Archive for August 10, 2009

Hobbesian Calculus

August 10, 2009 Leave a comment


Harper’s Magazine has an excellent recurring feature that takes the following form: each piece begins with a painting accompanied by a quote by some historical figure. The quote is then discussed by some Harper’s writer, related perhaps to some contemporary issue, and then links are given to music contemporaneous with and perhaps of interest to the historical figure. One recent example is built around a quote from the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The quote is taken from The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (1650) and the accompanying painting is a portrait of Hobbes from 1660 by the painter John Michael Wright.

Harper’s Scott Horton provides commentary. Hobbes’ quote and Horton’s comments are worth reading closely and in full. Let me give a taste:

… the last seven years have been a period of Hobbesian triumphalism in America. Dick Cheney’s political perspectives, we are told, were strongly shaped by his college encounter with Hobbes, his favorite political philosopher. The domestic policies of the Bush Administration–from the color-coded warning charts to endless reminders about 9/11–could be explained by reference to the works of Hobbes. …

Fear of chaos and violence, [Hobbes] reasons, leads men to cede power and authority to their ruler. That belongs to the Classic Comics version of Hobbes, of course. A key but less appreciated aspect of Hobbes theory is, however, what we might call the temporal element. Man is, he offers, an inherently conservative creature in that he seeks to preserve what he has and in so doing he is driven by his experience. In this sense, he suggests, man is a captive of his past—for out of his understanding of the past, he fashions for himself a future. Man is motivated by fear in this process. His fears are informed by historical experience. But the focus of his fears is the future: the prospect that horrible events of the past will recur. Hobbes’s prescription for would-be rulers is simple: to establish and sustain your mastery over men, understand how to manipulate the fears that drive them. Wield those fears to your own advantage.

For the past seven years, America has lived a Hobbesian moment. To be more precise, it has lived under political figures who sought to secure their hold on power through the use of a Hobbesian calculus. They believed that the traumatic experience of 9/11 could be used to gain ever more power and free themselves from the burdens of democratic accountability. This passage suggests how the process works: the experience of 9/11 coupled with fear of the prospect of its recurrence are manipulated to fashion a new future. This is what Hobbes means when he speaks of men fashioning a future from their perceptions of the past.

Horton next suggests that Cheney has mis-read Hobbes and offering a corrective:

But is it really proper to say that Hobbes is focused on “fear” of the future? That’s certainly the Cheney take on Hobbes. But it might not be the best reading. What Hobbes has in mind may really be something a tad milder—not fear, but anxiety. Hobbes feels that concern about the future should drive man to be cautious, conservative and prudent—to avoid unnecessary risk-taking and to carefully calculate his interests and act to protect them. Anxiety should lead man to collective action and to minimize the recourse to state violence because of the very unpredictability of the consequences of war. He puts an emphasis on the controlled and directed force of reason. He does not mean the sort of fear that provokes panic and leads to unreasoned reflex. Hobbes does not contemplate fear that spurs rash decisions formed on the basis of preconceptions, ignoring evidence that disproved them. Can it be that America’s Hobbesian moment was based on a misreading of Hobbes? As I note in “Hobbes on the Euphrates,” the manner in which the would-be Hobbesians of the Bush era pursued the conquest and occupation of Iraq displayed an astonishing ignorance of the basic concepts of human interaction that Hobbes elucidates in the early chapters of the Leviathan. It’s clear that Thomas Hobbes was a far more insightful and thoughtful man than his self-styled disciples of the Bush era.

I read Leviathan some 38 or 39 years ago and remember little. Perhaps I would benefit from re-reading it. Just last month there was a piece by Blair Worden in the New York Review of Books on Quentin Skinner’s recent book Hobbes and Republican Liberty that also had me thinking of reading Hobbes again.

Categories: History, Law, Politics


August 10, 2009 Leave a comment


Digby, guest-blogging at Glenn Greenwald’s site today, has a post on police overuse of tasers. It addresses some concerns I have had of late, especially in light of last week’s widely reported incident in which
Mobile, Alabama, police officers, responding to a complaint about a man who had locked himself in a store bathroom for more than an hour, used a tire iron to crack open the door, sprayed pepper spray through the crack to subdue him, and tasered him when they got inside. He was arrested for disorderly conduct, but a magistrate refused to issue a warrant. It turns out that the man was deaf, mentally disabled, and understandably scared to death.

Digby addresses this incident and more. Here are excerpts:

In our apparent acceptance of torture as a legal method of interrogation, the bar of civilized official behavior has been lowered to the point where we are accepting torture in everyday life as if it’s nothing. Indeed, we are using it as a form of entertainment.

I’m speaking of the ever more common use of the Taser, an electrical device used by police and other authorities to drop its victims to the ground and coerce instant compliance. The videos of various incidents make the rounds on the internet and you can see by the comments at the YouTube site that a large number of Americans find tasering to be a sort of slapstick comedy, the equivalent of someone slipping on a banana peel, with a touch of that authoritarian cruelty that always seems to amuse a certain kind of person. “Don’t tase me bro” is a national catch phrase.

Tasers aren’t benign however. They kill people. … . As awful as the possibility of death is, tasers would be a blight on any free people even if they weren’t so often deadly. Tasers were sold to the public as a tool for law enforcement to be used in lieu of deadly force. Presumably, this means situations in which officers would have previously had to use their firearms. It’s hard to argue with that, and I can’t think of a single civil libertarian who would say that this would be a truly civilized advance in policing. Nobody wants to see more death and if police have a weapon they can employ instead of a gun, in self defense or to stop someone from hurting others, I think we all can agree that’s a good thing.

But that’s not what’s happening. Tasers are routinely used by police to torture innocent people who have not broken any law and whose only crime is being disrespectful toward their authority or failing to understand their “orders.” There is ample evidence that police often take no more than 30 seconds to talk to citizens before employing the taser, they use them while people are already handcuffed and thus present no danger, and are used often against the mentally ill and handicapped. It is becoming a barbaric tool of authoritarian, social control. …

Representatives of the government torture innocent citizens into unconsciousness, on camera, in United States courtrooms with tasers. They use them on prisoners and on motorists and on political protesters and bicycle riders, on mentally ill and handicapped people and on children. And it’s happening with nary a peep of protest.

America’s torture problem is much bigger than Gitmo or the CIA or the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The government is torturing people every day and killing some of them. Then videos of the torture wind up on Youtube where sadists laugh and jeer at the victims. It’s the sign of profound cultural illness.

Categories: Culture, Law

Wink Wink

August 10, 2009 Leave a comment


When I read the story a couple of week’s back about the use of a gay slur by University of Hawaii football coach Greb McMackin at a press conference, I didn’t think too much about it. Business as usual. Coach makes remark he shouldn’t have, apologizes for it, says he didn’t mean it, of course he meant it, will be punished, won’t do it again. For some reason, the word he used is so sensitive that newspapers can’t even print it, which leaves us guessing (though it’s not hard to guess) just what he did say and doesn’t advance the cause of serious discussion of the issues.

But then I heard his remarks (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan), which you too can listen to, here, and I discovered how much worse his remarks were. The thing is, he didn’t just describe the Notre Dame chant before last year’s Hawaii Bowl game between Notre Dame and Hawaii as a faggot [yes, that’s the word] dance — eliciting laughter from some of the audience. A minute later, after talking about the game against ND, McMackin went on to ask the press to cover for him and not repeat his faggot dance comment, saying it in a sneering tone and eliciting still more laughter. Hearing the actual words makes it difficult to take his subsequent apology with any seriousness at all. (See an AP story here for coverage of his apology and the penalty the university is imposing on him.)

ESPN senior writer Jeff MacGregor had an excellent piece last week on the incident. An excerpt:

Let’s be clear before we go on that this word, “f*****,” is a slur, is a crude blunt instrument of language used to hurt, and is, in and of itself, undeniably hateful. Whether or not it’s the gender equivalent of “n*****” I can’t say. There’s no consensus on the matter. It certainly seems so. Especially insofar as its power and its ugliness and its use as a kind of rhetorical jiujitsu within the very community it is most often used to denigrate. But as Chris Rock asks, is it OK for a white person to use the word “n*****?” Not really. Is it OK, therefore, for a straight person to use the word “f******?” Not really.

Now take a breath.

Think of it this way:

If Mr. McMackin had used the word “n*****” instead of the word “f*****”, he’d have been fired before he stepped away from the podium.

So, yes, I feel bad for Greg McMackin, undone in public by his own clueless ignorance and insensitivity.

But the bone-deep homophobia of the football locker room is well known to anyone who’s ever walked into one, from Pop Warner to the pros, so none of this should come as a surprise.

Now I don’t doubt for a moment that Mr. McMackin is a very nice man who meant no hurt to anyone. But Mr. McMackin is also the perfect product of his lifetime environment, a genial boob in the moral and cultural vacuum of football who can’t imagine a world in which the word “f*****” used as an adjective would ever trouble anyone.

And see also an earlier piece by MacGregor’s ESPN colleague LC Granderson on the significance of the reaction by the media in the room to McMackin’s remarks.

Categories: Culture, Language, Sports

Rules of Vengeance

August 10, 2009 Leave a comment


In my post last December reviewing books I had read over the previous eight months (prompted by my recognition that I had failed to keep up with the prodigious pace of book reading set by Karl Rove and George Bush), I mentioned reading Christopher Reich’s Rules of Deception, a bestselling thriller from last summer. As I noted there, I was inspired by Janet Maslin’s NYT review. My brief description: “Hardly a great book, but I liked it enough that I’ll probably read his next one when it comes out.”

Well, now I have. It’s Rules of Vengeance, and it continues the story of the two characters introduced in Rules of Deception, Jonathan and Emma Ransom. It came out just last Tuesday. I had pre-ordered it from Amazon, received it Wednesday, finished it on Saturday. I still don’t know what to look for or what standards to set for thrillers, having all but given up reading them for decades, until Janet Maslin’s review a couple of springs ago of Lee Child’s newest prompted me to read it. I thought it was gripping but silly. I was more impressed with its successor, which I read in June and enjoyed so much that I got one of the earlier ones.

My impression is that Christopher Reich is not particularly strong in the prose stylist department — I prefer Lee Child — but he certainly knows how to create plots with lots of unexpected turns. His principal character, Jonathan Ransom, is appealing, but was more so in the first book of the “Rules” series. I don’t want to say too much, for fear of spoiling the plots, but what made the first book special was the unexpected way in which our hero, working for Doctors Without Borders, gets embroiled with spies and holds his own. The second time around, there’s not the same thrill of discovery, though the plot twists are every bit as good.

As for prose style, I’ll give two examples of passages that puzzled me. Or rather, completely bugged me. First, on page 209, we find the following excerpt of a dialogue:

“He was worried about an accident at a power plant. A nuclear plant. … If Robbie wanted to talk to the IAEA about a possible ‘accident’, and he was interested in how well or poorly guarded the plants were, … ”

What bugs me? The quotes around the word ‘accident’ in its second appearance. What’s the point of them? Was the speaker making physical air quotes as she said the word? And if not, how do we know she was setting the word apart this way? Or is Reich trying to tell us something that the speaker couldn’t have been? Whatever the explanation, it stopped me dead.

And how about this, on page 336?

Allô,” he answered. French spoken with a foreigner’s accent.

“Is this VOR SA?” responded Jonathan, also in French.” …

“Who is calling?”

“My name is Jonathan Ransom. … ”

“Please hold the line.” The accent betrayed the soft t and jagged s of Central Europe.

Okay, so, after hearing only the words “Allô. Who is calling? Please hold the line” (in French of course), Jonathan deduced from the soft t and jagged s that the speaker is central European. Here’s the thing. This is totally lost on the reader unless the reader first takes the trouble to imagine the French words the speaker used in saying “Who is calling” and “Please hold the line,” after which the reader can scan them for appearances of s and t. At least that’s what I found myself trying to do. What’s the point of telling us what betrayed the accent when we aren’t given the actual French dialogue? I’m not saying I wish the dialogue were in French. It’s just that if Reich isn’t going to provide us with the French dialogue, why bother telling us what sounds Ransom heard?

Yes, these are minor issues. But they get in the way. Quibbles aside, I enjoyed the book. If there is to be a third Ransom “Rules” book, I will read it.

Categories: Books, Writing