Friday, September 28, 2007

The Code of Silence

A while ago, Patrick Deneen had on his blog, What I saw in America, a post contrasting the upcoming appearance of Ahmadinejad at Columbia with the retracted invitation of former Harvard president Larry Summers to speak at the University of California, Davis. Deneen's post deserves to be read in full, but the crux of his point is made here: "It's pretty evident that Summers stated the one unspeakable thing; it's evidently more acceptable on today's campuses to raise questions about the Holocaust than over the equality of the genders."

While I'm not particularly animated about the Ahmadinejad issue (I'm not sure that it much matters), I've always got something to say about Larry Summers. And so I launched forth, into a lengthy comment, and then into an even longer response to sombody else's comment. Finally, I concluded that rather than take up more and more space on Patrick Deneen's blog, I should probably write about this topic on my own. And then of course, I got lazy or distracted, and wrote about something else, such as a swastika-shaped naval barracks. But now I'm back on track!

Rather than start over on this topic from scratch (the laziness factor again), I've copied my comments from What I Saw in America, and I'll probably clean them up a bit along the way.

My first comment to Deneen's post:

The speech which originally landed Summers in such trouble, and which is available in full on the internet, was in subsequent media coverage often sloppily summarized, probably through a combination of moral outrage, sheer laziness, and journalistic incompetence (i.e. difficulty in following Summers' argument) An example of such sloppiness may be found here, in which the article concludes, "Two years ago, Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, was forced to resign after suggesting that women were naturally bad at sciences."

In fact, Summers never claimed that women were "naturally bad at sciences." He cited research results which indicate that in tests of mathematical and scientific ability, men are disproportionately represented at both the high AND low extremes, whereas female test results cluster closer to the mean. The point he was trying to make is that, since math, science, and engineering professors at elite universities are drawn from a pool of individuals three or perhaps even four standard deviations above the mean, they are necessarily drawn from a very disproportionately male population.

If I may quote a crucial paragraph from Summers' speech:

"There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the . . . high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described."

The point which I wish to make here is that Summers' observations do in fact pose a greater threat to contemporary orthodoxies than do the opinions of Ahmadinejad.

Note that of the three factors which might explain the disparity between men and women in the sciences, Summers gave greatest weight to the obstacle of family obligations. And yet this was not the point which drew fire against him.

The greater female commitment to child-rearing might of course be explained by social conditioning, and even if this is biological, it in a sense speaks to greater communal responsibility on the part of women, in other words, it points to a virtue. Thus, this wasn't really the point of contention.

It was Summers' analyses of the second and third causes that led to his downfall. In effect, he was arguing that biological differences play a greater role than patterns of discrimination in explaining this disparity. A mighty dangerous thing to say.

The most disturbing aspect of this claim - from the orthodox point of view - is the growing body of scientific evidence which supports it.

Pope Urban VIII was not pleased to hear Galileo's arguments that the Earth was in orbit around the sun. The fact that there was rational evidence to support this claim made those arguments more, not less, problematic.

Ahmadinejad only poses a threat equivalent to that of Summers if he can bring to bear persuasive evidence that the Holocaust is a Jewish or a Western fraud, and very few academics believe that he can. Summers, on the other hand, had to be silenced because his opponents knew how dangerous it was to allow this line of inquiry to continue.

Investigation into the role of brain physiology and its effect on identity, behavior, and aptitude is going to do to the 21st century what the theory of evolution did to the 20th. The results will rock a great many boats, and not everyone will handle these results humanely, wisely, or well.

The Summers affair is, more or less, our era's Scopes Monkey Trial. Only in this case, the academics are defending the biblical version of creation.

September 22, 2007 8:13 AM

Anonymous said...

Summer's fall was only peripherally related to the speech. It provided ammunition for a long list of grievances. Always helpful to keep that in mind when speculating on the implications of his defeat at Harvard. Now, the UC Board of Regents seems to be another kettle of fish entirely.

September 22, 2007 9:15 PM

Black Sea said...

From what I've read, there were people at Harvard who didn't like Summers style and were looking for reasons to take him down.

A fair enough point, but this hardly explains the vitriolic attempt, national rather than local in scope, to discredit Summers as a public intellectual. Nor does it explain why Summers comments would so quickly be taken up by his intra-Harvard opponents as effective ammunition in their battle against him.

These people understood immediately that such comments were the weapon they had been waiting for, because they understood the broader intellectual and cultural climate. Not surprising, since they're the ones who help shape it.

That Summers' comments not only undid him at Harvard but triggered more widespread condemnation says something about contemporary culture that we should not lightly dismiss.

Furthermore, the recent events at UC Davis only confirm that it is his comments, rather than his allegedly abrasive personal style, that continue to cause Summers trouble. People want to censure the guy because they are deeply disturbed by what he said. He said something that educated, right-thinking people are taught from childhood neither to think nor to say. That empirical evidence may confirm his comments only makes them that much more more disturbing.

Summers may have lacked the necessary political instincts and social graces to be a well-liked, or even an effective, university president. Maybe he's all the obnoxious things that his critics claim. But in an atmosphere of timid conformity to the intellectual pieties or our time, he presented a well-considered analysis of the disparate numbers of men and women at the highest levels of science and engineering, all the while making clear that the questions he had raised merited further research:

"Let me just conclude by saying that I've given you my best guesses after a fair amount of reading the literature and a lot of talking to people. They may be all wrong. I will have served my purpose if I have provoked thought on this question and provoked the marshalling of evidence to contradict what I have said."

Evidently, "thought on this question" was not what the attendees at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce were keen on pursuing. Rather than the marshalling of evidence to contradict Summers' admittedly provisional claims, it proved more efficacious to simply force his resignation as president of Harvard.

Finally, lest readers come away from this exchange with the idea that these issues constitute yet one more inconsequential academic dispute, I will link to an article that I first discovered on Unqualified Reservations.

For anyone concerned about the fate of open inquiry, or indeed, of any inquiry, on university campuses, it will prove chilling, though instructive, reading.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Fascism Follows Function . . .

Or, further proof, as if any were needed, that we've become a nation of narcissistic brats:

I think both Woody Allen and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could get some mileage out of this one. From today's New York Times:

The Navy plans to spend $600,000 for “camouflage” landscaping and rooftop adjustments so that 1960s-era barracks at the Naval Base Coronado near San Diego will no longer look like a Nazi swastika from the air.

The resemblance went unnoticed by the public for decades until it was spotted in aerial views on Google Earth.

But Navy officials said they became aware of it shortly after the 1967 groundbreaking, and had decided not to do anything.

“There was no reason to redo the buildings because they were in use,” a spokeswoman for the base, Angelic Dolan, said. She added that the buildings were in a no-fly zone that is off limits to commercial airlines, so most people would not see them from the air.

“You have to realize back in the ’60s we did not have the Internet,” Ms. Dolan said. “We don’t want to offend anyone, and we don’t want to be associated with the symbol.”

The Anti-Defamation League in San Diego has objected to the shape of the buildings.

“We told the Navy this was an incredibly inappropriate shape for a structure on a military installation,” said Morris S. Casuto, regional director of the organization. He added, however, that his group “never ascribed evil intent to the structures’ design.”

Mr. Casuto praised the Navy for recognizing the problem and “doing the right thing.”

Actually, the right thing for the Navy to do would have been to respond to the Anti-Defamation League's complaints with the old Arab saying: "Go fuck yourself, by yourself."

If such response were deemed insensitive, then the Anti-Defamation League could alternatively have been told that, since they found the shape of the building so objectionable, they were welcome to cover the cost of any "'camouflage' landscaping and rooftop alterations" from their own budget. Although this reply might have been judged more offensive still.

While we're altering government architecture to appease everyone's rice-paper sensibilities, I've got a few more candidates:

In our nation's capital, there's this a well-known military facility in the shape of pentagon. In case you didn't know it, a pentagon is a type of pentagram, a shape long associated with Satan worship.

This loaded geometrical symbolism might well explain why this structure was attacked by a cadre of suicidal religious fanatics six years ago. Reason suggests that they found this "an incredibly inappropriate shape for a structure on a military installation," although some will argue that, to the contrary, they considered it an incredibly appropriate shape. In any event, it's provocative and needs to be changed.

We've also got, again in our nation's capital, this weird, obelisk-shaped structure honoring our first president. According to Wikipedia, "Obelisks were a prominent part of the architecture of the ancient Egyptians, who placed them in pairs at the entrance of temples. . . . The obelisk symbolized the sun god Ra and during the brief religious reformation of Akhenaten was said to be a petrified ray of the aten, the sundisk. It was also thought that the god existed within the structure."

I'm sorry, but we can't have the American people inadvertently worshipping the sun god Ra, so this thing is going to have to be torn down or converted to a more appropriate use, such as an airship mooring point or something.

Now that I think about it, Washington D.C. is veritably dotted with these Greco-Roman temple-like buildings meant to honor various presidents from our nation's history. Greek and Roman temples were bastions of pagan worship, and we are by no means a pagan people. What's worse, both the ancient Greeks and Romans practiced slavery, and surely this ignoble act of oppression seals the deal. These monuments must come down, or again, undergo conversion to more appropriate uses, such as astronomical observatories, surround-sound theaters, or grandiose fried chicken shacks.

But what really puzzles me in all of this is, what is it about the California sunshine that so infantilizes the imagination of its Jewish residents that they take offense over a naval barracks which bears an accidental resemblance to a swastika only when viewed from the air? And what does it say about the moral anxiety of a nation that it shells out $600,000 rather than simply telling them to grow up?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

An American Dream

Not that many foreigners "get" America in all its hog-stomping glory. I've never quite known what Tom Wolfe meant by "hog-stomping," but I suppose he meant it in the best possible sense.

They (foreigners) satirize our swagger, denigrate our caloric cuisine, and rail against our foreign policy. By "foreign policy" I mean our penchant for involving ourselves in other people's wars when it suits our interests. By "our interests" I mean the interests of people whose offspring will never run the slightest risk of being maimed, disfigured, or killed in such involvements.

But most of all, they (foreigners) dread our military policy. By "military policy" I mean our penchant for instigating wars when it suits our interests. By "our interests" I mean the interests of those who. . . .

But hey, some foreigners do get it. Sarkozy (energetically), Schwarzenegger (glandularly), John Derbyshire (indisputably), Bernard-Henri Levy (sort of, maybe) Chris Hitchens (alcoholically). Well, you can add one more luminary to the list:

“America is not only for the whites , but it is for all. Who is the America? The American is you, me and that. When we go to America we will become Americans and there is no a race or nationalism called America and the Americans are those Africans, Indians, Chinese, and Europeans and whoever goes to America will become American . . . . American is for all of us and the whole world had made and created America. All the people all over the world had made America and it shall accordingly be for all of us. I will never feel ashamed when I claim for my right in America and it will not be strange when I raise my voice in America.”

- Col. Moammar Gadhafi

I ran across this quotation in a comment made by a person called "Carter" on Daniel Larison's blog, Eunomia. My thanks to them both.

P.S. You just can't make this stuff up.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The International Language?

I'm sick of reading, writing, and thinking about Iraq. Tragic sacrifice and manly grief I can handle (vicariously, of course) but this blood-splattered farce . . .?

Moving on to gentler themes, what about music? Does it really serve as an international language, or is it just another impenetrable barrier between cultures?

Years ago, I knew and occasionally socialized with a group of Eastern European students, most of whom were aficionados of classical music, and one of whom was a commercially-recorded cellist. I would listen rather disinterestedly as they lamented the superficiality of American popular music and our continent-wide ignorance of the great classical tradition. And I did, in some measure, agree. Why bother to dispute the claim that contemporary popular music, which is essentially American popular music, constitutes an uncanny mechanism for profiting from the continuous recalibration of humanity's lowest-common denominator?

I did, however, point out to these would-be elitists that not all of American music could so easily be dismissed. To which they readily agreed. There was no denying that American music, though often abysmal, occasionally attained a certain poignant grace. Who, after all, could deny the sublime fusing of lyric and melody achieved in the works of that American tour de force known as . . . Metallica?


That's right. The one towering exception to the wasteland of musical mediocrity surrounding us was Metallica. Whose soul was so shallow that he could not feel his own torments given voice in the deep, interior longings of "The Unforgiven"? Could one ever say enough about the group that had produced such masterful albums as "Kill 'Em All" (originally titled "Metal Up You Ass"), "Ride the Lightning," and the one which my Eastern European contacts most particularly prized, "Master of Puppets"?

Well, OK, this wasn't exactly what I had in mind* as I sought to point out that American music encompasses of a good bit more than the troubled pop princess pictured above, but, let it stand. Perhaps they had heard something in James Hetfield's dark musings that escaped me. Indigenous American poetry, if you will:

They dedicate their lives
To running all of his
He tries to please them all
This bitter man he is

Throughout his life the same
He's battled constantly
This fight he cannot win
A tired man they see no longer cares
The old man then prepares
To die regretfully
That old man here is me

What I've felt
What I've known
Never shined through in what I've shown
Never be
Never see
Won't see what might have been

What I've felt
What I've known
Never shined through in what I've shown
Never free
Never me
So I dub thee “Unforgiven”

Well, if you've ever hung around Eastern Europeans, the affinity isn't a complete surprise.

But of course, there is more. I used to know some Turkish students who could for hours entertain their guests by performing soulful Turkish folk songs on the guitar and baglama. But, the singing couldn't go on forever, and as the evening wore down, we gave ourselves over to the eating of sweets and the drinking of tea, accompanied, invariably, by the dulcet tones of Whitney Houston reverberating from the CD player. I mean, these guys didn't just love Whitney Houston's music, they loved, or imagined that they loved, Houston herself.

I will ask in passing, what is there in the Islamic soul that finds itself so fatefully drawn to Whitney? Is it the chirpy, teeny-bopper innocence, or the lonely struggle with the crack pipe? I've never known. And as you may have read, Osama Bin Laden himself has quite a thing for Whitney. He's quipped to at least one of his wives that he might have to one day arrange for Bobby Brown's "removal." No word as to Mrs. Bin Laden's reaction.

While living in Turkey, I developed a fondness for certain Turkish musicians. But sadly, and despite their indigenous following, they always turned out to be the "wrong" musicians, if you know what I mean.

The first of these would have to be Ibrahim Tatlises. Oh, I hardly knew the depth of the waters I was stepping into. We have no exact equivalent to Tatlises in America. He is perhaps best described as an amalgam of Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis, Leadbelly, and 50 Cent.

Tatlises is either venerated or despised in Turkey, with few people taking an intermediate position. He sings in the Arabesque style, which, though it sounds nothing like blues music, plays the role of blues in Turkish culture. It is, to be blunt, considered declasse, and the lyrics are, unsurprisingly, about lost love, loneliness in the big city, and being done wrong in multitudinous ways, though with a decidedly Turkish twist.

My wife and I were once listening a Tatlises concert being broadcast live on TV. (One might more accurately say that I was subjecting her to it.) I asked her to translate some of the lyrics, which went roughly as follows:

When I die,
When I die
Bring her to my grave.
When I die,
When I die,
Bring her to my grave.
When I die,
When I die,
Bring her,
Dragging her by the hair,
To my grave
And show her what she's done to me.

At the sound of "dragging her by the hair," the crowd erupted. Oh, come on. It's only a song.

Since I would like to finish this post sometime before nightfall, I won't go into all of the reasons why Tatlises is considered by many a vulgar enthusiasm, but I can relate one. Tatlises has had in his many years a long string of semi-celebrity girlfriends, frequently singers and belly dancers. If (when) one of them has had enough of his "old-fashioned" approach to romance and attempts escape, he's been known to pull some underworld strings and have her shot in the foot, a well-known mafia punishment in Turkey. This form of retaliation (think of it as a sort of love letter) was once actually filmed by the Turkish paparazzi. Tatlises' former-lover, the renowned belly dancer Asena, had stepped from a car and was on her way into a nightclub, the flashbulbs popping, when a young man appeared from out of the frame and busted one in her ankle.

Oh, come on. It was only her ankle. Tatlises dismissed the whole incident by proclaiming "it's only over when I say it's over."

Anyway, when Tatlises appears on TV, which is frequently, my Turkish father-in-law typically changes the channel in disgust. He has a long list of reasons for disliking Tatlises. But I realized this only after I'd several times concluded my channel surfing by settling on Tatlises' well-mustachioed face. That's what I mean by the "wrong" sort of music.

Sample Tatlises for yourself. You may wind up agreeing that he does exude a certain Saddam Hussein-like charm. Here is the video of Aramam, which in Turkish means I Won't Call. No, he won't call, but that's no guarantee that he won't have you shot in the lower extremities.

Having learned of my error, I avoided Ibrahim Tatlises while in my father-in-law's presence, and moved on to what I though was a Turkish musical enthusiasm more in line with his tastes. This guy, Kivircik Ali, "Curly" Ali, was on TV almost as much as Tatlises, but with a lower profile and possessing a very different sense of style. I soon acquired an appreciation for this traditional baglama player with a plaintive voice, and I felt confident that my father-in-law would endorse this evolution in my aesthetic sensibility.

I remember once listening to a particular dirge by Kivircik Ali, and asking my wife (yet again) what was being sung. Without bothering to look up from her magazine, she replied indifferently, "Oh, something about 'when the angel of death comes to take you to your grave.'"

I was sold right there.

Only later did I learn that my passion for "Curly Ali" (I'm guessing it's a joke about the thiness on top) was again not quite right, rather like a foreign visitor to the America of my youth expressing an unseemly interest in the Dolly Parton show. Why, my in-laws wanted to know, did I want to watch this sort of thing? The consensus eventually arrived at was that I was - out of sheer politeness - feigning an interest in the local culture. This interpretation seemed to reslove the problem, and my wife never bothered to explain that I am not really that polite.

Just to round out my survey of Turkish music, I am including a video by Tarkan, sometimes referred to as the Turkish George Michael, with - so some claim - all which that implies. I'll offer no opinions there. Tarkan is probably the most commercially-successful Turkish pop star, achieving the benign OK-ness to which decent pop musicians aspire. He was really awful at the beginning of his career, and he still struggles with the dancing. He's no Curly Ali, but I won't try to explain that to my in-laws.

And finally, for those whose tastes lie further on the wild side, I am closing with the sinuous gyrations and unabashed lip-synching of Fatih Urek, whom I shall not endeavor to describe. I believe that Ibrahim Tatlises' expression early in the video clip says more than I possibly could.

*What I did have in mind was sharing with my Eastern European students something genuinely, even jarringly, American, a little like the atmosphere of a half-deserted coal town, its inhabitants slowly washing out of the valleys and on toward the West.

That feeling - if it is a feeling - is perhaps captured in songs such as this stark duet by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, "Time (The Revelator)." If you only bother to sample one song from this long-winded post, this would be the one.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

No End in Sight

I'm not much of a moviegoer. The last film I saw in a theater was the Tom Cruise warrior-epic, "The Last Samurai." I wasn't expecting much, and I got what I expected. There was some nice scenery.

However, today I decided to break from my own indolence and commemorate 9-11 by taking in a matinee showing of Charles Ferguson's documentary, "No End in Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq." After purchasing my ticket, I walked into a completely empty screening room. It was a matinee, after all.

The following synopsis of Ferguson's film is taken from its website:

The first film of its kind to chronicle the reasons behind Iraq’s descent into guerilla war, warlord rule, criminality and anarchy, NO END IN SIGHT is a jaw-dropping, insider’s tale of wholesale incompetence, recklessness and venality. Based on over 200 hours of footage, the film provides a candid retelling of the events following the fall of Baghdad in 2003 by high ranking officials such as former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Ambassador Barbara Bodine (in charge of Baghdad during the Spring of 2003), Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, and General Jay Garner (in charge of the occupation of Iraq through May 2003) as well as Iraqi civilians, American soldiers, and prominent analysts. NO END IN SIGHT examines the manner in which the principal errors of U.S. policy – the use of insufficient troop levels, allowing the looting of Baghdad, the purging of professionals from the Iraqi government, and the disbanding of the Iraqi military – largely created the insurgency and chaos that engulf Iraq today. How did a group of men with little or no military experience, knowledge of the Arab world or personal experience in Iraq come to make such flagrantly debilitating decisions? NO END IN SIGHT dissects the people, issues and facts behind the Bush Administration’s decisions and their consequences on the ground to provide a powerful look into how arrogance and ignorance turned a military victory into a seemingly endless and deepening nightmare of a war.

Most of this won't come as a shocking revelation at this point. George W. may be the last remaining person on Earth stubbornly unaware of the monumental bloodbath he has unleashed in Iraq. That he remains unaware can largely be attributed to his gift for ignoring unwelcome news, such as detailed intelligence documents that fail to buttress his "gut-instincts" on the war. Of course, I don't suppose we can call it a war, since major hostilities ceased in 2003.

A few teasers from the film:

The Chairman of the National Intelligence Council recalls that Bush dismissed his agency's Report on the State of the Insurgency in Iraq as mere guesswork. Bush's critique of the report was itself a matter of guesswork, since - according to the Chairman - Bush hadn't bothered to read the document. He hadn't bothered even to skim the report's one page Executive Summary. (see clip) Oddly, during this same period, the President found time for those endorphin-pumping mountain bike rides that seem to have so warped his judgement.

The decision to disband the Iraq Army was made from Washington in the space of about a week without any consultation of people on the ground in Iraq. As we know from the current debate, it is unclear whether or not the President was aware of this change of policy. The decision was made by people who, in the main, had never been to Iraq, and against the advice of just about everybody physically present there.

I recommend this film. It's always something of a comfort to see one's worst suspicions confirmed. I'm just sorry that there were so few of my fellow citizens there to share the experience. However, by the film's end, I was not entirely alone. When the lights came up, there was one other person in the theater. He rolled out of the room in a wheelchair. He looked to be in his late 50s or early 60s, and I couldn't help but wonder if he hadn't seen this story before.