Sunday, May 31, 2009

Your own personal jihad

The relationship between morality and power is such that doing the right thing often sucks. This is the message of the gospels: do the right thing and you will make life that much harder for yourself in the short-term, and probably in the medium-term, as well; in the long-term you will be dead. There are no other guarantees, and even "doing the right thing" can amount to an act of faith. That's the bargain.

The rewards are what we make them. To be sure, they are not always obvious. If you give your only sandwich to someone because they ask for it, only to later discover two-thirds of it in the trash, it's fair to say the emptiness in your gut will not be from hunger alone, but from the wastefulness of an exchange that cost you considerably.

But it's important to remember what is at stake: on one hand, a sandwich; on the other, the freedom to help someone who asks for it directly. If the conclusion we take from this experience is, "I will not give up a sandwich without a guaranteed outcome that satisfies me," then we lose the freedom to act under almost every circumstance. So the reward in this regard is to invest in the kind of person we want to become. This may be less tangible than a sandwich, but as Tolstoy says, "Happiness does not depend on outward things, but on the way we see them."

Saturday, May 30, 2009


The Social Unrest, 1903:
Our magnates of industry have not preached paternalism, but, in season and out of season, they have practised it. They have practised it so long and so openly, and with such conspicuous profit to themselves, that it is grotesque drollery for them to cry out against paternal legislation. They have not merely looked to the government to assist their enterprises, they have taken possession of it. Hat in hand, they have begged with such importunity that the law-making power, federal, state, and municipal, seems to have been looked upon as a private preserve. Yet these who discovered paternalism and reduced it to a political art and method, never fail to raise the alarm when the humbler classes ask legislative aid of city or state.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Obama leads

At first it seemed like Pakistan was reluctant to attack its own population in order to get at a couple of Talibanis, but then Obama convinced them that our campaign in Afghanistan was at stake. Two million refugees and an escalating spiral of violence later, things are looking up.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Women, culture, and dispossession

Financial Times:
Ms Atiyat says some of her friends will face pressure from conservative parents to stay at home. One of them, a talented writer, is lobbying her parents to relent so she can go out to work. If this fails, she plans to pursue a back-up plan of freelance editing and journalism.

The courage to challenge authority is necessary as campaigners such as Ms Awadhi chip away at the edifice of the [United Arab Emirate's] patrimonial society.
Capitalism wrecks traditional cultures something fierce, and the effects can be awesome. Marx admired this process, I think, because he favored the secular thrust of capitalism over the "backward" cultures of pre-capitalism, not least of all for the scientific and technological foundation it presupposed. In other words, Marx would have rooted for Ms Atiyat to betray the dictates of her parents and adopt the cosmopolitan outlook of the international businesswoman, because this could at least be justified on the basis of rational, economic self-interest, whereas blindly following a religious authoritarianism could not.

The condition of Middle Eastern women under contemporary religious rule is interesting to think of in terms analogous to the experience of American women in the 1950's. Not unlike Ms Atiyat, American women ultimately forged an alliance with corporate patriarchy in response to the unholy alliance of domestic patriarchy, religion, and the state. Under the circumstances, this made sense: corporate patriarchy granted women far greater freedom and independence than domestic serfdom; and insofar as it solicited educated white women in particular, it could recruit some of feminism's most influential actors in exchange for making their personal struggle that much easier.

Much global conflict, particularly with regard to "non-state actors," terrorists and so on, boils down to the violent interface between property rights as asserted by capitalism on one hand, and the sovereignty of traditional orders on the other. As CUNY professor David Harvey observes, most of this is happening around issues of "dispossession" -- the appropriation of traditional community resources by private interests, usually through state violence. Marx might have applauded this for the sake of "progress"; indeed, by some measures "progress" occurs, as with women in need of an ally against some worse offense.

On the other hand, women's entry into pursuits of profit is one part of an equation which also includes famine, disease, warfare, and the critical support of groups like the Taliban or the House of Saud when they are perceived to be sufficiently useful to business concerns. As with the American experience, many women lose even as others "advance" within institutions that are not their own.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Suffer the phony controversy

New York Times:

[A]ll the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness.

Presumably, women don't want their priorities defined for them by others, whether the "instruction" comes from husbands, governments, employers, or anyone else.

It's not a contradiction to suggest that "the achievements of the feminist era" addressed some of these concerns and not others, and that women are increasingly dissatisfied with the constraints that remain.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial days

If a mine owner tried to honor his employees for their "sacrifice" in a preventable tunnel collapse, the community would not bow their heads in prayer, but put the mine owner's on a stick. And yet the politician gets away with this year after year, war after war.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Away till next week. Until then, your friend and mine, the Angry Arab:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On national security

Whenever I hear talk of "national security" and "defending our way of life" I think about how my life is most insecure -- as it relates to employment -- and am forced to conclude that "our way of life" is the primary culprit. So why in the world would I want to defend it?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Marxist Mondays (belated)

Something cool that Marx teaches us is that we aren't compensated based on the value of what we produce; we are paid the going rate for our willingness to work.

This is the brilliance of capitalism: it buys up every family farm and corner store -- every independent means of survival -- and then offers cash payments based on how people feel in the face of starvation.

This is precisely why capital is now "globalized": the most desperate people are in other countries. Those of us in the "developed" world became too spoiled, demanding a decent standard of living. In short, we attached too many conditions to our willingness to work. Therefore, the production process moved elsewhere.

Anyhooker, the difference between what you and I are willing to be paid and the actual market value of what is produced is called "profit" -- it is absorbed by the owner. Now put that in your hash pipe and smoke it.

This note is brought to you by Black Box wine and work/4 hours sleep.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Cynicism we can believe in

Asking whether the Taliban are going to take over Pakistan and launch nukes is like asking whether 4,000 NRA members in Virginia are going to sack Washington and jerry-rig ICBMs to their Dish Networks. The fact that Virginia is "not far" from DC and that "the government has nukes!" does not lend credibility to the scenario.

So why does the Obama administration and, say, liberal news outlets like the New York Times have such a hard-on for the old second-coming of Hitler scenario?

Juan Cole observes:
Washington is alarmed at the spread of the Taliban in the North-West Frontier Province because it has implications for the security of southern Afghanistan, and therefore for US troops and NATO troops in Afghanistan. And so, from their point of view, this is a big crisis.

They don't want more safe havens for the Taliban in Afghanistan who are killing US troops. And they were upset with the Pakistani elite for not taking this problem more seriously. And I think, sort of saying that Pakistan is unstable, or it's about to fall, or the nukes are in danger, all of this sort of thing, is a signal to Islamabad that you had better get serious about this, because it matters to us. So this is Washington strong-arming Pakistan.

There once was a man named Noriega who was called the new Hitler right before we invaded his country, too. I don't remember him very well, either.
Lies of the liberal media

This from an email forward I received today:

I'm tired of being told that Islam is a "Religion of Peace," when every day I can read dozens of stories of Muslim men killing their sisters, wives and daughters for their family "honor;" of Muslims rioting over some slight offense; of Muslims murdering Christian and Jews because they aren't "believers;" of Muslims burning schools for girls; of Muslims stoning teenage rape victims to death for "adultery;" of Muslims mutilating the genitals of little girls; all in the name of Allah, because the Qur'an and Shari'a law tells them to.

Oh, yeah. I'm totally tired of hearing about how Islam is a religion of peace.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Last night someone told me Democrats are like communists: they take from the rich and give to the poor. I said this was certainly true when it comes to losses.

Friday, May 15, 2009


Let the sins of the system be blamed on the administrators, not the owners -- this should be the motto of government by and for the rich.

The government, as a rule-writing, baton-wielding presence, obviously has its shortcomings. Among these, the biggest may be that government acts on behalf of the most influential groups in society. In a highly unequal society, the "most influential" may not even include the majority. In other cases, minorities that lack influence aren't granted rights at all.

Most of what is wrong with government, in this respect, is that it too often defends minority interests in cases where the majority should rule (e.g., public policy); just as it abandons minority or non-citizen concerns in cases where the majority has no claim (e.g., civil rights; foreign policy). Of course, it is the violent character of government which ensures such "errors" will be pursued to their most tragic conclusions.

In short, government is most often a tool of the wealthy and the powerful, which effectively grants them a resource base and coercive powers they would otherwise lack. This happens under the rubric of "the nation" or "the national interest," which broadens the scope of possibility far more than the call to lay down one's life or livelihood on behalf of the rich: the Iraq war would never happen for Halliburton alone.

It is also no secret that the government gives the wealthy a fall guy when their policy preferences blow up in their face. The private sector, which is always driving deregulation in areas where it smells profit, has done a respectable job assigning blame for the financial crisis on government agencies that had not served the banks poorly, but too well. Only last night did I discover the expression which best accounts for the ensuing mess, and the role government played in achieving it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Some NPR host asked Gillian Tett if the business press might not represent the interests of "the rest of us." Hmmm: A press which specifically markets itself to big business... not looking out for the little guy? I give you the cutting edge of public radio!

Naturally, Tett, who is employed by the Financial Times, did not answer, "Yeah, pretty much," but instead talked about the business press being "in transition" -- because what isn't these days? -- and underscored the challenges of business journalism in speaking the language of Wall Street while writing accessibly for the public good. I thought this was interesting considering that a yearly subscription to the FT runs close to $500, which tells you something about its public purpose. Tett's investigative reporting on credit market chicanery may have yielded insights relevant to the public good, but that is only because it was deemed useful the business community first. It is only after the fact that one publishes a book aimed at a general audience.

Whether it is the corporate office or the concentration camp, the most effective programs of control always include multiple tiers of authority and reward. Nobody is free, but at least there are rewards for "good" behavior.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

You've come a long way, maybe


measured by

the device in hand

passing by

the homeless man

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Everything is made convenient

Everything is made convenient that plays its part for power. Isn't it remarkable how far we have come? The satellite has replaced the courier.

Everything is made convenient -- and easier still in the final hour! -- that plays its part for power. Surely we'll have something great, before our night has flowered.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Something like this:

What jumps out from the book is Sunstein's mistrust of human judgment in everything from politics to business, especially when people band together.

always leads to something like this:

Part of the answer is putting people with humility, curiosity, and openness in power.

and it kills me -- or somebody else -- every time.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Better living through stupidity

Financial Times:

[M]any scientists say we may need to start building space mirrors, creating artificial clouds or altering the chemistry of the sea to prevent the worst effects of global warming.

Never underestimate the ability of the big, the flashy, and the ill-conceived to beat out the cheap and sensible when power is preserved by the former.

When it comes to the environment, one option is to preserve what's left of the natural planet by consuming at the point of production, producing what is needed with minimal waste, and so on.

The other option is to consume what is shipped from the other side of the planet, produce anything and everything that might be sold, dump the rest into the sea, and download our personalities into robots when the planet becomes uninhabitable!

Friday, May 08, 2009

Good government

If Bush taught us anything, it is the importance of good government. After all, it's not like you would naturally invest in incompetent bankers or exploding villagers. But a first-rate government might persuade you otherwise.

Rest assured, it takes a special sophistication to substitute "the national interest" for your own.
Cezanne in Philly

"The most pleasurable thing in the world, for me, is to see something, and then translate how I see it."

Ellsworth Kelly

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The house always wins

When American women traded the authority of their husbands for the authority of their bosses, this was called "feminism," and it has confused the question of what women want ever since.

Business is happy to sponsor a feminism that works extra hard at a discount rate, and which preferences "having a career" over being a parent. It is also happy to remind women that the alternative is to betray the principles from which contemporary "feminism" springs. Lest she forget the motto, "Work is freedom."

Little wonder, then, that we shrink from the term, since nobody is certain they want it.
The Chinese threat

Experience teaches that none can guide the community;
The community is collaboration of forces;
as such, thought shows, it cannot be led
by the strength of one man.

To order it is to set it in disorder;
To fix it is to unsettle it.

For the conduct of the individual changes:
Here goes forward, there draws back;
Here shows warmth, there reveals cold;
Here exerts strength, there displays weakness;
Here stirs passion, there brings peace.

And so:
The perfected one shuns desire for power,
shuns the lure of power,
shuns the glamour of power.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


So I was shucking packages on the old parcel plantation when a distinguished colleague tells me that his life consists of finding food, finding weed; alcohol and "fuh"-gina -- they go together; and sports.

It is a love song to our age: We chase the necessities of life while denying the pain of living.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Union bosses gone wild!

Damn union bosses. Always walking around, getting videographed while they're fat.

Union bosses eat sandwiches. Union bosses drink beer. Time clocks. Pickup trucks. Unions.

I don't know about you, but I've always felt the most incriminating thing about unions is that they're so, well, working class!
Shirkers of the world, unite!

Any politician eager to brand Obama a "socialist" for rescuing particular industries is not likely to be well connected to those industries. If they were, they would argue that rescue is necessary for economic recovery.

The gulf between the two positions -- particularly as observed within the Republican Party, which is roundly pro-business -- is best explained by the scope of the crisis, which puts the natural relationship between government and big business in high-relief.

Normally, this relationship is obscured by market mythology and anti-government rhetoric. But when the dynamic can no longer be concealed, and the marshaling of public wealth for private gain is obvious to all, this presents the pro-business camp with a dilemma. On one hand, competitive edge is ever-sharpened by the protection of the state; on the other, this contradicts the story sold to Joe the Plumber.

From all appearances, it would seem the financial industry favored Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008, explaining much of what has happened since. This may leave the Republican Party with less of a dilemma; much of its "conservative" core is informed by domestically-based industry, not international finance.

Nevertheless, a conflict is evident at the level of Republican leadership, which doubtless includes a robust financial component, with RNC chair Michael Steele resisting pressure to label Obama a socialist for doing exactly what any industry would demand if they had the clout to do so.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Beware the post-natal parasite

Twice I've heard it expressed approvingly that the swine flu is "God/Nature's way of weeding out the weak."

Is this because we face a bigger threat from babies?