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October 2008

Perils of Space

Space station toilet malfunction

“It failed late yesterday,” NASA spokesperson John Ira Petty said of the Russian-built space commode in televised commentary from Mission Control in Houston. “Russian specialists are troubleshooting. The problem appears to be a [gas] separator issue. In the meantime, the crew has been instructed to use the toilet in the Soyuz [TMA-12] spacecraft.” NASA has paid $19 million for a second Russian-built space toilet, which will be delivered alongside other life support, exercise equipment and sleeping quarters during a November shuttle mission. Having two working main toilets is vital for the space station, which is expected to double its crew size to six astronauts next year.

I know, I know. I must resist the urge to post distasteful bathroom items.

Projection (2)

In a piece pondering the nature of the political middle ground, Fabian Tassano spots a little sly projection:

According to the Guardian, for example, Cameron recently claimed that “the poor, obese and lazy spent too much time blaming social problems for their own shortcomings.” However, that looks like a bit of tendentious rewriting on the part of the Guardian since, as far as I can make out from other media coverage, what Cameron actually said during his tour of Glasgow in July is that “social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.” The distinction between the quote and its misrepresentation is illuminating, since the people who blame ‘society’ for poverty, disease and so forth are not typically the poor themselves, but the il-liberal elite (e.g. Guardian writers).

The rest.   

Attitude Correction

What can it possibly mean to ask candidates what they’ve done lately to demonstrate their “public commitment to equity?” Any chance that an acceptable answer would be the following: “In view of what happened in the USSR, China, Cuba, Cambodia, and many other parts of the world under communist rule, I believe that the best thing I can do to promote equity in our society is to help strengthen capitalism and democracy in every way I can and, toward that end, I actively promote Republican candidates”?

Daphne Patai notes yet another effort to ensure faculty display the “correct” political orientation:

The legality of the questions suggested by Sandler and her co-authors seems dubious, though I am not aware of any lawsuit that has challenged them. They are also patently inappropriate. Gauging levels of “commitment” to what are essentially political issues has nothing to do with one’s academic expertise. Rather, it resembles the effort by Schools of Education to gauge potential teachers’ “dispositions,” a practice challenged and publicized by K. C. Johnson. It is also in the same league as the still widely prevalent speech codes and harassment policies that elevate sensitivity and comfort into major academic concerns… Potential faculty are thus being pressured to adopt and embrace - or merely pretend to do so - the requisite “attitude” toward minorities, political activism, and social issues, and to provide evidence that they have acted on these supposed commitments. And, scarier still, these questions by implication are presented as legitimate requirements for employment, though they have nothing to do with either education or intellectual and scholarly accomplishments. And, even worse, the questions are designed to weed out the merely formal assenters from authentic true believers.

The whole thing.

KC Johnson’s encounter with the academic policing of “disposition” is unlikely to reassure

[As] the hotly contested campaigns of 2000 and 2004 amply demonstrated, people of good faith disagree on the components of a “just society,” or what constitutes the “negative effects of the dominant culture,” or how best to achieve “world peace... and preservation of the environment.” An intellectually diverse academic culture would ensure that these vague sentiments did not yield one-sided policy prescriptions for students. But the professoriate cannot dismiss its ideological and political imbalance as meaningless while simultaneously implementing initiatives based on a fundamentally partisan agenda. […]

At the undergraduate level, these high-sounding principles have been translated into practice through a required class called “Language and Literacy Development in Secondary Education.” According to numerous students, the course’s instructor demanded that they recognize “white English” as the “oppressors’ language.” Without explanation, the class spent its session before Election Day screening Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. When several students complained to the professor about the course’s politicized content, they were informed that their previous education had left them “brainwashed” on matters relating to race and social justice.

Again, worth reading in full.

I’ve been told I make too much of these academic issues, as if such things are unimportant or indicative of nothing in particular. But given the number of incidents of this kind gradually swelling the archives, I’m inclined to wonder exactly how egregious and pervasive this phenomenon has to be before concern becomes legitimate. After all, if you want to propagate tendentious ideology and make it seem normative, respectable and self-evidently true, insinuating that ideology into schools and universities would be a pretty good way to do it. “Debate” can then be had on what is most likely an unequal footing, thus arriving at the approved conclusions with a minimum of informed and realistic opposition. If faculty and students are obliged to regurgitate that ideology and perhaps internalise it, while mouthing fuzzwords like “social justice,” all the better. Is it enough to bemoan certain socio-political trends or bias in areas of the media if one doesn’t also address the place where many of these things originate? And are we supposed to believe that the ideologues who push for such measures are going to get tired and desist of their own volition, and then politely roll back the idiocy they’ve been so keen to put in place?

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A Commonplace Extremism

KC Johnson touches on the Obama-Ayers controversy and develops a theme noted here more than once, i.e. the prevalence of ideological extremism in large parts of academia and its unilateral nature:

For the GOP attack [on Obama] to work, Ayers and [Columbia professor Rashid] Khalidi have to be viewed as exceptional figures - wholly unlike nearly all other professors.[…] Yet the truth of the matter is that the basic pedagogical and academic approaches of Ayers and Khalidi fit well within the academic mainstream. Ayers is, after all, a prestigious professor of education (hardly a field known for its intellectual diversity, as I have explored elsewhere). Khalidi was of such standing that Columbia hired him away from the U of C, and named him to chair its Middle East Studies Department. From that perch, he presided over a wildly biased anti-Israel curriculum, even as he informed readers of New York that students of Arab descent - and only such students - knew the “truth” about Middle Eastern affairs.

I agree with Palin that there’s a scandal here - but it’s not that Obama, among his hundreds of associations with academic figures, was acquainted with, and received support from, Ayers and Khalidi. The scandal is the evolution of a groupthink academic environment that has allowed figures such as Ayers and Khalidi to flourish. The tolerance for extremism is on one side and one side only: the academy doesn’t offer carte blanche endorsement to some types of unrepentant domestic terrorists or to figures who suggest that politically incorrect ethnic groups know the “truth.” Imagine the chances of someone who had bombed abortion clinics in the 1980s becoming a prominent education professor. Or consider the likelihood of a man who claimed that Jewish and only Jewish students knew the “truth” about Middle Eastern matters becoming chairman of a major Middle East Studies Department.

The whole thing.

Update, via the comments:

As a presidential candidate, Obama’s involvement with Ayers and Dohrn is obviously a matter of concern and attempts to downplay the issue have been largely disingenuous. There are questions to be answered, beginning with these. But it seems inadequate to limit that concern to Obama. Ayers – now a “distinguished professor of education” (with tenure) - has flourished in a particular environment, one which not only excuses his past extremism and lack of contrition, but which actively enables his ongoing extremism and his urge to indoctrinate. The journey from terrorist to tenure has, it seems, been achieved with only a change of method rather than a change of core ideology. Violent revolution has essentially been swapped for indoctrination, sanitised as “reform”. In ideological terms, Ayers is scarcely less incoherent and extreme than he was when urging students to kill their parents. That he finds academia so congenial, and so obliging, probably tells us something.

Ayers_the_dissenter_2With their vision of schools as “sites of resistance” and their imaginings of martyrdom and “dissent,” Ayers and Dohrn are both pernicious and absurd. But so is Shakti Butler and so is Caprice Hollins, and Peggy McIntosh, and Wahneema Lubiano and Rhonda Garelick, and Noel Ignatiev and Geoff Schneider. Setting aside Ayers’ criminal past, it’s not clear to me what makes him more objectionable than Noel Ignatiev, who publishes the deranged journal Race Traitor and whose students learn that “whiteness is a form of racial oppression” and should therefore be “abolished,” and that “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” Ignatiev and his Race Traitor colleagues declare their refusal to “limit themselves to socially acceptable means of protest,” and find it “hard to believe” opposition to their ideas could come from anyone except “committed white supremacists”. After all, who but a “committed white supremacist” could possibly take exception to the cultural and psychological eradication of the “social construct known as the white race”? And who else could possibly be concerned that these enlightened beings “reject in advance no means of attaining their goal”?

How is Ayers’ political outlook worse than that of Wahneema Lubiano, who seems to think having brown skin is a career in itself and insists there can be no distinction between her work in the classroom and the advancement of her own bizarre political agenda? Lubiano confidently asserts that “knowledge factories” [i.e. universities] should be “sabotaged” – by those who think as she does, naturally. Her courses in “critical studies” and “race and gender” are construed in such a way that students can be told, at length, that “once white working class people learn that corporate capitalism is using racism to manipulate them, they will want to join with racially oppressed people against capitalism.” (Do parents realise this is what’s costing them $40,000 a year?)

These unhinged educators aren’t just random, unrelated aberrations and they don’t exist in a vacuum. Consequently, it’s not enough to ask Obama how he felt about working with Ayers and endorsing his efforts. One also has to ask how it is that academia became a favoured nesting site for far left fantasists. Not just for people with the usual range of arguments about public spending or welfare or whatever, but people whose worldview is intensely ideological and who feel entitled to “groom” youngsters with the “correct” political outlook.

I want my own “site of resistance.” Feel free to help fund its construction. 

Friday Ephemera

Body parts and musical genres. Hip hop is big on the ass. // Kittens that glow. // Fungus and opera. Spores fly, passions soar. (h/t, AC1) // Death ray inches closer. Planes, mirrors, megawatt laser. (h/t, Ace) // Making Dr Manhattan. // Rules of refrigeration. // The ultimate chocolate indulgence. £147.89 // Bacon-flavoured cigarette papers. // Vintage poison bottles. (h/t, Quipsologies) // The comedy of flip charts. (h/t, 1+1=3) // The population of China. // The complete sayings of Charlie Chan. // A-ha’s Take On Me (Literal Version) “Band mon-tage!” // The Tale of How. Run, dodos, run. // This table will self-destruct. (h/t, Coudal) // ICA gives platform to Hamas. It’s art, you see. // Pissoirs of note. // “The urine of the male is less impure than the urine of the female.” It’s Qur’anic science. // The Medieval imagination. // Earth from on high. // V-2, 1950. // And, via The Thin Man, it’s the Isley Brothers.

Shrinking Ray

A few weeks ago, in one of the ephemera roundups, I posted a link to some tilt-shift photography. The technique is a kind of reverse Supermarionation, whereby life-size objects are made to look like scale model miniatures. Keith Loutit combines tilt-shift photography with stop-motion filming. The results are quite striking. Watch those teeny tiny people move.

Beached from Keith Loutit on Vimeo

Bathtub III from Keith Loutit on Vimeo

More tilt-shift imagery links.


In the comments following this, on unrepentant former terrorist and current academic, William Ayers, I wrote: 

I’m not sure what the precise level of ostracism should be for those, like Ayers, who show no contrition for past sins. But I find it remarkable that so little stigma is apparent. There is a double standard here, whereby leftwing extremism, even of the most contemptible kind, is excused as some youthful exuberance or badge of credibility. I’m trying to picture a deranged ultra-rightwing academic still being employed, even acclaimed, despite his past attempts at sedition and indiscriminate murder, and despite such “radical” statements as, “break into the homes of poor people and kill them. That’s where it’s really at.”

Well, hey there, daddio...

Jeff Goldstein has some thoughts on Obama’s links with Ayers, and the mainstream media’s strange incuriosity:

No evidence? Well, Stanley Kurtz and Steve Diamond, two of the only journalists actually interested enough to look into the relationship, would beg to differ about the extent of Obama’s relationship with Ayers… Obama, we have found out, lied about the extent of his relationship with Ayers ([AP reporter Douglass Daniel] appears unfazed by Senator Obama’s dishonesty); he has never given an account of his CAC activities, and Ayers’ role in those activities (and has in fact tried to keep Kurtz and other journalists from telling their stories, issuing “action alerts” directing supporters to try to shout down his critics). […]

Here’s Daniel:

Obama, who was a child when the Weathermen were planting bombs, has denounced Ayers’ radical views and actions.

Well, unless you count his glowing endorsement of those radical views as put into action, including an endorsement of Ayers’ book on education, (which is nothing if not in keeping with Ayers’ radical views about the US-as-villain-and-oppressor), and the funding he funneled, through CAC, to Ayers-backed “educational” programs that eschewed things like math and science for courses based around progressive and radical notions of “social justice” and the politicizing of curricula through the “small schools” initiative.

Other than that, though, yeah: consider Ayers and his radicalism denounced in the strongest terms!

The whole thing.

Update: A deleted scene from Indoctrinate U:

“If you’re a Communist who’s declared war on the US government, if you’ve set off bombs all over the country and spent years on the run, there’s always one place where you will be welcomed with opened arms.”

Friday Ephemera

Burn your guitars, the Optron has arrived. // All hail Mothra! Incomprehensible happenings in Japan. // Dr Manhattan’s penis is discussed at length. Oh, and the rest of the film too. // They come in peace, in puffer jackets. // Your very own Sarah Palin. // In unrelated news… // The Spirit. Ghostly cop, unruly dames. // The boombox backpack. // Styrobot. // The 2” cube PC. // Radar consoles we have known and loved. // Defunct spacecraft versus atmosphere. (h/t, Dr Westerhaus) // Space, as seen on TV. // Colours of the Moon. // Procrastination flowchart. (h/t, Coudal) // Moscow Zoo, 1920. // The photography of Josef Hoflehner. // And, via The Thin Man, it’s Mr Shawn Lee and his Ping Pong Orchestra

Unnatural Taboos

A while ago, in the comments following this, I wrote:

It occurs to me that the implications of social construction can appeal to rather unsavoury motives. If a person’s tastes and disposition are primarily socially constructed, that person can also, presumably, be remade to suit society and its representatives. Such high-minded Agents of Society might even become “engineers of the human soul,” to borrow Stalin’s phrase. The idea of innate disposition and talent is in some circles quite contentious, not least with regard to intelligence and its unequal distribution. This seems to cause unease in ways that, say, the unequal distribution of musical or athletic talent does not. It also undermines many conceptions of egalitarianism, which is probably why it causes such a fuss.

And it does cause a fuss. It’s possible, for instance, to find people who are (or will be) employed precisely because of their well above average intelligence performing extraordinary contortions to deny the existence of the intelligence they possess. Some, like Joseph Kugelmass, an English graduate student at the University of California, say things like this:

The abstract personal definition of “intelligence,” reified in our minds thanks to IQ tests and their derivatives, is a source of social ills and should be abandoned. It impedes and confuses pedagogy, underwrites racism and sexism, inhibits culture, and trivializes political debate… To claim that intelligence exists as a phenomenon, but not as an inherent personal quality, is the same as arguing that race or gender exist as social phenomena but not as simple, natural facts. […] Intelligence, like all essentialism, is a technology of power. It reinforces privilege and hierarchizes speech. It cuts art and language off from its inspirations, aping capital by circulating language through a series of useless oppositions… and non-signifying refinements of craft.

Setting aside the tendentious postmodern framing, dutifully regurgitated, note how the objection to intelligence as a personal attribute is asserted rather than argued and is essentially political in origin.

With the above in mind, here’s a short TED lecture from 2003, in which Steven Pinker addresses the political appeal of the “blank slate” theory, its prevalence, and its shortcomings. Topics touched on include ideological taboos, experience versus theory, and the self-inflicted disrepute of literary criticism.

Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, is well worth reading.

Related: On Stalin’s dislike of genetics and the idea of human nature.