The Ethics of Attention Getting in Social Activism

Over at Adventures in Science and Ethics, Janet Stemwedel is hosting an interesting discussion about the ethics of the new PETA ad (nudity warning).

As hard as it may be, please put aside your pre-existing view of PETA for the moment and consider this strategy:

You’re running a group that is committed to bringing people over to position X. For various reasons, there’s a big population that is quite accustomed to not even thinking about the issues around position X.

Do you try to grab them with a reasoned argument in favor of position X? That might work for the part of the population who pay attention to reasoned arguments. But there are many people who have gotten surprisingly proficient at tuning out reasoned arguments. (Remote controls and computer mouses make it so easy for them to drift off to something less tiring.)

So you have to get their attention with something they don’t see every day — perhaps a young woman taking off her clothes. Then, once you have their attention, you can try to engage them on position X (and that may involve a bit of shock and/or emotional appeal, too).

As the head of this group trying to bring as many people as possible over to position X, should you be at all concerned that your attention-grabbing strategy is likely to alienate a good number of the people who came over to position X on the basis of reasoned arguments (say, because the attention-grabber runs deeply counter to position Y, which many of the folks who were rationally persuaded of the goodness of position X also hold)?

Or, is it fine to count on the reasoned arguments to keep the people who also hold position Y firmly in support of position X as well?

KAPUŚCIŃSKI crosses the border

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In 1955, after completing my studies at Warsaw University, I began working at a newspaper called Sztandar Mlodych (The Banner of Youth). I was a novice reporter, and my beat was to follow letters to the editor back to their point of origin. The writers complained about injustice and poverty, about the fact that the state had taken their last cow or that their village was still without electricity. Censorship had eased—Stalin had been dead for two years—and one could write, for example, that in the village of Chodów there was a store but its shelves were always bare. While Stalin was alive, one could not write that a store was empty: all stores had to be excellently stocked, bursting with wares. So this was progress.

more from The New Yorker here.

IS NO ONE GOING TO SAY that Robert Altman was a great pothead?

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Six years before The Player (1992), I stopped smoking pot, for the typical reasons, but not the least of them was paranoia. And it was the ’80s, the parentheses of aerobics between the cocaine years and the advent of the age of caffeine. After Altman signed on to direct the film, I worried that I would break my abstention, which was private; I wasn’t in the program, but it held me well for that time. And Altman’s pot didn’t come out until we had been in the production offices for a week.

We were in his office, and as the joint was on its way to me I took it with a little rationalization, something like, “Altman has already told you he hates plot, so anything you can do to get closer to him will help the movie.” We were friendly but not familiar, and then, only as friendly as a writer can be with a director who hates plot, and says so. The carpet nap grew warm vines.

more from artforum here.

A Debate on “Future vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel”

In bitterlemons.org, a debate about “Future vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel”, a document by National Committee of the Heads of Arab Local Councils and endorsed by the Supreme Follow-up Committee of the Arabs in Israel. A Palestinian view, Ghassan Khatib:

This document is inspired not only by the inequality Palestinian citizens of Israel face, but also by the Israeli Jewish insistence–an insistence that came to the surface most clearly during the years of the peace process–that Israel should be recognized as a Jewish state.

How can this be, leaders of the Palestinian community in Israel asked, when one-fifth of the population is non-Jewish? Would it not be more democratic and civilized if Israel considered itself a state of all its citizens?

But the document, which has created a lot of controversy in Israel with often shrill reactions, is significant for more than one reason.

And an Israeli view, Yossi Alper:

For nearly all Israeli Jews it is also a profoundly disturbing document. Yet this should not come as a surprise. After nearly 60 years of neglect, prejudice and poor treatment on the part of the Israeli establishment, and despite repeated violent incidents and policy-oriented research efforts that sounded a sharp warning, the Arabs of Israel are declaring their demand for a full-fledged bi-national state (“consociational democracy”) that would give Arabs a veto over Israel’s Jewish content and symbols.

That Israel’s Arabs demand equal land and education rights is of course fully justified. But this document goes much further. Most disturbing of all–and here the years of neglect cannot be blamed–the document can be understood to bring its authors into line with those in the Arab and Islamic world who refuse to accept the existence of a Jewish people at all, much less one with legitimate roots in the Middle East.

Gogol Bordello In Russia and Eastern Europe

The New York gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello is beginning to making it big in the native land of some of its founders. A profile in The Moscow Times:

Context_2The band — which sings in English, Russian, Spanish, Italian and Romany (the language of the Roma, or Gypsies) — first broke into English-speaking and Spanish-speaking audiences before reaching Italy and Scandinavia. Russian audiences came last, Hutz said.

“I don’t know why the Russian audience … happened to be basically almost the latest, the last one to come in to the table. I think they were just too busy listening to Leningrad [the highly popular ska-punk band from St. Petersburg] or something like that.”

Despite the popularity of Gogol Bordello among New York bohemians — the band got rave reviews in the likes of the Village Voice — Hutz reckons it was the British press that set the ball rolling internationally, ultimately bringing them to the attention of Russian promoters…

Besides playing Gypsy-inspired music, Hutz works with the nonprofit organization Voice of Roma, which supports Romany culture and struggles against discrimination.

“Basically, I’m doing what I’ve been doing for a long time,” he said. “I’ve been collecting Gypsy culture and music, [I’ve] been in touch with Gypsy writers all over the world. But after we played in America on [national] television, in like the Jimmy Kimmel show in Los Angeles, and I sang in Romany, in our language, and we had a crazy resonance with Romany from Canada and the States and Europe, I got so many e-mails!

“Believe it or not, but we were the first band who ever sang in Romany on national television! So it was a really big deal, actually, for the Romany community. In a certain respect, as unorthodox as I am — why on earth I was asked to represent it? And I am very proud to represent that.

“There’s much work to be done about that. Discrimination against Roma is very present, it’s a massive issue. It’s very big in Ukraine, it’s actually pretty devastating.”

Buruma and Ash Respond to Bruckner

Ian Buruma (in Perlentaucher) and Timothy Garton Ash respond to Pascal Bruckner’s defense of Ayaan Hirsi Ali against their alleged attacks. Both pieces appear in English in signandsight. Buruma:

To be tolerant is not to be indiscriminate. I would not dream of defending dictatorship in the name of tolerance for other cultures. Violence against women, or indeed men, is intolerable, and should be punished by law. I would not defend the genital mutilation of children, let alone wife-beating, no matter how it is rationalized. Honour killings are murders, and must be treated as such. But these are matters of law enforcement. Figuring out how to stop violent ideologies from infecting mainstream Muslims, and thus threatening free societies, is trickier. I’m not convinced that public statements, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has made, that Islam in general is “backward” and its prophet “perverse”, are helpful.

She has the perfect right to say these things, of course, just as Mr Bruckner has the right to describe Muslims as “brutes”. I am not in the slightest bit “embarrassed” by her critique of Islam, nor have I ever denied her the right “to refer to Voltaire.” But if Islamic reform is the goal, then such denunciations are not the best way to achieve it, especially if they come from an avowed atheist. Condemning Islam, without taking the many variations into account, is too indiscriminate.

And Ash:

Pascal Bruckner is the intellectual equivalent of a drunk meandering down the road, arguing loudly with some imaginary enemies. He calls these enemies “Timothy Garton Ash” and “Ian Buruma” but they have very little to do with the real writers of those names. I list below some of his misrepresentations and inaccuracies, with a few weblinks for the curious.

Pascal Bruckner speaks in the name of the Enlightenment, but he betrays its essential spirit. The Enlightenment believed in free expression, without taboos. Because I disagree – courteously, precisely and giving clear reasons – with the views of a woman of Somalian origin, Bruckner does not hesitate to imply that I am a racist (he calls me “an apostle of multiculturalism,” then describes multiculturalism as a “racism of the anti-racists”) and a sexist (“outmoded machismo”, “the spirit of the inquisitors who saw devil-possessed witches in every woman too flamboyant for their tastes”). This is exactly the kind of blanket disqualification that he himself criticised in an article in Le Figaro entitled “Le chantage a l’Islamophobie,” (reprinted from Figaro here) deploring the way any critic of Islam is (dis)qualified as an Islamophobe racist. Except that here he is the blackmailer. Voltaire would be ashamed of him.

Truly grotesque, to the point of self-parody, is this passage: “The positions of Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash fall in with American and British policies (even if the two disapprove of these policies): the failure of George W. Bush and Tony Blair in their wars against terror also result from their focussing on military issues to the detriment of intellectual debate.” Never mind that I have been an outspoken serial critic of the Bush (and Blair) approach on precisely this issue. For Bruckner, white is black and words mean what he wants them to mean. Objectively, comrades, TGA agrees with Bush. Izvestia under Stalin would have been proud of his dialectical argumentation.

Molly Ivins, 1944-2007

In The New York Times:

Molly Ivins, the liberal newspaper columnist who delighted in skewering politicians and interpreting, and mocking, her Texas culture, died yesterday in Austin. She was 62.

Ms. Ivins waged a public battle against breast cancer after her diagnosis in 1999. Betsy Moon, her personal assistant, confirmed her death last night. Ms. Ivins died at her home surrounded by family and friends.

In her syndicated column, which appeared in about 350 newspapers, Ms. Ivins cultivated the voice of a folksy populist who derided those who she thought acted too big for their britches. She was rowdy and profane, but she could filet her opponents with droll precision.

After Patrick J. Buchanan, as a conservative candidate for president, declared at the 1992 Republican National Convention that the United States was engaged in a cultural war, she said his speech “probably sounded better in the original German.”

“There are two kinds of humor,” she told People magazine. One was the kind “that makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity,” she said. “The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule. That’s what I do.”

Hers was a feisty voice that she developed in the early 1970s at The Texas Observer, the muckraking paper that came out every two weeks and that would become her spiritual home for life.

In The Nation, John Nichols remembers Molly Ivins, as does the Texas Observer.

How Hallucinogens Play Their Mind-Bending Games

From Scientific American:

Hallucinate Zeroing in on a group of cells in a high layer of the cortex, a team of researchers from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute may finally have found the cause of the swirling textures, blurry visions and signal-crossing synesthesia brought on by hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, peyote and “‘shrooms.” The group, which published its findings in this week’s issue of Neuron, may have settled a long-simmering debate over how psychedelic drugs distort human perception.

After testing many candidate regions, the researchers localized the effects of hallucinogens to the pyramidal neurons in layer V of the somatosensory cortex, a relatively high-level region known to modulate the activity of other sections in the cortex and subcortical areas. Using what he calls an “imperfect but usual analogy,” Stuart Sealfon, a neurologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City likens the receptors to a lock into which both hallucinogenic and nonhallucinogenic keys fit.

More here.

A demon of a device

From Nature:

Demon James Clerk Maxwell came up with his thought experiment in 1867. In it, a demon guards a door between two rooms filled with gas. Using its sprightly demonic powers, the creature could open the door when he spotted a particularly fast-moving molecule coming his way. The molecule could then pass into a room, which would become progressively hotter. Likewise, the demon could allow particularly slow-moving molecules to pass out of the warmer room and into the cooler one. By doing so, he creates a growing temperature difference, and therefore, potential energy in the system, without having expended any energy to do it (assuming our magic demon doesn’t eat).

In the real world, researchers have made little devices that might be used to make a demon-like machine. One of these is a ring-shaped molecule, which is slotted onto a tiny molecular axle. The ring can move along the axle between two different sites, A and B. If left to its own devices, the normal, random movement of molecules will shunt the ring back and forth. When there are many devices, at any given time, half of them should have a ring at one site, and half at the other.

More here.