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Friday, September 06, 2002

 
"IT IS TOO SOON TO TELL."

The first stage in the so-called "war on terrorism" was the U.S.-led campaign to oust the Taliban and to destroy the leadership of al-Qaida in Afghanistan. The campaign succeeded impressively on the first count, but the outcome is less clear on the second. We struck a decisive blow against the regime that sheltered our enemy, but a less-than-decisive blow against our enemy itself.

Warbloggers and neo-con hawks have responded strangely to this partial success. Rather than calling for an intense, ongoing hunt to find the leaders of al-Qaida and hold them accountable, the cheerleaders of war are changing the subject, pretending that the Afghan campaign was somehow not motivated by the Sept. 11 attacks. It was, they now say, the "war for the liberation of Afghanistan." Osama bin who?

This is disingenuous dodgery. If the Taliban had handed over the al-Qaida leadership on September 12, they would still be happily oppressing women and infidels from their secure perch in Kabul. The overthrow of the Taliban was a felicitous fringe benefit of the war on terror, but was not itself the goal, purpose or motive for that war.

Nor did the overthrow of the Taliban constitute the "liberation of Afghanistan." That is an ongoing process. Hamid Karzai's government maintains a shaky grasp on the capital, but as yesterday's violence demonstrated, the liberation of Afghanistan is far from being a settled question. Without sustained, extensive and direct support from the U.S., the limited liberation the Afghan people have experienced thus far may prove fleeting.

On the question of "the liberation of Afghanistan," it's probably best to say -- as Zhou Enlai did about the impact of the French Revolution -- "It is too soon to tell."

Andrew Sullivan, however, thinks ten months is more than enough time to evaluate our ongoing military involvement in Afghanistan. It's over, he says, and the Good Guys won. And now he wants us to hurry along and overthrow Saddam Hussein so we can zip along to the next regime-change war-ette ten months from now in, say, Saudi Arabia. The prematurely smug Sullivan writes:

Readers may remember how last October and November, large numbers of pundits, analysts and experts both opposed the war in Afghanistan and confidently predicted its failure. Undeterred by their failures last time around, some of the same people are now opposing a war against Iraq.

Sullivan then proposes that such people be sneered at for not learning the lessons of the campaign in Afghanistan.

But, as the soldier wounded yesterday in Kandahar can attest, America's military involvement in Afghanistan is ongoing and far from complete. Perhaps this ongoing engagement offers some ongoing lessons that might chasten Sullivan's triumphalism.

One such lesson may be to remember that the actual real-world results of the war on terror should be a higher priority than ego-driven concerns about the perception of one's opinions about that war. That's as true for commanders in chief as it is for high-traffic bloggers.

As Bill Clinton put it yesterday (via Cursor):

Saddam Hussein didn't kill 3,100 people on Sept. 11. Osama bin Laden did, and as far as we know he's still alive. ... I also believe we might do more good for American security in the short run at far less cost by beefing up our efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere to flush out the entire network. ... We know they still have a terrorist network around the world, and we're already kind of changing the subject, looking at Saddam Hussein. We know he's not going anywhere.

posted by Fred Clark 1:51 PM

 
EXCLUSIVE BUT OPEN?

Salon today is touting "An open letter to the leaders of the environmental movement: Why you're losing the war to Bush and Cheney."

An intriguing topic, but it turns out this "open" letter is a "Salon premium exclusive." I'm apparently not clear on this whole open/exclusive thing. One hopes that the "leaders of the environmental movement" (whoever that includes) are Salon premium subscribers.

The letter is by Fred Branfman, and notes, in the teaser available to non-premium readers (the only part I've read), that:

[The environmental] movement has not mobilized a constituency in the developed world large and powerful enough to force corporations and politicians to make the long-term investments necessary to save the biosphere.

So far, so good. So how should we go about creating a more mainstream constituency for this cause? Here's Mr. Branfman:

It is clearly time for a rethinking that can produce a "human" environmental movement adequate to the new challenges we face.

Anybody else a little creeped out by his putting quotation marks around the word human? This kind of quote-unquote punctuation usually signifies an implied "so-called" before the indicated phrase -- why is this man writing about so-called humans?

Some indication may be found in this bio of Branfman from Salon's archives. Branfman seems to have spent the last decade on a New Age-y spiritual quest, that took him places like the Insight Meditation Society.

That's fine, laudable even, but hardly the sort of thing that resonates with mainstream America. The leaders of the environmental movement do need to rethink their efforts to mobilize a significant constituency. But I'm not convinced that vipassana meditation is really the most effective way to mainstream the movement and accomplish its goals. At least not among us "humans."

If anybody has access to the full open letter, I'd like to read it. Copy, paste, e-mail. My thanks in advance.





posted by Fred Clark 12:11 PM

 
IT'S THE OIKONOMIA, STUPID.

A post earlier today spoke of Allan Fitzsimmons, whom President Bush has appointed to head up his new "Healthy Forests Initiative." Fitzsimmons is a career anti-environmentalist who once wrote a paper called, "Ecological Confusion among the Clergy."

What you have there is a geographer posing as an economist in order to lecture theologians about ecology. That was enough for the slacktivist to decide it was time to recycle the following, adapted from his old "Shop & Save" column.

= = = = = = = = = = = =

Retronyms are fun. These are words or phrases that once would have been redundant or nonsensical, but were made necessary due to changing times.

"Day baseball" is a retronym that arose with the development of night games. "Postal mail" is another. Those examples come from print journalist William Safire who, as far as I can tell, coined the phrase.

"Organic gardening" is another retronym -- a strange phrase arising from the modern practice of gardening with lots of petroleum and poisonous chemicals. Organic gardeners produce "natural foods" -- a retronym whose opposite is frightening to contemplate. This site has a big list with even more examples.

I propose two more examples, both phrases used frequently -- but not exclusively -- in theological circles: "economic stewardship" and its cousin "ecological stewardship."

Appreciating these as retronyms requires looking into the etymology of these Greco-Saxon redundancies. They arise from the Greek word oikonomia, a word combining oikos, "house," with nomos, "manager."

Oikonomia is the ancestor of the modern English word "economics," and of the related "economist."

In the 14th century, however, when John Wycliffe was translating the Bible into English, these anglicized Greek terms had not yet arisen. Finding no precise English term to translate oikonomia, Wycliffe instead settled for a dynamic equivalent: "stewardship."

The original economists were slaves, put in charge of managing their masters’ households. To convey the humility of these slaves’ position, Wycliffe chose a word meaning, literally, "sty warden" -- the servant in charge of the sty (or any other enclosure or property).

Oikonomia can be translated as either "economics" or "stewardship" but these words have come to mean different things. Economics now means both more and less than stewardship.

This is partly due to the way modern academies and universities have over-specialized the disciplines. Oikonomia has been separated from oikologia -- economics and ecology are divided.

As economics became more of a specialized discipline, it reduced its scope and its vision, and its understanding of the oikos -- the household -- shrank as well.

This is reflected in the way we now use the prefix "eco" to refer exclusively to things ecological. For the realm of economics, we use the prefix "econo," which is etymologically confused.

Consider again the ancestry of these terms. Economics, oikonomia, house-management. Ecology, oikologia, house-study. It should give us pause that those who are managing the house aren’t listening to those who are studying it (and, often, vice versa).

So now when we require the word "economics" to convey its fullest sense, we're forced to pair it up with its one-time synonym, creating the retronymous "economic stewardship."


posted by Fred Clark 12:35 AM


Thursday, September 05, 2002

 
POWERPOINT SUCKS.

I was disappointed to find a Google search for "PowerPoint sucks" only returning 32 hits. Only 32?

It may be, I guess, that PowerPoint is awful in such a banal, low-key way that it doesn't rise to the level of obsessive hatred. But it should. This pervasive "presentation software" is everywhere. And people are using it for a whole lot more than "presentations" -- they're laying out fliers, newsletters, whole magazines on this glorified electric Colorforms set.

I had an appalling English teacher in high school who made us read poems, then write a paragraph explaining the meaning of the poem. One paragraph! Her idea was to vivisect a poem, cut away all the extraneous "poetic" stuff and record the hard, cold, Gradgrind-ish facts. PowerPoint encourages this sort of thing and, like my English teacher, doesn't care about the layers of meaning and truth that might be lost in the process.

Powerpoint proponents like to argue that the program's simple, bullet-pointed outlines are good for "visual learners." But why, exactly, is it a good idea to assault "visual learners" with hideously ugly templates interspersed with hackneyed, artless "clip-art"? PowerPoint makes a flannel graph look elegant.

Is it possible to create a beautiful (or at least pleasant) "presentation" using the PowerPoint program? Of course. Just as it would be possible to communicate nuanced, rounded ideas using it. But to do either you would have to swim against the current of a program that seems designed to create visually obnoxious "slides" conveying a spattering of numbered sentence fragments.

And the scary new development is that children are being exposed to such things:

Attracted by the same slick interface and easy learning curve that drew the corporate types, educators and students are employing the presentation software in classrooms in ever-increasing numbers. For some teachers, the computerized slide-show format is deposing the blackboard.

That's from Joanna Glasner's Wired piece, "Of PowerPoint and Pointlessness."

Glasner quotes education researcher Edward Miller:

One of the criticisms that's been raised about PowerPoint is that it can give the illusion of coherence and content when there really isn't very much coherence or content.

This "criticism" is actually one of the program's strongest selling-points. Go into any PowerPoint-happy business and you will find precious little coherence or content. What you will find are dozens of people desperately bluffing away with animated clip-art and scrolling outlines, hoping the illusion of coherence and content will be sufficient to preserve their place in this incoherent, contentless thing.

Poor souls.

(A more devastating, and more eloquent, criticism of PowerPoint is Peter Norvig's marvelous Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation.)

posted by Fred Clark 11:28 PM

 
VELVEETA.

The great Wendell Berry argues (in Standing by Words, among other places) that the abuse of the land is often tied to the abuse of language.

That last post offered some great examples of this interconnected abuse: "Healthy Forests Initiative," "National Wilderness Institute," "Political Economy Research Center." Examples abound among anti-environmental groups fronting for corporate interests -- "wise-use," "responsible care," etc.

The benign-sounding names of these groups mask an often destructive agenda.

This abuse of language reminds me somehow of a basic rule when buying cheese: the more words there are besides the word "cheese," the less actual cheese you're going to get.

If something says "cheese," it's probably just cheese. "Cheese food" has got a little bit of something in there which purports to be "food," but may or may not be cheese. A "cheese-food snack" has even less cheese. And it's probably best to stay away from a "processed cheese food snack product."

posted by Fred Clark 3:31 PM

 
SIMPLE SIMON.

The late Julian Simon was a brilliant parodist -- a culture-jamming Dada artist of the first magnitude, whose brilliant parodies took the reductive tendencies of modern economics to their illogical limits and beyond.

Sadly, however, his cornucopian comedies live on in the work of his various corporate-funded disciples. These people don't get the joke and, like most people who don't get jokes, they're dangerous.

H.L. Mencken said, "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple,
neat and wrong." The cornucopians are dangerous because they have latched onto a simple, neat and wrong "solution" to the complex problem of how best to steward the natural resources on which we are dependent. More shamans than scientists, they have abandoned the practice of economics for the application of Simon's magic formula of "substitutability."

In a recent post, I quoted this summary of Simon's superstition: "Supplies of natural resources are not finite in any serious way; they are created by the intellect of man, an always renewable resource."

This can roughly be paraphrased as: "Don't worry about conserving natural resources, we can always buy ourselves some new ones."

Substitute "topsoil," or "clean air," or "the ozone layer," or "aquifers," or "fisheries" for "natural resources" in either of those statements and you'll see the problem. Then consider this: President Bush has appointed a cornucopian shaman to head up his administration's misnamed "Healthy Forests Initiative."

Here's the first paragraph of Faith Bremmer's Gannet report on the appointment:

The man chosen to head the Bush administration's wildfire prevention program doubts the existence of ecosystems and says it would not be a crisis if the nation's threatened and endangered species became extinct.

The appointee, Allan Fitzsimmons, has his Ph.D. in "Geography" from U.C.L.A., but Dr. Fitzsimmons seems to spend most of his time as a corporate consultant and an "environmental" adviser to groups like the anti-environmentalist National Wilderness Institute and the libertarian Cato Institute (a think-tank that epitomizes "simple, neat and wrong").

Bremmer summarizes a bit of Fitzsimmons' paper-trail:

In "The Illusion of Ecosystem Management," published in 1999 by the Political Economy Research Center, which says it applies market principles to environmental problems, Fitzsimmons says ecosystems exist only in the human imagination and cannot be delineated. Federal policies, therefore, should not be used to try to manage or restore them, he wrote.

In another paper, entitled "Ecological Confusion among the Clergy," Fitzsimmons criticizes religious leaders who encourage their parishioners to worship God by protecting the environment. He singled out Catholic bishops ...


(N.B. Well, yes, a libertarian should butt heads with the Catholic bishops. His doctrine is incompatible with theirs -- see for instance John Paul II's Laborem exercens. Which raises the question of why this guy isn't dismissed as a heretic.)

When Pres. Bush first announced the Healthy Forests Initiative, the joke that went around was that his plan to prevent forest fires was to get rid of the forests. With the appointment of Allan Fitzsimmons to head up that initiative, we can see that Mr. Bush -- like Julian Simon -- wasn't joking, and it's not so funny after all.

(To find several recent documents in which "religious leaders encourage their parishioners to worship God by protecting the environment," see here.)

posted by Fred Clark 3:17 PM

 
WEEKLY LINK O' THE DAY.

The Bible may make prior claim to two of his names, but Joshua Micah Marshall still has the best blog going by the name "Talking Points Memo." Accept no imitations. Marshall has a talent for being right when other people are wrong. He's often pointed, but I've not seen him be uncivil, even when catching the National Republican Congressional Committee in a brazen and condescending lie.

And if you haven't already done so, be sure to read his Washington Monthly article on the myth of the Bush administration's competence.




posted by Fred Clark 2:10 PM

 
WELCOME BACK.

In addition to the accursed new firewall, preventing me from blogging from The Cube, this week's big festival has infringed on my blogging time. My apologies for the neglect, and welcome back.


posted by Fred Clark 1:54 PM


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