The Cult of Che: more on The Motorcycle Diaries

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“The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution’s first firing squads. He founded Cuba’s “labor camp” system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che’s imagination…

The present-day cult of Che—the T-shirts, the bars, the posters—has succeeded in obscuring this dreadful reality. And Walter Salles’ movie The Motorcycle Diaries will now take its place at the heart of this cult. It has already received a standing ovation at Robert Redford’s Sundance film festival (Redford is the executive producer of The Motorcycle Diaries) and glowing admiration in the press. Che was an enemy of freedom, and yet he has been erected into a symbol of freedom. He helped establish an unjust social system in Cuba and has been erected into a symbol of social justice. He stood for the ancient rigidities of Latin-American thought, in a Marxist-Leninist version, and he has been celebrated as a free-thinker and a rebel. And thus it is in Salles’ Motorcycle Diaries.”

More by Paul Berman here in Slate. See also Robin Varghese’s earlier post “A Road from Che Guevara to God?

The Surreal Egotist

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“Having proclaimed himself a genius while in his 20’s, Salvador Dalí went on to promote this notion with such relentless conviction that the egotist eventually overshadowed the artist. By the time he died in 1989, leaving hundreds of signed sheets of paper to spawn a fake Dalí industry, many in the art world had turned against him.

Yet Dalí never lost his popular appeal. Expelled from the Surrealist movement in 1939, he remained the best known Surrealist. And even after Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art had supplanted Surrealism, a major Dalí retrospective in Paris in 1979 still drew 800,000 visitors. Today, among 20th-century artists, his renown is probably exceeded only by Picasso’s.

Unsurprisingly, then, the centenary of his birth has spawned Dalí exhibitions across his native Catalonia and elsewhere in Spain, Europe and the United States. Of these, two traveling blockbusters stand out. Supported by the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, they are trying to jump-start a reassessment of his oeuvre.

‘Dalí and Mass Culture,’ which tracks his impact on today’s visual language, was shown in Barcelona this spring and Madrid this summer and will be at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., from Oct. 1 through Jan. 30. And ‘Dalí,’ which dwells on his paintings, is at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice through Jan. 16 and will be presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from Feb. 16 through May 15.”

More by Alan Riding here in the New York Times.

Cures Before Cash

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“Victoria Hale is a rare breed: a drug company chief on a mission to vanquish diseases of the developing world. In 2000, disillusioned with the pharmaceutical industry, she launched America’s first non-profit drug company. She tells Michael Bond how she persuaded the industry to part with undeveloped drugs that her venture is now trying to turn into cures for some of the world’s most lethal diseases.”


Interview with Victoria Hale here in New Scientist.

Earth’s ‘hum’ springs from stormy seas

“An enigmatic humming sound made by the Earth may be caused by the planet’s stormy seas, suggests a new analysis.

Japanese seismologists first described the Earth’s humming signal in 1998. It is a deep, low-frequency rumble that is present in the ground even when there are no earthquakes happening. Dubbed the “Earth’s hum”, the signal had gone unnoticed in previous studies because it looked like noise in the data.”

More here from New Scientist.

Muslims belatedly turn a critical eye to Wahhabism

Well, better late than never, I suppose. Here, Sadik H. Kassim discusses “Wahhabism: A Critical Essay” by Hamid Algar.

“After September 11, when their utility had expired, the Wahhabists and the offshoots they produced were discarded into history’s waste bin of American allies gone bad (see Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, etc.). It was now proper to write about them. Even the fashion magazine Interior Design got into the game, scoring a hit for a December 1, 2001 article making a snide reference to Wahhabism.

Despite the upsurge in the number of articles, the topic is still treated very superficially. Wahhabis are often described in clichéd terms as being the “Puritans” of the Muslim world. An analogy I have never liked. True the Puritans espoused a literal interpretation of scriptural texts; beyond that, however the similarities are minimal. The Puritans were intellectual heavyweights coupling Renaissance humanism with knowledge of scriptures and divinity. They complemented their religious readings with the Greek classics of Cicero, Virgil, Terence and Ovid. In addition to writing the first children books, they emphasized public schooling for all and founded Harvard, the first American university. For them, religion provided a stimulus and prelude for scientific thought. Among their members, they could count numerous fellows of the Royal Society of London. Most importantly, the Puritans were political and religious outcasts.

The Wahhabis certainly are not Puritans in any true sense of the word. The more apt comparison, I believe, is the evangelical Christian movement in modern times. Both the Wahhabis and the Evangelicals champion an ultra-literalist interpretation of the holy texts, casting them both at odds with the precedents set by their ancestors and with their co-religionists in modern times. Both Evangelicals and Wahhabis shun scientific/rational thought and treat the idea of a renewed interpretation of religious texts as anathema. Both groups have tremendous financial resources enabling the rapid spread of their beliefs. Most importantly, both have disproportionate access to the corridors of power—the Evangelicals and their incestuous relationship with the Bush administration, the Wahhabis and the Saudi royal family, although the latter is in a state of flux.”

Debate Drinking Game

Wonkette has this debate drinking game on her blog:

• Anyone tells that story about Bobby Kennedy turning up the thermostat before the Kennedy-Nixon debate: Take a sip of a hot toddy.
• Doris Kearns Goodwin mentions Lyndon Johnson: Pee outside.
• Someone shows a clip of Al Gore sighing: Recount your chads.
• A Republican operative compares Kerry to a classical orator: Drink an ouzo-and-hemlock cocktail.
• A Democrat operative uses the phrase “can’t run on his record”: Go to Stetson’s…

Start drinking for real after the jump.

Drink One Sip If:
Anyone says “terrorism”
Anyone says “Halliburton”
Anyone says “flip flop”
Anyone says “Saddam Hussein”
Anyone blames “the media”
Anyone mentions their own military service
Anyone says “September 11”
One candidate interrupts another candidate

Drink Two Sips If:
Bush says “cut and run”
Kerry says “W stands for wrong”
Either candidate talks past their time limit
Kerry brings up Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment…

More here.

Salman Rushdie takes on Patriot Act

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“Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie has called on Congress to remove anti-terror laws which allow US officials to monitor citizens’ reading habits.

Rushdie, 56, said he was concerned by government bodies ‘noseying into what should be personal creative space’.

He presented a 180,000-name petition asking Congress to repeal portions of the Patriot Act which give access to book-buying and library records.

Campaigners argue the act, passed after 11 September, harms personal freedoms.”

More here from the BBC.

The scope and structure of the insurgency in Iraq

This lengthy assessment of the insurgency in Iraq in the Boston Review paints a depressing picture (well, “depressing” depending on if you see the insurgency as a bunch of medievally minded mafias or as a national liberation force.)

“Muqtada [al-Sadr] has managed to alienate a considerable element of his community. In fact, none of the insurgent groups, whether Sunni or Shi’i, have a nationwide legitimacy in this fragmented country; each has a message that appeals only to a specific community.

But these limits on support for the insurgents have not translated into an advantage for the coalition. In preventing the insurgency from transcending the constraints of localization, the center of gravity remains, without a doubt, the people—ordinary Iraqi citizens who crave security and law and order, and then economic activity.

The insurgency can evolve, and indeed, from the vantage point of summer 2004 appears to be evolving, into patterns of complex warfare and violence. Should this evolution continue, the prospects for American success in bringing about Iraqi security, political stability, and reconstruction will be nonexistent.”

Creeping creationism

Via politicaltheory.info come this piece in Wired on the spread of creation “science”:

“‘[T]each the controversy’ has become the rallying cry of the national intelligent-design movement, and Ohio has become the leading battleground. Several months after the debate, the Ohio school board voted to change state science standards, mandating that biology teachers ‘critically analyze’ evolutionary theory. This fall, teachers will adjust their lesson plans and begin doing just that. In some cases, that means introducing the basic tenets of intelligent design. One of the state’s sample lessons looks as though it were lifted from an ID textbook. It’s the biggest victory so far for the Discovery Institute. ‘Our opponents would say that these are a bunch of know-nothing people on a state board,’ says Meyer. ‘We think it shows that our Darwinist colleagues have a real problem now.’

But scientists aren’t buying it. What Meyer calls ‘biology for the information age,’ they call creationism in a lab coat. ID’s core scientific principles – laid out in the mid-1990s by a biochemist and a mathematician – have been thoroughly dismissed on the grounds that Darwin’s theories can account for complexity, that ID relies on misunderstandings of evolution and flimsy probability calculations, and that it proposes no testable explanations.

As the Ohio debate revealed, however, the Discovery Institute doesn’t need the favor of the scientific establishment to prevail in the public arena.”

The globalization debate heats up again

With the exception of the war, few issues incite more passions these days than “globalization”. (It’s “Jihad vs. McWorld”, in another sense.) The debate in some ways has been going on since decolonization, but its shows no trend towards being resolved anytime soon. Both sides of the debate, moreover, see the fate of the world’s poor caught up in the fight, and each insists that its way will improve the poor’s lot most.

The sides are not so easily divided into left and right, as recent debates suggest. David Held’s piece in OpenDemocracy (subscription required) has provoked a number of responses from across the spectrum. To take one (free) example, Patrick Bond retorts from the “anti” camp:

“‘Without suitable reform’, he [Held] writes, ‘our global institutions will forever be burdened by the mantle of partiality and illegitimacy.’ But these are not ‘our’ institutions – they are the tools of global capital and the petro–militarists in the White House and Pentagon. In any case, suitable reforms have proven impossible, given the terribly adverse global–scale balance of forces prevailing in recent years, and for the foreseeable future. Hence, virtually all feasible global–scale reforms actually legitimise, strengthen and extend the system of accumulation by dispossession.”

And another, Jadgish Bhagwati from the “pro”, in defense of globalization camp:

“[I]f you take countries during a forty-year postwar period, the economic ‘miracles’ with more 3% growth rate in per capita income also had similar growth rates in their trade. The economic ‘debacles’, with growth rates of zero or negative per capita income also had abysmal growth of trade.

Of course, we economists know that this does not tell us what caused what:. But when you undertake analysis of specific countries in depth, e.g. India, China and the Far East, it is foolish to claim that growth took place exogenously to trade policy and trade expanded as a consequence. [Rodrik has tried to argue otherwise for India but without success.] That other factors contribute to growth or decline is, of course, true but opening to trade was critical in enhanced outcomes and without it, the growth could not have been sustained.”

I was reminded of this debate because of the fierce discussion on Brad DeLong’s site. DeLong has an intense, lengthy post on an article on coir mat makers in India by Seth Stevenson in Slate. (DeLong, it should be noted, is hardly a simple, knee-jerk and uncritical proponents of economic globalization as this piece on capital mobility shows. Neither is Bhagwati for that matter.) DeLong is merciless in his indictment.

“By this way of thinking, Seth Stevenson is a thief. No, he is worse than your common-variety thief: a common-thief steals from the rich, while Stevenson steals their livelihood from the poor. Stevenson is a thief who steals the poor’s livelihod. No, he is even worse–for he incites others to steal the poor’s livelihood as well. And he is even worse than that: a thief–even the master of a gang of thieves–makes use of what he steals, while Stevenson simply destroys the looms . . .”

What’s odd is that for a debate about an issue presumably with a “fact of the matter” (does trade make people richer or poorer? more or less equal? does it dissolve indigenous cultures in the poorer parts of the world?), it has taken the tone of a moral (maybe even religous) dispute, with all sides invoking the interests of the poor of the world.

Huge asteroid, named Toutatis, to fly past Earth tomorrow

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“The largest asteroid ever known to pass near Earth is making a close celestial brush with the planet this week in an event that professional and backyard astronomers are watching closely…

On September 29, Toutatis will be within a million miles of Earth, or about four times the distance to the Moon.

No space rock this big will pass so close in the next century, scientists say. And while similarly large asteroids have hit the planet in the distant past, none so big have come so close since astronomers have had the means to notice them. Many smaller space rocks have been spotted much closer, even inside the orbit of the moon.”

More here from CNN.

Daniel Dennett on Paul Churchland

“To some observers, such as those of various mysterian persuasions, Paul and I are scarcely distinguishable, both happily wallowing in one ‘scientistic’ or ‘reductionistic’ swamp or another, taking our cues from cognitive scientists and unwilling or unable to begrudge even a respectful hearing to their efforts to throw shadows on the proceedings. For those who can see no significant difference between us, this essay will try to sharpen a few remaining disagreements, while at the same time acknowledging that in fact we are approaching harmony on a number of heretofore contested topics. I will try to close the gap further, much as I have always enjoyed his loyal opposition.”

More here.