Monthly Archives: July 2012

Some Ideas on Current Politics: Russia, US, Syria, and the return to the Great Game

Honestly, reading both the Russian and the US side, I suspect that Russia is right about foreign inference, but overstating who is providing it.  They are also foreign inferrers since they have been supplying the Azzad regime, but they also sincerely seem to doubt the viability of the government.  They don’t want the Saudis gaining influence.  We return to great game politics.   RIA NOVOSTI, which I tend to trust more than the Russia Today (which American leftists seem to like in a “the enemy of our enemy is our friend” mentality, has covered Russian public opinion on this:  

Almost half of Russians (46 percent) surveyed believe that the Syrian conflict is the result of interference by hostile foreign powers seeking to increase their influence in the Middle East or weaken Syria, according to a public survey published on Friday by the state-run VTsIOM pollster.

Only 19 percent of those polled describe the Syrian crisis as a popular uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the survey shows. More than one third (34 percent) of respondents were undecided on the nature of the conflict.

The LA Times has covered Russia’s fears about the Syrian debacle going the way of Libya:

Russia maintains a naval base in Syria, one of its few military bases aboard, and several thousand Russian diplomats and technical specialists working with Syrian companies are based there, said Gennady Gudkov, deputy head of the security committee of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament.

“I am afraid we must have missed our chance to talk Assad into some constitutional reform, even including him ceding power,” Gudkov said. “The Kremlin’s persistence in defending his regime now comes from the fact that there is no good way out of the situation and no good decision anymore.”

Leonid Kalashnikov, deputy head of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee, said that, aside from some weapons sales, Russia has not had close political or economic ties to Syria for years, a reflection of Moscow’s diminished role in the region.

“That is why it would be wrong to consider Syria the last Russian stronghold in the Middle East; in fact, we no longer have any,” he said.

“Russia just wants to make it a hard and fast rule that all such conflict issues should be resolved only through efforts of the existing international institutions,” he said.

Now Russia’s concerns are reasonable compared to all rapid destabilization, but you can also see that this is essentially a role played by the “West” in similar situations in the 1950s: this locks things into rigid blocks where things cannot change.  Indeed, I too suspect that we should be weary of any push for NATO expansion into these kinds of conflicts, but I also doubt the efficacy or legitimacy of any existing international institution.

So we are stuck with all sorts of powers that one should distrust.  I wouldn’t be counting China and Russia out in any way, but this is great game politics, and in that, trust no state entity.

Batman, and persistence silliness of much popular culture criticism.

*Spoilers beneath the cut*

Why is so much lefty pop culture criticism both repetitive and generally bad criticism: take the criticism of Batman, it is not like the Dark Knight was more “subversive” than the Dark Night Rises, Batman in that movie keeps an allegory about problematic executive power only to justify its use while pretending to condemn it.  It is also not like Batman was ever a particularly “lefty” source material. This is not anything but obvious.   There are interesting things to be said about the Nolan Batman, particularly that it is sort of a mess artistically, and that it has conflicting messages:  this review, while somewhat in the same tone as a lot of the silly articles I have seen from lefty publications, discusses it a little better.    It admits the function of much of the culture industry is anyway: to reflect back at us what we already think we know.

Expecting a piece of popular culture to be beyond the cultural limitations of the current is silly:  Batman has always been about the contradictions of the wealthy “crime fighter” is explicitly fascistic, like the lefty origins of Superman who morphs from an alien hero for the poor in the earliest comics to its nearly fascistic manifestation during the Second World War until the 1970s.  The politics morph with the culture because that’s what adolescents  fantasies reflect for purely “objective” commercial reasons.  This point has been made by comic book writers themselves from Neil Gaiman to Alan Moore as early as the late 70s.  At this point, pointing out that comic books have a hero-worshiping, almost fascistic, element is, well, a “duh” statement.

Read the rest of this entry

On Vukovich’s China and Orientalism

This above title is a bit misleading as, generally, I do not like commenting on books I have not read, but I have found Vukovich’s original claim that Maoist period and Western historiography on it were a shifting of orientalism seemed questionable to me given my knowledge of the cultural revolution, and the fundamental difference from the French Orientalists studies of the Ottomans and Arabs. That said, the comparison with the post-Deng period and the Market Neo-Liberal Leninism of the current PRC is sort of glossed in a way in contemporary scholarship in a way that ignores the economics gains during the cultural revolution period, particular the second period, or more moderate period, in the mid-1970s.  This is not to act as an apologist for China, but to look at the situation at hand. In this Vokovich’s interview at New Books in East Asian History makes this case compellingly. So there is more “there” there than Mao apologetic or apologetic for the current PRC.   The discussions of the atrocity figures being constantly estimated up and being proven questionable by most normal statistical standards, statistical methodologies that would never be used in the US or even India.  His discussion of the way Asia (not just China, but also Korea) is depicted in Delillo is also quite convincing in a way that I never put a finger on prior.

Sadly, I haven’t seen a copy of the book here in Korea and importing it at it’s monograph cost seems prohibitively expensive. I am a poet and a lecturer, after all. If I see it in a English language collection here in Korea, you can expect a review here.

El Mono Liso:

Tariq Ali has often disappointed me.

Originally posted on Syria Freedom Forever - سوريا الحرية للأبد:

“Video: Tariq Ali on the grim choice facing Syrians.

“TARIQ ALI says we are witnessing in Syria a new form of re-colonisation by the West, like we have already seen in Iraq and in Libya.

Many of the people who first rose against the Assad regime in Syria have been sidelined, leaving the Syrian people with limited choices, neither of which they want: either a Western imposed regime, “composed of sundry Syrians who work for the western intelligence agencies”, or the Assad regime.

The only way forward, in the interests of all Syrians, says Ali, is negotiation and discussion. But it is now obvious that the West is not going to let that happen because they are backing the opposition groups who are against any negotiation.”

As these words came out from an important figure of the International left, it is necessary to answer and contradict them and…

View original 2,278 more words

Sam Harris, bothering me with philosophical inconsistency since 2004

For eight years now, I have been critiquing Sam Harris: his hatchet job comparison of Islam to Buddhism where he white-washes the Buddhist tradition and negatively cherry-picks Islam in The End of Faith, trying to figure out how a person with a philosophy degree from Stanford could so badly confused normative and descriptive in both meta-ethics and philosophy of science, jettison with almost no real argument the is/ought distinction, and ignore 200 years of debates on all three topics in his book on morality, and generally pass a flippant “tone of reasonableness” for reason itself.  It was good to see ‘s take-down of his positions and their incoherence in his recent discussion on Harris,   while I have been ranting about this for years and Neera Manda pointed some of this out seven years ago, the fact that Harris still has so much cache in the “secular movement” (whatever that is), means it needs to re-pointed out:

The spirit of the Zionist law attorney infuses a book in which he is approvingly quoted and in which he provides the basis for Harris’s ticking time bomb defence of torture. It’s not for nothing Dershowitz blurbs the book. But is it true as Harris gushes that Israel’s moral capital lies in the fact “They’re still worried about killing the children of their enemies”?

Consider the findings of human rights groups like Amnesty International’s investigation into the Gaza war of 2008:

“Amnesty International on Thursday accused Israeli forces of war crimes, saying they used children as human shields and conducted wanton attacks on civilians during their offensive in the Gaza Strip. “

What about the assertion that Arabs take cover behind their own children? Amnesty finds that although Hamas rocketed Israeli towns during the war, that:

“It could not support Israeli claims that Hamas used human shields. It said it found no evidence Palestinian fighters directed civilians to shield military objectives from attacks, forced them to stay in buildings used by militants, or prevented them from leaving commandeered buildings”

The co-author of the influential Goldstone Report for the UN Human Rights Council, Desmond Travers, has said:

“We found no evidence that Hamas used civilians as hostages. I had expected to find such evidence but did not. We also found no evidence that mosques were used to store munitions. ”

For a man who likes to badger Muslims about their “reflexive solidarity” with Arab suffering, Harris seems keen to display his own tribal affections for the Jewish state. The virtue of Israel and the wickedness of her enemies are recurring themes in his work. The End of Faith opens with the melodramatic scene of a young man of undetermined nationality boarding a bus with a suicide vest. The bus detonates, innocents die and Harris, with the relish of a schoolmarm passing on the facts of life to her brood, chalks in the question: “Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy-you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it-easy to guess the young man’s religion?”

To which historians will answer: Because it is not.


And this:

the Harris depiction, Tibetans bear the jackboot of Chinese occupation meekly and in Christ-like surrender to violence in deep contrast to the mindless violence of Palestinians, proof yet again that Islam, and not the depredations of US foreign policy, is the progenitor of terror. From this narrative one would never guess that Tibet fought a bitter conventional war against China. The national liberation struggle of Tibetans doesn’t quite mesh with the dovish non-violence Harris conjures. And so out it goes from the record.

Given that Harris rails against pacifism in later chapters as being, not a worthy but impossible ideal as so many cherish, but an “evil” precept that would let killers go unmolested, his sudden enthusiasm for turning the other cheek is a suspect one. And you will seek in vain for any reference to Arab civil disobedience against the occupation in his work from the peaceful protests of the first Intifada in which scores of unarmed demonstrators were gunned down by the IDF to the present wave of mass hunger strikes.

The Jains are yet another commonly-trotted-out source of comparison for Harris. He wants to know why there are no Jain suicide bombers, unlike those horrid Arab barbarians. It is painful to inform this Princeton graduate of philosophy who presumably took a first year course in the rudiments of logic that Jains, unlike Palestinians, are not occupied by hostile foreign powers, are not displaced from their homes, are not imprisoned en masse without trial and tortured.

Harris never quite stoops to articulate why suicide bombing is objectively worse than more common variants of homicide like the monopoly enjoyed by Christians and Jews on aerial bombing which rubbles entire nations with far more loss of life than a semtex in a rucksack. The mystery unravels when we learn that Harris backed the 2006 carpet bombing of Lebanon and Gaza by Israel on the dubious premise that “there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah. And yet liberals in the United States and Europe often speak as though the truth were otherwise”.

The rejoinder Harris offers to those wooly-minded liberal peaceniks who just don’t compute the bottomless evil of jihadism is that Arabs murder civilians intentionally whilst Israel, trained in the Holiness of Arms, kills women and children accidentally. Setting aside the unreality of this claim, which veils the indiscriminate shelling of Operation Cast Lead whose lethal casualty ratio was over 1,300 Palestinians to Israel’s 13, the logic of “collateral damage” is a proven con. As the late historian and WW2 air force pilot Howard Zinn noted:

“These words are misleading because they assume an action is either ‘deliberate’ or ‘unintentional.’ There is something in between, for which the word is ‘inevitable.’  If you engage in an action, like aerial bombing, in which you cannot possibly distinguish between combatants and civilians (as a former Air Force bombardier, I will attest to that), the deaths of civilians are inevitable, even if not ‘intentional.’  Does that difference exonerate you morally? The terrorism of the suicide bomber and the terrorism of aerial bombardment are indeed morally equivalent. To say otherwise (as either side might) is to give one moral superiority over the other, and thus serve to perpetuate the horrors of our time.”

At other times Harris acknowledges that what is termed collateral damage is not accidental but a predictable certainty of industrial war, conceding that “What we euphemistically describe as  ‘collateral damage’ in times of war is the direct result of limitations in the power and precision of our technology”. A concession he repeats in this interview with Joe Rogan:

“The reality is that whenever you put Navy SEALs on the ground and let them shoot or drop bombs from Predator drones you’re going to kill some number of innocent people and that’s terrible; and the terrible truth is there is no alternative to that. Unless you are going to be a pacifist, you are going to run the risk of killing innocent people when you have to fight certain conflicts.”

It’s revealing that after this frank admission of the fundamentally anti-civilian nature of modern warfare, he proceeds to defend the incineration of Afghanistan by NATO and vilifies Julian Assange (“creepy bastard”) and Wikileaks for exposing the atrocities of the US state.

And then there is this:

Not quite done with salvaging the humanitarian case for the Iraq war, he offers this defence of collateral damage:

“Chomsky might object that to knowingly place the life of a child in jeopardy is unacceptable in any case, but clearly this is not a principle we can follow. The makers of roller coasters know, for instance, that despite rigorous safety precautions, sometime, somewhere, a child will be killed by one of their contraptions. ” (p. 147)

So there is no moral distinction between cluster bombs and Disneyland. Death is death, so what’s the problem? The claim amounts to holding that there is no difference between choking on a pretzel and sustaining a nuclear attack because, well, in both cases people die. The act of raining down “Shock & Awe” bears no likeness to the far less perilous and unlikely accidents of theme parks which, on the rare occasion they occur, do not make rubble of homes and infrastructure and uproot millions of refugees. And rollercoasters invite the willing patronage of thrill seekers, as opposed to Tomahawk missiles, whose victims do not volunteer for the risk of being shredded. The distinction is both in scale and human agency, between a minuscule risk undertaken freely in the knowledge that one is strapped in by “rigorous safety precautions”, and mass lethality thrust upon one by a hostile foreign power.


And then this:

My hope in this review was not to get tangled in the finer points of Islamic theology, but if former Muslims like myself stand any chance of winning friends and family to the cause of the Enlightenment, we must begin to deconstruct the tabloid caricatures of Muslims by Harris and his fellow immigrant baiters. I use that phrase advisedly. Harris dabbles in the most extravagant conspiracy theories about the impending conquest of Europe by Muslims:

“Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The demographic trends are ominous: Given current birthrates, France could be a majority Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow.”

To understand how nine-months-pregnant with delusion this claim truly is, one has to only reflect that the French Muslim population is forecasted by the Pew Research Centre to grow to 10% by 2030 from its present figure of 7.5%, and France will be the Western European state with the highest number of Muslims. The only country that surpasses it is Russia which, even as it borders autonomous Muslim states, is projected to see her share of Muslims rise to 14%.

This fetish for the breeding habits of immigrants is one that Harris cultivates with far-right nationalists like Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes. He admits: “With a few exceptions, the only public figures who have had the courage to speak honestly about the threat that Islam now poses to European societies seem to be fascist.” (Letter To A Christian Nation, P. 85)

And then this:

It’s a forgivable indulgence to ascribe this military cowboyism of Harris to a misplaced idealism to bring democracy at the point of Hellfire missiles, but that would be to misread him. Gravely. The reason he presses for US interference in the region is that, like his deathly silence on the pro-democracy movements of the Arab Spring that have dynamited his notion that Muslims are hot for theocracy, he thinks only Western imposed dictators can lead Muslims to Enlightenment:

“It appears that one of the most urgent tasks we now face in the developed world is to find some way of facilitating the emergence of civil societies everywhere else. Whether such societies have to be democratic is not at all clear. Zakaria has persuasively argued that the transition from tyranny to liberalism is unlikely to be accomplished by plebiscite. It seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary to bridge the gap. But benignity is the key and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both.” (The End of Faith, p. 151)

He has his reasons for shrinking from writing about the most revolutionary and hopeful changes of the modern political era, namely the great Arab Awakening that is sweeping away the US-backed tyrants in North Africa and the Middle East. It began of course last year, and in the interval, Harris has found time to devote thousands of words to ethnically profiling Muslims at airports. His justification for ignoring the awakening is that he thinks “we cannot merely force Muslim dictators from power and open the polls. It would be like opening the polls to the Christians of the fourteenth century”. Although conceding that “our collusion with Muslim tyrants” has been despicable, “our culpability on this front must be bracketed by the understanding that were democracy to suddenly come to these countries, it would be little more than a gangplank to theocracy”. Those who delight in the flowering of Arab democracy must remember that “the only thing that currently stands between us and the roiling ocean of Muslim unreason is a wall of tyranny and human rights abuses that we have helped to erect”. (p. 132)

The region’s people are unfit to be trusted with self-determination because they are morally inferior: “It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development.” Indeed, such is the moral depravity of these barbarians that “At this point in their history, give most Muslims the freedom to vote, and they will freely vote to tear out their political freedoms by the root”. The solution then is for the US to command stewardship of the area imposing “benign” dictators in the place of bad ones who may lead Muslims to reform.


Sayeed goes on to recount how Harris’s flirtations with supernaturalism had James Randi on his tail and he backtracked, but apparently that has changed too:

“One appears far more likely to meet extraterrestrials or elves on DMT than traditional saints or angels. As I have not tried DMT, and have not had an experience of the sort that its users describe, I don’t know what to make of any of this.”

Is this the product of a mind scattered by intoxicants? Apparently not. Harris repeated the same flight to occultic planes at the Melbourne atheist convention where, after enthusing about the curative powers of spiritual meditation, he was desperate to reassure the assembled gathering of skeptics that his fascination with “aliens and insectile like creatures” is not “insanity”. Observe that he says these are not vacant hallucinations by high school stoners on a par with UFO sightings and crop circles, but that corroboration comes from “smart and serious people” of an extra-dimensional universe occupied by elves, reptilians and extra-terrestrials keen to impart scientific knowledge to lowly mortals about whose veracity “I don’t know what to make”. Welcome to David Icke territory.

The paranormal debunker James Randi chastised him for this quackery, twice, saying there were no choices to be made between virgin births, reincarnation, alien reptiles and telepathy– that bunk was bunk, and that science had once and for all spoken. And finally Harris appeared to step back from the crankdom: “My position on the paranormal is this: While there have been many frauds in the history of parapsychology, I believe that this field of study has been unfairly stigmatized.”

Or maybe not. It’s a custom of his when interrogated by experts to berate scientists for being mean to New Age bosh-mongers. He alone is the true empiricist who, though having just recently acquired his doctorate at the late age of 40, knows more about the scientific enterprise than all those intolerant and smug lab rats who graduated decades ago. So when the pressure mounted on him, his last ditch effort was to backtrack somewhat: “I have not spent any time attempting to authenticate the data” because it is not worth his time. Which begs the question of why he trumpets their mumbo jumbo as “credible evidence” that is “ignored by mainstream science”. Plainly what is not worth one’s time is not “unfairly stigmatised”.

And just when it appears that Harris wants to extricate himself from the unwisdom of wading into mystical humbug and pseudoscience, he slides right back into sham insisting that he “cannot categorically dismiss their contents.”

A note on Fedeism pretending otherwise.

A scholar who refuses to change their position when given evidence that makes that position nearly impossible to hold is worse than the fideists who clings to faith despite evidence: the fideist admits they have no ground to stand other their own belief. When it comes to ideas, so many of us are fideist pretending not to be.

Just a personal note:

I realized that Americana now seems a little worn down and even a bit alien to me after living in Asia, officially, two years.   I don’t blog on my life here much and the blog may be on haitus for a few weeks as I move to a new job in Jeonju city, working for a high school and university there. I will also be visiting Japan, so posting my be sporadic, and this is why it has been sporadic. Anyway, I am beginning a new interview series on writing and ethics, and adding to the marginalia on skeptical thinking.

So when I while they may be a few more posts, if the hiatus is more than a few days, but sure to check in because I have some stuff gearing up for August.

Some background on the Spectre that Haunts: Hegel

One of things one can conclude from Hegel’s background is that he was very much a man of times, in some ways the philosopher of history’s chief error whatever other obscurantism on may accuse him of or logical parsing he seems to missed,  was a belief that he too was not a reflection of his zeitgeist. In his own thought, from it’s romantic underpinnings to its ruthless defense of the Prussian state and the Bonapartist developments in France, we see the promises of the liberal revolution betray itself in his own convolutions for justifying the spirit of the current.  Whatever one makes of him, this is blind spot must be acknowledged because it is this blind spot that leads us to the beliefs that history has been ended, or even can be.  No, more than likely, key events for sentient life may even outlive humans, but that speculation aside, Hegel’s key insights about the rootedness and timeliness of a thought must be seen in his own person. In mirrors so many broken promises of liberal political philosophy in the three centuries, of which, both the German state and its failures and the US state and its failures are manifest examples. 

Robert Pippin: “Bourgeois Philosophy? On the Problem of Leading a Free Life.”



A fairly insightful pairing: Wittgenstein/Marx

“The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life.” [The German ideology.]

“When I talk about language (words, sentences, etc.) I must speak the language of every day. Is this language too coarse and material for what we want to say? Then how is another one to be constructed?” – [Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations]

” Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men. Where there exists a relationship, it exists for me: the animal does not enter into ‘relations’ with anything, it does not enter into any relation at all. For the animal, its relation to others does not exist as a relation. Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.” [Marx, The German ideology.]

“What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use…. The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language….

“Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything. — Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain…. The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose. If one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree with them.” [Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations,]

“He was opposed to it in theory, but supported it in practice” -[George Thomson on Wittgenstein's relationship to Marxism]

It is clear that there can be no way of saving that Marx is Wittgenstein avant la lettre, their (anti)philosophical projects were divided in aims and in content, Wittgenstein arguing out from under positivism and Aristotelian thought, and Marx from German Idealism and Hegelian “dialectics.” Furthermore, while it has been said that both men thought philosophy left the world as it is, Marx placed the emphasis on a means to change it and Wittgenstein thought clarity stemming from philosophical dissolving of pseudo-problems would alter the world. For Wittgenstein this is bracketed out, it is not his job. Yet the emphasis on dissolving problems of the ideal that stems from language’s mystification and reification of abstraction seem, at base, to be a crucial parts of both projects, and given how their successors have taken up the task, an oft ignored one.

(I’d like to think Rosa Lichtenstein, Ray Monk’s book on Wittgenstein and the collection of essays editted by Kitching and Pleasants, “Marx and Wittgenstein: Knowledge, Morality and Politics” for pointing me to this line of inquiry.)


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