2012’s Top Five Posts (Here, Not Elsewhere)

2012, the year that was (or still is, for a few more hours), turned out to be a busy one for blogging at this site. I wrote three hundred and twenty-four new posts, bringing the total for this blog to three hundred and fifty-five. The blog finally crossed fifty thousand views. (A humbling figure, if you think that major blogs receive those many hits in a day.)

The five most popular posts in terms of views were the following. (I don’t think these are necessarily the best pieces I wrote, which is a judgment I find hard to make in any case, but they definitely attracted some attention.)

  • David Brooks Went to a Springsteen Concert, And All I Got Was A Stupid Op-Ed: I wrote this post in response to a typical display of asinine, pseudo-profound commentary by a columnist who is an integral component of the embarrassment that is the New York Times Op-Ed page.  It was a bit silly, and I suppose could be described as satire, but really, it was a pretty straightforward reaction to idiocy. Among others, Brian Leiter linked to it, as did Bradford DeLong, and Corey Robin, and that brought in many viewers. Many thanks to you all. (In particular, Leiter and Robin have brought many readers to this site, so I owe them multiple thanks.)
  • Bill Keller Needs to Drop the Snark and Do Serious Journalism: This was an angry reaction to a New York Times Op-Ed that I found profoundly politically offensive. I have grown increasingly depressed by the state of political journalism in the US and Bill Keller’s writing on WikiLeaks at the nation’s premier newspaper summed it up for me. As a public display of confusion about the responsibility of the journalist, and the relationship they should maintain with those in power, Keller’s piece has few parallels. Glenn Greenwald and Corey Robin linked to this post.
  • On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory: This post grew out of a long-held concern of mine that the academic practice of philosophy often betrays what should be its guiding principles, among which should be the creation and maintenance of an atmosphere conducive to open and unfettered inquiry. I find the lack of women in philosophy appalling, and remain convinced that the way male philosophers run the profession has a great deal to do with it. This post was prompted by articles by Jennifer Saul and Helen Beebee.
  • Occupy Wall Street And The Police: Why So Estranged?: In this post, I wondered why the police, who should be on the side of those protesting the 1%, are instead, so committed to doing the bidding of those that would keep them in a state of economic and political deprivation. Again, Brian Leiter cited this post.

I wrote three hundred and nineteen other posts of course (check ’em out!). Most of them sank into obscurity, but that’s quite all right. I’m still amazed that anyone bothers to read anything posted out here.

So there you have it folks. Another year awaits, and while I’m not quite sure that I will blog at the same rate as I did in 2012–primarily because I two new book projects planned (besides a newborn!)–I will continue to write as often as I can. Do stick around.

Note: I also owe thanks to all those folks on Facebook and Twitter who linked to, and shared my posts. Much appreciated.

No Country (or World) for Women, Old or Otherwise

While my wife was pregnant with our now-seven-day-old daughter, I was often asked, ‘Do know if it’s a boy or a girl?’ On hearing my confession of ignorance and confirmation of wanting to keep things that way i.e., declining a glance at the prenatal sonogram’s report, I was then asked, “Do you want a boy or a girl?’ On more than one occasion, after indicating my indifference to that choice and my desire for a healthy child, I gave voice to what always seemed to be an appalling sentiment, ‘I suppose a boy would be better because this is a bad world for women.’

I write these words a day after receiving news that the now-famous-for-all-the-wrong-reasons victim of a brutal gang-rape in India’s capital, New Delhi, had finally succumbed to her injuries in a Singapore hospital, two weeks after that horrific night. While protests still take place in India, and intemperate, misguided, calls for the death penalty continue to be made, and reams of perspicuous commentary indicting sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, Indian police, India’s judicial system, insensitive, tone-deaf  Indian politicians, have been written, I’d merely like to offer a few words written by the concerned parent of a tiny baby girl who has no idea she has been born into a world scarred by such ghastly acts of unspeakable violence.

What makes these acts truly frightening is that they are so commonplace. Rape is a mundane occurrence in most parts of the world; violence, in other forms, directed against women, is a ritual all over the world. With probability one, someone you know has been raped. They might not have told you, but the numbers indicate that fact, hidden though it might be. And what underwrites this relentless epidemic of subjugation is the seemingly congenital misogyny of men, one aided and abetted by the cultures that surround them, and one that  men facilitate at great peril to themselves. (On which more anon.) Bring a boy up to be a boy and there is a good chance you are bringing him up to be someone that will be disrespectful to women.  If the women he comes into contact with are lucky, he will merely deny them an equal share in this world’s spoils; if they are unlucky, they will suffer a far worse fate.

Perhaps the scariest part of the rape epidemic, and the greatest misunderstanding that might be perpetuated in the aftermath of the Delhi brutality is to imagine that that act was a singularity, one committed by outliers. Not at all. It took place in a culture, local and global, of sexual harassment, ogling, innuendo, of men who, when talking about sex, cannot drop the language of conquest and domination, of conflating sex and violence (‘Dude, I fucked the shit out of her’ or ‘I was banging her all night’), who imagine sex to be a variant of rough-and-tumble sport (‘scoring touchdowns’), who associate weakness with womanhood (‘Don’t be a pussy’ ‘Man up’ ‘Put your pants on’).

If you are a man, and you find yourself in the company of men who use language like that sampled above, consider speaking up. Otherwise, you are part of the problem.

Newsflash: Fatherhood Impedes Blogging

I became a father–for the first time–on Sunday, which has made blogging a little difficult. I hope to resume ‘normal service’ (well, an attenuated version thereof) sometime soon. Two nights in a maternity ward, four sleepless nights in total, a beautiful baby, an exhausted mother; it all adds up, if you catch my drift. On the bright side: a beautiful baby, ecstatic parents, the miracle of a new life and new person; it makes you want to write even more. A host of topics present themselves: the medical profession, midwives, the peculiar delirium of sleeplessness, hospital food, Brooklyn babies, the trials and travails of medical residencies, the nerve-wracking process of choosing a name (in our case, without knowing the baby’s sex), birth announcements on Facebook, it goes on. All in good time. For now, I must tear myself away reluctantly (not!) from the keyboard to see if I can find a horizontal surface on which to sleep. Laundry, dishes, cooking, and of course, diaper changes await. Oh, and yes, a beautiful baby. (I seem to dimly remember saying that before.)

Cheers all, see you soon.

Once More Into the Fray: Stepping Back From Suicide

In one of the opening scenes of Joe Carnahan‘s The Grey Ottway (Liam Neeson) considers committing suicide, sticks a  gun barrel in his mouth, and then decides against it. Later, in the movie’s final scene, after a harrowing journey through the Alaskan wilderness necessitated by an aircraft crash that has seen his band of fellow survivors slowly whittled away, and as an alpha male wolf closes in for the kill, Ottway repeats (for one last time?) his father’s poem: ‘Once more into the fray/Into the last good fight I’ll ever know/Live and die on this day/Live and die on this day‘ straps on broken bottles and a knife and prepares to fight. Fade to black.

That beginning and ending capture the movie’s narrative arc: a man driven to despair, to the point of killing himself, first stays his hand to continue among the living, and later, when presented with plentiful opportunities to just relax his guard and enjoy the most pleasant death possible in the circumstances i.e., a slow freeze to death (as one character does), Ottway declines again and again. Those that might have had stronger reasons to live did not survive; they found, in the wilderness, their will not strong enough to resist its relentless attack on their selves. It is not ever made clear why Ottway declines to kill himself the first time: Was it because he remembered his dying wife’s plea to not be ‘afraid’ and recognized his attempt at suicide as the act of a man who is very ‘afraid’? Or was the invocation of his father’s poem a post-facto rationalization of his fear of death? Ottway might have feared living, but perhaps he feared the void even more. Better the known misery than the unknown.

Those who step back from suicide rationalize their decisions in many ways: sometimes it’s because the utter irrevocability of that decision is frightening and paralytic, sometimes it’s because they let their minds turn to those they would leave behind and grieve for them, sometimes it’s because they realize that their cry for help has gone unheard, and disgusted and disappointed and weary, they turn once more to confront an indifferent world, looking for another gesture that will shake it from its torpor.

Those who explain their decision to stay their hand because of the pain of others have, of course, some explaining to do. Why should that matter once the deed is done? If the thought of the grieving is torment, then surely one way to bring that torment–and the others like it that have brought the despondent to this pass–to a close is to proceed with the self-annihilation? Once the darkness closes in, all will be forgotten, nothing will matter. But the hand still hesitates. Perhaps then, the second putative rationalization collapses into a variant of the first and third, and perhaps even more reductively, into the third.

A greater mystery persists. What prompts those who proceed to get past these barriers? What was it that made them transcend their fear of pain, of an irrevocable act,  and despair their cry for help would ever be heard?

Ode to a Beloved Clunker

MPA 4634 and DIA 8499. Those strings of alphanumeric characters, as might be surmised, are licence plate identifiers. More precisely, they were the licence plates for the same car, a Fiat 1100D that was our family car for over twenty years. Over those years, I graduated from the back of the car to the front, to riding in the back with my brother (a sometimes quarrelsome existence), to driving in the front. (Sadly, I never was able to use the car on a real date.) In it, we–my parents and my brother and I–drove distances as short as those to the local vegetable market, and as long as to the Kashmir Valley. It broke down many times: most terrifyingly, on a deserted stretch of the Grand Trunk Road, a mishap which sent my father hitchhiking looking for help, and brought two Good Samaritans to our rescue. But it also surprised me by making its way through long, winding, twisted roads in the Himalayas, with steep falls down to deep river gorges on one side. It had no air-conditioning, no power windows or steering, but it still managed to seem luxurious. When I missed its attainment of the 100,000 kilometer mark, I was heartbroken, and all attempts at consolation–‘it just became zeroes all over again’–failed.

My father, of course, was its most skilled driver. He drove with aplomb, nowhere better exemplified than in his mysterious ability to open a pack of cigarettes and light up with a match even as he continued down the highway or around a bend. But he was never reckless; indeed, when I felt compelled to ask him to drive faster, his answer was a laconic ‘This is fast enough.’ Perhaps it was all the ‘ol Fiat could handle.

I was told, as I grew up, that the car had been purchased ‘for me on my birthday.’ That was an exaggeration, of course.  More likely, something significant in its history with my family had occurred close to my birthday, and my parents elevated that event to make me feel the car was somehow mine. It worked: I regarded it as a sibling of sorts, and couldn’t wait till the day would come when I would drive it myself. One night, during my early teen-aged years, as my mother drove us home from a family gathering, I asked her when I could start driving. She stopped the car, got out, came around to the passenger’s seat and told me to move over to the driver’s side. I received a quick two-minute lesson on changing gears and releasing clutches, and then, I was off. I did crash the car once in my learning career, but that was the only time I subjected it to such indignity. Thereafter, I grew to master Delhi’s traffic, and most awe-inspiringly of all, drive a non-airconditioned car in its 115-degree summer heat.

In 1987, when I left India for the US, my mother drove me to the airport in DIA 8499. When I returned to India in 1989, it was gone, traded in for a new car. The bills had piled up; maintenance had no longer been feasible; a new car was necessary. I didn’t grieve, but I did wish I had been around when the time came to bid it farewell.

I’ve owned a Toyota Corolla, a VW Jetta, and a Toyota pickup truck since then, and have now been car-free for almost twenty years. In those years, I’ve grown to disdain automobiles, and to hope that I never have to own a car. Still, that dislike won’t diminish my affection for that family jalopy, now transformed, perhaps via the junk-yard and scrap heap into some Chinese-manufactured items, pressed into service as household appliances or tools of convenience.

I never had a nickname for the car, so all I can say is: RIP MPA 4634 AKA DIA 8499.

Liberal Democracies and Armed Insurrections: Never the Twain Shall Meet?

Jeff McMahan has an interesting article–Why Gun Control Is Not Enough–over at The Stone today (New York Times, 20 December 2012). I agree with him that gun ownership does not have the salutary political effects that its most fervent, Second Amendment-quoting advocates claim it does, even though I don’t agree with McMahan’s conclusion that ‘the United States should ban private gun ownership entirely, or almost entirely.’  In any case, in this post, I want to focus on one exceedingly curious claim that McMahan makes in response to the former Congressman Jay Dickey, Republican from Arkansas, who is quoted as saying,

We have a right to bear arms because of the threat of government taking over the freedoms we have.

In response, McMahan says:

There is, of course, a large element of fantasy in Dickey’s claim. Individuals with handguns are no match for a modern army.  It’s also a delusion to suppose that the government in a liberal democracy such as the United States could become so tyrannical that armed insurrection, rather than democratic procedures, would be the best means of constraining it.  This is not Syria; nor will it ever be.  Shortly after Dickey made his comment, people in Egypt rose against a government that had suppressed their freedom in ways far more serious than requiring them to pay for health care. Although a tiny minority of Egyptians do own guns, the protesters would not have succeeded if those guns had been brought to Tahrir Square. If the assembled citizens had been brandishing Glocks in accordance with the script favored by Second Amendment fantasists, the old regime would almost certainly still be in power and many Egyptians who’re now alive would be dead.

Why is it a ‘delusion’ to suppose that a liberal democracy could not become so tyrannical that those subject to it might consider armed insurrection a viable response? Is this a conceptual truth about liberal democracies? Why would ‘armed insurrection’ never be the ‘best means of constraining it’? And why is McMahan so confident that the US will ‘never’ be Syria? This is a prophecy, not an argument, one that does not seem to consider what might happen if this country had been subjected to more than one 9/11 attack. One of those was enough to see a crackdown on minorities, the passing of regressive legislation, the declaration of two wars, and the commission of war crimes. What would have a couple more of those have done?

McMahan’s example of the Egyptian overthrow of their government is also curious. If the insurrection in Egypt had been an armed one, the protesters would not have congregated in Tahrir Square to present themselves as sitting ducks for the Egyptian police and armed forces. Rather, they would have concentrated on other tactics: assassinations, attempts to take over or destroy government property and so on.  The Tahrir Square assemblies took place precisely because the ‘revolution’ was sought to be conducted by public, visible, attention-gathering, solidarity-generating means.  The insurrection would have been conducted very differently once armed violence was chosen as one of its modalities.

Whatever the arguments for gun control, and I think there are many excellent ones out there, including some that McMahan uses in his piece, complacency about ‘liberal democracy’ shouldn’t feature in them.

Pistol-Packin’ Professor: A Day in the Life

In honor of those–like libertarian law professors, the last defenders of the faith–who have attempted to point out the silliness of keeping faculty unarmed in our school’s classrooms, I offer these recollections of a day in the life:

The alarm went off at 6. I sat up, swung my legs off the bed, and reached for the Glock 30 SF. There it lay, cold, implacable, loaded, right next to the stack of unread New York and London Reviews of Books. I tucked the cold steel into my pajama pocket and rose. It was time to get cracking. Brooklyn lay outside. And a full day of walking on its mean streets, lecturing in its even meaner lecture halls, and worst of all, meetings with fractious faculty, awaited.

After I had showered and shaved, the Glock visible and within reach at all times (getting jumped while I was all soaped up and vulnerable in the shower had never appealed to me), I changed into my work clothes. As always, my holster went on quickly, and I packed two spare clips of ammunition into my jacket’s roomy pockets. (I had these enlarged for easy access to the clips in case of an extended gun battle.)

Emerging from my building, I quickly checked the streets, scanning left and right, looking for concealed shooters, ready to roll to the curb and squeeze off a quick covering volley of fire if needed. All was quiet. A few schoolkids walked past and I kept them visible in case any of them reached into their backpacks. Crossing Coney Island Avenue required similar caution; the Pakistani bodega owners could never be trusted not to reach for the AK-47s that are  so common back in their land.

I arrived at the campus in time for my class. The students filed in, shuffling past me with that usual mix of insolence and boredom manifest, as I kept a wary eye on them. As always, I had the clear angles of fire for the lecture hall worked out. Contingency plans at the back of my mind, I began the class. As I paced up and down, I kept one hand on the Glock, feeling its heft even as I evaluated argument after argument. It was oddly reassuring, letting me know that not even a fallacy or two could diminish its ability to bust a cap in some philosophy major’s ass. (Only in self-defense.)

The afternoon faculty meeting went off without incident. I kept the Glock on the table in front of me in case any of the usual objections over curricular changes needed speedy resolution. I kept my chair pushed back just a little, so that I could spring to my feet, squeeze off a round or two before executing the classic ‘roll-and-rock-upright’ move into a more favorable shooting position. Thankfully, the votes went off without incident, though I had my eyes on the beady-eyed Continental type in the back. I got your Nietzsche right here, pal. This one will kill ya; it won’t make you stronger.

As evening fell, the winds sharpened, and darkness closed in, I packed up, locked the office, and headed out for the walk back home. Every day called for the same challenge: negotiating dozens of traffic crossings on the walk back home, as cars loaded with potential shooters pulled up next to me, and hooded teenagers strolled past, their baggy pants bulging suspiciously.

And then, I was home. I sprinted up the stairs, avoiding the confinement of the elevator (those kinds of enclosed spaces aren’t conducive to the quick draw), and moved into the apartment. After checking all the rooms, it was time for dinner. I ate, as I always did: the Glock next to the salad, my chair well away and out of line with the windows.

And then, time for bed, and the necessary letting down of the guard for some shut-eye. I checked to make sure the Glock was in its place, and went through my usual bedtime ritual: the quick roll-out of bed, the taking of cover next to the dehumidifier, the clip reload with the lights off.

Finally, lights out. I drifted off, as the glowing green light of the clock-radio threw into sharp relief the metallic outlines of the SF, my companion and keeper, my torch, my flame, my lodestar.