Friday, January 31, 2003
Jim Kunstler and the Clusterfuck Nation

Catchy title, eh? Vaara pointed this guy out to me. He is sort of the anti-Mike Davis, one is a Marxist geographer from LA, the other an old-school New England conservative. Except Kunstler and Davis are actually for almost all the same things.

Kunstler is a conservative of a sort rarely seen nowadays. One who believes in conserving things. Frankly, those of us to the left of centre have had to take up so much of Kunstler's agenda over the years that I suspect he would have more friends on the left than the right these days.

This leads me onto a larger topic. Namely, a reckless venture in political stereotyping that I hope will lead to some insight into the entertaining world of Jim Kunstler.

It's not natural for us leftists to have to fight to conserve things. We are supposed to be the gung-ho, pro-change, progress now! half of society. It's our job. It's what we're good at. We have the science, we read our history without worshiping it, we stay open-minded about the possibilities other social structures have to offer, and we're willing to experiment with our lives. We should be the reckless discarders of tradition, heedlessly casting off the old in daring social experiments.

That isn't what defines the left. What defines the left is demanding that powerful social institutions serve the common good. All powerful social institutions - not just the state. It just isn't possible to do that without advocating change. And, to be honest, there is a certain joy in rebellion that forms a real, although hardly universal, part of the leftist tradition.

We can usually get away with this attitude because powerful forces hold us back. The great mass of society and especially of established power, is wary of change. And to some degree rightly so. Rebellion has its successes and its failures. The future can be worse than the past. The desire to conserve is just as honourable as the desire for change. Neither one is good or bad in and of itself.

In a world of conservatives like Kunstler, it would be a lot easier to be a leftist. We could have an ecological balance of left and right - of forces for conservation and forces for upheaval. Each could serve their useful role in society, the one the engine of progress, the other the handbrake of caution. But we don't live in such a world.

Instead, reading Jim Kunstler's manifesto, I realise just how radical - how far off the scale of conventional right-wing American politics - he sounds.

The overriding imperative task for us in the face of the problems ahead will be the downscaling of virtually all activities in America.

Kunstler is a radical localist. He wishes to see sprawl abolished and let life refocus on the local community. He not only believes we would have better lives for it, he believes we must do this before it is too late. He reminds me of the more radical greens - the people advocating various forms of municipal socialism. Their visions and his are not so dissimilar.

Of course, Kunstler ends his manifesto with a gratuitous and off-topic slam at "cultural relativism" - the all-purpose bugbear of the new right. Well, he is a conservative. What do you expect?

I dislike having to look to the past, to wish to resucitate old institutions, in order to have a better life. It feels... well, it feels dirty. I'm a computer programmer, for God's sake! I'm one of the people who ought to be flogging the next big thing and poo-pooing all those Luddites who think we should preserve our current way of life, or worse return to an older one. And I can't do this. I can't just dismiss people like Kunstler - no matter how much I may want to. Because he feels the same thing many leftists feel. We are both are responding to the same basic discomfort: the sense that we have lost something - something valuable - in our lives, and the sense that perhaps it can still be recovered.

Kunstler is not the only conservative figure that has made me think about this sort of thing. I find myself in the same state of wonderment over Richard Mitchell, a.k.a. The Underground Grammarian. I disagree with him a lot. Yet, I agree with him as much or more. His experiences teaching fit quite well with mine. I wish to dismiss him as an irritable curmudgeon with a worldview hopelessly out of touch with the modern world. But I can't.

If conservatives were doing their jobs, this just wouldn't be a problem.

I could tolerate some right-wing nuts. Just a few, in reasonable doses, if it meant getting back conservatives who want to preserve things. I'd like to get back conservatives like Teddy Roosevelt or Eisenhower. I'd happily put up with their foibles. If it meant needing to tolerate a few gun nuts, or the anti-abortion people, or the people waiting for the rapture, I'd take the deal. And I would gladly protest them, and probably carp about what awful governments they're heading, and I could dismiss their arguments, and advocate radical institutional change, and make grand plans for the world. I could do this, because I would know that my opponents were decent people and that their judgements against what I wish for are not necessarily motivated out of malice.

Instead, who are today's conservative icons? Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. The Hoover Institute and the Coors Foundation. Here in Europe, lying plutocrats like Silvio Berlusconi, radical weirdos like Pim Fortuyn, and those brownshirt pigs at the Vlaams Blok. All have a radical agenda for change - horrifying changes that can serve no decent end. They do not seek change to make the world a better place. They seek - when they feel some higher calling than merely enriching themselves - to make the world a juster place, by some screwed up set of values that they think is natural and eternal, but which is really a quite recent invention. They have nothing to conserve, and a long list of things to destroy.

In order to oppose these people, we, the sane people, have to be both advocates for change and for conservation. This is a difficult position to be in. We can't do it without some hypocrisy and contradiction. In a better world, we wouldn't have to.

The left cannot have its soul back until we have a decent right.

Thursday, January 30, 2003
Nelson Mandela is seriously pissed off.

Mr Mandela criticised Iraq for not cooperating fully with the weapons inspectors - but urged the people of the United States to join protests against Bush and called on world leaders, especially those with vetoes in the UN security council, to unite to oppose him.

"One power with a president who has no foresight and cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust," Mr Mandela said in a speech to the International Women's Forum.

"Why is the United States behaving so arrogantly?" he asked. "All that (Mr Bush) wants is Iraqi oil," he said.

He accused Mr Bush and Mr Blair of undermining the UN and its secretary-general, Kofi Annan, who is from Ghana.

"Is it because the secretary-general of the United Nations is now a black man? They never did that when secretary-generals were white," he said.

"If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don't care for human beings. Who are they now to pretend that they are the policemen of the world, the ones that should decided for the people of Iraq what should be done with their government and their leadership?"

Europe and America must stand united

The big news this morning is this open letter in the Times of London. Take a look at it. Eight European heads of government sign a letter supporting the US on the Iraq thing and asking for a common European policy of support. All eight are, of course, conservative governments. Still, while I might have expected this sort of behaviour from a dickhead like Berlusconi, I thought Aznar had a bit more brains in his head and I am deeply disappointed in Vaclav Havel.

I can only understand this as a conscious effort to undermine any future EU common security policy. It's the only way it makes sense. Only Blair has staked his career on Iraq, and only Berlusconi has ideological reasons for wanting war. The others are either suckers or are expecting a payoff somewhere else.

I mean, can these men be craven enough to want to be local bigwigs of an American protectorate or do they want some say in their affairs?

Le Monde this morning had several articles on the subject. However, take a look at this one:

Les Européens affichent leurs divisions face à Washington

In particular, scroll down to the bottom, where it talks about a poll conducted by the EU. My translation:

EU citizens against intervention

According to a poll commissioned by the EU and published Wednesday, January 29th by Brussels, EU citizens are 82% opposed to their countries participating in a future war in Iraq without a UN mandate. 75% of citizens of the 13 candidate EU members feel the same way. The poll was conducted by EOS Gallup Europe from the 21st to the 27th of January with 15,080 people over the age of 15 responding.

Europe is not behind this war, even if a few governments have been bought off.

[edit] Fellow expat blogger Vaara has even more extensive poll results from today's La Libre Belgique.

This entry isn't much more than a test of the comments system at Feel free to swear in the comments. I'll probably delete it later, if Blogspot lets me.

Wednesday, January 29, 2003
Old South Goes With the Wind

This Washington Post piece has an interesting perspective on "the New South." The best bit, though, is the moniker "exit ramp civilization." As a refugee from California, that seems to me to describe a lot of contemporary America.

Cognitive Linguistics and the Marxist approach to ideology

This is another article that calls for some serious thought from me. Quoting:

The question of the relationship of [Cognitive Linguistics] to the Marxist tradition is an important one which has not, as yet, been addressed in the relevant literature. In fact, there are no references to Marxism, as philosophy or social theory, in the main works on the philosophy of CL (eg Johnson, 1987; Lakoff, 1987; and now Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). Nor is there any engagement with the long tradition of specifically materialist philosophy which was one of the contributory sources of Marxist materialism. It is rather an extraordinary fact that an approach which proclaims itself as `a challenge to Western thought' (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999) can overlook not only the whole spectrum of Marxist work in philosophy, social theory, history, the natural sciences, economics, and politics but also ignore that immense body of neurolinguistic, psycholinguistic and psychological work (on topics dear to the heart of contemporary `cognitive scientists') from within the Marxist-inspired Vygotskian and Activity Theory traditions. Mainstream western thinking, it appears, can acknowledge and celebrate Darwin's `dangerous idea' (to use Dennett's phrase) while Marx's idea seems to be simply too dangerous to mention.

As someone who takes very seriously the Vygotskyan tradition and who is sympathetic to cognitive linguistics, this is quite an interesting essay. The criticism is primarily about CL's theory of knowledge contrasted with Marxist epistemology. Another good bit:

Truth, however, is not a finished once-and-for-all-time state, but a process. A particular natural scientific theory, for example the theory of evolution, does not constitute the final and absolute truth of the matter. The correspondence between a scientific theory and the reality it depicts is always conditional, approximate and relative to the system of objective interactions revealed by historical practice. [...] Truth and falsehood are dialectical `opposites' and must not be counterposed in a formal and mechanical way. A theory may therefore be true only within certain limits, but within those limits absolutely and objectively true.

This is the essense of Marxist objectivism and Marxist relativism. We can know objective truth about the universe, but we can never know it outside of the confines of place in time and space or culture. This isn't, however, the scientific realism of the anti-postmodernists either.

More on this at some other time.

UNRAVELING THE DNA MYTH: The spurious foundation of genetic engineering

This is an interesting essay on the failures of contemporary biological ideology of the type advanced most famously by Dawkins. A quote:

Known to molecular biologists as the "central dogma," the premise assumes that an organism's genome-its total complement of DNA genes---should fully account for its characteristic assemblage of inherited traits. The premise, unhappily, is false. Tested between 1990 and 2001 in one of the largest and most highly publicized scientific undertakings of our time, the Human Genome Project, the theory collapsed under the weight of fact. There are far too few human genes to account for the complexity of our inherited traits or for the vast inherited differences between plants, say, and people. By any reasonable measure, the finding (published last February) signaled the downfall of the central dogma; it also destroyed the scientific foundation of genetic engineering and the validity of the biotechnology industry's widely advertised claim that its methods of genetically modifying food crops are "specific, precise, and predictable" and therefore safe. In short, the most dramatic achievement to date of the $3 billion Human Genome Project is the refutation of its own scientific rationale.


Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages

An online exhibition of communist propaganda posters over the years.

The Pronunciation and Spelling of Modern Irish

You never know when this will come in handy. Irish has - easily - the funkiest spelling system of any modern language that I know of.

I'm going through my old bookmarks, posting the interesting ones. Bear with me.

¡Cuba Libre!

Recipes that call for Coca-Cola. I knew someone would have to do this sooner or later.

Mel Gibson filme Jésus en V.O.

I came across this rather bizarre story on the Courrier International website today. They attribute the story to Time Magazine.

Essentially, Mel Gibson wants to produce a biopic of Jesus. That's pretty disturbing. But wait! It gets better. “Le film est tourné en latin, la langue des occupants romains, et en araméen, la langue des disciples de Jésus!" A bilingual Latin-Aramaic film. Not one, but two dead languages.

I remember hearing - many years ago - about a gay porn film made entirely in Latin. Alas, I can't find the name on IMDB. I don't know of any other movie ever made wholly in a dead language. This could be interesting, but I suspect it will be a disaster.

This blog is going to be something of an experiment. I really need a way to keep track of my bookmarks, and keep notes about my train of thought at the time. I have these stacks of old bookmarks, and I can't figure out what the hell I was thinking.

So, we'll see how this goes.