March 10, 2010

Can't We All Just Get Along?

In some probably long-forgotten "Why Oh Why?" Grauniad commentary on the US culture wars I re-read recently, Timothy Garton Ash says "this war will not finish with a victory of blue over red, or vice versa. It will finish with the accepted, peaceful coexistence in one society of different faiths, value systems, and lifestyles — along the line laid down centuries ago by the classical liberalism of John Locke and others […]".

Well, he got the first part right in some ways: the US culture wars really aren't about left vs. right or red vs. blue (or green) — they're a struggle between people who believe in Timothy Garton Ash's tolerant liberalism and those on the right, the left, or wherever for whom that tolerance is the enemy, for whom True Belief is all that matters.

But the rest of that sentence is, for most of his opponents, equivalent to saying the culture wars will only be won when they lose — the whole point of most cultural warriors is to impose intolerance, to ensure that coexistence is impossible, to kill off or at least suppress the people who don't believe what you do. It's equivalent to TGA's saying "the culture wars will only be over when my side's won". Which may or may not be true, but it's not useful.

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December 27, 2009

North State

It's a state of mind, really (I-5 south somewhere a little below Red Bluff).

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October 10, 2009

Mystical Maths

In Moe's this morning I buy a copy of Alain Badiou's "Number and Numbers", and present it to the clerk, a guy who's sold books to me here for years.

Him: "Ah, Badiou! Man of the moment!"
Me: "But I bet you thought you'd never sell any copies of this book…".
Him: "It's Berkeley. Someone's going to buy a copy eventually…"
Me: "Yeah, that someone's me, I guess. I just love reading stuff like this to see what happens when philosophers try to take on math; it's nearly always some sort of semi-mystical train wreck."
Him: "Ha! A friend of mine used to read Badiou — and Deleuze and Derrida and all those guys — a lot, but he was always high, and he never stopped giggling and chuckling his way through it all. Made me kinda wonder what was in those books."
Me: "Yeah. Treating it as a species of entertainment is probably the best way to cope."

I'm hopeful of a little bit more than entertainment, though: there's evidence in a quick flip through the book that Badiou's not just interested in waving his hands ostentatiously in front of the usual mathematically-ignorant philosophy types. We shall see….

Later, in the supermarket, with some typically overheated Dylan song supplying a smooth soundtrack, the (huge) woman behind the deli counter has a (huge) black and white badge on her chest that says "God is good — all the time!". Somewhere out there, God's rolling in his grave.

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July 25, 2009

Bucky Balls

"If man is to continue as a successful pattern-complex function in universal evolution, it will be because the next decades will have witnessed the artist-scientist's spontaneous seizure of the prime design responsibility and his successful conversion of the total capability of tool-augmented man from killingry to advanced livingry — adequate for all humanity" (Buckminster Fuller quoted in "New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller", ed. Chu and Trujillo, Stanford, a book I recently bought at Moe's).

It's hardly original, but it's difficult not to feel that the biggest attraction Buckminster Fuller had for the younger counterculturalists of the 60's and 70's (and their epigones) was that — like any good prophet — his real meaning lay in the general incomprehensibility of his words. They could mean any damn thing you wanted them to mean, since by almost any conventional measure, they meant nothing at all. He spoke his own unique language, but made them feel that he spoke their language, at least in mental translation (his work certainly loses something in the original). The woolliness of the words just helped mask the genially-ruthless technocratic utopianism at the heart of it all (and running through the muddled and often far less genial veins of some of the countercultural movements who used or revered him). A sort of foggy glossolalia born in a collision of Futurism and the Burned-Over District, perhaps. Much of it's not even wrong, as they say.

I think another big part of the reason Fuller was so popular with the US 60's and 70's counterculture is that with things like the breathtakingly hubristic World Game he offered the promise of technology replacing politics. Politics is difficult, it's messy (and often a real come-down for nice middle class countercultural kids), but technology just tends to happen, and usually with a logic that would have been deeply congenial to a lot of white middle-class American kids of the time. Technology provides objective answers without that awful to-and-fro that politics demands; but when the answer to every question seems to be "geodesic dome" or "tensegrity" or "technologists know best", you can't help feeling that the questions might have been a little restricted or that there are some questions you just can't ask.

(And if there were ever a real example of the Canonical American Name it'd be "R. Buckminster Fuller". When I was a kid I just assumed the "Buckminster Fuller" part was a double-barreled last name (like maybe "Sebag-Montefiori"), and that our Bucky was so important no one ever used his first name).

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January 31, 2009

Science Taken For Wonders

Reading George Makari's "Revolution In Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis" (Harper, 2008), the question that keeps leaping up at every turn is: how did anyone take Freud seriously for so long? Put another way, what deep psychological need did Freudian psychoanalysis — a sort of astrology of the mind, short of real evidence, a mishmash of wishful thinking and received prejudices masquerading as the key to unmasking wishful thoughts and prejudices — what deep needs did it tap to be able to seduce several whole generations of philosophers, analysts, and patients? Now that's a problem best studied by psychology (or social psychiatry, perhaps). In this history, Freud himself comes across as mercurial, manipulative, spiteful; the group of Freudians around him as a typical cult, concerned mostly with a desperate struggle not to alienate the Leader and find themselves on the outside. Not a pretty picture, but not that untypical of any insurgent movement, in the field of science or elsewhere.

Freud's monumental reputation loomed large in the Easter Island of philosophy I inhabited in Sydney all those years ago (where he seemed to have been regarded as a founder of the science and philosophy of mind), but he and Freudianism were basically invisible in the science and history of science courses I took at the same time. And it's easy to see why: at every step of the history as told by Makari I want to leap up and ask "but where's the evidence?" or "how could you conceivably test that?" after some new assertion or complex model has been unveiled. Entire theories seem to have been spawned by (or grounded on) anecdotal evidence often gained from a single unverified clinical case (and then just as easily abandoned). The whole history comes across as a whirl of epicycle upon epicycle, self-validating, unfalsifiable, almost medieval, a sort of ungrounded Aristotelian hermeneutics of the mind, and as fundamentally changeable as Freud himself.

But Freudianism isn't necessarily Freudian any more, and while it's a lot of fun, it's unfair to visit the sins of the father on his children (especially since he abandoned so many of them). In the ferment of ideas about the mind during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I have to admit that Freud seems to have had a good productive line of suggestive metaphors, established some useful vocabulary, and done a lot of good in deliberately letting quite a few essential cats out of the bag. But science? What Freud does seem to have bequeathed science isn't so much a science of the mind (we're still a long way from that), but a series of suggestive and largely-untested models for such a science; whether they'll be successful in the longer term isn't clear. But it makes for a very readable history….

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November 19, 2008

Jonestown (Bringing It Home)

Thirty years ago this week more than 900 people killed themselves (or were killed) in Jonestown under the orders of the Reverend Jim Jones (who died along with his victims). Like most people, I guess, before I moved to the Bay Area it seemed a fairly abstract and distant event — classic Americana, an occasion for a cynical or even ironic riff on American religious and cultural delusion, a mostly-forgotten source for the phrase "drink the Kool Aid" — but around here it's hard to escape the human dimension behind the story, and the cynicism's hard to maintain in the face of the obvious and strong local connections and scars, even thirty years down the line.

Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple were intimately connected to San Francisco, the Bay Area, and California as a whole — the Peoples Temple had its headquarters in San Francisco (well within my memory you could still see it down on Geary if you knew where to look); Jim Jones himself was a larger-than-life and often-feted presence in liberal and leftist political circles here; and relatives of the dead (many of whom came from San Francisco and Oakland) are easy to find locally (my neighbourhood contains several people who had relatives who died there). Jackie Speier, now a high-profile local congresswoman, was one of the group of US congressional representatives and journalists shot by Jones's supporters at the local airstrip while attempting to leave Jonestown after a tense fact-finding mission (most of the other members of the party she was in, including local congressman Leo Ryan, were killed at the airstrip); Jones's son (who wasn't at Jonestown at the time, despite being a then-Believer) still lives in the Bay Area, grappling well (by the sounds of things) with the personal legacy of a father he apparently hated for decades afterwards. What seemed like a typically American (or more specifically Californian) weird and distant story from the distance of London or Sydney turns out to have a human dimension — imagine that.

Nine days after Jonestown, Dan White killed Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone in City Hall, sparking off another long-running thread in local history….

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November 05, 2008


Much is made of the shameful fact that forty seven years ago, when Obama was born, his parents could not have legally lived together in Virginia (or a large part of rest of the US) because of anti-miscegenation laws. Virginia in many ways redeemed itself last night by convincingly voting for Obama as the president; but last night, in a deeply shameful act, Californians voted to remove the right for same-sex people to marry. I'd like to believe that's the last gasp of Boomer and older bigotry, and that in decades to come we'll all ask how people could possibly have thought it right to ban such marriages in the same way we now wonder how mixed-race marriage could possibly have been considered both immoral and illegal, but I'm not holding my breath. True Belief, after all, is about civil rights for you and yours, not them and theirs…

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October 22, 2008

Helter Skelter (By Any Means Necessary)

It's difficult to convey to outsiders just how paranoid, oppressed, and alienated you can feel during an election like this in this God-washed country, a place where Belief often breeds a breezy contempt for thoughtfulness or fact, where brightly-polished lies are the much-traded currency of an artificial economy of fear, where semi-official campaign robocallers slime your voicemail with racist or borderline lunatic conspiracy theories viciously demonizing people who, you quickly realise, are stand-ins for yourself, where TV spots attack you and your beliefs every few minutes with a sustained seething haze of brazen smears and deniable innuendo (all done with a polite authoritative tone), where your mail box is soiled day after day by anonymous coded attack mailers full of cowardly insinuations or outright lies, where every second email is a naked appeal to put thought and reason aside and take up arms (real or not) to defeat some enemy or other… all that and a third term still seems a distinct possibility (the real local and personal tragedy will be Proposition 8 passing).

It's easy to say the electorate gets the election it deserves, but what did the rest of us do to deserve this way of choosing a president?

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October 18, 2008

Gods Of Little Dreams

"Pegana has gods of dust, of silence, and of 'little dreams and fancies', but no gods or goddesses of the harvest, of war, or of love — pretty much the core curriculum for heathen deities." — Laura Miller on the Fantastical Writings of Lord Dunsany, in an old New Yorker.

A refreshing universe of gods — a god for each of the inexplicable things beyond human control, ceding the important things — harvest, war, etc. — to human agency. Which is as it should be. (Too often we describe as "inhuman" exactly that behaviour that most marks us as human beings — war, murder, rape, torture, etc.; too often "act of god" is a euphemism for human negligence).

(C.f. Herodotus's "[Hesiod and Homer] were the poets who composed for the Hellenes the theogony, assigned to the gods their epithets, defined their particular honors and skills, and described what they look like." (2.53 in Purvis's recent translation, ed. Strassler) — that nicely-inverted echo of Adam naming the animals in Genesis…).

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September 10, 2008

The Opposite Of Curiosity

Stephen Prothero, in his "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know — And Doesn't" (HarperOne, 2008), laments the lack of religious literacy in the US. I think he's right to do so, but what's really lamentable is surely the marked lack of religious curiosity in the US. Prothero thinks it's a paradox that a people as openly and aggressively religious as the inhabitants of the US should be so dismally unaware of their own and others' religions, but it's no paradox: on the one hand, so many religions as practiced nowadays in the US deliberately try to short-circuit or discourage the curiosity that underpins real literacy, and do so as an explicit part of those religious beliefs; on the other, the (public) self-absorption and belief in self as total authority that's become almost sacramental in this part of the world rarely makes for engaged religious exploration.

After all, True Belief is surely the opposite of curiosity; and in a nation as full of True Believers as the US, many of those believers probably take general religious illiteracy as a welcome sign of national religiosity and righteousness (though they wouldn't put it quite that way, I'd guess). In a nation where the slogan "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." is a working daily guideline for millions (including high-level politicians and officials), religious illiteracy is almost guaranteed — mostly because it's a greatly-valued part of their religion.

(The flip side of all this — the adoption of religions as lightly-worn lifestyle accessories (think Zen, yoga, etc.) — is a sign of a different sort of religious illiteracy, but one still often motivated or underpinned by a terrible lack of curiosity…).

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October 11, 2007


In his "Design and Crime", Hal Foster takes Adolf Loos's famous "the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects" (and the associated "ornament and crime" tirade about civilization and purity) seriously, as ideological baggage. But if you're going to take a statement like that seriously and at face value (rather than as the drily amusing polemical provocation I tend to think it is), you have to take it seriously as a psychological phenomenon rather than politically or ideologically. You're not going to get too far into why such slogans seduce without delving deeply into the subconsciouses of the sort of people for whom Purity and Authenticity appeal so much. It's about Belief, not about ideology. In such people, Belief prefigures ideology (but again, given Loos's actual output, you can't help feeling he's just stirring; like Schoenberg, he protests about protesting just a little too much).

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May 05, 2007

Longer Days

Mars tells me now that Longer Days Mean Shorter Skirts, but all I see is bondage gear in their windows and the usual derros, ancient hippies, and ageing self-important boomers strewn along the begarbaged blocks of Telegraph. In Moe's I buy a cheap remaindered paperback of Adorno's collected essays on music, a rich collection of easy targets. Adorno's writings on music are one of those sprawling guilty pleasures for me: he's so certain of the details (and so often right about the details) that he seems to completely miss the bigger picture. He's a Man On A(n Aesthetic) Mission, and he never lets us forget it — and like reading any literate True Believer, reading him is like entering another universe, something as entertainingly off-kilter in its way as Ben Marcus (an author Our Theodor would Not Approve Of, I'm sure).

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April 15, 2007

Andrew Sullivan's Soul

"Sullivan splashes excitedly around like a dog in a mud puddle, snarling ferociously at any other dog who challenges his position du jour. He's less a skeptic than a mercurial, and somewhat flirtatious, born believer" — Jonathan Raban reviewing Andrew Sullivan's "The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back" in a recent NYRB.

Sullivan's a smart, complex, tragic, and (for me, at least) rather attractive and exemplary figure (for all the wrong reasons), a man who seems to struggle mightily with having to bear a whole bunch of crosses, not least of which is that he's a True Believer trying desperately to belong in the skeptical house of Oakeshott, and he's the sort of person (common enough in academia and politics) whose rhetorical abilities far outstrip his self-knowledge. Like many True Believers, he seems defined by his need for True Enemies (rather than the True Enemies themselves), someone who navigates by a constantly changing constellation of intellectual enemies.

"For the fundamentalist ... there is one moment of real conscience, the moment when he makes the decision to conform his mind and will to an external authority. After that, his sole task is obedience [...]". (Sullivan dissing fundamentalists, as quoted by Raban).

Sullivan's real tragedy, though, bubbling below the surface, is that he failed the greatest moral and philosophical test of his life, throwing himself in uncritically with the quite plainly Rationalist (in Oakeshott's usage of the term) Bush project immediately after 9/11 (and especially with the Iraq invasion). He became fundamentalist at the crucial moment; or, rather, he seems to be a serial fundamentalist who latched on to another True Belief in the heat of the moment. His latter-day reflections on quite why he behaved that way seem disingenuous or quite unable to get to the heart of the matter: we weren't all fooled, we didn't all Believe in the way he did.

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February 11, 2007

Proddies v. Catholics

The people in the Woy Woy area when I was growing up there were — by today’s Australian standards — pretty homogenous. The main division seemed to be the Prods vs. the Catholics — and that wasn’t much, since we kids tended to play together no matter what the "religion" of the others (if someone in those days asked you what your "religion" was, they were asking whether you were Catholic, Church of England, Methodist, Presbyterian, or the like). Nearly everyone was of English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish descent, mostly second or third generation. The Irish were invariably Catholic, the rest of us mostly Proddies. A few "immigrants" (often enough second or third generation themselves) lived in the area, mainly Italian, Greek, or Yugoslavian. Real immigrants were a bit exotic — even the Poms (like me). Pretty much everyone was white — there were virtually no Aboriginals or Africans at all living in the area. When Gary Sobers visited the area on a friendly cricket promotion (and played for Wyong, if I remember correctly), he was treated as a God — black or not, he was just exotic and absolutely revered as a cricketer. (Of course there were black American servicemen all the time in Sydney, but Sydney was another world to most of us…). The only Asians at that time and place were upper middle class people like doctors (in fact several were friends of my parents); they were almost all ABC’s with broad Australian accents.

Churchgoing was pretty rare and not taken terribly seriously by most people, except the ritual Christmas, Easter, and wedding (etc.) services. I really never knew anyone whose parents went to church more than once in a blue moon — and that includes people of all social classes. Religion simply played no part in public life there (except the Catholic vs. The Rest thing, which was more tribal than religious); it typically played a very minor role in private life, if at all. Lots of kids sports were played on Sunday mornings in any case, making churchgoing for us a little unlikely (until I left for Canberra, I really never went to church more than perhaps four times a year). The population was split about 60 / 40 Protestant / Catholic (I think); most Protestants were Church Of England, with a strong second going to the Methodists and Presbyterians (the Scots influence…). There were a smattering of Lutherans, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc., but they were almost universally regarded as a bit eccentric or off the beaten path, a little… strange (including the Lutherans). In retrospect, there were also a couple of Jewish families, but at that time I wouldn’t really have been able to tell you what "Jewish" meant (an ignorance that vanished overnight when I was sent to Canberra…).

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January 15, 2007


A genuine American hero, a man on a religious mission — can you listen to his speeches and not hear the clank and rattle of the old King James Version? — but one whose religion is so often igonored or downplayed in liberal or leftist circles, especially those in UnAmerica. But religion's at the heart of almost everything he did, and informed his thoughts and actions in ways difficult for UnAmerican secularists like me to empathise with or even understand. He was a product of — not a reaction to — a very American religious tradition, a tradition almost extinct in the rest of the West, a tradition that goes hand-in-hand with (without necessarily being part of) the sort of Fundamentalisms that the rest of us tend to think of as utterly alien to political activity on behalf of freedom. Not a typical product, and not (maybe) what comes to mind when you think "American religion", but still unthinkable without that pervasive religious tradition.

I still find Malcolm X more interesting and compelling, if only because he changed his mind.

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