|Vandals Destroy, Deface Badlands Pictographs
Using charcoal, someone drew over several pictographs in Dry Canyon in the Badlands east of Bend, defacing about five and destroying at least one of the irreplaceable images.
"Within the canyon, the vandal or vandals built a fire pit that stretches about 4 feet across. The fire charred the sides and top of a hollowed rock that is about 6 feet tall.
"Someone used charcoal to write "truth," "light," and "healing" on the walls. The Taoist yin-yang symbol representing balance was also drawn. A vandal also used the charcoal to trace the outline of one pictograph.
- via WitchVox
This article focuses on the archaeological value of the pictographs, which is the value felt by both the government and the local Native American organization, which claims no cultural or spiritual connection to the art (political connection -- the use of the pictographs as an arena for contesting Native rights issues -- is not addressed and cannot be ruled out, though the apparent confluence of interests between the Natives and the government suggests that such conflict is not great at present). But Wren Walker, in her latest WitchVox column, takes a different approach -- the issue of damaging the sacred.
The question that immediately arises is, how do we know what is sacred and what is not? And how do we know what conduct is appropriate for a sacred place? As a cautionary tale, consider the role of rock art in Aboriginal Australian religion. For Aborigines it was often "painting" the verb, not "painting" the noun, that was sacred -- the significance was in the act of creating the picture, applying the paint to the rock, not in the finished form of the art. So in a sense the vandals here could have been more in the spirit of the original painters of the Dry Canyon pictographs than the government officials, stuck in their view of archaeological preservation value and "sacred means do not touch" concepts, are.
Wren's religion gives her an easy answer -- getting in touch with the spiritual power of the place. But for those of us who are not pagan, the issue is more difficult. I can't access the truth on a spiritual level, and secular methods like history and ethnography are often inconclusive, especially for older sites. More problematic, the long history of migration and cultural change experienced by humans calls into question the appropriateness of imagining that there is one eternal indigenous claim to defining a place, one culture able to define the sacredness of a place forever. (Though many native people have adopted this claim of ultimate indigenousness as a cultural and political strategy. This takes us into another discussion of situated truth-claims and feminist standpoint epistemology, which I'll leave for another day)
Finally, there is the question of where sacredness comes from. Wren treats it as an inherent property of a place or object, but my own more skeptical and existential view would say that sacredness is a quality attributed to a site. Just as archaeological value is based on what a site can do for people in teaching them about history, so sacredness is based on what a site can do for people religiously.
So does that mean that people like Wren are misguided in wanting to respect the sacred values of religions whose practicioners are long gone, and hence unable to derive benefit from their form of sacred value? Not precisely. Because Wren's belief in the importance of respecting indigenous sacrality makes her a valuer of those sacred values. This seems to be a quintessential postmodern issue, incorporating incommensurable paradigms that can be contested in the arena of power but never resolved by any objective standard.
The problem is that Kuhn's ideas are not isolated. The concept of paradigm as he used it has diffused within academia (and the wider society) far beyond direct citations of his theories. And to complicate matters, the general sense of "paradigm" was in the public domain long before Kuhn appropriated the word to apply to a very specific philosophical concept. So it becomes difficult to tell where "paradigm" indicates application of Kuhn's ideas, and where it indicates the author's reworking of a more general idea -- perhaps with a bit of insiration from Kuhn's followers.
This is especially an issue in the social sciences for two reasons. First is the fact that the social sciences employ public-domain concepts and words more so than the natural sciences. The history and extra-academic usage that come with these ideas means that it's harder to pin down what a Foucauldian means by "power" than it is to determine what a chemist means by "methyl isocyanate." Connected to this is the fact that the social sciences (with the possible exception of economics) lack a clear hegemonic paradigm in the strict Kuhnian sense -- an analogue to Newtonian physics, for example. This means it's harder to police the definition of words.
This kind of thing works just fine in the humanities. Humanistic endeavours are well-equipped to deal with shifting fields of meaning, where a common vocabulary links together as many conceptions as there are works of art. In fact, this playing with semantic relationships and confounding expectations is encouraged. So maybe from some humanistic perspectives in the social sciences, it's not a problem at all.
(Yes, I'm wishing you Happy Australia Day in Finnish. Twenty minutes before Australia Day ends. Or well after it ended in Australia.)
|Is The Universe Doomed?
Cosmic pointlessness has also been argued on philosophical grounds on the basis that the very concept of a "point" or "purpose" cannot be applied to a system like the universe because it makes sense only in the context of human activity. Some years ago, I took part in a BBC television debate with Hugh Montefiore, then Bishop of Birmingham, and the atheist Oxford philosopher AJ Ayer. Montefiore declared that without God all human life would be meaningless. Ayer countered that humans alone imbue their lives with meaning. "But then life would have no ultimate meaning," objected the bishop. "I don't know what ultimate meaning means!" cried Ayer. His objection, of course, is that such concepts as meaning, purpose and having a point are human categories that make good sense in the context of human society, but are, at best, metaphors when applied to non-living systems.
I think debates over whether the universe has a meaning tend to miss the point by assuming that a meaning will necessarily be a universal or ultimate meaning, something that's an inherent property of the world. I think the beauty (and sometimes the terror) of the universe is that it doesn't come to us with its purpose preordained, so it's flexible enough to be the site of many different purposes for many different people. Which is not to say that we can simply make up any purpose we like for the universe. The universe as we know and encounter it is a partner with us in working out a purpose. I think it's consistent with the jazz improvisation theory of God to say that the only purpose the universe has is to see what kind of purposes people with different experiences of it would find in it.
|David Maybury-Lewis writes that many societies organize their social thought and institutions in patterns of opposites. In Western thought the most salient of these are the contrasts between competitive individualism (gesellschaft) and communalism (gemeinschaft), between regimes of self-interest and regimes of trust. Such regimes are incommensurate. Social stability is maintained by strategies' temporal alternation: Each rhetoric has its period of ascendance in which the excesses of the opposite are corrected, as evidenced by the role of two-party systems in maintaining democracy.
- Brian J.L. Berry, "An Alternation Of Opposites?" Urban Geography 14 (1): 1-2.
I think this is a good way of looking at things, though I would suspect that there are multiple sets of opposites (some with more than two poles) that alternate with varying wavelengths (though not infinitely variable, given the constraints of human cognitive and lifespan biology which I suspect affect the timing of changes) and are not in sync with each other.
Sharpton demonstrated his charisma at a recent NARAL forum, blowing front-runners John Edwards, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman out of the water in his ability to energize a crowd (the content of the speeches wasn't an issue, as the forum was a chance for the candidates to demonstrate that they can toe the pro-choice line). There is a tendency to look at Sharpton's charisma as some sort of dirty trick. Instead, the other candidates should look at Sharpton's public speaking abilities as a standard that they'll have to meet to win the hearts of voters. Howard Dean was successful in this respect at the NARAL forum, and Edwards' trial-and-error strategy may see him using a more Sharptonesque style in his next appearance.
Sharpton's strongest support comes from black voters. The Democrats tend to assume minorities will vote for them, and use that as a base from which to reach out to moderate whites. There will be a temptation to depend on a few reminders of the Trent Lott affair to keep blacks in the Democratic column. Nevertheless, there are complaints from some corners that the Democrats take the black vote for granted, which may ammount to a charge of hypocrisy after the opportunistic way Democrats criticized Republicans' stance on racial issues this winter. The support of blacks is especially critical to the race's New Englanders -- kerry, Liberman, and Dean -- since conventional wisdom says only southern Democrats can win over southern states (with their growing share of the Electoral College), so non-southerners will be in even greater need of the south's traditionally liberal black voters. Democrats should not be satisfied with dismissing Sharpton as an anti-Semitic race baiter. While he may be those things, it is important to take a positive tack in winning the support of blacks. Democratic candidates should view Sharpton's candidacy as a challenge to articulate a clear vision on race, as well as issues like inner-city poverty that disproportionately affect non-whites. Sharpton says he's in teh race to raise issues important to minorities, so let's accept that challenge rather than conceding the issue to him. A vigorous debate over race can energize the minority base, leading to an electoral payoff for whichever Democrat wins the nomination and embarassing the Republicans.
Reporter: "Congratulations, your death sentence was just commuted by Illinois Governor George Ryan. What are you going to do now?"
Convict: "I'm going to Disney Land! ... to kill some more people."
Then again, maybe I shouldn't let political principles get in the way. The guy who made the "Sore Loserman" signs in the 2000 post-election was a Gore supporter who couldn't think of any clever plays on "Bush-Cheney."
|Sharon Inquiry Leak Triggers Row Over Press Freedom
A row over press freedom has broken out in Israel after authorities threatened to prosecute a newspaper reporter for not revealing the source of a story about the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.
On January 7 [Baruch] Kra, a crime reporter, revealed in the left-wing newspaper Ha'aretz that Israeli prosecutors are investigating Mr Sharon for suspected fraud in relation to a secret $US1.5million ($2.5million) payment from a close friend in South Africa.
Mr Sharon initially denied he knew anything about the payment, saying that his son Gilad organises all his finances. He has since refused to answer questions about the matter, dismissing it as an opposition ploy to seize power in Tuesday's elections.
This sounds like Sharon's just dodging the issue, claiming it's a political ploy to avoid defending himself against the content of the accusations. Typical politician stuff. But a bit farther on, we discover that Sharon was exactly right:
|Lawyers for Ms Glatt-Berkovich [who leaked the story to Ha'aretz] say she leaked the information for "ideological reasons", because she was concerned that her son was about to be conscripted into the army and she did not want things to carry on as they have done under the hawkish Mr Sharon. Initially placed under house arrest, Ms Glatt-Berkovich is likely to face dismissal and prosecution.|
Also typical politician stuff.
|Court Dismisses McDonald's Obesity Case
A lawsuit by a group of American teenagers who claim the fast food chain McDonald's is responsible for their obesity has been thrown out of court by a New York judge.
"It is not the place of the law to protect them against their own excesses," Judge Robert Sweet said, adding the suit failed to "allege sufficiently" McDonald's food is addictive.
This is good news, if not particularly surprising news to those of us who think that the epidemic of frivolous big-dollar lawsuits is as much an artefact of media coverage as of the courts. Even if the case doesn't become a tort reformers' urban legend with the fact of the case's dismissal dropped, just filing the suit (with the attendant media coverage) has done its damage. As Fox News predicted so well, fat people suing purveyors of food is an archetypal frivolous lawsuit. It even provides a parallel between the gluttony which is presumed to have caused the obesity, and the palintiffs' greed for money. It helped to cement in the public mind the idea that Americans will sue anyone rather than take personal responsibility, and in so doing increased the likelihood of future frivolous lawsuits ("if those people could sue McDonald's for making them fat, then why shouldn't I sue over my problem?").
Of course, filing a frivolous lawsuit isn't necessarily a big problem -- the case against the frivolous lawsuit epidemic rests on the fact that judges have a history of dismissing the worst suits and reducing the damages on those that end in a conviction. A perception that there are lots of stupid lawsuits out there may even make juries less sympathetic to the plaintiffs, because they're identified with a much-reviled archetype (though it could have the opposite effect, if it alters jurors' perceptions of what a normal response to a particular type of case would be, given that people are inclined to do what seems socially typical). What could be a problem is altering the defendant's perception of what suits are likely to win. If defendants believe that frivolous lawsuits routinely get big payouts, they're more likely to settle out of court on a case that in reality they would have won in court (as has happened with medical malpractice). The media coverage given to many suits doubtless encourages settling, since any court-related publicity is bad publicity no matter who wins. All in all, the epidemic of frivolous lawsuits could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
*Well, Iraq and North Korea and Zimbabwe and Turkmenistan and Tajikistan and Congo and ...
|Scholars Scour eBay
Academic sleuths once relied almost exclusively on the archives of major research libraries to track down facts and colorful details. Now, historians, literary critics, and museum archivists across the country incorporate a regular search of eBay into their research routine...
Concern among scholars over the influence of eBay has primarily been stoked by the threat of important objects being won by people with large fortunes but no intention to study the material...
"It's one thing to know that something exists ... in a university library," says Pannapacker. "It's another to actually see a picture of it and worry that it will soon fall into private hands."
Yet in such cases, some scholars have been able to contact the buyer by e-mail. A few have worked out agreements with private owners to gain access to the material.
The concern that items of potential research significance could wind up in a private bidder's hands first struck me as just an example of academic proprietorship -- the idea that any item that could have value to a scholar ought to be owned by, or at least accessible to, the academic community. It's usually premised on the idea that scholarly study is of such overriding importance to society that it takes precedence over the normal exchange of goods and services (a kind of academic eminent domain). As an archaeologist -- an academic specialty with one of the smallest and most irreplaceable sets of data -- I can sympathize with the feeling that precious information is being lost. But at the same time, I think many academics have an overblown sense of their own importance to the world and tend to forget that there are about 5 people in the world who care about each of 95% of the scholarly work done today.
Thinking about the eBay case a bit more, I realized that there's very few instances in which something going up for auction on eBay is bad for academics. At the very least, an item going up for auction lets the academic community know it exists. If the need for study really is the reason they want the item so bad (and isn't just a rationalization for the thrill of owning cool stuff that motivates the private collectors as well), then the ethic of sharing that arises from such academic institutions as libraries and museums should encourage much more cooperation among interested scholars in securing valuable artifacts for the academy. And if a private collector does wind up with the item, eBay is far superior to a private transaction in allowing outside parties to track down the new owner and request a look at the item in the interests of science. And if that fails, scholars are really no worse off than before -- the item is merely in a different set of private hands. The only situation in which eBay would be detrimental to scholarly access would be for an item that a scholar would be able to track down offline and offer a lower price to the owner because there would be no competing bids.
|University of Michigan admissions point system
-- via CalPundit
The main reason people are scrutinizing this list is, of course, that the University of Michigan has gone to the Supreme Court to defend the "20 points — Underrepresented racial-ethnic minority" line. But what I find striking is how few points are allotted for the essay (3), personal achievement (5), and leadership (5) (though happily legacies get only 4 bonus points). It seems that if the university is really interested in promoting a student body with diverse interests and experiences and contributions to campus, these things ought to be given at least as much weight as SATs. I think there's something to Goblin Queen's argument that the kinds of diversity that affirmative action is looking at could productively be ascertained by scrutinizing the applican't actual experience, rather than using the somewhat crude proxy of race (though I wonder what that would mean in terms of application processing time, especially for public schools with large student bodies).
John Quiggin has some thoughts on boosting the economic prospects of Aborigines.
And it seems that global warming is good for archaeology.
|The Northern Front
When the U.S. asked for permission, as required by Turkey's Constitution, to use bases in Turkey from which to stage an invasion, dickering began over how many hundreds of millions of dollars would be provided to upgrade the bases and lengthen landing fields. While this dragged on with no concrete being poured, an economic aid package was sought that Ankara estimates at $5 billion and U.S. sources say is more than double that. ... the unseemly hard bargaining going on now over money for military assistance is demeaning and could change the nature of the two nations' alliance.
What should Turkey's new leaders do? First, make prompt parliamentary and construction arrangements to welcome the U.S. troops. And then go the extra mile: Volunteer to mass 100,000 Turkish troops on its border with northern Iraq. (When it did this with Syria, which had provided the base for the harassment of Turkey by P.K.K. terrorists, the Syrian dictator got the message and booted the terrorist leader out of Damascus, which led to his capture.)
There's something unsettling about the arrogance of this argument -- that the proper role of the less-powerful is to volunteer aid to the more-powerful in hopes of earning the more-powerful's favor. The US in this picture is the emperor in his sedan, while Turkey is the street urchin getting in the way of the royal procession, who ought to be thankful for the emperor's benevolence, and perhaps put his coat over a mud puddle to get a pat on the head. It's reminiscent of George W. Bush's attitude toward the UN -- "you're either with us or you're irrelevant. You need us, but we don't need you."
The content of the actions Safire is proposing for Turkey aren't the issue. It would be valid to argue that such unconditional support is simply the right thing to do. Or that it's effective strategy for a country in Turkey's position to swallow its pride and -- to use the hottest new cliche in punditopia -- carry water for the US. Both of those elements are in the article, but there's an added layer that projects the idea of knowing one's place in a permanent and absolute power hierarchy.
Turkey's bargaining makes perfect sense. In the long run, the most important relationship it has to cultivate is with Europe, as EU membership is the guiding goal of Turkish politics, and theoretical equality within a neighboring confederation seems quite a bit more advantageous than being the client of a state on the other side of the world (even if that patron state does have more guns). Europe, you may have noticed, is not so gung-ho about war as the US (or Safire). And domestically, there's the need to look tough vis a vis a nation widely rumoured to want a war on Islam -- especially important given that the ruling party in Turkey depends on a largely Muslim base of support.
Even those strategic concerns, though, don't get at the real issue: Turkey has power here. The US needs Turkish air bases to mount a successful war on Iraq. Kuwait offers a tiny entry in the far south. Saudi Arabia's support is shaky at best, while there's no point even asking Syria or Iran for help. It's a frustrating prospect to those who have internalized the idea of total American hegemony. Turkey is, understandably, using its power to keep from being trampled on, to become a partner in a mutually beneficial exchange rather than a doormat for a war it's not entirely sure about. Relations between unequals are about patronage and favor-seeking. Equals, on the other hand, bargain with each other.
|Blunt Words About The Soft Press
Several of these young journalists said that the average Serb heard more critical reporting about Milosevic during the height of his power here than the average American hears about the Bush White House today. Nikola Jovanovic, from the Belgrade daily Blic, sounded personally affronted by this state of affairs: "You have freedom of information, which we didn't have. You can question the government -- but you don't do that. I would love to have that opportunity every day."
When Vrzic asked one editor if his paper would publish an article critical of a big advertiser, he was stunned by the shamelessness of the response: "Of course not," the editor told him, "we're here to make a profit." Vrzic blanched.
Such lovely outrage got me thinking about an old idea I've bandied at least to myself: Take media out of the moneymaking business altogether. Why can't news coverage be strictly a nonprofit activity, funded perhaps by philanthropists if not taxpayers? Why not view it as primarily altruistic, more like social work than like marketing sneakers.
The point about the timidity of American news coverage is well-taken. Whether the press is said to be biased toward the left, the right, or its own laziness, it's become such a cliche to point out that the American press has been long on repeating both sides' spin and short on real journalism that it takes something like Serbian criticism to get anyone's attention.
But the author's suggestions for a solution seem misguided. Even if we limit ourselves to the timidity born of advertisers' pressure (which I'm far from convinced is the major factor), why would changing the funding source make things any different? Instead of being beholden to advertisers, the media would be beholden to rich donors or to the government. The rich donors may very well be the same people as the advertisers, since we don't have much wealthy landed gentry around anymore to counterbalance the wealthy corporate CEOs. And government-funded media is a spineless spin machine waiting to happen. The BBC manages to buck the trend quite admirably, and is able to do so because of its long tradition of editorial independence. Further, the UK doesn't have the large political faction that wants to eliminate such social expenditures as the national endowment for the arts and NPR. NPR survives and maintains a left-slanted critique of the government, I think, because it's small and drowned out by right-wing radio, and because its listeners can be dismissed as out-of-touch left-wing academics. A taxpayer-funded US media on the scale of the BBC, regardless of what supposed protections of editorial independence are built into its charter, would be careful not to anger a Republican party whose core would rather eliminate public media just on principle.
Ideally, if the press is beholden to anyone it would be to the public. In a roundabout sense they are under the current model, as advertising revenue depends on good circulation numbers. The fear of criticizing an advertiser described in the article short-circuits that dependence. So a press directly dependent on revenue from subscribers would seem to alleviate the problem (assuming that subscribers actually want decent journalism -- and I suspect too many Americans aren't media-savvy enough to use their power in the market to encourage the highest caliber reporting). But it would create other problems. A subscriber-based business model would be unable to compete with advertiser-based companies, since the price hikes necessary to cover the difference would be steep. And even if the whole industry eschewed advertising, it would contract the consumer base served by the media, thus leaving poor people uninformed (as well as people who buy the paper in part because of the ads).
So I don't think hard-hitting journalism can really be enforced by any external financial pressure on the media. The only solution left would be the media's internal culture -- somehow socializing editors and reporters to value good journalism over everything else. That's a much easier culture to foster when you can see the larger consequences more clearly, as the Serbian journalists could from being in an environment where the free press is stifled. So in that sense it's no irony at all that the country with the most freedom of the press makes use of it the least.
|Turks Grow Wary In Easing Up On Kurds
Just last August, Turkey lifted the ban on broadcasting and education in the Kurdish language. The parliament's vote to do so represented a push for social change - and a shove from the European Union (EU), which Turkey hopes to join.
But Kurds, who make up as many as 20 million of Turkey's 68 million citizens, say the changes are not being implemented quickly enough.
Here in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey, which borders Iraq, many are worried that their drive for more civil freedoms will be set back by a US-led war against Saddam Hussein. Turkey's Kurds have benefited in the last three-plus years from a dissipation of hostilities after Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the banned PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party], was captured and convicted - and called on his comrades to lay down their arms.
It seems to me that impending war ought to be a motivation for Turkey to accelerate the lifting of restrictions on Kurdish language and culture. The fear is of a separatist movement wanting to turn eastern Turkey and northern Iraq into an independent Kurdistan, or at least use force to win autonomy within the existing nations.
Repressions of the type Turkey has instituted seem calculated to strip the Kurds of any feeling of dignity or pride in their heritage. This can only feed discontent with Turkey, a feeling that Turkey doesn't want its Kurds. Taken far enough, this is raw material for separatist revolt.
But if Turkey were to speed up its rollback of anti-Kurd regulations (and a rollback will happen eventually, because Turkey's interest in joining the EU is stronger than its interest in keeping the Kurds down), it could undermine separatists' base of support among Turkish Kurds. There could still be incorrigible radicals, but they would find less love -- and perhaps even widespread opposition -- among their brethren. Having suffered so long under regulations that prohibit them from speaking their language or wearing their traditional clothes in public settings, Turkish Kurds (and Iraqi Kurd refugees who hoped to find sanctuary in Turkey) would respond with gratitude, not resentment, toward the Turkish government. They would have less to fight for and more to lose, becoming less receptive to separatists' messages.
Oh, and it wasn't funny even the first time you said the real reason he's a virgin is because he can't get laid. I'm glad you're striking a blow against restrictive sexual mores by ridiculing anyone whose sexual habits don't meet with your approval.
Ben needs to grow up, but so do his critics.
|Did You Catch That?
So shouldn't I celebrate the news that TV shows have more dialogue? Yes, if the talk is there to communicate ideas. Yes, if it means that packing more talk into limited air time means that talk is receiving more emphasis, more pride-of-place, as I have always thought it should have in our understanding of relationships. But not if the dialogue flies by so fast that it cannot be fully processed or even, in many cases, literally comprehended. The general ideas may get through: I'm sure fans of "Gilmore Girls" and "West Wing" can recount each show's plot and theme. But I suspect that their understanding is gleaned from the general march of scenes and the gist of dialogue -- rather than from the subtle nuances of phrasing and the precise wording or sequence of ideas.
I've noticed this speeding-up phenomenon in my own treatment of written materials. The volume of stuff I have to process for academic reasons (not to mention all the additional reading I do for fun on the Brunching board and blogs and the news) has led me to read faster. This isn't speed-reading, where through practice I learn to process things faster and more efficiently. Rather, I sacrifice close and careful comprehension for speed. I let the author do the work of making her ideas jump out to me, and if something is opaque my eyes slide right over it, preferring to keep going and hope I'll come across something more comprehensible than stop and dig into what I've already seen. When I read something that draws me in and makes me slow down, pondering sentences and basking in their meaningfulness, I feel off-balance. I feel like I'm being delayed, wasting time. This really hit me in August, when I re-read The Silmarillion. The last time I had read it was in high school, back when I could spend a month going through a book rather than counting on finishing it in two days. Back then I had been upset at having to reread the Thomas Covenant books at skimming pace because I had a paper on them due in a couple weeks. On my most recent reading of The Silmarillion, it seemed hollow. Maybe some of it can be chalked up to rosy nostalgia about the book, or sociological dissatisfaction with Tolkien, but I think much of it was my reading style. I'm too used to having to sift a mound of crap, that I can't slow down and appreciate it when I've got a known masterpiece in front of me.
|It is also a matter of what books get published, and, indirectly, what books get written in the first place. Publishers, especially smaller ones, but even large ones to some extent, must publish works they can sell through Barnes and Noble, Borders, etc. If a book, however well-written and attractive to readers, has no chance of being sold to a large outlet, it may well not be published at all. Authors who make their living writing books are aware of this, and tailor their books accordingly. Of course there are myriad exceptions to this simplification, but in principle, the hegemony of large corporate bookstores actually reduces the range of content available to the reader through any bookstore whatsoever, no matter how physically large a store's shelf stock may be.|
This argument doesn't seem to make sense. You can find a lot more different products at Wal-Mart than you could at a small independent general store, so it seems like the same should be true for books.
The argument seems to rest on the idea that a big bookstore is less likely to want to sell a given book than an independent store would be. Ceteris paribus, I think the opposite would be true. Let's assume we're talking about a book that's not obviously "well-written and attractive to readers," since one of the basic principles of capitalism is "if enough people want it, someone will sell it to them."* A small store has only its own inventory to work with would seem to be more risk-averse. The threshold at which they're willing to keep something in stock is lower. If one out of every ten thousand book purchases will be Coffee Mugs of the 1930s, and your store has room for five thousand books (I have no idea if those numbers resemble actual bookstore inventories, but the point remains the same), you probably won't take the chance of stocking it. But if your centralized warehouse serving thousands of stores has a couple million books' worth of shelves, you'll want to take 200 copies of Coffee Mugs. I don't know much about the book business, but I wouldn't be surprised if all the small independent stores are just buying from large wholesalers (as happens in the grocery business), so the effect of replacing a bunch of independent stores all getting their stock from Joe's Book Warehouse with a bunch of Barnes and Noble outlets isn't as big as you'd think.
At the risk of making unsubstantiated psychoanalyses of Mr. Bates, I think his comment on his book-buying habits -- he purchases "stridently liberal or antiwar political books" -- suggests why he may think that large corporations are less likely to publish the kind of literary variety he's interested in. I think, however, that the profit motive ("we don't care what it is, if people will pay for it, we'll sell it") trumps the book industry's political ideology or class interest every time. And I'm not convinced there ever was a heyday of non-corporate booksellers offering a wide anti-establishment selection. If anything, the growth of the radical movement in recent years (anti-WTO protests and all that) has created a visible market for such books, which the logic of capitalism would impel bookstores to try to fill.
*Of course, corporations don't always do the best job of figuring out what consumers want. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant -- one of the greatest modern fantasy novels -- was rejected by every fantasy publisher, and only got published because Stephen R. Donaldson heard that one of them had gotten a new editor, so he re-submitted. But I don't see any reason that big corporations would be better or worse at this than small stores. At most, a more fragmented market means you have more chances for at least one store to pick up a book.
To many people this is an appealing possibility. Katie, an atheist fascinated by faith, states it well:
|From whence comes my envy of the faithful, and what is it really? I think it must be wrapped up in the appeal of submission. Isn't that what "Islam" means, roughly sort of? The passage from TSV [The Satanic Verses] even brings the sexual element into the submission of faith (in the command to open and in the apparition of the divine as "tentacles of light"). Art also requires submission, as argued by the Salon article I read that worried about a new tyranny of personal preference in art that could ultimately lead to choose your own adventure style movies, rather than submission to the vision of the artist. Maybe the appeal of faith for me would be like the appeal of art, except the truth you try to yield to wouldn't be some fleeting piece of it, but It, essential.
A survey in the Onion A.V. Club a few months ago asked entertainers to say whether or not they thought there was a god. Most of the secular humanist types in the onion article were saying that the hardest thing to do was to believe that you were responsible for yourself, but for those of us who were raised to be rationalists, that's not hard at all. The idea that there is no God and I make my meaning is my broccoli and tofu. Something would be miraculous about being able to know one thing and yet believe the opposite, to make yourself bend to an idea rather than constructing the idea yourself...
Submission can, seemingly paradoxically, be liberating. In an article about Paganism, Peter Jensen, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, told the Sydney Morning Herald "The Christian religion says there's one god. He rules the world, and our business as human beings is to put ourselves under His rule and that's where true freedom is found and particularly the freedom to serve others." While he took a lot of flak from the folks on Witchvox for that comment, and I can't vouch for what he meant by it, there is a sense in which submission can bring freedom. It lifts a burden of responsibility from the submitter's shoulders, assuring him or her of being on the right track.
Of course, many people find the notion of submission repulsive. It sounds quite a bit like slavery. Being at one with a greater power means giving up your individual identity. And it seems at odds with the idea of free will -- why would God give us free will in order that we could give it up?
I prefer to think of the relationship between God and people as being like jazz performance. A jazz chart, unlike a classical chart, is underdetermined. The composer gives a skeleton of the piece, but there is a great deal of leeway for improvisation. Nothing dictates what the soloist has to play. Yet there is still a framework, chords and rhythms that the soloist has to work with, so that a jam session doesn't turn into a meaningless cacophony of people all playing their own thing. While there are bad solos, there is no one ideal lick. The composer builds in uncertainty about how it will sound, and the band starts playing with similar uncertainty. Thus the musicians can submit to a plan without giving up their freedom and their individual perspectives.
God doesn't want to dictate our every move. He wants to give us a framework and see what we'll do with it.
|Daschle Decides Against Presidential Bid
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) announced today that he has decided not to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, preferring to challenge President Bush and the Republicans from his post in the Senate than from the presidential campaign trail.
This is a very good development. The crowdedness of the Democratic field is going to be one of the party's biggest hurdles in the race. Bush, with no challengers and a white house pulpit, will be able to take advantage of the necessary infighting during the Democratic primaries to reestablish his post-September 11 image as "a uniter, not a divider" who is above partisan squabbles. Further, Daschle's checkered history as the leader of the opposition -- recall the "how high should we jump?" Democratic Senate and the midterm election debacle -- make him a poor candidate to challenge Bush (not that any Democrat is a good candidate). Now if only Dick Gephardt, Al Sharpton, and Joe Lieberman would follow suit.
There will, of course, be plenty of comparisons to Al Gore. But I think other than being a high-profile likely contender who has dropped out ostensibly for the good of the party, there aren't a lot of similarities. For one, Daschle (as mentioned above) has been rather wishy-washy in opposing Bush -- for example, he initially dismissed the comments by Trent Lott that, when pursued, became a huge embarassment for the Republican Party. Gore, on the other hand, returned from a much-needed break from the spotlight with criticism of Bush so fierce that he at times traded his intellectualism for partisan rhetoric. And on the issue of the crowded field, Gore would have the opposite effect from Daschle. Rather than further splintering the party, Gore would have commanded such a huge lead that most candidates would be forced out early (barring any sort of upset in New Hampshire or Iowa). Gore's problem was that, by creating a 2000 rematch, he would have violated the conventional wisdom that says the Democrats need a new face, as well as handing the Republicans a list of sound bites about how he's a sore loser who won't go away. It's better that they're both out of the race, but for different reasons.
|Animal Fans' Secret Recipe Is to Boycott Restaurant
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the animal welfare group, begins a global boycott on Monday of KFC to seek an improvement in the lives and deaths of 700 million chickens who become the chain's fried meals every year.
With fat people trying to sue fast-food restaurants for helping to cause their obesity, the group hopes to tap into the growing public criticism of a fast-food diet as well as the concern over farm animal welfare. Instead of following the slow path of pushing for changes in regulations, the group wants restaurants to enforce immediate changes by telling farmers they will not buy chickens raised and slaughtered under current conditions.
I like strategies like this, which resembles campaigns to get people to stop buying sweatshop products or start buying "fair trade" coffee (as well as boycotts of Disney for its gay-friendly policies, though obviously I'm completely opposed to the goal of that campaign). The first impulse of a lot of people across the political spectrum, when they see a practice that they think is wrong, is to say the government ought to pass a law against it. This attitude invites a sort of surrender to the market's status quo, assuming that the problem is the inevitable result of market forces, and that what's needed is some outside intervention to force the unruly economy into the right shape. What PETA's anti-KFC campaign and others do, however, is to work with the market and use its built-in mechanisms to achieve a progressive goal.
I'm not saying that regulatory approaches are bad. In some cases exercising the power of demand doesn't or can't work. In others, regulation and market-based change go hand-in-hand -- for example, when the government enforces labeling requirements that enable citizens to more effectively exercise their market power for promoting organic food. But philosophically, strategies that work with the system rather than railing against it are more appealing.
More significant was my picture of the orcs. The movie's orcs were too dirty and deformed. I imagined them being ugly, of course, but on some level my imagination accorded them a certain amount of dignity. I had trouble with the idea of a race of beings that exists only to be evil. I wanted to put the orcs in a category closer to the humans who fought for Sauron, or wolves and ravens -- creatures enslaved to evil, but capable of existing as legitimate beings on their own. I have this sort of fantasy about the orcs settling down to farm the less desolate parts of Mordor after Sauron's final defeat.