Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Unrequited Love's a Bore, and I Got it Pretty Bad

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the Ocean,
The winds of Heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
in one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?--

See the mountains kiss high Heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?

"Love's Philosophy", 1820

I've posted before on Plato's Symposium and the power of the metaphors from this work in conditioning our understanding about love. Aristophanes's tale of the beings who seek to find their other half and be content deeply influences how we understand the yearning to be with our beloved. We want to find stability, safety, to be whole, and have a our lives be filled with meaning by being with the "right" person, our "soul mate".

Whether or not is healthy to expect this kind of fulfillment from another person is a matter I'll set aside for now. Its enough to say that this tale seems to capture the feelings of promise and excitement when one is first falling in love with someone--so much connection, so much potential, so much that can be done in the future with this "right" person.

But this interview, with Australian philosopher Linnell Secomb, reminds us that these feelings are only part of the experience of love. Another dimension is one hinted at in the above poem written by Percy Shelley--the phenomena of lost or unrequited love. As Shelley recounts, it can seem as if the whole of nature is against you when it seems that the one you love won't love you back.

Secomb says that this feeling has a famous representation in literature: Frankenstein (written, of course, by the other famous Shelley, Mary, wife of Percy. Lot's of tragic love in that family). Frankenstein's creature is created by his master and then rejected. The creature then wanders the world looking, in effect, for a friend, someone to love and to love him. Yet, everyone rejects him. This unrequited love makes him a monstrosity, inside and out. The issue then is (as the last few lines of "Love's Philosophy" intimates): What is the world worth if one cannot love and be loved in return?

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Are Prisoner Rights Human Rights?

The Dirty Bomber, Jose Padilla, was finally sentenced this week to 17 years in prison. He was not convicted of actually engaging in any terrorist violence or of arranging any detonation of a dirty bomb. He was convicted of conspiracy--essentially of associating with people who had ties with terrorist networks in the Middle East.

Andy Worthington argues that all Americans should be worried about this conviction. Jose Padilla was held as an enemy combatant for 3 years in a military prison and subjected to strict isolation and sensory deprivation. He had restricted access to legal counsel before he was finally transferred to civilian authorities. Worthington claims that giving the government this kind of power threatens the personal security of each American citizen--once the President declares a person an enemy combatant, that person can disappear into a legal limbo where the protection of civil liberties may not reach.

Two weeks ago, many American communities held rallies to close down Guantanamo Bay military prison and to put an end to the kind of detention suffered by Padilla. A few days later, the top U.S. military leader,Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, said he favored closing the prison because he believes that the stories of prisoner treatment have damaged the image of the United States around the world.

But closing Guantanamo may not mean our civil liberties are more secure. At the same time that they ruled that prisoners in Guantanamo have constitutional rights, the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners in regular U.S. prisons do not have the First Amendment right to read secular newspapers, magazines, or have pictures of family members in their cells.

The case of Beard v. Banks deals with prisoners in condtions not much unlike what Padilla had in military prison. The Supreme Court ruled that prison officials can deny access to newspapers and magazines to certain prisoners if those officials believe that doing so would be a security problem, or if doing so was part of a institutional plan to punish or break a prisoner., or serve some other "reasonable" correctional interest. As one Justice put it, prisoners can read trashy romance novels from the prison library, but they do not have a right to have newspapers delivered to them that will inform them about current events or the state of the world outside their cells.

The prisoners in Beard are not nice people. They are housed in maximum security. The Supreme Court has said such individuals have some basic rights. But it is clear that many in our society do not believe they are entitled to anything like a dignified life. As the Pennsylvania Senior Deputy Attorney General Kemal Mericli, who was responsbile for moving Beard forward says:

“These people are not savants, are not intellectuals; they’re not at the Brookings Institution, they’re not professors. . . . I don’t know what their life is about. What they are, to my mind, they’re prisoners in a prison.”

As my mentor Darius Rejali has pointed out before in his work on torture practices, bad things don't start in places like Abu Graib or Nazi death camps--they can be traced to police tactics on the streets of Boston or in normal prisons first.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Free at Last? Where do we go from here? MLK 40 years later

Even though it is my least favorite speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream" is still a powerful thing to listen to. This version is made even more amazing because it is joined by a drum solo by Max Roach (whom I eulogized at the end of last year). Many who listen to the first part of the speech think that kind is calling for tolerance and acceptance in society--moving toward some kind of colorblind society free of racism. They don't often look at the whole speech in which King says that the United States has a debt to pay to black people for injustices and that it will take great changes in our institutions to make freedom ring.

What would MLK think today, some forty years after his murder? I think Pancho McFarland does a good job laying out what King would think about the U.S. today based on the work that he was doing right before he was killed.

King would have opposed the war in Iraq and would oppose our continued occupation. At the end of his life, he said the greateat challenges this country would face would be dealing with racism, militarism, and materialism. He would question the billions of dollars that go every month to support military efforts, while our prison populations increase to the largest in the world (not per capita, but in the world!), and jobs disappear, amid of frenzy of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fervor. "We will all have to do more with less" as a mantra, heard from institutions of higher education, to public schools, to shop floors, is a symbol of a serious imbalance of our priorities only because it means that there are some who are getting more while some are getting none.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Are We Havin a Laugh? Sexist Jokes and Just Sexism

In this piece, philosopher Roger Scruton bemoans the fact (at least in his mind) that our modern society is beset with Politically Correct censors who go around looking for people telling racist and sexist jokes in order to make them feel bad. We have become a society that can't take a joke.

For Scruton, laughter is something distinctly human. It is a way that human beings can create bonds of fellow feeling. A good joke and the resulting spontaneous laughter brings out a shared world between people.

Thus, ethnic jokes can be a good thing. In Scruton's view, even a crude ethnic joke can be a way to combat racism. By telling a racist joke, you can laugh and demonstrate that the differences between people don't really matter. They're funny; not worth being serious about.

The same goes for sexist jokes. As Scruton sees it, everyone knows that there are differences between genders. Feminists are not funny because they are so serious about equality and blurring gender lines:

"Even more sinful than the ethnic joke in the eyes of our moral guardians is the old comedy of the sexes. Despite all the ingenious labor of the feminists, ordinary people notice the very real differences between the sexes, and the very great need to accommodate those differences and to defuse the conflicts to which they might give rise. Humor has been the traditional recourse of humanity in this predicament, as men jokingly defer to their "better half," and women submit to the edicts of "his nibs." ... For the feminist the failings of men are no laughing matter. Not surprisingly, therefore, the literature of feminism is devoid of humor — and advisedly so, for if it ever were to employ this resource it would die laughing at itself."

Both Plato and Aristotle were wary about laughter, but not because they were puritans. They believed that laughter often represented a form of derision. Scruton thinks that ethnic and sexist jokes are about "laughing with you" when we also know that laughter can be a malicious way of "laughting at you". For Aristotle, laughter is a sign that you find something ridiculous, worthy of derision. In the Poetics, he even suggests that laughter can be used as a social learning tool. Wise playwrights can portray ridiculous subjects and teach audiences what is base, stupid, and ugly to laught at.

A new study seems to support some of this thinking. The findings suggest that when men are shown sexist comedy routines they are more likely to approve of actions that disciminate against women's interests. The researchers suggest the reason for this is that the sexist humor creates the impression of a shared world of discrimination, a world in which it is just obvious that women can be discriminated against. It gives the perception to some people that others see the world the way they do, so its perfectly alright to continue thinking the way they do.

I can say this makes sense to me based on some very limited data. I can't tell you how many people have told me "I'm not prejudiced against black people, but I gotta agree with Chris Rock, some people just are ni***rs".

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Can Watching Movies Reduce Violence?

For centuries, our understanding of art has been influenced by the idea of mimesis, or representation. Plato, for instance, said we should distrust the poets and playwrights because they built images of the world that were not always based in the truth. Only philosophers could be trusted to tell us how the world really is and we should be wary of the way non-philosophers represent the world to us.

Aristotle was not so harsh to the artists. Great art, he thought, flourished through mimesis. The way a great piece of art works is by representing a world that is so lifelike that it draws the audience in. We come to identify with the characters, they seem so real, so much like us, that by the end of the experience of the art piece, we have come to the cathartic moment that teaches us about ourselves. Art should be like a mirror to our own lives (this metaphor of the mirror is a favorite of Aristotle's--he thinks that a real friend is like a mirror to us. In looking at our friend, we have an insight into what our own character is like).

This notion of the influence of art, and images in particular, informs political work, too. Indeed, Plato thought that the power of art to sway people's political decisions was so great, he wanted to prohibit artists from his Republic. Today, we are concerned with the power of all sorts of images. Some are concerned with the way pornography warps our sense of sexuallity, so that only by re-enacting the images and performances in porn are we thought to be really having sex. This is similar to Freud's argument against masturbation. He thought that someone who lived in a fantasy life of self-pleasuring would become overwhelmed with the images in their own head and this would handicap them from actually being able to have a normal sex life with another person. Fantasy could never live up to the reality of another person, and thus, masturbation had the capacity to render us unhappy. Similar arguments have been made about violent and gory movies. And there are movements to limit or prohibit these kinds of images from filtering around societies.

But a new study, done by some economists, tries to push us away from this framework of mimesis. It claims that violent movies may actually reduce the amount of violence there is in society! Why? Because the kind of people that would be doing violent things are instead spending their time watching these violent movies. Much of violent crime in this country is done by young men. They are also the demographic that tends to see violent action films. So, if they are spending time going to the cinema, there is less time to go about causing mayhem in the streets.

The authors of the study say they don't know whether violent images induce violent behavior. And they don't condone those kinds of films, either. What's interesting is that they say that instead of trying to prohibit violent films, we should just produce films that young men also like to see in order to keep them occupied. In other world, more Adam Sandler films will do the same trick to keep violence down.

I'm curious what people make of this study and its "distraction" theory. It reminds me of arguments made in favor of keeping prostitiution, or, of pornography. The idea being that if men are allowed to visit brothels, or to watch porn, then they will have an outlet that will keep them from raping women, or feeling dissatisfied in their "normal" lives. Should we abandon our worries about the power of images to represent violence and concentrate on how to fill up people's lives so that they won't have time to hurt others?

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Forget Iowa!

The Iowa caucuses are over and the 2008 primary season is in full swing. Obama and Huckabee come out strong and now head to New Hampshire. Commentators are pointing out that participation this year was quite impressive for this quirky experiment in nomination politics.

Conor Clarke, however, hates Iowa and says the caucus system is profoundly undemocratic and one of the poorest ways to elect leaders. For all the talk about direct and personal democracy, it is full of practices that go against norms and practices understood to be representative of developed democracies, Clarke argues.

There is a lot of talk recently about the structural problems with the way the United States votes for its executive. Now some states are planning on big reforms that would essentially undermine the Electoral College. Maryland recently passed the National Popular Vote Law which mandates that a state's Electors must cast their ballots in line with the popular vote. Illinois and New Jersey are likely to follow in the next few months. This would essentially strip the Electoral College of its power and mean that the president would be the person chosen by a majority of the voters, not the majority of the Electors of the College. With such a reform in place earlier, we might now be looking at the end of President Gore's second term!

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Mexicans on Ice: Lessons on Justice and Charity from Mexico City's Ice Rink

At the start of December 2007, the municipal government of Mexico City built an ice skating rink in the middle of the Zocalo, the central plaza at the heart of the metropolis. The Zocalo is model for most Mexican cities. It consists of a large open plaza (one of the largest in the world, next to Moscow's Red Square) that is ringed by the City Cathedral, the National Palace for the Mexican Congress, and the municipal government building, (the side opposite the National Palace is the Hotel Majestic--a little pricey for a budget traveller but it has a great view from the balconies)

You can watch a video of the ice rink here.

The municipal government is run by the leftist pary of the PRD. Some have criticized the project as a waste of city funds that could be used for improving a whole host of services. Part of the reason for spending millions of dollars on an ice rink, according to the city officials, is to give poor and working class citizens (who are a majority of the people) some leisure opportunities that they might not normally have. Entrance to the rink and the skate rental are free.

I've mentioned Pericles' "Funeral Oration" before as an early account of the values and institutions needed to maintain a democracy. One of the values that Pericles says is upheld by the Athenians is leisure (skole). The idea was that free citizens were not regimented in their thinking. Unlike the Spartans who knew only how to obey orders, the Athenians, according to Pericles, attended festivals, and sampled food and wine from all over the world, in order to develop their individual judgment and sense of taste. Leisure gave them time to become liberal and open-minded. Indeed, leisure here means more than our contemporary idea of "free time", i.e. time we are not a work, but, instead, skole is time in which we can dedicate ourselves to self-improvement.

So we might say that the Mexico City officials are onto something by spending millions of dollars to build an ice rink. They are acknowledging that government has a responsibility not just to provide security, and to keep the peace, but to contribute to the good life of its citizens, and hence, to democratic well-being.

On the other hand, Mexico has a history of engaging in elaborate public works that are sometimes little more than attempts to distract people from other social problems. In the early part of the 20th century, the Mexican government spent enormous amounts of money to build Bellas Artes,the Palace of Fine Arts. This is an enormous, and absolutely beautiful, opera house that contains some of Mexico's greatest mural art:

But part of the reason that Mexican president Porfirio Diaz commissioned it was to prove to Europeans that Mexico was not a backward country. It didn't matter that the country was on the verge of a revolution because of class inequality and oppression. At least Mexicans could hold their heads high and say they had one of the best examples of Art Nouveau architecture in the world!

There is no doubt that Diaz did Mexico a favor. Bellas Artes is a national, and perhaps even, a world treasure. And the Mexico City ice rink (the largest in the world) is quite a feat. But these might be better understood as acts of charity by powerful politicians that come at the expense of justice. The ice rink will eventually go away. Yet the problems of lack of potable water, personal violence, crime and insecurity, and environmental degradation that are everyday realities in this, the largest city in the world, remain. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, justice means more than just flinging a coin at a beggar on the street, but is, instead, working to change the conditions in society that produce beggars in the first place.