The Decline and Fall of Christopher Hitchens

I have no talents to speak of; all I can do is read and write. Thus, it would make eminent sense for me to admire those that read a great deal, and write really well. Christopher Hitchens evidently read a lot, and he wielded his pen and keyboard with great flair. He was also a stylish rhetorical pugilist, and I would not have wanted to have ever had him in an audience after I had given a talk whose central points he disputed. But sadly for my desire to admire the well-read epistolary genius as a human archetype, Hitchens botched his record, and in spectacular style. Amongst other things, he aggressively and unapologetically cheered on an illegal war and the gruesome troika of mass-murdering criminals–George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld–who prosecuted it, and later, descended into unvarnished bigotry directed at Muslims under the guise of keeping the world free from ‘Islamofascism.’

Once Hitchens had placed himself in the company of those that could be fawned over by the unspeakably vile Michelle Malkin and her ilk, I knew I was done with my incipient admiration. Hitchens was keen, as many newly-minted Americans are, to show his allegiance to his newly-found country and political faith, and he thought he would do this best, I think, by throwing his not-inconsiderable physical and intellectual weight behind what he thought were its considered responses to the violent external assault of the World Trade Center catastrophe. But he did so by cheering on those who did their best to eviscerate this nation’s Constitution and the rule of law it entailed. In doing so, he seemed not to have figured out that those whose side he had gone over to were doing their best to make the America he thought he was signing on to unrecognizable.

If Hitchens had ever attained a self-consciousness of the irony implicit in the self-proclaimed resister of religious fundamentalism turning into a fundamentalist of sorts himself, he never revealed it publicly. Did he never hold his nose when he received praise from the same bigots who he might have fancied himself eviscerating in his older days? Did he ever realize that his older self would have chuckled with delight at the easy target that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld presented for his poison pen? It does not seem so. He seemed so caught up in his desire to place himself on what he thought would be a position vindicated by history–the lone, courageous voice of reason urging a insufficiently muscular polity and culture to defend itself against external threat–that he never stopped to consider that he might be undermining that very culture’s proudest achievements.

I own more than one book by Hitchens and I don’t intend to get rid of them. But their status in my library has morphed into being exhibits of how a great talent can be diverted to the wrong ends. I still aspire to the kind of ravenous appetite he showed for the printed word and its production. But I also hope never, ever, in a fit of sustained insanity, to join the company of those whose principles stand in such direct contradiction to my own.

Pick-up Games, Participation, and Basketball

As is evident from a glance at my “About” page, I blog on cricket. Which would seem to indicate I’m obsessed about the game to some extent. But when it comes to actually playing a game, cricket is not my favorite sport. And the reason for that is simple: cricket too often permits non-participation by players (this can all too easily be induced by one’s teammates, a fact I bemoan in my latest post over at The Pitch on ESPN-Cricinfo). For that reason, and sometimes, I suspect, for that reason alone, my favorite game to play is pick-up basketball, whether three-on-three in a half-court, or five-on-five in a full-court.

On a basketball court, during a game, no matter how poor a dribbler or shooter you are, you can contribute somehow. And the best way to do that is to play solid, vigorous defense: keep close man-to-man markings, set picks, go up for defensive rebounds; in short, put on a good old non-stop hustle. Similarly, when it comes to offense: run hard, keep your marker guessing, and get in position to receive a pass from the more talented shooters and playmakers. I never mastered a lay-up, and never had any fancy offensive moves. But I was capable of at least attempting a shot if I was not under pressure, and always managed to keep moving in an attempt to shake off my defender so that I could get the space and time required. I was not a very talented shooter either, so I need more time and space than most. But I did manage to sink a few and those went up on the scoreboard like anyone else’s baskets. Even when I played with the most selfish of players on my teams (a terrible fate for anyone playing a pick-up game), I managed to at least shutdown the one player I was in charge of marking. I contributed, somehow, in every single game I played.

Playing a basketball game involved me more completely than any other pick-up game I’ve played (even soccer, where again, players can be marginalized, frustrated and shut-out). In basketball, I was able to always make myself participate and force a presence for myself in the game. That is the particular genius of this game of nets; it manages to draw us all in, making space for competent and incompetent alike, accommodating our weaknesses and strengths, ensnaring us in its charms and challenges as it does so. In doing so, basketball accomplishes what many social orderings are unable to do: provide an egalitarian space for human endeavor, one that rewards our honest toil, and leaves us all in the end, satisfied and sweaty, with elevated heart-rates and lowered LDL counts.

Oscar Wilde on Kidney Markets

Reader Austin Donisan has a long comment worth reading in response to my post on why kidney markets might offend me. I’m not going to engage with every single point Donisan makes, because in doing so I would be repeating myself (please read the post which started this discussion). But let me make a few responses in any case.

First, Donisan suggests I have “an a priori opinion on the matter of paid organ donation.” Well, yes, I do. As I stated in my last post, I have a strong, instinctive revulsion to the possibility of poor folks in this country, in these times, selling their kidneys for pittances; my revulsion is not directed toward paid organ donations per se. Call it a preference if you like; no worries. But do indicate what my preference is for in more specific terms.

Second, Donisan is too keen to convince me in economic terms; that is not going to work in this situation. You are asking me to make commensurate two scales: one, which measures markets in terms of efficiency; the second, which reacts to markets in less tangible terms like distaste. We might be talking past each other.

Third, Donisan says:

The ability to donate a kidney may be poor’s biggest comparative advantage, and comparative advantage is the only way to get ahead in the world.

So, presumably, the best way to help the poor would be to encourage them to sell their kidneys. This doesn’t sound right to me; I can think of many other strategies that would enhance the “comparative advantage” of the poor, which do not require them to sell their vital organs.

I’d like to evaluate kidney markets in a broader context and Donisan wants to make the context narrower; it will enable a market-based argument to go through, but it does so at the cost of making the argument uninteresting to me. A poor man selling a kidney in the US today is just an abstract agent seeking comparative advantage for Donisan; not so for me.

Anyway, I’d like to stop repeating myself and let Oscar Wilde have the last word. So, from Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act 3:

CECIL GRAHAM. What is a cynic?

LORD DARLINGTON. A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

CECIL GRAHAM. And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.

“Thrill is Gone” and Vietnamese Jazz Bars

It’s a cliche: listening to a song can conjure up memories associated with past encounters with that song. But my knowledge of that power still does not diminish the little start of surprise I experience when I come into contact with the fine-grained, specific recall that a particular piece of music can bring about.

Early this morning, I idly browsed through my RSS reader, looking for morning coffee accompaniments and settled on Matt Taibbi’s latest piece on the shenanigans of Capitol Hill’s Masters: Goldman Sachs. Tucked away in a corner on Taibbi’s blog was a link I’ve been studiously avoiding for some time now: Rolling Stone’s lists of the best 100 this, the best 500 that (albums, guitarists, singles; take your pick). But finally, tempted to inquire into this latest episode of ranking- and list-mania, I clicked on “The 100 Greatest Guitarists,” and jumped ahead to numbers 1 through 10. Nothing but the best for me.

Safely ensconced at No. 6 is BB King, the subject of a brief appreciation penned by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. Just below the piece is an invitation to sample “Thrill is Gone,” that Roy Hawkins classic, which owes much of its popularity to its being a BB King perennial. I accepted the invitation in my own way, by returning to my own “copy”. As the lush tones of King’s classic filled my earphones, I found myself in Newark in 1991, tending bar at my friend Kim’s jazz and blues restaurant and bar, mixing drinks and listening yet again, thanks to a customer’s generosity at our jukebox, to the very same piece.

Back then, I worked at Bell Labs, and thus was gainfully employed. But a curious fascination with the esoteric skills of bartending pushed me to ask my Vietnamese friend if she needed help behind the bar counter of her inner-city establishment. She did, on Fridays and Saturdays. So on those two nights of the week, I moonlighted, driving the 40 miles from Middletown, New Jersey to Newark and putting in a seven hour stint till 2AM in the morning. Our clientele was exclusively made up of local residents, regulars each and every single one of them. Many were keen to make a dollar last a little longer and added liberal quantities of ice to their beer and wine as they sat at the counter and engaged me in that peculiar brand of conversation that only takes place between bartenders and their customers.

They liked giving the jukebox a whirl. Their selections were my soundtrack for work; their preferences became mine. I remember many of those conversations–sometimes edgy, sometimes morose, sometimes nostalgic–quite clearly. Others I cannot quite recall. But I can always remember those power chords in the background, the same ones that transported me this morning, back from Brooklyn, New York, across the intervening waters, to Newark, New Jersey.

Police Militarization – Contd.

Reader Dan Newberry, in the course of offering a thoughtful response to my recent post on the militarization of police says:

[T]hese names [like “interceptor”] are made up by the people who make and market the items…It is no surprise to anyone that companies which market to police forces routinely do so with names that suggest offense, attack, and so one….it is hard to reason that an Interceptor-logo emblazoned trike, rolling past a player at the golf course, would make that player… take a more aggressive swing when that logo rolls past. It is equally unlikely that riding in the Interceptor all day is going to make a good police suddenly want to wield the baton to solve a problem….Police forces…are by their very nature…paramilitary organizations. They recruit, they are organized by rank, they patrol, they arrest and detain, go on offensive missions to disrupt other organizations, on so on. They use and employ a language system that has been commensurate with that type of organizational structure….If one could prove that if the trike was called the “Sunflower” the police riding in it would adopt a brighter disposition toward their duties, or that calling it the Community Patrol Cart would make its occupants somewhat more blase about ticketing we would be all for renaming almost everything. Unfortunately it is difficult to follow…that the name of a vehicle will change the disposition of its routine occupant (and by extension, eventually the culture of policing).

The reason it is not a “surprise” that this nomenclature is part of a marketing strategy directed at the police is that, as is pointed out by Dan, police view themselves as a “paramilitary organization.” And it is that self-view that I suggest is problematic.

Importing such militarized language, has had, in my opinion, a reconfiguration of how police view their work and the community they service. I would suggest that thinking of the police as a paramilitary organization breeds an adversarial attitude that is conducive to the kind of aggressive behavior, which all too sadly is associated with policing (paramilitaries, for what it is worth, have a horrific human rights record when it comes to patrolling and controlling domestic populations). When viewed as a paramilitary force, police resemble nothing so much as an occupying force, perhaps a counter-insurgency force, dealing with a hostile population in a hostile territory. And we all know how beloved those forces are in the territories they seek to “control.” The problem isn’t that this language has a simple, direct, causal relationship with police behavior; the problem is that this sort of language is part of a certain packaging of police activity that causes police to reconceive themselves in a manner bound to create the problems I was complaining about.

In hostile territory: one kills or is killed; everyone is to be suspected; it is us-against-them. There is no community here, no fellow-citizens. That is the problem. The folks that make the trikes and market them to police in the manner they do, do so because they are directing their efforts to a particular culture, one bred in the academy and reinforced by daily operations and modes of interaction. (This culture then seeps down into security guards on campuses as well, who love pulling out their wireless radios and acting like a trench-bound sergeant calling in an airstrike when all they are asking for is a spare set of keys to open a chemistry lab.) A police “force” that thinks it is a basically a paramilitary organization is off to a bad start; as it continues to deploy the language associated with the military it is setting itself further down the road to an essentially adversarial, hostile relationship with its community. Thus, witness: the “thin blue line”; “it’s a jungle out there”; and so on. Buildings in which people live cease to be “homes;” they become “territory” to be controlled. It makes a difference to how the police approach a task, how they gear themselves up for it.

Words and descriptions find their applicability in networks of meanings that trigger particular associations. So, self-conception by the choice of language we use to describe ourselves does make a difference to our eventual activity. That is why we choose to tell particular stories about ourselves and that is why we insist people describe us in certain ways and not others. (Remember the old joke about the kid who worked at a gas station and told everyone he was a “petroleum transfer engineer”?)

There is plenty more to be said here, of course, and I thank Dan for having triggered this chain of thought.

Get-Dressed, Get-Ready, Out-The-Door Music

Making music playlists is ubiquitous: music to work-out by, music for a road-trip, music for the blues, music for lovemaking, music to cook by. 8Tracks serves up a veritable smorgasbord of playlists put together with plenty of ingenuity and imagination; I’ve found gems and more than a few turkeys at 8Tracks, but really, the site’s primary pleasure is not so much the discovery of music as it is the discovery of occasions and activities that have necessitated the construction of music playlists. (The site suggests we listen to music all the time, sliced up into discrete activities and moments, each requiring a separate soundtrack.)

If I was ever to seriously consider contributing a playlist to 8Tracks I would do it for an activity for which I’ve appointed myself DJ for as long as I can remember: getting dressed, packing my backpack (or back in the bad old days, my “school bag”), and heading out the door. (The mention of my “backpack” should make clear this is not music for when I’m headed to a friend’s place, but rather to a place of work, or out for a day’s out-and-abouting.)

I’m a terribly scattered person at the best of times, and this simple enough activity has often presented me with a greater challenge than normal human beings might imagine. The music cannot be too soothing, for it would lull me into ennui and inactivity, and make departure impossible; it cannot be too unsettling (read: dance- or air-guitar-play-inducing) for that would disrupt the intense attention I need to pay to my packing. Sometimes I’ve trusted the serendipity of something like Pandora, a cop-out that has sometimes gone terribly wrong; sometimes I’ve constructed a quick Grooveshark playlist on the fly; sometimes I’ve put on a favored artist or a new album that I’m not yet sick of.

It’s much easier now to be a DJ of course. In the past, I used radios or record players; now, as my name-dropping above indicates, cloud-based services eagerly present themselves for duty. The central challenge hasn’t become any easier though: every day that awaits my presence outside my door poses a distinct set of challenges, which seem to call for in turn, a unique musical accompaniment to my preparation for it.

Traffic “Interceptors” and the Militarization of Police

Yesterday, as I strolled down my neighborhood’s main street, I noticed two rather portly New York City police checking parked cars for traffic violations. I deliberately use the word “portly” to describe their appearance because I never cease to be amazed by how patently unfit for their duties our local guardians of law and order appear to be. (This unfitness, given the unceasing litany of corruption scandals associated with New York’s ‘Finest,’ clearly extends to more dimensions than just the physical.)

But of more immediate interest to me was what lay just ahead: the ubiquitous traffic police three-wheeled automobile in blue and white, marked with NYPD regalia, parked on the street, waiting to transport its riders to the next scene of parking misdemeanor. On its back it proudly and aggressively sported the title “Interceptor.”

“Interceptors” in military parlance can be used to refer to any vehicle that is used to, well, intercept, disrupt, and destroy enemy vehicles and forces making attacks on defended territory. It is most commonly used in military aviation to designate aircraft that attack other aircraft carrying out offensive bombing or raids on high-value targets. Those Spitfires shooting down German bombers during the Battle of Britain? They were interceptors. Aerial encounters in the old days took place between interceptors and aircraft designated to defend the bombers; that is why Spitfires and Me-109s tangled in the skies above England during that same battle. Interceptors versus Escorts, you see.

So, of course, it would make perfect sense to designate a traffic police automobile an “interceptor.” Because, in keeping with the constant militarization of everything associated with policing, we should think of the brave police as defending us against hostiles armed to the teeth, coming to hurt us. The police are operating in hostile territory, in an area where the slightest wrong move could cost them their lives. It’s kill or be killed in a war zone and an aggressive posture needs to be adopted, right down to the nomenclature associated with the vehicles they use.

Calling police vehicles “interceptors” would be amusingly juvenile and self-indulgent of the schoolboy fantasies that clearly still seem to animate the police, were it not for the fact that this sort of militarized language puts the police in precisely the wrong frame of mind, one that has cost the lives of many innocents over the years (especially in this great city of ours). The police are supposed to be policing “communities,” not war zones; the people they police are supposed to be their fellow community members, not armed hostiles.

The Library Noise Zone

The Internet’s latest viral video seems to be that of a young female student at Cal State-Northridge, loudly, angrily, berating her fellow students for “breathing too loudly” in the library. The video is apparently evoking much hilarity; I have not seen it myself and don’t intend to link to it. More evidence of excessively high-strung, grade-conscious, parent-oppressed, desperate-for-upward-mobility Asians, run rampant in the nation’s universities. Encoded somewhere in the hilarity that has ensued, of course, is the archetype of the “hysterical” woman, unable to “man up” and deal with what? A little heavy breathing?

I sympathize with the young woman; I suspect the “breathing too loudly” complaint was merely the tip of the iceberg. Before that, the endless chattering, the noisy headphones, the eating and drinking, and attendant slurping from coffee and smoothie cups, or the crinkly sound of bags of chips being opened, the use of library quiet corners for watching YouTube videos or updating Facebook pages, or snuggling up with one’s latest squeeze, must have driven her over the proverbial mental cliff.

I wonder if in the past, she had looked up from her textbooks, and sent an irate look or two some offenders’ way, hoping against hope they’d get the hint, and lower the volume of whichever urgent discussion they happened to be engaged in, only to be confronted with either a quizzical look or the blank look of the oblivious, or perhaps even a look that said “What? You got a problem with that?”

How peculiar, she must have wondered, that a shrine to literacy becomes the grand exhibit for a dazzling demonstration of the lack of ability to read the sign that says “Please help us in keeping our library a quiet place for study and reflection.”

Why Kidney Markets Might Offend Me

Over at the Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan notes my response to Alexander Berger’s NYT Op-Ed advocating the creation of organ markets, and provides a counter-response from Roger McShane:

[D]onors…see only the slightest increase in their risk of dying from kidney disease…their altruism is likely to lead to more than a decade of improved and prolonged life for the recipient. Donations are…cost-effective….such systems do fill the needs of the ill.

Let us grant all those points, all compatible with my original misgiving (Sullivan omits my final sentence where I say that organ markets might still work if there are not too many desperate entrants; incidentally, Frank Pasquale noted that in Pakistan, kidneys sell for $2000; that tweeted link points to an article by Pasquale that is worth reading in this context).

Let us now rewrite McShane (I have omitted McShane’s final sentence about Iran, which appears in Sullivan’s post):

Poor impoverished people that sell their kidneys see only the slightest increase in their risk of dying from kidney disease. Their altruism is likely to lead to more than a decade of improved and prolonged life for the recipient. Their donations are cost-effective….[a system which relies on purchases of kidneys from the poor and impoverished] fills the needs of the ill.

Fair enough? McShane’s words read a little differently now for me. The situation they describe strikes me as offensive; the society that is described by this picture is lacking in some vital quality. And that is because I did not render my original objection in the abstract; it was very much in the here and now, in this America, in this society, with its massive income inequalities, one that builds itself up on the backs of the poor, via the labor of those of whose attempts to organize themselves into collectivities is frowned upon, where Government and Corporation are indistinguishable.

I am not exclusively concerned with the efficiency of the market in being able to arrive at “optimal outcomes;” rather I am merely complaining, in perhaps a “unscientific”, “irrational” way, that the situation that might result from organ markets in the US–a society with gross income inequality whose poorest line up to sell their organs so that those who can afford organ transplants within the constraints of a grossly inefficient healthcare system can live longer–is likely to cause me to hold my nose. Perhaps it is because I suspect this same society will do nothing to improve the health of those who will find themselves selling their organs. I do not find an organ market, in the abstract, to be inherently offensive; in this society, I do.

Update: Fixed a grammatical typo; changed “non-scientific” to “unscientific”; changed “non-rational” to “irrational.”

Teaching Philosophy By Reading Out Loud

This semester, while teaching my two classes (Freud and Psychoanalysis; Modern Philosophy), I’ve relied at times on reading out loud my assigned texts in class. In particular, I’ve read out, often at great length, Leibniz’s Discourses on Metaphysics and The Mondadology, portions from The Critique of Pure Reason, and in the Freud class, portions of Civilization and its Discontents. I’ve followed this strategy for a variety of reasons.

First, more careful exegesis becomes possible, and little subtle shadings of meaning which could be brushed over in a high-level synoptic discussion are noticed and paid attention to (by both myself and my students). Second, students become aware that reading the text closely pays dividends; when one sentence in the text becomes the topic of an involved discussion, they become aware of how pregnant with meanings these texts can be. Third, the literary quality of the writing, (more evident in Leibniz and Freud than in Kant) becomes more visible; I often stop and flag portions of the text as having been particularly well-expressed or framed. The students become aware that these arguments can be evaluated in more than one dimension: analytical and artistic perhaps.

This method is exhausting, and that is an understatement. There is the obvious physical strain, of course, but doing this kind of close reading is also intellectually taxing. There is more to explain, more to place in context. I could not, and will not, do this for all the material that I teach. Indeed, I have only done this once before: once again, while teaching Leibniz and Kant in the same class some six years ago. (I’m not counting the various instances where I make students consult the text in class).

But most fundamentally, what this method does for the students (I think) and for me, is that it reminds us all that there simply is no substitute for close, critical engagement with material that is intellectually challenging.

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