July 27, 2007

The Rise and Fall of Fox News, Inspired by a Post of Ruthie's

This open letter to Charles Gibson is the best illustration of how I've viewed the news for years. I remember when Tom Brokaw asked Gen. Schwarzkopf on 9/11, the day itself, whether our policy towards Israel was responsible for the attacks. A fair question, to be sure, but did it have to be the second or third question in a 5 minute interview?

You know, the question that came up pretty much after "How are you feeling now watching the towers burn?"

The only question I ever had about televised news was how seriously it wanted to take itself. When Fox News arrived on the scene, I broke into open laughter. It's not serious at all - it is brazenly sensationalist, caters to right-wing rage, and looks to bring as many kooks and nutcases as possible on the air to tear them up or have them feed us news.

I guess you can tell I really like Fox News. I enjoy it a tremendous amount - the deep lesson I've learned is that arguing with liberals for the most part is arguing with believers who only hear themselves speak. I spent my time in undergrad - and I consider myself conservative, mind you - reading Kant and Marx in order to reconstruct fully what an intelligent socialism might look like (the obstacle I always ran into was the theory of history - Marxism depends on superstructure, and the idea that if we aren't equal, then someone out there is purposely causing the inequality. If one waters this down, then there's no basis for revolution. Structural change becomes idealist in tone, and material dialectic loses its potency. Hegel was once brought out to lecture to students that they shouldn't be protesting, since the forces of history were in their favor). What I used Kant for was a theory of equality that identified which types of progress would help equality, and which ones would hamper it. Generally speaking, the phenomena/noumena distinction (god, I really don't want to get into this) meant that technology created newer and newer faculties (since technology augments our understanding/appropriation of the world) which also opened up new possibilities for man to enslave each other. Pure reason is possibility and at best negative freedom, not restraint. One had to go back to the moral law and take the skepticism Kant preserved seriously: yes, experience is contingent on the transcendental unity of apperception, and that involves the noumenal realm never being strictly speaking "known." But that means that formal moral laws can exist, and are prior to our having experience in a sense. Their proofs are not "known" except through the fact we conceive of certain things, most notably freedom (ratio essendi and ratio cognoscendi). Progress itself is justified via certain formulations of the categorical: notice the relation between "publicity" and "instantiation of the law" at the end of Perpetual Peace, and ask how law changes and how such change can be considered good.

Again, these are old views, so if you want to argue with me about them, get a time machine and ask the me that existed from 1998-2002.

You can imagine what happened when I tried to talk to the Greens on campus or the Campus Democrats about these issues.

And now that I'm older, I just want to fight fire with fire. I don't care to fight with my libertarian allies, even though I think they're a bunch of cultists ultimately, and read old books very, very badly. I wanna work with them and rip up some Leftists, and work with my evangelical allies, who are also a bunch of cultists that read very badly. (For my part, I'm a self-absorbed asshole who thinks he reads well but doesn't and then puts other people down while begging them for money. I think this is an alliance made in heaven).

And I should add that it's precisely because Fox fights fire with fire that it has collapsed.

Fox needed to respond to the complaint that it didn't do serious journalism not merely by ripping on other networks for ratings. That was a breath of fresh air in the early days, when the enormous amount of bias CNN had was shown in a matter of seconds, and they weren't allowed to hide behind objective sounding language or the fact they had ratings or the fact they were boring. Objectivity is ultimately that, being so boring that people don't ask questions about your biases because they don't give a damn.

The way Fox needed to respond was by covering issues in longer documentary type pieces, like what Frontline used to be (not what Frontline is now. Frontline now is like Bill Moyers, boring Leftist tripe to help insomniacs in their hour of need).

Instead, Fox has decided that the best thing to do is be trashy and market its hosts as celebrities and complete the parody it has (rightfully) done of the way network news (and CNN) has been for years.

I actually should be mad at Fox News. If they care to inform, we can have a thoughtful, intelligent Right that shows how radical the Left is but is also concerned enough to allow and help all voices to speak as well as they can in American democracy.

But you know what? I'm tired. People everywhere have the time and opportunity to think for themselves, and there are plenty of us who know better willing to take questions. If Fox wants to do irresponsible sensationalist nonsense for money, let them. At least it keeps the Right sane in this stupid, arrogant, self-absorbed world where thinking through how another thinks is an impossibility - debate and clarifications are always expected, instead of people thinking for themselves before they speak.

39 Hilldrop Crescent

Why Hawley Harvey Crippen did it has puzzled many but surely there's no puzzle in it. For the overall picture you need to read the whole of Joseph Geringer's take but this is a summary:

# Crippen was a small, serious man from Michigan, in his mid-forties who'd become an MD and his future wife Belle was a loud, buxom, high spirited and promiscuous woman.

# He liked her spirit. She saw in him a way up out of her social class.

# They ended up in Britain and while he worked, she went on stage but audiences laughed. She loved the nightlife and met a meathead, Bruce Miller.

# Ethel Le Neve was 18 years old when she met Hawley Crippen; at that time 39. She became his private secretary and bookkeeper and though it was romance, it was still honourable. He may have wanted it so, in contrast with his wife.

# Meanwhile Belle had redecorated her home in pink - the lampshades were pink, the vases were pink, and even the lights were pink. Crippen found her taste nauseating but learned to ignore it and went to Ethel.

# On December 6, 1906, Crippen came home earlier than usual and found one of their two lodgers in bed with Belle. He and Ethel referred ever after to December 6, 1906, as their "wedding day".

# Ethel and Belle met in person and the wife raged and bullied and Crippen quietly snapped inside.

# Ethel admitted that she was pregnant.

# Belle hoped to either scare Crippen out of the house or enrage him so that he would divorce first. She used intemperate alnguage about Ethel.

# Moving to February 1, 1910 and the present tense, the story seems to be that Crippen administers a toxin to his wife and realizes he's botched the dose when Belle begins to scream. Afraid that neighbours will be roused from their beds by her screams, he panics, grabs a revolver and shoots his wife in the head.

# Now Crippen must dispose of the evidence - the only solution is dissection in his enameled bathtub. He reduces her body into parts, cutting off arms, legs and head. After filleting her, he stores the parts in the cellar and dustbin.

# At the time he would normally get up for work, he rises, dresses, shaves and heads to work, arriving at the dental office on time, as if nothing has happened.

# That evening, Tuesday, he goes straight home, eats dinner. Grabbing the sack of body parts and some bricks, he walks the few blocks to the canal and drops the package into the water.

# Crippen makes a mistake by sending a letter, ostensibly from Belle, to the Townswomen's Guild, saying she was going to America. From that moment on it's all downhill for him.

# Crippen appears at a Music Hall Ball, arm in arm with Ethel Le Neve, wearing some of Belle's jewellery.

# He is interviewed by the police. He and Ethel board the S.S. Montrose as father and son, travelling to start a new life in Canada.

# Reports say: "During the day, they sat together on deck, chatting quietly about the sea and the weather. But as the voyage continued, Captain Kendall's suspicions were first aroused when he noticed Master Robinson's trousers were too large for his slender body and were held in place by means of a large safety-pin."

# Harry Kendall, the captain, had been watching the tall, slim boy and soon realized that his hips swayed unnaturally for a male and "his" hair was very soft and feminine despite the hat that covered most of it.

# Kendall makes history when on July 22 he sends the first-ever wireless telegraph that results in the capture of a criminal, from a point 120 miles west of Cornwall, to the White Star Company in Liverpool.

# It hits the newstands in Britain and becomes a sensation, even as the couple is still unaware, aboard the liner.

I won't steal Geringer's thunder entirely and the last act is almost as interesting in itself but the brief of this post was to try to understand Crippen's motivation.

It seems pretty clear, psychologically. That's Ethel, below, at the trial.

[Cross-posted at Ian Appleby's Imagined Community.]

Frailty thy name is Astronaut

NASA has revealed that many of its astronauts have departed for the heavens reeling under the influence of alcohol, sodden to the point of incoherence, and as other astronauts warned a danger both to themselves and to others on board the flight. Surgeons even at two points warned that sending two particular astronauts up amidst the galaxies was something that might endanger lives because of the diminished reaction times and mental responses of the astronauts involved. NASA has not yet issued an official response- but the evidence has been collected in the light of a recent murder incident at the agency and comes from an official report that is yet to be published.

Thinking about this- there is obviously a slightly humorous side to it- the picture of a reeling drunken astronaut floating midst the stars has its moments of comedy- but it is also deadly serious. Deadly because the safety of other crew members depends on each member of the team being alert in case a crisis should arise- deadly as well for the wider human race because the ammount of debris in space is a real concern and as it grows the chances say of a collision between a piece of debris and a satallite grows.

But I think there is something more interesting here going on- and that is that going into space involves the kind of calculation which like war ultimately requires the suppression of some rational faculties. Reading as I do often about soldiers about to go into battle in the seventeenth century, the fact is that men confronted by death or a large chance of death need to supress that fact. Sometimes through alcohol- the image of the drunken soldier rampaging through a town is true for a reason, one of the few ways to get yourself to climb a wall in the face of arrows and gunshot is through getting appallingly drunk. Religious inspiration can work the same way- Thomas Harrison at the seige of Langport in 1646 chanted psalms to stir himself up to attack the town and the New Model used religious symbolism again and again just before battles. The videos made by terrorists are also interesting in this context- they are made yes to leave a message and do all sorts of other things- but also they psych up the terrorist for the literally suicidal aspect of their mission.

There is something about facing death that requires a kind of hysteria to set in in the human mind- you need to avoid the face of death, need to avoid the sense that you are about to die, to block out the nerves that would afflict you otherwise. For millennia soldiers have faced this dilemma and dealt with it in different ways- but often in conscript armies through the use of alcohol, religion or other drugs. Astronauts too face death- as the Challenger disaster proved its possible that as soon as they strap themselves in they might well be blown to small pieces and scattered through the atmosphere- one can understand that for highly intelligent minds faced with that prospect drink becomes attractive.

The human mind cannot cope with some realisations- and the realisation of instant death is one that we find hard to cope with- at some points for some people the only way to deal with it is to suppress it using alcohol or other substances or a cause- it shouldn't come as any surprise that astronauts are normal people in this regard!

Hills have eyes II

The Hills have Eyes II is not a particularly good or interesting film. But it is interesting because it raises a question worth considering- which is the place of horror and shocking images (the film involves an incredibly brutal rape scene) on screen. Obviously nothing that follows should be taken as an argument to restrict freedom of speech- freedom of speech is a key value and that means the freedom to shout fuck across the road or to make a film in which nothing but blood, guts and intestines are viewed. But there is speech people should be free to utter that still isn't useful- incorrect statements should be avoided but allowed, racist rhetoric more often than not should be allowed even though it is truly reprehensible etc etc. Where do horror films fit into that scheme- is it good to see rape and violence on screen- and if it is then when is it good to see those things on screen or put them there.

I would argue that it is good to see horrible images on screen- they make a point. A large part of foreign policy is dealing with war and peace. Images such as those in the Vietnam films in America make you see for the first time what war is, how it looks to kill someone. Images like those in Schindler's List or the Last King of Scotland make you realise the price sometimes of not intervening, not doing things. Our understanding of politics arises as Adam Smith argued long ago out of our sympathies- the key point here being that sympathy can be created on a cinematic canvass- film can explore atrocity and so explain atrocity. Instead of six million Jews dying I can see a choking young boy falling down in the gassy baths of Dachau, instead of the idea of the soldiers at Agincourt going to their deaths, I can see them tense and nervous contemplating the French Army. Within the celluloid D I can see and appreciate with my own eyes the feeling and consequently can when I come to make policy, come to decide on war and peace reevaluate my own conclusions.

But horror in cinema can do more. Take for example the Bergman film Cries and Whispers which features a woman slicing up her own vagina at one point- again the film shows that for a reason- Bergman wants us to appreciate something about that woman, about her sexuality. Again for example when a director like Scorsese shows you Joe Pesci's body riddled with bullets, Pesci himself coughing up blood as he is buried alive in sand- he wants you to appreciate something about Pesci's character and the path he has chosen through life. He wants you to see that the violence that we have seen that character explore earlier in the film rebounds upon him- he wants you to empathise because he wants you to understand. In the hands of a master director like Bergman or Scorsese the vision of cruelty can be enlightening, it can awake within us ideas and sentiments we barely knew we had.

Horror therefore has to have a purpose- what upset me about the Hills have Eyes II was that the horror didn't seem to have a purpose. I didn't feel and don't feel I emerged understanding more about the world having gone into see it. What horror is at its best is searing- it is painful to watch a person being seriously hurt even if you know it isn't reality- but it can help you understand something. Its more than painful though because it awakes within you the possibility- the possibility that that can happen, the world has opened slightly and revealed something horrific. If that revelation is accompanied by a sensitive film maker- you see that those actions produce horrific consequences- or that the person administering them like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver is a psychopath- but if not then your mind is brutalised by the experience.

In the Hills have Eyes II that's exactly what I felt brutalised. I felt like I had been opened to rape and murder- but that I had received no enlightenment despite that opening. Having seen the film I felt like I needed to wash- and I needed to forget the film immediatly. In that case the searing pain of horror had not opened my eyes to a new reality or reality as it existed but as I had not seen it, rather it made me want to open my eyes to avoid the images left in my brain by the film. Ultimately it was a pointless and gratuitous film and a dirty experience- using horror means you have to be better than the norm- making a bad horror film is ultimately worse than making a bad romantic comedy. The latter is boring, the former is positively harmful.

July 26, 2007

Guest Bloggers

As Ashok has already started below I thought I would announce to regulars- I'm away for the next 14 days- so have invited numerous guest bloggers on to have a go here- most of them are bloggers whose blogs are similar in type to what you see here- but roughly I have got three or four rightwing bloggers and three or four leftwing ones as well. I hope you enjoy their productions.

From my own point of view should include some links from Bits, an article on circumcision is up here, one of the Indian film Naqaab and a review of the recent Simpsons Movie has also appeared. I hope you enjoy those and the guest bloggers.

For Discussion: Not Saussure On Where Legislation Comes From

I'm going to try, when guest blogging, to spotlight other bloggers and bring attention to their old posts. Today's victim is Not Saussure, who had a post on abortion and the law in June that deserves a second look. There are rich and thoughtful things in the comments and the post itself. I'm already hoping for Gracchi to get back. This is nerve wracking, writing for a blog with an audience.

It is, quite simply, wrong for MPs to legislate on primarily theological grounds. The reason we have laws against murder and theft are not, as I keep on saying, because God forbids such activities (though I believe He does) but because you can’t have any sort of complex society in which people can go around murdering and robbing people with impunity. Society can, however, knock along reasonably well despite some of its members committing adultery and worshipping graven images, which is why we don’t ban those activities despite the fact that we have it on equally good authority that The Almighty disapproves of them, too.

- Not Saussure, "Nadine Dorries MP On Abortion," 6.6.2007

Not Saussure's post is very well-done, and I think it worth revisiting and challenging for the sake of argument only. The quote above seems to imply that God is part of a simpler view of the world, but that societies - which quite possibly constitute the world - can be irreducibly complex. So perhaps people start thinking that the reason why murder and robbery are wrong is because of God, and heck, throw in some laws about adultery and not having intercourse with goats, and one can keep a village orderly and in fear of God.

But the more complicated a society gets, the more we realize the real reason behind the law: the simple society really wasn't that simple. It actually was complex. As we discover complexity, some laws stand, others fade away. So it is possible for society now, perhaps, to engage in things sinful then.

In the comments to the post linked above speaks Heraklites:

“The reason we have laws against murder [is] because you can’t have any sort of complex society in which people can go around murdering … with impunity.”

But are laws not often determined more by moral sentiments than by utilitarian arguments? And are moral sentiments not typically derived from some belief system or other? Most people seem to have moral beliefs which cannot strictly be justified, some based on religion, some not.

If we take the question to be "What is the origin of law?" then we seem to have two very different ideas on what the complexity/simplicity of society means. The concept of rationality tied to enlightened self-interest sees (at least here) morality as changeable. To the degree one accepts that law reflects morality or sets criteria for which moralities are permissible, one also is saying the complexity of society is what generates the truest laws, the ones we will in effect obey for maximum satisfaction.

I guess my questions are: What do you take Heraklites' comment - I've only quoted part, to be sure - to be hinting at? Are moral sentiments simple? Or are they a complex? Where does religion fall in - is it always not justifiable "strictly," and what is the relation between a system of beliefs and rationality? Are beliefs always irrational? Proto-rational?

Moral Cowardice

Matt Sinclair discussed my post on Chickenhawks on his blog and suggested that I had made an error in my analysis and that it is acceptable to deem someone a coward for not supporting a war. The key paragraph in which Matt makes this claim is here

However, most people who call their ideological opponents' foreign policy stance cowardly are not accusing them of physical cowardice. Gracchi appears to have over simplified the nature of accusations of cowardice in foreign policy. The accusation is that the pacifist is morally cowardly. That they are unwilling to face the moral risk of war, the risk that the war will turn out poorly and we will be morally implicated in the ensuing problems. That they are saying, in effect, "people may be killed but it's okay so long as we don't have to do any killing".

Matt is right- there are types of moral cowardice around- however lets be careful about implying them only to pacifists. Part of the problem here is that Matt glossed over this at speed- completely fairly given that his post was about the concept of a Chickenhawk- without defining completely the concept of moral cowardice in politics.

He says and I would agree with him that moral cowardice is about an 'unwillingness to face' in this case the consequences of war- that people die. So a moral coward will be willing to say don't go to war because of the moral cost. But its important to realise what moral cowardice is- its that unwillingness to face the reality of a situation- so for example to advocate war without realising the cost is a moral crime- Williams speaks so to Henry V in Shakespeare's play- a speech I think is worth quoting

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at
such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of

The moral responsibility of war is something that Henry V in the play feels a great deal as well- we should remember Henry's agony before the battle- and that he is the ultimate brave king on Shakespeare- Henry wonders to himself

What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!

Henry and Williams both realise the cost of war- both understand what war is about- its about legs, arms and bodies cut up, wives screaming their pain out, children without fathers and lives broken and mashed up by force. Part of the problem with the US Conservative movement is the sense that I have that they are willing to propose war at any moment, without thinking about the moral cost. Effectively the hawkish argument is often though not always callous towards soldiers and civilians in the areas they wish to invade- they are not haunted as anyone who advocates a war should be (and I realise this is mostly commentators not politicians) by the bodies and blood.

The accusation of a chicken hawk is something that may be ridiculous but it captures that callousness- that moral cowardice amongst the hawks when proposing wars is viewed as a clinical costless operation, when its viewed as the easy option instead of as traditional just war theory makes it the last option. The Chicken Hawk accusation though means something because it is hurled at that portion of the American conservative movement who are unwilling to serve or notice the consequences of what they do- symbolised most effectively by the fact that George Bush has not attended the funeral of one US soldier and that the media has been forbidden from covering them. Those severed limbs and lonely children do not haunt the Michael Ledeens of the world enough- that's why their lack of military experience is relevant.

Matt is right there is a moral cowardice in pacificism as well- but the most moral cowardice demonstrated recently has been from the advocates of war who imagine that war is costless and benificent- it isn't and we should remember and honour the soldiers, and remember that when we go to war, for myself and Matt we are advocating that people take the supreme risk without ourselves being willing to take that risk. It is moral cowardice to face up then to the deaths and distress consequent upon our policy- that is what the word Chicken Hawk means to me.

An English Parliament

Vino beleives that an English Parliament is unneccessary at the moment- and he argues the case here. Vino's arguments do make sense but they are based on what I would deem a prudential calculation- that the English do not need a Parliament- I think its worth though starting with the principle. The issue at the moment in the UK is that there are various asymmetrical devolution settlements- there is not just one problem- but Parliaments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have different powers and in England there is no body with those powers. All other decisions are taken at a national level- hence whilst a Scottish MP at Westminster can vote on English health matters he can't vote on Scottish health matters. This produces the situation like in England recently where a measure passed charging English students for their university stay, because Scottish MPs voted for it, when Scottish students receive free university education. There is here a manifest injustice.

The principle of representative government is violated in another way- because of the way that the funding of the UK works actually the Scottish government ends up spending money obtained from the English taxpayer- which produces yet another inconsistency- the principle that no taxation is obtained without representation is violated. However its the bigger issue the fact that Scottish voters have a role in deciding English issues, when English voters don't in Scottish issues which deserves some attention. It makes voting something that depends on location- all voters are equal but some are more equal than others- and the impression that creates is a problematic one.

Vino you see lastly argues that the issue doesn't matter because there is no political backlash- but as his comments show I think there is a backlash growing- one that might grow further should Labour win the next election by Scottish votes. One of the nastiest currents in modern British politics is the rise of English nationalism- in the northern towns and in the Tory villas there is a sense of the disenfranchisement of 'English people'- right or wrong (and mostly I think its wrong) giving those people a legitimate greivance and deeming it insignificant is just the way to store up a nasty reaction. Remember as well the economic situation has been benign- when it becomes less benign the issues of differential taxation adn the powers of the MPs from Scotland may grow. The fragility of democracy is something too few appreciate- and creating different franchises isn't helpful in providing ballast to democracy.

Ultimately for me this is an issue of principle- irrespective of party- if Britain is to have federal government it should have federal government that's fine, independence for Scotland and Wales or total union are options as well- but an option where votes mean different things in different places strikes me as a stroke against the fundamental structures of democracy- and something that could create a backlash- and an unpleasant one at that.

July 23, 2007


Republican students videoed here are keen to repeat again and again that there is a great war going on and that liberals and Europe do not have the stomach for the fight. That is despite as this film notes the fact that most Republican students will not themselves go and fight for liberty- if this really were as serious as the Second World War then they themselves should don the flack jacket and go to Iraq. Or maybe they are content to be like Dick Cheney and sit this one out, whilst the John Kerrys go and fight and die for the United States.

To some extent this debate is deeply unfair- afterall you should still have an opinion on something even as serious as war if you are unwilling to go yourself. I agonised for months about the Afghanistan war and the ethics of supporting a war as an adult whilst not being willing to fight in it. There are circumstances in which it is possible to do that- most of the wars of today are fought with volunteer and not conscript armies- and there are people who whilst being incapable of holding a gun are definitely capable of holding a view. One of my best friends was a strong supporter of the Iraq war, but his coordination is such that if ever handed a gun his own safety would be in more danger than anyone else's! Having said that he is remarkably intelligent- to send him to war would be to endanger his life- whereas to have him say as a foreign office bureacrat would be to save others' lives.

The point though is that within Republican students and Republican commentators is a kind of resurgent masculinity- that going to war proves that you are manly and stand up for your principles- that not supporting a war in another country, like Iraq, is proving you hold 'girly' opinions or that you are a weedy academic. That war is good for its own sake- that all problems can be solved through the use of military force. It isn't in my view incumbent on Republicans to go to war to prove their credentials to advocate war- but I think they lay themselves open to the chicken hawk accusation by using these militaristic arguments- by demeaning those that oppose their justifications as traitors, by saying that support for war is a token of courage.

Of course it isn't- courage is shown when you run up to an enemy over bogged down land and place your life in the hands of chance- John Kerry has shown courage, George Bush in the skies above Texas has never shown equivalent courage to senator Kerry. War needs to be argued for on its merits- Iraq and Afghanistan can be supported on their merits- but should anyone support them because going to war demonstrates masculine courage and not going demonstrates a weak lily livered liberal conscience- well then its appropriate to call them a chicken hawk.