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Archive for May 2005


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Know I’m being a bit of a jerk, but it’s hard not to find it a bit funny to watch the atrios crowd discover that there’s only one thing their other hero, Brad Delong, hates more than the economic policy of Bush administration. Apparently, to offer even the mildest criticsm of global capitalist hegemony – criticism mild enough to make it on to the op-ed page of the NY Times forgodsake – is to expose yourself as "Crypto-Nazi scum." Take a look – especially at the comments – here.

Anyway, calls to mind an charming passage from Bob Woodward’s book about Greenspan. We could subtitle it, borrowing a phrase from Hobsbawm, "Clinton Learns the Rules of the Game." The game in question being the relationship between full employment and inflation.

All the economic models built
on years of history showed there was a limit to how high growth could go
without triggering inflation. To complicate matters, the economists believed –
and recent American economic history showed – that there was a level of
so-called full employment. There was a limit on how low the unemployment rate
could go without triggering inflation, and it was thought that the range was 6
to 7 percent. This lower limit was called the NAIRU – the non-accelerating
inflation rate of full employment. The unemployment rate had started the year
above 6 percent and was heading down.
    Even [Robert] Rubin insisted that there was an
optimum full employment rate of growth.
    The president [Clinton] was skeptical and even outraged. So the problems were too much economic growth and too many people working! It was ridiculous, he seethed.

But you know how the story ends.



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May 11, 2005 at 12:28 am

Posted in Current Affairs


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Stanley Fish chimes in on Ward Churchill in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education (why is this still coming in the mail?) I must admit I don’t understand what’s happening in the following three paragraphs. Can someone explain them to me?

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that Churchill can’t be disciplined
or even fired. The analysis he presented of the September 11 attacks in
his controversial essay was part and parcel of an avowedly polemical
set of political recommendations, a veritable call to arms. He has
every right to issue that call, as long as he doesn’t do it in the
classroom and, as it were, on the state’s dime. While Churchill cannot
or should not be disciplined for the political views he urges in his
role as a citizen, he can and should be disciplined for urging those
views in venues designated as academic and financed as such by state
revenues or by tuition.

I am not saying that political matters can never be raised in an
academic setting; such a draconian requirement would mean the end of
departments of political science, philosophy, sociology, English,
criminal justice, and more. I am just saying that when political
matters do enter an academic setting, they must do so in academic
terms. A few years ago, a national conference was held at my university
on an important topic. A flier advertising the conference went out
before I saw it. One sentence in that flier began, "Now that we are
fighting a racist war in Afghanistan … " Because the flier carried
with it the imprimatur of the University of Illinois at Chicago, it
seemed to be the university that was issuing that judgment.

The case would have been entirely different if there had been a list
of the conference’s panels on the flier, and if one of those panels had
been titled, "Are We Fighting a Racist War in Afghanistan?" That would
have been perfectly appropriate because it would have identified the
question as one that would be debated at the conference: Speakers would
give their answers and back up what they said with evidence, and other
speakers would give opposing answers and cite alternative bodies of
evidence. That’s what we do in the academic world, and if Churchill is
doing something else (and I don’t know that he is), he is taking money
under false pretenses, and he should be called to account for it.

So, we have:

1) Churchill can’t or shouldn’t be fired for extra-curricular utterances of any sort, but if he’s in the classroom he can and should be disciplined for urging controversial, polemical views.
2) While banning political matters from the classroom is impossible, the discussion of such matters should take place in academic terms. The assertion that the war in Afghanistan is racist is a judgment, is not properly "academic."
3) On the other hand, it would be OK to have a conference entitled "Are We Fighting a Racist War in Afghanistan," since this would inspire debate backed with evidence. "Speakers would
give their answers and back up what they said with evidence, and other
speakers would give opposing answers and cite alternative bodies of

So, from the three, it sounds as though a polemical utterance ("the war in Afghanistan is racist") is only academic, and thus appropriate, when it comes in the course of a debate, a dialogue. A classroom isn’t a classroom when there’s someone from the otherside to talk back? Is this what Fish meant to say? Did he mean to say anything at all?

And given this, what do we make of his dismissal of just this argument a few paragraphs later?

So again, what do you do? One thing administrators sometimes do in
this kind of situation is understandable but academically suspect. They
go for "balance"; that is, they don’t withdraw the invitation to a
Churchill type, but they surround him on the stage with persons from
the "opposing side," say someone who advocates expelling or imprisoning
or (at the very least) registering all the Arabs living in this
country. The idea is to inoculate the institution from criticism by
multiplying the points of view represented so that no one of them seems
to be endorsed or valued. The model for that strategy is to be found in
those U.S. Supreme Court cases in which it was held that you couldn’t
put a cross or a crèche on the courthouse steps unless you placed next
to it a menorah or a Buddha or a wigwam or something. In that way, the
state gets to display those symbols — and its tolerance — without
taking any of them seriously.

But that’s just the trouble. The academy flourishes when it takes
ideas seriously; turning the occasion of a talk on a particular topic
or question into a pledge of allegiance to balance and First Amendment
neutrality blunts the edge of any of the arguments that might be made
and makes them theatrical in the pejorative sense: They are just part
of the "see how ecumenical we are" play. It may look like the
protection of academic inquiry, but in fact it is the evacuation of
academic inquiry.

In other words, discourse isn’t academic when it takes the form of a staged debate, debate for debate’s sake, empty ecumenicalism. Hmm… I’m afraid he’s lost me. Just like he lost me, a month after 9/11, when Fish published in the Times his satantically torqued defense of postmodernism – as a technology built for some serious terrorist ass-kicking. Here’s the piece, hearteningly titled "Condemnation Without Absolutes."

When Reuters decided to be careful about using the word
"terrorism" because, according to its news director, one man’s
terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, Martin Kaplan, associate dean of
the Annenberg School for Communication at the  University of Southern California, castigated
what he saw as one more instance of cultural relativism. But Reuters is simply
recognizing how unhelpful the word is, because it prevents us from making
distinctions that would allow us to get a better picture of where we are and
what we might do. If you think of yourself as the target of terrorism with a
capital T, your opponent is everywhere and nowhere. But if you think of yourself
as the target of a terrorist who comes from somewhere, even if he operates
internationally, you can at least try to anticipate his future assaults.

Is this the end of relativism? If by relativism one means a cast of mind that
renders you unable to prefer your own convictions to those of your adversary,
then relativism could hardly end because it never began. Our convictions are by
definition preferred; that’s what makes them our convictions. Relativizing them
is neither an option nor a danger.

Only when you get past the false essentialism of assuming that the whole world is out to get you, can you begin smart-bombing the right set of bad guys. To paraphrase a popular Vietnam helmet motto, "Kill ’em all, let postmodernism sort it out."

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May 10, 2005 at 12:17 am

Posted in academia

Female Circumscription

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From the Smoking Gun:


A more interesting story, perhaps, is that of this Lynne who wrote the letter. With a legal pad at the kitchen table, carefully delineating the parallels between "the Will banks distubed woman" and the oeuvres complets of Julia. (In Lynne’s mind, it’s simply "Julia"…) Perhaps, after jotting down three or four of these "coincidences," which the Duluth police and the liberal media had simply failed to note (or is something more sinister at work?), she placed the first disc in the player and settled into the lazy boy, pen at the ready… Taos, NM, sure as hell ain’t no Yonville… All night, as "Julia" matured, never graying, she kept the vigil, jotting down an exhaustive list of parallels. (What to do with Erin Brockovitch? Two precious hours wasted…) At dawn, she culled the 5 best, sent her fax to Duluth, and downed a bottle of…

"Cet affreux goût d’encre continuait."

Sorry for the horrific quality of recent posts. Still suffering from nicotene withdrawl…

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May 9, 2005 at 4:03 pm

Posted in Current Affairs

But can it detect bullshit?

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Pretty amazing, this. Buried way down deep in another flaccid self-criticism today, the New York Times admits that it is considering turning to plagiarism detection software, the same sort in use in colleges and universities…

It also said The Times had discussed plagiarism-detection with
Lexis-Nexis, which was working with iThenticate, a firm that develops
detection software for use in academia. Once the software is refined,
the committee said, The Times should use it when plausible suspicions
are raised.

If the Times would like to hire me, a few days away from the completion of a year of teaching first-year writing, to supplement the plagiarism detection software with some good old fashioned bullshit detection (Ms. Miller, we need to talk after class), I’m ready to go with my red pen.

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May 9, 2005 at 10:27 am

Posted in Current Affairs

Tom Nairn on the ism

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Tom Nairn on the "ism," in his review of Hardt and Negri’s The Multitude in this weeks of LRB.

[T]he authenticity of the multitude represents an apotheosis of the ism: that is, of a specific way of processing ideas that emerged in the mid-19th century, and has remained a distinctive feature of modernity. An ism ceased to denote just a system of general ideas (like Platonism or Thomism), and evolved into a proclaimed cause or movement – no longer a mere school but a party or societal trend. Ideas acquired banner headlines and ‘stood for’ an aim or tendency, and eventually for a civilisational choice: individuals could in turn stand for this choice, and be ‘conscripted’ on one side or another. Social development linked to industrialisation, urbanisation and the formation of nations was bearing formerly voiceless masses into the political picture. These had to be formed into appropriate groups, whether Italians, Liberals, Conservatives, socialists (or whatever).

Identity in a more than bureaucratic sense had arrived. Its artificers were new too: the intellectuals. As Gramsci wrote in the Prison Notebooks, the function of modern intellectuals is inseparable from being torn between past and future. Their task is to reconcile the ‘tradition’ of established rulers with the inescapable appeal of the new, whether by compromise or through rejection. The formation and reformation of ‘philosophies’ now meant something dangerous, or reassuring, and that was their stock-in-trade.

Spinozism is a last-ditch salvationist movement, aimed at redeeming the status of isms. It stands for ‘ismhood’, a necessarily total secular faith fusing conceptual satisfaction and moral-political guidance. The aim is redemption, guaranteeing the future of the intelligentsia in this postmodern, and post-everything sense. Entrancing the globe by multitude-speak, the role of intellectuals is to fuse the coat of many colours into a consummate internationalism. And what can the warp and woof of this fabric be, but politically correct love?

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May 5, 2005 at 10:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


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Not that they’re asking, but no anyway. Unfortunately, I’m a citizen of the United States of Foregone Conclusions. Here’s an explanation.

Scary, the imminent neoliberalization and foxnewsification Alphonse predicts. Still, a bit jealous that les jeux aren’t so completely faits over there. Yet. Perhaps we all decamp, in spirit if not body, to BA, MC, Brasilia?

Went through exactly the same learning process as Matt, via Alphonse’s postings/clippings. Over here, it’s pretty easy to be reflexively pro-Euro integration… Feels like we live in the middle of a never ending low-pressure system, and it’s comforting to think there’s sunny summery stuff somewhere else. But now I see: Vote no to insist yes.

Like this bit though:

If you stop people on the street in central Paris, for example, most of
them know roughly what the French state’s income is. I don’t think one
in five in Britain know what the state’s income is. In the US, one
maybe in a hundred or less.

(This is because the budget is discussed on public television in France and printed in the  mainstream daily newspapers.)

Think that’s very true. When wife and I spent a summer in Paris back in college, the guy whose apartment we sublet taught economics at a high school. This seemed very odd to our americanears. Here we had (and god knows will probably have again, the way things are going) home economics for the ladies…

Anyway, go read Alphonse’s comments on Alphonse’s site.

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May 5, 2005 at 1:21 pm

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Terrific little find over on Reason Thunders, who I hope doesn’t mind if I clip in full:


      In case you’ve ever wondered what Adorno would say about the decline in family values:

realizes with horror that earlier, opposing one’s parents because they
represented the world, one was often secretly the mouthpiece, against a
bad world, of one even worse. Unpolitical attempts to break out of the
bourgeois family usually lead only to deeper entanglement in it, and it
sometimes seems as if the fatal germ-cell of society, the family, were
at the same time the nurturing germ-cell of uncompromising pursuit of
another. With the family there passes away, while the system lasts, not
only the most effective agency of the bourgeoisie, but also the
resistance which, though repressing the individual, also strengthened,
perhaps even produced him. The end of the family paralyses the forces
of opposition. The rising collectivist order is a mockery of a
classless one: together with the bourgeois it liquidates the Utopia
that once drew sustenance from motherly love.

capitalist order without the traditional family is a bigger threat to
Utopia than a fully bourgeois world. Perhaps it’s time for an alliance
between radical Marxism and Focus on the Family.


From Minima Moralia of course… I think it’s a good question…

Just finished The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian, who, according to the dust jacket bio, "left Beijing for Hong Kong in 1987, shortly before his books were banned in China." And the dissidence of this dissident novel seems to be very much on Adorno’s or Reason Thunder’s point: a Schnitzlerian circle of interlocking stories, all pointing in one direction: that socialist totalitarianism has rid China’s population of empathy, fellow-feeling, love, affection… Socialism (or is it the totalitarianism?) paradoxically, perversely, informs the emergence of a population entirely driven by the profit motive, with love and money.

So we find in this novel, among other things, an entreprenurial son who kills his mother, a boyfriend who indifferently allows his girlfriend to kill herself on stage, a gang rape in the middle of town… Jian suggests that contemporary China is one big Hubert Selby novel dragged out of the Red Hook night into the light of the Shenzen noon-time, repeated across the nation’s nearly innumerable population.

But of course, as soon as we start speaking of such things, we know whose camp we find ourselves in… We become reticent, and for good reason.

For instance, in real life, I attended more than 12 years of Catholic school, was a full-bore true believer until about age 16. I cannot be sure that without this early faith, I wouldn’t be doing something altogether different with my life – that I wouldn’t have altogether different interests and aims. But this is not a fact that fits comfortably with the world as I’d have it now, the work that I do, the demands that I would make if I were in a position to do so… Interesting…

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May 5, 2005 at 1:35 am

Posted in literature