Saturday, May 31, 2008

Comebacks (1)

This is a postscript to "Lost words," below.

The theater in question is in a formerly decrepit city neighborhood that in recent years has become somewhat chic. As we were in our seats waiting for the curtain, I turned to the friend I was with and said: "You know, walking around outside just now I saw some hot people. And I don't mean 'hot' as in 'hot and sweaty.'"

To which my friend replied: "You don't get out much, do you?"

American Memory and World War I

University of Virginia historian Edward Lengel has an interesting column in the Wash. Post of May 25 about why Americans today are relatively uninterested in the experiences of U.S. soldiers in World War I, as opposed to say the Civil War, World War II or Vietnam. Comment on this column has appeared elsewhere in the blogosphere (notably by John Quiggin at Crooked Timber, see link at the sidebar). You can read the Lengel column by clicking here.

Wesleyan screams for Obama

Sen. Obama replaced Sen. Kennedy as Wesleyan's graduation speaker this year after the latter withdrew following his cancer diagnosis.

According to a May 25 New York Times piece, "A Spike in Screams Before Graduation," this was the initial reaction:

"'Everyone found out at the same time after we put it on our Web page,' said Holly Wood (yes, but she’s actually just a working-class kid from the Poconos), co-founder of a widely read student blog, Wesleying ( 'I got out of my car and everyone was screaming, and my phone went off and someone told me, and I screamed. I called my mom, and she screamed. It was like this relay effect of people on the campus, all screaming.'"

Let's hope the speech met expectations.

Lost words

Somewhere along the line, I picked up the notion that when you go to see a play you should be able to hear and understand what an actor is saying, even when you're in the worst seat in the house, and even when the script calls for the actor to mumble, whisper, or speak in a dialect. Is this precept being imparted effectively to actors by their teachers and directors? Not on the evidence of the play I saw last night: A complicated script, some of it in a difficult dialect; a large cast, with a lot of young actors; and an unacceptably high number of lost words, words thrown away, spoken indistinctly, tossed casually and irrecoverably through the window of incomprehensibility. Although two or three of the individual performances were excellent, the overall effect was very disappointing.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Lingering scars of World War II

Japan has decided not to use a C-130 military transport plane to send relief supplies to the China quake victims. It's going to use a chartered civilian plane instead. This would have been the first military flight by Japan into Chinese airspace since the end of World War II, and it evidently was a psychological bridge too far for the Chinese government. You can read the BBC article here.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Protests in Delhi

The BBC this morning carries an article Tribesmen try to paralyze Delhi which reports that members of the Gujjar tribe are burning tires and trying to block roads that connect Delhi with a couple of its suburbs that "are home to hundreds of call centers and IT offices." The Gujjars are upset (understandably) that roughly 40 of them have been killed in the past week in clashes with police in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. Their underlying grievance is that they want to be included in the government's list of disadvantaged groups, thereby enabling them to benefit from the affirmative action programs that give preferential hiring treatment in government jobs and set aside a certain number of places in educational institutions.

This kind of story highlights the fact that despite India's rapid economic growth and growing middle class, there remains a great deal of economic distress and anxiety in the country. Close to a quarter of the population lives on less than $1 a day (see Ashutosh Varshney, "India's Democratic Challenge," Foreign Affairs, March/April 2007, p.98). Moreover, according to a 2007 government report, nearly half of Indian children under age 3 are clinically underweight, i.e., malnourished (Somini Sengupta, "Even Amid Its Wealth, India Finds, Half Its Small Children Are Malnourished," New York Times, 2/10/07). Because India's poor have had higher rates of electoral participation in recent years than its middle and upper classes (see Varshney, op. cit.), no government can afford to be indifferent to these kinds of grievances, and that is true even if the protesting Gujjars do not belong to the poorest of the poor. As long as the government has affirmative action programs for disadvantaged tribes and scheduled castes, I would think there will be contention about who gets to benefit from those programs.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Personal Enlightenment or Collective Transformation?

Dormgrandpop, who was kind enough to leave a comment here earlier (see "Obama once more," below), believes, along with the Dalai Lama, that the path to tackling social problems such as the increasing gaps between rich and poor begins with personal enlightenment: see, e.g., his May 18 post beginning "A bleak view of how things are on our planet."

I am not really convinced of this, perhaps partly because I am probably unenlightened by the Dalai Lama's measures. I cannot help recalling the example -- though I'm not quite old enough to have experienced it very directly -- of some young people during the 1960s for whom personal enlightenment became a substitute for political activism. Charles Reich's The Greening of America famously argued that "a revolution in consciousness" would lead to a political and social revolution, but when it came to concrete measures, it turned out that Reich thought, for example, that eating natural instead of artificial peanut butter would herald a new age. OK, this is a slight caricature of Greening, but I do think it discloses a tendency that is at least worth worrying about.

Does this mean people should not read or listen to the Dalai Lama's books? Of course not. It does perhaps raise a cautionary flag, however, about assuming too direct a progression from personal enlightenment to collective reform.

Mistake on MacArthur Boulevard

We interrupt consideration of weighty issues for a little story with a moral.

Some days ago I happened to be walking along MacArthur Blvd. in northwest Washington, D.C. (not something I often have occasion to do, but anyway...). On upper MacArthur Blvd. (Chain Bridge Road/Arizona Ave. area, for those of you familiar with D.C.), I was stopped by a driver who wanted to know how to get to the intersection of MacArthur Blvd. and Cathedral Avenue (specifically, he was looking for the Palisades Community Church).

What I should have said to him was "sorry, I don't know how you get there." I didn't say that, however, because of the following thought that doubtless went through some part of my mind: "I was born in Washington, D.C. (and not yesterday either). I have lived in it or in its environs for most of my life. How can I possibly not know where MacArthur and Cathedral, two major streets in northwest D.C., intersect?"

So what I said (in relevant part) was: "I don't remember exactly where MacArthur and Cathedral intersect, but it's obviously [sic] that way" -- and I pointed "down" MacArthur, toward downtown (more specifically, toward Reservoir Road and Georgetown). Then I continued on my merry way walking "up" MacArthur toward where my car was parked. In a very short block or two, I walked past -- yes, you guessed it -- the intersection of MacArthur and Cathedral. True, it wasn't the main part of Cathedral, it was probably even a disconnected piece of Cathedral, but nonetheless it was the intersection of MacArthur and Cathedral, and there was even a sign for the Palisades Church, the driver's intended destination.

At that point, however, it was clearly too late to run back and tell him I'd been wrong.

Moral: If someone asks you for directions which you think you should know but don't, just say: "I'm sorry, I really don't have the slightest idea."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Obama once more

In an extended and occasionally eloquent meditation at the blog Slaves of Academe, the blogger Oso Raro, in a recent post called "Bloodsport," reflects on race and class in America in the context of Obama's candidacy and the current campaign. Oso Raro remarks, clearly with reference to Obama, that "self-transformation can be an awfully tricky thing in a white supremacist and anti-intellectual society." A propos of Maureen Dowd's statement that Obama will need to "rewind" himself to appeal to working-class voters, O.S. writes that re-winding is both unnecessary and impossible, since the layers of the self, once in place, cannot be peeled back (I'm paraphrasing).

I have not read Obama's autobiography and don't know the detailed version of his life story, but those of you who do know it (or are otherwise interested) may want to read "Bloodsport" and see whether you agree with Oso Raro (assuming you're up for navigating the occasionally circular currents of his prose).

Vedrine on Obama

In a May 20 interview in Le Monde, translated and posted by Nur al-Cubicle, former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine says this in response to a question about the American presidential race: "If Obama is elected, the world will breathe a sigh of relief. Obama will galvanize the world, because he will be the first American president to understand them."

I voted for Obama in a primary and will vote for him in the general election (should he be the nominee), but Vedrine's statement strikes me as a bit excessive (either in putting too much weight on Obama's shoulders, so to speak, or in discounting the entire list of U.S. presidents, or both). Reactions?

"I [Heart] China"

Margaret Warner's excellent report from China on the PBS Newshour yesterday included a brief shot of a man helping load relief supplies in Beijing for transport to earthquake victims; the guy was wearing a T shirt that said (in English) "I [heart] China." Could there be a better 15-second illustration of the contradictions of globalization?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Bad demographics?

In an article ("The Future of American Power") in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria observes that the aging of populations in Europe and much of Asia has three malign effects: it increases pension burdens, decreases scientific innovation (because most scientists and inventors do their best work between ages 30 and 44), and reduces national savings and investment rates. (He also could have added that strains on health care systems increase.) "For advanced industrialized countries, bad demographics are a killer disease," he asserts (p.35).

He neglects to note, however, that aging (and therefore shrinking) populations also might have some beneficial effects: reduced traffic congestion and reduced consumption of fossil fuels and other resources, to name two.

Zakaria's main argument in the piece (drawn from his recently published book The Post-American World) is that America's economy and society are resilient and flexible, but its political system is broken. He's certainly right on the last point. He also contends, unsurprisingly but correctly, that the U.S. must accommodate itself to the diffusion of cultural and economic power to other countries: i.e., accept "the rise of the rest," don't try to resist it. But when it comes to economics, Zakaria is basically a defender of the neoliberal version of capitalism (see, e.g., his discussion of corporate taxation), so if you pick up the book don't expect anything too enlightened on that score.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

May '68 (and all that)

This afternoon I saw Romain Goupil's 1982 film Mourir à 30 ans (To Die at Thirty), the last in a series of movies dealing with May '68 shown at the Nat'l Gallery (Wash. D.C.). The movie won prizes for its director, who was a high-school militant/activist at the time and later an apprentice to Godard and a moviemaker in his own right.

The movie, told retrospectively, is basically a group biography of Goupil and some of his friends, especially one Michel R (I'm not going to try to spell the last name), who was a leading activist, though still a high-school student in '68, then became a professional revolutionary, was imprisoned for several months after the Communist League was banned in summer '73, and committed suicide in March '78. He seems to have been charismatic and a skilled organizer; the movie touches on what might have contributed to his death, though it proceeds by indirection. Indeed, the whole movie is somewhat cryptic in effect, at least for someone (i.e. me) who
in May '68 was about to turn eleven, did not live in France and thus did not directly experience the events in question, and knows something -- but not a huge amount -- about the history of the French left in this period.

In particular, it would have been nice to learn more about the backgrounds of the protagonists. Goupil seems to have been from a left-wing and working-class family and he is shown selling the Communist Party newspaper L'Humanité door-to-door as a young kid (before deciding the CP is too do-nothing and "establishment"), but although Vietnam is mentioned there's no real explanation of exactly where his politics came from, or of the specifics of his class/social background (father's occupation, e.g.). Then there are the mundane questions: if all the flashback scenes in which Goupil and his friends appear actually show them (which seems to be the case) as opposed to actors playing them, then who is holding the camera (they were the budding filmmakers, after all)? And why, when everyone in the movie obviously is speaking French, is Goupil's voice-over narration in English?

Finally, this movie, made in '82, underscores the psychic and political gulf that separates 1968 from 2008 by refracting '68 through a lens that itself now seems distant. In 1982, after all, the French socialists were in power, Mitterand had not yet made his U-turn away from his original program, and there was no firm indication that Reaganism/Thatcherism/corporate neoliberalism was going to triumph so definitively. The "second Cold War" had just begun, the nuclear freeze movement in the U.S. and Europe was about to go into high gear, and one could still perhaps see some of the flames of '68 flickering if one looked hard enough. There are people who think "the world revolution of 1968" (as I. Wallerstein calls it) had long-lasting effects in several crucial ways, and they are probably right. And of course mass demonstrations still occasionally occur (Seattle '99, Genoa '01, Feb '03 vs. the Iraq invasion, etc.). Still, 1968 does seem now like a very long time ago: in some ways it could be almost as far away as 1848; and the 1971 Paris celebration of the centennial of the Commune (as shown in the movie), with the banners of Lenin and the choruses of the Internationale, seems almost as distant as the Commune itself. To watch To Die at Thirty in 2008, in other words, is like reading a kind of double elegy, or walking through two sets of mirrors into a dim, even if not altogether vanished, past.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Best and the Meanest

Amelia Rawls, in a May 1 Wash. Post piece ("Best and the Brightest, but not the Nicest"), writes that after four years at Princeton and a year at Yale Law School, she admires her peers' "inspirational" accomplishments but worries that they "are not always nice people."

What a surprise.

Of the presidential candidates, she writes: "I wonder if, in their trek to the top, they have pushed aside the kind of quietly brilliant altruists who mean what they say and say what they mean."

Note to A. Rawls: "Quietly brilliant altruists" don't usually run for President.

Her last sentence: "I wonder if our society is crippling itself by subjecting its youths to an almost-Darwinian college selection process."

No quarrel there, except that part of the problem lies with the "youths" themselves, who have bought into various erroneous notions about higher education.

Come to think of it, I received a letter not long ago from the dean of the law school I attended (many years ago), touting the fact that its US News & World Report ranking had gone up from something like 97 to something like 88, and explaining that this would enable it to recruit better students etc., etc. Law schools are so invested in these rankings that at least one sociologist has recently published an article about the phenomenon. It's in the journal Theory and Society -- unfortunately I don't remember the author's name or the issue number (and am not going to track it down right now).

Blast from the (Harvard) past

From Bruce Kuklick, The Rise of American Philosophy: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1860-1930 (Yale U.P., 1977), p.407:
He [i.e., A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, 1909-1933] wanted the university to open its doors to minorities in order to assimilate them. What he said of the Irish applied to many other groups: 'What we need is not to dominate...but to absorb.... Their best interests and ours are, indeed, the same in this matter. We want them to become rich, and send their sons to our colleges, to share our prosperity and our sentiments. We do not want to feel that they are among us and yet not really a part of us.' In the early 1920s, when he tried to establish a formal quota for Jews, he did so not because he felt any prejudice against the Jew per se [perish the thought--LFC], but because Harvard could not assimilate the Jews if their number became too large. One of Harvard's goals [according to Lowell] was to produce the 'pure American' Jew [citing H.A. Yeomans, Abbot Lawrence Lowell, 1850-1943, Harvard U. P., 1948]. Harvard had to give 'special consideration' to the Jews just as it did to alumni children: the nation would be strong only if both groups received Harvard socialization. Lowell's real problems came with the blacks. He wanted them to receive Harvard's educational advantages but he believed they were not socially assimilable under any circumstances. His troubled ruminations when he banned blacks from the Freshman Halls measured his limitations and his fear of cultural pluralism [not to mention his racism--LFC] : 'I wish I knew what our Saviour would think it wise to do about the Negro in America,' he confided to his wife. Cambridge could make a Jew indistinguishable from an Anglo-Saxon Protestant; but not even Harvard could make a black man white.