Human Traffickin: The Solution to Iraq?

Just when you think that things could not POSSIBLY get better in Iraq, something else jumps out of the bush (or explodes from the roadside, it’s all the same really) and says: SURPRISE SURPRISE!

Take a look at this House Oversight Committee hearing yesterday.

So apparently we paid $600 million dollars to a Kuwaiti company to build our new Iraqi embassy, and the Kuwaiti contractor used abducted foreign labor and mistreated them. Just read this on-the-ground, eye-witness testimony (pdf) of human trafficking in this construction project, which, by the way, is only the largest State Department construction project in the world.

What a great way to spread Democracy in the Middle-East: using American people’s tax money to fund a construction projected built by slave labor.

God Bless America!

Harry Potter and The Sopranos

There is almost a striking similarity between the endings of Harry Potter and The Sopranos, although such a claim may look strange on its surface. After all, the Sopranos ended on a note of dread and uncertainty, pulled a stunt on its audiences, and played them for fools. On the other hand, HP7 ends with a sunny disposition and showed that all is right in the world.

Well, the similarity between that both endings told their audiences absolutely nothing about the protagonists. No one knows if Tony is dead and what he does, and no one knows anything about Harry, Hermione, Ron, and their respective families and adult careers.

Except whereas The Sopranos made a conscious decision to make its uncertainly in extremely explicit terms, J.K. Rowlings did the same thing but without the explicitness. In the end, both of their audiences know nothing about the fate of the main characters. They are equally mysterious, but in different ways.

Therefore, it is not surprising that both end with a gathering of their respective families. And in some sense this is fitting, since both celebrate the family, but does so in vastly different ways.

The Return of Politics, At Last

Finally, someone says what I’ve been thinking for some time now: Liberal democracies are not the end of history.

It’s time we stopped this liberal-democratic wet dream and confront the reality of international relations: namely, liberal-democratic values and the strategic maneuvers that they demand are not universal.

The Robert Kagan article that I’ve just linked is a well-written, nuanced analysis of America’s position in the international order today. You don’t have to agree with all of its conclusions to see that it’s a well-written, well-argued piece of thinking.

Although the article is couched mainly in a neo-realist IR framework, I agree with its central contention: that America must act strategically if it is serious about preserving the liberal-democratic ideas that it so values–in essence, a neo-realist prescription on how to go about achieving a normative goal, i.e., preservation of liberalism in the international order.

This requires America to finally give up the dream that the world will be shaped in its image, that any deviance from liberalism is not likely to be temporary but long-lasting due to cultural and historical differences. America must realize that no country will automatically open its borders and markets and suddenly turn liberal and embrace America with welcome arms. Rather, it must recognize and acknowledge the fact that illiberalism has a long tradition and cultural rootedness, that there are nations and cultures that will never deem liberalism legitimate.

In other words, America must recognize that liberalism and its values are not universal, transcendent values, but rather values that must be protected and fought for if one truly believes in them. This requires giving up the liberal-democratic Utopian dream brought about by the end of the Cold War, and it requires thinking in very strategic terms about what to do with nations and cultures that resist liberalism (China, Russia) and who might even seek to destroy it (fundamental Islam).

I wholeheartedly agree with this thesis, because I have never thought that the defense of normative values, by necessity, require those values to be fundamental and transcendent. All that matters is that the political community decides that they must be protected. This requires giving up any and all claims to privileged epistemological and ethical justifications of those values, which is something that America will have extreme difficult to do, since we are a country founded on the belief that God gave us the imperative to create the world in our image.

It means, at last, politics has returned, because politics operates based on the assumption that there is no consensus on what fundamental truths are. Politics is the struggle to realize certain visions, themselves derived from normative values held by the political community, by different political communities and actors. It has just been that historically speaking, such normative values are almost always couched in terms of fundamental truth and universalism, whether it’s God, Reason, and most recently, Capitalism.

I welcome this fragmentation of values, and the consequent fragmentation of the international order, for such a fragmentation can finally shake America out of its sense of moral superiority and thus shock it out of complacency and smugness. The fact that values cherished by Americans are now under attack requires America to finally engage in vigorous, active international politics: that is, engaging in struggles of power in which the stakes are nothing less than American identity as a whole.

This to me is the beauty of politics, and also that which makes politics the highest calling: because to engage in politics is to engage in a serious, passionate defense of one’s values and their authenticity by using one’s personal vigor and strength. Beyond simply a struggle for power, politics is the struggle for power that is anchored by a core set of beliefs for which one should be willing to pay the highest price for if one is truly sincere in his belief.

This necessarily means an increase in risk and instability in both an individual, national, and international context, because the stakes are nothing less than the integrity of identity of an individual or a state. This means that there will be intense struggles as beliefs clash, and it means that one must be prepared for such struggles, and if necessary, die for them.

So America must realize that its cherished liberal values won’t defend themselves, that the world is not going to roll-over and embrace the kind of Thomas Friedman politico-economic Utopia of open markets and rule-of-law. Most of all, America must realize that it must assume the burdens of defending its core beliefs and all the danger, risk, and instability that comes with such a defense.

Review of HP7: Deathly Hallows

This review contains spoilers.

This book is a mixed bag to me, because there are some really good parts, and then there are parts which seem under-developed or otherwise rushed.

First, onto the good parts. The narrative is much better this time because taking the narrative action out of Hogwarts really frees Rowling from the structured imposed on her by the schedule of the school. It’s true that you miss out on Quidditch, but I’ve always felt that it was superfluous anyways. Setting the plot in a new, more adult, more realistic (to the extent that realism is possible in a fantasy setting) context makes the action much more exciting and free.

Second, there is much more moral nuances and complexities in this book than ever before, especially Rowling’s decision to challenge the ethical nature of Dumbledore’s past actions. But given the good-vs-evil theme of the book, moral complexities are not as rich as they could be, but that sort of complaint is to miss the point of the series in general. Given that the audiences are mostly children and teenagers, more ethical complexity and shades-of-gray would be inappropriate. After all, this is not a series about challenging traditional moral conventions.

Third, the plot picks up in intensity as it should, since it is the last book after all. A sense of urgency is established right from the beginning, and it rarely lets off save some slower stretches during the middle of the book. A lot gets packed into the pages, and it makes for a much more exciting and tense read. But this accelerated pace does not come at the expense of intricacy, since long-time readers are rewarded with a number of conclusions to various sub-plots running throughout the series.

Finally, the book achieves moments of poignancy that goes beyond what the series has produced in the past, such as Harry’s burial of Dobby, the ghosts of his loved ones accompanying him on his journey to self-sacrifice, the death of Fred, etc. And the poignancy is not of the mawkish, overly-sentimental variety but of the genuinely cathartic sort.

And here comes the not-so-good parts.

First, because the book is so plot-driven this time, I felt that it short-changed some really interesting characters. Given that the narrative takes place predominantly outside of Hogwarts, it’s inevitable that the students (other than the three main protagonists) are given much less face-time so to speak. Even admitting this, I felt that characters like Neville Longbottom, Luna Lovegood, and even Draco Malfoy should have received more development, since each of them have back-stories that could yield huge dividends dramatically: Neville’s vengeance for his parents, Lovegood for her father, and Draco’s vacilitating between good and evil, etc.

But the character that really got the shaft, in my opinion, is Snape. Rowling (in)famously posed the question of Snape’s loyalities, and given his back-story, a confrontation between Harry and Snape would have been extremely dramatic on so many levels. Yet their one encounter yields a scene in which Snape says virtually nothing, and the big revelation that Snape has been loyal to Dumbledore after all is revealed passively in the form of a Pensieve memory. As the character with the most complex morality, Snape gets an extremely short-shrift from Rowling. I was extremely disappointed in this particular encounter, which to me had the most dramatic potential.

The ending is also anti-climatic because what precedes immediately–Harry’s voluntary resignation and self-sacrifice–is so much more poignant than his final confrontation with Voldermort. The entire “dream” or “ghostly” encounter with Dumbledore after Harry dies seems like a deus-ex-machina device to me. All that part does is to come up with a lengthy exposition of why Harry can still live with no real continuity with the rest of the book. Sure, it ties up a lot of loose ends with Dumbledore and the Deathly Hallows, but its only real purpose is to make sure that Harry survives.

The confrontation between Harry and Voldermort itself is underwhelming, becoming little more than cliched Hollywood-style exchanges between Hero and Villain. Would the ending be better had Harry died? My immediate answer would be yes, but I think that even if one wanted Harry to survive, there are better ways to do so than this anti-climatic confrontation.

But even with these flaws, I still found the book to be the best in the series, because it achieves a level of intensity that is not found in all previous books. It brings a satisfying conclusion, albeit not a completely satisfying one, to the series. Like the series as a whole, the book is not terribly original, with influences of Arthurian legends and Tolkien easily perceivable, but that in itself is not detrimental because in some ways the line between homage and direct-quotation is a blurry one. The thematic qualities of the book do not reach the level of richness that is characteristic of first-rate literature, but there is an appropriate amount given the audience.

So as far as literature aimed at children and teenagers go, this is not a bad series at all, with terrific entertainment value. But no one should pretend that this stuff compares to Doestoyvesky or Proust. Will it become a classic of the genre? On commercial popularity alone, it is all but done. But only time can tell whether its artistic influences are long-lasting or not.

Breast Milk

It looks like TSA finally did something right when it announced that mothers can now carry more than three ounces of breast milk.

I’m glad our airports are now safe from the terror threat that is breast milk

Academic Erotica

One common crack people in the non-academic world–which is to say, 99 percent of the public–levels at academia is that grad schools are little more than institutions in which people engage in intellectual masturbation.

And to that I say: what is the problem?

For in that joke is the assumption that the erotic is somehow misguided. And a further assumption is that the erotic can only manifest itself physically.

The first assumption is a reflection of the puritanical character of this country, the same puritanical character that produces an ironic dichotomy: the public condemns sexual scandals of public figures but yet demands every sordid detail.

The second assumption reflects a lack of understanding of the nature of Eros. I am going to make a claim which should surprise no one: not a lot of people in this country have read Plato’s Symposium.

I only bring up the Symposium because in it Socrates articulates the nature of Eros as the pursuit or desire of immortality, which is manifested in its highest form through the production or exchange of ideas between the teacher and the student.

What most of America has never thought about is the possibility that ideas can become objects of desire in that they arouse a kind of “high” or feeling of transcendence. Anyone who has ever produced an intellectual product, whether it’s a book, painting, or music, can attest to the feeling of euphoria. Why do you think musicians often say that performing on stage, and performing well on stage, is better than sex?

And that is the problem with the public: it cannot conceive of a higher manifestation of Erotic Love than the sexual. Therefore, the metaphor of “intellectual masturbation” is a contradiction: its usage suggests that the public does recognize intellectual pursuit as a form of Eros, but it is used in an ironic and derogatory way by those who use it, thereby exposing the inability of the user to conceive of Eros as anything but physical intercourse.

The Shitter as the Source of All Ideas

So I was sitting on the shitter, reading Thomas Friedman’s Lexus and the Olive Tree. Yes, indeed I do read books on globalization as bathroom reading. And one line particularly struck me, only in a way Thomas Friedman can, about the naivety and smugness of neo-liberalism: with the democratization of information, no political leader today can pretend that nothing evil is happening in the world. Or something to that effect.

And I almost burst out laughing, because my God, to think of it: the Internet as teleology! I mean, what a fucking concept! Friedman sounds exactly like Al Gore in his latest book: they both praise the Internet as a great democratic tool that will loosen the stranglehold of information held by MNCs and let the people speak truth to power.

Well here’s a good counter-example: Darfur. Oh yes, we have known about Darfur for a while now, but aside from a bunch of college students wearing green wrist-bands, our political leaders have done what…Nothing?

Oh no, what Friedman seems to forget is that people are not all good, in any sense, at all. Just because we know something to be wrong doesn’t mean we will actually do anything about it.

The wisdom of the crowd is a joke if the crowd makes it decision based on information presented to it by media conglomerates. What is the Internet? The Internet is a place for partisan hacks, opportunistic manipulators, advertisers looking for the quick buck.

All praise the profit motive, who only acts morally as an after-thought.