Archive for May, 2009

PhD Comics has an excellent five part series touching on an aspect of this I, II, III, IV , and V. The best bits:

Administrator: Gerard, we asked your department head to give us justification for the humanities. This is what she said. “You boorish barbarians! Just give us the money and leave us alone!”

Gerard: It’s hard to explain monetarily, but how can you put a price tag on the human soul? The humanities help us appreciate beauty and grow as individuals. What good are science and technology if we don’t ask ourselves the question, what does it mean to be a human being?

Gerard: OK, so maybe the humanities aren’t “useful”, but this isn’t about utility! The humanities are about searching for hope in a world filled with irrationality, hardship and confusing truths….

Three admissions upfront. First, I’m pretty sympathetic to the department head, the boorish barbarians just need to fork over the money and leave the artists (and hangers on like me) alone. Second, as someone who has discussed with friends things like whether or not the symphony is in decline and what that means for our culture – I’m probably predisposed to look very favorably on creating a federal department for arts & culture along these lines. Third, the people likely to be in charge of such a department would be “people like us”, in a fairly exclusive form of the expression’s reference to world outlook (if not socio-economic status). I love MoMA, the Angelika Film Center always wins, Ken and Ric Burns documentaries are riveting – or, well, put it this way, in college I interviewed for an internship at the Metropolitan Opera and could only smile broadly when asked if I liked the company. If a fairly expansive view of the arts is supported I’d be ecstatic, if a fairly conservative perspective on the arts prevails, I’d be merely overjoyed. So I fully accept I’m an interested party. All that introspection and card laying aside, what’re the broad, overlapping consensus reasons for a federal arts department? Why aren’t the national endowments, national archives, and Smithsonian enough? I’m pretty sure PhD Comics concisely offered the best answers (what’s more humorously), but I have a few of my own to offer. My answers boil down to stewardship and accessibility.

Stewardship brings to mind two calamitous events. The Taliban’s destruction of 1500 year old statues of Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001 is a pretty clear example of major stewardship failure through malice. The collapse of the Historical Archive of Cologne is an example of stewardship failure through tragedy. I’m always irked by the inaccessibility of archives (the Hoover Institution’s finicky archives rules for example), and the slow pace of digitizing archives – the Cologne collapse wouldn’t be so disastrous if what could be digitized had been digitized. Federal money helps press the case for preservation and open access.

I also envision stewardship as having a kind of development and curatorial dimension as well. Development in terms of serving as a place for nurturing young artists. Curatorial in terms of balancing out some of the overproduction of this or that in the culture. I’m reluctant to get into the whole high-brow, low-brow wars because I’m still exploring my own theory of aesthetics. I do have to admit, I saw five minutes of an awards ceremony that involved Paris Hilton presenting and a performance by the New Kids on the Block, a medley of their greatest hits. I thought there’s more talent in a single Bach fugue than the performances I was witnessing. Also, does the world really need yet another reality TV series? Thankfully, I am totally unfamiliar with the Jon & Kate Plus Eight series Gail Collins skewers in the Times. Overall, the government would have a tough time doing worse than the market. Over time, there’s a pretty high likelihood the government would sponsor some enduring, worthwhile art. For instance, the BBC consistently wins, Blackadder, Yes Minister, David Attenborough’s documentaries, and of course the costume drama staples like Austin, Dickens, etc. The BBC has a longstanding history of being an outstanding commissioner/producer/broadcaster.

As for accessibility, well, accessibility and the free market are not friends. Art production/ownership (I imagine) and art appreciation (I know) can be expensive. Want to see Picasso’s Guernica or Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie? That’ll be just under twice as much as a Manhattan movie ticket. Admission to MoMA is $20.00. Why should public bodies charge so much for access to their permanent collections? These major museums essentially hold this works in trust for the public. I’m not alleging the board of MoMA is mean-spirited. Running a museum in midtown Manhattan must be an expensive affair. But on top of that the vagaries of the art insurance market can’t help. 9/11 and Katrina caused insurance companies to review their exposure to disaster-art risks and adjust their premiums up accordingly. For some museums premiums went up as much as 300% in a short space of time, hitting both large and small museums alike (BTimes). The problem was eventually resolved in 2008 with an expansion of an NEA program that covered foreign loaned art to domestic loaned art (LA Times). It seems like the wheels of bureaucratic politics would run more smoothly with a dedicated federal department. As for overspending on the arts, you’re cheating if you can quickly locate the NEA and NEH on this chart of the 2009 budget.

What’s more, accessibility to American arts and culture abroad matters, at the very least as a source of soft power. Wikipedia dubs the British Council and Germany’s Goethe Institute “government-run international linguo-cultural promotion organizations”. What American institution is comparable? Efforts to expand American soft power and improve public diplomacy might benefit from being routed through an arts & culture department as opposed to the National Security Council’s new “Global Engagement Directive” or the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Now that I’ve spent some time on it, I’m pretty sure I didn’t put together a better case than that made in PhD Comics, so I’ll close by repeating their observation that

The humanities are about searching for hope in a world filled with irrationality, hardship and confusing truths.


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is the title of a book by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. He attempts to answer two questions,

How is it possible to have this tremendous degree of racial inequality in a country where most whites claim that race is no longer relevant? More important, how do whites explain the apparent contradiction between their professed color blindness and the United States’ color-coded inequality?

He contends an ideology of color-blind racism emerged in the late 1960’s displacing Jim Crow’s in-your-face racism with new ideology of color-blind racism – arguing that these purportedly color-blind contours serve much the same oppressive, racist purposes. He identifies the frames (“set paths for interpreting information”) through which color-blind racism operates: abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racisim, minimization of racism. The frames,

comfort rulers and charm the ruled…. Whereas rulers receive solace by believing they are not involved in the terrible ordeal of creating and maintaining inequality, the ruled are charmed by the almost magic qualities of a hegemonic ideology.”

That is to say it is the only way I can process the phenomenon of racially segregated proms in 2009. The NY Times Magazine’s “A Prom Divided” and the accompanying audio slideshow with four students and a white parent. These students were probably born in 1991 and 1992.

Black members of the student council say they have asked school administrators about holding a single school-sponsored prom, but that, along with efforts to collaborate with white prom planners, has failed. According to Timothy Wiggs, the outgoing student council president and one of 21 black students graduating this year, “We just never get anywhere with it.” Principal Luke Smith says the school has no plans to sponsor a prom, noting that when it did so in 1995, attendance was poor.

Students of both races say that interracial friendships are common at Montgomery County High School. Black and white students also date one another, though often out of sight of judgmental parents. “Most of the students do want to have a prom together,” says Terra Fountain, a white 18-year-old who graduated from Montgomery County High School last year and is now living with her black boyfriend. “But it’s the white parents who say no. … They’re like, if you’re going with the black people, I’m not going to pay for it.”

“It’s awkward,” acknowledges JonPaul Edge, a senior who is white. “I have as many black friends as I do white friends. We do everything else together. We hang out. We play sports together. We go to class together. I don’t think anybody at our school is racist.” Trying to explain the continued existence of segregated proms, Edge falls back on the same reasoning offered by a number of white students and their parents. “It’s how it’s always been,” he says. “It’s just a tradition.”

Tradition, it’s worked, the kids are perfectly fine with it, this community is fine like it is… That’s the recurring theme from the interviews with the white participants. “It really is hurtful.” Is nearly the first sentence from a black student, another black student remarks, “I wish color wouldn’t be such a big factor in Montgomery County period.”

Scandalized twice in one day. I wasn’t planning on going for some sort of record.

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The Bush administration demonstrates the impossibility of a mere modicum of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Torture and mistreatment of prisoners is a contagion that spreads, gruesomely. Once Pandora’s box is opened every sadistic, vengeful impulse gushes out.

The United States’ sordid engagement with relaxing the rules and straying from the Convention Against Torture demonstrates these facts. The Telegraph reports today that “Abu Ghraib abuse photos ‘show rape’”. Unfortunately, the headline is self explanatory. One of the most vivid tropes of the run-up to the Iraq war was the specter of Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers and rape rooms. Torture chambers and rape rooms of our own – moral catastrophe doesn’t fully encompass where the Bush administrations pursuit of the Global War on Terror took America.

Part of the reason I don’t understand the confusion about torture in some quarters is the impeccable lineage of the current international human rights regime, by which I mean the UDHR and its progeny treaties, amongst which is the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to give its full name. UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold remarked, the UN was “not created in order to bring [humanity] to heaven, but in order to save [humanity] from hell.” However inadequate, imperfect, or incomplete, the international human rights regime is a key component of this attempt at rescue from the most base, inhumane, and destructive impulses. These impulses were vividly illustrated by World War II – the human suffering of which stand as the antithesis of the human rights regime. Aside from faith for the faithful, you could not ask for a more respectable provenance (though, there’s a worthwhile discussion to be had about whether or not human rights itself is a kind of religion).

This reminds me of the Onion’s brilliant “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule”. With respect to the CAT, exactly what part is unclear:

inherent dignity of the human person (Preamble)

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political in stability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture. (Art. 2.2)

An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture. (Art. 2.3)

That the Bush administration succumbed to the temptation of (a false sense of) security for human dignity – well, as Ashcroft said, “History will not judge this kindly.”

Update. June 3, 2009: The Telegraph story has been cast into doubt, but it is more along the lines of whether this or that set of photos show rape and sexual abuse (DiA, Salon). Reminds me of a comment, I don’t know where I saw it: Are we the good guys, or just the marginally better guys?

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I remain committed to the faith of my teenage years: to authentic human freedom as a precondition for the highest good. I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual. For all these reasons, I still call myself “libertarian.”

That is how Peter Thiel open’s his essay at Cato Unbound. The month’s conversation is devoted to seasteading, but I’m more interested in identifying what arguments convinced me that libertarianism was insufficient.

First, I suppose any critique of libertarianism begins with saying that my account of autonomy differs from the individualistic perspective, what I suppose Thiel means by ‘authentic human freedom’. Libertarians present and atomistic account of freedom (yes, de rigeur in critiques of libertarianism). I prefer to view people (on more soft communitarian lines) as located in a social context and that’s significant – at the very least this social context should take it into account far more than libertarians do. In other words, I see many more public goods than libertarians seem to. For instance, I wonder if there are any libertarian epidemiologists? It would seem that in many circumstances where the weakest link in the chain has cascading consequences for the rest of the community, libertarianism will not suffice. So in addition to swine flu, there are a host of pathogens which take advantages of vulnerabilities in public health. Multi-drug resistant tuberculosis spread in overcrowded Russian prisons is one example. Furthermore, even if I could successfully reconcile libertarianism with the consequences-cascading-from-weak-links point, I tend to press further for the infrastructure to successfully carry out the tasks. Health surveillance by the CDC and WHO for example. Another example, redistributive mechanisms to channel assistance to the most vulnerable (e.g. the UN system, the World Bank Group, EU, OAS, and the alphabet soup of other international organizations).

Also, I tend to agree with the feminist authors who argued ‘the personal is political.’ Because the private is constructed in public, many areas of ‘private’ life are identified, defined, and enforced by the public. For instance, we have a rule that married couples can’t be forced to testify against one another. It’s a rule that public institutions made up to recognize marriage as a special place, where things said to partners are accorded this special status. ‘We’, the public made up this rule about the supposedly ‘private’ institution of marriage. So the contours of what is private are defined in public – we make up what is private, we define what’s private, and we say when the rules of privacy can be broken. The whole, ‘well take it out of the public domain thing’ is impossible, living in communities means living your private life in public.

I understand libertarian’s concern for negative rights, but like the anemic account of the individual, libertarian’s accounts of rights leave much out. To me ‘authentic human freedom’ is really about the preservation and promotion of human dignity – negative accounts of rights are insufficient for this important social task. I freely admit, this next line of argument becomes slightly circular, but it’s a circularity I can live with. I believe we have rights because we are human beings, and human beings have/need human dignity (once again, this might be tautological, especially since there’s no God in this perspective to back all of this up, saying do this because God says so) So that’s my (first?) unyielding assumptions that I can’t prove, but I just take as givens: human beings have human dignity and that human dignity ought to be respected. Rights are about enforcing, claiming, and manifesting that human dignity. It is not out of generosity that we have rights. We’re owed certain things by virtue of being human. It is precisely because there’re all sorts of people who do what we dislike, and perhaps all sorts of people that we dislike too, that rights are important. There’s a kind of reciprocal aspect – at some point you’ll be the target of someone who says, “Hey, why do we give that person over there XYZ rights?” Unless you’re a well-to-do white heterosexual male practicing the dominant religion where you live, you probably haven’t had it so good in Western history and you probably don’t have it so good (equal opportunity, etc.) today. Positive rights are a way of shoring you up against potential attack, they are a sort of (feeble, inadequate, incomplete?) attempt at preserving your individuality and autonomy against the power of the masses, society, mob and the market. (There’s definitely some Rawls, Theory of Justice, and Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, and a dose of Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New, mixed in there.)

This is a kind of absolutist, unyielding vision of human rights. I have human rights by virtue of being human. I don’t have to earn them. I don’t have to work for them. And I don’t necessarily have responsibilities connected with human rights – or whether or not I meet certain responsibilities (often thresholds of good behavior), I still have human rights. In fact I can be a terrible person, and still I have human rights. I could be a criminal, or a terrorist, or a rapist, and still have certain human rights. Just because I am suspected of doing dreadful things in Afghanistan doesn’t mean the US government can torture me and send me to Guantanamo for the rest of my life – but I digress. I think for an American audience, one of the very few positive rights that obtains is in the Miranda warning.

You have the right to an attorney present during questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.

Americans have the right to an attorney – not healthcare though.

Atomistic individuals, the personal is political, positive rights (aka second and third generation rights) are fairly important things. Three points and I’ve yet to get to the veil or privilege. Next post.

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