Friday, April 05, 2002

Francis Fukuyama first made a splash in the early '90s with his provocatively titled book, "The End of History and the Last Man." The thesis, in effect, was this: scientifically based Western culture had found the most efficient, most comfortable, best possible way to organize a society, that it looked pretty much like the United States of the day, or more precisely, the United States on the coasts (lightly regulated markets, basically secular government), and that because we had reached a truly optimal point, that "history", considered as the story of the evolution of human society was basically over, because nothing was ever going to change again, as all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

There is, of course, a basic contradiction here: the basis of science itself is continuous challenge to scientific ideas. A scientific theory is never considered to be finally confirmed; even the most firmly established ideas are open to challenge; Newton's laws of motion were amended on the large scale by Einstein, and on the small by Bohr, Planck, and, well, Einstein. So, in declaring that the much softer sciences of sociology and economics had reached their final point, Fukuyama was, in effect, embracing the conclusions of the scientific process while rejecting their basis.

Well, the contradiction is out; Fukuyama is now arguing against future development of biotechnology, on grounds that they might justify new forms of social order (a quaint notion that used to be called "progress"). Perhaps he's worried that if things keep changing, he'll have to find a new title for his damn book.

The New York Times today reviews the Star Wars exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, showing costumes, models, and other junk from the sets of the movies, along with copious amounts of merchandise, some of which is there to illustrate the Star Wars "mythology" (the catalog strains under the weight of its allusions to Campbell and Jung), and some of which is there to illustrate what's really driving the showing of exhibit, down the hall in the gift shop. It sounds like a real trip, though not necessarily for the stuff on display:

... museum officials alerted me to a Web site ( where guidelines for appropriate behavior have been posted for members of the New York chapter of one of the "Stars Wars" fan clubs. The guidelines specify "NO DUELING of any kind!" and "NO Blasters! NO BLASTERS!"

I'm actually serious about that: the most interesting thing about the "Star Wars" phenomenon by far is the way people are using these lousy movies as a basis for genuine folk art. And I do think the movies are lousy --- the first was an apparently self-conscious riff on the short serials produced in the '40s on the cheap, but given the sheer ponderous pretension of what followed, Lucas either forgot about that, or wasn't smart enough to get his own joke in the first place. But I'm not the guy running around in the home-made cape with the painted paper-towel roll subbing in for a light saber, and I don't understand what makes him tick --- which makes him a lot more interesting than the movie makers, whose millions of motives are obvious.

More news from Boston: Teachers are getting beaten up in the schools, and some are winding up in the hospital. Why can't they appeal to the parents to help get control of the situation? Because the batterers are the parents.

Thursday, April 04, 2002

Remember the Harvard Black Afro-American Studies department? While Cornel West still considers decamping for Princeton, his colleague Charles Ogletree has turned from the narrow pursuit of personal career goals to the more noble cause of slavery reparations.

But a few things about the quest are puzzling. Like the choice of plaintiffs. Says Ogletree, "Brown University, Yale University and Harvard Law School have made headlines recently as the beneficiaries of grants and endowments traced back to slavery and are probable targets." Brown, in fact, was originally endowed by a family which (like quite a few New England grandees of the time) made their money on the slave trade. But the University that bears their name is not accused of slave trading itself, just of taking their money. If it can be sued, how about all the other recipients of their tainted cash? Their descendants? Their shipbuilders? The descendants of the shipbuilders? (If the ships were purpose built, it's at least as strong a case).

And then there's the question of where the cash will go. Says Ogletree:

The reparations movement should not, I believe, focus on payments to individuals. The damage has been done to a group - African-American slaves and their descendants - but it has not been done equally within the group. The reparations movement must aim at undoing the damage where that damage has been most severe and where the history of race in America has left its most telling evidence. The legacy of slavery and racial discrimination in America is seen in well-documented racial disparities in access to education, health care, housing, insurance, employment and other social goods. The reparations movement must therefore focus on the poorest of the poor - it must finance social recovery for the bottom-stuck, providing an opportunity to address comprehensively the problems of those who have not substantially benefited from integration or affirmative action.

But the government, which Ogletree plans to include as a plaintiff, and which has more money than the rest of them put together, already is disbursing funds targeted at that class of individuals --- welfare programs among others. So, in effect, Ogletree isn't proposing so much to rectify specific damages to specific individuals (well-off blacks, he says, don't need to get much), as to take an entire class of social programs out of the hands of Congress, and give them to the courts. Would the courts also get taxing authority to raise funds for the government programs they would create as part of the reparations process? (And by the way, do funds already disbursed through those programs count against reparation damages?)

Lastly, there's the question of motive. You'd think a lawsuit would be narrowly aimed at discovering the appropriate damages for a specific tort. But Ogletree casts a wider net:

Bringing the government into litigation will also generate a public debate on slavery and the role its legacy continues to play in our society. The opportunity to use expert witnesses and conduct extensive discovery, to get facts and documentation, makes the courtroom an ideal venue for this debate.

A full and deep conversation on slavery and its legacy has never taken place in America; reparations litigation will show what slavery meant, how it was profitable and how it has continued to affect the opportunities of millions of black Americans.

Litigation is required to promote this discussion because political accountability has not been forthcoming. ...

So Ogletree thinks that just about the entire experience of blacks in America is grist for assessing the damages. I guess he wants to be the first academic ever granted the power of subpoena to further his social research.

Civil courts do not exist to "generate public debate". They exist to adjudiciate disputes on narrowly considered factual situations, according to relevant law. In fact, they have rules of evidence which are designed to exclude facts which are not directly relevant to the legal issues at hand. This is not a process which lends itself to "full and deep conversation". The land claims of the Sioux, the damages done to interned Japanese during World War II, the discriminatory loan policies of the Agriculture department --- precedents which Ogletree cites (well, not the Sioux, but he should have) --- were all cases designed at redress of grievances for specific government acts, not everything that has ever happened to Indians, Japanese, or Blacks in America. "A full and deep conversation on slavery and its legacy" might be a good thing, but a civil court is not the right venue.

This seems to be an outbreak of one of the nastier infectious memes that infests the United States: "If you don't like what you're getting out of life --- your house, your job, the tenor of public debate on your pet issue --- find someone to sue." But this is a new strain. Fortunately, it doesn't seem virulent. At least not yet.

Well, it seems Enron may not have gotten any special favors from the Bush White House after all.

On May 18th of last year, Bush signed two executive orders regulating energy policy. One, on accelerating the permitting process for energy related projects, was cribbed directly (word-for-word, in places) from a proposal drafted by the American Gas Association, an energy lobbying group. The other, on energy supply and distribution regulations, "closely tracked" a request from the American Petroleum Institute. The Gas Association was particularly pleased, since they had originally drafted their proposal as suggestions for a bill to be given to the Senate. Public debate is so tedious and slow.

(The original drafts of these orders, on lobbyist letterhead, were among the papers of Cheney's energy task force that the White House was trying to conceal. Strictly on principle, of course).

So, it wasn't just Enron. While Enron did get favors --- like choosing both the White House policy on access to local power grids and the FERC regulators who would implement those policies --- they weren't special favors. The White House would roll over for anybody.

Tuesday, April 02, 2002

You can't get good pop music on the air these days because of centralized conglomerates with monolithic playlists, chosen by payola. So why can't you hear good classical music? Stephen Budiansky asked his local classical stations why vocal music and keyboard works had vanished from their playlists (except perhaps when arranged for guitar), in favor of tranquil mush by knighted victorians.

The managers of both stations were remarkably forthright when I posed that question to them. Their answer, simply, was that they were not really playing classical pieces at all. They were providing a "sound."

"We don't know for sure how sophisticated our listeners are," Dan DeVany, the general manager of WETA, told me. "But we do know enormous amounts about how our radio station is used?we have tremendous amounts of data on that. And radio is used predominantly as background listening. That's an important fact, because distinguishing that experience from the concert-hall experience informs us as to what kind of music to play."

While insisting that there is no "rigid code" at WETA on what not to play, DeVany acknowledged that he was influenced by the general results of industry surveys in which listeners were played various snippets of music and asked to rate how "positive" or "negative" an "experience" each was. Vocal music was consistently a big negative. So was most chamber music. DeVany believes that's because chamber music "is an extremely intense musical experience." He explained, "In some cases, when you're doing other things, it demands attention, and that may become an irritant?just by the nature of the instrumentation."

The public, in short, wants to use a classical station as a kind of electronic Valium, and the radio stations are giving them what they want. You might expect public radio stations like WETA to be relatively immune from this sort of pressure, but as Congress demands they get more of their funding through corporate sponsorship, they are increasingly forced into the same mold as the commercial stations, doing what it takes to get ratings --- a fact which their doctrinaire critics then use to argue for further cuts in government funding. (Neat, huh?)

The consequence of this in the limited and regulated radio spectrum is a kind of Gresham's law of content, where the bad music drives out the good. (Among other things; to be fair, you also hear fewer twentieth-century twelve-tone concertos for chalk squeak and rusty fence, which aren't as obvious a loss). Part of the cure, then, might be in some form of measured deregulation --- like the low-power microbroadcasting which the FCC was going to authorize and then withdrew under pressure from major broadcasters --- including, to its lasting discredit, NPR.

But it remains the case that for a time, government funding was helping to keep high-quality oddball stuff, like classical vocal pieces, on the air --- and to that extent, at least, it was playing a useful role.

A few right-wing bloggers have had peculiar reactions to a piece of mine last week which mentioned, among other things, the Kerkorians' ludicrous palimony fight, and remarks by that bomb-throwing radical, Michael Bloomberg (Mayor of New York, from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Monday through Friday) to the effect that you can't put an incinerator near the rich folks because it would ruin the tax base, which prompted, among other things, this rant from Ben Kepple:

Mr Dodgson is also displeased that Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York wants incinerators in impoverished areas of the City . Hizzoner points out these things have a tendency to go there. The whole shebang, Mr Dodgson argues, "is a gut check on the glories of American egalitarianism."

Why this is, I can't see it. So the rich have more than the poor do; this takes nothing away from the fact that even now in American life, a poor man can still become rich through hard work and living a virtuous life. Mr Kerkorian did not suddenly inherit his wealth; and even though his children will likely inherit some or all of it, it takes nothing away from the fact that money was earned, no matter who has it or where it comes from. One can start out poor in this life, be poor as he leaves high school or college, or lose his money and become poor. Whichever category a man falls into, nobody is going to get him out of it until he himself makes the effort to do so.

Someone who hadn't read the original piece might well conclude from that that I was quoting the Workers' Vanguard instead of the New York Post, but despite the bilious tone, Kepple isn't disagreeing with anything I actually said. (Well, he is disagreeing with one thing; Kira Kerkkorian isn't Kirk Kerkorian's child, as even her mother now admits, though she's still suing for child support; she has even fessed up to faking the paternity test. And I'm also a bit curious whether he really thinks that Kirk Kerkorian, a Las Vegas casino mogul with, to say the least, tangled personal affairs, is really the best poster boy for the rewards of the virtuous life. But I digress).

When I call these examples of "the kind of thing I like to use as a gut check when I hear people getting too sanctimonious about the egalitarian glory of America" (as I wrote it less sloppily in an earlier post), what I mean is simply this: that when one hears claims, as one does, from time to time, that no one has special privileges in America, it's useful to remember that some Americans actually do --- like the privilege of breathing clean air. As Kepple freely admits.

Sunday, March 31, 2002

I haven't had a whole lot to say about the current situation in Israel because, well, what can you say? But a few comments from the Palestinian side in this Times piece cry out for comment. First,

Palestinian officials say that Mr. Arafat cannot act against violence when besieged, or when he would seem to be functioning purely as Mr. Sharon's sheriff.

That second condition is a doozy. The premise of the Peace process, such as it is, is that Arafat can and will deliver the security that the Israelis require --- which is to say, that he will act as a sheriff. And as a condition of his existing agreements, he has already promised (several times) to do that. If he cannot, or will not, meet those commitments, what is the point of making another deal?

The implicit concession that Arafat actually could do more to restrain terrorism (he would, they say, if Israel would just adopt a different, more supine diplomatic posture) is just as remarkable.

They also come up with a totally random slur on the Israelis, for no other reason than that they have a Western reporter on the line:

... among numerous indignities Palestinians accused Israeli forces of capturing a television station and using it to broadcast pornography.

A United States consulate employee who was in Ramallah confirmed that the programs were on the air. The Israeli Army said soldiers interrupted the station's broadcasting but had not substituted pornography for the usual programming.

(I notice Glenn Reynolds is now reporting this slur as fact, having picked it up from the always-reliable Tim Blair).

Here's another:

Mr. Peres said that Israel would not harm or expel Mr. Arafat, and that it was restoring services to his compound. "Also, his compound is being guarded so he won't be hit," Mr. Peres said.

Told of Mr. Peres' claims, Mr. Abed Rabbo flatly dismissed them. "He is a liar," Mr. Abed Rabbo said.

He said Israeli forces had used bulldozers and tanks to flatten other buildings in the compound, and he repeated Palestinian claims that the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was out to kill Mr. Arafat.

The article earlier noted that the Israelis had restored power and brought food and water into the barricaded compound (whoever says "beseiged" isn't clear on the concept), and that Arafat could hear Hebrew-speaking guards outside his door. If they wanted to kill him, why isn't he dead yet?

One of the sad things about this, by the way, is that Ariel Sharon is coming off as the good guy, at least by comparison, even though he has war crimes of his own to answer for at Sabra and Shatila, and even though he is widely credited as the architect of the settlements policy which involves continuing displacement of Palestinians, and which has been, and continues to be, an obstacle to peace; as even Tom Friedman has figured out, if the Israelis and Palestinians can't live together, they must live apart, and a policy of deliberately moving Jews onto land promised to the Palestinian authorities will not permit that.

But regardless, it is clear that the Palestinians are not negotiating in good faith, their intention is clearly hostile, and the Israelis will have to deal with them on that basis --- more's the pity, and the horror.

Nonsense can be fun. There's some beautiful nonsense at the Pepper Gallery, the City of Salt by Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, a show featuring digital prints of strange scenes, Borgesian short-short stories posted on the walls which purport to explain them, and in the center of the room, the city of salt itself, modeled in salt and clay figures, which is variously described in the texts as the city of the living, the city of the dead, a dream, a mirage, and an illusion in the eyes of all who perceive it, including the inhabitants. (But isn't that what a city is?)

The text featured on the gallery's web site is from the title piece, "City of Salt", in which the city is either a tomb built for the potentate of a plague-stricken city, or the dream of a plague-stricken beggar imagining that he is a king.

This is wonderful stuff. It's there through the end of April; see it if you have the chance.