30 August 2013

Nowhere Near Any Road to Damascus

I'm not going to spend a lot of time or effort dealing with the current situation in Syria — I know enough to know that what I do know about that area, regime, etc. (which is one helluva lot more than the average bear, policy wonk, or media dork) is not sufficient to make a detailed decision, and will no doubt become obsolete within a week or so of this blawg posting regardless. I find it rather unsatisfying — and I say this without prejudging whether it would be a good idea (in a policy sense or otherwise) — that the discussion is about action against a purported monolithic regime and not against responsible person(s). Leaving aside that no organization bigger than that necessary to run a local animal shelter is truly monolithic, it's rather disturbing that rendition to the ICC in the Hague is not being mentioned at all... it's as if we're afraid to discuss the monsters in our midst unless we can take down a whole herd of monsters at once with shock and awe. I'm not saying that a "more surgical" option is necessarily better or worse — only that it's troublingly absent from the conversation.

  • RIP Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winning poet.
  • Libraries and bookstores are really dangerous... sometimes more literally (and literarily) than not, as with a German bookshop in a rather unusual location.
  • A European defender of the public library demonstrates the same kind of insularity that Americans are so often accused of (too often correctly) when he proclaims:

    The idea of the library as "the living room in the city" was first promulgated in 1970s Scandinavian library design, as architects responded to users' wishes to stay longer, have a coffee, and enjoy storytelling sessions, lunchtime concerts or attend book-reading groups. Visiting Örnsköldsvik library in northern Sweden, close to the Arctic Circle, I noticed users brought their slippers and a packed lunch. This new understanding of the library space is formalised, for example, in Rem Koolhaas's Seattle library, where three of the five floors are designated as The Reading Room, The Living Room and The Mixing Chamber.

    (emphasis added) Really? It seems apparent that Mr Warpole never went to the old Seattle Public Library (a 1960s-era building) or the main St. Louis Public Library in the early 1980s (retaining its 1950s layout). He also somehow fails to understand the public-accommodation aspect of American university libraries, such as the Undergraduate Library at the University of Washington just down the road from the old Seattle Public Library (again, a 1960s-era building). There's very much a not-invented-here-in-the-Old-World flavor to his entire article. And that's sad in itself, because the very point of a library open to the public is that it brings the rest of the world to the community.

  • "Success" and "talent" are often... distinct. A few years of representing authors who've been screwed by The System demonstrates that pretty definitively. When even the Financial Times admits that they're not the same (Exh. A: Whitney Houston v. Mahalia Jackson) — and when careerism (even in academia) is an adequate substitute for rigorous thought — the discussion gets rather interesting (in the sense that word would be used in a graduate seminar — "you're utterly insane, but I'm too polite to diagnose you just because you've merely said something utterly insane"). We wring our hands over the worth of an English degree while simultaneously applying incoherent and incompatible methods to determining what one reads to get that English (or any other) degree. Consider the purported foundational works in "American literature" for a moment, and ask yourself whether a student (or scholar) with limited time would not be better off studying European works of the same age... but for the political necessity of American exceptionalism in the American university and the politically imposed role of producing graduates ready to engage in Coolidge's prescription for the nation (how'd that work out in 1929, anyway?). Of course, even a cursory look at where the money goes explains a great deal about the doublethink behind all of this...
  • Sometimes, though, one must take one's amusement from other places, such as radical changes of context. The Ninth Circuit ruled this morning that the goose's liver's producers are cooked (PDF) — however tasty the liver itself. A California statute prohibited anyone from selling foie gras produced by overenlarging the goose's liver anywhere within the state. Naturally enough, out-of-state producers of foie gras (which is hardly a staple item in any kitchen) via the rather unnatural process used sued, alleging a variety of grounds for holding the statute unconstitutional. The unintentional hilarity of the opinion arises from the dead-serious, deadly-boring prose used to discuss a hyperbolic, emotional issue. And there's a similar tinge to the Eleventh Circuit's ruling yesterday on landmark designations of religious building by disgruntled former congregants who just happened to be a majority of the city council (PDF), which unintentionally recalls seventeenth-century Amsterdam and Prague. Of course, spotting that would have required at least one of the litigants to be looking beyond their own immediate self-interest, which is rather ironic in itself considering the subject matter.