Pearl Harbor and Tora! Tora! Tora!

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the US fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. My intention today is not to talk about the attack but a cinematic depiction of it: the US-Japanese production Tora! Tora! Tora! directed by Richard Fleischer and released in 1970. I saw TTT with my father and brother at the Odeon Cinema in New Delhi; I do not remember the exact date (I was not even a teenager then), but I remember my viewing of TTT very clearly.

I had been brought up in a military pilot’s household, and was an enthusiastic consumer of war comics and books. The WWII movies I had seen till then were fairly simple morality plays; gallant English and Americans took on leering Nazis and Japanese and cut them down to size with a dazzling combination of weaponry, insouciance, and moral rectitude. The violence in the movies was reasonably sanitized. War appeared in these movies the way it appeared in the comics: the sort of thing a schoolboy could get behind.

TTT changed that, and quickly. It was the first cinematic description of an Allied defeat in the Second World War that I had seen; it was extraordinarily violent (and loud; the opening scene of the flyby over the Japanese Imperial Fleet shocked even this schoolboy, brought up on military bases); and it was the first time I had seen “the US”, “America”, “the USA”, come off second-best at anything. (Strictly speaking, that might not be true; it is possible that by then I had seen the US come third in the medals tally in the 1976 Olympics at Montreal).

When I emerged from the Odeon after that matinee show, blinking, into the glare of the hot Delhi sun, I was still stunned. I had known, dimly, of Pearl Harbor, but I had not realized the carnage associated with it; the shots of USN sailors on fire still haunted me.

In the years to come, a great deal of my original naivete about war would resurface in various forms. But if that sentiment ever had a competitor in my understanding of that most intense of all political conflicts, TTT had a great deal to do with it.

Should Selling Kidneys Be Legal?

In today’s New York Times, Alexander Berger, who will be donating a kidney on Thursday, argues that a market associated with kidney donation would lead to better outcomes than the current voluntary-unrecompensed donation model.

Berger’s is an interesting argument; I’m going to respond to one small part of it here. In addressing the fear that an organ market could be “predatory” (the associated nightmarish vision is that of the poorest members of society running to the nearest donor clinic, shedding kidneys in exchange for pittances), Berger writes:

[W]e regularly pay people to take socially beneficial but physically dangerous jobs — soldiers, police officers and firefighters all earn a living serving society while risking their lives — without worrying that they are taken advantage of. Compensated kidney donors should be no different.

My first response to this line was “Whaddya mean “we” kemosabe”? More seriously, the example Berger gives us undermine his case.

Consider “soldiers;” our all-volunteer Armed Forces attract a disproportionate number of “young, poor, minority” men and women, who are then sent off to fight wars, while similarly young, though not-poor, not-minority men and women, who do not find themselves in such dire economic straits do not need to do so. The compensation offered these young folks appears inadequate to me. And so, when it comes to service in the Armed Forces, something “predatory” is going on precisely because the economic circumstances of so many folks are so dire that their bargaining power in the military labor market is severely limited. This means then, that the burden of the wars our nation fights is disproportionately borne by the “young, poor, minority” men and women who quickly take on any old compensation offer and thrust themselves into the front lines.

My worry for the organ market that Berger has in mind is quite simple: in our current economy, it will rapidly devolve into a situation where the number of economically desperate donors will bring down the price of organs to a level that ensures that organ donors will receive little compensation for their contributions. The health of those that can afford organ transplants in our current healthcare system will be enhanced, yes. But it has been enhanced by an economic system that immiserates people sufficiently enough to make them want to give parts of their bodies to others for inadequate compensation.

An organ market might still be a fair one, but only when the entrants to the market are not too desperate to enter it.

An “Intellectual Property” Lesson From A Busker

On Saturday morning, as I sat at 7th Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, waiting for a Q train to take me back home, I noticed a banjo player playing across the tracks from me on the Manhattan-bound platform. The station was noisy as usual, but still, somehow, his urgent strumming and foot stomping (on a percussion device I cannot name) managed to catch my attention. The banjo was insistent and perky, and the beat provided by the foot-drum (there you go, I named it myself), combined with it to produce an oddly compelling rhythm. As befitting a subway busker, his instrument case sat open next to him, awaiting small change and rumpled bills. I thought of making a contribution, and sighed, “If only I wasn’t going the wrong way; I’d have given him some cash; I’ve got a train to catch.” And then, bizarrely, another voice spoke: “Fool! You’ve blathered on so much about voluntary contributions underwriting new economic paradigms for supporting artists in a world free of onerous “intellectual property” regimes, and you won’t cross the tracks to stick a bill in a busking bowl?”

So I got up, checked to see if a train was coming, ran up the stairs, across the divider, down the stairs, up to a startled banjo player, threw in a dollar bill (there seemed to be a few more of them in there), and ran back up the stairs back to my platform. The homeward-bound Q train pulled in, and a dollar poorer, I headed home.

Saul Bellow on Artists and Philosophers

In his two-part essay in the New York Review of Books on being a Jewish writer in America, Saul Bellow is typically uneven. There are some rambling portions (Bellow seems to have a talent for such rambling, nowhere more evident than in this bizarre 1994 New York Times Op-Ed where he attempts to defend himself during the “Tolstoy of the Zulus” flap), accompanied by moments of lucidity:

[Q]uestions that can be closed by philosophic argument often remain open for art, and it is therefore a mistake for writers to accept the preeminence of the philosophers, and write poems, novels, and plays to illustrate, to confirm, to work out in their art and in human detail, the thoughts given to us abstractly by distinguished (and also by undistinguished) thinkers. (Cartesians, Kantians, Hegelians, Bergsonians, Marxians, Freudians, Existentialists, Heideggerians, etc.) Neither the philosopher nor the scientist can tell the artist conclusively, definitively, what it is to be human.

This does not need much commentary except to say that writers who “work out in their art and in human detail, the thoughts given to us abstractly by distinguished (and also by undistinguished) thinkers” often, precisely, by this very act, serve to remind us that an ostensibly “closed” question, remains, in fact, very much open. (I do think Bellow could have said something stronger in his first statement: Questions that appear closed by philosophic argument always remain open for art; it isn’t clear to me indeed, what it would mean for a question to remain “closed” for an artist; what form could such a question take?).

Update: My ever-alert cousin Priya (in comments) pointed out a typo, which I’ve now fixed. Thanks!

Two Bad Ways of Liking Pop Music

Numero Uno: The easy academic way. The interest in pop music needs to contextualized by making your interest and listening pleasure part of a project of aesthetical investigation: What makes a pop song “listenable”? What is the semantics of “catchy”? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a track to be “pop”? I realize these are the kinds of questions only an analytically trained philosopher would ask; so we could also, as an alternative, think about framing questions like: What values does pop music seek to inculcate in us? Where did they come from? What is its history? Is pop music just ideology? What power relations does pop music preserve and enable?

Numero Dos: The plebeian, quasi-religious way: Describe your interest and pleasure in pop music as a “guilty pleasure”; this instantaneously grants oneself the virtue of modesty and self-effacement, acknowledges the “sin” involved in listening to pop music (thus rendering oneself distant from the ranks of the unrepetant). So, yes, I have partaken of the pop music temptation, but my heart is in the right place, because I know well enough to feel guilt when I listen to it. Of course, there is little talk of penance (perhaps by listening to all of Chopin’s Nocturnes), so it is unclear how much guilt the guilty really are feeling. The “confession” of this listening pleasure is supposed to indicate the presence of a guilt that cannot be repressed any longer; but I’m inclined to think that the reason the offender confesses is that the pleasure cannot be.

Getting Rid of “Mastery” Over Mountains

A couple of days ago, in response to my post on the language of mountaineering, my friend Karl Steel said (on a Facebook page somewhere, far, far away):

Great piece, but haven’t you shifted the language of battle from climber vs. mountain to climber vs. self? what if we lose the battle or mastery language altogether

Karl is right, of course. And indeed, “losing” the language of “battle” and “mastery” is what I had in mind when I said:

There is something hopelessly naive in this request for reconfiguration of the language. After all, to use the language of “overcoming”, “conquest”, and “assault” works because it props up so many other tropes and fictions: that the summit was possible without any partnership (human or technological) is perhaps the most vivid and urgent of these.

So, to reiterate: I think the language of “mastery” and “battle” persists at heart because mountaineering is fundamentally conceived of as a solo endeavor. Now, even group expeditions can be described in the same language; indeed, perhaps even more so, because more militarized language can kick in: see for instance, the use of “logistics”, “campaign”, “supply routes” and so on. But still, I think, the fundamental act is conceived of as a man, alone, getting on top of the mountain, and it is to address that seemingly individual feat that I think the really heavy-duty arsenal of “overcoming” is deployed.

Interestingly, before commencing my discussion of whether mountaineering language could be reconceived as “self-mastery” I had noted a thought, which I perhaps should have developed further:

But this makes me think of the impoverishment of the language we employ for indicating human accomplishment: perennially pitted “against” something, as having been achieved in opposition to forces ranged against it. Perhaps we are stuck with that language.

I still think that reconfiguring that language requires, more than anything else, reconceiving human accomplishment as not solitary adventures but collective action, a reconception that is required elsewhere in getting rid of the pernicious fallacy of “the author” (a madness that now finds its legal teeth in our modern debates over “intellectual property”). But much, much, more on that later.

Can The Mere Presence Of Police Be An Escalation?

Yes. Here is a familiar scenario: students at an American university call a meeting or an assembly. They congregate, and as they do so, a large contingent of security guards or police, sometimes armed with deadly weapons, sometimes not, show up, and form impressive-looking rings of security, setting up cordons and enclosures. The escalation has begun.

A little while later, one of two things surely will happen: either a student will note the presence of the police, and finding it bothersome and offensive (as it is), will address it in something he or she says. Perhaps something like “the police are watching us, they want to silence us,” which sets off other student responses of unease and discomfort (many, many students at urban campuses, especially students of color have already had unpleasant interactions with police in the past, and do not, frankly, find that having police or security guards around makes them feel any safer).

Or, the police will suddenly find some reason to enforce some notion of propriety on the student proceedings; this enforcement is almost invariably, carried out heavy-handedly, and violates the rights to free assembly of the students and anyone else present. The latter is what happened last week at Brooklyn College. This violation takes place because those in charge of law and order, always, somehow, are more disturbed and vexed by young folks talking loudly about politics than they are about the status quo – the din of the former is always greater.

One day, campus authorities will come to understand that when students congregate and gather to engage in political conversation, as they often seem to be doing these days (whether at UC Davis, UC Berkeley or Baruch College, CUNY), the only escalation that will take place is going to be due to the presence of campus police; their presence begins the escalation; it does not end it. It is a cause, not an effect.

Today, at Brooklyn College, the Wolfe Institute sponsors an event titled Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Everywhere? Whats Next?. Our biggest worry in organizing the event was the possibility that Brooklyn College administration would again send a large contingent of campus security guards to “oversee” the event, which would inevitably be seen as oppressive and problematic by the students. I’m glad to say, at this moment, a few hours before the event kicks off, that the college President Karen Gould, has agreed to reduce the security profile of the meeting and to let it in proceed in peace.

I will report back on how things went.

Posner on Occupy Wall Street

Over at the Becker-Posner blog, Richard Posner (finally?) turns his attention to Occupy Wall Street. By and large, other than little quibbles about phrasing that accommodates Posner’s extreme market-friendliness, there is little to disagree with here: OWS was inspired by the Arab spring, depressions lead to demonstrations, social media makes organizing easier, the police tactics were tactically flawed, that OWS’ central complaints were “income inequality, lack of jobs, and the baleful influence of the banking industry.” I disagree that occupying public spaces was a mistake; au contraire, there was a vanishingly small chance OWS and its related occupations would have attracted a fraction of the press coverage they did had the protests been limited to sporadic marching and online bluster. A fixed, visible presence capable of acting as the locus of activist energy was always critical in elevating OWS’ profile; without it OWS would have lacked its distinctiveness as a political movement.

But then, at the end, after offering us as reasonable a take as one might expect from the champion of the economic in human affairs, Posner splutters:

Railing against income inequality, job loss, and banking abuses is thus understandable, but it doesn’t do any good. The “Occupiers” are anarchic and disruptive, and the solid middle of American society, which rejects the Tea Party because of its goofy ideas, is likely to reject the Occupy movement because of its style, while broadly sympathetic to its antipathies. But if the movement attracts charismatic leaders amidst a stagnant or worsening economy, it may become a force in American politics

This is a depressingly familiar, reductive, and not very deep summing up of political action: don’t bother protesting because it won’t do any good; good, “solid” people don’t like noise; come back when you have a “charismatic leader.” That is, channel your “anarchic and disruptive” forces into attracting the “solid middle” all the while making sure you march under the flag of that old rescuer of politics: the charismatic leader. So much for changing the political conversation.

OWS should take heart though, from Posner’s contention that they have found sympathetic resonance with the “solid middle” when it comes to their shared “antipathies.” Perhaps even if there is disagreement about prescription and treatment one should be heartened by agreement, on diagnosis and prognosis, across the political and intellectual divide that separates Posner and OWS.

Hope. Eternal. And All That.

College Football Excess

This past weekend while visiting my in-laws in Cincinnati, I watched Michigan take on Ohio State in “The Game”. Michigan won 40-34 even as my Buckeye-crazy sister-in-laws and I cheered the Buckeyes on; shortly after the game ended, Penn State took on Wisconsin, and I, emboldened by having watched my first college football game in years, suggested we cheer for Wisconsin against those Nasty Nittaninnies (the ones whose program sheltered a sexual predator for years); we did not know about the news that Syracuse would soon be sending our way. This morning, the New York Times has an article on Ohio State’s hiring of Urban Meyer for $ 4 million as its new football coach (who will, in addition to coaching football tactics, also be responsible for ensuring his wards don’t make any money for playing football during their college years).

So: the classic television-marketed hype of the “perennial rivalry”, a reminder of another old-friend, behavioral dysfunction (this time in coaches and administration, and not, thankfully, in another-soon-to-be-cliched tale of black athletes gone wild), and lastly a reminder that college football remains another bastion of shamateurism in professional sport.

It might have seemed like quite an action-packed weekend but I suspect it was par for the course in college football, which easily outstrips all other college sports when it comes to hype, money and bad behavior (such is college football’s reliance on the art of the overstatement, that when I tuned in to Monday Night Football last night, I found the NFL’s hype-machine functioning at considerably lower levels). I’m not sure what else could explain my jaded reactions to the Penn State scandal or to the Meyer hiring; I was fashionably cynical about the Michigan-Ohio game hype too, but there there was an actual game to watch and the clearly articulated passion of young fans to bolster one’s possibly-too-mature reactions to the action on the gridiron (I should point out that the older of my two sister-in-laws is a perspicuous enough college football fan to hold her nose when she gets too close to any of its details).

The lure of the amateur in sport is to promise us a vision of the game that is not quite as technocratically “efficient”; college sport taps into that vision, but it in its worst moments, it gives us all the cynicism of sport run like a business, but with a generous helping of hypocrisy and pompous self-assigned rectitude as well. In the meantime, large businesses dedicated to delivering “education” continue to run profitable media-and-sports ventures staffed by their unpaid students.

Of Mountains, “Assault” and “Conquest”

A common reaction of mine when watching mountaineering documentaries is distaste at the accompanying linguistic package: the language of “assault” and “conquer”, directed against and at the mountain. Though many mountaineers have self-consciously forsworn such language (Ed Viesturs makes a point of noting such language in his books even though at times he slips back into it himself), it remains a hard-to-displace trope. After a weekend spent watching several mountaineering documentaries (80 Meters Below the Summit (recounting a Slovakian attempt to climb Kanchenjunga) Cho Oyu: West of Everest, and a World of Adventure Sports documentary on K2), I almost came to see some of its use as unavoidable; the mountaineer sees himself as pitted against an “adversary” or an “opponent” for better or worse, and once the summit is reached, it is hard not to view that task as having resulted from “overcome” or surmounted a “challenge” that has been “mastered”.

But this makes me think of the impoverishment of the language we employ for indicating human accomplishment: perennially pitted “against” something, as having been achieved in opposition to forces ranged against it. Perhaps we are stuck with that language. But mountaineering and the climbing of mountains can be reconceived, as some mountaineers have, as a matter of self-mastery instead (so the “mastering” and the “overcoming” remains but to assuage my clearly old-fashioned sensibility that baulks at conceiving of the mountain as an opponent, we change the “opponent” to an old and familiar friend: oneself).

Reinhold Messner, for instance, makes a great deal of the notion that a mountain helps him, rather than combats him in, fighting a very particular ‘inner battle’; the mountain is not the opponent any more; rather the mountain is the facilitative device by which the mountaineer gets to fight a unique personal battle. The mountain is not the other; it is that which makes the self-mastery possible. It becomes an aid, a partner, a co-author of a particular story told about oneself. Without the mountain, there is no personal story of self-overcoming. It would be silly in this perspective of thinking of having conquered the mountain. Rather, by climbing the mountain the mountaineer conquers something else in himself: fear most likely, but perhaps something else as well.

There is something hopelessly naive in this request for reconfiguration of the language. After all, to use the language of “overcoming”, “conquest”, and “assault” works because it props up so many other tropes and fictions: that the summit was possible without any partnership (human or technological) is perhaps the most vivid and urgent of these. Even Messner, who sought to return mountaineering to the domain of authentic man-versus mountain contests did not disdain every technological trapping that reduced the natural edge of the mountain; if oxygen reduces the height of the mountain, so does warm clothing. And neither did he disdain help in getting to the mountain and in various acts of support (minimal admittedly, but still).

So, in the end, what we really need to reconfigure is the notion of the human achiever and striver as a lonely actor, a desperate fiction at the best of times, but rendered even more transparently false when one considers the truly co-operative nature of adventure and exploration.

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