Woody Allen’s Guide to Civil Disobedience and Revolution

Today is Easter Sunday. Jesus was a Jew and a rebel. So, on this great day in Jewish history, and in honor of Jewish rebellion, here is Woody Allen on civil disobedience and revolutions.

In perpetrating a revolution, there are two requirements: someone or something to revolt against and someone to actually show up and do the revolting. Dress is usually casual and both parties may be flexible about time and place but if either faction fails to attend, the whole enterprise is likely to come off badly. In the Chinese Revolution of 1650 neither party showed up and the deposit on the fall was forfeited.

The people or the parties revolted against are called the ‘oppressors’ and are easily recognized as they seem to be ones having all the fun. The ‘oppressors’ generally get to wear suits, own land, and play their radios late at night without being yelled at. Their job is to maintain the ‘status quo’, a condition where everything remains the same although they may be willing to paint every two years.

When the ‘oppressors’ become too strict, we have what is know as a police state, wherein all dissent is forbidden, as is chuckling, showing up in a bow tie, or referring to the mayor as ‘Fats.’ Civil liberties are greatly curtailed in a police state, and freedom of  speech is unheard of, although one is allowed to mime to a record. Opinions critical of the government are not tolerated, particularly about their dancing. Freedom of the press is also curtailed, and the ruling party ‘manages’ the news, permitting the citizens to hear only acceptable political ideas and ball scores that will not cause unrest.

The groups who revolt are called the ‘oppressed’ and can generally be seen milling about and grumbling or claiming to have headaches. (It should be noted that the oppressors never revolt and attempt to become the oppressed as that would entail a change of underwear.)

Some famous examples of revolutions are:

The French Revolution, in which the peasants seized power by force and quickly changed all the locks on the palace doors so that the nobles could not get back in. Then they had a large party and gorged themselves. When the nobles finally recaptured the palace they were forced to clean up and found many stains and cigarette burns.

The Russian Revolution, which simmered for years and suddenly erupted when the serfs finally realized that the Czar and the Tsar were one and the same person.

It should be noted that after a revolution is over, the ‘oppressed’ frequently take over and being acting like the ‘oppressors.’ Of course by then it is very hard to get them on the phone and money lent for cigarettes and gum during the fighting may as well be forgotten about.

As always, in the best comedy, there is enough truth to make our laughter just ever so rueful.

Note: Excerpted from ‘A Brief, Yet Helpful, Guide to Civil Disobedience’ in Without Feathers (Warner Brothers, New York, 1975), pp 111-112.

The Twenties: A Rush to Judgment Would Be Premature

In ‘Semi-Charmed Life: The Twentysomethings Are Allright’, (The New Yorker, January 14 2013) Nathan Heller writes:

Recently, many books have been written about the state of people in their twenties….Few decades of experience command such dazzled interest (the teen-age years are usually written up in a spirit of damage control; the literature of fiftysomethings is a grim conspectus of temperate gatherings and winded adultery), and yet few comprise such varied kinds of life. Twentysomethings spend their days rearing children, living hand to mouth in Asia, and working sixty-hour weeks on Wall Street. They are moved by dreams of adult happiness, but the form of those dreams is as serendipitous as ripples in a dune of sand. Maybe your life gained its focus in college. Maybe a Wisconsin factory is where the route took shape. Or maybe your idea of adulthood got its polish on a feckless trip to Iceland. Where you start out—rich or poor, rustic or urbane—won’t determine where you end up, perhaps, but it will determine how you get there. The twenties are when we turn what Frank O’Hara called “sharp corners.”

A few months after I turned twenty, I left India and moved to the US for graduate school. Three years later, armed with a graduate degree in computer science, I began my first serious nine-to-five job. My place of employment was glamorous; my work was not. I grew bored and despondent; I wanted out. I left for graduate school again, changing majors from computer science to philosophy. I began my doctoral program at the age of twenty-six, and when my thirtieth birthday rolled around, I was in that curious no-man’s land that is situated between the written qualifiers and the oral examination. Thus ended my twenties.

So, one transcontinental move, one graduate degree, one full-time job, sixty credits of doctoral coursework. That’s one way of jotting up the twenties’ achievements. Or I could list travel: a few trips back to India, some brief visits to Europe. Perhaps girlfriends? That’d be too crass. Perhaps I could list some losses, but those would be too painful to recount here. Or I could talk about lessons learned, but to be painfully honest, I would have to talk about lessons that I started to learn in the twenties; I don’t think I’m done learning them. There was a journey in there somewhere, of course. I started my twenties in a place called ‘home’, left it, and ended them in a city I had started to call home; I started them with imagined focus, and ended them with no illusions of any.

It’s hard to know how to assess a decade, how to rank it among the decades that make up one’s life. Were the twenties more important, more formative, than the thirties or the still-ticking forties? Dunno. I don’t quite know how I could make that determination now. Susan Sontag once said the best way to write an autobiography was when life was complete, from beyond the grave. I doubt I’ll be able to pull that off, but at the very least, I’m going to resist the temptation to make any hasty judgments about the formativeness of a particular time-span.  Especially as I’m not done becoming just quite yet.

Returning to Writing (And How It Sucks)

On Wednesday, I resumed work on a philosophy book project that has been on the back-burner for a while. More precisely, I have not worked on it since July 2012. (The fall semester of 2012 saw me teaching three classes, all of them essentially new preparations, and then, like, a baby was born.) Back in the summer of 2012, I had recommenced work on my draft notes after a gap of more than year, for I had taken a hiatus from them to finish my cricket book (essentially all of 2011). All of which is to say that I returned to work on a book on which my concerted efforts have been spread out over a period of almost three years. In the summer of 2010, I had engaged in a frenzy of note-making with little attempt to organize them beyond extensive annotation at some points, and in the summer of 2012, I had taken more notes and added some annotations. There are some skeleton arguments in there, some suggestive points to be developed, and so on. In short, it’s one big mess, awaiting clean-up, consolidation, and whatever it is that you are supposed to do when you try to grow a collection of notes into a book.

This week’s experiences, in returning to this shambolic mess, have been an eye-opener.

On Wednesday, I spent my entire editing session adding annotations to a skimpy section of notes. There were many little scribbles which still seemed suggestive and enticing, and invited elaboration from me. Writing went easily; I wrote over fifteen hundred words and then feeling tired and euphoric, called it a day.

On Thursday, I returned to my notes, and attempted to impose some structure on them. Unlike Wednesday, I added very little to no new content, but simply spent all my time reading and re-reading sections–if you can call them that–of my notes and tried to figure out how they hung together, and how they fitted into the outline that I have had in mind for some time now. This was frustrating, tedious, and anxiety-inducing; I cut and pasted and moved some sections, imposed new headings, all the while struggling with panic as I would encounter one mass of disorganized thoughts or notes after another. I ended my writing with traces of anxiety still lingering in me.

Today’s session was a disaster. As I trawled through my notes, I found many small sections that seemed simply irrelevant to my thesis; why on earth had I ever imagined these to ever be useful or illuminating? I opened up a ‘bit bucket‘ file and began deleting material from my notes file and moving it there. When I was finally done, some five thousand words had been moved. I also continued Thursday’s work  of trying to find and impose structure.  When I ended my writing for the morning, I was in a black mood; the self-doubt and fear of failure that seems to be a persistent, painful companion to any writing that I have done was back in full force.

My writing process remains the same as it ever has: I make a lot of notes and then I work them into shape. I have never worked with outlines. This has always meant that the intermediate stage of my writing–from notes to a draft–is acutely anxiety-and-panic provoking. I am now in that phase; a long, unpleasant journey lies ahead. I can only console myself with the reassurance that this one, like the others before it, will find a reasonably happy ending.

Marriage: It Ain’t a Religious Thing

Last year, I wrote a post on same-sex marriage, or rather, on Barack Obama’s evolving views on it. In that post, I handed out some unsolicited advice to the President, suggesting he view marriage in its social and economic context, and noting that there were too many similarities between the explicitly institutionalized racism of the past and the current strains of homophobic opposition to same-sex marriage to permit any vacillation on his part when it came to affirming support for it.

This week, as the Supreme Court debates the constitutionality of same-sex marriage I won’t repeat that same argument. (Besides, it seems to me, from my biased perspective, that the cases at hand are easy ones; the rulings are only a matter of suspense because the present Supreme Court contains ideologues like Scalia.)  Rather, I want to briefly note that marriage as a social institution opened itself up to the kind of abuse we see perpetrated by opponents to same-sex marriage the moment it sought divine sanction. Or rather, once a pair of human beings decided that the best way to signal to society that they were in a committed, enduring, sexual relationship, entailing extensive companionship, home-building and the rearing of children was to seek permission from a religious body, book, and ritual, the game was up. The path had been cleared for abuse of that social institution, and the means prepared for its ideological distortion.

Once marriage became a religious ritual, once marriages were made in heaven, much of the nonsense that has underwritten opposition to same-sex marriage became possible. But not just that; it also allowed the abuse perpetrated on women in ‘traditional marriage’–much of which was the target of feminists’ ire in days gone by (and today). Once marriage ceased to be a human, social institution, it ceased to find its grounding in particular social, economic and romantic contexts and became associated with things not of this earth, with transcendent realities. Those unsurprisingly, provided ample, powerful, cover for marriage’s utilization in a host of repressive political strategies: that the divinely ordained roles for women were procreation, child-bearing and housekeeping or that only certain kinds of people could marry.

The proper place for marriage is the secular; the religious sanctification so beloved of many should have been a supererogatory choice; those that were religious and were not reassured by the promises of the here and now, who didn’t feel their own emotional, financial and temporal commitment was enough, who doubted the resilience of human pacts which depend only on the profane, could have sought a religious ritual if they wanted one. The separation we have now, so that those who want to marry have the choice between a religious ceremony and one that is exclusively secular should always have been possible, should always have been built into the notion of a marriage. The move to make marriage into an institution requiring sanction by the state was a partially correct, albeit problematic move; it injects the state into the personal and institutionalizes marriage as the only kind of social signal for the commitments mentioned above. But it did move marriage out of an exclusively religious sphere.

The legal recognition of same-sex marriage is correct for moral reasons; it also moves marriage closer to its true secular place.

Academic Arguments, Sports, and Urban Policing as ‘War’

In the introduction to The Social Construction of What? Ian Hacking writes:

Labels such as ‘‘the culture wars,’’ ‘‘the science wars,’’ or ‘‘the Freud wars’’ are now widely used to refer to some of the disagreements that plague contemporary intellectual life. I will continue to employ those labels, from time to time, in this book, for my themes touch, in myriad ways, on those confrontations. But I would like to register a gentle protest. Metaphors influence the mind in many unnoticed ways. The willingness to describe fierce disagreement in terms of the metaphors of war makes the very existence of real wars seem more natural, more inevitable, more a part of the human condition. It also betrays us into an insensibility toward the very idea of war, so that we are less prone to be aware of how totally disgusting real wars really are….Wars! The science wars can be focused on social construction. One person argues that scientific results, even in fundamental physics, are social constructs. An opponent, angered, protests that the results are usually discoveries about our world that hold independently of society. People also talk of the culture wars, which often hinge on issues of race, gender, colonialism, or a shared canon of history and literature that children should master—and so on. These conflicts are serious. They invite heartfelt emotions. Nevertheless I doubt that the terms ‘‘culture wars,’’ ‘‘science wars’’ (and now, ‘‘Freud wars’’) would have caught on if they did not suggest gladiatorial sport. It is the bemused spectators who talk about the ‘‘wars.’’

Two quick responses. First, Hacking is correct to note that the invocation of ‘gladiatorial sport’ in the recounting of academic debate is an integral part of the rhetorical arsenal deployed to describe academic debate. This is presumably meant to indicate the extent of the disagreement extant between the parties in the debate, but over time it has come to characterize debate itself in too many disciplines. In philosophy, as I’ve already noted–much to the detriment of women philosophers–this has become the norm. An argument is an opportunity not to move toward discovery and edification but to destroy a putative opposing position. The conquest of one’s intellectual ‘opponent’ becomes our primary, normatively assessed responsibility.

Second, Hacking is also correct in indicting the usage of the language of ‘war’ to describe academic disagreement: it simultaneously trivializes war while dangerously lowering the standards of discourse in academic debate. In general, wherever the language of ‘war’ and ‘battle’ is thrown around freely, the standards of behavior in that domain decline.  Consider sport, where the all-too frequent reliance on military tropes results in the condoning of illegitimate play and questionable sportsmanship, and more generally, the attitude that games, like wars, must be won by any means necessary. Or consider urban policing, where the constant reference to ‘war zones’ results in a ‘shoot or be shot’ mentality that takes the lives of innocents each year. The trigger-happy policeman is already convinced he is a soldier on patrol, well behind enemy lines, surrounded by hostiles ready to take him out. The outcomes that result are grimly foretold.

Writer and Reader, Bound Together

Tim Parks, in the New York Review of Books blog, writes on the always interesting, sometimes vexed relationship between writers and their readers, one made especially interesting by the blogger and his mostly anonymous readers and commentators:

As with the editing process…there is the question of an understanding between writer and reader about what kind of reading experience is being offered. Readers like to suppose that their favorite writers—journalists, novelists, or poets—are absolutely independent, free from all interference, but the truth is that if an author indulges his own private idiolect or goes on for too long, he can at best expect to divide readers into those who admire him slavishly, whatever he throws at them, and those who set him aside in desperation. At worst he will be left with no readers at all. Is there a relationship between a writer’s respect for these conventions and the content or tone of what he writes, the kind of opinions we can expect him to have?

The blogosphere, with its wonderful but dangerous flexibility, can ruthlessly betray an author’s attitude toward his readers. Does he respect their precious time and keep things tight? Is he sensitive to their expectations? Is he willing to read the comments on his post and perhaps even respond to them? Dickens, one suspects, might have spent many hours online discussing the fate of Pip Pirrip or Little Nell. As for me, I’m glad to listen to editors and produce an article, and eager to have it widely read. But I’m relieved not to be contractually obliged to engage with readers afterward.

My interaction with ‘my readers’ here has been a mixed one. I still get very few comments on my posts, but some who comment do so quite frequently. Sadly, I am guilty of often not responding to comments. There is a large backlog of them on this site right now, and I keep telling myself that I will sit down and take care of them. But parenting is taking up a lot of time, as are my reduced work duties, and of course, so does the rest of my life (and blogging itself). Ironically, sometimes, it is the really thoughtful comment that gets lost because I hesitate to reply too quickly and say something silly. More often than not, this results in that comment remaining unanswered (and on at least two occasions has led to readers accusing me of not wanting to address their critical commentary).  I hope I have not lost too many readers this way. I have also, as noted before, lost a couple of readers, frequent visitors to the comments space, who had grown offended by my political stance. (This will probably happen again.) Those were visible, but obviously, some show up here once, and then leave because they do not find my writings congenial to their politics. (This must have happened during the period when I wrote several posts on the BDS controversy at Brooklyn College.)

While I do not think I will be able to address the issue of offending people by what I write here, I remain committed to answering comments as often, and as thoughtfully, as I can. I hope you’ll stick around and take my word for it.

Ten Years After: War Criminals Still Walk Free

You call someone a ‘mass-murdering war criminal’, you best not miss.  And so, when I use that term to describe the unholy troika of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld–as I have in the past–I should have very good reasons for doing so. Fortunately, that isn’t hard to do: a pretty systematic case for the appropriateness of that description can be found in this piece by Nicholas J. S. Davies–author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq, a book length development of the same argument. Many others have made similar cases; googling ‘Bush war crimes’ , ‘Cheney war crimes’ and ‘Rumsfeld war crimes’ nets a pretty decent catch; similarly, crimes committed at Gitmo–torture, abuse and murder–implicate a host of other folks too: former deputy assistant attorney general John Choon Yoo, former assistant attorney general Jay Bybee, and former counsels Alberto Gonzales, David Addington and William Haynes, for instance. (And of course, the prosecution of the war did not just hurt Iraq–and kill Iraqis–it hurt the US–and killed Americans too–as Juan Cole points out.)

This description can no longer be considered hyperbole. At the very least, even if one grants the highly offensive premise than an Iraqi life is worth less than an American life, it is clear a war conducted on false pretense–an illegal exercise of executive power–sent thousands of Americans to their death. Just that bare fact should convict the prosecutors of the war of mass murder.

So, what’s left to do? You could ask for prosecution of the criminals by the US justice system but the Obama administration has made it clear there will be no movement in this direction. That is entirely unsurprising, given the blending together of the national security policies of the two administrations. This obliviousness to the compelling moral logic of the war crimes case against the Terrible Trio should not however, blind us to the fact that,

[I]t is also a well-established principle of international law that countries who commit aggression bear a collective responsibility for their actions.  Our leaders’ guilt does not let the rest of us off the hook for the crimes committed in our name.  The United States has a legal and moral duty to pay war reparations to Iraq to help its people recover from the results of aggression, genocide and war crimes….

Turns out therefore, it is not enough to say ‘it was the Bush folks wot did it’ and do our best Pontius Pilate impression.  The responsibility for the Iraqi war is the American people’s.

PS: The killing hasn’t ended yet in Iraq:

Iraq closed a painful decade just as it began: with explosions reverberating around the capital.

Beginning in the early morning Tuesday with the assassination of a Ministry of Finance official by a bomb attached to his vehicle and continuing for hours, the attacks were a devastating reminder of the violence that regularly afflicts Iraq. And they somehow seemed more poignant coming on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the American-led invasion, which is being marked in the West by new books, academic studies and polls retesting public attitudes a decade later.

By midmorning, the familiar sight of black smoke rose above a cityscape of palm fronds, turquoise-tiled mosque domes and squat concrete buildings. By midafternoon, the numbers stacked up: 52 dead and nearly 180 wounded in separate attacks that included 16 car bombs, 2 adhesive bombs stuck to cars, and 1 assassination with a silenced gun.