Daily Office:
Tuesday, 5 October 2010


¶ We’re of the opinion that armed civilian militias are essentially incompatible with civil representative democracy. Our response to Barton Gellman’s story in Time, “The Secret World of Extreme Militias,” however, is not to press for more stringent prohibitions on firearms. We take the growth of these groups as sympatomatic as a breach in the American fabric that needs to be repaired before it can be meaningfully defended. (via Scott Horton)

Regardless of what conscience tells them, what chance do would-be armed rebels possibly have of prevailing against the armed might of the U.S.?

One answer comes from former Alabama militia leader Mike Vanderboegh, who wrote an essay that is among the most widely republished on antigovernment extremist sites today. In “What Good Is a Handgun Against an Army?” Vanderboegh says the tactical question is easy: Kill the enemy one soldier at a time. A patriot needs only a “cheap little pistol and the guts to use it,” he writes, to shoot a soldier in the head and take his rifle; with a friend, such a man will soon have “a truck full of arms and ammunition.” Vanderboegh is hardly a man of action himself, living these days on government disability checks. Even so, when he wrote a blog post in March urging followers to protest the health care bill by breaking windows at Democratic Party offices, they did so across the country.

Another answer comes from Richard Mack, who is holding constitutional seminars for county sheriffs from coast to coast, urging them to resist what he describes as federal tyranny by force. In his presentations, he shows movie clips to illustrate his point, like a scene from The Patriot in which Mel Gibson says, with fire in his eyes, “You will obey my command, or I will have you shot.”


¶ Before you see The Social Network, how about a little theory? HTMLGiant‘s Lily Hoang takes Giorgio Agamben to the movies (so to speak), and now she understands The Facebook for what it really is: an Apparatus. You’ve got to love it.

It is not surprising then that Facebook as apparatus is a space of governance devoid of any foundation in being. Whereas profiles created on Facebook may be of real people, the signifier bears little resemblance to its referent. I used to teach at this college in Indiana, and one of the things my first year students told me (again and again) was that they met their roommates on Facebook and when they actually met face to face, there was a rupture, a disappointment between the profile and the person. Facebook offers subjectivity, the making of a subject, but the subject isn’t real. Facebook is a space for quippy one-liner zings. Real identity is necessarily obscured. It is almost entirely impossible to be genuine, to be authentic on Facebook.

Furthermore, Agamben uses the example of confession as apparatus, and no where is confession so realized as through Facebook, where “a new I is constituted through the negation and, at the same time, the assumption of the old I”


¶ Felix Salmon’s admiring but also surprisingly humble take on Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job has us rethinking our weekly movie plans.

A great Pixar movie manages to do two things at once: it entertains and delights the kids, while also giving their parents a fresh view of life with a remarkably adult perspective. Inside Job is similar, in a way: if you don’t really understand what happened during the financial crisis, it will explain that to you very clearly. If you do know what happened during the financial crisis, however, it will do something else: it will rekindle the anger and dudgeon that you might well have lost over the past three years of being buried in the financial weeds. Ferguson doesn’t do that Taibbi-style, by calling people names: he’s more effective than that and this film will surely galvanize the anti-Wall Street wings of both the Democratic and the Republican parties.

No financial journalist could have made this film: we were all far too close to the people and events depicted in it, which turn out to have really needed an outsider’s perspective. This is surely the first and last piece of financial journalism that Ferguson will ever make and it’s much more effective for it.


¶ Sometimes scientists establish that our intuitions are correct. University of Texaas researchers have established an objective test for “style matching,” which is the harmony that any two people establish (or don’t) at the start of any conversation. Any good listener will unconsciously register it. (Telegraph; via The Morning News)

The study suggests style matching has the potential to quickly and easily reveal whether any given pair of people — ranging from business rivals to romantic partners — are psychologically on the same page and what this means for their future together.

“When two people start a conversation, they usually begin talking alike within a matter of seconds,” Professor James Pennebaker, a psychologist who co-authored the study.

“This also happens when people read a book or watch a movie. As soon as the credits roll, they find themselves talking like the author or the central characters.”

He and his co-author Molly Ireland said that computer analysis of the number of language style matches is an objective way of testing the current state of someone’s relationship.

It works by counting the ways they used pronouns, prepositions and other words in various sentences.


¶ James Ward’s Boring Conference is taking shape! We probably wouldn’t attend even if we were in London, but we’d buy the Official Souvenir, if there were one. Among the speakers: Naomi Alderman, Joe Moran, and Peter Fletcher — a man who has logged every sneeze since July 2007. (I Like Boring Things)

Since first announcing my plans to hold a Boring conference, I have been quite busy sorting out all of the details. Things have developed since I first suggested the idea, and while I originally thought I’d try to find a venue which could hold about fifty people, this has grown a bit into something bigger. I’ll be announcing the venue details shortly.

In the meantime, I thought I’d give a bit of an update. The conference will take place on Saturday December 11th 2010, probably from about 11am-ish until about 5.30pm, or something like that. There will be lots of speakers, talking for either five, ten or twenty minutes, although the format could change.


¶ Bernard Porter files a wistful report on recent Swedish elections, at the LRBlog.

I come from the generation, and the political tendency, that used to admire Sweden enormously in the 1970s, as our great political model; the proof that equality, social justice and, yes, solidarity were compatible with prosperity, and could liberate people in a way that unrestrained capitalism didn’t. A Guardian leader recently described Stockholm as our ‘Shining City upon a Hill’; the opposite pole to the more famous American one. That’s how it was to me. Coming here in the mid-1990s, I of course found that not everything was as shining as I had hoped it would be – far from it – but it was still pretty remarkable: wealth spread widely, high taxation accepted as the price of a civilised society, very little poverty or crime by British standards, good and free education, friendly communal interaction, enlightened asylum and immigration policies, very little racism compared to (say) Denmark, and a degree of gender equality – this especially – that I’d never have thought possible.


¶ Bill Morris glosses Elif Batuman’s LRB explosé about MFA Programs, at The Millions. Going to school is not the problem: education doesn’t kill writers. But Mr Morris agrees with Ms Batuman: aspiring writers ought to study literature, not “the craft of fiction.” (We believe that there is not only no better but no other way to learn how to write than to read, read, read.)

Batuman, a Harvard grad with a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford, argues persuasively that the problem is not that virtually all American fiction writers go to college and that growing numbers of them then go on to grad school; the problem is that they study the wrong things.  She comes down squarely in favor of writers studying literature as opposed to studying how to make fiction.  After conceding that the creative writing program is equally incapable of ruining a good writer or transforming a bad one, she asks: “Why can’t the programme be better than it is?  Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves?”

One result of the creative writing boom, according to McGurl, is that MFA grads are producing “more excellent fiction…than anyone has time to read.”  Which, according to Batuman, is precisely the problem: “That’s the torture of walking into a bookshop these days: it’s not that you think the books will all be terrible; it’s that you know they’ll all have a certain degree of competent workmanship, that most will have about three genuinely beautiful or interesting sentences and no really bad ones, that many will have at least one convincing, well-observed character, and that nearly all will be bound up in a story that you can’t bring yourself to care about.  All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books!  Who, indeed, has time to read them?”

McGurl’s spurious claim about the place of college and journalism in writers’ lives brought back my own experience as a young man trying to figure out a way to reconcile my urge to write with the need to make a living.  As it turned out, college and journalism figured largely in the solution.


¶ Although the abuse of intellectual property laws (by those who would unnecessarily extend them to profit business corporations) does not bristle with the menace of armed militias, we believe that it is no less inimical to civil representative democracy. So we embrace Robert Darnton’s advocacy of a National Digital Library. (NYRB)

Behind the creation of the American republic was another republic, which made the Constitution thinkable. This was the Republic of Letters—an information system powered by the pen and the printing press, a realm of knowledge open to anyone who could read and write, a community of writers and readers without boundaries, police, or inequality of any kind, except that of talent. Like other men of the Enlightenment, the Founding Fathers believed that free access to knowledge was a crucial condition for a flourishing republic, and that the American republic would flourish if its citizens exercised their citizenship in the Republic of Letters.

Of course, literacy was limited in the eighteenth century, and those who could read had limited access to books. There was an enormous gap between the hard realities of life two centuries ago and the ideals of the Founding Fathers. You could therefore accuse the Founders of utopianism. For my part, I believe that a strong dose of utopian idealism gave their thought its driving force. I think we should tap that force today, because what seemed utopian in the eighteenth century has now become possible. We can close the gap between the high ground of principle and the hardscrabble of everyday life. We can do so by creating a National Digital Library.

(Our support does not imply a belief that authors ought not to be paid for their work.)

Have a Look

¶ Buoyancy Bazooka. (Short Sharp Science)

¶ Robert Boyle’s To-Do List. (3 Quarks Daily)