Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Quote Unquote

Here are some interesting things I've read recently.  If you like the quoted bits, click through, because you'll probably like the rest too.  Most of these links via twitter, which I am still enslaved to by the power of the Dark Lord using, even post-election.  (Update: several quotes added.)

On race in George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series:
...the troubling thing about the Dothraki isn’t how different they are from the Westerosi.  It’s how similar they all are to each other.... In Martin’s “non-Anglo” cultures, and in Orientalist literature more generally, the layers are collapsed.  The individuals don’t move within their society, rather, they are fully-formed instances of their society....

This is where Martin’s depiction of cultural “otherness” becomes fascinating to me, because I think it actually tells us something profound about our own internal models of cultural difference.  We don’t think of our own culture as the be-all and end-all of our abilities and opinions. We see ourselves as free agents operating within a culture, and because we accord ourselves that freedom we tend to accord it to other people in our culture as well.  But when it comes to other cultures, we have much more of a tendency to see people simply as tokens or instances of the broader cultural category they come from, which means that their “is known” and “I know” are collapsed. Most of us try to guard against this kind of thinking, as it’s pretty much textbook racial stereotyping. But it’s not hard to slip, and I think this is illustrated by how easy it is not to be bothered by Martin’s world. Lots of people roll their eyes at this aspect of the books, but it all pretty much works as storytelling.

-- Stokes, It is known — Game of Thrones, the Orient, and Conventional Wisdom
On giving away ebooks with the dead-trees version (via; see also)
What indie rock bands have figured out is that the purchase of music does not have to be an either/or proposition. They don’t make their customers choose between analog or digital. Whenever you buy a record from just about any indie band, it comes with either a CD or with a card that contains a URL and a download code so you can get a digital copy at no additional cost.... And guess what? This strategy works: vinyl is in resurgence....

Hardcovers books have similar characteristics to vinyl records. They can be bought in independent book stores that often have knowledgeable staff. The physical artifact is a pleasure to hold and to read. It has a fidelity that is not yet matched via the digital medium. There is a ritual to taking a book off the shelf, settling into a favorite chair, and losing oneself in the text. And like the vinyl record before it, the hardcover book is losing ground to digital formats. According the Association of American Publishers, as reported in GalleyCat, 2012 is the first year that revenues from e-book sales will eclipse that of hardcovers. E-books are gaining traction in the market for the same reasons that digital music has become the dominant format: convenience. It is more convenient to simply press a “Download to Kindle” button than to trudge out to the bookstore (as pleasant as it might be once you are there) or even to order a physical book online. It is also far more convenient to pack a single Kindle with multiple books on it as opposed to packing numerous physical books when traveling...

There are likely many people like myself who prefer a solid hardcover. I like the feel of it, am more comfortable reading on paper as opposed to a screen, and I sleep better knowing that it will probably not mysteriously vanish from my bookshelf if the computer system at the bookstore I purchased it from doesn’t like my travel patterns. However, given that I do travel a lot, carrying a heavy hardcover (or three) around is just not practical. Just as with music, I like the analog edition and am willing to pay more for it, but I am not going to choose it over the vastly more convenient digital edition – and I am most certainly not going to buy both. So why are publishers making their best customers choose and watching idly as they do in fact choose, in increasing numbers, a format that is not as lucrative for publishers and that is rapidly leading to an over-reliance on a small number of distributors?

-- Michael Clarke, "What Can Publishers Learn from Indie Rock?"
On the supposed "New Republicans":
There has been a lot of talk since the election about the possible emergence of a new faction within the Republican party, or at least among the conservative intelligentsia. These new Republicans, we’re told, are willing to be more open-minded on cultural issues, more understanding of immigrants, and more skeptical that trickle-down economics is enough; they’ll favor direct measures to help working families.

So what should we call these new Republicans? I have a suggestion: why not call them “Democrats”?

...On economic issues the modern Democratic party is what we would once have considered “centrist”, or even center-right. Obama’s Heritage-Foundation-inspired health care plan is to the right of Richard Nixon’s. Nobody with political influence is suggesting a return to pre-Reagan tax rates on the wealthy. Fantasies about Obama as a socialist, redistributionist hater of capitalism bear no more resemblance to reality than fantasies about his birthplace or religion.

-- Paul Krugman, "The New Republicans"
On the conservatives are against big government myth:
The conservative movement is not about small government, it is about privatized government. From Bush and Ryan's attempts to privatize Social Security, to turning Medicare into a Groupon, to bringing private industry into the military, every step involves introducing market agents into government processes and pushing market risk to individuals. This continued under Mitt Romney's big policy ideas. He had an idea for taking our system of unemployment insurance and turning it into a system of private unemployment savings accounts. He wanted to fix higher education costs by expanding the for-profit industry, which would "hold down the cost of education," even though they are far more expensive than their non-profit equivalents.

-- Mike Konczal, "What Are Conservatives Getting Wrong About the Economy? (Douthat Reply Edition)"
On the next step after the current assault in Gaza:
Since the bombing began, both sides have asked how this ends. If the answer is something other than with a repetition in a few more years—a perpetual state of war—Israelis must wrestle with the question of their own identity. No, that question is not the clichéd one: Does Israel have a right to exist? Rather, the more imperative question is: Is the way in which Israel exists—as an occupier, a colonizer, and ultimately, as an apartheid state—right? Is there another solution, involving a single, democratic state?

...Moving forward, what is needed is a fundamental change in the way Israelis view their relations with Palestinian Arabs. Yes, Palestinians have a role and will continue to fight for their rights in hopes of achieving a just and peaceful outcome. But at this stage it is Israel—and only Israel—that controls the ever changing realities on the ground. It would be easy for Israeli leaders to postpone facing this reality, but it would also be cowardly. The onus is on them.
-- Yousef Munayyer, "When the Smoke Clears in Gaza"
On superheroes, the status quo, and imagining change:
Graeber points out that the superheroes are always seeking to maintain the status quo, even though the status quo is not by any means fair or just in its own right. It’s as if they don’t have the imagination to think of how things could be changed for the better.

Reading this, I realized that this is a fundamental pattern: It’s easier to say what you don’t want than what you want. It’s easier to point out the problems with other people’s solutions than it is to suggest your own. It’s easier to rally to fight something you disagree with that it is to organize around a shared vision of what could be. In short: Fighting is easy. Creating is hard.

Imagination is a very sensitive thing. If you think too much about how things could be different, you tend to get bummed out about how impossible it seems to change them. And if you tell people around you how you’d like things to be different, they might call you a dreamer or a communist or a utopianist. And they’ll probably laugh at you.

In a way, we’re all just super-villains with low self-esteem. We’re so unused to imagining how the world could be any different that it takes a lot of courage even to try. And even more so when we decide to act upon our ideas to affect the change we want to see in the world.

-- Andreas Lloyd, "Fighting is Easy. Creating is Hard."
(That essay will justifiably annoy superhero fans who will note that this has, in fact, been one of the major themes of many of the best superhero stories over the past quarter century, and that it's written without any evident knowledge of that fact.  Still worth reading, though.  Also note that the David Graeber piece that Lloyd jumps off of is this one, which I previously linked here along with other similarly themed pieces.)

And, from the New Yorker, Le Blog de Jean Paul Sartre:
I was awakened this morning by the sound of an insistent knocking at my door. It was a man in a brown suit. He seemed to be in a hurry, as if Death itself were pursuing him.

“One always dies too soon—or too late,” I told him. “And yet one’s whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are—your life, and nothing else.”

“Okay,” he said. “But I’m just the UPS guy.”

“Oh,” I said. “I— Oh.”

“Sign here,” he said.

“I thought you were a harbinger of Death,” I told him.

“I get that a lot,” he said...

-- Bill Barol, "Le Blog de Jean Paul Sartre"
On writing and literature:
Writerly vanity is like a vicious dog chained up outside the house. You try to starve and neglect the dog into silence, but sometimes he becomes so clamorous that he must be fed if you’re going to be able to ignore him again.

-- Adam Kirsch, "Rocket and Lightship"
-- I hesitate to endorse this piece, as it is (in my view) deeply uneven, containing some wonderful parts but also some sheer rubbish, and a fair amount of grandiose preening.  I'm not even sure if the good outweighs the bad.  But the good has its own merits that are not tarnished by the bad, in recognition of which I thought I'd link.

On the lie that we need to cut social security, medicare and medicaid:
...in the future, we will be able to afford all the health care we consume today, plus all the other stuff we consume today, and then some. That means that, for example, seniors can enjoy the same level of health benefits that they enjoy today, and the rest of us can still be better off than we are now. And it isn't even close. Forty years from now we will be, on average, twice as well-off as we are today....

So the real point isn't that we can't afford Social Security and Medicare. It's that some people don't want to pay the higher taxes necessary to maintain Social Security and Medicare. This is a question of distribution, pure and simple.

...When people say that we can't afford our entitlement programs, they're really saying that rich people won't pay the taxes necessary to sustain our entitlement programs.

-- James Kwak, "The U.S. Does Not Have a Spending Problem, We Have a Distribution Problem"
On the claim that Hamas targets civilians while Israel does not:
And as one of those civilians who used to be targeted on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I have no problem saying that intentionally targeting civilians is wrong—is, in fact, a war crime.... But I weary of the desperate clinging to the word “unintentional” on my side of this decades-long war....

Whether these corpses can be considered collateral damage, accidents, the unintended outcome of well-targeted efforts—simply no longer matters to me. When your state has piled up more than 3000 dead bodies, more than 1,300 of them the bodies of children, it simply no longer matters.

If we accept at face value the idea that Israel takes every possible precaution to preclude civilian deaths (a notion I cannot help but question when I read reports like this, and this, and this), then we are left with only one possible explanation: Rank, criminal incompetence.
If we reject the idea of incompetence (though I have yet to meet a human being incapable of serious error), then we are left with only one other possible explanation: Rank, criminal indifference.
I can already hear the protests that Hamas and other militants hide among civilians, that they are really to blame for these deaths, that it’s not Israel’s fault—and I do not deny that Palestinian extremists share the blame.
But is it really “hiding among civilians” to go to your own house? Is it really “hiding among civilians” to drive down a residential street?

And what if the shoe were on the other foot? Are we willing to say that Israeli soldiers are “hiding among civilians” when they ride city buses, or that Israel’s Defense Ministry is “hiding among civilians” because it’s located in the very heart of Tel Aviv? Yes, Hamas are terrorists and the IDF is a state’s army—but are military targets in civilian locales legitimate, or not?

-- Emily L. Hauser, "Incompetence or Indifference?"

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