The constitutional rights of people who are caught up in the criminal justice system are always an issue, but this is a little bit different, because the activities that got Daniel McGowan in trouble with the law were political activities in the first place. I recommend this article in the Village Voice to the ALA IF community: Daniel McGowan Forbidden From Publishing Articles Without Permission. In short, McGowan was serving the end of a prison term in a sort of halfway house (on an eco-terrorism charge), when he was detained and imprisoned again in an experimental new facility called a “Communications Management Unit,” after publishing an article critical of the authorities he has been dealing with. A Freedom of Information Act request uncovered memos that show he was indeed incarcerated to silence him, and he is pursuing a lawsuit that questions the constitutionality of these CMUs. I think this is worthy of attention from the Freedom to Read Foundation, don’t you?
Interesting article from The Moscow News this week about the women behind the great men of Russian literary history. The author claims that creative partnership between writers prior to women’s independence was a uniquely Russian tradition…
This was Session 4 on Day 1 of the conference ‘All that is banned is desired’ which was held in Oslo, Norway, in October 2012.
Larissa Sansour, Visual Artist (Palestine/UK)
Nadia Plesner, Visual Artist (Denmark)
Fredrik Gertten, Film Director (Sweden)
Wouldn’t it be nice if a Presidential debate was actually a debate on one question, where each candidate took a position on that question and defended it? It might be the question of whether low tax rates for wealthy people are good for the economy – something where the candidates have a well-known, clear difference on a matter that is debatable in a practical sense. That particular question is that economists disagree on and that most Americans have an opinion about as well. We wouldn’t learn any less about the candidates’ actual plans this way, and we would learn more about the qualities that matter. The candidates would know the question in advance and would be expected to prepare. It would be a treat for the audience to see a question like that debated. It would be educational. And it would show television viewers something that they might never know otherwise: That there is more to issues than soundbites and emotional affiliation, that there is knowledge worth knowing, knowledge that makes a difference…
I ran across this essay by Karl Mannheim while looking into ideas on “styles of thought” in relation to philosophy and politics. Mannheim was one of the founders of the “sociology of knowledge,” which is an area of inquiry that some in LIS have said constitutes a good theoretical underpinning for what we do. The field of sociology of knowledge is a little too relativistic about knowledge for my taste, but this essay on “conservative thought” by Mannheim, one of his most famous, really floats my boat. I would recommend it to anyone who ponders what “conservative” and “liberal” really mean, in our time and historically. Mannheim describes the conservative mode of thought and its historical genesis through the lens of an intellectual history of Europe. Useful reading for our times.
The attack on NPR during the present budget scare has been symbolic, but for more reasons than one. It’s been observed that the attack is symbolic because the proposed cuts in funding are not a very significant amount of money in light of the Federal budget problems. But the other reason it is symbolic is that NPR isn’t the beacon of non-commercial information that we think of it as being, and hasn’t been for a long time. Corporate sponsorships have paid the bills more and more as the decades have gone by, and the recognition given to the sponsors between shows has become more ad-like accordingly. But today I noticed something that indicates their dependence on big business more starkly.
On Science Friday today there was an interesting segment about a large solar array being built in the Mojave desert by a company called BrightSource. It sounds like a very impressive and smart project. Enhancing the impression of the project’s smartness was Ira Flatow’s discussion of Google, Inc.’s investment of one hundred and something million dollars in the project, their largest investment ever. He wondered aloud why Google would invest so much money in a company that is not doing something related to computers, and proceeded to give a number of good sounding reasons, ending with Google’s considered expectation of “something like a 6% return on their investment.”
I went home wondering if I, too, can invest in BrightSource, and found a press release issued today, the same day as the Science Friday program, titled: “BRIGHTSOURCE ENERGY, INC. FILES REGISTRATION STATEMENT FOR PROPOSED
INITIAL PUBLIC OFFERING.”
That is pretty good publicity work for the IPO, getting that segment on NPR.
I have read enough to know that that is how it works in the commercial news media. Something like 60% of the news we read in newspapers comes in from PR people rather than reporters, and the proportion has grown as newsrooms have cut staff. But I have assumed that NPR, being a public service, is different. Not so much.
I haven’t been posting much, but I do have some links to share:
By Steve Coll, in the New York Review of Books: The Internet: For Better or for Worse, a review of two books skeptical of the idea of the internet as a force for liberation.
By Richard Dorment, also in the NYRB: What Andy Warhol Did, about an interesting legal dispute over the authenticity of one of his works, and the systems and actors involved.
Brian Christian writes in the Atlantic Monthly about how the push for more advanced artificial intelligence can help us understand what it is to be human (a favorite topic of mine): Mind vs. Machine…
In The Chronicle Review, an article about Sherry Turkle’s recent work on our use of computers for social networking, taking a more worried tone than she is known for: Programmed for Love…
Gautam Naik writes in the Wall Street Journal about enthusiasts of a new spiritual technique for the information age: Boredom Enthusiasts Discover the Pleasures of Understimulation…
Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, writes briefly of his experience in the Boston Globe: Escape route.
“The HMC announces an open call for entries to exhibit at Raday Konyveshaz & Gallery, Budapest, exhibition opening on August 24, 2011. … Submission deadline is March 15.”
How influenced the digitalized area the traditional reading culture? Is it finished the Gutenberg area? We are waiting artist books, artworks on or of paper may be any size, but MUST fit in a 9 X 12 (22.9X30.5cm) envelope. Unmatted, unframed photography, drawing, painting, printmaking, collage, mixed media, cast or folded paper, multimedia or digital prints.
This article feels like another nail in the coffin of what we thought we knew of the past: Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’. Or a ramping-ing up of the general weirdness of the times. Here is the start of the article in the Independent, by Frances Stonor Saunders:
For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.
The connection is improbable. This was a period, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the great majority of Americans disliked or even despised modern art – President Truman summed up the popular view when he said: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.” As for the artists themselves, many were ex- communists barely acceptable in the America of the McCarthyite era, and certainly not the sort of people normally likely to receive US government backing.
Why did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.
The underlying reason that the American Right will always be irrational, and a couple of ideas as to why the problem is presently so acute
As the more civic-minded among us have observed, the American Right has mostly rejected rational discourse in favor of strategic communication. There is a reason for it that has to do with more than a calculation of what will be most effective, or a fear that rational discourse will “prove them wrong,” though that is a risk for them. The reason lies in a conflict between conservatism (which I am not going to say is a bad thing altogether) and the original formation of the United States as an experiment in liberal Enlightenment ideas that had never been tried before, paired with the related development of the growth of an economic system that finally overturned all traditional values: capitalism.
By definition, conservatives are suspicious of political changes that threaten to destabilize the world as they have known it, and are often pushing to bring things “back to the way they were,” to go “back to basics,” restore things to “the way God intended them,” to save society from the arrogance, folly, and hubris of liberal humanists who believe that we have the ability to reshape things to the benefit of humankind, according to human values rather than divine ones. Conservatives tend to believe that attempts to change things deeply will only result in problems, because at root the nature of things is unchangeable (owing to God). The tendency has historically led to support for authority, strong leaders, and strong states as the forces that can promise a “return to stability.”
But, frustratingly enough for conservatives, and as Heraclitus wrote in the 5th century BC, “the only thing constant is change.” The problem for conservatives in power has always been in how to construct a reliable past that can serve as a touchstone and source of energy in opposition to those who attempt to modify the social order. Over the centuries, that problem has been solved in literature and art that put forth new founding myths and told new stories about the past (as well as through the destruction of the literature and art that carried the older ones). No great new order has been innocent of that kind of mythmaking and myth destruction. But creative falsification of the past is not as easy to accomplish in the modern world, built as it is on an epistemology of objectivity and the practical application of documented facts, which tend to hang around in a society built on a framework of documentation.
But in the United States, I would like to say, the problems conservatives face in constructing a traditional past are special, because the origins of our nation themselves imply that there is nothing traditional to go back to. Conservatives have understandable difficulty in acknowledging that the United States represents the triumph of liberal humanists who accomplished something unprecedented, bold, and liberal: the creation of a new country founded in Enlightenment ideas and the rejection of monarchy. As Charles Francis Adams wrote, “The American experiment is the most tremendous and far reaching engine of social change which has ever either blessed or cursed mankind.” What American conservatives call “traditional values” tend to be an awkward mix of social structures and practices that were the product of the industrial revolution (e.g. “traditional marriage” as we know it) and Enlightenment humanist values that trace back to the Age of Reason (i.e. individualism, capitalism), animated by religious self-certainty and fear. (If you want to look for real American traditional values that are actually consistent and coherent, by the way, look for them in Native American spirituality.)
Some conservative intellectuals try to piece together a concept of “republicanism” that conflates Republican Party values with historically recurring efforts at self-government in the form of a republic, but they ignore the fact that the republican form of government has always been tied to liberal Enlightenment phases in culture, whose political manifestation was to kick out the monarchs and overturn tradition in favor of an experimental system based on rational discourse among a civic public. The First Republic of France and the United States of America are perfect examples. The fact that there were earlier republics does not change the fact that those republics were tied to Enlightenment cultural phases, i.e., were liberal. “Republicanism” when it is intended to invoke both conservatism as we think of it in America today and the historically recurring creation of republican governments is simply an incoherent concept.
The ideas that motivate American conservatives do not cohere well in rational terms (especially as they move rightward along the spectrum), but because they carry the emotional charge of ‘absolute truth,’ ‘that which is beyond question,’ and self-evidency to anyone who fears God, they generate the kind of certainty and motivation that comes from spiritual devotion. Therefore, American conservatism can make questions of policy as difficult to discuss rationally as questions of religion.
But why does it seem so difficult to engage the right in rational discourse in these times as opposed to other times? The problem I am describing is as old as the nation, so what is happening right now that seems to be bringing this problem to the foreground? I think the answer is simply that social change has become more rapid recently, and perhaps also because some unintended consequences, not to mention failures, of late 20th century efforts at progress have begun to be realized distinctly. The difficult reality that there is no stable or legitimately desirable past to go back to only makes the problem of irrationality, emotion, and confusion in discourse more intense, as those who desperately need such a past are unable to find one that can be grounded in the kind of facts that can serve as fixed elements in a rational discussion. The result are spectacles like popular candidates for public office who angrily defend the Constitution against liberal ‘assault’ one minute and the next minute display a shocking lack of knowledge of what the Constitution actually says, and then argue that the Constitution should be changed to more purely represent traditional American values. Some on the right are calling for theocracy, claiming that it would be a fulfillment of the founders’ intentions. It is an acute problem, even if its roots are in the nature of the United States’ origins themselves.
I can think of a second reason that the problem I have described seems particularly acute, and that is the apparent failure of the Obama administration to turn things around as many had hoped. President Obama was elected on the hope that rational policy experts who are smarter than the average Joe (and had a sophisticated understanding of things that was superior to common sense) were what the country needed in a time of multiple and overwhelming perils. The Obama administration has so far failed to bring the country back to the impossible level stability and prosperity of the Great Moderation. That, I am afraid, has turned out to be the country’s unrealistic measure of the Administration’s success. Now that the President, whose election right wing conservatives dreaded, has “failed” (despite his administration’s probably saving the economy from something much worse than we have experienced), Republicans who can claim to have gone along with liberal certainties about race and good government for years feel confident in calling for white conservatives to “take our country back.” Or, as Christine O’Donnell put it, “We’re not taking our country back; We ARE our country!”
I am hoping not. I am hoping that this country’s roots in the Enlightenment are secure enough that Americans will remember that liberalism is our own deepest tradition, that the Right will lose its credibility in its claim to being ‘more American than thou,’ as people remember that America’s traditional value above all others is to break with tradition and to self-govern with rational intent.
Recently I have rubbed some people the wrong way by speaking frankly about the problem of ignorance in civic life and people’s lack of concern and lack of shame regarding it. I argued that we should not be trying to increase voter turnout when Americans feel so little responsibility in the way of self-education on the issues. It’s sad enough that so many ignorant people exercise their right to vote, seemingly without recognizing that with the right to vote comes a responsibility to study, learn, and think. But when a major candidate for public office fails to live up to that same responsibility, and shows the same blithe lack of shame and lack of concern, and is popular with voters, it’s heartbreaking. It is hard to believe in democracy in these times.
Here is a link to a brief item about Christine O’Donnell’s performance in a debate at the Widener Law School, during which she expressed incredulity at her opponent’s statement that the separation of Church and State comes from the First Amendment of the Constitution. A video of the debate is embedded in the article.
These are the same people who said critics of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizen’s United case were “attacking the Constitution.”
Why can’t the media acknowledge the “knowledge gap” in politics? Why the perpetual pretense of “differing yet equally valid views” on the issues?
I am very serious in the view that we should not be trying to increase voter turnout, in this or any election. Let me explain why.
Most of us have the idea that voter turnout rates are a measure of the success of our democracy. If people are “participating,” by voting, then the will of the people will really be reflected in the outcome of the election. That is an idea shared by most Americans who care about democracy, with the result that it’s accepted as a given that more voting is good and that it is important to “get out the vote.” But the idea needs to be examined in light of the basic civic responsibility of self-education and critical thinking.
For democracy to function (as we all acknowledge before moving on) the public needs to have critical thinking skills and needs to have an understanding of the issues that is not completely shallow. Yet, when is the last time you have seen a public campaign for self-education or critical thinking skills? When do you see it acknowledged that Americans tend to be relatively ignorant about the issues that affect them, and that they sometimes get fired up about? Rather than promoting self-education and critical thinking skills to a high standard, it seems that most civic-minded people would prefer to use propaganda to get people to vote a certain way, lacking an understanding of what they are doing. I find that unethical (or at least anti-democratic), regardless of the intended outcome.
Think about the voting public for a moment. Studies have arrived at the following disturbing findings about them. One fifth of them believe that Obama is a Muslim, and only 34% of them know that he is a Christian (PEW Center poll). Half of Americans aged 18 to 24 can’t find New York on a map (2006 National Geographic study). 42% of Americans don’t accept the theory of evolution (PEW Center poll). 26% of Americans don’t know what country the United States declared its independence from (Marist poll). 75% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin (Barna Group). We’ve all heard these kinds of scary poll results showing the ignorance of Americans, and yet we persist in blindly encouraging people to vote without any concern for their level of knowledge or ability to think rationally about the candidates and issues they’re voting on.
I value the right of every American to vote and oppose things like a literacy requirement or other gatekeeping methods. But I oppose the practice of encouraging everyone to vote or talking about voting as though it is a civic duty. The basic civic duty is not to vote. The basic civic duties are learning and critical thinking. Regarding voting, we should impress upon people that if they do choose to vote they are assuming a grave responsibility that requires careful study and patient, self-questioning thought.
The culture we have around democratic participation currently is not working.
Sometimes people on the left respond to the “war on terror” by saying words to the effect that “war is terrorism,” to point out that killing innocent people is killing innocent people, whether it is done by a state or by a terrorist group. The main weakness to that argument is that it has an implicit commitment to pacifism, and it is hard to maintain an absolute pacifist position in light of many historical situations in which it seems clear that not going to war would have been a terrible option.
October 6th marks an event that questions the U.S. “war on terror” in a much different way. On October 6th, 1976, a flight on Cubana airlines, flying from Barbados to Jamaica, was brought down by two bombs planted by anti-Castro Cuban exiles working with the CIA. The two terrorists in question are still alive and have been living freely in the United States. Their names are Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles. They were put on trial in a Venezuelan court. Bosch was acquitted on a technicality, and came to Florida, where he now lives. Carriles managed to be freed of the charges through political maneuvering, though he faces extradition to several countries. He is currently facing trial on relatively minor immigration charges.
The bombing of Cubana flight 455 was not their only act of terrorism. Both have been involved in other terrorist activities. Yet during the Bush administration they enjoyed official protection. There is conflict over both of them at political levels, as might be expected. Their treatment by the United States raises the question of whether stopping terrorism is the real objective, or if the issue of terrorism in itself is more of a convenient vehicle for achieving other political aims.
The introduction to Adam Klein’s A Space for Hate: The White Power Movement’s Adaptation Into Cyberspace is now online.
An item in the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section in the last issue is about the difficulty of keeping track of a valuable information object over time: a concert ticket. How do people remember where they put it? This one has to do with a long awaited reunion show by Pavement, in Central Park. It’s what I would call a Gen X information experience.