Buzzword Alert

April 29, 2010

Those of you who pay attention to the– I’m finding– very insular* American blog world will have run across the “epistemic closure” debate. To summarize: following the passage of the health care law, David Frum– a conservative commentator– was, essentially, drummed out of the establishment conservative intelligentsia because he had the temerity to suggest that the Republicans had adopted the wrong strategy as regarded the law. Frum’s conservative bona fides are not in doubt; this is the guy who wrote the “axis of evil” speech. Additionally we’ve seen Charlie Crist go from being a seeming front runner for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination to being a Commie-Fascist because he accepted stimulus money as Florida governor and hugged President Obama, and Bob Bennet being on the verge of losing his primary in Utah because he cosponsored an alternative health care bill that didn’t get passed.

This has prompted a bit of introspection on the right, and some thought experiments on the left. The idea that’s currently got the most traction is the “epistemic closure” hypothesis, which essentially says that Conservatives, particularly the intelligentsia, have made it a policy to prohibit dissent and to ignore ideas coming from their left. This has– the theory goes– led to a feedback loop in conservative thought, dragging them inexorably right. To some extent, I do think this is the case; the right in the US has taken a scary (to my eyes) rightward shift in the last decade or so. When Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist leave your party because you’re too Conservative, you’ve got a problem. I think that some of this might be down to the epistemic closure that’s been talked about. But I also think we’re all guilty of it.

To test this, here’s and interesting little exercise from Slate. It describes a little formula that’s been set up to test the variety in people’s information gathering. You can check it to see how diverse your news gathering is. Or, it might show that you’re hopelessly epistemically closed. The test definitely has some shortcomings, though.

For one thing, it doesn’t take into account geography. Example: the BBC is classified as a “liberal” website, since mostly liberals read it in the US. I’m currently in the UK. Why, pray tell, would I go to CNN.com for UK news? Also, The Guardian isn’t in the list of checked websites at all. I’m on the Guardian every single day, and it is definitely liberal. It doesn’t take in the content of what one reads, either. Example: the New York Times is classified as Liberal. Whatever you think of “liberal media bias”– I think it is BS– I think it is pretty tough to argue that the actual newsgathering of the NYT is liberal. Editorial? Sure. When I read the Times, I read their international coverage– which is excellent– and three of their columnists: Ross Douthat, David Brooks, and Paul Krugman. Krugman is the only liberal of those three. So, it could be argued that when I read the Times, I’m actually getting a conservative point of view. Finally, it doesn’t take into account the amount of time one spends at a site. Example: I have a set of tabs that I launch when I want to check politics news. One of the is The Daily Kos. This is a hopelessly shrill liberal site. (and coming from me…) I never, ever read it; I’m just too lazy to go in and remove it from my bookmarks. Nevertheless, the program on Slate’s site counts those hits when it runs my news diet, pushing me way to the left.

Still, I think it’s an interesting exercise. I’ll admit that my news diet is predominantly liberal; I just don’t think it’s as liberal as the results make it out to be. I also think, really, that the whole epistemic closure thing is a bit overplayed. I’d be surprised if there were many who could honestly claim a truly balanced diet. We’re all probably closed off to one degree or another. But really, I’d encourage you to click the link and give it a try.

*Justification of the “insular” claim: American bloggers seem to be talking to each other, and that’s about it. (In general) Their ideas tend to ping about in the blogosphere– God, I hate that word– until the arguments are sufficiently honed that one of the few with mainstream media cred gets to go on TV or write an op ed and share the accumulated knowledge of the bloggers. I worry about this, actually, because it seems like it’s making the ideas coming out of the sector more partisan.

“When the Tatars were in charge, they acted like monsters. They stole from the Russians.” A Russian friend said that to me while I was in Nizhny Novgorod visiting. The time of the Tatar Yoke—the three centuries preceding Ivan the Terrible’s 16th century conquest of the area that became Tatarstan—left an indelible mark upon the Russian psyche. For their part, Tatars remember the time of Ivan’s conquest as an age of forced conversion, destroyed mosques, and “Tatar suburbs”—areas akin to the ghettos of eastern Europe and the United States where Tatars were forced to live. These two ethnic groups have historically been adversaries, and their cultural memory shows it. But today they share space within Russia peacefully, a model of cultural accommodation. The vast majority of ethnic Russians are Orthodox Christians, culturally if not religiously; the Tatars are the largest Muslim ethnic group living within the Russian Federation.

Russia is not without violent conflict, with Islamic separatists in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia all occupying much of the Russian government’s attention. In this context it is remarkable how peaceful inter-ethnic relations between Tatars and Russians are. The popular imagination holds that Western societies cannot coexist with Islamic ones, and that when Islam encounters other religious or cultural ideologies—particularly Western or Christian ones— conflict inevitably follows. A poll in the 90’s asked Tatars and Russians about their attitudes towards each other, and the results of the poll showed that Tatars and Russians were actually highly favorably inclined towards each other. How then, do Tatars and Russians retain such good relations in the face of numerous historical reasons to be antagonistic? The answer is predictably complicated, and the reasons are difficult to separate from each other; but a combination of Soviet urban policy, open religious dialogue, continued economic prosperity, broad autonomy, and a local emphasis on shared cultural history and values keeps the peace between Russians and Tatars.

In 1910, only 182,653 people lived in Kazan, the capitol of what would become Tatarstan. Of these, only 30,486 were Tatar. One hundred years later, more than one million people live in Kazan, and a comfortable majority of those are ethnically Tatar. This follows the general pattern of Soviet demographics. During the eighty years of Soviet rule the entire USSR urbanized at an impressively quick pace. Tatarstan was no exception, and by the time the USSR fell apart the republic had changed from a rural to an urban, industrialized area. The transition from urban to rural was eased somewhat by the presence of the Jadids, Islamic reformers whose influence will be explained in greater depth below, but many of the normal effects of urbanization, combined with Soviet anti-religious policy, kept conflict to a minimum. Anti-religious persecution did not acknowledge creedal lines, so Muslims were repressed just as Christians were. As a result, a certain amount of solidarity emerged among religious Tatars and religious Christians. “A religious Orthodox Russian is closer to me than a non-religious Tatar.”

Atheist propaganda was not the most effective policy for dampening Tatar identity at any rate, since prior to their conception of themselves as “Tatar” the Tatars had seen themselves as “Muslim.” Gordon Hahn traces the beginnings of entrenched, self-conscious Tatar nationalism to the reforms of the Jadid movement, which had as its initial goal the improvement of education, but eventually went far further than that. The Jadids can be understood in the larger intellectual context of the Russian Empire at the time, as the decade they emerged in was a highly rationalist/modernizing one. They won an internal battle with the Qadimists, who were more traditional. Rorlich notes “the early Tatar reformers approached Islam not only as a religion but also as a culture that united the spiritual and temporal on a religious foundation.” Even as the Tatars embraced their own literary language in the 19th century, urbanized during the 20th century, and found themselves persecuted by the authorities for their religious beliefs, they did not give up the idea of Islam as fundamental to their national, Tatar identity. Indeed, Rorlich notes “the move toward a Tatar literary language was also perhaps the key point in the transition from a purely Islamic identity to a still-Islamic, but also national, Tatar identity.”

A final consequence of Soviet policy was the marginalization and elimination of internal dissent. In this sense, the Tatars and Tatarstan in particular were not much different from the rest of the USSR. During the Revolution the Bolshevik movement managed to arrest or cause the flight of many of the top nationalists/separatists in Tatarstan, which undoubtedly set back any sort of nationalist movement by decades, and also probably contributed to the generally peaceful relations between Christians and Muslims. With the loudest separatist voices gone and Christian and Muslim alike discriminated against by the Soviet regime, neither side could afford to indulge in petty conflict with the other. Instead of arraying themselves against Russian Christians, the Tatars directed their energy at the Communist Party. The local party, controlled by Sultan Galiev, was a constant irritant to the Soviet administration. Even in embracing Communism in Tatarstan, Galiev’s followers retained a distinctly Tatar, thus Muslim, identity, going so far as to release a statement decrying the proletariat of the revolution for failing to treat minority groups with equality.

Tatar leaders were able to keep a hold of their people’s identity, even in the face of increased Soviet pressure, and even attained for themselves a measure of autonomous control. However, the creation of the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) didn’t solve all the post-revolution problems, since the boundaries of the ASSR were arbitrarily drawn, leaving a majority of Tatars residing outside the boundaries of the Republic. Indeed, the simultaneous creation of the Bashkir ASSR was an attempt to cripple the Tatar nationalist movement within the Soviet Union by stranding a large number of Tatars outside the boundaries of their own ASSR. Still, the creation of the ASSR, now the Republic of Tatarstan, gave the Tatars unprecedented control over their domestic affairs.
Current President of the Republic, Mintimer Shaimiev, took advantage of the reforms of Perestroika to secure for the region even more autonomy, so that at the height of its privileges, it functioned in a way analogous to Scotland in the United Kingdom. These powers have been scaled back in recent years due to the reforms of Vladimir Putin, but Tatarstan is still allowed a great deal of autonomy in conducting its affairs. One particularly important piece of autonomy that the Tatars have won for themselves is the right to use their language in official business in the Republic. The number of Tatar language schools in Tatarstan and the surrounding regions has grown by leaps and bounds over the past twenty years. Tatars enjoy a significant numerical advantage within their republic, but it isn’t so great that the desires of the Russian minority can be ignored. Additionally, the area of Tatarstan is very rich in natural resources, making it an industrial center within Russia. This continuous flow of capital has ensured that the region has stayed prosperous, particularly in comparison to the more isolated Islamic Republics within Russia.

The religious history of Tatarstan also has helped to ensure continuing peace in the region. The Tatars are the descendents of the Mongol Horde, and for several centuries after the Mongols swept across the face of Eurasia the Tatars enjoyed the upper hand in relations with the Russians. While the Tatars certainly were not entirely benevolent rulers, they did share the Mongol temperament towards differing religions; that is, religion was unimportant so long as the necessary tribute was paid on time. By the time the Russians turned the tables in the 16th century, religious tolerance was hardwired into the Tatar outlook. After initial attempts to force conversion upon Tatars and to marginalize them within their region, relations were normalized under Catherine the Great, and further liberalization occurred under Alexander II.

The Tatars adapted their faith to their context,

“The Shariah does not function in Russia, and Orthodox Christians comprise the majority of the population. Muslims should settle into this way of life… This country is no worse and no better than Muslim states, it is simply different. This is our fate and our destiny– to work out the experience of the true path in these conditions. We cannot be made a Saudi Arabia, and we can hardly become Christian Europe. We are as we are. The date tree does not grow on Russian soil.”—Rafael Khakimov.

This flexibility has allowed Russians and Tatars to live together in peace since the conquests of Ivan the Terrible. One notable example of the independence of Tatar Muslims was their attitudes towards prayer during the Soviet era. In a break with tradition, Tatar mullahs began to allow women into the mosques to pray with the men during services. This had a dual effect: it brought the Tatar community together, and it made the differences between Tatars and Russian Christians slightly less distinct. The mullahs are also flexible on the aspect of daily prayer. The whole program of religion among Tatars is more relaxed than elsewhere in the Muslim world, probably because of Soviet restrictions.

The relationship between Muslim and Christian clergy is, at the least, cordial. When the Kazan Kremlin was being restored and the Qol Sharrif mosque being rebuilt within the Kremlin walls, Patriarch of Russia Alexei returned to Kazan the most sacred copy of the city’s distinctive icon, the Kazan Mother of God. The Tatars saw this gesture as a deeply respectful acknowledgement of Tatarstan and Tatar culture on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church. During the ceremony, the Patriarch emphasized the cooperation that Christian and Muslims within Russia were capable of, saying that such cooperation enabled the groups “to sustain peace in society, to cooperate in preventing moral foundations from being ruined, and to uphold traditional cultural values.” Indeed, Damir-khezrat Mukhetdinov, a Tatar Muslim leader in the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, which borders Tatarstan, states that the relationship with the church is positive. The two groups share similar values between the Bible and the Qur’an; they have solidarity with each other. Gordon Hahn characterizes Tatarstan’s official clergy as slightly more conservative than the Tatar intelligentsia, but they are also financially dependent upon the government for funding.

Relations, however, are not perfect. Mukhetdinov notes that some of the younger Orthodox clergy members have emerged from seminary radicalized, and he also allows that every once in a while, one sees negative speeches about Tatars, for example. Overall, religious people—Russian and Tatar—are generally more tolerant of each other than non-religious people. He does not appreciate work done by the Orthodox Church to proselytize to Muslims, believing that the two religions should not be competing for converts, but rather competing to do good works. In November, a Tatar priest was killed after evening mass, presumably by a Muslim assailant. Father Danil Sysoyev was known for his anti-Muslim stance, and he openly encouraged Muslims to convert to Christianity. He was notorious for comparing Islam with the Communist Party and the Nazis. Muslim leaders condemned the killing, but at least one who preferred to remain anonymous allowed, “He was an odious figure.”

Sometimes the Russian government is the bull in the china shop, creating tension between groups. Mukhetdinov says that the Russian government does not see shades of grey, and he thinks that this is a bad stance for the government to take. The government’s deals depend solely on the situation immediately, not based on the future or long-term projections. The government is focused on now. “The government works as a firefighter only at the last possible moment, but they do not engage in any fire prevention. They only respond when things start to burn.” The deals that the government brokers are not “literate” to the situations.

While the Russian government has been helpful in allowing that Tatars—like other national minorities—teach their native language in state schools, this has not been an unqualified success. Ethnic Russians within Tatarstan are mostly monolingual since they are not encouraged to learn Tatar, meaning that if Tatars wish to do business or communicate with Russians, they must be bilingual. Further trouble arises when it comes time to teach history and culture in Tatarstan. The Russian government has made it mandatory that all children in state schools be given a course in Russian cultural history. By default, this has meant teaching of “Orthodox” culture, as this is considered to be a defining Russian cultural feature. Professor Vagapova says that this requirement would not bother most Tatars if a corresponding class on Russian Muslim culture was taught, but this is forbidden. From Vagapova’s point of view, Russia is multicultural, so this stance does not make sense. Islam is also part of Russian culture, so it is wrong to exclude it from the schools, particularly those schools in predominantly Muslim regions.

Another particularly awkward moment occurred when conservative Muslims in Tatarstan protested at the Christian symbols on their passports, and Muslim women demanded to be allowed to wear their headscarves while being photographed for their passports. Muslim authorities intervened in each case, assuring pious Muslims that it was permissible to carry around items with crosses on them so long as the crosses were not being worshipped, and obtaining the right for women to be photographed with their scarves on. Vagapova meets periodically with cultural and religious leaders in the Nizhny Novgorod region, but Mukhetdinov notes that these groups are few and far between in Russia. From his perspective, it is a shame that Russians are more knowledgeable of Americans and the English than of the minorities within their own country.

Still, Mukhetdinov notes that the serious problems between Tatars and Russians are in the past, and he views Tatar efforts to gain more control over Tatarstan positively. As we have seen, a variety of factors are at play in Tatar-Russian relations. Despite many historical reasons for antagonism and numerous small controversies in recent years, the inertia of cultural tolerance between Tatars and Russians has held strong. Buoyed by strong religious commitments to tolerance, broad economic freedom and prosperity for the Tatar minority, and a common Soviet foil, ethnic Russians and Tatars have been able to stay on good cultural terms with each other. Vagapova quoted an old Tatar saying when asked about the prospects of the future, “I’m not good if my neighbor feels bad.” Tatars and Russians have lived together in peace for a long time. Of course, all Tatars are different, and all Russians are different; but economics and politics connect them to each other.

No Planes

April 24, 2010

The skies were quiet last week, and I quite liked it. There’s an airport within the Belfast city limits, and I hadn’t realized just how noisy the planes flying in and out of the city were until I couldn’t hear them anymore. It certainly helped that the weather got gorgeous while the planes were grounded, so it was quiet skies, warm weather, and contrail free. It wreaked havoc for some of my friends, though. Jun was stuck in Europe for the entire duration of the flight ban, slowly going broke, and Erin’s boyfriend wasn’t able to make the trip out to Belfast from America because of the ash cloud. This was annoying to everyone involved. Most people kept a bright outlook on things and gamely struggled through, though.

Now I find out that the airlines are throwing a strop about the whole thing. On one hand, I understand their argument. They lost millions of dollars by not being able to fly. On the other hand, when they act like Ryanair’s Chief Executive did, it makes it very hard for me to have sympathy with them. Under EU rules airlines are obliged to pay for accommodation and food costs if passengers are stranded through no fault of their own. I do understand O’Leary’s point; Ryanair couldn’t possibly have foreseen these circumstances, and the delay was much longer than usual. The volcano exploding wasn’t Ryanair’s fault. It wasn’t the passengers fault, either. I’m not really sure why passengers should be expected to pay but Ryanair shouldn’t. Surely one of the largest airlines in the world should be able to cover their obligations.

More annoying to me is the response of British Airways officials to the length of the flight ban. The Chief of BA is upset that the flight ban went on for as long as it did. Again, I have a little bit of sympathy for the airlines on this count; they were on the ground, losing money, for a long time. So why did the flight ban go on for as long as it did? Because authorities thought it was unsafe. It’s really not difficult to comprehend this. Sure, they probably erred on the side of caution, but don’t you want regulatory bodies to do that? What if they’d ok’d flights and had one fall out of the sky? The loss to the airlines would be infinitely greater. Save your outrage, airlines; people come before your bottom lines.

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I mentioned on facebook that I was pretty upset with Comedy Central about the recent South Park controversy. In a recent episode, the Prophet Muhammad was depicted. That resulted in a not-so-veiled threat against the creators by a group based in America called Revolution Muslim. (I’m not going to link to their site, because I don’t want to drive traffic to them.) Comedy Central responded by censoring the episode, and all past South Park episodes that depicted Muhammad without incident at first airing. (Yeah, they’ve shown him before and not gotten into trouble.) This whole thing is driving me crazy.

Understand, first, that most (but not all) varieties of Islam have a taboo against depicting the Prophet and God. So when a Muslim gets upset at seeing a depiction of these two figures, it isn’t so much the content of the depiction that gets them upset (As opposed to Christian reaction to Piss Christ) but the fact of depiction itself. That’s a crucial distinction. Still. This is a multicultural society, and these taboos aren’t shared. At some point when living in a pluralist world one has to realize that not everyone agrees with them, and shouldn’t face death threats for that fact. Comedy Central was unbelievably spineless to pull this episode.

Some more commentary on the issue:

Michael Moynihan:

The issue here is not causing offense to those who believe the rest of us must abide by the rules of their religion, by not representing their “prophet” in cartoon form (demonstrating that the turban bomb was mere icing on the cake). The answer to this niggling problem is simple: screw ’em. No, the real problem is the pathetic, spineless cowards at Comedy Central, who mock one and all nightly on the Daily Show and Colbert Report, but submit to the outrageous demands of the violent and superstitious. Actually, being that this is a preemptive measure, could we not accuse Comedy Central of Islamophobia? Are they not fearful of Islam, despite receiving only one threat from a group of subliterate wackjobs in Queens?

Aunt B. via Andrew Sullivan:

This large media conglomerate is regularly and repeatedly signalling that, even if they’re willing to stand up to angry Baptists or Jews with hurt feelings, pissed off Muslims are so scary and weird and “other” that they have to be handled with kid gloves. I know plenty of fucked-up Christians who I’m sure have sent angry letters and phone calls to Comedy Central about South Park. So, what Comedy Central is saying is that some death-threaty, angry, fundamentalist kill-joys, if they’re Christian, obviously don’t reflect the opinions of all Christians or warrant changing programming to accommodate. But some death-threaty, angry, fundamentalist kill-joys, if they’re Muslim, will be treated as if they are the legitimate authority on their religion and Comedy Central will respond in fear to them. And fear is just the submissive expression of hostility.

And Dan Savage: Everybody Draw Mohammad Day!

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Final thing, in the course of reading about some recent stirrings for Washington DC statehood, I ran across this post by Jonathan Bernstein on founding principles. Here’s a particularly good paragraph, I think:

Here’s the thing about representation, something that is I think fairly little known: political representation is a really, really new idea, historically speaking. For example, you won’t find it in Shakespeare, because it hadn’t really been invented yet. By 1776 it was an established and recognized fact in England, but there was very little systematic thought about it yet (Burke’s famous speech to the Electors of Bristol was in November, 1774).. So in large part, the Framers were making it up as they went along; Madison’s insights into democracy and representation were really very new, really original. It wouldn’t be surprising at all if their understanding of representation was not fully mature. Folks back then thought that women didn’t need to vote, and they had ideas about representation to support that notion, but they got that wrong — and they got representation of arbitrary pieces of land wrong, too, to the extent they believed in it. Anyway, as we know, the House/Senate distinction wasn’t made on principle; it was a compromise forced on everyone by political necessity. So while we’re stuck with it, we don’t have to embrace it as a virtue or a founding principle.

Its a great point, and syncs with a point I made a month or so ago, namely; all the stuff we hold so sacred is really very new in the scheme of human events and probably shouldn’t be written in stone. I was talking then about capitalism, but I think the critique works when we’re talking about the Constitution of the US, too. As currently constituted, the US is one of the oldest countries in the world, and most countries don’t adopt constitutions based on our model. (Coincidence?) This reminds me of some critiques of religion that I’ve seen.

A group of brilliant theologians shows up and begins to articulate a new and exciting way to think about God. Their positions are threatening to the established order, but they soldier on in the face of opposition. A vibrant movement is the result. And when the leaders die everyone makes the tacit assumption that the work has been finished. The Reformation has occurred. The form has been perfected. Those who criticize from within are ostracized.

Now, substituted constitutionalists for theologians, and the Constitution/government for God. Seriously. We’ve made the Constitution into a God.

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I lied, actually. This is the last thing. A series of articles/podcasts that you simply must read/listen to.

The Guardian on Goldman

This American Life on Magnetar, a corporation that made millions betting against the housing market.

Slate’s Book Club on Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, a book about the financial collapse.

David Bazan used to be the impetus behind the stealth-Christian band Pedro the Lion. (I say that because I listened to a radio program that was interviewing him, and a caller said that she felt ambushed by the Christian themes in the music.) The group was controversial in Christian circles because some of the lyrics were a tad risque for the CCM demographic, Bazan drank and swore, and despite the overtly spiritual themes the band certainly wasn’t meeting a Jesus quota. A few years ago the band took a break, Bazan’s marriage nearly fell apart due, in part, to the strain of alcoholism, and he lost his faith.

Sort of. I think.

He opens Curse Your Branches, his newest album, with the lines,

You’ve heard the story
You know how it goes
Once upon a garden
We were lovers with no clothes

Wait just a minute
Do you expect me to believe
That all of this misbehaving
grew from one enchanted tree?

And helpless to fight it
We should all be satisfied
With this magical explanation
For why the living die

And why its hard to be
Hard to be
Hard to be a decent human being.

He’s asking the same kinds of questions, demanding the same kinds of answers, that we can find in the Psalms. A few more:

God bless the man who stumbles
God bless the man who falls
God bless the man who yields to temptation

or

All fallen leaves should curse their branches
For not letting them decide where they should fall
And not letting them refuse to fall at all

There’s more where that comes from. In fact, this might be the most overtly spiritual set of songs Bazan has ever penned, and the irony is that Bazan doesn’t even believe in the God he’s wrestling with in these songs. There’s a bite to these songs, music and lyrics, that draws the listener in. Bazan sounds like he’s in anguish as he sings some of these lyrics, almost as though this album is a sort of Gethsemane. For my part, hearing songs like these is a refreshing change of pace from the way God is usually handled in music.

In Regina Spektor’s latest album, Far, she’s also got a song that talks about God, “Laughing With.” But that’s about as far as the spiritual stuff goes, which is fine. The album’s fine, too. Pretty typical Spektor– competent, catchy, occasionally a bit too affected for my taste. What I want to talk about here is the way that marketing has changed and subverted the album. The first time I listened through the album I realized that I’d already heard all the best songs. I should note here that I don’t listen to music radio. I don’t even watch all that much television. Somehow, though, Spektor’s songs had gotten through. I’d heard them in commercials; I’d heard them in the few tv shows I’d watched; I’d heard them in movies. Somehow music has become even more inescapable.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t mind this, honestly.

I don’t begrudge artists these deals. I’m not one of those people who gets exercised when a band “sells out.” I’m more concerned with what gets released for me to listen to. As record labels have died, music radio has become less lucrative, and actual sales of physical albums have cratered, musicians have to take any chance they can to make a living. I understand this. I get it. I’m mostly reconciled to it. One of my favorite bands, The Submarines, has licensed their songs to Apple for use in iPod commercials.

There’s a little bit of a difference here, though. The Submarines didn’t license their songs until after their album was released, and as far as I can tell Spektor’s songs were being licensed before Far came out. This ruined the sense of surprise I had when encountering the music. Now, once again, there’s nothing wrong with hearing a song that you haven’t heard before on a commercial (or wherever) and thinking, “Hey, that’s a nice track. I’ll have to figure out how to get that.” And of course it would be ridiculous to expect that I could go through my life hearing all music within the confines of an album before I experienced its commercial use.

But since the songs off Far were out before the album was released, I made different associations in my head. Instead of thinking about the song itself, or trying to figure out how a given track fit in with the rest of the songs on the album, I found myself thinking, “Where have I heard this before?” Instead of the songs standing alone they were now stuck with connotations of products and TV shows. Again, I don’t blame Spektor for taking the chance to make some money off her music, but I wonder if this strategy doesn’t ultimately backfire.

Grab Bag 2

April 18, 2010

I still want to talk about David Bazan and Regina Spektor, but I want to be able to listen to their music in a constructive environment while I’m writing about it. As I write this I’m in a coffee shop, and it’s just not conducive to writing about music– weird, I know. In the meantime, I wanted to talk about transit in Russia, some recent weeping and gnashing of teeth about CNN, and the nuclear arms treaty that President Obama signed with President Medvedev of Russia. First, though, a note about my blog output over the last week or so. Obviously it has slowed down, a lot. The blog output that I kept up over Lent was a bit more than I want to continue doing. If I were getting paid for this, I might change my mind, but as it stands this blog is an outlet for my thoughts to a small group of friends who read. As such, I’m having juggle it with my school responsibilities. Ordinarily I would have used the last week to write a lot since I wasn’t in class, but for various reasons, which I think are obvious, I haven’t had any motivation to write. I’ve been taking furious notes on things I’ve read recently and on the podcasts I’ve been listening to. Perhaps I’ll get around to writing about them eventually. After this. And Bazan and Spektor.

One of the things I love best about Russia is the number of transit options available to people. It would be easy to get around in Russia (well, all but the smallest of towns) and never own a car. Public transit is bountiful, commuter light rail is easy to use in big cities, and every decent sized city is served by frequent rail links. Old Soviet policy dictated that any city that broke the one million inhabitants mark was eligible for its own metro system. Because of a different old Soviet policy, population relocation and concentration, there are a lot of cities in Russia with over one million inhabitants. In any of these cities a person can reasonably expect to be able to take public transit to nearly anywhere in the city they should desire. The metro will be quickest, but the city will also have trams, trolleybuses, large state-run buses, and mashrutkas, smaller, privately owned buses. For a city with fewer than one million people, subtract the metro, but expand the bus cover. It is fast (for the most part), cheap (about 50 cents to ride the bus, about a dollar to ride the metro), and abundant (In Nizhny there’s a bus at a stop on average of every 30 seconds. It may not be exactly the bus you want, but once you figure out the routes you can take one that gets you close and hoof it the rest of the way if you don’t want to wait.).

There’s something intensely democratic about it, too. Sure, there are lots of cars in Russia, but almost everyone takes public transit at least once on a given day, and far more people commute via public transit than private transit. In Moscow everybody rides the metro. It is exactly those factors that mean that Russian style transit will never catch on in the US. Public transit in Russia is often crowded, hot, and uncomfortable. It’s a running joke between me and some friends who live in Russia that there’s always room for one more person. The interiors of the vehicles are not spit-shine cleaned, and you have to share space with people who smell funky. If you’re a foreigner you get used to it pretty quickly, and if you’re Russian I assume you just take it for granted as a fact of life. But in the US, suburbanites get spiky about expanding public transit because they’re afraid that they’ll have to share space with poor people. (I’m really not joking here. I wish I was, but you can search through innumerable town hall meetings on this subject in suburban America and find this exact sentiment being expressed.) They’re afraid that undesirables will use transit to come into their neighborhoods and sow chaos, as though they couldn’t just use a car if they really wanted to do that. There’s also a fairly large amount of state ownership and subsidy of transit systems in Russia, which allows them to keep unprofitable lines that nevertheless serve poorer segments of society open by funneling profits from more prosperous lines and benefit from the economies of scale that governments can muster when it comes to purchasing power and payment. That would not fly in the US; Amtrak is the blind, red-headed step child of the US government, and most people are convinced the government can’t do anything right anyway. Alas, and alack, Russian transit will stay in Russia.

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I don’t really know where to begin discussing the nuclear arms treaty that President’s Obama and Medvedev signed recently. On one hand, I’m happy for any measures that reduce the number of nuclear bombs in the world. (Well, not any. I should say ‘any peaceful measures.’) On the other hand, compliance with this treaty will still leave the US and Russia with 1500 bombs apiece. The rest of the world has 600. Can someone explain to me what in God’s name we need that many nuclear bombs for? Believe me, if they were usable the military would have found a reason to use them. Nuclear bombs are totally and completely useless, a country like the US cannot use them, because it would immediately lose any semblance of moral high-ground in a conflict. People know this, too, which means they aren’t afraid of our nuclear weapons. What they’re afraid of is the US’s conventional weapons. Those terrify everyone, and justifiably so.

In the first part of the 20th century, pundits began to advance the theory that world economies were sufficiently dependent upon each other that war was no longer a possibility. “Advanced” countries couldn’t afford to go to war with each other, so they wouldn’t. Obviously, two absolutely appalling World Wars later, we know that wasn’t actually the case. I wonder if it might be now, though. The world is more connected and interdependent now than it has been at any other time in modern human history. At the beginning of the last century, the sort of close connection we now take for granted only existed between the European states and the US/Canada. The colonies of the various European powers weren’t as connected as we’d like to think because of the pace of travel, and the lines of supply could be quickly and effectively cut and reconfigured with fairly minimal disruption. This isn’t so anymore. I’ve heard friends say that we need to be afraid of China since they own about half of the US (seemingly). The relationship cuts both ways, actually. US consumption is fueling Chinese growth, and the Chinese government can’t really risk a spat with the US that would cut off that demand. Gross Chinese GDP may have passed the US recently, but that’s primarily a factor of having more than three times the population of the US. If the American market goes away, there’s absolutely nowhere else in the world for the Chinese to go selling their wares– don’t forget that the US is the world’s third most populous country. The Chinese boom is fueled by the US continuing to buy from the Chinese; if that spigot is turned off, then the recent recession will look pitiful in comparison to what the Chinese economy will go through. All of the world’s economies are similarly constrained. Failure or withdrawal by one puts the whole thing in jeopardy.

So if conflict is undesirable for economic reasons, what about military ones? An amusing suggestion. The typical bogeymen are Russia and China, so we’ll take them each in turn. But first, I should note that the US currently possesses an aircraft so advanced, so comprehensively better than anything in the air that it is never used. I’m talking about the F-22. This plane was designed and commissioned at the height of the Cold War because the US assumed that the Soviets would have something terrifying coming out of the MiG factory at any minute. This plane is quite simply the best plane ever designed and built. There’s nothing in the sky that can touch it. It is also commensurably expensive to operate. Those costs would be justifiable if there was something– anything– that could threaten it, but there isn’t. Instead the US’s old planes– F-16, F-15, F-18– are all sufficient to tackle any problem we might encounter, and the F-35– 75% of the F-22’s capability at half the cost, and still much better than anything else in the world– is in the pipeline. Current estimates are that other countries might, maybe, have something on par with the F-22 in twenty years. By which time we’ll need a replacement for an unusable plane. Such is the state of our military. It can afford to spend billions of dollars a year on things that aren’t even usable.

The Russians? Click around on the internet for a while and you’ll realize that, actually, the Russian military is in extraordinarily poor condition. The Russian military used to take pride in contracting exclusively with domestic suppliers, but it has become increasingly clear in the near twenty years since the Soviet Union fell that Russian companies possess neither the design not maintenance capabilities that the Russian military requires, so it has begun contracting out to foreign weapons suppliers. The current Russian army is like a lion that’s been shaved, declawed, had its teeth pulled, its eyes gouged out, and been bludgeoned with a nail studded 2×4 for good measure. The Chinese? They’re too busy spending and making money to pour their resources into “defense.” Sure, they’re a regional bully, but the Chinese army, even in its current modernizing swing, is nothing for the US to fear. What’s China spending its money on instead? Mass transit. China’s high speed rail system is growing at an unfathomable rate– would that the US could have that HSR system– and Shanghai’s metro system recently became the longest in the world, passing Moscow, London, and Paris. In the next couple of years it is projected to become the busiest metro system in the world. That’s just one Chinese city, and the pattern is repeated across the country. That’s where China’s money is going, not into defense. If China wants to beat the US, they’ll beat us with money not with guns.

Every other pseudo-credible military opponent the US might have is explicitly an ally, so it is clear the US has absolutely nothing to fear from anyone militarily, much less have need of nuclear weapons. So there’s no need of nuclear weapons when it comes to inter-state relations simple because of the US’s overwhelming power, but perversely the only real enemies the US currently has aren’t afraid of nuclear weapons either. What fear does a terrorist have of nuclear weapons? Most of them are willing to die anyway, and the use of nuclear weapons on the part of the US would only serve as proof of propaganda to a terrorist organization. It really looks to me as though there is no credible argument for nuclear weapons, except to say that we have them.

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Lastly, I’ll talk about CNN. Ross Douthat wrote an article for the New York Times recently proposing changes that would “save” CNN. In case you missed it, in the wake of the 2008 elections, CNN’s ratings have absolutely plummeted, while the ratings of partisan channels MSNBC and Fox have soared. Just how partisan MSNBC can be considered when they give Joe Scarborough the entire morning to talk is up for debate, but they’re perceived as the “Liberal” network, which may be indicative more of how low the bar has been set for something to be “liberal” in our discourse than anything else, but I digress. My question is this: Is CNN worth saving?

I mean, beyond all the people who would lose their jobs if CNN went out of business, how many people would really miss it? The conventional wisdom seems to be that people want their news to be delivered to them through a partisan filter nowadays, but I wonder about that. Mightn’t it be, instead, that once people realized that networks like CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN were no longer taking the time to actually sit down and soberly report and analyze the news and were instead devoting their time to one-upping each other with sensationalism, they decided that they’d be better off finding networks that would actually talk about the news, even if that meant they’d be getting a partisan filter? I’ll admit to not having paid a ton of attention while this shift was happening; I was in high school/undergrad and just liked the internet better.

Lately CNN has seemingly decided that it needs to adopt the partisan style of its competitors, but it can’t really decide which it wants to be. They recently hired a guy from redstate.com, whose name I can’t recall as I’m writing this but who has made me cringe any time he’s been called upon to “analyze” anything– surely CNN can find a conservative who is more than a partisan hack and is willing to honestly grapple with issues rather than toe the GOP line, right? The problem with this is that conservatives perceive CNN as having an incurable liberal bias, so they’re always going to lose this fight to Fox. If they want to just feature screaming partisans of both sides I can’t see this as pleasing anyone; people will just turn to their “partisan” news channel of choice instead.

Maybe CNN should just accept slightly lower ratings for now and attempt to recast itself as an NPR style news channel. Chill out on the celebrity gossip, instead actually tell us about what’s going on in the world. Devote long blocks of time to reasoned analysis of domestic and international events, foster a group of creative on-air talent who run interesting shows. (A television version of radiolab would, perhaps, be the best thing ever, for example) Give us a channel that helps us to contextualize the news, don’t just report it to us.

But maybe this channel already exists.

Maybe it’s called PBS.

Trotsky Curveball

April 15, 2010

If we look back to the historical sequence of world concepts, the theory of natural law will prove to be a paraphrase of Christian spiritualism freed from its crude mysticism. The gospels proclaimed to the slave that he had just the same soul as the slave-owner, and in this way established the equality of all men before the heavenly tribunal. In reality, the slave remained a slave, and obedience became for him a religious duty. In the teaching of Christianity, the slave found an expression for his own ignorant protest against his degraded condition. Side by side with the protest was also the consolation. Christianity told him: “you have an immortal soul, although you resemble a packhorse.” Here sounded the note of indignation. But the same Christianity said: “Although you are like a packhorse, yet your immortal soul has in store for it an eternal reward.” Here is the voice of consolation. These two notes were found in historical Christianity in different proportions at different periods and amongst different classes. But as a whole, Christianity, like all other religions, became a method of deadening the consciousness of the oppressed masses.

–Leon Trotsky in Terrorism and Communism

I know– blew my mind, too. There are some fascinating insights in this quote. Think them over for a while.

Shifty

April 12, 2010

We’re in our twenties. We shouldn’t be dying. I’m writing about this because I don’t really know what else to do, and it is the only way I can think to process this. I could recount the innumerable moments of hilarity I experienced in Mark’s presence, but the overriding memory I have of him is of a deeply thoughtful, engaged person. The quiet moments stand out most to me, one in particular.

Picture northwest Iowa in November. No snow, but cold; a clear sky; just enough wind to make your back tighten up. Returning from a walk, I heard a trumpet cutting through the wind. Not recognizing the licks, I realized it was someone outside playing. And there, on the porch of the English building, was Mark, slowly improvising runs that perfectly matched the night. I walked up, sat, and listened for another twenty minutes or so. By the end his trumpet was dripping with condensation from his breath despite the cold. After he was done we talked about the existential implications of the blues; what did it mean to have that in you? We finally walked back to the dorm when neither of us could feel our toes anymore.

A longstanding friendly argument between the two of us was a question of the most influential jazz musician. Mark backed Louis Armstrong; I backed Miles Davis. We could, and did, go for hours discussing the merits of the two greats and their positions relative to each other.

Shifty, I concede.

The Interior Life

April 8, 2010

I noted a few weeks ago (on facebook, no less) that I’m starting to come to the conclusion that the internet is a bad thing. Yes, I’m fully aware of the irony of my position. This has to do with my ever increasing distaste for advertising and the way our desires and perceptions of “need” are so easily subverted (it isn’t paranoia if they’re out to get you, right?) and with the specific characteristics and interactions that the internet fosters. But I’m not ready to give up on just yet, because I still unearth really wondrous and interesting things pretty much every day on the internet. With that in mind, I’d like to spend this post talking about two things I ran across (fairly) recently, and they’re both of a piece with each other, dealing with people’s conceptual interiors. The first is a post on shyness I saw on Jason Kottke’s blog, which is a repository of all that is good and right with the world. (Post here, and relevant linked article here.) The second is an article on Slate about an interesting study about purchasing habits and morality. (Slate article here abstract of the referenced paper here.

The thing that grabbed me most about Kottke’s post was his discussion of another book and the way that David Foster Wallace talked about the egotism of introversion. Wallace noted that while we tend to think of introverts as extraordinarily modest and self-effacing, they’re actually incredibly self-absorbed people. As he puts it, in any social situation the introvert is thinking only about themselves. His insight is accurate, I think, but I also think he misses something crucial in this analysis. (It should be noted that I say this as one notoriously reluctant to engage in conversation with people I have not been introduced to.) To label the shy as egotistical is accurate insofar as it goes, but to label them as particularly egotistical, which I’m not sure he does since I’ve not read the book which would give context to Kottke’s post, is a bit off the mark. Far more accurate would be to say that human beings in general are just pretty egotistical things. That’s what makes it so remarkable when a person is able to do something sacrificial or to think beyond themselves. I will say that the post has done a good deal more to make me more self-conscious, which is a feat in and of itself, and probably not what the intended effect was.

The other little thing I’d like to talk about is the publication of a study that essentially links buying “green” or ethical products with being a jerk. I was particularly sensitive to reading this, since I usually try to advocate for doing the very things that the study says makes people mean. The hypothesis is pretty strong, insofar as that goes, and pretty annoying in its implications. The take away is that buying things that are ethically desirable acts as cover for people to be jerks in other arenas. The internal justification is, “Well, I can’t be that bad a person even though I just crabbed out that waiter; I drive a Prius!” Ugh. I want desperately to sweep this under the rug and pretend it isn’t real, but that just seems like the exact opposite (again) of what the authors of the study would have wanted. Instead, it will serve as a reminder to me to be polite and kind to people no matter what. Drinking fair trade coffee doesn’t give me an excuse to be an asshole.

The next post will probably be about exegeting David Bazan’s newest album, and discussing the effect of advertising and licensing on my appreciation of Regina Spektor’s latest album. And maybe an apologetic for the awesomeness of Iowa.

Tattoos and Car Alarms

April 6, 2010

I read an article a few days ago that bemoaned the increasing proliferation of tattoos and piercings in people near my age. In this author’s telling, this was a sign that my generation was completely full of conformists who get tattoos and piercings just in order to fit in. In fact, whereas tattoos and piercings had once been a sign of transgression, the author thought that people like me– folks without tattoos or piercings and no plans to get either– represented the true transgressives in today’s society. This was news to me. Silly me; thinking that the fact that I don’t have a tattoo or piercing stems from me being transgressive and against the grain not from a healthy(?) phobia of things expressly designed to pierce my skin.

I think the author of the piece, a link to which I’m not able to locate, has got things slightly off kilter here. I think this has less to do with a shift to a different kind of transgression than to the total abolition of any idea of transgression in our culture. I’m not going to argue that my buttoned up appearance is transgressive, because it blatantly isn’t. The only slightly transgressive attributes I embody are a hostility to logos and a skepticism of advertising.

The illusion that I might be representative of a shift in norms has come about precisely because the people who market such things to us have done such an unbelievable job over the last twenty years of bringing transgressive images into our living rooms and defanging them. There’s nothing particularly threatening about a person with tattoos or piercings anymore because the very idea has been so thoroughly tamed. For evidence, I suggest we look no further afield than the hit show NCIS, in which a “goth” girl is a main character and is one of the most lovable members of the cast. I’m not sure this would have been possible on a network, primetime program even ten years ago, but the “goth” look has been so subverted by marketing as to render it cuddly. This is a case of the leaders coming back to the pack rather than the running order being inverted.

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Last night I was treated to the dulcet sounds of a car alarm going off for what seemed like the better part of the night. This prompted me to ponder the utter futility of car alarms in Russia. The vast majority of people live in enormous apartment blocks. Provided a person doesn’t live on the first floor– which, odds are, they don’t– it is going to end up being nearly impossible to get out to a car in order to prevent any vandals from escaping with loot. Vandals have to know this, too, so it is difficult to see what sort of deterrence alarms really provide.

But almost every car here has an alarm. From the crappiest Lada to the swankest BMW, nearly every vehicle boasts a security system of some sort. I wonder, then, if this isn’t a form of conscience salve adopted in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. Once personal possessions and consumption became a significant part of the Russian economy a car became a sort of symbol of the future. As good as the public transit systems are here I’m not even sure most people have cars, which would make cars an exceptional possession. So perhaps the alarms are there mostly to make owners feel like their investments are safe rather than to actually secure the investments.

Воскресение

April 4, 2010

On Easter Sunday Orthodox Russians walk around saying to each other, “Кристос Воскресие,” Christ is Risen. When a child comes to your door and says it you give them a little treat. Maybe an apple, maybe a piece of candy. It’s like trick-or-treating. Except in April/March.

The Russian word for Sunday is Воскресение, which translates literally as “Resurrection.” (I think) This is another of those moments in which language charms me. Implicit in the word every time a Russian says “Sunday” is Resurrection. A resurrection every week, not just on Easter.