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21 May 2010


Matins: A final word on "denialism," this time from the New Humanist. Keith Kahn-Harris writes comprehensively about the matter, citing, among other things, the danger of mistaking diverging views from denials, and he enumerates five characteristics that make the difference. What we hope for is an essay that will address the other side of the problem, which critical thinkers are too apt to overlook: the problem of expertise without authority. Mr Kahn-Harris's word is "sanctimony," which speaks volumes.

The links that Conway and Oreskes reveal between various American environmental and health denialisms demonstrate that once individuals cross the Rubicon into one form of denialism, it’s easy enough to embrace others. Examples abound of “multi-deniers” such as the Revolutionary Communist Party/Living Marxism group in the UK (now centred around the Spiked website and the Institute of Ideas), many of whose adherents have denied everything from anthropogenic climate change, the Bosnian and other genocides, to the idea that it is dangerous to fly in a cloud of volcanic ash. Denial of evolution goes very well with denial of global warming. Denial of the Holocaust is often associated with denial that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda. Once the techniques of denialism have been learned, what results is a strange kind of parallel world in which denialism becomes legitimate scholarship and mainstream scholarship becomes a perversion of truth. The cod science of denialism is picked up and disseminated by allies in the mainstream media, like Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, keen to push their own version of truth and criticise what they see as the sanctimony of liberal culture.

Lauds: Elise Nakhnikian makes a very compelling case for watching Bout de souffle this weekend. (The House Next Door)

Michel is amoral, aimless, and probably ADHD. He's a wannabe Bogey, playing at being a gangster and aping a lot of the star's mannerisms, right down to the thumb he keeps using to self-consciously trace his lip. What he doesn't seem to realize is that he's a natural-born star. Belmondo's joli-laide face and his tightly muscled boxer's body are the main landscape and true subject of Breathless.

At one point, Patricia (Jean Seberg), the American girl he takes up with, tells him she has been staring at him for 10 minutes yet knows nothing about him. When she says that she feels as if she needs to keep looking until she figures out what's behind that façade, she seems to be speaking for us. She's definitely speaking for Godard. "This film is really a documentary on Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo," Godard told a Le Monde interviewer.

Prime: One nugget to carry away from the entry by Peter Boone and Simon Johnson at The Baseline Scenario, "The Very Bad Luck of the Irish," is the alarming jump in the relative size of Ireland's budget deficit when the Gross Domestic Product metric is replaced by the Gross National Product.

The Celtic tiger’s impressive reported growth over the past decades was in part based on its aggressive attempts to help major corporations in the United States reduce their tax bills. The Irish government set corporate taxes at just 12.5 percent of profits, thus attracting all sorts of businesses — from computer services such as Google and Yahoo, to drug companies such as Forest Labs — that set up corporate bases and washed profits through Ireland to keep them out of the hands of the Internal Revenue Service.

The remarkable success of this tax haven means that roughly 20 percent of Irish gross domestic product (G.D.P.) is actually “profit transfers” that raise little tax for Ireland and are owned by foreign companies. Since most of these profits are subject to the tax code, they are accounted for in Ireland where they are lightly taxed; they should not be counted as part of Ireland’s potential tax base. A more robust cross-country comparison would be to examine Ireland’s financial condition ignoring these transfers. This is easy to do: a nation’s gross national product excludes the profits of foreign residents. For most nations, gross national product and G.D.P. are near-identical, but in Ireland they are not.

When we adjust Ireland’s figures accordingly, the situation is dire. The budget deficit was about 17.9 percent of G.N.P. in 2009, and based on European Commission projections (and assuming the G.N.P.-G.D.P. gap remains the same) it will be roughly 14.6 percent in 2010 and 15.1 percent in 2011, while the debt-to-G.N.P. ratio at the end of this year is expected – by our calculation – to be 97 percent, and 109 percent at the end of 2011. These numbers make Ireland look similarly troubled to Greece, with a much higher budget deficit but lower levels of public debt.

Tierce: "Tell me why this wouldn't work!" demands Tim Carmody, referring to his really rather brilliant idea, Showroulette. (Snarkmarket)

This is Showroulette. You pick a show — let’s say that every show’s gotta have enough episodes to be in syn­di­ca­tion, and only the back­list shows are avail­able. Save the new ones for your running-show web­site — and you get a ran­dom episode.

This is the genius part, at least for me. Say you don’t like the episode you got. (I mean, some­times Law & Order kinda stunk.) You can change it out for a dif­fer­ent show, also picked at ran­dom. But every time you switch, you’ve got to watch an ad.

Sext: At The Millions, Nell Boeschenstein writes with heartbreaking restraint about being fired at a job that, although she wasn't cut out for it, she took because she couldn't make a living as a writer: "Skills and Interests."

It’s true: I worry sometimes that writing has gone the way of the pony, that it is no longer a way to help work the farm but—as it’s been said before—has become a pastime only for those who can afford it, and among whom I do not number. This is also when I feel as if I am beating back the tumbleweeds of cynicism with a piece of string. I try to turn the analogy around, repeating to myself the cliché that a writer is not what you are but who you are. By this logic, writers are the ponies. Because we can’t afford to keep ourselves, we hire ourselves out to humans. In the best case scenarios we like our humans and enjoy the challenges of what they have us do. Indeed, under their guidance we are able to do things we never thought possible: pirouette and jump over fences as tall as we are. In the worst-case scenarios we end up foul-tempered in a stall, pinning our ears to the backs of our heads and gnashing our teeth whenever someone tries to come in and tack us up.

Sometimes, too, while trying to jump fences, we don’t quite make it over cleanly: a rail comes tumbling to the ground or we do. We’re usually able to pick ourselves up long enough to exit the ring with dignity, but in the more dramatic mishaps, there are those inevitable moments after the fall when we are running around the ring, spooked and directionless, broken reins swinging wildly and in danger of tripping us again.

Nones: In case you're just tuning in, Joshua Kurlantzick explains "What the Heck Is Going on in Thailand" — at Foreign Policy, for a change. Mr Kurlantzick's sketch of a solution to Thailand's impasse is elegantly stated and, even if, as he says, looks to be "very far away," it is not by any means idealistic.

In the long term, what is needed in Thailand is some kind of real reconciliation. For elites in Bangkok, this will mean realizing that, in a true democracy, they will be outnumbered at the ballot box and necessarily will have to give up some political and economic power. For the rural poor and politicians like Thaksin who claim to represent them, this will mean realizing that winning a parliamentary majority does not give one license to trample on minority rights; any elected Thai leader will have to uphold the rule of law and support democratic institutions, like the courts and the civil service, in a way that Thaksin clearly did not.  The country also will need a real, open debate about the future of the monarchy, without the lèse majesté laws that have thus far inhibited discussion.

There is a precedent for this kind of compromise. In Brazil, President Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva came into office primarily on the support of the poor, and has managed to oversee programs designed to slash poverty while simultaneously reassuring business and political elites that he is not a radical redistributionist. But for now, such a compromise in Thailand looks very far away.


Vespers: You don't have to be particularly interested in poetry to be absorbed by "The Other Mother Tongue," Michael Scharf's review of a new anthology of Indian verse in English. (Boston Review; via 3 Quarks Daily)

Historically, vernacular literatures represent a response to literary languages that are perceived as cosmopolitan or universal. They are not preexisting literary modes crushed under the heel of parvenu hegemonic languages, but rather novel forms that arise only after those hegemonic languages achieve their status, at least in terms of governmental transaction and literary transmission. Ironically, English and bhasha literatures are all paradigm examples of vernacular response to cosmopolitan dominance.

Just as Latin once stretched from London to North Africa to Bethlehem and was the administrative language therein, Sanskrit, less than a thousand years ago, was the language for official transactions across kingdoms extending from “Afghanistan to Java and from Sri Lanka to Nepal,” as Columbia Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock traces it. When Sanskrit was taken up by poets, it enjoyed “the fact and the perception of universality.” Pollock finds the eleventh-century Kashmiri poet Bilhana boasting that “there is no village or country, no capital city or forest region, no pleasure garden or school where learned and ignorant, young and old, male and female alike do not read my poems and shake with pleasure.”

India’s regional-language speakers self-consciously positioned themselves against Sanskrit, a perceived universal, in order to define themselves and their literatures—a reaction known as vernacularization. Urdu, Persian, and Hindustani also played roles in Indian vernacularization, as did English, eventually. English itself, as a literature and as a language of statecraft, was created out of Latin’s shadow by the same process, part of a wave of vernacularization that also created written Spanish, French, and German. Bhasha writers define themselves against English as much as they once did Sanskrit and now do against Hindi, in some cases.

Vernacular critiques, which assert a single acceptable structure of authentic Indianness, are thus not only an attack on a language, but on the Indian poetic diaspora, which largely relies on the cosmopolitan dominant—English.

Compline: Lest you regard denialism as an American problem only, here is Timothy Garton Ash's cry from the wilderness for a second Churchill to lead Europe out of its doldrums. Almost every public figure named in the following paragraphs is an expert without any widespread authority. Churchill, famously, was an authority without expertise whom the experts tried ceaseless to sideline. (Guardian; via RealClearWorld)

nstead, we have a set of new rationales for the project. They include global challenges such as climate change and the globalised financial system, which increasingly impact directly on the lives of our citizens, and the emerging great powers of a multipolar world. In a world of giants, it helps to be a giant yourself. But a rationale, an intellectual argument, is not the same as an emotional driving force, based on direct personal experience and an immediate sense of threat. We don't have that sense in today's Europe. For standard of living and quality of life, most Europeans have never had it so good. They don't realise how radically things need to change in order that things may remain the same.

It would take a new Winston Churchill to explain this to all Europeans, in the poetry of "blood, sweat and tears". Instead, we have Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi, and now David Cameron. Britain's Liberal-Conservative coalition government is making an encouragingly constructive start in Europe. On Tuesday George Osborne swallowed the proposed hedge fund directive in Brussels with all the grace of a Victorian English traveller eating a dish of sheep's eyes in a Bedouin tent. (The British government still hopes to get the directive modified in the European parliament.) Today and tomorrow, Cameron is dedicating his first overseas trip as prime minister to his new colleagues in Paris and Berlin. But even if Britain is not going to be the European brake that most Conservative MPs want it to be, it will hardly be the motor.

Bon weekend à tous!

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