Thursday, February 22, 2007

(Relative) silent running

I'm going to be travelling for the next couple of weeks. I may be checking in now and then, but it's going to be relatively quiet here for a while.

However, I will return, after a short pause. So don't stop showing up or anything.

And there's a lot of text to go exploring over the last few months or so. Especially if you click on one of the subject headings below.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Some enraged squirrels and something more on tolerance

Somewhat randomly, I've run across a couple of worthwhile bits of prose since returning from Britain.

In the Guardian, George Monbiot vents some well-justified anger and frustration at September 11th conspiracy nuts, whom he compares to enraged squirrels:

The 9/11 conspiracy theories are a displacement activity. A displacement activity is something you do because you feel incapable of doing what you ought to do. A squirrel sees a larger squirrel stealing its horde of nuts. Instead of attacking its rival, it sinks its teeth into a tree and starts ripping it to pieces. Faced with the mountainous challenge of the real issues we must confront, the chickens in the "truth" movement focus instead on a fairytale, knowing that nothing they do or say will count, knowing that because the perpetrators don't exist, they can't fight back. They demonstrate their courage by repeatedly bayoneting a scarecrow.

In The Spectator, John Gray has some good words for 'tolerance' (access requires registration):

The radically plural society we find ourselves in today is not a transitional phase leading to a point, some time in the future, when we will have the same fundamental values. It is the way we can expect to live from now onwards. There may be nothing intrinsically good about this sort of diversity but it is a fact, and teleological liberalism is a poor guide to negotiating the difficulties it brings. Luckily there is another liberal tradition in which the goal of toleration is not agreement, still less truth, but peace.

This is the sort of viewpoint - which has the avoidance of violent social conflict rather than the achievement of fundamental consensus as its central goal - which I think motivates Ian Buruma's perspectives on tolerance and integration in Murder in Amsterdam and elsewhere. Obviously, it sets the bar rather low as far as social integration and universal rights go. But I think their argument is more a practical one concerned with what is possible rather than what would, ideally, be desirable.

Which is not always a satisfying position, perhaps. But it may be all we can realistically hope for.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

I will dazzle them with my wit

I'm back from London, in a brief interlude between travels. Though not feeling very wordy right now.

But this song is something I can't get out of my head right now.

Justifiably so, I think.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Lessons in tolerance

I'm away from my desk for the next few days or so, presenting a seminar paper at my university and trying to get in some quick research while in London.

Till next week, however, you might want to spend some time reading the few thousand words or so that I put into very orderly rows with regard to the Sign and Sight multiculturalism debate. Of course, you might not. You might have far better things to do.

But if so, it's best to start here, move on to here and, finally, end up here. (Go ahead. Put another pot of coffee on, and make yourself comfortable. It'll take a while.)

One thing I discussed was the vexed topic of 'tolerance', so after reading what I had to say (or -- if you're lazy -- instead of reading what I had to say), do go visit Think Humanist and check out the first two of their 'thought for the day' podcasts. (Pdf transcripts of the comments from A.C. Grayling and from Stewart Lee are also available. Thanks to Matt M for the tip.)

Both of them make very worthwhile listening or reading.

And they're a lot more succinct than I am.

Finally, you may wish to consider a rather different viewpoint on tolerance, this time from the seven-year-old narrator in John D. Fitzgerald's great children's book The Great Brain:

'Adenville had a population of twenty-five hundred people, of which about two thousand were Mormons and the rest Catholics and Protestants. Mormons and non-Mormons had learned to live together with some degree of tolerance and understanding by that time. But tolerance hadn't come easy for my oldest brother, Sweyn, my brother Tom, and myself. Most of our playmates were Mormon kids, but we taught them tolerance. It was just a question of us all learning how to fight good enough for Sweyn to whip every Mormon kid his age, Tom to whip every Mormon kid his age, and for me to whip every Mormon kid my age in town. After all, there is nothing as tolerant and understanding as a kid you can whip.' (pp. 1-2)

True. Very true. (Thanks to Anja for the tip!)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Darwin Day

It's Darwin Day, people. Enjoy.

(Un)holier than thou

I was planning on leaving the Sign and Sight debate behind me, partly because there are other things I’d really rather write about but also because the tone set (and approach employed) by those who have attacked Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash has been so frustrating, dispiriting and needlessly overblown that it seems pointless to continue in this vein.

For instance, in a follow-up discussion at Butterflies and Wheels, we find the following quote from Ian Buruma (which was written in response, remember, to the tiresome diatribe of Bruckner's which I commented on here):

Bruckner mentions the opening of an Islamic hospital in Rotterdam and reserved beaches for Muslim women in Italy. I fail to see why this is so much more terrible than opening kosher restaurants, Catholic hospitals, or reserved beaches for nudists, but to Bruckner these concessions are akin to segregation in the southern states of America, and even Apartheid in South Africa.

Buruma’s statement receives the following commentary:

Well, that's quite a failure. Bruckner is right. These concessions are akin to southern segregation because - yo, Mr Buruma! - segregation is what they're about. An Islamic hospital is 'Islamic' primarily via sexual segregation of doctors, nurses and patients. Reserved beaches for Muslim women are - hello? - segregated beaches. They are, indeed, a form of apartheid, of apartness.

The comments section then features some outraged huffing about oppression and segregation, references to Brown vs. The Board of Education (the Supreme Court decision that helped desegregate the south and rightly dismantled the notion of ‘separate but equal’) and a not altogether convincing discussion of nudist beaches. The assumptions seem to be, amidst all of this, that 1) any reference to ‘tolerance’ is illegitimate since its just a cover for capitulation to religious fanatics 2) that expanding freedom of ‘choice’ is the only valid measure of social policy and 3) Muslim sensitivities regarding modesty are simply imposed on oppressed women by men and therefore do not need to be taken into account.

I have doubts that any of this is all that simple. And I’ll expand upon that in a moment.

First, however, I must say that this argument (like Bruckner’s) is undermined from the start by its extravagant analogies. There is not only something inaccurate but also something offensive, I find, in comparing the opening of a religious-oriented hospital or the re-writing of beach ordinances to Apartheid and Jim Crow.

‘Apartheid’ may literally mean ‘apartness.’ ‘Segregate’ might indeed derive from the Latin for ‘apart’.

But while words are important, context and history (not to say a sense of proportion) matter too. A great deal. ‘Apartheid’ was a brutal, organised system of oppression, torture and economic exploitation by which a minority maintained its dominance over millions of people. ‘Segregation’ in the American south was the result of a century-long attempt to maintain white privilege over an oppressed minority group which, recall, had been enslaved, brutalized and exploited in that region for nearly three hundred years, and it was accompanied by heinous, murderous violence.

Consider this carefully.

Buruma suggests an Islamic hospital or a reserved beach is not ‘so much more terrible’ than Kosher restaurants and Catholic hospitals. So, he thinks that they’re not necessarily the same thing and even leaves open the possibility that they might in fact be somewhat more troubling. Still, he finds them to be far more comparable to Kosher restaurants, Catholic hospitals or reserved beaches for nudists than to segregation and Apartheid. Is he really that wrong?

Let’s take a closer look at the two issues in question.

An article on the ‘Muslim beach’ appeared in the Guardian last year. Here is part of it:

The council of Riccione on the Adriatic riviera was reported yesterday to have altered its bylaws to allow a section of its famed beach to be closed off and made women-only. That way Muslim women on holiday in the area could swim and enjoy themselves on the beach while respecting Islam's injunctions against mixed bathing and displaying their bodies to members of the opposite sex. Some women-only beaches already exist along the Italian coast, but they are visible from mixed areas.

Loretta Villa, the councillor responsible for the initiative, told Corriere della Sera newspaper: "Riccione is a city that lives off tourism. We need to be in a position to respond to the demands of our guests. And in this case the motives are not superficial, but cultural and religious. We have already had some indirect requests for separate beach areas."

The proposed beach zone would also have an all-female staff, including women lifeguards.

The initiative appeared to have been prompted by a sharp increase in the number of free-spending tourists coming to Riccione from the Arabian peninsula.

The horror. The horror.

So, the ‘Muslim’ beach, at least in this case, is actually a ‘women-only’ beach (which also makes the reference to ‘Sharia’ in the article’s title somewhat gratuitous). Rather than evidence of soggy cultural relativist traitors in our midst, or a sign of growing Muslim aggression, we have a rather more mundane market-based decision intended to attract tourists. They wish to respond, as a service provider in the public sphere, to the expectations being made by an important segment of its customer base.

One may scoff, of course, at the reference to ‘cultural and religious’ motives with regard to modesty. One may also be as outraged at a ‘women-only’ beach as at a ‘Muslim-only’ beach. Perhaps for some people, this makes no difference to how Absolutely Outrageous this all is.

However, every culture has different standards of what it wants to accept in terms of revealing the body or what activities of the sexes are ‘segregated’. These distinctions are significant even among Western nations (and even within them), but let’s stick with the topic in question.

Topless women are a common sight, for example, on French beaches, but this is something which is less acceptable in Spain or Italy. Most saunas in Germany have a Frauentag (‘women’s day’) or at least certain hours of operation during which only women are allowed to use that facility. (The new local sauna near where I live – built partly with public funds – does not have such a rule, but there has been an active and vocal campaign by women to establish a period when men would be prohibited.) By contrast, sauna-going in parts of Scandinavia, I believe, is normally done separately by men and women, making this issue moot. We also ‘segregate’ toilets and changing rooms by sex – something which, I think, most people would wish to maintain – without thinking much about it. (But is there any purely logical reason for it? I’m not so sure. Clearly, a silly 'cultural' attitude and therefore not to be considered.)

And then, compared to continental Europe, most Americans (and Britons) are rather more modest when it comes to public nudity. (I recall a sign on a beach in New Jersey which was written in stark red letters: ‘Warning! Beyond this point you may encounter nude sunbathers’. Thanks for the information…but is a ‘warning’ really necessary?) Nor is the much discussed ‘nudist’ beach always, simply or unequivocally an advance of ‘choice’ or freedom. They are, mainly, an accommodation with a group with a desire to engage in activities that exceed a publicly agreed upon standard of modesty. The compromise is that this activity is allowed but only within particular limitations.

Some beaches are indeed simply ‘clothing-optional’; others, however, are not, and either through mandate or informal pressure among the users, remaining clothed is often prohibited or at least frowned upon. An American friend of mine who lived in Freiburg always spoke fondly of her favourite local public pool there, where there was a rather strict distinction between ‘Textil Zeit’ (lit.: ‘textile time’), when clothing was required, and the ‘Textilfreie Zeit’, when it was prohibited.

Moreover, the expansion of ‘nudist’ or ‘naturist’ beaches is not always an increase in ‘choice’ or freedom. In the former GDR (hardly a hotbed of freedom in other contexts), a culture of naked bathing developed which became a fully normal part of beach culture. Since reunification, the east has been slowly forced to adopt western sensitivities: whereas one could previously strip down to nothing on any beach, it is increasingly so that only particular ‘FKK’ (Freikörperkultur) beaches allow nude bathing. In this context, then, a certain loss of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ is involved.

Nevertheless, German democracy seems to be less than endangered.

I apologise for this rather long digression into the topic of saunas, ‘women’s days’, and nude bathing.

However, I’m not the one who compared the opening of a ‘women-only’ beach to ‘Apartheid’, and, as I feel this comparison is a travesty of logic, I wanted to suggest that there is nothing new or all that alarming about differences in standards of modesty nor in conflicts over them. There are a lot of fully modernised, western women who don’t feel comfortable sharing a sauna with men. They want their own sauna hours. Many saunas, partly for economic reasons (they don’t want to lose customers), accommodate them. There are nudists who want to spend all day in the altogether. Excellent; however, not everyone wants to see them, so such activities are confined to particular locations.

There is, however, a curious assumption being made in this debate that the person with the lower standard of modesty is automatically, somehow, more free and more enlightened. Are naturists more ‘free’ than people who prefer to conceal their bodies to varying degrees at the beach and who would rather not be subjected to looking at their neighbour’s privates? Are the women who want a separate sauna period ‘for them’ in a public facility imposing a form of ‘segregation’, even ‘Apartheid’? Are they in any way less ‘free’? In part, of course, these are personal decisions, but there are also such things as cultural norms, and they vary (Go topless on a French beach and you’re normal; do it in most of the US and, oooh, you’re daring...and may be subject to arrest. The British, for their part, seem to find the human body an incredibly embarrassing and silly thing; an attitude which I have long thought was embarrassing and silly.)

While there is no single ‘Islamic’ standard (as with head-covering, interpretations and contexts vary, whatever the Cairo statement might say), many Muslims (both men and women) have a different standard of modesty. It’s not one that I share, and it’s linked both to religious attitudes and to a view of relations between the sexes that – depending on the specific issue – I find to be anything ranging from odd to abhorrent.

But we’re not talking in this context about wife-beating, forced marriage or honour killings. And I don’t think that providing a ‘women-only’ beach implies acceptance of those other things. Not every ‘segregation’ of the sexes leads us down the road to oppression and Sharia (if so, then the best weapon the West might have in the clash of civilisations would be to introduce the unisex toilet). Likewise, I think the opening of an Islamic hospital is less than crisis for Enlightenment values and even less evidence of ‘Apartheid’.

As described here, the hospital is not only defined by ‘sexual segregation’, but also by the provision of a halal diet and will offer religious services. Nope, this is definitely not my thing. But it is something which, most likely, a lot of Muslims living in the Netherlands actually would want. They are, after all, part of Dutch society. Their wishes, as long as they do not unacceptably violate Dutch law or norms (I think it goes without saying that I think that, but considering this debate so far, I can't be too sure), can and should be taken into account. This is partly what ‘tolerance’ – and democracy – is about.

Might not this hospital, additionally, lead to greater ‘choice’ for Muslims (and, in theory, for non-Muslims: like the ‘Muslim beach’ it doesn't seem that non-Muslims would be forbidden from using it)? It may, in particular, benefit Muslim women, who, for a variety of reasons (including, but not limited to, their own wishes or preferences) may not currently seek out medical attention they require. One might find it abhorrent that such a woman would be treated exclusively by female staff at this particular hotel. I don’t like or agree with this kind of sexual division either. Nonetheless, it would seem to me that there are other benefits which might be had here which help to balance out those concerns.

A commentator at Butterflies and Wheels suggests that ‘tolerance’ means being allowed to practice one’s religion in private or at church but ‘IF you bring it on to the public place (the agora), then you must obey the same rules as everyone else.’ Very well, that’s an important distinction, but, interestingly enough, ‘everyone else’ seems here to, by definition, include only non-Muslims. If we define those who contribute to making the rules about public space by excluding everyone who disagrees with us, then reaching consensus is, of course, easy. But at which point do minority groups get to participate with ‘everyone else’ in drawing up the ‘rules’ of the public space?

‘If you want the law changed,’ he or she adds, ‘there are methods for doing this.’ Well, this seems to be exactly what happened at the dreaded ‘Muslim beach’ in Italy. In the case of the Islamic hospital, the entrepreneur who seeks to open it (who seems to be both non-Muslim and motivated more by exploiting a potentially lucrative market niche than in bringing Sharia to your doorstep) has assured that the hospital will meet existing legal standards in the Netherlands. If this is so, I fail to see how either case represents anything even remotely like ‘Apartheid’ or US-southern-style ‘segregation’, labels which seem to have been applied without any significant interest in context or the facts of the matter.

Here, we might have a point on which I simply differ substantially with others. If so, that’s where we’ll have to leave it.

But I do think its worth saying a few good words for the concept of ‘tolerance’.

‘Tolerance’, of course, doesn’t mean that anything goes, nor does it mean that one loses the facility to distinguish between what is acceptable and what is not. Buruma (like Ash) clearly knows this; to suggest otherwise is being needlessly belligerent (or requires making all kinds of assumptions about what he ‘really’ meant which are not sustainable unless one is primarily interested in scoring rhetorical points rather than having a reasonable discussion).

Once a commentator has established the unacceptability of violence and oppression, is he or she required to repeatedly footnote their references to ‘tolerance’ so that it’s clear it does not include all those truly heinous things? I suggest not. Nor do I think that when Buruma says combating violence is ‘a matter for law enforcement’ that he ‘seems to deny’ other forms of persuasion or campaigning would be in any way useful. It takes, I think, a great deal of effort to make these assumptions, and it is bizarre to act as if such things were mutually exclusive. (What sends a better signal that such behaviour is unacceptable than a nice long jail-sentence?)

Even if liberal-minded people need to use the concept more carefully (which is true, though I suggest Buruma is already doing so), it remains a vitally important issue.

But what’s strange is that some commentators seem to presume that the European population consists merely, on the one hand, of aggressive, identity-politics obsessed minorities and fundamentalists and, on the other, mush-minded multi-culturalists ready to sell-out to them. There are also, however, parts of the population who object to the Muslims (and other minorities) in our midst on grounds which have nothing to do with reason and the Enlightenment. They object to them simply as Muslims, or as people with browner skins who have strange customs and who ‘don’t belong’. (There is also a much larger population who doesn’t care much about the issue one way or another, though who are at least somewhat latently uncomfortable about foreignness.)

Muslim fundamentalists are not the only preachers of hate, nor can one say that the current problems in integration are simply the result of ‘multiculturalism’. Nor is integration (and I think this is being forgotten here) simply about religion. As Buruma eloquently describes in Murder in Amsterdam, many European immigrants, despite genuine efforts to integrate, have continued to be discriminated against and rejected. He also, of course, acknowledges that some immigrants seek to isolate themselves from the broader culture. Too many advocates of a multicultural approach forget this. But to let the issues of discrimination and intolerance disappear from the discussion is irresponsible. It is in part this frustration and exclusion which has helped to make hateful death-cults and religious madness so appealing to some people. (But, in case it’s necessary to spell it out: to explain is not to excuse.)

Most versions of multiculturalism are inadequate as a response to the problems Europe faces. They deserve to critiqued and even mocked. However, how we got here also has something to do with a history of indifference, discrimination and outright hostility. Managing real integration is demanding task which will inevitably, require some mixture of backbone and compromise. (It's results will probably always remain ambiguous, as they always have been.) Analysing the shortcomings of integration in a realistic way (while also condemning the religious madmen) might be equally difficult.

But it is something that Buruma does far better than Bruckner, Kelek or Cliteur.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The fog of warring discourse

At Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson has written a response to my comments on the Sign and Sight multiculturalism debate. (This is a misleading title in many ways, since the debate seems to have been more about the egos of some of its contributors than the issue of multiculturalism, but that’s what Sign and Sight is calling it and so, for the sake of convenience, shall I.)

In her response, she explains that, despite the ‘surface’ reasonableness of Buruma’s commentary, she’s left with a ‘sense’ -- and even something as strong as a ‘suspicion’ -- that behind his sensible-sounding words lurks something…else. Precisely what is uncertain, but it’s definitely something sinister. Underneath all this reasonable rhetoric, she believes to sense Buruma’s readiness to sell out to politically correct liberalism and European identity politics.

In what Buruma writes, she hears echoes of other speakers, other writers, many of whom have dishonestly sought to use moderate words to hide radical (or cowardly) agendas.

I know what she means. Really, I do. I don’t like those people either.

Nonetheless, sharing, as I do, her commitment to fair and open debate, I would point out that my own words did not seek to support some presumed cultural agenda being pushed by Buruma and Ash (whatever that might be).

Instead, I had the rather more limited aim (pursued at somewhat relentless length, I know) of critiquing the hysterical and intellectually dishonest attacks on those two men by Pascal Bruckner, Necla Kelek and Paul Cliteur. I took issue, in short, with their words and their approach to argument, logic, evidence and (dare I say) the truth.

Which, as we know, matters.

The point I was making was not what might be wrong with Buruma's point of view, but whether the comments of these three commentators were any sense fair, either to Buruma or to what he had written.

To put it succinctly, whatever positive elements that trio’s arguments may have had (though, to be honest, I didn’t really find them nearly as insightful as they seem to have thought themselves to be) they were, in my view, fatally undermined by their selective appropriation of Buruma’s and Ash’s writing, their all-too-obvious rhetorical sleights-of-hand and their overblown posing as true heroes of European values and brave opponents of Islamist radicalism.

Sad to say, there’s more than a hint of Ann Coulter’s rhetorical style -- the needless hyperbole, the twisted logic, the hair-trigger accusations of ‘treason’ (see Bruckner’s reference to ‘jihadist collaborators’) -- in these attacks.

And that’s not a compliment.

I do indeed think it’s vitally important to debate the key issues of our day in a clear and honest language and to employ logic, reason and evidence. Otherwise, as Ophelia points out in a response to a critical blog commentator, we’re left with 'ambiguity and fog'.

Oh yes, I definitely agree with that.

However, I think that in pursuing this goal, it would be helpful to apply the same rigorous criteria to Bruckner and Kelek and Cliteur as one applies to Buruma and Ash. We should expect the same fairness and intellectual rigor from those with whom we agree as from those with whom we disagree.

But in the cases of Bruckner, Kelek and Cliteur, it is not necessary to rely on hunches and guesswork to see where their reasoning might have gone astray.

Leaving Bruckner aside (I think I’ve written enough about him), what do we make, for instance, of Kelek’s insistence that Buruma’s comments about the diversity of Islam are ‘true in the details, but not in the fundamentals’? What does that mean? Does it mean anything precise? Are the differences in Islam as practiced in, say, Saudi Arabia and that observed in those more integrated segments of immigrant communities in Europe (or even in the western parts of urban Turkey) simply a matter of ‘detail’? (While a university English instructor in Germany, a few of my most talented students were young women who somehow managed to be both Muslim and modern. Were their experiences as Muslims different from those of women living under Wahhabist fundamentalism only en detail? Or were they not really modern, as they hadn’t gone the extra step and rejected Islam tout court?)

What are we to make of Kelek’s ringing declaration that ‘Islam is a social reality’ when, in the very next sentence, she exchanges ‘social reality’ for the realm of ‘writings and philosophy’?

Her detailed analysis of the ‘Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam’ is very interesting (and it is certainly a disturbing document). Nonetheless, I not only fail to see its decisive impact in forming ‘social reality’ nor do I see how it undermines Buruma’s point about cultural diversity. He at least made his arguments on the basis of an actual investigation into the ‘social reality’ of Islam in the Netherlands. (Additionally, as I pointed out previously, Buruma’s simple and obvious point has been made by at least one person whose anti-jihadist credentials are quite solid. Kelek’s eager efforts to transform Buruma’s statement about diversity into a sign of his ‘cultural relativism’ lack not only good taste but also several logical steps and any piece of significant evidence.)

I would, furthermore, be willing to bet (a small amount, but still) that very few of the socially real Muslims interviewed by Buruma in Amsterdam had ever heard of the Cairo Declaration. In fact, I suspect the Cairo Declaration itself – as frightening as it sounds (and, yes, as accurately as it might describe the sorry state of law and equality in many Muslim countries) – is as little known by Muslims as, sadly, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is known by westerners in general.

So, yes, interesting, even scary it might be; however, what value does it have as evidence for the argument she’s making? Very little, I think: if you want to find proof of the 'social reality' of Islam today, I suspect one of the last places to go looking for it is to a document expressing a ‘minimal consensus’ signed seventeen years ago by 45 foreign ministers in Cairo.

Buruma, after all, never denies that there are global commonalities in Islam (and here, again, all of the commentators who critique Buruma on such points make the wholly unjustified assumption that he’s a fool); his assertion, which he argues convincingly and with evidence, is that there are also differences worth taking into consideration in order to have any kind of reasonable discussion about integration. I don’t for the life of me know why this claim throws Kelek into such a fit of outraged disgust. Really, I don’t.

Kelek’s essay might contain some accurate – and unsettling – points about Islam; however, her criticism of Buruma (which was, after all, what she mainly intended and was, in addition, what I wrote about in my blog post) boils down to one part exaggeration, one part misrepresentation and one part ad hominem attack. I fail to see how this brings the cause of reason, enlightenment and liberation even a single step forward.

Finally, there are, of course, various ways to read Buruma’s response to Bruckner: one can – if one chooses – accept that Buruma means what he says; alternatively, it is always possible to assume that what he means is actually what other people have meant, or even that he means the opposite of what he writes.

OK. That’s fine. It’s fun to speculate.

But I expect a particular set of good reasons to make the latter assumption. In the absence of such grounds, I’m not exactly sure why we should suspect Buruma of meaning anything other than what he says he means. And if we disagree with him we should explain why we disagree with what he says, rather than with what we think he might have meant, unless we can present good evidence that he has a history of lying.

And even if one were to disagree with Buruma or Ash on some points (and there might be good reasons to do so), it totally escapes me why they should be labelled ‘enemies of freedom’ operating in the spirit of ‘inquisitors’ (Bruckner), ‘cultural relativists’ (Kelek) or ‘nihilists’ (Cliteur).

Here, I must say, find myself in a fog of ignorance.

Friday, February 09, 2007

With friends like these...

I'm catching up with this far too late, and - since real-world work calls - I will have to deal with it far more briefly than I'd prefer.

I think, however, that Geoff Coupe was absolutely right about Pascal Bruckner's essay 'Enlightenment fundamentalism or racism of the anti-racists?', which took Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash to task for, apparently, not demonstrating sufficient and unquestioning adoration of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Geoff - rightly, if generously - refers to Bruckner's article as 'shrill' and describes the experience of reading this way: 'I felt as though I was being hectored by someone shouting in my ear and waving his arms about wildly...'

So, I must say, did I, although I think Ash put it even better by referring to Bruckner as 'the intellectual equivalent of a drunk meandering down the road, arguing loudly with some imaginary enemies.'

Neither Buruma nor Ash need defending here, as their responses (Buruma's is here and Ash's is here) are everything that Bruckner's essay was not: carefully argued, well-written and - despite an understandable testiness - thoroughly reasonable. (Bruckner's essay was translated, so, some of the more exhausting stretches of prose might not be entirely his fault. Considering how far over-the-top it actually is, though, I doubt it.)

In fact, I think Bruckner's essay is one of the most blundering and silly hatchet jobs I've seen in a long time.

Nonetheless, it has been suggested that since Bruckner provides quotes from Ash and Buruma, his argument is fair. I can't accept that, not least since the quotations in question are both highly selective and, even when taken individually, do not sustain the arguments they are intended to back up.

Just to take one example, Bruckner says the following about Ash's 'outmoded machismo':

In his eyes, only the beauty and glamour of the Dutch parliamentarian can explain her media success; not the accuracy of what she says. (Emphasis added)

Graciously (or foolishly, take your pick), Bruckner provides a footnote, leading to the following comment from Garton Ash's recent NYRB review:

In fact, she is irresistible copy for journalists, being a tall, strikingly beautiful, exotic, brave, outspoken woman with a remarkable life story, now living under permanent threat of being slaughtered like van Gogh. ... It's no disrespect to Ms. Ali to suggest that if she had been short, squat, and squinting, her story and views might not be so closely attended to.

Recall that 'only' I highlighted in Bruckner's sentence: not only does it skip over the other qualities that Ash actually mentions ('brave', 'outspoken', 'remarkable life story' 'living under permanent threat of being slaughtered') which cannot be put down to 'machismo', but Bruckner also fails to put this comment in context.

(Bruckner's ellipses also left out the following sentence of Ash's: 'That's how we like our heroes—glamorous', which broadens the point he's making well beyond Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Is he wrong? Is it impossible that her 'media success' is related to the factors Ash mentions? How naive do you have to be to believe that the attention Ayaan Hirsi Ali has received is purely a result of her devastating critique of Islam and not also related to her charisma and the drama inherent in her story? It seems to me that this was all Ash was saying.)

Thus, it is a shameful rhetorical stunt for Bruckner to follow up thus:

It is her wilful, short-fused, enthusiastic, impervious side to which Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash object, in the spirit of the inquisitors who saw devil-possessed witches in every woman too flamboyant for their tastes.

What!? Did Bruckner miss Ash saying (in the same essay Bruckner alleges to have read) 'I have enormous respect for her courage, her sincerity, and her clarity', 'Ali performs a great service in drawing our attention to these horrors, which are the dark underside of a supposedly tolerant "multiculturalism"' or 'I regard it as a profound shame for Holland and Europe that we Europeans could not keep among us someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose intention was to fight for a better Holland and a better Europe'? Or did he, more likely, read them and - recognising that acknowledging them would make his hyperactive huffing about 'enemies of freedom' and the 'spirit of the inquisitors' look a little bit more silly than it already does - pretend that they didn't exist?

These are only a few examples, but - though I wasn't keeping precise count - just about every other sentence of his essay seems to contain something which is equally deceptive or rhetorically or logically overblown.

I'm not, as it turns out, an enormous fan of Timothy Garton Ash, whom I find to be a sometimes insightful but too often uneven (and occasionally just plain wacky) thinker and writer. But if Bruckner wants to class him as an 'inquisitor', then it's Bruckner who looks a fool, and the weird caricature drawn here of Buruma's magnificent and complex book Murder in Amsterdam is further proof, were any necessary, that Bruckner doesn't know what he's talking about.

It's true, of course, that both Ash and Buruma have critiqued Ayaan Hirsi Ali. (What, is that not allowed?) Both of them agree with a significant amount of her critique (indeed, I would say with nearly all of it); however, they question - reasonably enough - the effectiveness of her approach in helping to encourage moderation in European Islam. One may agree with that specific critique or not, but it thoroughly escapes me how such critiques (Buruma, for instance, notes his own 'scepticism' about her analysis but suggests it is 'a matter of emphasis' rather than a fundamental rejection) make either writer an 'enemy of freedom' or any of the other strange epithets hurled at them by Bruckner...

...or, in a later response by Necla Kelek, who, bizarrely, seems to think Buruma is a 'cultural relativist' of the most spineless sort, one of those who, as she puts it, 'prefer not to hear about arranged marriages, honour killings...and other violations of human rights.' (An even later response by Paul Cliteur takes it one step further, claiming Buruma has a 'postmodern relativist outlook' and associates him with 'nihilism'.)

Ms. Kelek, though, seems to have forgotten that Buruma not only has 'heard about' such things, but he has also written about them with great moral clarity in Murder in Amsterdam and elsewhere. In her world, suggesting any amount of accommodation with Europe's Muslims is equivalent to accepting blood vengeance, slavery and the oppression of women. Does she really think that Buruma doesn't give a damn about Muslim women? And could it possibly be true that, rather than freeing Muslim women, he thinks that a response to European Islam based solely on an uncompromising secularism might drive them further into the suffocating embrace of their own separatist communities?

Well, golly, yes, judging by what he wrote, it would seem to be his argument:

I would not dream of defending dictatorship in the name of tolerance for other cultures. Violence against women, or indeed men, is intolerable, and should be punished by law. I would not defend the genital mutilation of children, let alone wife-beating, no matter how it is rationalized. Honour killings are murders, and must be treated as such. But these are matters of law enforcement. Figuring out how to stop violent ideologies from infecting mainstream Muslims, and thus threatening free societies, is trickier. I'm not convinced that public statements, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has made, that Islam in general is "backward" and its prophet "perverse", are helpful.
However, while strangely seeming to ignore anything that Buruma has actually written (except, perhaps, the fragments offered up by Bruckner), Kelek works herself up into a needless frenzy about the truly strange claim that Buruma 'attempts to reduce the West's confrontation with Islam to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's personal problem'. That Buruma points out the fact - not, Kelek's word, 'stereotype' - that Islam (like any other religion) is embedded globally in different cultures is twisted by Kelek into the very different claim, which Buruma does not make, that those cultural practices must all be allowed or even respected.

Bruckner made a similar point to Kelek's, scorning Buruma's reference to European muslims as 'a vulnerable minority in the heart of Europe' by asserting,

this statement disregards the fact that Islam has no borders: the Muslim communities of the Old World are backed up by a billion faithful.
This is a common enough observation. Nonetheless, it was recently Christopher Hitchens - no pansified appeaser of cultural relativism he - who pointed out the problem of this kind of statement, in a review of Mark Steyn's latest book:

Yet Steyn makes the same mistake as did the late Oriana Fallaci: considering European Muslim populations as one. Islam is as fissile as any other religion (as Iraq reminds us). Little binds a Somali to a Turk or an Iranian or an Algerian, and considerable friction exists among immigrant Muslim groups in many European countries.

And this, it seems to me, is one of the crucial points emerging from Buruma's subtle analysis (in Murder in Amsterdam, for instance) of the cultural differences among muslims, something which is of great practical, political significance in working out how real integration is going to be most quickly moved forward. What evidence - other than Buruma's own assertions to the contrary - might lead us to the conclusion that there is something more than multicultural, relativist cowardice behind his words?

Well, Hitchens, building on the point he made above, makes a good argument about one of the key issues in European Islam:

The main problem in Europe in this context is that many deracinated young Muslim men, inflamed by Internet propaganda from Chechnya or Iraq and aware of their own distance from “the struggle,” now regard the jihadist version of their religion as the “authentic” one.
Now, in Buruma's response to Cliteur's own wilful mis-characterisation of his book, Buruma says the following, and, if you listen closely, you might hear something familiar:
One example of his methods should suffice to make the point. I wrote that young European Muslims are sometimes fatally attracted to radical Islam, because of their cultural dislocation. Feeling neither at home in the traditions of their fathers, nor in the societies of their European homelands, they seek the "purity of modern Islamism", which "has been disconnected from cultural tradition." It is indeed a universalist creed, just as belief in the fundamental values of the Enlightenment are. Thus what we see in Europe is "not a straightforward clash between culture and universalism, but between two versions of the universal, one radically secular, the other radically religious."
Where Buruma stands with regard to these two worldviews is hardly a mystery. And this should be immediately apparent to any serious reader of his work, let alone people with educational credentials implying that they have the capacity for things like careful reading and subtle, differentiated judgements rather than simply juvenile name calling.

Is it just me, or is there something odd and disquieting to see these self-proclaimed defenders of the Enlightenment and reason using dishonest rhetorical tricks, apocalyptic visions of social decline, overblown, emotionally-laden vocabulary and the kind of blanket denunciations more appropriate to Politburo commissars than free-thinking intellectuals?

I hate the term 'Enlightenment fundamentalist' as much as anyone, and I still think that it's meaningless and thought-killing.

However, I can't stop thinking that if Bruckner, Kelek and Cliteur represent reason's front line of defence in Europe, the positive legacies of the Enlightenment are even more endangered than I realised.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Middle-class hero?

At the Guardian, Richard Williams has some interesting things to say about violence in Italian football, a topic that has become newsworthy again recently due to the death of police officer Filippo Raciti last Friday in a football riot in Sicily.

Williams, for instance, makes an interesting comparison with Britain, which has had some success in reducing (and also, as he notes, displacing) football-related violence over the past decade. Intriguingly, he points to the positive effects of something that most English fans have endlessly complained about: football’s increasing commercialisation, its growing number of middle-class spectators and the addition of relatively intrusive policing measures.

In England the game's second chance was partly paid for in Italian blood when the combination of Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough achieved a kind of critical mass. The subsequent bourgeoisification of English football, accelerated by the invention of the Premiership, created the conditions in which ticket prices could be raised so high that, combined with effective security precautions, they eventually deterred hooligans, whose violent activities have largely been displaced, in a diluted form, to the lower divisions.

In Italy, by contrast, you can still turn up at a Serie A match and buy a ticket for less than a tenner. A cursory search at the turnstile is unlikely to reveal the flare taped to your inner thigh. Inside the stadium the facilities are rudimentary and your activities will be neither observed by the kind of closed-circuit cameras that scan every inch of an English stadium nor supervised by any kind of rigorous stewarding.

This is a topic I return to below, but it’s worth first taking a look at another suggestion that violence seems is not only have become sideshow in Italian football but has rather become part of the main event.

Police also located a stash of arms yesterday hidden inside Catania's Massimino football stadium, the scene of the rioting. Baseball bats and iron balls, described by police as offensive weapons, were found in a room used by the stadium's caretaker, who was arrested after he tried to stop the raid by setting dogs on police officers.

There is, of course, nothing new about the connection between football and violence, a relationship going well back before the sport was professionalised in the late 19th century. It so happens that I’m currently reading a fascinating book by sociologists Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning, Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process (London: Basil Blackwell, 1986).

I haven’t gotten to the articles (mainly by Dunning, who has specialised on the sociology of sport) which give detailed attention to the association between violence and football, but I’ve run across some interesting things in Elias’s introduction. As in his other work, he emphasises the growing necessity, over centuries of development, for the self-control of emotions and urges in what he refers to as ‘civilising processes’. The growing ‘pacification’ of society is on the one hand, positive; it can, however, also be frustrating, as opportunities for relatively free emotional expression are lessened. In Quest for Excitement, sport is seen as an important arena for the ‘controlled de-controlling of emotions’ and its ‘mimetic’ conflicts stand in for those which in earlier ages were – relatively speaking – far more a part of real life. However, it’s not that simple and benign.

And yet, if tensions arise in the wider society, if restraints on strong feelings become weakened there and the level of hostility and hatred between different groups rises in good earnest, the dividing line separating play and non-play, mimetic and real battles may become blurred. In such cases a defeat on the playing field may evoke the bitter feeling of a defeat in real life and a call for vengeance. A mimetic victory may call for a continuation of the triumph in a battle outside the playing field. (p. 43)

I think that there is a clear connection and long-term connection between sporting aggression and other kinds of social tensions. This is not to condemn sport, but I think it’s naïve to act as if there was nothing ambiguous or possibly dangerous about the tribal emotionalism which accompanies at least some varieties of it.

Hence, I found Rod Liddle’s recent comments about football, class, violence and literature to be a bit odd. (I discovered them thanks to a post at Ballardian. I'm having difficulty finding the original article at the Sunday Times, but a copy of it is available here. UPDATE: here's the original essay. Thanks to Simon for the updated link.)

Liddle’s main target seems to be the banning of smoking on football grounds as from July 1 under what he (very cleverly) labels the ‘Vindictive Curtailment of Working Class Pleasures Act’. Bashing the ‘yuppies’ and the middle-classes is a long-standing tactic in England for those who want to stake out their claim for a bit of earthy prole authenticity. In such visions, the ever-downtrodden working-classes might be rough, but they’re honest and fun-loving. The middle classes, however, are by definition a lot of shallow, backstabbing poseurs committed to taking all the fun out of life.

Back in the ‘50s, Colin MacInnes commented:

In England, the war between Cavaliers and Roundheads is eternal. All English institutions reflect the compromise between the saints and sinners, between the Salvation Army and the Music Hall views of life.

There’s more than a hint of truth in that statement, but I think the class-boundaries of those ‘views of life’ have always been rather fluid. (Moreover, it seems strange to me to idealise the traditional industrial working classes at a time when they’re increasingly disappearing. On the other hand, perhaps that’s not at all contradictory. It’s much easier to get all warm-hearted and nostalgic about something that no longer exists.)

But, strangely for someone who apparently sees himself defending working-class culture, Liddle seems to argue that being working class essentially means eating crap food, getting drunk and giving yourself lung cancer.

That might well be, of course: but why anyone would want to celebrate such a truth is beyond me.

But beyond this misguided romanticism, what really struck me was Liddle’s (mis)reading of J. G. Ballard’s latest novel, Kingdom Come. As he puts it:

But what truly annoys me is the attitude behind the decision [to ban smoking], the way in which this government — and previous governments — view football supporters. If you’re unsure what this attitude is, read JG Ballard’s new novel, Kingdom Come.

This is, as usual, a dystopian fantasy set in a fictitious chavtown, just off the M25, called Brooklands. The local population — save for a few concerned members of the professional classes — are a brutal and brutalised morass of plebs, dressed in identical St George’s shirts and interested only in consumerism and sport. Sport is what happens to a society mired in boredom and existing in a moral vacuum; it necessarily leads to a kind of fascism, or is a symptom of it, Ballard avers. After football matches, the workers go on rampages, attacking Asians and chanting nasty things. They are viewed as dumb animals, to be led, manipulated and exploited.

Kingdom Come is a deeply silly and patronising novel, but it does at least encapsulate the contempt and lack of understanding with which working-class pastimes are viewed by our political leaders and, in Ballard’s case, our intelligentsia. And, as a corollary, why successive administrations have sought to make football more middle-class by stripping it of all those things that once made it vital and compelling.

This is already becoming a much longer commentary than I’d intended, but suffice to say that this is an incredible mixture of bad reading and strange logic.

First off, J. G. Ballard is indeed interested in critiquing modern life, but if Liddle thinks that the main target of the book (or of Ballard’s writing more generally) is ‘the working class’ then it's obvious not only that he wasn’t paying attention while he was reading it but also that he knows nothing about the rest of Ballard’s work.

First and foremost, anyone who thinks Ballard’s fiction fits comfortably with a New Labour mindset has either absolutely no idea about literature or has to provide proof that Blairism is a far more kinky and interesting ideology than is generally acknowledged.

More to the point though, in Kingdom Come, many of the ‘plebs’ who run riot in the book are of the ‘professional classes’ themselves, and the dividing lines between good and bad are hardly drawn by income alone. Moreover, in books such as High-Rise, Super-Cannes and Millennium People (and others) Ballard has long made clear that the darker aspects of humanity (i.e., those upon which he tends to dwell) are something to which the cappuccino swilling middle-classes have at least as much access to as anyone else.

Indeed, if I had to name any single class which comes off badly in Ballard’s books, it would be the pretentious middle classes. The silly, Guardian-reading, Habitat-shopping revolutionists of the ‘upholstered apocalypse’ depicted in Millennium People are a prime example.

But, for Liddle, while the middle classes are fair game, anything even vaguely ‘working-class’ – no matter how pointless, self-destructive or reactionary – appears as valuable cultural heritage worthy of UNESCO protection.

However, a closer reading of the novel might have pointed out to him that what binds the members of the riotous mob in Kingdom Come more than anything else is not that they are working class but rather that they are largely a consuming class to whom few of the traditional social ties which used to bind people together are available.

But, there’s another point here beyond Liddle’s poor reading of Kingdom Come. He seems to endorse as authentically ‘working-class’ a form of leisure which itself has neither been timelessly traditional nor unambiguously positive. Is Liddle suggesting that football only recently became a business or that there have been no connections between football, hooliganism and racist mayhem? (And I’m not speaking only of England here: a few of the most disturbing links between neo-fascism and football have recently been visible in Italy.) Is he denying that the very bourgeoisification of which Williams speaks has not had at least some impact in helping to diminish those connections?

While defending English football (and, it seems, to me, in trivialising hooliganism) from the middle-class barbarians in an ill-tempered review in the New Statesman some years ago, John King adopted a similar attitude to Liddle’s in condemning a book on hooligan violence. In critiquing what he saw as an ‘obsessive’ focus in the book on fascism, King argues:

If there was a period when racism was prevalent, it was the first part of the Eighties, when a wave of black players entered the game for the first time. Thatcher was running riot, backed up by a rabid right-wing press, and the middle-class left had disappeared up its own arse. Even then, there were black faces and black mobs, and there are many more today. There were well-known black hooligans around in the Seventies as well. The race thing passed. It wasn't nice, but people sorted it out for themselves. In some ways, football firms represent some of the most integrated areas of our society. If you are hard enough, you are good enough.
Well, excellent: there was enough violence to go around for all races, and – as long as you are brutal enough – we can all get along fine. That’s OK then: equal-opportunity mayhem is just fine. (And note: it’s still, somehow, all the fault of the middle-classes. I would suggest, though, that he’s being a bit dismissive about the ‘race thing’ and how it’s been ‘sorted out.’)

But King's real aim here, again, is the same tiresome moaning about how the great old game has been ruined:

Now the great home ends such as Liverpool's Kop, Manchester United's Stretford End and Chelsea's Shed have been demolished and replaced with designer stands filled with new seats and new fans. The passion has gone; and if you stand up or swear, you'll be chucked out and banned.

Yes, because you know that's what really makes football great, alongside the drinking, bad food, and camaraderie of aggression: the swearing. He is, though, honest enough to point out that restoring the old version of sporting ‘passion’ might mean accepting the uglier side of that type of fandom as well.

I would of course likely agree with Liddle that some aspects of the more intrusive parts of the drive to sanitise life and sport are ridiculous. As ever, part of this is simply a quite different British tradition: a peculiarly half-assed approach to solving problems. Unable to improve health by actually reforming and adequately funding the NHS, the government grasps for cheaper and more media-friendly steps. (On the other hand, though, I think that smoking bans are likely to be more effective measure than Liddle gives them credit.)

But I also think that there is something deeply ambiguous about the emotional tribalism inherent in sports like football: it may well be a part of the game, but it has a darker side that is not necessarily something to simply be shrugged off (let alone celebrated).

As I have more first-hand experience with American sports than with British (or, so far, German) ones, though, I can report that while American fans have no shortage of ‘passion’ about their sports teams, they manage this without significant amounts of post-game gang warfare.

Commentators such as Liddle and King seem to think that ‘passion’ must be accompanied by a particular ‘working-class’ mix of beer, fags and aggression. It is certainly true that they’re far closer to that life than I am. I'm an outsider to the world they describe, so they might just want to respond by telling me to fuck right off while stomping me unconscious in a cheerful celebration of the finest traditions of working-class leisure.

On the other hand, comments such as theirs seem reveal more than a hint of something else: a distinctly middle-class male desire to cling to some aspect of ‘authentic’ (if coarse and/or brutal) and thus ‘working-class’ youth. Their hysterical contempt for a middle-class intelligentsia (to which, ahem, they - to all appearances - both seem to belong) and their efforts to promote a clichéd brand of working-class identity, suggest to me that if anyone is being ‘silly’ and ‘patronising’ toward the working class, it's not not J. G. Ballard.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Dr. Thompson, the Dingbat and Da Bears

I have a difficult relationship with football (which, for the duration of this post, will refer to the American sport of that name). This is largely, I think, because for me it calls up memories of those over-brawned and under-brained young men who made my adolescent life such a living hell and whose dominance of the high-school ecosystem still irks to this day.

Nearly six years after leaving the blessed land of my birth, however, I find myself in the strange position of somehow missing that most American of games and of thinking fondly of the notion of settling myself into one of the old bars I used to frequent in Baltimore, ordering up a big plate of onion rings, drinking far too much truly awful American beer and watching today’s Super Bowl. (It’s going to be shown here in Germany, but because of the time shift it’s going to start at some ungodly hour and, let’s face it, I ain’t so young any more.)

Part of my nostalgia for football may have to do with the fact that since those grim, geeky days of yore, I’ve discovered the athlete who was buried deep in me and am thus far less sceptical of sports than I once was. Perhaps it was also due to the high-school reunion I attended some years ago which revealed what horrendous losers most of my former alpha-male tormentors have subsequently become.

It could be that, given a little time and distance, I’ve come to appreciate the subtle and strategic nature of a sport I once associated with unmitigated savagery. (Or it might be simply that I’ve come to have a higher opinion of savagery.)

And, just maybe, it has something to do with the fact that one side of this year’s showdown are my home-town team, the Chicago Bears.

We’re a long way from the Bears’ last major glory days, and—though maybe this is just middle age talking—there’s something about simply saying the names Payton (Walter), McMahon (Jim), Perry (“Fridge”) and, of course, Ditka (Mike), which really takes me back to a youth on the suburban Midwestern plains.

For a change, in a nice way.

And it makes me think of these guys. And these guys.

These days, football also brings other associations to mind. Probably my favourite football-related anecdote (I don’t have that many, so competition in this area is something less than fierce) is that recounted by Hunter S. Thompson in his book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

During the 1968 presidential election, Thompson was given the unusual opportunity of accompanying candidate Richard Nixon, alone, for a more than hour-long car journey during the New Hampshire primaries. It was an odd pairing, as Nixon was Thompson’s key bête noire. But, in some ways, it made more sense than it at first seemed.

From here on, I’ll let the good doctor take over.

I was the only one in the press corps that evening who claimed to be as seriously addicted to pro football as Nixon himself. I was also the only out-front, openly hostile Peace Freak; the only one wearing old Levis and a ski jacket, the only one (no, there was one other) who’d smoked grass on Nixon’s big Greyhound press bus, and certainly the only one who habitually referred to the candidate as ‘The Dingbat.’

So I still had to credit the bastard for having the balls to choose me -- out of the fifteen or twenty straight/heavy press types who’d been pleading for two or three weeks for even a five-minute interview -- as the one who should share the back seat with him on this Final Ride through New Hampshire.

But there was, of course, a catch. I had to agree to talk about nothing but football. ‘We want the Boss to relax,’ Ray Price told me, ‘but he can’t relax if you start yelling about Vietnam, race riots or drugs. He wants to ride with somebody who can talk football.’ He cast a baleful eye at the dozen or so reporters waiting to board the press bus, then shook his head sadly. ‘I checked around,’ he said. ‘But the others are hopeless -- so I guess you’re it.’

‘Wonderful,’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’

We had a fine time. I enjoyed it -- which put me a bit off balance, because I figured Nixon didn’t know any more about football than he did about ending the war in Vietnam. He had made a lot of allusions to things like ‘end runs’ and ‘power sweeps’ on the stump but it never occurred to me that he actually knew anything more about football than he knew about the Grateful Dead.

But I was wrong. Whatever else might be said about Nixon -- and there is still serious doubt in my mind that he could pass for Human -- he is a goddam stone fanatic on every facet of pro football. At one point in our conversation, when I was feeling a bit pressed for leverage, I mentioned a down & out pass -- in the waning moments of the 1967 Super Bowl mismatch between Green Bay and Oakland -- to an obscure, second-string Oakland receiver named Bill Miller that had struck in my mind because of its pinpoint style & precision.

He hesitated for a moment, lost in thought, then he whacked me on the thigh and laughed: ‘That’s right, by God! The Miami boy!’

I was stunned. He not only remembered the play, but he knew where Miller had played in college.

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (Harper Perennial, 2005 [1973]): 56-57.

After that, only one thing remains to be said.

Go Bears.

Friday, February 02, 2007

If I had a banjo...

"The real revolution will come when people realise the danger we're in," he offers in parting. "I'm not as optimistic as people think I am. I think we have a 50-50 chance of there being a human race in 100 years".
It's not only down-to-earth statements like this which make Pete Seeger, still going strong at 87, a much admired figure here at Obscene Desserts. Pretty much all the rest of them are summed up in this article at the Guardian. (Via, The Virtual Stoa)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Wir sind (doch) nicht nur ein Karnevalsverein

This is the face of determination.

This is the face of desperation.

This is the face which is going to ensure that Mainz '05 spends another year in the first division of the Bundesliga.

And after 16 matches without a win, this is the face that has led the team to two consecutive victories in the first two games this year's Rückrunde, including yesterday's win against Borussia Dortmund. Jürgen Klopp.

The other Bundesliga teams -- far too rich, far too conceited -- are kicking out their coaches left, right and centre. But in Mainz...Kloppo still reigns!

OK...I feel better now.


The continuing decline in right-wing commentary, part 2

Although I'm on record (repeatedly) as a critic of the more dingbat versions of pomo-left thought, I think Russell Jacoby hits the nail on the head here about the problem with the 'intellectuals' of the right:

And here we get to the pith of contemporary conservatism: It is not pretty. It consists of laboratory-grade hypocrisy and guns. Feigned beliefs that life is sacred and that government should get off your back define the hypocrisy. Starr jokes, "It was important for the baby boomers to secure abortion rights and the right to die — that way, they can kill off their offspring and their aging parents." A good line, but again, what is the upshot? Conservatives protect life and despise war? In a word: no. They salute the Iraq war. They defend torture. They care little for the losers in society. For them, the sanctity of life ends at birth; at least they show little interest in the suffering of the living.

Read the rest here. (Via B&W)

(For me, I must say, it's more the hypocrisy than the guns that irk.)

Going unquietly into the night

Farewell, Molly Ivins.

Who knew a thing or two about speaking truth to power...

Beware the anger of the legions, left too long in Iraq without enough help; of the unemployed; of the uninsured; of the million who were left without workers' comp; of those who have lost health insurance, overtime, the right to organize. Beware the anger of those whose pensions and savings are gone due to Bush pals like "Kenny Boy" Lay; beware the anger of middle class investors in mutual funds; the anger of those who see the big rich take their money offshore so they won't have to pay taxes, those who watch the corporations get special tax breaks for exporting jobs abroad; the anger of those who are shunted aside while the CEOs of their companies make over a hundred million.

You don't have to be hateful to have bad policies. You just have to be wrong.

...and who knew how to fight the good fight...

So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.

...even when it was her own.

Another thing you get as a cancer patient is a lot of football-coach patter. "You can beat this; you can win; you're strong; you're tough; get psyched." I suspect that cancer doesn't give a rat's ass whether you have a positive mental attitude. It just sits in there multiplying away, whether you are admirably stoic or weeping and wailing. The only reason to have a positive mental attitude is that it makes life better. It doesn't cure cancer.

My friend Judy Curtis demanded totally uncritical support from everyone around her. "I smoked and drank through the whole thing," she says. "And I hated the lady from the American Cancer Society." My role model.