Sandy: A Royal Pain in the Arse

It is Wednesday morning, October 31st, Halloween, here in Brooklyn, in New York City; the sun is out, the winds have died down even as they retain their fall nip, and the subways aren’t running. That little nugget of information should tell you all you need to know about why it’s not business as usual around these parts. We are supposedly recovering from a monster storm, Hurricane Sandy, one that made landfall, as expected, late in the day on Monday, further south of here, but in the process, sharing its strong winds,  flooding, rainfall and general discombobulation with us. On Monday night, being in this part of wind-lashed Brooklyn was certainly better than being in Lower Manhattan, which bore the brunt of extensive flooding and widespread power cuts. On Wednesday morning, it’s still not a bad place to be.  With some qualifications.

Warnings of natural disasters like hurricanes and blizzards always prompt calls to stock up on bottled water, flashlights, batteries and canned food. They also spark a rush to stock up on alcohol; apparently, nothing quite gets you through a day and night of wind and rain pressing against the windows and rattling your roofs like a drink or two or three. (My wife and I went so far as to fill up a bathtub with water in anticipation of a water supply failure.) And then there’s the movies: Halloween and Sandy found themselves scheduled for the same week, so some of this week’s movie bill included man-made ghoulishness–like science gone mad and serial killers–that went beyond climate change denial.

But all that wine-infused hunkering down in front of the television and the computer is now over, leaving some very dreary realities in its wake. Most prominently, as already noted, the city’s lifeline, the massive and antiquated subway system is still not operational, its tunnels flooded with corrosive salt water, the city’s transportation effectively crippled.  Without a running subway system, very little can get started in the city; its restoration is easily the most important and urgent component of the city’s physical and economic recovery.  (As a minor example, the City University has now canceled three days of classes; in all probability, our final exam period will now extend past Christmas.) Meanwhile, nightmarish traffic jams happen all over the city as parts of the city’s workforce make vain attempts to get to work by car. But without the subways, the city will remain on its knees.  (The MTA’s losses will also mean, eventually, an expensive fare hike for its users; we have already put up with a few of these in the recent past, and now can look forward to more.)

In the years to come, the city’s infrastructure will need to be rebuilt and refurbished in preparation for the next big natural convulsion; these appear to be becoming more frequent and dangerous.  Never was the need for a concerted response to the new dangers of global warming and its resultant climate change more apparent. And bizarrely enough, despite this latest expensive reminder of the costs of passivity, that collective response appears ever more unlikely.

I See Your Pet Lover and Raise You J.R. Ackerley

Natural disasters, especially hurricanes like Hurricane Sandy, always bring forth, besides flooding, stories of dedicated pet lovers, of dogs, cats and mynah birds rescued and cared for in myriad ways by their doting owners, nay, family members. In that spirit, I bring you J. R. Ackerley and Queenie.

Today…Ackerley is remembered primarily as a memoirist and a bombardier. He produced four books: three memoirs—“Hindoo Holiday” (1932), “My Dog Tulip” (1956), “My Father and Myself” (1968)—and a novel, “We Think the World of You” (1960)…In them, he wrote candidly and profoundly about homosexuality, a sensitive topic at the time….But eventually homosexuality came to be overshadowed in Ackerley’s work by another subject: his passion for his dog, a German shepherd named Queenie….Ackerley may have chosen the love of a dog—like Humbert Humbert’s emotion, a true passion—…to confront his readers with the image of a wild love, a crazy love, something that could make them truly uncomfortable….Homosexuality, however taboo, was not extraordinary in Ackerley’s time, whereas, even in England, a romantic passion for a dog would have been regarded as bizarre….

It cannot be said that he eventually chose a dog as his primary subject in order to slip under the wire of censorship. Nevertheless, the fact that Queenie was not human did allow him to say things that could not otherwise be said. When, in “My Dog Tulip,” Tulip (Queenie) goes into heat, we hear about the hordes of male dogs stampeding across the park to take advantage of her availability. None of them achieved their goal. Still, Ackerley writes, these were not wasted encounters, for Tulip “clearly enjoyed being pleasured by their little warm tongues.” Canine cunnilingus! In 1956, English readers probably did not expect to be hearing about this….

Was Queenie a substitute for a human love? Yes, Ackerley says, or she was at the start. She gave him everything that his lovers wouldn’t, above all constancy, “a background,” he wrote to a friend, “of secure, unalterable devotion, which my nature needed.” As he worked at his desk at night, she sat in his easy chair and gazed at him unceasingly. By his account, the fifteen years he spent with her were the happiest of his life, and his relationship with her made him ashamed of his earlier erotic history…

Something that is hard to explain is why Ackerley fell in love with a female dog. He was decidedly misogynist, and yet he not only chose a girl; he stressed her girlishness. In his books, he speaks of Queenie’s coquetry, and of her jealousy, which he regards as a female characteristic. He describes her sexual anatomy in embarrassing (to me) detail. P. N. Furbank offers the theory that she was a needed substitute, in disguised, furry form, for what Ackerley really wanted: a woman. I don’t believe that. I think it’s more likely that what he wanted was just a piece of the feckless, date-cancelling boyfriend, Freddie Doyle (the incarcerated Johnny of “We Think the World”), who was Queenie’s owner when Ackerley met her. She was a female, and so Ackerley, in buying her from Freddie, acquired a female. Only when he learned to love her did he love her femininity.

All this made some readers wonder whether Ackerley had sex with Queenie. We should not be shy about bringing up this matter. He wasn’t. In “My Father and Myself,” he recalls that a friend of his asked him the question and that he was glad to be able to answer without a fuss. When Queenie was in heat, he said, he pressed his hand “against the hot swollen vulva she was always pushing at me at these times, taking her liquids into my palm.” That was all. According to Peter Parker, another friend is reported to have asked Ackerley the same question, and got a slightly fuller answer. “A little finger-work,” Ackerley said.

Note:  Excerpts from Joan Acocella‘s ‘A Dog’s Life: How A Writer Discovered His Greatest Subject, The New Yorker, 7 February 2011.

Children Meeting Children: Observations from the Field

Last night, I attended a birthday party for a one-year old, extremely cute, daughter of friends of mine. Watching her vigorous, always entertaining, even if occasionally tearful, interactions with her two-year old cousin prompted some thoughts on how children exist in an interestingly idiosyncratic universe, one observable by, and sometimes even participated in, by adults,  but one that remains resolutely distinct and sometimes distant. It has its own physics and its own moral codes, its own peculiar understanding of property rights.  It is unclear how much of this behavior is learned, how much instinct. But its broad parameters are roughly similar across a wide variety of cultures, times and places and provide ample fodder for speculation, entertainment and theorizing.

For one thing, children are acutely conscious of each other in a way that they are not of adults: their attention seems almost exclusively concentrated on their counterpart(s) from the World Of Children.  This almost laser-like focus is attained quite soon after entering a domain populated by both; the visitor quickly notes the presence of another child, and from that point on is locked on to its ‘target.’ This locking-on results in a series of encounters that are regulated by a set of peculiar dynamical laws pertaining to children’s bodies: arms, legs, hands, faces, chests make contact with each other in a manner that sometimes evokes cooing admiration from observers and sometimes alarm. For all their delicacy, children can sometimes display the roughness of hardened wrestlers. At these moments, watching adults are reminded of how the vocal chords are capable of sudden amplifications of sound, rising sharply from gentle murmuring to anguished shrieks and wails. Then too, the arena of interaction might require intervention: a pulling-apart, a temporary separation, a cease-fire and truce of sorts. But normal service, with its complex entanglements and encounters, soon resumes.

And then there is the business of property: ownership of physical goods is quickly asserted and a set of non-sharing principles explicitly articulated. These are subject to negotiation, but almost always require external participation–by adults–in order to evolve to more co-operative and generous forms. Otherwise, children deploy an impressive armory of body parts and sounds to maintain and defend their possessions. Here again, vocal chords may be employed in impressive fashion and rapid, reflexive, almost instinctive  motions are on display as movements to seize property are foiled with vigor and panache.  Sometimes the authorities may be complained to, but in general, children display an impressive autonomy in their assertions of property.

There are, at times, temporary withdrawals from the field. Prompted by unsatisfactory encounters with the Other, children may retreat to the sanctuaries of their parents for revaluation of their prospects, for a sizing up of losses and gains. But these respites are very often found to be unsatisfactory, and soon, they emerge again, to enter yet another round of making contact. The adults on the sidelines, meanwhile, resume their observer positions, ready to intervene, cajole, comfort, and occasionally, vainly, to modulate the Brownian motion on display.

Displacements of, Not Solutions to, Philosophical Problems: A Quick Primer

A close, critical reader is worth his weight in gold. I am reminded of this whenever I share a bit of writing with someone who proceeds to clear up confusions deftly and rapidly, and sometimes, represents my position better than I had managed.

In part of a rough piece of writing tucked away somewhere, I quote Quine as saying,

Am I the same person I was in my youth? Or in my mother’s womb? These are not questions about the concept of identity. These are questions about the concept of person or the word ‘person’, which like most words goes vague in contexts where it has not been needed. When need does arise in hitherto unneeded contexts, we adopt a convention, or receive a disguised one from the Supreme Court.  (W.V. O. Quine, From Stimulus to Science, Harvard University Press, page 139, 1998.)

And then go on to say myself:

Here Quine suggests philosophical disputes can be resolved in pragmatic-legal fashion….Skepticism about Quine’s thesis suggests legal solutions to philosophical problems are mere conveniences rife with ad-hocism: philosophical questions need philosophical answers, not legal fiats. But this picture of the relationship between philosophy and law, and indeed, of philosophy itself, appears severely impoverished. A philosophical solution to a philosophical puzzle is not a deliverance delivered from on high; it is offered by human beings situated in very particular social, political and economic contexts. The fabric for those contexts is, very often, spun out of legal arrangements.

It seems then law’s practices and language feed back into philosophical arguments and help explicate, round out, and entrench many of their concepts. Indeed, theories of the expressive impact of law suggest legal decision making contributes to a solution of philosophical problems; these decisions are not ad-hoc, at least not any more than any other kind of philosophical solution is. They proceed by argument, they provide reasons, and they have empirical impact, which influences future philosophical speculation…Philosophical disputes are not settled by philosophers alone; what people and social institutions bring about help make up philosophers’ minds about the correct solution to a philosophical problem.

This little passage didn’t seem quite right to me (especially my language of ‘solutions to philosophical problems’) and my friend Chandra Kumar, in an email, captured the problem quite nicely:

Seems to me the moral of Quine’s remarks is the Wittgensteinian one that philosophical problems get dissolved, not solved, when you contextualize words and therefore concepts into social practices. We come to see that what looked like a real metaphysical puzzle was really based on an ahistorical blindness rooted in misunderstanding the way our language was/is actually working….[What you are talking about is] displacements of those problems. Aren’t you actually just changing the subject (justifiably so)?  When you show how developments in legal thinking and practice have implications for how we think about…‘personhood’…you [are providing] an historical account of how we have come to think of responsibility and personhood….[W]hat you’re doing is making a point against those who think these conceptions are rooted in something metaphysical:  you’re showing how they’re actually rooted in evolving cultural and legal systems/practices, and get their meaning and ‘bite’ from these practices.

Chandra is right.

Bosses Call For Mass Harakiri In Event of Obama Victory

In what some election observers are terming an ‘extreme, possibly misguided–and certainly un-American in its excessive Japaneseness–response’ to the US Supreme Court’s Citizens’ United decision freeing companies from restrictions on using corporate funds to endorse and campaign for political candidates, several large American employers have called for mass, public harakiri in the event that Barack Obama wins the US presidential election on November 6th.

Major companies–including Fox News, Coors Breweries, and various NASCAR sponsors–have sent detailed letters and information packets to their employees explicitly recommending that employees, as one letter put it, ‘not just off themselves but do it in a way that sends a message to future generations.’ Some employers have rejected criticisms of these letters as ‘unfair and imbalanced.’ A senior executive at Fox News said:

If Barack wins, the economy will crash, new taxes will be levied, our children will be forced into labor camps, we will be forced to grow beards and memorize the Koran. Life as we know it will be over and certainly not worth living anymore. Our employees have a choice between being forced into humiliating subjugation, or doing what a true warrior would do under the circumstances, namely, kill themselves before Death Panels decimate them and their families. We intend to facilitate and encourage such behavior. There is no coercion here.

A letter sent by Fox News to their employees included explicit instructions:

In event of Barack Obama being elected on November 6th, we call on our employees to gather in the company parking lot on the morning of November 7th (Pearl Harbor Day Minus Thirty) and disembowel themselves with stainless steel katana swords supplied by management. We will pair off employees–into samurai and kaishakunin–based on lots drawn by their group managers. After the ‘samurai’ has disemboweled himself, his kaishakunin will carry out the decapitation. The kaishakunins will be dispatched by special Corporate Disposition Matrix Squads. The parking lot will be cleaned up by groups of Hyatt Hotel housekeepers prior to their deportation.

While some employees found the call for mass seppuku ‘a little over the top’ and an ‘over-reaction,’ others were entirely unsurprised. A foreman at Coors Breweries said, ‘They get our Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and FourSquare passwords before hiring, make us piss in bottles and take hair samples to test for drugs, scan our emails, search our hard drives, regulate our toilet and meal breaks, tell us what clothes to wear, make us attend–and bring our children to–company picnics, specify when we have to come in to work, when we can leave, and how long we have to work on weekends and national holidays, so it makes eminent sense that they should be able to tell us when our time on this planet is up, when our lives aren’t worth living. A job  is a cradle to grave kind of thing, and the bosses knows best. People who don’t like it always have the option to exit the labor market.’

Gary Johnson, the US Libertarian Party candidate for president, said he was pleased the US government had not attempted to intervene in ‘what is essentially a workplace issue.’

If Machines Do All The ‘Work’, What Will Humans Do?

At The Atlantic Moshe Vardi wonders about the consequences of machine intelligence.  Vardi’s article features the subtitle ‘If machines are capable of doing any work that humans can do, then what will humans do?’ and is occasioned by the following:

While the loss of millions of jobs over the past few years has been attributed to the Great Recession, whose end is not yet in sight, it now seems that technology-driven productivity growth is at least a major factor.

As Vardi notes, worries about the loss of employment caused by growth in technological innovation are not new and have often been met by varieties of techno-optimism: ‘new technologies will create new jobs!’ Such optimism includes that of Keynes‘ who

[I]magined 2030 as a time in which most people worked only 15 hours a week, and would occupy themselves mostly with leisure activities.

Vardi is not reassured:

I do not find this to be a promising future. First, if machines can do almost all of our work, then it is not clear that even 15 weekly hours of work will be required. Second, I do not find the prospect of leisure-filled life appealing. I believe that work is essential to human well-being. Third, our economic system would have to undergo a radical restructuring to enable billions of people to live lives of leisure.

But a life full of leisure is only problematic if we conceive of leisure in extremely impoverished ways: perhaps watching television sitcoms endlessly, sitting around twiddling our thumbs, working through one bag of potato chips after another. Why is leisure somehow imagined to be non-intellectually or physically taxing? Why couldn’t leisure involve physical recreation, reading and writing books, proving theorems, painting, or writing poems? Can all these only be done for gainful employment? Perhaps the problem with a world ‘run’ by machines that relieve of us of ‘work’ while leaving us free to pursue ‘leisure’ is not the presence of machines,  but the absence of a richer vision of the human life.

Of course, the worry about an automated future really seems to be that if humans aren’t ‘working’ they aren’t getting ‘paid,’ or rather, they aren’t making ‘money’ to ‘support’ themselves. So this vision of the human future is only frightening if we imagine humans made destitute by machines doing all the work. But then those humans are not going to be in a position to pursue ‘leisure.’ They’ll be too busy robbing, stealing, scrounging and begging to feed their families and themselves. They’ll be ‘working’ pretty hard.

Vardi’s third point is the one he should truly be worried about.The problem is not one of work or leisure. The problem is reconfiguring a political economy centered on massive automation to ensure human beings will not be destitute. Work and leisure are traditionally opposed to each other because we cannot fill our time with pleasurable, leisurely activities (understood broadly as above) without being economically deprived. A world in which the economic needs of man are taken care of by machines leaving us free to do non-coerced work does not sound unpleasant to me; if the automated economy of tomorrow makes it possible for us to do less work-for-wages to meet our needs our leisure time may be devoted to pursuing our intellectual and physical goals. The real problem is the economy of tomorrow is only too likely to be like the economy of today: massive, skewed concentrations of wealth in the hands of monopolists. We won’t have much time for leisure in that one.

Our Truly Messed-Up Constitution (And Those Dedicated To Keeping It That Way)

Sanford Levinson‘s Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We The People Can Correct It) is a truly depressing book. As I read it last night and this morning–in preparation for a meeting today with this semester’s Wolfe Institute Faculty Discussion Group–I grew increasingly enraged, perplexed, and then, finally, even more convinced that the excessive veneration shown to the US Constitution is a scam, one perpetrated on this nation by a political class determined to ensure the US will never become a true democratic republic. (I am only up to Chapter Three as yet, and dread what awaits me in the remaining ones.)

Much of Levinson’s critique in Chapters Two (Our Undemocratic Legislative Process) and Three (The Legacy of Article II: Too-Powerful Presidents Chosen in an Indefensible Process, Who Cannot Be Displaced Even When They Are Manifestly Incompetent), was familiar to me in its bare outlines: the bicameral, or rather, tricameral legislature, with its multiplicity of ‘veto points’ that may stymie majoritarian legislation, the unrepresentative nature of the Senate, (which without exaggeration may be termed as Levinson does, ‘illegitimate’), the misuse of presidential vetoes deployed on non-constitutional grounds, the all-too-frequent elections to the US House of Representatives, the idiotic Electoral College, the lame-duck Congresses, the delayed inauguration of the President. And so on. And on. But I don’t think I have ever had the Constitutions weaknesses and disastrous discordance with present-day realities laid out quite as infuriatingly well as Levinson does. (My familiarity with the outlines of Levinson’ critique should indicate part of the problem with the Constitution: most people, on being informed of its vagaries, are inclined to think it broke, and indeed scathing critique of the Constitution, given the dates on many of the commentaries and analyses cited by Levinson, is nothing new. But changing the Constitution is well-nigh impossible. We are, indeed, seemingly trapped in the ‘cage’ of its Articles and Clauses.)

A full reckoning of the Constitution’s problems as highlighted by Levinson requires a careful read of his book. Here is a tiny excerpt to get you started. Levinson cites Lynn A. Baker and Samuel H. Dinkin’s article ‘The Senate: An Institution Whose Time Has Gone?’ (Journal of Law and Politics, 1997) to offer a ‘terse summary of the practical consequences of the inequality of voting power in the Senate.’:

First, the Senate ensures  that the Federal Government will systematically redistribute income from the large states to the small states. Second, it provides racial minorities a voice in the federal lawmaking process that is disproportionately small relative to their numbers. Third, it protects diversity among the states by making federal homogenizing legislation more difficult to pass.

In case all that sounds too abstract, here is a little number of particular interest to me:

Over the period 1963-1999, New York taxpayers paid out $252 billion more in taxes than were received back in federal payments or services.

This is a mere sampler; besides the extant difficulties caused for the republic by the Constitution’s provisions, there are many crises waiting to happen in times of national emergency or even tied elections. It’s a clunker and a lemon rolled into one.  As Levinson notes, amending the Constitution is a near-intractable task, the difficulty of which may be gauged by revisiting John Roche’s paraphrasing  of Lord Acton‘s sagacious remark: It is not so much power that corrupts as the prospect of losing power.