January 30, 2011, 7:03 am
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hope of an outside world
January 28, 2011, 12:46 pm
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“I’ve heard it will be [epic],” said Miss Emily the head mistress from the stage of a gloomy auditorium to a rapt audience of beautiful well behaved English school children.  This is the daily meeting at the boarding school called Hailsham during the 1980s in south England.  And a spontaneous cheer rips through the room, one of the few moments of raw group emotion in the new film Never Let Me Go based on Ishiguro’s novel of the same name.

And, true to her word, in the very next scene, a truck pulls into the school yard and two men unload cardboard boxes past a cluster of kids and into the school.  A little blond girls asks one of them, “Is it [epic]?,” and the man — he seems in on a joke — says that yes it is.  Another emotional flare as the small cluster jump up and down squealing with delight.  The men are wry and hesitant; they look like farmers.

And it turns out the box carriers were in on a rather sick joke:  the contents of the boxes, worn out, used toys and play equipment and cassette tapes and comic books and general brikabrak are strewn over long tables in a large hall and the students excitedly barter for them with chips they have been saving.  These worn sad things, the objects of our acquisitive lives, are to these children the hope of an outside world.

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white material
January 25, 2011, 7:31 pm
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Claire Denis’ film White Material is an enormous dry African landscape; huge pictures and intimate details of landscape and war and family masterfully assembled; petty vicious politics and the immediacy of real people making life altering decisions in real time; quiet crescendo threat of civil violence; and a sense of dread that grips and tightens until the very end.

The geographic and generational center of the film is Marie a fierce slight French woman intent on keeping her Cafe Vail coffee plantation operational.  Like a vortex, everything spirals inward toward her and it.  The injured militant called the Boxer (Isaac de Bankole) on the lam takes refuge there to slowly bleed to death.  He is the local hero, and the de facto head of the militant insurrection, a band of child soldiers armed with machetes who are causing mayhem on their circuitous route toward him.

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rush to the bottom
January 24, 2011, 6:23 pm
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Following is a letter I posted in response to an article on the rocketing cost of education in the UK.  I felt the columnist didn’t talk about the deeper costs of loss of accessible education in a free society.

My letter:

I remember reading an essay in a Literary Criticism class in my undergraduate university called Does Literature Humanize? I like Mr Fish’s essay but he doesn’t say enough about the consequences of these changes to the British system. Poor, underprivileged people won’t be educated, which is insane and tragic and backward, but there are other consequences.

I have come to believe that the humanities do humanize which has huge implications for civilized life. After all, someone has to say killing Iraqis in an unjust war is questionable policy, or that executives making 20,000 USD a day is an unsustainable and inequitable state of affairs etc. And it’s not going to be people who have ‘invested’ in ‘training’ at an expensive ‘ivy league’ and are cashing in by buying themselves more houses and more cars. It’s going to be people who have had their heads and hearts cracked open by all the wisdom of the ages written in all of the great books that we are made to read in our liberal arts schools. There are real consequences if we lose humanities knowledge: a coarse, hardscrabble vision of living, a rush to the bottom, thug leadership, more fear. Real consequences.

-Letter to the editor, New York Times, The Value of Higher Education Made Literal, Stanley Fish

love not possession
January 24, 2011, 4:41 pm
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Here is a definition of philosophy by Critchley which is quite democratic.  It wrestles the discipline out of the iron grip of the intelligentsia of the day – sophistry – and presents it transparently for anyone and everyone who will have it.  It says it can’t be owned or quantified, and rather it is a quest, a procession toward friendship and knowledge and truth.

Last month I was sitting in the office of a dean of a school, pitching a new course.  I was making a case for a connection between high energy consumption and outdated property development ideas, and I happened to mention blogs among other media as a source for my observations.  And got a wrinkled nose from the university administrator.

He’s in his 50s and has a PhD in history and a blog simply isn’t a good source of information.  His retiscence protects quality; and it also commodifies and controls sources of knowledge.  The new media tends toward democracy, shattering that block between the academy and people.  Maybe like the church replacing it’s Latin liturgy for the peasant lingua franca.  The sudden new knowledge is a flush of love.

From the book:

So philosophy begins with a critique of the Sophists; the Sophists are those people who claim to know and offer to exchange knowledge for a fee.  Philosophy begins with a critique of Sophistry and its claims to knowledge.  In place of the sophistical pretensions to wisdom, philosophy offers a love of wisdom, a philia, an orientation of the soul towards the true, which is not the possession of the true.  So philosophy begins with love in a non-erotic sense:  a kind of friendship, usually between men, usually between an older man and a younger man.

How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, Simon Critchley

a more passionate world
January 21, 2011, 2:12 am
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On one of the sides in the great culture wars there is a strong and growing distrust of the city and its institutions.  And a rosy yearning for the – maybe slightly apocryphal – values of church, family, farm, field and personal struggle.

I recently had a rather bleak back and forth in a comments thread in an online newspaper – our own little culture battle.  The article was about how family can nurture civility – the context being the attempted assassination of a US Congresswoman.  My comment disputed the idea that the nuclear family can be a centrally placed and adequately supportive  institution in a large and complex modern state like ours.  Society has broad needs that can’t be met by the usually narrow self interest of the family unit.  I received a return blast of aggressive family values reactions:  to be expected in 21st century America.

One responder claimed that family is natural and all other institutions – the law, the state, the church, school – unnatural and man-made.  He said that all institutions derive from family and that to believe in other institutions is to be ‘academic’ which is bad, apparently.  He was aggressively challenged, mostly by one other writer, and they battled it out for two or three passes.

It was almost breathtaking to watch his retrenchment from an initial broad vision of the relationship between family and our society to a narrow rumination on whether or not a married man with kids had enough personal resources to merely survive.  Nuclear is too small, he decided and his fall back view was ‘groups as small as a dozen families.’  ‘Efficient hunting with found weapons requires several men,’ he advised.  In a few hundred words, the measure of a good life dropped from really living to scraping by.

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the university of Erasmus, Newton and Darwin
January 19, 2011, 1:05 pm
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Influence peddling at a University contradicts the essential mandate of a good institution, according to this letter.  A masters student at the University of Cambridge posted a thesis that criticized a local credit card company’s product, which tried to have it censured.  The head of the university’s Security Engineering department had this to say in response.

I’m afraid the centuring business woman wasn’t wrong  about the gap between a normal University’s mandate and actual operations:  our universities are crawling with conflicts of interest between parties with fundamentally different missions.  The power of the department head’s letter is the take no prisoners restatement of what it means for an important institution to remain high minded and relatively pure.  That way, scholars and faculty can say challenging and new things without fear of reprisal.

From the head’s letter:

Second, you seem to think that we might censor a student’s thesis, which is lawful and already in the public domain, simply because a powerful interest finds it inconvenient. This shows a deep misconception of what universities are and how we work. Cambridge is the University of Erasmus, of Newton,and of Darwin; censoring writings that offend the powerful is offensive to our deepest values. Thus even though the decision to put the thesis online was Omar’s, we have no choice but to back him. That would hold even if we did not agree with the material! Accordingly I have authorised the thesis to be issued asa Computer Laboratory Technical Report. This will make it easier for people to find and to cite, and will ensure that its presence on our web site is permanent.

–from a letter to Melanie Johnson UK Cards Association by Ross Anderson FRS FREng Professor of Security Engineering, University of Cambridge

the degradation of intelligence
January 18, 2011, 7:33 pm
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I was wandering with a friend through a lower east side neighborhood in Manhattan, having just moved into town and relishing each new street and bar and topic that came up as we ambled along and talked.  He had moved to the US three years prior, and I had been here – in another city – for over ten years.  But now I was new to New York and he was my guide.  Too, he was a confessor of sorts for me to test my ideas about the strangeness of life in America.  And so on that day I made some generalizations between bars, including one about my bafflement about our love affair with dumbing down, our anti intellectualism.  His answer surprised me both for how quickly he reacted and for the content.  I asked, why do I always feel like I can’t have an intelligent conversation with anyone, friends, acquaintances, colleagues?  He said, because in America you have to pay for your education.

This is George Monbiot on the degradation of intelligence in the US. Regardless of personal politics, it is a topic worth taking a dispassionate look at.  Topics include fundamentalism, darwinianism and slavery.  A really clear if biased discussion of a big problem for a society that continues to describe itself as free.

From the article:

Like most people on my side of the Atlantic, I have for many years been mystified by American politics. The US has the world’s best universities and attracts the world’s finest minds. It dominates discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, uniquely among the developed nations (with the possible exception of Australia), learning is a grave political disadvantage.


Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

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January 14, 2011, 6:58 pm
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This excerpt by Erich Fromm describes necrophilia in terms of sadism, control, work and technology.  Necrophilia is literally love of death, which on its face sounds absurd, until we realize, with a closer look, that it’s actually a description of our lives.

In an advanced stage capitalist society like this one Fromm’s observations about money and ownership resonate.  Ideological intractable views about ownership show an unwillingness to define our relationships in human, living terms.  Are they necrophilic?

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staring blankly
January 11, 2011, 7:31 pm
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When the Iraq war started, we began to see the American heart more clearly.  During this time, if I spoke out, I found myself taunted – both for my immigrant status and my beliefs – in the small thuggish design office I worked in at the time, full of self aggrandizing ivy league graduates, aggressing for partner attention, banking their lives on strenuous opinions of taste, committing no small error to make sad, lousy products.   All the pettiness went on full display at our Christmas gift exchange game:  a large circle of the self satisfied and opinionated each needing to elucidate her arrival in the blessed state of tastefulness.

After the game, partners sweated worry that minutes weren’t being billed, and the rest of us resisted:  snacked and chatted.   I had had enough and – like a good soldier tossing a grenade – brought up the war:  its fundamental wrongness.  At the time I had no idea it would take seven long years for the country at large to finally, sort of, begin to admit that, maybe, it had been a mistake.  One of my more opinionated colleagues, whom I had wrongly pegged as sympathetic stated categorically, without a whiff of hesitation, in thrilling smugness, that it – the war – was just a job.

Handy!  Convenient!  The soldier with his orders taken and his head down has no responsibility.  And the professional back home who has successfully skirted military service has no responsibility.  And the citizenry (also sometimes called consumers), who for seven long years willfully ignored evidence of illegality, has no responsibility.  And that’s saying nothing about public and private leadership.  It’s just a way to earn a living.  It’s just a job.

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