Monday, July 31, 2006

My Favourite Quote from the Satanic Verses

Any new idea, Mahound, is asked two questions.
The first is asked when it’s weak:
Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive;
or are you the cursed, bloody-minded ramrod-backed type of damnfool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze?
- the kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, be smashed to bits;
but the hundredth time, will change the world?

What’s the second question? Gibreel asked.

Answer the first one first.

I first posted this two years ago today, in the second week of accidental blogging.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Meanwhile, 2500 years ago...

When Xerxes was irritated by the Athenians aiding the Ionian rebels, did he send a small expeditionary force to rough them up a bit? Did he ensure that his response was strictly proportional to the size of the insult he had received from Athens? Did he hire the minimal amount of Phoenician warships that he estimated would have a fair chance of beating the Athenian navy? No, he knew that the principle of war is to attack in strength at weakness. Thus, he went for massive overkill and amassed the greatest army the world had ever seen. Of course, all we remember nowadays is that the Greeks beat Xerxes. But that gigantic army of his crossed the Hellespont and marched all the way through Thrace, Macedonia, and Thessaly, almost all the way to Athens, without having to fight anyone*. Most of the Greek cities on the way joined him, because he was so obviously going to win. He made good all of his losses after Thermopylae by more Greek cities throwing in their lot with him as his army kept advancing to Athens. Which they trashed. So, leaving aside the fact that Xerxes then got whipped at Salamis, lost his nerve, and ‘redeployed’ out of Greece, I think his actions show the proper way the ‘War on Terror’ should have been approached.

It would appear, says Crackpot Neoconservative National Security Advisor Dr Clam, one bright sunny morning in October 2001, that there are certain countries which are state sponsors of terrorism of a jihadist stripe. These countries seem to be Libya, The Palestinian Authority, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Gosh, says the President, that sounds bad. What can we do?
Let us declare to all the countries on this list that they can either fight us, or fight with us in beating up the others, says Dr Clam. Then, let us amass a ground force of two million men and commence an attack on the smallest and weakest of the nations that has opted to fight us. If, after it is defeated, there remain nations that still want to fight us, let us move onto the next weakest. Et cetera.
My God! says the President. You are a lunatic.
Bwahahahahaha, says Dr Clam.

Hmm, that scenario didn’t quite end up at the place it was meant to end up, when it started. But it seems to me that we will still have to fight all of those people, or co-opt them to our side, or lose. It will just be a much more messy and drawn out problem.

Marco’s blog says that it is dedicated to solving the world’s problems, one at a time. At the moment I can’t think of any solutions to any of the world’s problems. I don’t know if I can carry on attempting to put together arguments as to why we should follow one course of action or another, when none of the alternatives I can think of are very good.
I may have to re-invent this blog as one dedicated purely to the line-by-line exegesis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Dumber than Paint?

Here is the transcript from the Washington Post, for those of us who are damn lazy to open another browser window and cut and paste urls:

President Bush was caught on an open microphone talking with other leaders at the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg as they ate lunch before adjourning on Monday. At times the television camera was on Bush, at times it was panning the room. Some of the exchange was hard to hear over the clinking of plates and pouring of drinks. Here's a transcript by The Washington Post:

Someone, probably an aide, asks Bush something, evidently whether he wants prepared closing remarks for the end of the summit:

Bush: No. Just gonna make it up. I'm not going to talk too damn long like the rest of them. Some of these guys talk too long.

The camera is focused elsewhere and it is not clear whom Bush is talking to, but possibly Chinese President Hu Jintao, a guest at the summit.

Bush : Gotta go home. Got something to do tonight. Go to the airport, get on the airplane and go home. How about you? Where are you going? Home?

Bush : This is your neighborhood. It doesn't take you long to get home. How long does it take you to get home?

Reply is inaudible.

Bush : "Eight hours? Me too. Russia's a big country and you're a big country."

At this point, the president seems to bring someone else into the conversation.

Bush : It takes him eight hours to fly home.

He turns his attention to a server.

Bush : No, Diet Coke, Diet Coke.

He turns back to whomever he was talking with.

Bush : It takes him eight hours to fly home. Eight hours. Russia's big and so is China.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair approaches.

Bush : Blair, what are you doing? You leaving?

Blair : No, no, no, not yet.

Blair, standing over Bush as the president eats, tries to engage on the stalled global trade negotiations.

Blair : On this trade thing . . .

Some of the ensuing conversation is inaudible. Blair evidently wants Bush to make a statement on the talks.

Bush : If you want me to. I just want some movement. Yesterday, I didn't see much movement. The desire's to move.

Blair : No, no there's not. It may be that it's impossible.

Bush : I'll be glad to say it. Who's introducing me?

Blair : Angela. [German Chancellor Angela Merkel ]

Bush : Tell her to call on me. Tell her to put me on the spot.

Bush then changes the subject, presumably to a gift Blair must have given him for his recent 60th birthday.

Bush : Thanks for the sweater. Awfully thoughtful of you. I know you picked it out yourself.

Blair : Oh, absolutely.

Both of them laugh. Then Bush turns serious, asking Blair about comments apparently made about the Middle East crisis by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, another guest at the summit.

Bush : What about Kofi? That seems odd. I don't like the sequence of it. His attitude is basically ceasefire and [then] everything else happens. You know what I'm saying?

Blair : Yeah. No, I think -- the thing that's really difficult is we can't stop this unless you get this international presence agreed. Now, I know what you guys have talked about but it's the same thing.

The next remarks are i naudible, but the conversation turns to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Blair : . . . see how reliable that is. But you need that done quickly.

Bush : Yeah, she's going. I think Condi's going to go pretty soon.

Blair : Right. Well, that's, that's, that's all that matters. If you -- see, it'll take some time to get out there. But at least it gives people a --

Bush : A process, I agree. I told her your offer too.

It's unclear what offer he means, but apparently Blair offered to make some sort of public statement.

Blair : Well, it's only if it's -- I mean, you know, if she's gotta -- or if she needs the ground prepared, as it were. Obviously, if she goes out, she's got to succeed, as it were, whereas I can just go out and talk.

Bush : See, the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over.

Blair : Who, Syria?

Bush : Right.

Blair : I think this is all part of the same thing. What does he think? He thinks if Lebanon turns out fine, if we get a solution in Israel and Palestine, Iraq goes in the right way, he's [inaudible ] . That's what this whole thing's about. It's the same with Iran.

Bush : I felt like telling Kofi to get on the phone with Assad and make something happen. We're not blaming Israel. We're not blaming the Lebanese government."

At this point, Blair notices the microphone and turns it off.

Point One (not actually my point): Most conversations would sound equally stupid if they were written down. Certainly most of mine.

Point Two: If I had to sit around a table and be polite to someone like Hu Jintao, whose government is cheerfully dissecting living Falun Gong practitioners for their organs, I would probably also drift into meaningless small talk that made me sound dumber than paint.

Point Three: Bush’s comments about the Middle East situation are obviously not intended to be written down, but they are not the comments of someone who has not done their homework. They display a good understanding of the facts on the ground (in so far as they can be interpreted).
(a) An immediate ceasefire leaving Hezbollah intact would indeed be a bad thing- primarily for the sort of reasons Marco was talking about in his comment, that such an outcome would ensure an unstable Lebanon with poor economic growth and poor prospects for democracy. The only exception could be if the immediate ceasefire was immediately followed by a muscular international presence with strong rules of engagement and a clearly defined role. This seems to be what Bush and Blair are talking about.
(b) Syria could indeed stop Hezbollah, and if Hezbollah stops, Israel has said they will stop, so we can predict that they would probably stop. Iran could probably also stop Hezbollah, but Syria is much more susceptible to international pressure. Nobody else is in any position to put pressure on Hezbollah, except by dropping bombs on them.

Point Four (again, not mine, but very pertinent): They are doing pretty clever things with paint nowadays. Some of it probably is smarter than me already.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Three Good Things

1: The Veto
I am very pleased that Bush has used his first veto in such a splendid way. There is no decent rationale for embryonic stem cell research, and the proponents of this research frequently stoop to the worst kind of emotional blackmail in their arguments. I have been repeatedly disappointed that bodies such as the Australian Academy of Science have made statements equating disapproval of this research with disapproval of science.

Q: In terms of therapeutic results obtained, have adult stem cells been more successful than embryonic stem cells?

A: Yes, certainly.

Q: In terms of our current understanding of biology, are there strong reasons to believe that adult stem cells will in almost all cases be more therapeutically useful than embryonic stem cells?

A: Yes, certainly.

Q: On the other hand, are embryonic stem cells more fundamentally interesting for developmental biologists?

A: Yes, certainly.

Q: And aren't all scientists primed by their training to argue with every fibre of their being that their research is incredibly important and should be funded?

A: Yes, certainly.

Q: And aren't people who are dying of horrible diseases and their relatives proverbially susceptible to shysters promising miracles?

A: Yes, certainly. Though I'm not sure I see your point.

Q: Now, would funding for embryonic stem cell research be extra funding in addition to what is already spent on medical research?

A: Yes, cer.. er, who are you kiddng? This is the Bush Administration you are talking about. Look at their appalling record of funding science!

Q: So, is funding embryonic stem cell research likely to take funds away from equally good (or better) research projects with equally good (or better) prospects for valuable therapeutic outcomes?

A: Yes, cer.. You mean, it might threaten my project? For the love of God, we must act now!

2: The Silence
I a very pleased that Bush has not come out with an even-handed condemnation of both parties in the most recent Arab-Israeli fracas. This is a significant advance on the attitude of U.S. Administrations in 2000, 1987, 1982, 1973, 1967, 1956 and 1948. I think since 2003 the U.S. has a much better intuitive understanding of Israel's position and the challenges it is facing. The process of bringing stability, democracy, and Happy Fun WorldTM-nature of the Middle East can only begin when the Great Satan is willing to stand side by side with the Little Satan and say 'pish tosh' to the forces of Islamofascism. I suggest the following:

"Yes, our Litte Satanic pals are not perfect, but there is no moral equivalence between them and you mealy-mouthed murderers. For they are basically right, and good, and you are basically wrong, and bad. We will certainly press our pals to behave more ethically, and we will not fail to chastise them for their failings, but you we shall smite with a great smiting, yea and verily, until the echo of the rumour of the shadow of your presence on this earth is a forgotten memory and all your works have perished utterly, as if they had never been."

Or words to that effect.

3: The End.
On a much more local level, my University has seen the light and has agreed to knock the disgraceful degree programme in Homeopathic Medicine on the head. It will no longer be offered after this semester! Huzzah! [Prolonged cheering]

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Geopolitical Game Theory...

...has nothing to do with this post. Rather, it is about the stylistic missing link between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Serenity. I speak of Angel, which so far (halfway through season two) seems to be devoid of any interesting philosophical or political implications. It is however great fun to see the Buffyverse without (most of the time) a whingy sulky Buffy in it. Angel seems to have embraced the 'this is somebody's role-playing campaign translated to the small screen' aspects of the Buffyverse.
I noticed the other day in the credits there was a 'Head Hair Stylist'. This raises the unsettling possibility that there might be stylists for other kinds of hair. I hope this is not the case.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Skeleton in the Wardrobe

Dr. Clam’s occasional reviews of long out of print books, #1 in a series. Following on from a discussion on Winston’s World.

‘What is the answer to an argument turning on the belief that two and two make four?’
‘The answer is, “You say that because you are a mathematician.”’
- The jailor and Master Parrot, in ‘The Pilgrim’s Regress,’ C. S. Lewis

This book (‘The Skeleton in the Wardrobe’, by David Holbrook, 1991) is a gloriously silly ‘debunking’ of C. S. Lewis’s mythos. It must have been a great deal of fun to write, but anybody who takes it seriously has lost the good of the intellect. It serves as a complete piss-take on the whole Freudian enterprise, and could hardly have done it better if that had been the author’s intention. Unfortunately I do not intend to cherry-pick especially silly bits of Mr Holbrook’s book for your amusement: you must go and find it yourself if you are keen.

Mr Holbrook has one main point which is perfectly valid. There is too much violent conflict resolution and nowhere near enough non-violent conflict resolution in Lewis’s fiction for works that explicitly set out to be Christian. The problem is that Mr Holbrook cannot state this and build a well-rounded argument to demonstrate it. Being a psychoanalytical type, he does not know how to argue in anything but an ad hominem way, and feels he must thoroughly discredit all of Lewis’s incidents and images by hypothesising the psychopathologies that led to their creation.

It is obvious that Mr Holbrook is deeply unhappy about C. S. Lewis’s use of violence, which he feels to be strongly at odds with his understanding of the Christian ethos. In the first chapter he highlights two episodes that he finds particularly disturbing. These are the humiliation of the Telmarine civilians at the end of ‘Prince Caspian’ and the similar humiliations of the staff and students of Experiment House at the end of ‘The Silver Chair’:

‘The first house they came to was a school: a girl’s school, where a lot of Narnian girls, with their hair done very tight and ugly tight collars round their necks and thick tickly stockings on their legs, were having a history lesson…’ (Prince Caspian, p.170)

This lesson (it is dull history) is being conducted by a Miss Prizzle who is punitive towards her pupil, Gwendolen, among others. A row interrupts her.

‘Wild people such as she had never imagined were crowding round her. Then she saw the lion, screamed and fled her class, who were mostly dumpy, prim little girls with fat legs.’

What are we supposed to make of this? The Bacchanalian, it seems, is being revived, with Aslan-Christ’s help: ‘nature’ replaces sterility and tedium. But what is Miss Prizzle’s offense and that of her ‘dumpy’ girls, that a Christ figure should frighten them so? Some kind of liberation is going on, but what is its goal? Gwendolen hesitates.

‘”You’ll stay with us, sweetheart?” said Aslan.
Instantly she joined hands with two of the Maenads who whirled her around in a merry dance and helped her take off some of the unnecessary and uncomfortable clothes that she was wearing.' (Holbrook’s italics)

How much may she take off? Why is she excused from being a victim? How far can a Maenad go? Surely in some historical periods the Maenads went into frenzies, inflamed by drink as servants of a Bacchanal? Did they tear people to pieces? Did they perform religious sexual acts? How seriously can we take all this and what does it signify?

‘Most of the gang were there- Adela Pennyfather and Cholmondely Major, Edith Winterblott, “Spotty Somer, Big Bannister and the two loathsome Garret twins. But suddenly they stopped. Their faces changed, and all the meanness, conceit, cruelty and sneakishness almost all disappeared in one single expression of terror. For they saw the wall fallen down, and a lion as large as a young elephant lying in the gap and three figures in glittering clothes with weapons in their hands rushing down upon them. For, with the strength of Aslan in them, Jill plied her crop on the girls and Caspian and Eustace plied the flats of their swords on the boys so well that in two minutes all the bullies were running like mad, crying out, “Murder! Fascists! Lions! It isn’t fair!” (Silver Chair p.205, Holbrook’s italics)

It would be interesting to hear those who commend C. S. Lewis on his straight Christianity, on this method of dealing with enemies, even supposing them to be as mean and bullying as Lewis does. How are problems of prejudice, justice, and tolerance implicitly offered?
The head of the school has hysterics and goes to the police; but Aslan restores the wall and when the police arrive they find nothing except the head ‘behaving like a lunatic’. So, in the interests of Christian triumph, even Christ, apparently, is willing to lend himself to the destruction of evidence and perversion of justice.’

Mr Holbrook finds the behaviour of Aslan in these incidents, and the behaviour Aslan elicits and evidently approves of, offensive and confronting. He seeks explanations for it in Lewis’s psychopathology, at extravagant length.

Mr Holbrook ought to know where to look for the true explanation of this behaviour. It is in the Christ of the Gospels. If Aslan is to be an image of Christ, he needs to include the image of Christ driving the moneylenders from the temple, cursing the barren fig tree, driving the demons into the Gadarene swine, saying ‘I come not to bring peace, but a sword,’ and damning Korazin and Bethsaida. He cannot simply be an image of the aspects of the Christ of the Gospels that 20th century Westerners find inoffensive. He is not to be a ‘tame Prophet’. He must also reflect these violent and chaotic aspects of Christ, the very ones that Bertrand Russell finds so odious in ‘Why I am not a Christian.’ If Mr Holbrook had a bit more chutzpah he would have gone straight for the main game and written a book psychoanalysing Jesus, instead of wasting his time with C. S. Lewis.

I will now put on my postmodernist hat.

Let us assume for the sake of argument that Mr Holbrook knows what he is talking about. Let us assume all of his wild Freudian extrapolations happen to be completely, inerrantly true. Now, if we know all the ghastly and embarassing psychopathology behind a particular image or incident in a novel does that mean that the only meaning of the image or incident is the psychopathological one? I think not. I gladly grant Mr Holbrook the freedom to create such a reading. If he claims that such a reading is imposed on him by the author, I will say he is abdicating his readerly responsibilities as co-creator of the text. If he attempts to impose it on me, I will say he is an arrogant authoritarian twit.

I am within my rights to read the Narnia books as if they were an allegory of the relations between labour and capital during the Great Depression; I can read them as if they were intended to be Buddhist allegory, rather than Christian; I can read them and pretend that they were written by William S Burroughs and derive their piquant charm from his psychopathology. Or, I can follow the author’s suggestions as to the meaning he intended them to have.

At the end of the first chapter Mr Holbrook asks a series of rhetorical questions:
‘Is it true that the world is full of threatening figures against which one must continually strive? And is it true that the only hope one has of winning against these powers is by frightening, threatening, controlling, or destroying them? And hardening oneself to do so?’

Well, duh! Not long before Lewis wrote these stories, a great nation in the centre of civilised Europe was busying itself making soap out of people and throwing children alive into furnaces. While he was writing them another great European nation was busily starving, bludgeoning, and freezing tens of millions of people to death in a network of prisons. Edith Winterblott and the loathsome Garret twins are clearly not monsters on the same scale as Stalin. But what they lack, chiefly, is merely the apparatus of a totalitarian state. They could be Stalin, given a chance, and they are clearly types of the sort of people who make Stalin possible. They are just smaller, on the same scale of a child at school, and hence the proper targets for the righteous anger of a child at school.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

An occasion for pedantry

I was walking through the library just now when a big fat book on the shelf caught my eye:

'Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner'

Hang on...