Thursday, June 28, 2007

Gollum, Santa Claus, and the Communist Manifesto

Yesterday I had to read The Communist Manifesto for the seminar I'm taking this summer. And, not to make light of the struggles of the proletariat or anything . . . but some of the passages struck me as entertaining if not humorous. Then again, it's possible that my notoriously strong coping mechanisms have kicked in, and that I'm finding humor where there is none, absolutely none. But, bear with me . . .

Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

Spells and sorcerers and nether worlds -- cool! This is so the plot of the Lord of the Rings movies. Who knew that the Communist Manifesto was actually developed in Middle Earth? All I can say, is, what would Gollum say?

And . . .

Modern industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist.

When I read this, all I could think of was Christmas, and of Santa Claus working in his North Pole workshop. I think Santa Claus is the patriarchal master.

I feel like a bad person, but I think we should all be allowed to read between the lines every now and then.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Of Masks and Men

I've cross-posted over at

A friend just emailed me the following excerpt from a New York Times piece called "Behind the Masks" by Thomas L. Friedman:

Why were both the Hamas and Fatah fighters wearing ski masks? (And where do you buy a ski mask in Gaza?) These masks are worn by fighters who wish to shield themselves from the gaze of their parents, friends and neighbors, for there was surely an element of shame that Palestinian brothers were killing brothers, throwing each other off rooftops and dragging each other from hospital beds. The mask both protects you against shame and liberates you to kill your brothers - and their children. In our society, it's usually only burglars, rapists or Ku Klux Klansmen who wear masks. The mask literally says: "I don't play by the rules."

Appropriately, Emmanuel Levinas happens to say that the face, literally, says "Thou shalt not kill." For Levinas, face and discourse are tied. "The face speaks," he says. The covering of the face, then, shuts down the possibility for discourse and dialogue. How fitting that Hamas would wear masks. The face is also what calls us into ethical responsibility, and so it follows that any move to cover the face, particularly in the context of an act of violence, is a shirking of the infinite responsibility to which we are called.

I recently did a presentation (at the North American Levinas Society conference) on one of Krzysztof Kieslowski's films -- A Short Film About Killing. In the film's murder scene, in which a transient youth randomly kills a taxi cab driver, the killer stops in mid-murder to cover the face of his victim with a shirt so that he does not have to answer its gaze. It's the most intense moment of the film -- even more intense than the actual murder, which takes twelve minutes.

But Hamas and random murders are extreme examples of the significance of the face. On a more basic, day-to-day level, I think about the way our behavior differs when we can see someone's face, as opposed to when we cannot. On the road, for instance, it is easy to be impolite to other drivers -- to cut them off, curse at them, make obscene hand gestures, refuse to let someone into your lane -- simply because all we're looking at is a vehicle as opposed to the person driving the vehicle: a person with a face.

On the other hand, when pushing a shopping cart in a grocery store, even the rudest and most aggressive drivers tend to be much more polite. It's rare, for example, to see shoppers cutting each other off with their carts and waving their middle fingers. The reason for this is obvious: when you have to look someone in the face you are confronted with your own responsibility to behave decently and to recognize your own humanity in the face of another human being.

And then there are metaphorical masks . . . such as anonymous commenters who keep their identity veiled precisely so they can launch verbal assaults for which they don't have to take responsibility. I've heard of such things.

But aside from all of philosophical musings about masks, faces, and concealed identities, aren't masks just creepy? I much prefer the days when villians stretched women's pantyhose over their faces to distort their features -- now that's classy.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Shatty Day

I finally arrived in Ithaca, NY yesterday. I'll be here for most of the summer, at Cornell's School of Criticism and Theory program. Ithaca is beautiful . . . pictures will be posted tomorrow. And my posts here for the next few weeks will likely be annoyingly theoretical.

I'm optimistic about the summer, and about finishing my dissertation -- despite the bad omen that slopped its way onto my shoulder this morning. As I was sitting outside at a local bagel place enjoying a bagel with cheese, egg, avocado, onion, and bacon, and waiting for my scalding but weak coffee to cool, I felt something wet, warm, and slimy land on my shoulder.

A bird had shat on me. (Is "shat on me" grammatically correct?)

Gross. This also happened to me one other time: when I was at the "leaning tower of Pisa" in Italy, many years ago.

It got on my light blue knee-length shorts, too. But I just laughed, wiped it off, and kept eating. And my family thinks I'm uptight . . . haha.

But, surprisingly, the rest of my day was not quite as shitty. I met some super cool people, and we exchanged lots of big laughs and more than a few pints of good beer. They even laughed at my jokes, though I don't know whether it was because I am really that funny, or they were really that drunk. Either way . . . it was fun, and I'm optimistic about the rest of the summer.

And, anyone who knows me, knows that I don't drink beer (you're more apt to find me with a martini, or even a martini shaker, in hand), so tonight was another new experience for me. I felt so "not pretentious" . . . it was cool.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Why Boycotts Are the Devil

I've cross-posted over at -- feel free to leave your comments there as well.

In an essay in this summer's Dissent (published online in advance of the print version), superstar American philosopher Martha Nussbaum speaks out against Britain's 120,000-strong University and College Union vote yesterday to endorse a motion to boycott Israeli universities. Though local branches will decide whether to support the endorsement, British academics are also called on to condemn the "complicity of Israeli academics in the occupation."

Nussbaum, wisely, doesn't get into the specific details regarding boycotts of Israeli individuals and institutions:

There are three reasons for this silence. First, I believe that philosophers should be pursuing philosophical principles—defensible general principles that can be applied to a wide range of cases. We cannot easily tell whether our principles are good ones by looking at a single case only, without inquiring as to whether the principles we propose could be applied to all similar cases.

Made "uneasy" by the single-minded emphasis on Israel, she also points out the irony of the situation -- Americans really should not talk about boycotts of countries across the globe without considering our own policies and actions that "are not above moral scrutiny."

Nussbaum rightly identifies that there is a gross double standard when it comes to the world's critiques of Israel and all things Israeli. But what strikes me as especially disturbing is that few people seem to be pointing out the startling imbalances in the arguments of some of the countries (or their institutions) that are most vehemently opposed to Israel. Come on, people -- yesterday the emperor may have been only scantily clad, but today he is naked and about to run his ass through your living room. Thank G-d we have Nussbaum to call it like it is.

Nor should we fail to investigate relevantly comparable cases concerning other nations. For example, one might consider possible responses to the genocide of Muslim civilians in the Indian state of Gujarat in the year 2002, a pogrom organized by the state government, carried out by its agents, and given aid and comfort by the national government of that time (no longer in power). I am disturbed by the world’s failure to consider such relevantly similar cases. I have heard not a whisper about boycotting Indian academic institutions and individuals, and I have also, more surprisingly, heard nothing about the case in favor of an international boycott of U.S. academic institutions and individuals. I am not sure that there is anything to be said in favor of a boycott of Israeli scholars and institutions that could not be said, and possibly with stronger justification, for similar actions toward the United States and especially India and/or the state of Gujarat.

The breakdown of impartiality in the case of the boycott of Israeli institutions is as clear as day.

By failing to consider all the possible applications of our principles, if we applied them impartially, we are failing to deliberate well about the choice of principles. For a world in which there was a boycott of all U.S., Indian, and Israeli scholars, and no doubt many others as well, let us say those of China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia (on grounds of sexism), and Pakistan (on the same grounds, though there has been a bit of progress lately) would be quite different from the world in which only scholars from one small nation were being boycotted, and this difference seems relevant to the choice of principles.

What's great about Nussbaum's piece is that she doesn't simply rail on and on about the problems with the boycott without offering a solution. In fact, she offers six alternatives to the boycott:

1. Censure

Censure is the public condemnation of an institution, usually by another institution. Thus, for example, a professional association might censure an academic institution that violates the rights of scholars. Censure takes various forms, but the usual form is some sort of widely disseminated public statement that the institution in question has engaged in such and such wrongful action. Professional associations have also censured governments, or government policies, such as the Iraq War.

2. Organized Public Condemnation

Sometimes organized movements carry on campaigns to alert the public to the wrongful actions of an institution. Most of the international consumer protest movement against the apparel industry has taken this form. Thus, movement members will try to circulate documents to customers of the retail outlets where objects made by child labor are being sold and will try to make customers aware of the behavior of the corporation in question. The customers themselves can then choose whether to buy from the retail chain or not. This sort of public condemnation is very different from a boycott of the retail outlets, because it allows the individual consumer to choose and does not directly threaten the livelihood of workers.

3. Organized Public Condemnation of an Individual or Individuals

When it is believed that certain individuals bear particular culpability for the wrongs in question, then it is possible to work for the condemnation of those individuals. Thus, if Martin Heidegger had been invited to the University of Chicago, I would have been one of the ones conducting a public protest of his appearance and trying to inform other people about his record of collaboration with the Nazi regime. Again, in the approach I am considering, there would have been no attempt to prevent people from going to hear Heidegger: the emphasis would have been on informing, persuading, and promoting personal choice.

4. Failure to Reward

Some modes of interaction are part of the give and take of daily scholarly business; others imply approval of an institution or individual. Without going so far as to censure the institution or individual, people might decide (whether singly or in some organized way) that this individual does not deserve special honors. The debate resulting in Margaret Thatcher’s being denied an honorary degree from Oxford University fits in this category. By conferring an honorary degree, a university makes a strong statement about its own values. Harshness to the poor and the ruin of the national medical system, not to mention then-Prime Minister Thatcher’s assault on basic scientific research, were values that the Oxford faculty believed that it could not endorse.

5. Helping the Harmed

Usually, when wrong has been done, some people have suffered, and one response would be to focus on helping those who have been harmed. Thus, many scholars concerned about the Gujarat genocide put aside their other engagements and went to help the victims find shelter, take down their eyewitness testimony, help them file complaints, and so on. Others occupied themselves in defending scholars who had been threatened with violence by the Hindu right, publicizing their situation and protesting it.

I wonder if number 5 should have been the first line of defense in this boycott alternative lineup.

6. Being Vigilant on Behalf of the Truth

Often, people who commit wrongs shade the truth in their public statements, and one thing that it is extremely important for scholars to do is to combat falsehoods and incomplete truths. Here again, the case of the Hindu right is instructive. It has its own cherished but quite false view of ancient and medieval history, according to which Hindus are always peaceful and Muslims are always villains. When they put this version of history into textbooks for public schools in India, there was a tremendous outpouring of scholarship showing exactly what was and is wrong with it. After the election of 2004, those textbooks were withdrawn, and the field of combat shifted to the United States, where the Hindu diaspora community is very involved with the Hindu right.

Nussbaum goes on to discuss boycotts, those "blunt instruments," at length. She concludes:

As for the academic boycott, it is a poor choice of strategies, and some of the justifications offered for it are downright alarming. Economic boycotts are occasionally valuable. Symbolic boycotts, I believe, are rarely valuable by comparison with the alternatives I have mentioned, and the boycott in this case seems to me very weakly grounded.

She's right, of course (in my mind), and this kind of protest against boycotts in general might be the most effective way to go about rectifying the situation. But . . . I still can't help but think that the root of the problem -- many countries' deep-seated hatred of Israel -- is not going to go away any time soon . . .