political extremist" in a country where the sitting President reputedly believes in the immanence of the Second Coming.

The subtext in all this is crystal clear: Barack Obama is suddenly black. He goes to church with black people who aren't the Banks familyblack people who are exercised by injustice and oppression, black people who are angry at the institutions of American society and might get uppity and riot, those same black people (though by now black is a euphemism for other things) who have been the cause of problems in American society since World War II, when they were "conservative" and "patriotic" and "Negroes." When they were under the white man's thumb, and safe. 

"Why are we talking about slavery?" asks Mickey Kaus playing to the theme of the separation of politics and society (though not church and state!) "We know about slavery. We want to know why Obama picked his paranoid pastor!" With all due respect Mickey, "we" don't know about slavery - if "we"are those who I wrote about a few weeks ago. Obama picked his "paranoid pastor" because "we" have no adequate knowledge and understanding of oppression and injustice; about slavery or Jim Crow or Rodney King, or about the millions of indignities suffered by those who don't conform to "our" standard of western capitalist modernity. Jeremiah Wright is old and tired, and his words are hurtful - "fervor," wrote Fanon," is the weapon of choice for the impotent" - but most centrally, he is caught in the trap of "blackness," of being and becoming exactly what is expected of him.

So where does all this leave Senator Obama? He sprang the trap of blackness closing in on him with what was indeed a 
majestic speech, confounding every cliché of identity politics and the media echo chamber with far more composure than I can muster about the topic. Those that claim he failed to answer questions about his relationship with the Rev. Wright were, for whatever reason, not listening. The damage may be done: the most pertinent criticism of the Senator that I've heard involves his inconsistencies around just what he heard, and his enemies will continue to attempt to whip up the hysteria of "black panic" at any and every opportunity, feeding every one of Barack Obama's foibles - and as a human being, he inevitably has a few - back into the pedantic boring cry of "black, black, black!

Every vicious and dehumanizing stereotype culled from five centuries will be massaged for public consumption. It isn't going to be pretty. Take a look at the clip from MSNB posted below this piece, and, if you can stand it, watch and listen to former Republican congressman and television host Joe Scarborough simper and smirk, toady to a man who, views of the IRS notwithstanding, may have been the class act of the Republican field. Mike Huckabee is reasonable, considered, empathetic, and charming - with conservative credentials like his, he can afford to be, but it's striking nonetheless. Scarborough is anything but, doing his utmost to draw out Huckabee, and when he doesn't succeed, resorting to a nasty, backhanded story about black students cheering at the news that Reagan had been shot. "Don't forget," he seems to be smirking to his audience, "that's what they're really like." No doubt Pat Buchanan will be on next week to set the record straight. 

But if you're not Mike Huckabee, what can you do? I suggest taking a page from the junior Senator's book. Stay cool, calm, and collected.  Resist fear, anger and despair, which, as Yoda knew, don't lead to anything good (and to which some progressive bloggers seem to be succumbing). As Huckabee points out, it's March. There's an awful lot of campaign left before the nomination, to say nothing of the 4th of November. 

And finally, persevere. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who paid for truth with his life, avowed that "progress does not come unless we think and act anew." Dr. King, like Senator Obama, knew people like the Rev. Wright. And Senator Obama, like Dr. King, knows that we must escape the trap that Rev. Wright and too many others cannot.


Mirabile Dictu

This is incredible. Start around 3:22, unless you enjoy the inane, sycophantic fatuousness and queasily peppy crypto-racism of Joe Scarborough.  Maybe Mike Huckabee is just angling for the Vice-Presidential nomination. But incredible nonetheless. 

As an aside, Huckabee has a not-unreasonable point about sermons coming out wrong in the heat of the moment for preachers of any stripe. I would challenge him, though, to show that the actions of the Rev. Wright on fostering social justice (which apparently included arranging for white students to attend his services), actions that seem to speak louder than his words on race, can be matched by, say Jerry Falwell's outreach efforts to gays and lesbians. Someone, it doesn't seem quite the same. 


14 March 2008

Anglo-American Media Lens...

Can you detect the normativity in this BBC article?


13 March 2008

He can outpolemicize me!


11 March 2008

Geraldine Ferraro: Crazy Old Bigot or Straight Shooter?

First, it was:

If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.
Now, it's:
Any time anybody does anything that in any way pulls this campaign down and says let's address reality and the problems we're facing in this world, you're accused of being racist, so you have to shut up... Racism works in two different directions. I really think they're attacking me because I'm white. How's that?
On a completely unrelated note, I'm quite distressed to find out that the F-117s are going to purgatory.

P.S. Geraldine Ferraro, if you're out there, you came this close - || - to making it onto the list of people who need to read Aquinas.

P.P.S. Please note that in the title of this post, I make my first in what is likely to be a long series of ageist remarks of the 2008 campaign.


The Moral of the Story

If you're a politician, screw around with interns. Not pages, interns.

If you're a politician's spouse, keep your maiden name. And don't quit your day job.


08 March 2008

Sweet Land of Bigotry...

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa 5th) indulges in a great American pasttime:

Transcript (hat tip - Crooks and Liars):

I don’t want to disparage anyone because of their, their race, their ethnicity, their name - whatever their religion their father, father might have been.

I’ll just say this that when you think about the optics of a Barack Obama potentially getting elected President of the United States — and I mean, what does this look like to the rest of the world? What does it look like to the world of Islam?

And I will tell you that, if he is elected president, then the, the radical Islamists, the, the al-Qaida, and the radical Islamists and their supporters, will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11...

It does matter, his middle name does matter. It matters because they read a meaning into that in the rest of the world, it has a special meaning to them. They will be dancing in the streets because of his middle name. They will be dancing in the streets because of who his father was and because of his posture that says: Pull out of the Middle East and pull out of this conflict.

So there are implications that have to do with who he is and the position that he’s taken. If he were strong on national defense and said ‘I’m going to go over there and we’re going to fight and we’re going to win, we’ll come home with a victory,’ that’s different. But that’s not what he said. They will be dancing in the streets if he’s elected president. That has a chilling aspect on how difficult it will be to ever win this Global War on Terror.


Happy International Women's Day!

Celebrate with milestones in women's history, as recounted by porn stars.


07 March 2008

It's about time...

...to throw a shoutout to Stuff White People Like, an irreverent and over-the-top blog about--well, the rest of this sentence was going to be redundant. A recent entry: white people like Graduate School. As Jacob Levy points out (hat tip to him for this link) one is led to react with a healthy ambivalence towards the kind of "self-conscious, self-congratulatory way that members of a privileged group can enjoy humor at their own expense."

On a personal level, it's both revealing to note (given my ethnic background) the proportion of the 84 items (at the time of writing) which apply to me (I'd say 80-90%); moreover, I'd venture that the blog refers less to "white people" (or even white Americans) in general than a certain cross-section of the liberal-yuppie-indie nexus. And finally, while the insights are often devilishly funny, the writing style leaves much to be desired. All these things considered, it's still worth a quick glance-through.


06 March 2008

Sign of Weakness

Yes, this is silly, and Paul Wells is right to point it out. Parliamentary navel-gazing is never attractive when examined outside the hothouse atmosphere of the House of Commons.

However, Wells (and the vast majority of press coverage of Stephane Dion and the Liberal Party) glosses over one simple and irreducible fact: the Libs are broke. Jean Chretien's campaign finance reform effectively crippled the Liberal mode of fundraising. It's an open question whether one leadership candidate or another would have been quicker to organize fundraising efforts, but the fact remains, the Liberals have been hamstrung by their own history. 

If the Liberals were rolling in cash, I suspect we would have had an election six months ago. But then, we also would have had television ads to counter the Harper smear campaign of January 2007 (which wins an award for Best Character Assassination Attempt of the Century) that was, and continues to be, so determinative of Dion's standing with the national press, and so detrimental to his public image. 

And in case I be accused of failing to put my money where my mouth is, I donated $50 bucks to the Liberals last week. I can't quite believe I did it - but these are strange days indeed....


03 March 2008

NAFTA springs a leak

This story, which has been percolating in the Canadian media for a couple of days, is likely a tempest in a teapot... but I'd love to have been a fly on the wall at the Canadian embassy when it (whatever it was) went down. Next time I see Michael Wilson, I'll quiz him maybe.

LOOSE-LIPS-SINK-SHIPS UPDATE: So it wasn't the embassy in Washington after all - but it was the PMO that decided to alert the news media to Austin Goolsbee's informal remarks. I suggest giving the Newsday piece a full read - the most interesting stuff is buried at the end.

This little fracas is really quite fascinating, if only for the fact that it teaches our American cousins what we poor Canadians have learned (or are learning) through bitter experience: Stephen Harper has a reputation for giving no quarter, letting no nuance go unpunished, and taking any and every opportunity to screw with you if he doesn't like your politics.

DENIAL-AIN'T-JUST-A-RIVER UPDATE: And the story continues to swell to distinctly unteapot-like proportions. Leaks? What leaks? 

I'M-SHOCKED, SHOCKED-THAT-LEAKS-ARE-TAKING-PLACE-IN-THIS-ESTABLISHMENT UPDATE: Now that Barack Obama's lost in Ohio and seems weakened in the long term, our enlightened government is going to investigate just who leaked that darn NAFTA memo. But not by using the RCMP. And not taking into account the original causal leak. Jeffrey Monaghan must be shaking his head in disbelief. 

OMG-BROKEN-TELEPHONE-DECIDES-THE-FATE-OF-NATIONS UPDATE: So it was Ian Brodie who made an offhand remark about an offhand remark he hadn't even heard, about a different candidate than the one the press reported the remark as being about, which then revealed another offhand remark that had been miscommunicated to somebody else. No wonder Barack Obama had no idea what was going on. Nothing was going on, except that someone turned the echo chamber up to 11.  

This incident and its many reverberations could well be the basis for a PhD thesis. Maybe my PhD thesis...no wait, scratch that. Anyway, much to my chagrin given earlier posts, this fracas may be a good example of one of my favorite maxims. I hope Stephen Harper doesn't sue me. 

THE-OTHER-SHOE-DROPS UPDATE: My mea culpa above notwistanding, I do have one question: how did CTV News, which originally reported that both the Clinton and Obama campaigns had contact the government (when, at least according to the initial leak, it was only the Clinton campaign that the government knew about, and in fact, now denies Brodie mentioned at all) get its information about the Obama campaign? Did they have the Goolsbee memo before they ran the original story? What, in short, was CTV's role in all this? Incompetence? Or something else?

HITTING-CLOSE-TO-HOME UPDATE: So maybe I won't be talking to Michael Wilson about this after all. I doubt it's high on his cocktail chatter list.


02 March 2008

War Threats Not Headline News?

When a head of state orders the deployment of troops through a public television and radio address, threatening the possibility of "the start of a war in South America," I wonder why this appears lower on the Globe's homepage than items on the latest death of a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan, the sham Russian election, a tiff between the Canadian finance minister and the premier of Ontario, and the situation in Gaza. I mean, I suppose we're used to this kind of banter from Hugo Chavez, but... well read it yourselves and see if it doesn't makes you slightly anxious, if it might not deserve a slightly higher billing.

Let me demonstrate this visually:


01 March 2008

Speaking of needing to read Aquinas...



Clearly, an excellent use of resources.


Poetry v. Prose

Via the Times:

To deal with the geographic demands of two diverse states, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama were relying on surrogates to carry their message. For Mrs. Clinton, it was Richard A. Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader from Missouri, who was a longtime opponent of trade deals like Nafta and was campaigning in the blue-collar Mahoning Valley.

For Mr. Obama, it was Arcade Fire, the popular indie-rock group who announced they would perform for Mr. Obama at Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville on Sunday. Nelsonville is not far from Ohio University and many of the younger voters that Mr. Obama seeks.
Metaphor for a nomination campaign? Stacking up the Dick Gephardt of the infamous Rose Garden moment against L'Arcade Fire, I know who I'd vote for.