Friday, November 26, 2004

Not Drowning, Moving...

Marco,the old pal I once tried to sneak illegally into Laos with, has been reappraising his support for the invasion of Iraq in light of the continuing instability and the Lancet study suggesting a figure of 100,000 excess deaths in the year since the invasion vs. the year before. I plan to do the same thing, revisiting the 'Valid Reasons to Oppose the War' document that I sent to Androoo long before I accidentally clicked that button when trying to comment on Lexifab. But I can't find it yet. Sigh. I will also put a link to the original Lancet article and address Marco's plausible suggestion that I have been blinded by spin.

In the meantime, I been moving house, not writing, for most of the last two weeks when not at work. And on Sunday I am off to the City of Churches for a few days, followed by a brief trip to Devil Bunny City! With luck some novel-writing will get done... I was going to visit the nuclear reactor to watch other people do some experiments I am kind of invovled with, but it was too much trouble putting in all the documents for security. It was just too much trouble finding all the necesary bits and pieces and getting them witnessed. Honest,that's the only reason. I'm not trying to cover up any clandestine trips to Azad Kashmir.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004


This is just a quote, from Primo Levi's books "The Periodic Table"...

I admitted that we are not all born heroes, and that a world in which everyone would be like him, that is, honest and unarmed, would be tolerable, but this is an unreal world. In the real world the armed exist, they build Auschwitz, and the honest and unarmed clear the road for them; therefore every German must answer for Auschwitz, indeed every man, and after Auschwitz it is no longer permissible to be unarmed.

Monday, November 15, 2004

An Embarassment of Riches, part the next...

The first item was about abortion, of course, and it was a letter to the editor. The wrtier was affronted that the 'abortion debate' had risen up again. She made the point, very sensible given her premises, that we were not having a debate about reintroducing slavery, or taking the vote away from women, or counting aborigines in the census, or any of that stuff. Abortion for her was a fundamental human right. You don't have debates about fundamental human rights. Progress is progress.
However, we have a broad national consensus that women and coloured folks are not subhuman, thank God. We don't have a broad national consensus that young folks are not subhuman, may He rain fire from heaven upon the infidel.

But, from her premises, the writer was perfectly correct. If a foetus was an integral part of a woman's body, it would be her fundamental human right to do with as she pleased. If the world was flat, then refusing to build a fence around the edge would be a reckless invitation to public liability suits. Those are perfectly valid opinions for a Tupinamba tribesman to hold. But you can't claim to believe there is something called progress and base your morality on pre-Copernican science.

On the opposite page was another piece on abortion, which focused on the idea that women who have abortions do not suffer any serious physical or psychological after-effects, and that the claim by the anti-choice lobby that they did was a wicked tactical feint. A common debating point seems to be that anti-choice people only care about foetuses, and not about women. If that is so, why are so many of us of the female persuasion? We do care. I think that is a great term of the author's, anti-choice. I like it. I am going to appropriate it and claim it. I am anti-choice and proud. Civilisation is a process of limiting the choices that we consider valid. We don't have the choice, as citizens of a Western democracy, to strap explosives to our bodies and blow ourselves up in pizza restaurants. Our laws do not permit that sort of thing. Our ethics do not permit that sort of thing. We have denied ourselves that choice. That is not a valid decision for anyone to make in our culture. Marco does not have the choice to get rid of union representatives by knocking them on the head and dumping in the river, like his counterpart in Guatemala. We have denied Marco that choice- highly inconvenient as it might be, both for him and for our balance of payments- through legal sanctions and the moral oppprobrium of the community. We do not have the choice to drive at 130 kph in a 110 kph zone. We do not have the choice to drive in the bus lane on Parramatta road. We do not have the choice to sacrifice kittens to Tlaloc in fiery backyard holocausts. We are ****ing civilised.

I, personally, have never made any choices whatsoever. I have blindly followed the ineluctable dictates of my conscience.

I sense that I am beginning to drift ever so slightly into hyperbole. My finely tuned sense of hyperbole has picked up some faint emanations, based on the fact that I seem to recall Hitler said almost the same thing as I just did in Mein Kampf. Perhaps a little humility is in order. I should say I have blindly followed the ineluctable dictates of my conscience, or else I have dithered about waiting for something to happen.

Oddly enough, I also detected a few faint glimmers of hyperbole from Phillip Adams' article, down the bottom of the page on the right. He quotes Colin Powell to the effect that the Neo-Con faction in the Bush Administration are "****ing crazies", and goes on to list some of the things he thinks they will do. I doubt that they really will do any of those things, but they were fun to read.

For instance, Mr. Adams thinks that they will give a nod and a wink to the Israelis to take out the Iranian nuclear research facilities at Bushehr. I wish they would, but I suspect that Bush is realistic enough to be very very quiet and just hope it happens, like me. Can you imagine the 1991 Gulf War, if the 1981 raid on Osirak hadn't happened? It was probably the best thing the Jewish state has ever done for the world.

Mr. Adams also suggests that the Bush Administration will 'encourage the most irresponsible elements in Taiwan'. They won't do that either. If they really were Napoleonic evangelists of the Republic they would, and future generations- after they built civilisation back up from the smoking rubble- would thank them for it. Because the most irresponsible elements in Taiwan are not the pro-Independence forces. They are the rusted-on Kuomintang diehards who damn right believe in One China, just like Douglas Macarthur, only it is their China, and those renegade provinces on the mainland had better get their house in order and get with the reunification program. An administration that was really bent on Armageddon, as Mr. Adams thinks, or on spreading democracy, as I kinda wish, would say: 'What the hell do we care what you think, you unrepresentative swill? We're recognising these little guys here, who elected their damn government. We don't care if you cut off our supply of consumer goods. We've gone naked before, and we can go naked again. We've got more bombs than you do, so just try and invade, you handpicked successors to the most murderous regime in human history...'

Uh oh, I think my hyperbole detecting senses are registering something again.

Must... write... novel. Must... stop... procrastinating.

An Embarassment of Riches

On two facing pages of the newspaper the other day, I saw no less than three items that I immediately felt like responding to. Doubtless part of this was NaNoWriMo induced procrastination, but they were all full of good stuff.
Fortunately, I have lost the actual newspaper, so I won't be able to transcribe all three items in full, and comment on every nuance. So I won't lose quite as much novel-writing time as I might be tempted to. Unless I ramble on and on.
Which I seem to be doing.

Part of the problem actually is that my main characters are trapped somewhere with no way to get out, and I know what they will do when they get out, but I have no idea how they are going to get out. Hmm, I suppose the sensible thing to do would be to skip ahead and take up the fire-hose of prose once they have escaped, and fill the gaps in at my leisure once I have written a good slab of text. Dammit, I oughta go do that now...

USAF in the ROC

Dear Typical Australian Foreign Policy Commentator,

I have a disagreement with my brother. He is 5'11 and weighs 80 kg, while I am 5'10 and weigh 75 kg. Which one of us is right?

Yours Sincerely,

Confused in the Near North

Dear Confused,

The bigger person is always, always, always correct. Haven't you heard the saying, 'might makes right'? If you provoke your brother into kicking the shit out of you, don't come crying to us for help.

Yours Sincerely,

T. A. F. P. Commentator

[Disclaimer: All advice given in this column does not apply to white folks]

Friday, November 12, 2004

The Rosh Hashanah Surprise

‘Thought that I was finished,
Thought that I was complete,
Thought that I was whole instead of being half of something,’

-The Proclaimers

I may as well tell you about the really disconcerting thing that I mentioned on October 24th. Disconcerting to me, anyways. Even though I have all these science degrees, and a seven-year-old son, I was blithely unaware of 20th century doctors’ fads and- apparently-more than usually imperceptive and lacking in prurient curiosity. Thus I never for a moment dreamed that I might be circumcised until Mum told me, when I was thirty-three years old. I thought I knew all about that kind of stuff and it is a shock to find myself so woefully ill-informed...

Gosh. Here I was thinking I was more in touch with my feminine side than most men and it turns out I am some kind of hyper-masculinised freak. I mean, *mucous membranes* on your genitals, how girly is that? Yuck.

Purely by accident, I found out on Jewish New Year. And Mum says they didn’t do it for health reasons, but because of God’s covenant with Abraham. I vaguely thought St. Paul had said all that sort of thing was rubbish 2000 years ago. Perhaps my family is more conservative than I had thought. Maybe we are actually part of one of those strange crypto-Jewish lineages who have been hiding out from the Inquisition for hundreds of years. My mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s name was Robanski, is that a Jewish name? I don’t know.

I guess it is reassuring to find there is some organic basis for my attraction to these uncompromising monothesistic creeds of the desert...

Monday, November 08, 2004

Interim Findings

My randomly rolled location is apparently almost dead on the city of Itaituba, which was founded in 1974 or thereabouts as a gold-mining boomtown. So I can put some gold in the novel. There is also an enormous mass of rapids a short distance upstream, so where I have already put the enemy tribe, so it provides a good way to make their village relatively close but also relatively accessible...
Helpfully for my licence to make stuff up, I have found that basically nothing is known about who was living there in 1456 BCE: the best places for agriculture are on the floodplains, where the soil is constantly renewed, and historically that is where almost all the people in the Amazon basin have lived- and their pots and stuff eventually get washed away with minor course corrections of the rivers. Interestingly a lot of cultivated plants (manioc, peanuts, the whole capsicum/chile complex, pineapple, avocado...) were first domesticated in the Amazon basin prior to 2000 BCE and appeared in Peru and on the Carribean Coast pretty much as they exist today, without any ancestral forms- so there was some lost civilisationing going on somewhere. The general location I randomly rolled has also been postulated as the source of the speakers of the Tupi-Guarani language family, at around my randomly rolled time. Someone in Wisconsin has written a PhD thesis attempting to reconstruct Proto-Tupi-Guarani, so I will try to get hold of it.
I have also learned that the Trans-Amazon highway, which scythes so dramatically across the continent in my atlas, no longer exists; it was built in the 1970s but was too expensive to maintain, so huge lengths of it have already turned into secondary growth forest.

The Most Vital Reason?

I shall get stuck into the separation of Church and State in a while, Marco, after I have justified the rest of my bizarre claims. Here is my nomination for the #1 reason for America's success, written some time ago...

This is my thesis, not novel so far as I know: free movement of labour is just as great a factor in economic success as free movement of capital, and that the economic success of the United States of America, as well as its perceived inequality, is a result of its long reign as the world’s largest area in which free movement of labour is allowed.

In that movie with Danny De Vito and the woman that can’t act, the factory making copper wire is about to close, because it has been superseded by the fibre optic revolution; before it is rescued by the airbag Deus ex machina, the obvious moral is: “why don’t the workers up and move to Silicon Valley, where the jobs are?”

As Americans do.

As the government of France is keen to prevent people from doing; I spoke this week (actually 2000 sometime, I think) with the Scientific Attache to the French Embassy about a joint project we are starting up with a research establishment in Toulouse, and one of the good things about the industrial spin-offs anticipated are that they will keep people in the regions. An uneconomic region, to my way of thinking, should revert to nature.…

My family history is littered with abandoned regions. My roots are in soft soil; my parents were born in different towns from me, and their parents in different towns from them, and so on, back across from west to east and beyond to Europe and stasis. And Europe is still stasis, and will never seize the lead from the mobile lands. It is only India, I think, that could possibly manage to overtake the United States, barring some strange eruption of the human spirit in China. Even now, my aunts and uncles are scattered across a dozen states, and my cousins go forth themselves, moving, ever moving. I have come fourteen thousand miles, and fifteen hundred again.

The more mobile a workforce is, the more it will provide opportunity for an economy to adapt quickly; liquidity of labour is as important as liquidity of capital. A poor region saves on public expenditure by exporting people and living on remittances; new enterprises can begin where conditions are most congenial to them, and grow there as large as practicable, instead of being dispersed about the regions.

How is America less equal than Europe? Let us consider on the one hand Puerto Rico and Central Park West, and on the other Albania and Geneva; where is the greater inequality? It is only the unnatural walls against the movement of labour that prevent ten thousand Albanians forming a ghetto on the shores of Lake Leman.

Consider this: Napoleon has conquered Russia, and the serfs are free citizens of a United States of Europe. It is easy to imagine them still kept backward by their old masters under the Second Republic, until the railways come. Then they flood east, an alien deluge, a flood of cheap labour; soon there are three million of them in the centre of Paris. Europe is richer; they are richer – make them twice as rich as they would be in Putin’s Russia, and the French richer too; inequality! Poverty in the midst of a gleaming metropolis, the shame, the shame – and the citizens of a Union that stops at the Ohio might shake their fingers admonishingly, ignoring the new Haiti of the fallen Confederate States at their doorstep...

Enough already! Give Europe no barriers to the movement of men over eight million square kilometers, and give her three-thousand miles of land boundary with poorer nations; she will be better for it. A multitude of Slavs and Arabs, who will work for less than the Western man, and the tumbleweed (native of the Ukraine) rolling through the empty streets of towns better abandoned – in a generation, she will be able to rule the world...

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Another Big Quote

It has been a long time since I circulated that last essay by Hillel Halkin (April last year, methinks) but he is always worth reading. Here he is again:

My brother, the Other

"Get the virus out of the White House!" a Kerry campaign worker was shouting as I passed him on 93rd and Broadway a few days before the election. "Help beat the psycho-killer!"

It wasn't his private slogan; I heard the same chant elsewhere in Manhattan, where I happened to be during the last days of the campaign.

I grew up in the US and don't remember anything quite like it. The closest analogies are the Nixon-Humphrey and Nixon-McGovern campaigns of 1968 and 1972, when Democratic strongholds like New York were equally vituperative toward the Republican candidate. But '68 and '72 were essentially one-issue votes; everything was dominated by Vietnam.

In 2004 America is divided into two hostile camps that disagree on just about everything. The electoral results bear this out dramatically. Overall nationwide, it was a close vote. Taken on a state-to-state basis, however, it was close in only a few places. Bush won some states by a huge margin, Kerry others. It was one America voting against another.

To an ex-American visiting from Israel, there is something disconcertingly familiar about this. Extreme political polarization is an old story here; there has been no time when it didn't exist. In America it is new - and to those who care about America's future (which is to say, to everyone on earth, since America's future is in some ways everyone's), it is worrisome.

I don't know what it was like in Bush country. I wasn't in any of it on this visit. But in Kerry country, the president and his supporters weren't just the other political party. They were a frightening and demonized Other who were fellow countrymen only in the technical sense of the term.

The Kerry voters I spoke to assumed as a matter of course that voting for Bush meant you were either a hopelessly warped or a hopelessly misinformed individual, and in either case incapable of rational thought.

The country is split by what seem to be two mutually antagonistic and irreconcilable value systems - one urban, secular, liberal and post-modern, the other rural, religious, conservative and pre-modern. It takes a pinch to remember the not-so-distant days when America's two political parties were commonly referred to as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, mirror images of each other that had to exaggerate minor quarrels in order to create the illusion that there was any difference between them.

And yet, to return to the subject of rational thought, it could be suggested that rather than seeing the Democrats and Republicans of 2004 as representing conflicting value systems that must be accepted in toto one way or another, there is much to be said for picking and choosing from positions on either side.

The sad thing is that these positions have become so locked into a general, across-the-board gestalt that Americans have lost the capacity to consider them on a case-to-case basis.

Thus, if you are a Republican today, you are by definition for the war in Iraq, for American unilateralism in foreign policy, against reliance on the United Nations, against international treaties on environmental issues, against pro-environmental groups in general, for high-income tax cuts, for public support of religious schools and institutions, against gun control, against gay marriage, against legalized abortion. If you're a Democrat, it's just the opposite.

It's a take-it-or-leave-it package, the forces of Good against the forces of Evil.

AND YET what on earth is the logical connection between Iraq and environmentalism, between religious schools and gun control, between gay marriage and abortion? Who says that being for or against one of these things necessarily means being for or against another?

It's certainly possible to believe, for example, that the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq was a correct one whose consequences should continue to be borne for as long as there is any hope of stabilizing that country, while at the same time believing that the refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol was an error.

In general, there is something absurd about the notion that being a political conservative means being an environmental radical. (True environmental radicalism, after all, consists not of trying to conserve as much of the natural environment as possible, but of giving carte blanche to its destruction.)

When George W. Bush speaks of the need for forcefulness in fighting Islamic terror, he is wise; when he pretends that the dangers of global warming don't exist, he is foolish. Why can't one say that?

Why can't one be both for gun control and for a measure of government support for religious institutions? The argument against gun control goes back to an 18th-century Constitution that promised citizens the right to bear muskets, not concealable pistols and submachine guns.

The argument against supporting religion originates in the same Constitution, whose signers feared the creation of a European-style established church, not of dozens of equally competing Christian, Jewish, and Islamic denominations.

Super-strict constructionists should logically oppose all gun control and all state support for religion; constitutional evolutionists should be tolerant of both.

And what is the inherent link between gay marriage and abortion? Although Judeo-Christian tradition condemns both, it is certainly possible to separate them, whether by arguing that one condones the taking of life and one doesn't, or by arguing that one subverts accepted notions of sexuality and one doesn't. They're not at all the same issue, even if nearly all Americans treat them as though they were.

But one of the problems with political polarization is that issues cease to be issues and become symbols of political identity. We saw that happen in Israel a long time ago. Tell someone here that you're against the recognition of Reform conversions and for civil marriage, or vice versa, and you'll be looked at as if you had said you're for daylight and against sunshine.

And yet what, really, apart from identifying you as either "religious" or "secular" in people's eyes, do the two positions have to do with each other? By pigeonholing one another, we also pigeonhole our thought processes.

It is sad to see this happening in America, a country known in the past for the pragmatic, anti-ideological nature of its politics. Although Europeans have always sneered at these politics for being dull and conflict-free, they have in fact been a great source of national strength, allowing American voters to make judicious distinctions without having to feel they have deserted to the enemy.

The America of the Bush-Kerry election has become a country of enemies. This is bad for America and bad for the world.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da

This is a brief NaNoWrimo comment... I tend to take on other people's mannerisms when speaking to them, and other people's styles if I am reading while I write. Last November I did not read any novels, and found it easy to keep my own style throughout, but then I was writing in Tsai. It seems more difficult to keep hold of my own voice in the 'real world' - I find my current effort is being influenced by Isabel Allende's amazonian novel, by John Christopher's tripod series, by the Danny Dunn novels, the prophet Ezekiel, and (of course) William S Burroughs' yage eating (or is it smoking? or drinking?) adventures in the jungles of Ecuador. I am hoping that the number of novels drawing from this particular set of influences is small enough that the final product will seem reasonably non-derivative, regardless...

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Happy Days on the Tapajos

The dice have spoken: 56 degrees 2 minutes West, 4 degrees 11 minutes South, in the heart of Amazonia. 1456 BCE. I can see some research will be in order...