Small blue thing

21 07 2015


NASA/DSCOVER satellite

I’ve always said that, if given the chance, I’d jump to hitch a ride on the space shuttle. To go into space!—how could I not?

(Presuming, that is, that I were physically capable of doing so. And that the trip lasted days rather than months: I can control my claustrophobia 0nly so long.)

But while I certainly would want to peer out, to see what I couldn’t see from the ground, I’d bet that I’d probably spend even more time gazing on our small blue world.

You know that old T-Bone Burnett tune, Humans from Earth? It’s actually a nasty little tune about otherworldly colonization, but that title has always stuck with me: this is where we started, as humans, and this is where we live, as humans. We might someday figure out how to be human outside of low Earth orbit, but everything about us, thus far, is grounded in experience living on this astonishing spinning ball of rock and water.

I didn’t always feel this way about Earth, tended to take it for granted. But at some point in my studies of genetics (and with a nudge from Ms. Arendt) I began to take seriously that we were worldly creatures, in the sense that we are shaped by our conditions, the most basic of which is that we are born, live, and  die on this planet.

There’s a scene from a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Defector”, in which said defector, a Romulan, is taken to the holodeck in order to “visit” his home planet. At first he delights in the sights, but then he rejects the illusion: this was not home.

Earth is home, to me. I understand, as someone who left her hometown and home state, that where one is from does not have to dictate where one goes; thus, I begrudge no one who might want to make a one-way trip to Mars, or beyond.

One constant of humans from the very beginning of us is that some of stay, and some of us go. So, by all means, some of us should go.

I’ll be waving from the ground.

Let the rain fall on your skin

11 12 2014

The USA Patriot Act issued by the US Senate on October 26, 2001, already allowed the attorney general to “take into custody” any alien suspected of activities that endangered “the national security of the United States,” but within seven days the alien had to be either released or charged with the violation of immigration laws or some other criminal offense. What is new about President Bush’s order is that it radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnameable and unclassifiable being. Not only do the Taliban captured in Afghanistan not enjoy the status of POWs as defined by the Geneva Convention, they do not even have the status of persons charged with a crime according to American laws. Neither prisoners nor persons accused, but simply “detainees,” they are the object of pure de facto rule of a detention that is indefinite not only in the temporal sense but in its very nature as well, since it is entirely removed from the law and from judicial oversight. The only thing to which it could possibly be compared is the legal situation of the Jews in the Nazi Lager [camps], who, along with their citizenship, had lost every legal identity, but at least retained their identity as Jews.

Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception

The torture-cheerleaders are clear to state that the Bush Administration’s legal counsel cleared the techniques of torture—mainly by stating that these techs were not-torture—so it could be argued that the “detainees” were in fact covered by law, as “detainees”.

The torture regime of a decade ago was indeed a legal regime: by using the law to remove the protections of the law from those assigned “detainee” status, it covered those who would torture.

Hannah Arendt noted there is no particular dignity in the naked human being (although “naked” in this sense meant shorn of one’s membership in a state), which leaves that shorn human vulnerable to imprisonment, displacement, death.

The point, then, is the same: lacking status as a citizen, a prisoner, a person—as someone recognized by us—allows us to do anything to that non-person.

And so we did.

We might as well try, 1: See how we are

12 07 2012


First, an error (which will nonetheless remain): I was thinking we might as well try was a Beth Orton lyric, but it is not; the line I was thinking of, from “Pass in time” is You might as well smile/cause tomorrow you just don’t know. Since we might as well try fits so well, however, it’s staying.

That’s how it is.

(That whole cd is fantastic, by the way. Central Reservation. I’ll post a vid, below, along with the X vid; I know that lyric is right.)

Anyway, to begin the beguine, the human.

Hannah Arendt’s admonition that we should pitch “human nature” in favor of the “human condition” made a kind of intuitive sense to me when I first read it, although I couldn’t put that sense into words.

The problem of human nature, the Augustinian quaestio mihi factus sum (“a question I have become for myself”) seems unanswerable in both its individual psychological sense and its general philosophical sense. . . . [I]f we have a nature or an essence, then surely only a god could know and define it, and the first prerequisite would be that he be able to speak about a “who” as though it were a “what.” The perplexity is that the modes of human cognition applicable to things with “natural” qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we?

She says, in effect, that we can’t get outside of ourselves, which is what is really sufficient to be able to determine any essential qualities; more to the point, even if we could determine an essential what, that helps us not at all with the how and who of us.

On the other hand, the conditions of human existence—life itself, natality and mortality, worldliness, plurality, and the earth—can never “explain” what we are or answer the question of who we are for the simple reason that they never condition us absolutely.

Arendt noted earlier that

The human condition comprehends more than the conditions under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. . . . In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability notwithstanding, possess the same condition power as natural things. Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence.

I know, right? Right?

Okay, so it was good that Arendt was such an acute thinker, because she wasn’t always the sharpest writer. Still, I wanted to give you the excerpts, if only to give you a base from which to jump off and all over my interpretation of that base.

Which is: we are whats, material beings, but not just whats. To  divine a human nature is, in a sense, to reduce us to a what, and since we can’t get outside of ourselves (which would be necessary for such a reduction), it makes no sense to try. We may, in fact, never fully understand even our whatness, much less the how and who (and don’t even bother with the why) of humanness, but we can look around and make sense of the world we live in, both given and constructed. Thus, to speak of the human condition is to refer to that double-existence: one (please forgive the Heideggerianism) always already there, and one we are constantly re-shaping and re-creating.

And of course you understand that even the givens are fluid—Heraclitus and all that, right?

I’m as bad as Arendt, aren’t I? To boil this nub into a nib: We live in a world made over by us, and which makes us over. We condition and are conditioned, and the best chance we have of making sense of our selves is to make sense of those conditions and conditionings.

And that nib into a bit: We live in our relations to the natural world, the world we make, and to one another; we cannot make sense outside of these relationships.

So what does that mean for this project? That we start in the world, with actual human beings in all our messy whats and hows and who-nesses and not in some abstracted stick-figure of what someone things we should be, if only we could get rid of all our messy whats and hows and who-nesses.

The mess is our condition; get rid of that, and you get rid of us.


And now, as promised, Beth Orton:

And X:

Osama bin Laden is dead; and. . . ?

2 05 2011

A few thoughts on the death of a murderous fanatic:

1. I am opposed to the death penalty, in every case. Thus, as I noted in a comment at TNC’s joint, I may be parsing matters to consider bin Laden not the subject of a criminal trial, but a casualty of war.

2. I don’t like facile comparisons of bin Laden to Hitler or Al Qaeda to the Nazis; whatever the totalitarian similarities, the differences, I think, are are even greater.

Nonetheless, this quote from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem came to mind:

[J]ust as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang. [emph. added]

To want to cleanse the world of its inhabitants makes you an enemy of the world and its inhabitants and gives us license to treat you as such.

I don’t celebrate his death—“grim satisfaction” seems the appropriate cliche—but I do think a kind of rough justice was done.

3. There are concerns that this action will give the US cover to leave Afghanistan sooner rather than later. Would that this would be so.

4. The death of bin Laden matters. I say this not as an expert on terrorism but more generally as a political scientists: Even if the death were only symbolic—his operational role was said to have diminished greatly in the past few years—the symbolism still matters. In both war and politics, symbolism matters.

As to whether this will lead to a retrenchment or fracturing of Al Qaeda, well, either is a possibility. Bin Laden was apparently a charismatic figure, and his former number two (now presumptive leader) Ayman Al-Zawahri is not; that could matter in terms of holding together a far-flung criminal operation.

Or not: The cell structure of Al Qaeda may mean that those freelancers gathered under the Al Qaeda banner have long since left the base of The Base behind.

We’ll find out.

5. Some are concerned at what happens next.

As a general matter, I’m not concerned; something always happens next.

As for specifics,  I (somewhat surprisingly) again agree with Jeffrey Goldberg:

Television-based analysts are already asking if the killing of Bin Laden will provoke revenge attacks by al Qaeda. Is there a stupider question in the world? The implication, of course, is that now, al Qaeda will truly be pissed off at the U.S. Unlike in 2001, when al Qaeda was only marginally angry at the U.S.

He backs off that somewhat in later posts—yes, some terrorists may be moved to strike out in rage or grief—but as Al Qaeda was not much a political organization, that is, it was not an organization with which one could negotiate, any acts around it or in reference to it or against it would lead to a reaction.

That there are reactions does not mean there should be no actions.

6. There are domestic political implications of all this, but it seems small, today, to consider them.

7. To circle back around to the Arendt quote: Yes, I think she got it right.

There are a lot of reconsiderations of her work in light of a new book on Eichmann (The Eichmann Trial, by Deborah Lipstadt), but I don’t know that any of the old or new criticisms can erode the acuity of that judgment, which deserves repeating:

[J]ust as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations. . . we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you.

The way is dark, the light is dim

15 01 2011

So I was going to write something about civility in politics.

Three times, I was going to write something about civility in politics—even had a header for one of ’em—but then I remembered: Been there, done that.

I think civility is a fine thing, and as mentioned in a very early post, I very much like the idea of going at it hammer and tongs with someone—and then eating pie.

Argument and pie: What could be better?

I still believe that. But I also believe that, in the face of incivility, tut-tutting about the rudeness of the other fellow is of no use; no, the correct response is tit-tatting: if he broke a metaphorical bottle over your head, and if you don’t like having metaphorical bottles broken over your head, then you smash one over his. If he comes back with a verbal fist to the face, then a lexical plank upside the head is appropriate.

Do not let the adversary get away with anything. Make him pay. And when he gets tired of being bloodied—and acts accordingly—then so should you.

The rules of politics are set and enforced by the participants, so if you want civility, you not only have to practice that civility, you have to enforce it—which means you have to punish incivility.

There is no other way.


It should be obvious that what works in politics does not necessarily work in, say, intimate or even collegial relationships, nor, for that matter, in the practice of science or in the arts or religion. (The truly interesting question is whether these gladiatorial tactics are appropriate to war—but I leave that to the military strategists among you.) My understanding of politics is predicated on conflict; my understanding of friendship is not.


I don’t think the Tea Partiers are fascists anymore than I thought GW Bush was Hitler, and any such comparisons are as sloppy and mendacious as those linking Obama to Stalin or Osama bin Laden.

“Sloppy and mendacious”: But what if people really are afraid that Obama is a Secret Musselman in thrall to an anti-colonialist anti-American communist conspiracy?

Grow up.

The evidence is lacking, just as evidence that Bush planned the hijackings on Sept 11 is lacking. The sincerity of beliefs matters not one whit if those beliefs are, to quote a couple of automotive philosophers, “unencumbered by the thought process”.

The proper response to such charges is either mockery or a swift linguistic kick in the shins.


Well, okay, the fists-up response is not always appropriate. One can engage in a kind of political discourse which seeks understanding, and to which nonsense might best be met with questions as to why the interlocutor believes that, or even a polite I disagree.

And, ff course, if one is outnumbered and such verbal disagreement could lead to a physical beatdown, keeping one’s trap shut is also a fine tactic.


I hate eliminationist talk, and find it stupid and counterproductive, if not potentially dangerous. I don’t  engage in such talk, don’t laugh at jokes about assassination, don’t as a general matter invite the spectre of real violence into the arena of politics.

It’s not because I’m good, but because I’m an Arendtian, and I think politics has a purpose which can be shattered by violence.

(Yes, I have invited public figures to engage in anatomically impossible acts on themselves, and will likely do so again the future. These aren’t my best moments, but I think a not-unreasonable response to the denigration and dehumanization of an entire category of human beings.)

Aristotle and Arendt both thought politics ennobling; a part of me agrees that yes, it offers the possibility of us inhabiting one of the highest kinds of human being.

But, as Machiavelli pointed out, one rarely reaches that pinnacle unscathed.

h/t, and for a completely different set of views, see James Fallows here, here, here, and here

“While violence can destroy power, it can never become a substitute for it”

8 01 2011

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, D-AZ, was shot at point-blank range today.

She is in critical condition; according to press reports, 18 people were injured and as many as six were killed.

This is very bad news.

Every shooting is very bad news, of course, as is every murder. But political murder in a representative system carries another meaning, one which states that, in effect, the will of the people does not matter.

There’s a lot to criticize in the notion of “the will of the people”, and a lot to question in our version of representative democracy; nonetheless, it’s what we’ve got and it’s how we confer at least a bare legitimacy on our system of governance. We don’t have to like it, of course, and so we bitch and we organize and we try to sway our fellow citizens and our members of Congress to change.

This means we’re always failing: If Dems win, GOPers lose, and vice versa. Those who want change battle those content with the status quo. There may be some win-win or lose-lose situations, but in a pluralist democracy, you don’t always get your way.

To be political is to reconcile oneself to failure—without giving up.

Political assassins will not so reconcile themselves. Whatever their motivations, whatever their goals, they cannot accept that they lose, cannot accept that others may legitimately win. And so they seek to destroy the adversary’s victory, destroy that legitimacy, and, symbolically, to destroy not only those others, but everyone who allowed the victor to take power.

In so doing, the assassin acts against us all: as citizens, as participants in the political process, as those who, whatever our misgivings, in the end accept a flawed and frayed system of governance over the alternatives of purges and violence, who in the end accept the ballot over the bullet.

What we’ve got is not the best, but is what we’ve  got, it is ours—assassins be damned.

Anything you can do, I can do better

12 09 2009

Who would you like to see together?

Don’t be perverted—not like that! No, more along the lines of Here are two people who I’d love to see do whatever it is they do, together.

I was watching  clip of k.d. lang singing a Leonard Cohen song, and thought, Man, I wonder what she’d sound like with Cassandra Wilson?

Two amazing vocalists and interpreters, together.

So, my first duet: k.d. lang and Cassandra Wilson

Then again, I’d long thought that it would be great to listen in as Hannah Arendt and Edward Said argued.

Thus, the first duel (albeit a friendly one): Arendt and Said.

Who else?

  • Arendt and Rosa Luxemburg
  • Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X
  • Arendt and Malcolm X
  • Malcolm X and Bernard Lazare
  • Janis Joplin and Cass Elliot
  • PJ Harvey and Patti Smith (definitely a duel)
  • Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Dawn Upshaw (Really. Have you heard her on Golijov’s Ayre? The woman can sing anything.)
  • Eddie Cochran and The Clash
  • Brett Favre (back in the day. . .) and Randy Moss
  • Martina Navratilova (back in the day. . .) and Serena Williams
  • k.d. lang and Lizz Wright
  • Kate Bush and Leonard Cohen (just for the hell of it)
  • Marvin Gaye and Joni Mitchell (hot and cool, together)

Who else?

I can’t be the only one who wastes her time thinking about this kind of thing. . . .


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