Consider the possibility

Is this Left Forum panel a US propaganda psyop? I want to ask my comrades on the left to consider the possibility. After years of research, I have determined that conspiracy-based thinking is just the kind of obscurantism that thrives on the political right. The panelists seem determined to make a mockery of the left by going beyond the proverbial “circular firing squad” and accusing those they disagree with of being active collaborators with the enemy — effectively staging a Stalinist show trial that will confirm the worst suspicions of the persuadable mainstream. I’ll trace the origins of the Zizek Conspiracy Theory Industry to unhinged pseudonymous bloggers who now only talk to each other, having been blocked by all reasonable people. It is they who laid the groundwork for putting forth the model of 9/11 Truthers and Birthers as the pinnacle of hip “lefty” and “radical” thought.

Retro Blogging Hits

John Holbo is nit-picking Zizek again. Man, this takes me back…

Concrete Practices

According to my version of Firebug, if you are reading this page from the United Kingdom it took approximately 2.63 seconds for you to receive the 63.4 kilobytes of data that constitute this page, with an empty cache. Doubtless there are numerous proxy servers and caches between myself and the WordPress.com server which may make the process faster, but according to Traceroute giving me raw data, the server of WordPress.com is in Chicago, Illinois in the United States. This is 3862.10 miles away as the crow flies but it is important to note by request does not travel a direct route. There 17 servers between myself and the WordPress.com server, and between the sixth and eighth hop on its journey, the data transfers from a server in Hampshire in the UK to a server in Frankfurt in Germany before returning to the UK for a few hops before going from here to one in Atlanta, Georgia in the US. This journey from Hampshire to Frankfurt is approximately 1,078 miles by road and would take you seventeen hours to drive – it takes 0.4 milliseconds. Our transatlantic jaunt takes 88.3 milliseconds or 0.0883 seconds, before heading out from there, after a spell, to New York, then finally reaching its destination. During this process there was 0% loss of information, the packets I sent from my computer here arrived in Chicago in perfect condition. This does not recognise the fact that another traceroute to this site could go by another route,  and does not include all the other operations that are part of my receiving of the webpage, for example, getting the images for the avatars from Gravatar.com, which apparently has some servers in Los Angeles, California, ten hops away.

Now, WordPress.com, which runs this site, runs on the GNU/Linux operating system (and Gravatar.com), the Nginx server using a robust version of WordPress MU, that depends upon both the PHP language and a MySQL database. In turn, the compilation and assembly of all these piece of software depend upon some kind of compiler, in this case, more than likely gcc, the GNU Compiler Collection. The browser I am using is Mozilla Firefox, the operating system Mac OS X, which has a kernel based on elements of FreeBSD that is called Darwin, all of which were compiled by this same compiler (note: Apple’s attitude to their kernel is problematic, there is no doubt). Everything I have mentioned in Open Source with licenses at varying levels of freedom, many of which are under the ‘free as in thought’ GNU license. In running Nginx, WordPress.com is unusual, but the open source software Apache run the majority (47.12%) of web servers on the internet. Let’s just take on example, WordPress MU. WordPress MU has 203,636 lines of code, but is being dissolved into WordPress itself which has 207,547 lines of code. Every line of this code has been written by a human being, an every line itself as been revised, checked, edited, refined. It is the product of literally thousands of developers, working together towards a common and freely available project. How is this not a community, with its difficulties, splits, problems, ethos and meetings both virtual and actual? Extending these estimations outwards to embrace every other element of open source software created in this single internet transaction makes the numbers dizzying. In 2001 Red Hat Linux 7.1 contained 30,152,114 lines of code, estimated to take a single person 7,956 years to complete. This number, by 2010, is probably far greater. Just as an example, in 2001 the Linux kernel was 3,377,902 lines of code, in February this year it is 12,990,041 lines of code. This does not even begin to consider the communities that came up with the TCP/IP protocol, XHTML, the PNG format – I could go on.

Now, tell me, how are any of these things, from the establishing of servers that allow internet transactions, or more vitally to the community practices that facilitate these examples of open source software, more often than not divorced from any profit motive, not ‘concrete’ practices of work in the same way that some kind of hand waving ‘localism’? Are they not at least as interesting and incredible versions of human interaction as running a back to the land farm?

Justifiable Inequality

In a co-authored Comment Is Free piece, Phillip Blond and John Milbank aver that we need the right kind of inequality. We can reportedly achieve this by carrying out a synthesis of traditional Tory and Leftist ideals, which would allow us to distinguish between justifiable and unjustifiable inequality. The unjustifiable kind is based in race prejudice or in the nihilistic application of skill in socially useless activities such as investment banking — surely we can all agree on that. The justifiable kind is a form of class privilege that serves as “a way of providing the appropriate resources for the wielding of power linked to virtue. By virtue we mean here a combination of talent, fitness for a specific social role, and a moral exercise of that role for the benefit of wider society.”

Presumably we are to believe that there is some way of implementing this political program, despite the fact that no qualified judge of what is justified or unjustified equality seems to exist — unless we’re to imagine Rowan Williams or, probably even better, Benedict XVI handing down these moral recommendations — nor does actual existing class privilege serve to equip leaders for the exercise of virtue in public life as far as I can tell. The gesture is the same as with “Catholic social teaching”: bring together elements of left and right in some unprecedented mixture to prove your brilliance and ability to think “outside the box,” and provide no concrete means to get to this supposed utopia other than hoping that people’s hearts change and they suddenly start doing the right thing. It’s a pose, not a program, and its only possible concrete effect can be to support the right wing.

Overall, the article reminds me of a quote from the Communist Manifesto that I’ve used before in this connection: “Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.”

The theological critique of Nazism

I posted this as a comment to Ben Myers’ latest post, but since it’s somewhat off to the side of the post’s topic, it seemed appropriate to turn it into a fresh post of its own:

I say this as a great admirer of Barth, but I’ve always found the “theological” critique of Nazism to be weirdly disconnected from reality. For instance, Barth’s self-congratulation that the church somehow did the right thing insofar as a small sect of it rejected natural theology in the midst of Nazism strikes me as downright chilling. The test here is that you could take it the opposite direction: for instance, the lack of a viable natural theology produced a disconnect between the gospel and the world, which led to the unlimited rise of technological instrumentality that was then ultimately turned against the human race itself most horrifically in Nazism, etc. Or you could say that the artificial either/or of Christ or nature led necessarily to the embrace of natural “paganism,” etc. Or basically you could make up any “theological” cause you like and congratulate yourself for bravely coming down on the right side of the debate, but that doesn’t make what you’re saying relevant. If anything, wouldn’t it have been more immediately relevant and more obviously connected to Nazism if the church had staked its identity on the opposition to anti-Semitism rather than the somewhat obscure point of natural theology?

Ecclesiological Stockholm Syndrome

It’s amazing to me how many theologians, particularly those within a general evangelical orbit, have ecclesiological Stockholm Syndrome: the twin tendency to idealize and fetishize local church life and to denigrate their own role.

The recent financial crisis has given us a great term for this tendency: cognitive regulatory capture. All of the behaviors that Halden points out among theologians are, at best, equally prevelant among church members and especially leaders — I don’t recall any incidents of systematically covered up child molestation among theologians, for instance — and whatever faults they exhibit to a greater degree are probably due to their academic setting rather than personal failings. There are plenty of church members in good standing who faithfully donate the proceeds of underpaying their workers or gouging their customers, for instance, and I don’t think any academic theologians fall into that category.

And to act like theologians are unique in their lack of attention to the poor is appalling, in the face of the massive indifference displayed by the vast majority of church members. For every theologian who fails to visit the soup kitchen often enough, I’ll give you a pastor on a campaign to build a gym where his congregation’s children can play for like three hours a week.

Theologians should be exemplary in two areas. First, they should be exemplary in the degree to which they reflect intellectually on the gospel. I’d say that we’re on pretty firm footing here, on average — there are a lot of intelligent, reflective Christians out there, but few of them are going to reach the level of someone who earns a PhD, teaches, and publishes in the field. It’s elitist to say so, I know, but academic theologians really do consistitute an intellectual elite.

Second, they should be exemplary in their criticism of the church’s preaching and discipline. On this front, the attitude displayed in Halden’s post is amazingly counterproductive. Theologians don’t need to submit their judgment to the people in the pews or to the church authorities. They can’t force either group to do what they want, obviously — the lack of concrete power is the trade-off for taking up a reflective and critical role in the church — but they can and must deliver their criticisms as forcefully and persuasively as possible. Preemptively telling people they should totally dismiss theologians is arguably a rhetorical misstep in this context.

Overall, I think it’s crucial to avoid a kind of “Donatism for theologians” that would amount to little more than an ad hominem argument — by and large, theologians are perfectly capable of carrying out their theological duties while committing adultery or skipping church. (In fact, they may well have real theological reasons for avoiding church services as they currently stand! Is that simply impossible? One sometimes suspects that, for the “strong ecclesiology” crowd, it is.) Perhaps we can think of situations where immoral behavior would reach such a pitch as to undermine the theologian’s standing in both the academy and the community, meaning he or she could no longer effectively carry out that role — but those are extreme and rare cases. In the majority of cases, we should judge theologians simply as theologians, that is, according to the standards inherent to their particular role.

Cowabunga Cuts

By now readers should have got a handle on how the ‘New Conservatives’ are essentially Blairism 2.0. Further evidence? What they are currently experimenting with in Barnet Council, North London, that likely displays one strand of future Conservative thinking. Modeling themselves along the lines of budget airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet, Barnet council provides a basic service, while allowing residents to pay extra for additional things. In line with the standard of all market reforms, much of the system is sub-contracted to private companies who will provide these services – companies whose motive is profit, and thus to provide the minimum of service to yield this, unlike a council’s motive which is to run a good system or risk being booted out by the next election. Anyone who has traveled on Ryanair knows precisely how this works. The ‘minimum service’ provided is so laughably minimal that to have anything like a service that is livable, if you want to go to the loo for example, you’ll have to pay. Like Ryanair, those who can pay will trample on most people with their ‘early boarding passes’ where they can choose the seats and most of us who cannot can squeeze themselves in while being advertised at for an hour.

In Barnet, as the Guardian reports, those affected are the most vulnerable. Those in Sheltered Housing, old people, frail and vulnerable,  will now not have a warden to look out for their safety and comfort, as well as promoting community, but a ‘floating warden’ who will impersonally administrate several houses. Don’t worry they won’t starve, they will have an alarm button around their necks so when they take a plunge down the stairs so someone can be around just in time to watch them die. “It is surprising how able even so called vulnerable people are. Helping people help themselves, that’s the new Conservatism” says a local councilor. Helping people die alone, afraid and without the basic care they need and indeed deserve and deserted by everyone is what the new Conservatism is about – empowering people to make ‘choices’ when they would rather have a decent quality of care and real living human beings treating them as persons not statistics where the efficiency must be maximised. The ideological driver behind this model is The Future Shape of Barnet Council group. Reading their interim report, the deep heart of neoliberal public sector reform is revealed, ‘empowering local communities’ means leaving them stranded. This is the beauty of the Tories: sell cuts to people as if they are somehow empowering them. I propose a new idea. When the Tories say radical or progressive, we say cowabunga for the former and tubular for the latter to see just how meaningless their proposals are. Here is George Osbourne:

our commitment to a cowabunga localisation of power, we are the ones setting the tubular pace in politics.

Much more accurate.

Tory Neoliberalism: Why a vote for the Conservative Party is a vote for continuity, not change.

The following is the first post here at AUFS from Alex Andrews. In it he details the continuity of the UK’s Conservative Tory Party with neoliberalism against the increasingly popular narrative, perpetuated in part by the ideology of Red Toryism, that the Conservative party marks a break with neoliberal policies. -Ed.

Does the Conservative Party represent an alternative to the tired cross-party neoliberal consensus of the present day, the consensus that is the root cause of the current financial crisis? The Tories are seen by some as trying to reclaim the classical conservativism of the likes of Edmund Burke against their Thatcherite market mutation, and to become ‘red’  alongside Phillip Blond. Progressive aims, we are told by David Cameron himself at the launch of Blond’s Progressive Conservativism wing of the Demos think tank, require conservative means. But are the Tories really going to articulate such a vision that makes a decisive break with the hyper-pro-market past? Read the rest of this entry »

In defense of adultery

James K. A. Smith has weighed in on Mad Men and is unimpressed. As one for whom watching Mad Men was something akin to a religious experience, I feel I must respond in some way — leaving open the possibility that Smith himself will change his tune somewhat after (if) he finishes the first season, because as Brad pointed out in an IM conversation just now, it is really hard to get a feel for the show if you don’t have the whole in front of you.

Aside from claiming that the characters other than Don Draper are unbelievable charicatures (an assessment I think is simply wrong), Smith makes two main points. First, the show seems to be designed to shock our politically correct mindset with the stark contrast between now and the early 1960s — yet at the same time, it undermines itself by making the era seem so glamorous and attractive through what is (literally) a loving attention to detail. Second, he seems to regard the show’s reliance on adultery for so many plots as a kind of cheap move to flout convention.

On both points, I would say that he is over-hastily assimilating the show to a kind of culture-wars framework when I don’t think that’s what the show is aiming for at all. On point one, it seems strange to assume that the main goal of the show is to allow us to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come when so much of the show’s atmosphere makes the era depicted seem so attractive — perhaps it’s simply the case that the show wants to attempt to portray that era as it really was, with all its faults and all its attractions, and has no particular desire to intervene overtly in contemporary debates. On the second point, I would say that Smith is ignoring the strangeness of Don’s adulterous drives. Where Roger Sterling is continually chasing the young sexy things, Don is seeking out substantial self-made women who create their own space in the world — in other words, he’s seeking an equal in his mistresses, a partner that his wife can never really be (he already has the sexy young girl at home!). It’s a pretty sophisticated commentary on the internal contradictions of marriage as an institution, in an era when those contradictions were only starting to make themselves felt in a serious way.

Of course, this last point may reveal an axiomatic difference between me and Smith — I detect in the last paragraph of his post a sense that the truly subversive and great piece of art would be one that shows how profoundly good marriage is. Adultery is what’s really petty and banal, whereas the successful marriage is the truly sublime and beautiful subject worthy of art. For me, human relationships are far too complex and varied for one particular institution to be set on such a pedestal. I would regard what Don had with Midge (the bohemian girlfriend) as something valuable and real, even if it couldn’t last forever — and the fact that it couldn’t last forever and couldn’t be turned into an institutionally-recognized relationship (for reasons beyond the simple fact that Don is already married) was one of its most significant conditions of possibility. To me, regarding such relationships as failed attempts at something else seems obviously wrong — they are what they are and should be assessed as what they are, without reference to marriage as a “master signifier” among relationships.

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